The Ohlone

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Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1775, the land surrounding the San Francisco Bay was filled with an abundance of plant and animal life that is nearly unimaginable today. Most of the land was covered with grassy meadows, except for the oak groves around the tidal lagoon at the inland end of the estuary, some woodlands along the creeks, and the redwood stands on the crest of the hills.  Great herds of elk and antelope grazed amongst the fields of 5-foot tall perennial grasses.  Enormous flocks of geese, ducks, and seabirds fed in the grassy marshes at the bay’s edge.  Bald eagles and condors soared across the sky.  Packs of wolves roamed the redwood groves hunting the plentiful prey.  And everywhere, thousands of grizzlies lumbered about, eating berries and feeding on salmon and trout that swam in the sparkling rivers.

This land was also home to a people known as the Huichin Ohlone. Ohlone villages were made up of dome-shaped thatched huts arranged around a central clearing.  Scattered among them were smaller structures on stilts used for storing supplies of acorns. Off to one side of the village there was often a cleared area used as a ball field.  And to another side, near a creek, would be a large sweat lodge or Temescal (an Aztec word brought  north by the Spaniards) used for cleansing the body and spirit.

One known historical site of an Ohlone village was near the intersection of Claremont and Telegraph Avenue in current day Oakland; another was in the Oakland neighborhood now known as Trestle Glen;  and a third was near the redwoods on land that is now part of the campus of Holy Names College. Village sites nearer the shore were marked by centuries-old mounds of discarded clamshells and other debris.  Such  shellmounds, measuring up to 270 feet in diameter, have since been bulldozed or built over at locations such as the retail developments on Bay Street in Emeryville and Fourth Street in Berkeley.

The Ohlone hunted the plentiful game, gathered shellfish from the mudlflats and tidelands, fished in the bay from boats made of Tule reeds, and harvested edible grasses, roots, and acorns.  They understood the principle of agriculture, and they conducted seasonal burning of grasslands and pruning of trees and bushes to promote growth grasses, twigs and leaves that were useful to them.  However, other than these types of activities they had no need for agricultural practices, because the abundant wild food sources provided them with everything they needed to live.

When the first Spanish explorers encountered these native people in the early 1770’s, the Ohlone were living in much the same way that they had for thousands of years.  But nearly every aspect of the Ohlone way of life was destroyed within a few decades when the Spanish priests and soldiers forced the native residents to live in missions in order to convert them into Catholic subjects for the King of Spain.  Many thousands of  Ohlone died in the missions from contracting European diseases to which they had no immunity.  And when the Missions were eventually disbanded after Mexican independence, the few surviving Ohlone were released to a land that had been taken over by the foreign invaders.  Their villages no longer existed, and they had little choice for survival other than to work as servants or ranch hands for the Spanish settlers.

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