Deep History of the Delta

Painting by Grace Hudson, 1898, “The Coyote’s Coming,” collection of the Grace Hudson Museum and Sun House, City of Ukiah, CA.

Clarksburg is a picturesque Delta village on the Sacramento River, about 15 miles downriver (south) from the Sacramento waterfront. It nestles on the west (Yolo County) bank along levee-top River View Drive and is now home to about 300 residents.

For many centuries before the arrival of Europeans, the Clarksburg area was home to a similar-sized nation of Native people—California Indians—who called themselves Ylamne (ee-LAHM-nay). The sovereign, Miwok-speaking Ylamne nation was not large or prominent, but its lifeways and history are very representative of the pre-European Native communities that lived on the east side of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

(Clarksburg is restoring an 1883 schoolhouse and repurposing it as a Delta Welcome Center, education center/museum, and community gathering place. As an advisor to that effort, I researched the Ylamne tribal nation and contacted contemporary Indian tribes in the area to help the Clarksburg center share this deep history.) 

Ylamne Origins

Native Americans lived in what is now the Delta region since beyond human memory, since the end of the Ice Age more than 13,000 years ago (more than 650 generations ago), and perhaps earlier—well before rising seas caused the formation of the Delta. The ancestors of the Miwok-speakers, including the Ylamne, apparently moved into the California heartland about 5,000 years (250 generations) ago. The Ylamne were rooted for more than 2,000 years (100 generations) in a hometown on Elk Slough a couple miles from modern Clarksburg and a homeland territory that was about 10 miles across.

Sacred narratives were passed from generation to generation recounting how the Ylamne were created on their homeland. One of the Ylamne stories was likely similar to—and surely much longer and more elaborate than—the following account of creation from the Patwin, the language group that included tribal community neighbors of the Ylamne to the north and west in the Sacramento Valley. The story takes place in an ancient time before humans, when Earth was home to the First People, beings that shared characteristics of both animals/natural forces and humans.   

There was a great flood which drowned [everything]. The birds flew to the sky. There …Falcon drew a feather from the right [wing] of each, and killed them all, except four pairs. With him were…Coyote, who was…his mother’s brother; and…Turtle. 
Coyote suggested that Turtle dive. They tied a long line to his ankle and in the evening he dived. At last the line ran to the end: they reached an arm into the water to let him go as far as he could. Then they began to draw him up. It was morning when he came to the surface. They made a fire for him and asked if he had reached bottom. He said he had not; but [Falcon] with a little stick scraped the dirt from under his nails and patted it flat in his palm. Telling Coyote and Turtle to go to sleep, he put the little disk of earth through the sky-hole onto the water. 
The water went down: in the morning the world was dry. Then, on successive days, [Falcon] sent out each of the pairs of four birds he had not killed. They were to fly south along the river to the ocean, then west, north, east, south, all around the world and back upstream. On the first day went…[Red-tailed] Hawk; on the second,…a wading bird with curved bill, who reported water encircling the world; on the third [White-tailed Kite]—[Falcon] had told him to eat grass if he found it; on the fourth, Dove, who was to eat…seeds.
After eight days Coyote was lonely and wanted to make [humans]. [Falcon] said, “You do it. You are old and wise.” So Coyote made a brush fence. Into it he put a pair of elder sticks wrapped together with grass. At night [Falcon] awoke. “Mother’s brother, wake up,” he said, “they [humans] are talking!” All night he listened. In the morning talk was going on all around them. 
After four days, Coyote wanted to know how people would live. [Falcon] said: “You know how to make it.” That night Coyote made all the animals and plants (a long enumeration follows). After four days, [Falcon] wanted to know how people would eat. That night Coyote made the ways of preparing food (another enumeration). After four days more, [Falcon] asked how they would cook with fire. Coyote took a drill, had [Falcon] hold the hearth, and drilled fire. From the feathers which [Falcon] had plucked out of the birds which came to the sky, Coyote…[went] about the world making [towns]…
(Kroeber, A.L., “The Patwin and Their Neighbors,” 1935. Berkeley, CA: Publications in Archaeology and Ethnography, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 304-305.)

