I slipped my shoes off and stepped on to the massive granite boulder along the North Fork the American River. My feet felt the slight sting of heat from the granitic monolith that was normally under the waters of Folsom Lake, but had been baking in the hot summer sun. An old man with gray hair, I now owned this rock that I was certain had not been touched since the days of the gold rush. As I surveyed my imperial perched overlooking the rushing waters of the river below, I noticed holes in my rock. “What man hath scarred my throne?”, I wondered.
Native Americans Before The Gold Rush
From the perspective of most people in the Sacramento region who visit Folsom Lake, there was no life before the dam. In 1977, I was a 12 year old running up and down Granite Bay Beach in the Junior Life Guard program. Folsom was a giant swimming hole surrounded by picnic tables. Sometime during my elementary school education I learned about the gold rush, the ‘49ers, and the manifest destiny of Americans to exploit whatever natural resource they could get their hands on.
Oh yeah, there were Indians someplace in California. But those people lived someplace else, certainly not in my back yard. Indians lived in museums. They put their woven baskets up on walls and the arrowheads under glass. Indians lived in a few places where the Parks department had built little brush display huts under oak trees. The lasting impression of a young child growing up in the 1960s was that there were a few Indian villages scattered along the rivers in Sacramento. The real story was the gold rush, Old Sacramento, bar fights, and bordellos. Our real history started with the mass migration of men from the east in search of gold. Indians: colorful bit actors in a larger drama of empires and the transcontinental railroad.
A Few Clues To Native American Life Before Folsom Lake
Every year when Folsom Lake water levels drop, I go hiking around the lake bed searching for history. The years when the lake dropped really low because of the drought was a bonanza of hiking and historical finds. The first Native American grinding holes I came across were a real novelty for me. “Wow”, I thought, “Someone was here before me, the lake, and the gold miners.” I came across more and more of the grinding holes along the North Fork of the American River. Then it occurred to me that there just weren’t a few Native Americans here before us, but a whole community.
If you search through books or online you’ll come across all sorts of references and history about the historical mining activity along the north and south Forks of the American River. There were old towns like Salmon Falls and Rattlesnake Bar, and colorfully named mining areas such as Condemned Bar. But where were the sites of the Native American villages? There just aren’t a lot of references to prehistoric sites. But it is undeniable that early prospectors and miners encountered Native Americans in their travels along the North and South Forks of the American River.
1977 Surveys Of Prehistoric Activity At Folsom Lake
While there were a few archeological surveys done prior filling of Folsom Lake, the bulk of the sites along the north and south forks of the American River were recorded in 1977. The California State Parks Department took advantage of the extremely low water levels of Folsom Lake during the drought of 1977 to survey the area for prehistoric Native American activity. The Parks Department has also documented other sites as new roads or recreational facilities were proposed within the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area and cultural resource surveys were triggered.
Over fifty Native American sites along the north and south forks of the river within the Folsom State Park boundary have been formally identified and recorded. Some of the sites represented camps or perhaps small villages while others were work centers or quarries where evidence of tool and projectile manufacturing might have occurred. A few sites represented burial grounds or ceremonial sites.
The Parks Department essentially swept up most of the Native American artifacts that they found. Their preservation operations along with people who took home the found arrow head, have effectively removed most remnants of Native American occupation around Folsom Lake. However, some people will come across Native American grinding holes on top of granite boulders or outcroppings as they roam around the lake.
While the grinding holes can be found throughout the area, they are mainly concentrated along the North Fork of the American River where the granite outcroppings are most abundant. The river canyon of the South Fork of the American River is mainly composed of metamorphic or slate rock and does not lend itself being drilled for the purpose of creating a mortar in which to grind acorns. Portable mortars for grinding acorns were found along the south fork where Native American sites were recorded.
A report on the California Parks Department large cultural resource survey from the late 1970s concluded that the sites recorded corresponded to previous research on Native American villages and camps. Specifically, most of the sites tended to be on knolls with moderated slopes bounded by drainage or creeks on either side. The sites had southern exposure and were near grinding holes. Other artifacts such as projectile points, rock knives, beads and ornamental shells were also recorded. The only remnants of the actual shelters were the outlines of depressions created when the hut was built.
