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Publication Date: Friday, November 02, 2001

People of the past People of the past (November 02, 2001)

A look back at the Native American inhabitants of Pleasanton and their history

by Stephanie Ericson

When excavators hit Indian remains on the Bernal property last year, they were unearthing traces of a people, a culture and a place far removed from present-day Pleasanton.

Yet less than 100 years ago, Pleasanton still had a small Native American community called Alisal. Located near the present-day Castlewood Country Club, it comprised mostly Ohlone Indians, along with some Miwok and Yokut.

Despite the nearly total devastation to the Bay Area Indians during the preceding century, this small band of individuals had managed to keep alive some of its prehistoric traditions. The settlement was among the last three such communities in the Bay Area, along with nearby Verona Station and El Molino in Niles. While the Alisal group had dispersed by 1911, Ohlone descendants in the Bay Area do not consider that the end of the line.

Asked who was the last of Pleasanton's Native Americans, Andrew Galvan, archeological consultant and part Ohlone Indian, related how his father and uncle used to sign documents with the ironic appendage "Men of Extinction." Another descendent, Rosemary Cambra, has filed a lawsuit on behalf of some East Bay Ohlones for federal recognition as a tribe. Both clearly believe that the Ohlone culture and identity are not completely a thing of the past.

Galvan noted that his great-great-grandfather Tarino died in 1899 at the age of 120, according to an obituary published at the time. Tarino, also called Jose Antonio, was the last headman or chief of Alisal.

"The family tradition puts his death in 1897 at age 125," said Galvan. "So he would have been 18 to 25 years old when the Mission (San Jose) started. He was our connection with the past before the Europeans."

Nevertheless, the prehistoric traditional way of life for the Ohlone people is now a vague memory, mostly based on records of early white explorers, missionaries and their visitors, and ethnographic field notes up through 1930.

They depict a relatively peaceful life, one that benefited from the abundance and variety of wildlife around them, a mild climate that was wetter than it is today, and a trading system connecting them with other California tribes. They lived in small villages with common ownership of land.

For several thousand years, the Ohlone lived in an area from the Carquinez Strait to Monterey, descendents from Penutian-speaking migrants who had come to the area perhaps as early as 10,000 years ago. The Ohlone territory was bordered by the Bay Miwok, their linguistic cousins, to the north of the Livermore Valley and the Yokuts to the south and east.

The Ohlone people, also referred to as Costanoans, a term coined by the early Spanish explorers, were not a single tribe, but 40 to 50 small tribes with similar but not identical languages. In the East Bay, the Chochenyo language was spoken.

Each tribe covered an area about six to 12 miles wide and averaged several hundred people, typically encompassing two or three villages. The tribes had distinct territories, but as hunters and gatherers, they migrated as the seasons changed, although typically not very far from their permanent winter village sites.

Their technology suited life on the move. Domed thatched huts, which could be quickly constructed from tule reeds or grass and tied together with flexible willow branches to a framework of poles, could be left behind without great loss. The baskets that they wove out of willow, rush, tule and grass roots were more practical for moving from one place to another than the heavier, fragile pottery employed by the more settled, agricultural Native Americans. Simple boats, propelled by double-bladed paddles, were made from tule balsa.

The Ohlone caught steelhead, salmon and other fish, often with tule reed nets, and collected clams, abalone and other shellfish for food and adornment. They hunted elk, deer, rabbits, quail and other game with arrows made of obsidian or chert stone. Deer hunters would stalk their prey wearing a deer's head as a disguise, and the plentiful waterfowl were caught with nets and decoys.

Their diet also included berries, nuts, seeds, wild onions and some types of insects, but acorns of several varieties were their year-round staple, collected, ground, leached and eaten as mush or bread. Food was cooked in tightly woven waterproof baskets, by placing heated cooking stones in them.

Clothing was simple. The men were nearly naked, and women wore aprons, one of braided tule or grass in the front and another of buckskin or sea-otter skins in the back. In the winter both men and women wore fur cloaks.

Intertribal disputes were largely over territorial infringement, theft of resources and wife stealing.

"Violence between groups in west Central California was often expressed through individual ambushes or ritualized face-offs by small groups, though not limited to these categories," wrote anthropologist Randall Milliken in a 1996 Pleasanton archeological report for the city.

Pleasanton has numerous Native American archeological sites - encountered at almost every major and some minor building developments. In bygone times, the water table was much higher than it is now. A large marshy lake or lagoon, called Willow Marsh, grew and shrank over the years, covering the present-day Hacienda Business Park and beyond, including the area where the 580-680 Interchange now stands.