Ylamne creation stories would have referenced local landmarks such as Mount Diablo and distinct river bends, groves, and other features of their homeland. Stories of the First People explained how to live with fire and other natural elements, how various foods and medicine plants were used, and how people should organize themselves. In most Central Valley Native traditions, the stories tell that the First People so loved the humans they had created that they turned themselves into the animals-only that we still know today, animals that continue to teach people to live in balance with the rest of creation. 

Proper individual behavior and ideal relationships among the various tribal nations were defined in stories. Kinship relationships within the nation and with the surrounding tribal nations were laid out. Gender roles, civic and spiritual leadership, social, political, and economic practices were all described in dozens and dozens of shared stories.

Daily Life in Ylamne Town

Mural painting by Amy Hosa and Linda Yamane, “Pruristac Village,” San Mateo County Historical Association.

The 200 members of the Ylamne nation lived year-round near Elk Slough in a town on a low mound above the floods. Ylamne households were usually made up of a married couple, their young children, and perhaps a widowed sister and a grandparent or other elderly relative. Each family slept in a domed house, about 15 feet across, built with a framework of willow branches covered with overlapping mats of woven tules (bulrushes). Houses had a hearth in the center, surrounded by tule mattresses with fur bedding. The Ylamne town had about 35 of these round or oval, basket-like houses.  

A variety of foods were stored in baskets inside the houses, but there were also outside granary structures in which to store a year-long supply of acorns. 

Most work—such as preparing acorns and other foods, weaving baskets, flaking arrowheads, or making fishing nets—was done outside the family houses, under ramadas made of upright poles roofed with tule mats or willow branches. These work areas were open to the cool Delta breezes. 

Groups of related men each maintained a sweathouse, 10-15 feet in diameter, excavated a few feet into the ground, with a conical framework covered with earth. The sweathouse was heated by a fire and steam. It was used daily as a male gathering place, to cure illnesses, and especially to prepare for deer hunting. After working up a good sweat, the men would run out and plunge into Elk Slough.

Because the Ylamne nation was small and affiliated with a larger nation nearby (see below), it may not have had its own ceremonial structures. Whether at Ylamne town or the main village of the Gualacomne nation a couple miles upriver, the ceremonial assembly house was an impressive structure. It was 50-60 feet across, round, dug into the ground, with a conical roof supported by heavy timbers covered with earth. The assembly house was used for the most sacred ceremonies and the most important gatherings. There was also an outside assembly area, encircled with upright poles and brush.

Painting by Grace Hudson, 1902, “The Dowry,” collection of the Grace Hudson Museum and Sun House, City of Ukiah, CA.

The most noticeable tools throughout the town were baskets. Ylamne women made many beautiful and useful baskets. The Ylamne knew about pottery and made baked-clay fishing net weights and pottery “balls” to heat and place in baskets for cooking (in place of the small rocks used by nations that lived near rocky creeks). But for most uses, baskets were better than pottery; they were strong, light, and versatile.

The Ylamne used conical baskets of different sizes and weaves for carrying things; watertight baskets for carrying and storing water; watertight cooking baskets for heating liquids (using heated pottery balls); scoops and dippers; serving bowls in several sizes; various storage baskets; cradle baskets for swaddling and carrying babies; trays for harvesting, winnowing, sifting, parching (with hot coals), serving, and game-playing; and beautiful baskets for gift exchanges and funeral offerings.

Women pounded acorns into flour in oak wood mortars (there was no exposed bedrock in Ylamne territory). They used stone pestles imported by trading with nations with rockier homelands. 

Ylamne men used sinew-backed hardwood bows, usually imported through trade, and made arrows designed specifically for each prey hunted. Arrowheads, spearpoints, and knives were made from finely flaked, imported obsidian stone (volcanic glass). When the Ylamne first settled in their homeland 2,000 years ago they traded for obsidian from the Napa Valley, but more recently it was quarried on the east slope of the Sierra Nevada and passed through many Native tribal nations before arriving on the Sacramento River, often as finished tools.

Plant fiber string and cord was made by the men and used for fishing nets and hunting snares, as well as in ceremonial regalia. Men tied bundles of tules (bulrushes) together and made boats for fishing and hunting waterfowl. 

