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The Prehistoric Huchiun Band of the Native Ohlone at Garrity Creek & Along San Pablo Bay
An Examination of the Prehistoric Huchiun band of the Native Ohlone at Garrity Creek & the surrounding area of San Pablo Bay
THE HUCHIUN BAND OF THE OHLONE AT GARRITY CREEK
By Michael Raccoon Eyes Kinney
The Prehistoric Huchiun band of the Native Ohlone at Garrity Creek & the surrounding area of San Pablo Bay
Before the coming of the Spanish, the Central coast of California had the densest population of Native Americans anywhere north of Mexico. More than 50,000 people lived in the coastal regions from the Carmel River to the San Francisco Bay Area. There were some sixty bands of people in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties alone. Members of these sixty bands spoke ten to fifteen dialects of the Pentiuan family language group. A majority of the languages were closely related, but in some cases were so very different that these small bands could live several miles apart from one another and yet could not understand each other. The average size of a band could number up to 250 persons. These sixty bands of the Pentiuan-speaking Native Americans lived in six of the nine San Francisco Bay Area counties -- San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Monterey, Alameda, Solano and Contra Costa. They were called the Ohlone, a Sierra Miwok word meaning the 'people of the West'. We need to think of the Ohlone not as a 'tribe', but as related groups of people with a similar Pentiuan-based language. Before European contact, these Pentiuan-speaking people never thought of themselves as a 'tribal' unit. However, the invasion and interaction with whites gradually caused most of those who remained of the original bands to think of themselves as Ohlone in later years.
This paper provides a history of the Huchiun band of the Ohlones in West Contra Costa County, with a specific report on their use of greater Garrity Creek at the El Sobrante site. The Huchiun used the El Sobrante site of Garrity Creek as a seasonal village for hunting herds of tule elk, pronghorn antelope and black tail deer and also for seed gathering and harvesting.
The Huchiun band of the Ohlone (the word Huchiun simply means 'people') homeland was high in the western hills of West Contra Costa County. It was a great stretch of high, rolling grassy hills clothed in a sweep of prairie-type grasses and endless fields of wildflowers. For the Huchiun, the important features were in the forests following the creeks and rivers down from the canyons in the high hill country and across the grassland savannahs to the San Pablo Bay. Here the coast redwood, buckeye, coast and live oak, big leaf maple, madrone and manzanita trees formed thousands of acres of untouched primeval forest that shadowed the Bay shoreline of West Contra Costa.
Our story of the Huchiun and Garrity Creek begins on the other side of the San Pablo Ridge at the mouth of Wildcat Canyon in Richmond, particularly at Wildcat Canyon Creek in present day Alvarado Park. While the record shows Huchiun presence throughout West Contra Costa from 5,000 to 20,000 years ago, most paleoanthropologists find 5,000 to 7,000 years ago to be more accurate. The present location of Alvarado Park was for thousands of years the site of one of the largest existing Huchiun villages, with a population of some 250 people residing on the banks of Wildcat Canyon Creek.
The first Spanish expedition there was chronicled by Captain Pedro Fages and Father Juan Crespi, who came north to explore the western parts of Contra Costa County in 1769 while looking for Drake's Bay. At the Richmond Wildcat Creek village, Crespi made contact with the first Huchiun, the same Huchiun that would use the Garrity Creek site in El Sobrante as a seasonal hunting and seed gathering ground. He stated they had found "a good village of heathen, very fair and bearded." Along San Pablo Bay close to the area where Garrity Creek flows into the Bay nearby Point Pinole, he reported "five large villages of very mild heathens with pleasant faces…(that were) bearded. The prehistoric Huchiun site map of archaeological excavations shows that Garrity Creek features very prominently in archaeological digs, notably sites CA-CCO-264 and 265. Recent archaeological digs completed in the mid-1990s showed that both Garrity Creek and adjacent Point Pinole are included in an Ohlone spiritual center. Holy men and shamans from as far south as Monterey were brought to that village for burial. , we can see how prominent the Huchiun were in the greater Ohlone world.
