Yuba County History


by George Emmanuel Hanson


Native Races of Yuba River Valley

            Long before the advent of the trapper and emigrant, Indians had found and occupied the river region.  How long they had been here and from where they had originally come are matters which still want definite solution; nevertheless scholars and pioneer visitors have learned many things about them.  To give an extensive account of them is here neither possible nor desirable.  A brief consideration of them, limiting the account so far as possible to the Indians of this particular region, is all that shall be attempted.

            Bancroft in his “Native Races of the Pacific States,” divides the Indians of California into three geographical divisions, the Northern, the Central, and the Southern Californians.

            The Central Californians, to which group the Indians of Yuba River Valley belonged, occupied an extent of territory comprising the whole of that portion of the State extending north and south from about 40° 31’ to 35°, and east and west, from the Pacific Ocean to the California boundary.  This division comprised innumerable little bands, quite distinct from each other.  But in their aboriginal manners and customs they differed so little that a description of any of them would apply to the whole division.

            Adam Johnston who in 1850 was sub-agent to the Department of Interior, found the following tribes or villages near the Yuba; The Cushnas in the mountains on the South Yuba, numbering about 600, The Yubas at or near the junction of the Yuba with the Feather River, about 180 in number; the Memals on the site of Marysville about 100; the Honcots located on the east bank of Feather River just below the mouth of Honcot Creek and numbering about 150 persons.  In addition to these were several small bands with no particular tribal name, living between Bear and Yuba Rivers, and north of the Yuba, between that stream and Honcut Creek.

            In the early days their numbers were probably very large.  J. J. Warner, who passed up through the Sacramento Valley on a trapping expedition with the Ewing Young party in 1832, was much impressed by the unusual largeness of the Indian population which inhabited the regions of the Sacramento, San Joaquin and their tributaries.  We conclude from his account that Indians were very numerous here previous to 1833, but were woefully reduced in numbers in that year by a plague that attacked them.  It is stated that cholera took them off by the thousands, that whole tribes became extinct.

            Those who saw the Indians along the Yuba or its vicinity are quite agreed in their reports as to their customs and habits of life, but differ very strikingly in their descriptions of these people. The following account will in a general way reveal concurrent statements from many sources touching upon their physique, and their common characteristics.

            It is generally agreed that the physique of these Indians was hardly so robust and vigorous as that of their eastern brethren.  They were physically inferior to those of the East, and very decidedly a degraded race.  Strongly, though not symmetrically built, their height rarely exceeded five feet and eight inches.  They had short broad faces, big mouths, thick lips, prominent cheek bones, extremely low foreheads and very dark skins.

            These people were spread over the country in innumerable rancherias or villages which were often situated in pleasant, well selected spots near the banks of streams.  As there were many beautiful valleys along the Yuba, and as the locality reached the altitude where grew the sugar pine, as well as being the home of the oak, and there being an abundance of game, it was a favorite abiding place for the Indians.  Here were a number of villages made up of clustering circular-shaped huts.

            These buildings were by no means pretentious.  They were constructed by excavating the earth from ten to thirty feet in diameter, according to the size of the family whose home it was to be.  Around this excavation which was from two to five feet in depth, long poles were sunk into the ground and after they were firmly fixed, were drawn together at the top until they left an opening something more than a foot wide.  This hole served as a chimney; a small opening close to the ground was the door.  Bushes and strips of bark were piled up against the poles and the whole was covered with a layer of mud.  Thus completed, the building was ready for occupancy.  In the summer a spreading tree often afforded them the necessary shade and shelter.

            Another building commonly seen in the rancherias of this region was the crib or magazine in which nuts and acorns were stored, while still another structure which every village possessed was the Tamascal.  The Tamascal or sweat-house consisted for a conical mound of earth supported from within, and prevented from falling in, by rough beams and posts.  Its only opening was a small hole near the ground which served for an entrance.  This indispensable structure which afforded a cure for all diseases, was sure to be found in every village; no collection of even twenty or thirty Indians was without its Tamascal.  It was generally situated near a stream since the procedure of the treatment was to perspire, by the fire inside, and then plunge into a nearby stream.