Ylamne men and women wore their hair uncut and long, except when cropped or singed short to mourn the death of a loved one (as seen in many historic photographs of California Indians). They would sometimes tie their hair back with a string or a simple headband. The chief was the only Ylamne to wear a hairnet every day; others wore hairnets only at ceremonies. All Ylamne bathed daily in Elk Slough and washed their hair with the lather of the soaproot plant. They brushed their hair often.

Ylamne men were often heavily bearded and most did not pluck or shave their whiskers or mustache.

Men wore buckskin loin cloths or no clothes; women wore two-piece skirts made of tules (bulrushes) or other plant fibers; young children wore no clothing. In cold weather, all Ylamne added a cape of dressed animal skin or a blanket woven from rabbit skins or bird skins/feathers. Chiefs and their “royal family” often wore belts decorated with woodpecker or mallard head feathers and imported shells.

In contrast to their simple everyday clothing, Ylamne wore elaborate regalia for ceremonies, including orange flicker-feather headbands, complex feather headpieces, hairnets, belts with shells and bright feathers, and down- and feather-covered ropes and capes. Men dancers often had their entire body painted with elaborate red, white, and black stripes and patterns.

Teenagers, especially girls, were tattooed, usually with parallel lines down the chin, the “one eleven” ornamentation that is increasingly common and meaningful among modern California Indians. The earlobes and nose of all Ylamne were pierced; children wore flowers in their ears, women wore shell earrings, and men had earplugs of bird bone with feathers inserted. Nose sticks were of polished bone or shell.

Ylamne men and women wore necklaces of beads made of Pacific Ocean shells obtained from Bay Area tribal nations—as well as beads made of bone and imported stone—often with a large pendant of iridescent abalone shell (mother of pearl). The chief, his wife, and other wealthy people often wore many necklace strands of clamshell beads, which were used as money.

Young adults among the Ylamne usually married spouses from nearby Miwok-speaking nations. Most partners were from the adjacent, large Gualacomne nation (about 400 people), that lived south of present-day Freeport, and from the Olonapatme, who lived on the open plains about 15 miles southeast of the Ylamne near the Cosumnes River (now near Twin Cities Road and Highway 99). Ylamne probably also had relatives among the large Cosomne nation and others along the Cosumnes River (south of Elk Grove). To a lesser degree, they married with the Chupumne, the nation downriver near Hood (5 miles south), and the Siusumne, who lived on the other end of Elk Slough, near Courtland (10 miles south). These tribal nations were all trusted trading partners and allies of the Ylamne

The allied nations came together for feasts, gaming tournaments, trade fairs, ceremonies, and dances throughout the year. For example, the rattlesnake dance and the first-salmon ceremony were in the spring, whereas the mourning ceremony honoring the year’s dead, the first-acorn ceremony/harvest festival, and the bear dance took place in the fall. 

Habitat Management, Foods, and Other Resources

Rich natural resources allowed the Native nations on the east edge of the Delta to have the highest population density in North America prior to the arrival of Europeans, exceeded only by Central Mexico. The Ylamne carefully managed their homeland habitats to maximize useful resources. 

Over thousands of years, the Ylamne learned to live cooperatively with the plants and animals that shared their territory. They sustained local habitats with controlled burns, pruning, tilling and digging, weeding, sowing, transplanting, and selective harvesting. Such practices promoted the health of more than 500 different useful plants and animals. If the weather fluctuated and reduced the harvest of some plants and animals, there were always others to use.

In oak forests on the higher ground of the natural levees, burning and other tactics reduced underbrush and encouraged important healing herbs and wildflowers with edible seeds, fruits, leaves, and bulbs. Burning reduced insect pests such as acorn weevils, removed surface debris (which made gathering easier), fertilized the soil, and provided pathways and food for desirable birds and mammals. Many generations of Indian management created forests with widely spaced, large oak trees that produced many more acorns than smaller, crowded trees.

Photo of ceremonial dance costume, 1924, by Edward S. Curtis, Northwestern University Library.

Wetlands near the Sacramento River and Elk Slough were also managed. The Ylamne carefully burned to keep tules (bulrushes) and cattails healthy—which they used for food, baskets, clothing, houses, and boats. Burning expanded open water for fishing and improved the feeding, resting, and nesting spots for ducks, geese, and other birds.

Although Ylamne territory probably did not include grasslands habitat, marriage ties with the Olonapatme nation and others from the open plains near the Cosumnes River allowed the Ylamne to trade for the nutritious small wildflower and grass seeds harvested there.

