Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/February 1897/Some Primitive Californians

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IN the Santa Clara Valley, near the southern end of San Francisco Bay, some five miles south of Stanford University, there stands a fine old deserted abode, formerly a well-known station on the road from the Santa Clara Mission to San Francisco. Its owner, Don Secundini Robles, was of the pure old Castilian stock, and he and his wife. Donna Maria, were lord and lady for all the region round, and their house the center for all the gay rodeos and fandangos of the valley. Now the house is a ruin, Don Secundini dead, and Donna Maria, in poverty and alone, lives in the village of Mountain View. But their name passes on to fame among the Stanford students in connection with the Robles Rancheria, a large, low-lying mound of earth some quarter of a mile away from the old house, with that mysterious reputation attaching to it that always hovers around an Indian mound. It has indeed an artificial look, rising in the midst of the otherwise level valley; and the boys of the vicinity assured us that there were plenty of skeletons in it. The man who owned it said that when he first began to plow in that field he turned up human bones, and added, "You may guess I was scared." Indian mortars and pestles from this same heap were found in the possession of various neighbors, and the site altogether seemed promising for exploration. So, with the permission of the owner, and with such direction as could be given by a historian with an amateur interest in archæology, some Stanford students began to explore the site.

The survey of one of our civil engineers gave us the plot of the mound shown in Fig. 1: a length of four hundred and seventy feet, a width of three hundred and twenty feet, an area of some two acres, and a height of about ten feet in the highest parts. Its size was notable, and at once made us suspect that this mound had not been built up purposely, but had rather accumulated through the débris and the burials of some generations of Indian life and death. All our excavations bore out this idea, thus taking the structure rather out of the category of mounds into that of middens.

The excavations made from time to time resulted in the discovery of some thirty skeletons of both sexes and of all ages,

PSM V50 D505 Prehistoric excavations in santa clara ca.jpg
Fig. 1.

many of them undisturbed and often accompanied by various objects of use or ornament. Each cross on Fig. 1 shows the spot from which a skeleton was taken; the arrows indicate the point of the compass toward which the face was turned. The variations in this latter respect furnish negative evidence that the inhabitants of Robles Rancheria had no fixed superstition in connection with the heavenly bodies. It will be seen that there is hardly any trace of regularity in the interments further than this: the bodies were buried singly and, roughly speaking, in an

PSM V50 D506 Burial posture found in robles rancheria excavations.jpg
Fig. 2.

irregular double circle about the center of the rancheria; they were also buried without previous mutilation or separation, each skeleton being complete. This is again a piece of negative evidence going to prove that cannibalism was not practiced within the tribe; nor in our excavations were any human bones found broken for marrow, or in any situation indicating that they formed a part of the food supply for the Robles Rancheria. Layers of ashes and bits of charcoal were found irregularly throughout every excavation made for a skeleton, but since they were also found throughout the length of a trench run toward the center of the mound, we concluded that they had no special connection with the burial, although it must be added that a few skeletons showed traces of partial burning.

The posture of the buried Indians is shown by Fig. 2, from a photograph taken before the skeleton was removed. This posture is common among our North American Indians, and results apparently from the attempt to compress the body into the smallest possible space for burial. Each skeleton excavated showed traces of this posture, except the irregular group to the southwest of the mound, where the bones were found in a very confused state, and where one large and complete skeleton was found interred at full length on its back. No traces of any covering for the body were discovered. Among the skeletons removed one of exceptional interest was very carefully taken out by Mr. Edward Hughes. It was the skeleton of a very old Indian, whose vertebræ had grown together so as to cause a terrible deformity. Fig. 3, from a photograph of this skeleton mounted, shows the attitude in which its owner was compelled to live for many years. This ossification had also partially extended to other parts of the body: he could not move his ribs in breathing, he could not lift his head. Another interesting discovery noted by Mr. Hughes was the fact that one of his arms had been broken and most skillfully reset. As Mr. Hughes remarked, the finding of this skeleton, interred, as it had been, carefully, with a fine

PSM V50 D507 Ossified skeleton of an aged elder from robles rancheria.jpg
Fig. 3.

mortar, two or three bone implements, and an abalone shell, tells us that the former inhabitants of the Robles Rancheria had advanced far enough in civilization to care for the old and decrepit members of their little society. This one at least must have been practically helpless long before his death.