Garrity Creek as a whole and the Garrity Creek site in El Sobrante played an important role in the life of the Huchiun people whose village sat upon the banks of the Wildcat Canyon Creek. Ohlone Native-American archaeologist Andrew Galvan estimates that around the time of the Fages and Crespi expeditions there were some 10,000 Huchiun in the East Bay. These indigenous people lived hunting and gathering lifestyles in tribelets of 250 or less. They lived in seasonal villages, migrating from the shores of San Pablo Bay to the inland canyons along Garrity, Rheem, San Pablo and Wildcat Canyon Creeks on a annual cycle for thousands upon thousands of years.
The Huchiun seasonally followed the harvesting locations of their food, abandoning winter villages during gathering and hunting periods. The Garrity Creek site was highly prized because it offered the basic sustenance of acorns from tanbark, valley, coast and live oak trees, as well as buckeye trees. They also harvested seeds, berries, greens, nuts and roots at the site location. They would venture down Garrity Creek to fish for steelhead, salmon and sturgeon that swam up Garrity Creek to spawn.
The Huchiun hunting at the El Sobrante site did not reduce the native animal populations. However, there were significant results when the Huchiun made seasonal summer camps such as Garrity Creek location. Each fall they would set fire to the dry hillocks and hills. This kept the brush from overtaking the meadowlands, giving good growth to seed harvest and ensuring plentiful grazing for large game animals like tule elk, pronghorn antelope and black tail deer. This created an ideal setting for excellent hunting conditions for the Huchiun at the Garrity Creek site. It also encouraged oak and pine nut seed germination, which germinate best after a controlled fire, and prevented a build up of fuel that could create a major firestorm.
Evidence of Huchuin use of the Garrity Creek site in El Sobrante as a seasonal seed gathering and hunting site
Having completed the historical overview of Huchiun presence in West Contra Costa, the question remains whether the El Sobrante area of Garrity Creek is a true archaeological site that should be preserved. How did we conclude that this location is included in the larger historical implications of being a prehistoric Native American seasonal seed gathering and hunting encampment? At seasonal sites like these, physical evidence in terms of artifacts maybe scarce and difficult to locate -- a valid point to take into consideration. Why is there at times a lack of artifacts?
The answer is quite simple. The shelters they built were temporary and quickly decomposed, leaving behind no permanent trace of habitation. Also, when moving to different seasonal locations, the Huchiun band of the Ohlone typically traveled very lightly in terms of what equipment and gear they would carry with them from the permanent camp to their seasonal home. Their seasonal campsites were very low-impact with regards to the environment they would reside in for several weeks to a month at time. A highly resourceful people, they would only carry the tools and implements they needed, making other tools at the actual site if need be. Any tools that were not essential to take back to the main village were simply discarded or left at the seasonal site to be used next year.
Archeologists call tools and other implements that are left behind 'exposed artifacts.' This means they can be seen by the human eye on the ground level or are slightly buried several inches below the ground, but still can visually be seen. In exploring the particular site at Garrity Creek, I discovered various exposed artifacts, providing the factual basis from which to draw valid conclusions about the nature of Huchiun life at this site.
What was life like for the Huchiun at Garrity Creek? Let's follow them from their ancient village at Wildcat Canyon Creek and observe how they utilized and maintained this site for big game hunting, seed and plant gathering.
To reach their seasonal camp, a group of Huchiun would leave the Wildcat Canyon area and make the grueling trip to the high crests of the San Pablo Ridge. When they finally reached the highest 1500-foot elevation, they would start their slow descent down from the Ridge and into the El Sobrante Valley. By late afternoon or early evening, they had finally reached the large hillocks of the Garrity Creek area. Generally, at any given time the site would have no more than about ten to fifteen people from the village.