Ylamne women gathered plants for baskets, clothing, mats, and houses, as well as for medicines and food. Plant foods made up most of the Ylamne diet: seeds, nuts, fruits, berries, bulbs, and greens. Every autumn, Ylamne men helped harvest acorns from oak trees. Each family gathered about 2,000 pounds of acorns, carried back to the town in “backpack” baskets.

Ylamne men caught many kinds of fish in the Sacramento River—salmon, sturgeon, steelhead (rainbow) trout, lamprey—plus many “slough fish” such as Sacramento pikeminnows, thicktail chubs, tule and Sacramento perch, hitch, and Sacramento suckers. The Native fishermen used many techniques: fish traps, dip nets, casting nets, seines and weirs across waterways, spears/harpoons, hook and line—even stupefying fish in stagnant pools. The Ylamne also ate turtles, crayfish, and mussels.

Men caught ducks and geese by throwing a net over feeding or resting birds or by raising a net in front of birds as they landed or took off from the slough and marshes. Men also waded or swam into wetlands to grab swimming ducks from below. Men and boys trapped or snared California quail, band-tailed pigeons, flickers, and many other songbirds for meat and feathers.

Squirrels, beavers, woodrats, and cottontails were trapped or snared. Jackrabbits were hunted in communal drives using nets up to 400 yards long. Deer were the favorite large game, hunted both communally and by individual men with bows and arrows or snares. Tule elk were more difficult to hunt because they lived in herds but were sometimes taken by surrounding them with up to 200 people on foot. The Ylamne joined with neighboring nations for such large communal hunts. They may have even journeyed onto the open plains along the Cosumnes River to communally-hunt the abundant pronghorn (antelope). Dogs (the only domesticated animals kept by the Ylamne) probably assisted these hunts. 

Certain animals were avoided as food, including the abundant grizzly bears, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, skunks, snakes, and frogs.

Leaders, Specialists, and Gatherings

Big Head dancers, painting by Mort Kunsler, “Kuksu Ceremony of the Pomo,” photo gallery of FirstPeople.us.

Citizens of the Ylamne nation had different roles in their society. Some people were spiritual or civil leaders, others had special knowledge and skills or developed their talents to make certain tools. 

The Ylamne nation had a chief—usually a man, but sometimes a woman—who inherited the office and had several important roles. The chief was the advisor for the nation and announced decisions after discussions with the elders. He or she was the manager of shared natural resources within the homeland; the arbitrator of disputes; the wealthy host of visitors; the provider for the poor; and sponsor/underwriter of religious and social gatherings. He or she maintained relations with adjacent nations by issuing invitations to gatherings, making trade arrangements, and settling disagreements such as accusations of trespass, poaching, or sorcery.

Another civil official was the “town crier” who made announcements and asked for donations of food or ceremonial regalia on behalf of the chief. The nation also had a messenger who delivered invitations and messages to the chiefs of other nations.

Many Ylamne acquired unique knowledge to become specialists. For example, there were herbal doctors who prepared and administered curing plant medicines. Some people trained to prepare ceremonial regalia and to properly portray deities or spirits in the sacred dances. Some developed their talents at making certain tools—such as baskets, arrowheads, or fishing nets—and spent more time on those crafts. 

Spiritual leaders, often called spirit doctors or shamans, were as respected as the chief and usually worked closely with the civil leaders. Spirit doctors were instructed by mentors and developed supernatural powers through dreams or visions aided by hallucinogenic jimsonweed and native tobacco. Many spirit doctors cured by counteracting witchcraft and removing poisonous objects from sick people; others brought rain; and a few could charm deer, grizzly bears, or rattlesnakes.

After Europeans Arrived

In the 2,000 years that the Ylamne people lived in their homeland, the territories of Native nations in the region occasionally got bigger or smaller and they sometimes fought over trespassing, resource poaching, or other wrongdoings. But there were few big changes until about 250 years ago, when Spain colonized the California coast in the late 1700s and early 1800s. 

