The Earliest Californians

The California "wilderness" into which European immigrants moved beginning with the Spanish in the mid 1700s had been adapting to the management by the state's various native tribes for approximately 10,000 years . The result was a population of nearly a third of a million living in a controlled balance with their natural surroundings.


The native population of California at the time of the European occupation in the mid 1700s was small. Modern estimates suggest that the state as a whole had a population of about 310,000 meaning that there were only about 2 inhabitants per square mile on average1 (compared with about 240 per square mile today). The Nisenan, Miwok and Maidu tribes that occupied the Mother Lode region may have had a somewhat higher density because of the relative richness of their environment.

These tribes commonly lived in tribal units of about one hundred, although there were larger communities along the Sacramento River. Tribal boundaries tended to be along ridge lines surrounding the river valleys of the region and they were generally respected. Warfare between neighboring California tribes was unusual.1

The natives of the Mother Lode were gatherers and, to a lesser extent, hunters. Their primary foodstuff was acorns from the several varieties of oak that grew from the floor of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys up to to an elevation of about 3500 feet on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Over 500 pounds of acorns could be collected from a single large California black oak. Buckeyes, grass seed, and pine nuts were also gathered. Small land mammals including deer and rabbit were hunted and fishing for trout and salmon was practiced.2

Granaries used to store acorns for a year or more before they were ground, leached of tannin, and ground into meal and flour.

The natives of the Mother Lode were not simply passive gatherers. They actively shaped the elements of their environment that promoted successful harvest. Fire was their most important tool. It was used to destroy underbrush as a means of preventing catastrophic wildfire and for agricultural purposes. Forest floor and meadows were burned to provide more and more nutritious browse for deer, to stimulate the growth of tubers, grasses, mushrooms, and the resources for baskets like willow and redbud shoots, and to minimize the cover into which hunted animals could hide. Streams were dammed to facilitate fishing. And plant materials were divided and seed sown to promote the growth of select species.2 Natural limits to food collection practices existed - one person could only collect so much given the methods used - and periods of drought and the resulting increased pressure on population were common. As a result, a variety of population control measures including abortion, birth control, and, occasionally, infanticide were practiced.3 Villages were not fixed. Seasonal movement in pursuit of game and other foodstuff was common. As a result of the combination of these factors the native footprint on the environment of the Sierra foothills was substantial. European immigrants did not come into a wilderness untamed by the hand of man.

The native impact on the California environment was, however, slight in comparison to the that of the gold rush immigrants. The newcomers effectively destroyed the 10,000 year old environmental balance established by the California natives. Reports from army officers responsible for managing the Indian population paint a bleak picture of the demise of the environment on which the natives depended:

Their means of subsistence, which have heretofore been limited, are now greatly diminished on account of the immigration overrunning their country. The miners have destroyed their fish dams on the streams.... They have not any particular boundaries or fixed homes for any great length of time together, or change their locations as taste or their necessities may require. Yet they all have an undistinct and undefined idea of their right to the soil, the trees and the streams. From these they hertofore obtained their subsistence, which consists of grass seeds and roots from the earth, acorns, pine nuts and berries from the trees and bushes and fish from the streams. They become alarmed at the immense flood of immigration which spread over their country. It is quite incomprehensible to them. I have been told of several acts of depredation which were instigated by the Chiefs of certain Tribes through the apprehension that their people must die of starvation in consequence of the strangers overrunning their country, feeding their grass, burning their timber, and destroying their dams on their streams.4

Thousands of years of gently managing the environment in which the California natives lived was literally undone in the few short years following the discovery of gold in California in 1848.

To Start You Thinking

1) Revisit the Mapping the Mother Lode maps, particularly the Native Map of regions occupied by California's Indian tribes. Identify the river drainages that the Maidu, Nisenen, and Miwok tribes occupied.

2) The Albert Bierstadt painting above depicts a Miwok village surrounded by a stand of California black oak. Briefly describe the setting and in particular what the women in the foreground are doing.

3) Preparing acorns to eat involves several steps. Explore the topic on the Internet and write a brief description of the process from the gathering of acorns to their consumption.

4) The impact of Indian use of fire on the environment of the Mother Lode was substantial. Galen Clark, an early explorer of Yosemite, noted in 1894:

My first visit to Yosemite was in the summer of 1855. At the time there was no undergrowth of young trees to obstruct clear open views in any part of the valley from one side of the Merced River across to the base of the opposite wall . . . The Valley had then been exclusively under the care and management of the Indians, probably for many centuries. Their policy of management for their own protection and self-interests, as told by some of the survivors who were boys when the Valley was first visited by whites in 1851, was to annually start fires in the dry season of the year and let them spread over the whole Valley to kill young trees just sprouted and keep the forest groves open and clear of all underbrush, so as to have no obscure thickets for a hiding place, or an ambush for any invading hostile foes, and to have clear grounds for hunting and gathering acorns. When the forest did not thoroughly burn over the moist meadows, all the young willows and cottonwoods were pulled up by hand.5

Compare and contrast the vegetation in two photos of Yosemite Valley, one taken in the 1870s and the other in the early 2000s.



1Robert E. Heizer and Albert B. Issaser, The Natural World of the California Indians, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980)

2M. Kat Anderson and Michael J. Moratto, "Native American Land-Use Practices and Ecological Impacts," in Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project: Final Report to Congress, vol. II, (Davis: University of California, Centers for Water and Wildland Resources, 1996)

3Stephan Powers, Tribes of California, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1877) available at Yosemite Online Library.

4H. Day, Captain 2nd Infantry," Letter to Commissioner of Indian Affairs, July 6, 1850", as found in Robert F. Heizer, editor, The Destruction of California Indians, (Santa Barbara: Peregrine Smith, Inc. 1974)

5Galen Clark to Board of Commissioners, August 30, 1894, File 880-01, Yosemite National Park Research Library as found in Alfred Runte. YOSEMITE: The Embattled Wilderness (LIncoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

images from Albert Bierstadt, Mariposa Indian Encampment, Yosemite Valley, California available at WikiMedia Commons.

Last modified in June, 2019 by Rick Thomas