The objects interred with the skeletons are made of stone, shell, and bone; of stone implements the mortar and pestle are the most common; in fact, they are surprisingly common, indicating the possession of a great number within the same tribe. They are of the stone found in the immediate neighborhood, with one exception, and are of all grades of finish, as seen in Fig. 4, which shows us all varieties, from the rude bowlder, in which two or more slight concavities have begun to be worn, to the finished mortar, smooth within and without. The most finished mortar of all found was a small one used for grinding paint, shown in Fig. 5. The series of this implement taken from this rancheria furnishes a beautiful illustration of the evolution of what is perhaps the most primitive of human utensils, the mill. In Fig. 5, i, the three pestles show a similar evolution, from the longish pebble to the right, to the purposely shaped large and symmetrical one to the left.

The absence among the stone implements of arrow and spear heads puzzled us greatly, since these objects are very generally

PSM V50 D508 Objects found buried with the skeletons.jpg
Fig. 4.

found up and down the coast. Only two decided flint arrow points were found in all our work, and these were two broken points of the black obsidian of Napa County, some distance north of the bay, evidently an imported product (Fig. 5, b). But on stating our difficulty to Mr. Horatio Rust, of Pasadena, who has made a lifelong study of archæology, especially in California, he informed us that the Indians of this part of the country used wooden points, hardened by fire, for their arrows and spears; these, of course, have perished, and certain it is that in all our valley we do not find these characteristic stone implements. We found, however, in the course of our excavation, many sharp-edged bits of rough flint which may have been used in very primitive work as knives or scrapers; and we did not fail to find those mysterious objects known as "charm stones," since Mr. Yates's careful study has revealed their nature. According to Mr. Yates, who relies on the testimony of old Indians, these stones were a part of the "medicine" of the California tribes, and used in various combinations to bring rain, success in hunting, or in war.[1] We found no other objects of superstition, unless the ornament seen in the upper right-hand corner of d' in Fig. 5 be such. This was a bit of human breastbone, pierced in the center, and suggested at once the idea that it might have been worn as a fetich, or possibly was merely a war trophy — the breastbone of mine enemy.

Bone and shell seem to have furnished the chief material for the tools and ornaments of the inhabitants of this old village. The most common bone implements found were those shown in Fig. 5, g, finely pointed and polished from the ulna of a deer's leg. Here, again, as in the mortar and pestle, we find a very early and a very valuable artificial form reached by easy transition from a natural object which was somewhat adapted to the uses aimed at, and which was probably first employed without any endeavor to adapt it artificially. We judged, as a matter of course, that these sharp bone points were used for tipping spears, as they are well adapted to such a purpose; but all the traditions of the neighborhood insist that they were used for ornaments, and that with bunches of bright feathers, attached by strings of sinew, they were stuck into the hair. One bone needle was found, but the small size of this implement and its easy destructibility make it

PSM V50 D509 Finished ornaments found at the rancheria.jpg
Fig. 5.

surprising that even one was discovered. One of our most unique finds was a set of bone whistles shown at a, Fig. 5. They were made from the long leg bones of some waterfowl, and are evidently intended to furnish a variety of sounds, if we may judge from their varied length and the different positions of their holes. A passage from Frank Marryatt is interesting in this connection. He says of the Santa Cruz Indians:

"Of an evening they made a great disturbance by indulging in what they intended for a dance; this consisted in crowding together in uncouth attitudes, and stamping on the ground to the accompaniment of primitive whistles, of which each man held one in his mouth, while the women howled and shrieked in chorus."[2]

With the same skeleton in whose possession were found these primitive pipes of Pan, the saw-toothed bone shown at c, Fig. 5, was found. It suggests a saw, but may have been a tally bone, on which count could be kept of years or moons; this use is perhaps indicated by the fact that the notches are only part way along the edge of the bone, and that notched shell, which they also knew how to make, would have been more effective as a saw. A sort of romantic atmosphere seems to surround this especial skeleton, who may have been some sort of primitive historian and musician, furnishing music and keeping the records of the tribe, singing the story of each year as each notch recalled it.

