Mendocino Redwood Company

Early Footprints

Our people are a great people. We live from the earth. We live by the sun, the moon, and the stars. We are well educated in these things—in the natural things of life and in our own people.

Sidney Parrish (Pomo Indian - Ukiah Valley, California)

If asked what California was called before Europeans "discovered" it, a 16th century Indian might well have said, "Ours!" Prior to any Euro-Americans, there were indigenous people living in present day California for an estimated 10 to 15,000 years. By the 16th century, they comprised about 300,000 people, speaking more than 60 languages (Fagan,.4). Although the early explorers and missionaries recorded some of their encounters with the indigenous people of California, their observations were generally buried in dusty volumes thumbed by historians centuries later. Only since the second half of the 19th century did the "new" Californians begin to learn about the indigenous people they called Indians. The earliest studies were simple word lists as a process of communication and trade began. Later would follow more systematic information on  tribes—a somewhat simplistic designation for people, generally preliterate, who appear to share the same language, kinship, and culture.

Among the so-called "north coastal tribes," the Pomo, the Coast Yuki, and the Coast Miwok are the ones most likely to have walked within MRC forests, although there was always an interconnectedness between indigenous human populations and their neighbors for food, ornaments, and tools. While the footprints of the indigenous people have disappeared, some of their trails, as well as village sites with scattered points and pottery shards, still remain on the forest floor. Such evidence is scarcely visible, though, except to the trained eye. In Before California, Brian Fagan writes of how difficult it is for even the "experts" to interpret this past.

Like the shamans and storytellers of old, archaeologists try to tell a story. Their narratives are not of Coyote and mythic beasts behaving like humans, but rather of material things, of ways of making a living in a harsh environment. The chants and recitations of yore have long vanished on the wind, like all the intangibles of the past. This means that we will never fully comprehend what happened at those memorable turning points of ancient California history when growing populations and moments of hunger or strife led to new directions, to technological innovations, and to supplementary foods becoming staples. All we can do is monitor the changes from broken bones, shells, and humble artifacts. We will never discern the twists and turns of ritual, the unspoken and acted-out rationales that defined these moments in terms of restoring order to worlds out of balance. But we know that these rituals and rationales worked astoundingly well, simply because ancient California societies changed, survived, and thrived when they changed directions, refining their relationships with one another, the environment, and the cosmos. They were often brilliantly successful. (Fagan, 35-6).

For the most part, the indigenous people of Mendocino County were sustained by fishing, hunting, gathering, and trading. Their earliest settlements were inland—for one big reason: salmon. Chinook and coho salmon, along with steelhead trout, were the catch of the day. "Salmon were the most intensively managed and ecologically manipulated food resource in ancient northern California,” writes Brian Fagan. "Some estimates place ancient consumption at over fifteen million pounds annually" (Fagan, 234). In some cases the indigenous people built large fish weirs with basket traps at certain intervals in the water. Fish would swim until they encountered the weir, turn back, and then swim into a trap. There were also platforms where someone could reach down, dip a net, and haul out the fish that were penned. One weir on the Klamath River, north of Mendocino County, took 70 men 10 days to construct. The weir had 9 openings, each with its own pen and was "the largest structure ever built in ancient California" (Fagan, 236). The ancient people also understood the life cycles of the salmon. The weir let the first run of salmon pass unobstructed so that they could spawn and replenish the fish population. After about 500 A.D. there are more coastal Indian sites with archeological evidence of sea mammal hunting; the most intense exploitation of the coast occurs after 1200 A.D. (Fagan, 229). Because California has at least 15 species of oaks, acorns were also a ready staple for the indigenous people and for some of the animals they hunted, like deer.

The ancient people of northern California left a small "ecological footprint." An ecological footprint is a measure of sustainability, gauging the amount of productive land and water that a population needs to meet its demands and absorb its waste. As one might expect, the United States is currently the Big Foot among the nations of the earth. This is not to say that the indigenous people did not actively alter their environment at all. Indigenous people developed a system of vegetation management that extended throughout most of the Holocene, a name given to the last 11,000 years of earth history—the time since the last "ice age." Research suggests that Native Americans burned forests and scrub to expedite travel; increase the availability of plants for food, medicine, and basket making; improve the browsing conditions for deer; and keep prairies and meadows open for hunting. By the time the first Euro-Americans came to northern California, the land, while thickly forested, had already seen thousands of years of burning, tilling, sowing, harvesting, and hunting. The ruggedness of the terrain, the relatively small populations of the Native Americans, and the simplicity of their dwellings may have restricted significant ecological impacts in northern California, although this is still open to debate.

Only in northwest California did the ancient people build very large redwood canoes and these came on the scene fairly late—in the last 500 years (Fagan, 219). Because of the huge size of the redwood logs, the paddlers stood upright, their feet steadied by chiseled bumps in the bottom of the canoe. In 1872, an amateur anthropologist, Stephen Powers, recorded details about one of these dugouts—"a thing of beauty"—on Humboldt Bay (Fagan, 219). The canoe was 42 feet long, almost 8 1/2 feet wide, and could carry 24 people. According to Brian Fagan, the dugouts were the result of readily available straight-grained redwood trunks:

The huge size of the redwoods allowed the builders to hollow out a deeper, more stable hull with higher side than usual. Provided the walls were kept thin, the canoes would have been buoyant and good load carriers, but still probably dangerous in large swells and wind waves, especially when these came from the side. Two parallel rows of carved bumps on the bottom of the inside served as footholds for the standing paddlers...They would build the canoes along riverbanks, where driftwood logs were abundant, or fallen redwoods lay close to the water. Redwood being straight grained, the process of splitting logs with elk horn wedges and pounders was easy for people used to building planked houses. The builders used fire to hollow the the split log. By moving a fire or hot charcoal backward and forward along the length of the log, they could burn deep into the timber. With good judgment, they would smother the fire carefully at intervals to control the burn. The flames or red hot charcoal excised most of the interior. (Fagan, 220)


Author: DMS


Image Credit

Boy with Fox (1922), painting by Grace Hudson (1865-1937), National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Photo Credit

Redwood plank dwelling near Fort Bragg, Kelley House Research Office (Mendocino, CA).

Secondary Sources

Fagan, Brian. Before California: An Archaeologist Looks at Our Earliest Inhabitants. Walnut Creek, CA: Rowman & Littlefield/AltaMira Press, 2003.

Keeley, Jon E. "Native American impacts on fire regimes of the California coastal ranges, Journal of Biogeography, Vol. 29, pp. 303-320.

Mendocino County Remembered: An Oral History. Mendocino County, CA: The Mendocino County Historical Society, Vols I and II, 1976.

Moratto, Michael J. California Archaeology. Orlando, Florida: Academic Press, 1984.

Sturtevant., William C, gen. ed. Handbook of North American Indians: California (Vol. 8). Robert F.Heiz er, volume editor. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1978.

Wackernagel, Mathis and William Rees. Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1996.



 Mendocino Redwood Company - Ukiah, California