I’m not an anthropologist or an archeologist. But if you were going to set up a permanent or seasonal camp, where would you put it? You are not going to set up camp where you are going to be washed away in a flash flood from a creek. Having a camp with southern exposure will give you the most light and warmth. The Native Americans lived off the land. While there was trade between different Native Americans from the coast, valley, and in the mountains, most of their food sources occurred locally. In the fall they gathered acorns to grind up for mush or cakes. They hunted deer and other small mammals. Geese and other birds were also hunted. They fished for salmon and eels in the river. Native Americans had a whole way of life with their own creation mythology and ceremonies to mark seasons, births, and deaths.
Native American Way Of Life
I often hear people discuss how they don’t want to lose their way of life. The farmer doesn’t want to lose their way of life to a housing development or freeway. Ranchers don’t want land policies that might restrict their grazing rights because it threatens their way of life. Fishermen dread the closing of parts of the ocean to fishing because they could lose their livelihood. These folks engage in a distinct and unique vocation that necessitates a particular way of life. It’s in their blood. The lifestyle has been in their family for generations. It’s who they are. They farm, ranch, fish, mine, hunt, work hard, and enjoy the fruits of their labor. We are very good at creating myths and identities around a way of life. There is nothing wrong with attaching significance and identity to an occupation.
The Native Americans who occupied the land along the North and South Forks of the American Rivers were all of the above: farmers, ranchers, miners, fishers, food processors, hunters, gathers, and home builders. They had a way of life that was every bit as valuable as the immigrants who claimed ownership to the lands along the river beginning in 1849.
Native Americans appear to have had an interconnected and dependent – and somewhat fragile – economy of subsistence. They were not generating excess amounts of food stuffs or creating goods that put them at an economic trading advantage with other regional Indians. There were seasons for hunting when the deer came down from the hills during mating season. Fishing during the Salmon runs. Hunting ducks and geese during the winter. Harvesting acorns during the fall. Collecting berries during the spring. They were the ultimate survivalists.
Hundreds of Native Americans called the land under and around Folsom Lake home before the gold rush. As the miners came in and disrupted and destroyed a fragile subsistence from the land, confrontations were bound to happen. Newspapers of the time are filled with accounts of atrocities on both sides. There is also mention of Native Americans taking an active role in mining activities. But overall, the mood of the immigrants was that they could not coexist with the Native Americans. Something had to give, and it was the Native American way of life.
While the Native Americans were derisively portrayed as savages in many historical accounts, they were obviously better suited, prepared, and thrived in a land without modern conveniences. In his 1852 book “California Illustrated: Including A Description Of The Panama and Nicaragua Routes”, author J. M. Letts recounts his time mining and selling goods on the North Fork of the American River near Lacy’s Bar. In chapter 20 he details how difficult life on the river can be for an ill-prepared immigrant.
General Winchester and company had just placed their quicksilver machine, and commenced successful operations on the bar, but one night destroyed their works, carrying one of their machines, laden with twenty-five pounds of quicksilver, a distance of three miles, destroying it, and emptying its valuable contents into the river. The rise of the river was so rapid that those on the opposite side, when it commenced to rain, found it impossible to re-cross six hours after. The scene was most terrific; the mountain on either side of the river, rose almost perpendicularly, and the torrents rushed down, undermining huge rocks, which, after making a few leaps, would come in contact with others of equal dimensions, when both, with one terrific bound, would dash into the chasm below.