Spain invaded and occupied the homelands of many Native nations in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1770s, but seldom entered the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. In fact, the Delta was a barrier to Spanish entry into the interior and was a refuge for Indians fleeing the coastal missions. By the late 1790s, Spain needed new unpaid Indian workers to replace thousands who had died at the coastal missions or had escaped. Mission San José was built farther inland (in present-day Fremont) largely to bring in new workers from the San Joaquin Valley and the Delta.

Many Indians from the southern Delta (near modern Tracy and Stockton) moved to Mission San José after 1810. The Miwok-speaking nations that lived along the Mokelumne and Cosumnes Rivers (now Lodi and Elk Grove) fiercely resisted the Spanish intrusion into the Valley, as did the Ylamne and neighboring nations along the Sacramento River.

In 1813, the large Ochejamne nation, from the Steamboat Slough vicinity south of Courtland, led many Sacramento River nations in a battle against the Spanish to defend Indians who had escaped the missions and sought sanctuary in the Delta. 

Native resistance against the coastal missions weakened only after three-fourths of the Indians in the Delta and Central Valley were killed by malaria, which was brought to the Central Valley by Oregon trappers in 1833. The 48 Ylamne who survived the malaria epidemic went to Mission San José and apparently never returned to their homeland.

Mexico won independence from Spain and in the mid-1830s began giving away Indian lands—lands taken by Spain’s soldiers and missions—for huge ranches. Mariano Vallejo’s 66,600-acre Rancho de Petaluma was one of the biggest. The Ochejamne and Siusumne nations remained strong enough after the 1833 malaria plague to make treaties with Vallejo in 1837 and to battle rival Native nations along the Mokelumne River to recover horses stolen from Vallejo.

The first Euro-American ranch on Native homeland in the Delta was occupied in 1838 by American John Marsh; it was at the base of Mount Diablo (now Brentwood). A year later, Swiss entrepreneur Johann (John) Sutter sailed through the maze of Delta waterways to establish a feudal agricultural enterprise near the junction of the Sacramento and American Rivers (now Sacramento). 

Sutter’s small group of whites and Hawaiians (Kanakas) was welcomed and guided by members of the large Gualacomne nation, whom it met near modern Freeport. Sutter made alliances with Native nations, built a fort-like trading post, acquired a grant of 48,800 acres of Nisenan Indian land, and pitted Indians against each other and against his Mexican rivals. 

Indians freed from Mission San José—including the surviving Ylamne—became Marsh’s workforce; he called them his “serfs.” Sutter assembled his own Native American workers using military force and material goods. Miwok-speaking nations from the Sacramento River switched their support to Sutter after Vallejo raided their homelands in 1840 and they moved to near Sutter’s Fort.

Photo of assembly house at Chaw’se, Indian Grinding Rock State Park, by Jeff Banke, shutterstock.

Native people were Sutter’s soldiers, herders, trappers, and agricultural workers. During the seasons for planting and harvesting wheat and other crops, Sutter had up to 300 minimally paid Indian workers. The Miwok-speaking Indians from the Sacramento River became Sutter’s favorites, in part because the Maidu-speaking Nisenan people on whose land the fort was built had been shielded by the Delta and had not gone to the coastal missions to learn skills that Sutter needed.

Although the small Ylamne nation was not reconstituted after the great malaria plague and the migration of plague survivors to Mission San José, their cultural traditions are continued by contemporary California Indian tribes including the Wilton Rancheria (Miwok), the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, and the United Auburn Indian Community (Maidu and Miwok)

LINKS

For more on gold rush and more-recent history from the Native viewpoint, see: http://www.sanjoaquinhistory.org/documents/HistorianWinter2016.pdf

Many museums in the region interpret the cultures and history of Native peoples, including the San Joaquin County Historical Museum (Lodi) (www.SanJoaquinHistory.org ), Maidu Museum and Historic Site (Roseville) (https://www.roseville.ca.us/government/departments/library/maidu_museum_historic_site ), Sacramento History Museum (http://sachistorymuseum.org/ ), California State Indian Museum (Sacramento) (http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=486 ), Indian Grinding Rock State Park (Volcano) (https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=553 ), San Mateo County History Museum (https://historysmc.org/ ), and the Oakland Museum of California (https://museumca.org/ ). Among key historic sites to visit are Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park (Sacramento) (https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=485 ), Historic Mission San José (Fremont) (https://missionsanjose.org/ ), and Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park (https://www.petalumaadobe.com/ ).

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