The first order of business was building temporary shelters to accommodate the Wildcat Canyon band for the time they would be there. Removing pacific willow saplings and branches from Garrity Creek, they would build a dome-shaped frame house in a short amount of time. The Huchiun utilized identical construction methods to the Pomo, of a dome-shaped frame for a Pomo summer house. When the season was completed, they would abandon the structure and let the elements return it back to the earth, finding the remnants of a dome frame structure would not be an easy task. There simply would be no trace of it -- after a year's time, it would start to slowly decompose after a brutal rainy winter. More than a century later, vital evidence of housing is not there to be found.
The evidence we can see includes the plants, shrubs and trees to demonstrate that this site was a seasonal seed and plant harvest site. During the end of spring, the women from the Wildcat Canyon village began the seed gathering and harvesting of dozens of different seeds and plants that served for both diet and medicinal purposes.
The women used burden baskets capable of carrying very heavy loads of seeds, which were held in place by tumplines worn on the forehead and attached to the burden basket. The Huchiun women would wear a basketry cap to prevent the burden basket from chafing their foreheads, as in. Using a scoop-like seed beater in the right hand, they cradled the burden basket in the left arm and waded right into grass. They swept the seed beater through the seed heads, loosening the grass seeds and knocking them directly into the large burden basket. Within a few weeks, they would complete collecting close to one ton of mustard seeds, sage or chia seeds, clarkia and redmaid seeds and place them in temporary cone-shaped granaries made of Pacific willow saplings. The granaries sat several feet above the ground and could keep several hundred pounds of seeds safe from mice and other rodents.
To mill the seed, the women put the seeds into a portable mortar and rolled a small pestle lightly around to loosen the hulls. This seed pestle was discovered as an exposed artifact at the Garrity Creek site where the north and east forks of the creek join. I believe that this was a pre-teen's pestle because it is designed for a much smaller hand. I observed various seed grasses at the site that were commonly harvested by the Huchiun. The presence of these common food sources and the discovery of the pestle is convincing evidence that Garrity Creek was definitely a seasonal site to harvest seeds. Discovering the small seed pestle by the north and east forks where the creek joins is even more compelling evidence. The pestle was but a short distance from a few patches of seed bearing grasses.
On a small hillock over looking the Garrity Creek site are a series of three old live oak trees. In late September, October and early November, the acorns start to ripen and are ready for harvesting. Almost all residents of the Wildcat Canyon Creek village went to the oak groves maybe five or ten miles from home. So again during the acorn harvest season, Garrity Creek becomes a seasonal campsite. Soon the acorn harvesters would take acorns back to the Wildcat Canyon Creek village by the ton.
The acorns were ground with pestles in mortar baskets. After the pounding the woman put the acorn flour into a shallow sifting basket and would shake the fine flour from the coarse. Even when the acorn flour was refined, it was still nasty and bitter. The woman would now go to the east and north fork of the creek and scoop out a hole in the sand. Using a watertight basket, she would allow the water to run over the acorn meal for a great period of time. This process removed the bitter tannic acid. Some acorns could be leeched more quickly than others could; some batches of acorn meal could take all day. After the leeching process was completed, she would take another large watertight basket and drop great quantities of both the acorn flour and water into the basket. At the side of the basket she would have a small fire going with numerous round, spherical stones sitting in the fire. When a stone was hot enough, she would use long wooden prongs to pick up the hot stone and drop it into the basket, adding many of these hot stones until the water would actually boil. These stones were called 'cooking stones'. She would use the wooden prongs to keep stirring the cooking stones so it would not burn her basket. Soon the boiling water and acorn flour turned into mush. The mush could then be baked like fry bread or eaten as soup or a thick cereal.
Oak trees capable of yielding acorns for Huchiun harvest flourish near Garrity Creek. I also found another important exposed artifact there: a perfectly round, spherical cooking stone formed of granite.