Lack of Proper Shelter
The store I occupied was made by driving stakes into the ground, and inclosing with common unbleached muslin; the roof flat, covered with the same material. It had answered a good purpose during the summer, but for the rainy season, I am not prepared to say it was exactly the thing. I do not know that the rain fell faster inside than out, but some of my neighbors insinuated that it did. I could keep tolerably dry by wearing an India rubber cap, poncho, and long boots, with the aid of a good umbrella; in short, this was my regular business suit. For a bed, I had a scaffold made of poles, on which I had a hammock stuffed with grass and straw, using a pair of blankets as covering. In order to keep my bed dry I had a standard at the head and foot, on which was a pole running “fore and aft,” serving as a ridge-pole, over which was thrown an India rubber blanket. On going to bed I would throw up one corner of my India rubber blanket, holding my umbrella over the opening, and after taking off my boots, I would crawl in feet first, throw back the rubber to its place, then tying my umbrella to the head standard I was in bed. My friends, Fairchild, Tracy, Jones, and Dean were not so fortunate. They would lay down on the ground in their blankets, and in one hour would be drenched to the skin; in this condition they were obliged to spend the balance of the night. Jones (formerly of the Cornucopia, New York) had a severe cough, his lungs being much affected, and he thought he was fast declining with the consumption. After becoming drenched and chilled his cough would set in, which, together with his distressing groans, would render night hideous, and cast a gloom over the most buoyant spirit.
A disease at this time manifested itself, the symptoms of which were of a peculiar nature. It was called the “land scurvy,” and was caused by a want of proper vegetable diet. The blood of the system became thick and turgid, and diminished in quantity; there was but little circulation at the extremities, or near the surface of the body, the fleshy parts becoming almost lifeless; the gums became black and not unfrequently the teeth would fall out, the gums having so entirely wasted away. The malady became fearfully prevalent, and no remedy could be obtained; vegetables were not to had, there were none in the country. There had been a few, a very few, potatoes in the market, at prices varying from four shillings each to a dollar and a half per pound, but the supply was too scanty to arrest the disease, and many had become almost entirely disabled.
On the 28th of October, a man from Illinois fell a victim to this dreadful malady, and on the 29th, it was our painful duty to bear him to that lonely hill and consign him to the tomb. A board was placed at his head, on which was cut his brief epitaph. What a strange commentary upon the vicissitudes of human life. He was once an infant, fondled and caressed by an affectionate mother, a youth counseled by a doting father, and embraced and loved by sisters and brothers.
Surviving On The American River
The Native Americans were accustom to, and prepared for, the environmental elements of the low foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. They placed their camps away from rivers that could rage with floods without warning. They knew how to build shelters that protected them from wind, rain, and cold temperatures. Their varied diet of meat, nuts, grains, and root vegetables kept their bodies healthy. Yet, it were the Native Americans who were uneducated and inferior to the immigrants who suffered so profoundly at the hands of the hubris of their own abilities.
There were clumsy attempts at creating treaties and setting aside land for reservations. But there was a lack of political will to ratify the treaties. Attempts to change the substance of the treaties to accommodate mining interests undermined the confidence of the Native Americans about any real recognition. The lack of progress on the treaties and the threat of changing the terms were not lost on everyone. This editorial from 1851 in the Sacramento Daily Union summarizes the disgust some people had for the way Native Americans were being treated.
Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 1, Number 134, 22 August 1851
We are sorry to perceive an attempt to make political capital out of an exceedingly serious and important correspondence which has just taken place between Brevt. Brig, Gen. E. A. Hitchcock and Governor McDougal. We regret it because it evolves principles of injustice so monstrous that a man of moral reflection, or a man who understood the principles upon which our political institutions are founded, could not, it seems to us, express sentiments so insensible to the natural, just and cherished rights of the original owners of California.
The idea that nothing is due to the Indian tribes of the State, but that kind of Christian forbearance which would exterminate them without an effort by even the shadowing of justice to conciliate and improve them — the idea that the convenience of the white man, tutored in all the advantages that belong to civilization, is to be propitiated by forcing these people from their valley homes and the treasured ashes of their dead into the barren and inhospitable haunts of perpetual winter, may answer the purpose of those who hold that the ascendency of a party ticket is paramount to the laws of God and humanity.
But if the Whig party, to the advancement of those interests we have appropriated the columns of the Union, expect of us to make use of such capital, we will at once repudiate a position so unhallowed in moral associations, and so repugnant to the dictates of nature, and the promptings of an enlightened age.