The articles in shell taken from this mound are all of two sorts — shell ornaments or shell money; both are shown at d, d’ , and e, in Fig. 5. The shell ornaments are made from the brilliant abalone shell, which is still used to adorn the dooryards of good Californians. The ornaments are either round or oblong disks, pierced at one side for stringing, and all notched very exactly and evenly around the edge — perhaps, as Mr. Hughes suggested, in imitation of the heart shell, of which we found one specimen, shown in d’ , Fig. 5, next to one of the disk ornaments. The money is like the shell money found all over California, and consists of perforated squares of shell or of small whole shells pierced from end to end, shown at e. In this case property and ornament seem to have had a close connection, as perhaps they always have. Aside from the skeletons and the artificial objects found in the Robles Rancheria, we came across many food remains which also tell their story. Bones of deer, elk, raccoon, bones of salmon, and several sorts of waterfowl, countless crabs' claws, mussel, oyster, periwinkle shells in abundance, grouped specially with little beds of ashes, told of good hunting and fireside feasts to follow, in which meat was not lacking to go with the rude bread made from the acorns and seeds ground in the mortars.

Before concluding our work on the Robles Rancheria, we paid a visit to Donna Maria Secundini Robles, and asked her what she knew of this old heap. She is nearly eighty, but remembers well, and almost seems to live in, the happy days before the Gringos came. This was her story: When she came as a girl to live on the Robles Ranch, there were three Indian rancherias within a mile of her home, one marked by the mound, and two others not

PSM V50 D511 Charm bones found at the santa clara mound.jpg
Fig. 6.

far from the present station of Castro; but the Indians who lived on the mound had already deserted it, for when the Mission Fathers came to Santa Clara, the allegiance of the Indians was soon divided: some welcomed the new life and the new faith, and learned to pray and to hoe corn, to string rosaries, and to weave tule sombreros; while others still chose "the winds of freedom," and thought that acorns, clams, and fetiches would do very well for them. Among those who chose to be wild heathen still were the Indians of the Robles Rancheria; so they left their immemorial village site and went off down the San Joaquin Valley to Tulare, and were never seen again.

This story is confirmed by the fact that in our excavations we found no trace of any trade with whites — no glass beads, no bit of iron; this is noteworthy, since nearly all the known sites of old rancherias in California yield European beads in greater or less plenty. We had, therefore, by great good luck, been excavating a really prehistoric rancheria untouched by any foreign influence. On showing the various objects we had found to Donna Maria, she recognized their use at a glance, with the exception of the charm stones, which puzzled her; she confirmed, however, the statements which we had heard before as to the use of the sharp-pointed bones as hair ornaments. The manners and customs of these Indians were probably much the same as of those who went on living at the two neighboring rancherias, and with the latter Donna Maria was well acquainted, for, as she said, she had "danced with them often when a girl."

Piecing together our finds and the story of Donna Maria, the life of the Robles Rancheria reconstructs itself as follows: A little Indian village lies half hidden in great oak groves near San Francisco Bay, close by a spring oozing up under shady willows; an irregular circle of huts made of poles covered with rushes and branches shelters its population rather from sun than cold. In the middle of each tepee smolders a little fire, kindled by twirling a stick quickly about in a piece of rotten wood. The inhabitants eat bread made from white-oak acorns, from buckeye and laurel nuts, and, best of all, from manzanita berries. From these same nuts and berries they make pinole, a veritable mush, of which the early Spanish explorers constantly speak. They take the bitterness out of the acorns and nuts by soaking them long in water and then allowing them to dry in the sun, spread out on tule mats; then they grind them in their big stone mortars. To the mush and bread they add clams, fish, ducks, deer, and small game; they season their food with salt made from a certain root, and sweeten it by the addition of little sugar cakes, which they buy from the tribes of the mountains, who make them from the sap of some tree. Then there are thimbleberries, chokeweed berries, and in their season the madrona berry; and the tarweed grain made a pleasant variety in their mush and bread. After a feast of clams, tarweed mush, and thimbleberries, they lie about their fires and smoke coyote tobacco from wooden pipes, or dance to the music of their rude bone whistles.