Good cooking stones, like the one that I found made out of granite, could not be cracked or shattered. They were highly prized by Huchiun women. The fact that this cooking stone was located where the north and east forks of the creek join is equally as significant. Water is needed in order to leech acorn flour; also, the cooking stones in the fire had to be near where the water and flour were boiling in the basket. All this boiling process required a ready source of running water to complete the final phase of making the acorn flour into mush. I could only conclude that a Huchiun woman utilized the cooking stone at this site during the annual acorn harvest. Also there were several
Also there were several buckeye trees from which Huchiun could harvest nuts if the acorn harvest fell short.
The next exposed artifact found where the east and north fork of the creek joins together was an abrader. Abraders are commonly found important tools that vary in size and shape, depending on the stone. Many of the Huchiun abraders are made of gritty stone shaped or in a natural form. Abraders served to sharpen, smooth and shape stone, bone antler, shell and wood. Rough-textured abraders function much like files or coarse sandpaper. Whetstones sharpened the edges of points of tools. The Huchiun abrader fits comfortably in one's hand; however, it was designed for the smaller hands of a Huchiun male. The first question I asked myself, "Why was it discarded or left behind at this particular site?"
I recalled seeing a black tail deer earlier in the afternoon at the Garrity Creek site. One of the locals informed me she had seen a huge full grown stag around the perimeter of the site. Then as I carefully examined the physical terrain more, I discovered that in the tall dry grass that there were some thirty indentations that had flattened out the grass. Looking more closely, I realized that this was where a herd of black tail deer bedded down to sleep. Then it dawned upon me that this was an area where Huchiun hunters came to kill deer.
Huchiun hunters used bow and arrows in their pursuit to successfully kill members of the black tail deer herd. Though I spent several hours looking for flaked obsidian projectile points or arrowheads, none were visible. In Contra Costa County, obsidian is very scarce, and the Huchiun obtained it solely through trade from Napa, Santa Rosa, and the east side of the Sierra Nevada.
I returned back to the creek area where I had found the abrader originally. I looked down around the creek itself and saw fresh deer tracks from the animals drinking from the creek. I saw two or three trails that led directly away from the creek in opposing directions. Here, from the cover of the coyote brush, would make a perfect ambush site to get closer arrow shots at the deer. I had found the artifact sitting right next to the coyote brush that would offer the most cover. I then realized the abrader had belonged to a Huchiun archer, who would use it to sharpen his projectile points to be razor sharp when he would be hidden in the coyote brush awaiting to ambush the black tail deer. The archer could have misplaced the abrader after sharpening his projectile point, or it could have fallen from his person as he took aim at the deer.
The Garrity Creek site is a popular area for deer to graze and sleep in the summertime. From the vantage point of the hillock with the oak trees, Huchiun hunters would have the perfect view of how best to encircle the deer herd and get terrific body shots while following the deer to the creek. The small Huchiun abrader gives the lead clue that the Garrity Creek site would indeed be a fabulous summer hunting camp.
I found the last exposed artifact in the same area where the north and east fork of the creek join. In this case, it was a piece of volcanic black pumice. In quite a few cases at Huchiun villages and seasonal campsites, black pumice is strewn throughout these prehistoric locations. I noted that the pumice was not far from where the abrader had been located. Pumice definitely was a part of the hunter's archery gear. The archer used it to aid in the beginning phases of smoothing out certain kinds of projectile points. The pumice acted as a prehistoric 'steel wool pad,' so coarse and yet also soft. When old projectile points became damaged or destroyed, this pumice was a critical tool in producing replacement projectiles. The hunter used pumice to initially rub out the rough edges of the newly fashioned projectile point or arrowhead until it had a semi-smooth texture, ready to begin the next phase of further smoothing. Carrying pumice would be an indispensable part of the prepared archer's gear on the hunting trail. This is another case in point of an archer in a seasonal location having the required tools to have a successful hunt.