The history of our State, proves, that a large proportion of the Indians of our country are docile, easily governed and susceptible of a tolerable degree of civilization — proves that a few men have settled among these Indians, occupied their lands, and availed themselves of their labor without incurring the least personal injury, by simply supplying towards them that sort of kindness which could be manifested by a few blankets and beads.
It is also a matter as susceptible of proof, that since the gold discovery upon their ground, they have been extensively employed in digging the ore, and the results of their labor have gone to enrich those men who had the most of the worthless trinkets that were falsely estimated by them.
And now. when almost every valley and stream of the State has been taken from them, and a sense of their loss is beginning to be felt in their ranks, now when, by an authorized treaty of Government, they are having taken from them which an honorable treaty vouchsafes, it is totally unbecoming and unwarrantable to treat them with such indifference, or to make such a use of a negotiation that was not necessary, but one probably which, contemplates he great bulk of advantage upon the side of might and intelligence.
It has been the opinion of those men who have been employed in the Indian difficulties of different sections of the country, that treaties respecting and preserving their rights would make them our friends instead of foes. And now when an effort is made to try this experiment, under great disadvantages we admit, to see a public print recommending, not a careful investigation of the justice or necessity of such a treaty as has been made, but recommending in terms that cannot be misunderstood, a violation of the contract, which has been honestly and fairly effected.”
Native Americans Disappear
There is no record of when the last Native American camp ceased to exist in the Folsom Lake region. Many historians note that by 1853, most of the Native American population had dispersed, move south, died in conflicts with immigrant settlers, or died of disease. But there is no doubt that there was a thriving Native American population and culture along the north and south forks of the American River. Where Native Americans once ground acorns, skinned deer, or fashioned tools from local rocks, Folsom Lake visitors now fish, hike, ride horses, bikes, and have picnics.
While the Parks Department does their best to educate people about not disturbing Native American sites or lifting artifacts they may find, they could do more. The visits to Folsom Lake are increasing and in particular mountain bike riding. Many trails have become severely eroded with the number of bikers using the trails all year round even during winter when the soil is wet and most susceptible to erosion.
If we are to have respect for the ancestral homeland of thousands of Native Americans who called Folsom Lake region home, if we value the sacredness of this land by people who were pushed from it, and if we embrace the concept that public parks are a resource for all people to enjoy, then the Parks Department has an obligation restrain the degradation of the land.
The documented sites of Native American activity in and around Folsom Lake are a carefully guarded secret. The fear is that if the sites become known, people will attempt to hunt for artifacts. It is virtually impossible to see any of the artifacts collected by the Parks Department out at Folsom Lake. I’m sure, if they could have, they would have removed the grinding holes drilled into the granite.
I’m not saying that the wisdom of the Parks Department and trained archeologist is wrong. I’m just pointing out the result of their preservation efforts have left the Park vacant of any educational signs or outreach that Native Americans used the area long before suburbia invaded. It is not uncommon to see cars and trucks roaming over the beaches of Folsom Lake that were once Native American camps. Mountain bikes are allowed to careen down trails exacerbating erosion on the hillsides. Where are the anthropologists and archeologists to inform Park visitors of the history? Or are they only concerned about their work and the artifacts they find?
When I hike, I still scramble up granite boulders to see what I can see. Now I see more. I just don’t look for the history of the gold rush or the remnants of old water canals. Now I realize my foot was not the first to be placed on that granite. The sights, sounds, and smells around Folsom Lake and up the river canyons are similar to what the Native Americans experienced long before the immigrants came in search for the gold dust in the river. Babies were born on the river. Old men, like me, died on the river. Mostly I hear nothing. It is quiet for the most part. Everyone is gone.
Author’s note: research for this piece was based on numerous cultural resource reports located at the California Department of Parks Archives, several books relating to Native American history in Northern California, review of 19th century newspaper stories related to Indians in California, and discussions with archeologists and anthropologists. The images of Native American grinding holes are from my many hikes in the region. The photographs of traditional handmade Indian goods were on display at a local gathering of Native Americans on the Bear River.