Their dress is a simple apron or short skirt of buckskin, tule, or rabbit skin, with fringes and feathers for adornment, and longer for women; but their ornaments are their chief glory — bracelets, earrings, and necklaces of abalone shells, long, bone bodkins in their thick hair, to which were attached brilliant feathers; and Donna Maria's vivid pantomime shows us how their feathers dance above them as they dance, while their abalone pendants shake about their wrists and necks.

Their weapons are bows, arrows, and spears made of wood, and pointed with bone or flint, bound to a wooden shaft by rawhide, or the tough, sinewy fibers of a shrub which grows up in the mountains.

They made no pottery, but all their grinding, cooking, and carrying was done in stone or basketry; of the latter Donna Maria gave us for the museum a beautiful ancient specimen from one of these very rancherias. It is made of split roots woven so close as to be water-tight, and ornamented by a simple and even classic pattern. Often these baskets were patterned with lines and groups of little feathers, and then they were precious indeed.

When an Indian died, he was wrapped up in a blanket obtained from the missions, and buried in the rancheria itself, but not under the tepee. Before he was buried, the other Indians came and gave gifts and mourned.

A kindly, inoffensive tribe, they lived by hunting, fishing, and the natural nuts and grains of their environment. They ground their food and cooked it, loved music and personal adornment, held together in their village as a social unit, with a limited commerce. The range of trade indicated by the excavations and confirmed by Donna Maria reveals a narrow world, with a diameter of not much more than twenty miles. The two broken arrowheads from Napa and one broken basaltic lava mortar, whose material must have come from far to the northward, are unique importations to be explained by accident rather than by regular trade, since the other mortars are all made of bowlders easily found in the vicinity, and since, as I have said, the broken arrow points are unique. The hill tribes eastward essentially bounded their world. Tradition and evidence alike show them to be a spur of population entering the valley from the southward.

PSM V50 D513 Santa clara mounds skulls.jpg
Fig. 7.

Contact with the more warlike and better equipped northern tribes would either have destroyed them or developed their own culture to a higher status of defense.

This low status of defense, the fact that their implements are so similar to the natural objects which suggest them, the low type of skull (Fig. 7), all go to show that the Indian of the Santa Clara Valley was one of the most primitive types known to ethnology within the historic era. The early fathers and voyagers have left a good deal of observation in regard to him, but all this observation is more or less vitiated by the fact that it was made after the contact of Spaniard and Indian had already begun its work. For this reason the evidence of the Robles Rancheria is especially valuable, since it apparently antedates this influence entirely and shows us primitive man in one of his most primitive seats. Nothing possessed or made by the men of the Robles Rancheria indicates that they had ever lived in any other vicinity, or knew any other materials than the bones and stones and shells of their own valley and its encircling hills. Shut off from communication almost as completely as if they had lived on an island, they seem to have lived and died undisturbed from some great antiquity, if we may judge from the height of the mound, which, as a débris heap, could only have accumulated slowly. Who knows but that here in the Santa Clara Valley is one of the seats where man first invented a stone mill, first loved the glitter and shine of a lovely shell, first raised his eyes and felt that he was different!

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  1. Charm Stones, the So-called "Plummets" or "Sinkers" of California. By Dr. Lorenzo Gordin Yates. Santa Barbara, California, 1890. Bulletin No. 2 of Santa Barbara Society of Natural History.
  2. Frank Marryatt. Mountains and Mole-hills, or Recollections of a Burnt Diary, chap. v, p. 83. New York, 1855.