THE PEOPLE AND COMMUNITIES OF THE 19TH CENTURY CENTRAL VALLEY - Native Americans
NATIVE AMERICANS OF THE SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY
The first peoples to settle in what we know today at the San Joaquin Valley were the native peoples today collectively referred to as Yokuts. When they arrived and where they came from is one of the great mysteries of our county. They probably arrived sometime between 50,000 and 7,000 years ago. If one asks them, they will say, “We have been here forever.” They settled up and down the valley establishing sixty-three separate tribes. They were related by blood and language.
For thousands of years, the land that would become Fresno County was part of a peaceful valley. Native villages dotted the banks of the rivers and streams. Wild elk, antelope, horses, and ground squirrels roamed the large valley tucked between two mountain ranges on the east and west. Three great rivers cut across the land bringing sustenance to the natives who caught the salmon that swam their waters in great abundance. The Valley oak trees lining the banks of the rivers provided acorns -- the basis of their diet.
Each tribe had its own name and was presided over by a chief. There was also a sub chief and an official called the winatun, a secretary of state of sorts, who transacted business between the chief and sub chiefs of the tribes. Each village had specific boundaries within which the inhabitants hunted, fished, and gathered food.
The task of the men was to hunt for game or for fish. The women were the gatherers who searched out berries, insects, bird’s eggs, and acorns, the dietary staple.
While the Yokuts counted the San Joaquin Valley floor and foothills as their home, the Mono inhabited the upper reaches of Fresno County’s major rivers. Along the San Joaquin, they were concentrated in the thirty-mile stretch between the northern edge of Millerton Lake and Fullers Meadow, and extended northward on Fine Gold and Willow creeks. To the south, they occupied the Kings upriver from Trimmer, and likewise made their homes on its tributaries: the North and Middle forks, and the Mill and Mill Flat creeks.
Members of the Numic language group (different than the Penutian-based tongue of the Yokuts), and thus linked closely to the Western Mono and Owens Valley Paiute, the Mono are notable for their flexibility in inter-tribal relations. Trade, ceremonies, and marriages with their neighbors were common, and one subgroup (the Entimbich) represented a blending with Yokuts culture. In particular, their basketry advanced to a high level of sophistication and is comparable to any similar work created by California’s native people.
With the exception of the Chowchilla Tribe to the north, the Yokuts were a peaceful people—their biggest threat was the grizzly bear who was known to come down to the valley floor. For the most part, they lived in a paradise that was theirs until the outsiders came.
The native people’s lives were disrupted in 1776 when two groups of Spaniards came into the valley to see what the terrain and native peoples were like. Don Pedro Fages and Father Francisco Garces led the two expeditions. During the next several years there were a number of brief incursions into the valley by the Spanish -- mostly to either capture Native Americans to take to the missions on the coast
In addition to Spanish missionaries, European explorers, American trappers and gold miners all made their way into the valley. During the 19th century the original indigenous population was weakened, disturbed, and displaced by these outside groups. The introduction of diseases that the Native people had no immunity to caused waves of de-population. By 1900, it is estimated that approximately 85% – 90% of all California Indians “disappeared.” The discovery of gold in the mid-19th century brought thousands of foreigners in search of wealth. Under American rule at the time, Native people had no legal rights. Their lands were taken away from them and their way of life was changed forever. These landless Indians went to work as farm laborers, miners, cowboys, and loggers, etc. Women were often domestic workers or worked in the fields. By 1902, the Federal government began to set aside land for the landless Indians and created “Rancherias”. They were called “Rancherias” because they were not reservations. Reservations were created to be a place where Indians could live, work the land and otherwise make a living. Consequently, many of the Rancherias were small, often with less than 300 acres.
Sources: Book - Fresno County Office of Education Presents Celebrating the Journey, 150 Years of Fresno County and Beyond,