            Their clothing was quite as primitive as their habitations.  A slight strip of covering around the loins was considered fully dress; but even this was not usual, for the greater number preferred walking abroad perfectly unclothed.  During the winter the skin of a deer or other animal constituted the required protection against the inclement weather.  Yet, such was their stupendous laziness, it is said, that sometimes nothing protected them from the chilly blasts but a thick covering of mud.  The wardrobe of the women was a little more extensive, a fringed apron of tules falling from the waist being their summer costume, while in the cold season  a deer skin was added.

            For their subsistence they relied mainly upon acorns, nuts, game, fish, grass seeds, roots and wild clover.  Of these the acorn was perhaps the most important since from it they made bread, their principal food.

            In preparing acorns for food they ground them into fine powder by means of mortars or deep basins drilled into the rock and with pestles of the sizes which best fitted them.  The mortars hollowed out of small rocks were carried from place to place, while those drilled in the surface of large rocks were made ever to remain firmly fixed.

            They manufactured few articles requiring any skill, but among these the baskets they wove deserve special mention.  These were made of fine grass so closely woven as to be perfectly watertight, and they were frequently ornamented with beads and the like, worked into them in a very pretty manner.  The art was wholly in the hands of the women.  If the men displayed any manufacturing skill at all it was in the making of the bow and arrow.  They made a very superior bow by fixing a covering of sinew along its back.  This served to retain its elasticity.

            The Indians of this region were not warlike people.  They possessed no war clubs, scalping knives or tomahawks so universally used by the Indians east of the Sierra Nevadas.  However, they battled when it was necessary, and fought bravely.  They did not scalp those whom they killed.

            Their chiefs were not hereditary or selected for prowess, but were chosen for other qualities, principally it seemed for ability to entertain or reward friends.

            Generally speaking, they were polygamists.  At any rate among most of the tribes of the region there was no law which prevented a man from having as many wives as he wanted.  This was true among the Cushnas yet they rarely had more than one wife.  It has been suggested that with the Cushna man it was probably owing to his want of means rather than want of inclination.

            Most of these Indians had a very correct notion of right and wrong.  The qualities which they considered were those of a bad Indian, were not unlike those which white men regarded as such.  They were much kinder to their women than most savages.

            Their religious rites were very few and their ideas of a future life rather confused.  A superior being, however, was evidently acknowledged by them.  They were easily induced to embrace the white man’s faith.

            All these tribes burned their dead upon which they mourned for them in a conventional way.  The nearest of kin covered themselves, hair, head, face, arms and body down to the waist with black tar, or pitch which was suffered to remain upon them until worn off by time.

            “Of the many who profess to know the language of these Indians,” says Johnston, “none understand more of it than enough to trade with them, or to transact the most ordinary business.  A large number of dialects are mentioned as spoken in the country on the eastern bank of the Sacramento River and extending beyond the Cosumnes.  These dialects were all more or less related.  The Cushna language, it appears, was most generally spoken among the Indians in the Yuba River region.

            As these Indians came in contact with white civilization they gradually abandoned their more primitive ways.  They received much of their food and clothing from white men and constructed small houses of boards which were but little inferior to the cabins of the miners.  Some of them readily learned the more simple arts of agriculture.

            Among the white settlers were a few unscrupulous men who shot down the Indians wherever they met them.  These rash and reckless acts lead to some bloodshed as did a few unprovoked attacks of which there are instances on record.  However, Americans who lived for years in this region have informed us that where the Indians were well treated by the whites they showed in return the greatest gentleness and regard.

            Their contact with civilization though, had no happy consequences for them.  Whiskey laid them low as did diseases unknown until the advent of Americans.  By 1870 most of the tribes in this region had disappeared.



Copyright ©2007  Kathy Sedler   ALL RIGHTS RESERVED