"The marsh was a rich place to find food, freshwater mollusks, steelhead, salmon, ducks and geese ... and the oak trees provided acorns," explained Pleasanton Planning Director Brian Swift. The Ohlone also found places along the area's streams to be attractive locations. "(For likely sites) look for the best place to camp - high, dry ground near water," Swift said.

Pleasanton was also a hub of several Indian trading routes, both north-south and east-west.

Significant archeological sites include one near the east end of Stoneridge Drive, elsewhere along Arroyo Mocho, and along Arroyo de la Laguna, including the recent Laguna Oaks development and the Bernal property currently being developed.

While baskets, tule and other plant fibers decompose, archeologists can find bedrock and free-standing mortars and pestles, arrowheads and flints, whistles, flutes, beads made from shells, stone pipe bowls and other tools made of shells, stones and bones, and of course the remains of deceased. While some of the wealthier Ohlones were cremated, the majority were buried, said Galvan.

However, the bones and artifacts are not always available for scientific study because present California law requires consultation on the disposition of excavated remains with a "most likely descendent," chosen by rotation from a state roster of qualifying individuals. If possible, developments should be redesigned to leave the remains undisturbed, the law states.

Several involved in the cultural preservation work praised Planning Director Swift for his sensitivity on this issue.

"Pleasanton's done a very good job to ensure as little impact as possible to the burials," commented William Self, who heads an archeological consulting company that oversees planning, recovery and analysis of such "cultural resources."

While artifacts associated with a living settlement may go to a museum such as the one at Cal State University Hayward, it's up to the designated most likely descendant to decide what to do with burial remains and associated artifacts. Galvan performed that role at Laguna Oaks.

Ramona Garibey is the consultant for the current work on Bernal, where some of the artifacts or their replicas will end up on display at the Alviso Adobe Park on Foothill Road. Garibey has also worked on the Stoneridge site.

Working in Pleasanton was special, said Garibey, who is descended from the same great-grandmother of Alisal as Galvan.

"It was knowing that this was where my roots were. My ancestors are from all over here," she explained. She, like Galvan, supports conducting scientific analyses of excavated remains.

"Once they hit a burial site, why not? It's already been disturbed," she said. But she prefers that Ohlone remains be ultimately re-interred on the same or nearby site, whenever possible.

Galvan, on the other hand, with some exceptions, often prefers re-interment at the Ohlone Indian Cemetery in Fremont near the Mission San Jose, which his family presently runs as a non-profit operation. This way, he said, he feels secure that they will not be disturbed again for at least 100-200 years. The restored cemetery predates the arrival of the Spanish but was also used extensively during the Mission Era.

As for the exact locations of archeological finds, city and archeological staff keep these under wraps to prevent them from being intentionally disturbed by curious individuals.

While Pleasanton sites haven't revealed startling new information, they add to the overall knowledge and sometimes raise interesting questions.

Osteologist Christine Marshall of Pleasanton, who works for Galvan's cultural resources consulting firm, Archaeor, recalled a discovery at the Laguna Oaks site.

"We found one (skeleton) with 17 arrowheads in the chest cavity area. Was this guy laid down and shot at or did he have a pouch with 17 arrowheads in it?" she mused.

At the Stoneridge site the burial of a dozen adult males also piqued the team's interest.

"They were all extended and face down, while in the traditional burial the body would be flexed in a fetal position," said her colleague, archeologist Richard Thompson. "It was some kind of frontier justice," he surmised. "Were these intruders?"

Of course the ultimate intruders the Ohlone faced were the Spanish and Anglo colonists.

The third and last of the Bay Area missions, Mission San Jose was built in 1797, with the help of Indian labor. Ten miles from Pleasanton, this is where the Pleasanton Ohlone were brought, largely by coercion, and where they were forced to adopt strange new clothing, customs, work and personal habits, and religion, and where the path to salvation was often administered by brutal means. Overcrowding, inferior and unfamiliar foods, and new diseases led to frequent epidemics that decimated their numbers. Birthrates plummeted and many women preferred self-inflicted abortions rather than bear "mission" children.

Bad as it was, many argue that worse was still to come.

"The missionaries' attitude was 'The only good Indian is a Catholic Indian,'" said Galvan, not a dead Indian. Nevertheless, by the end of the mission period in 1835, the number of Ohlone had shrunk from approximately 10,000 to 2,000.

With the advent of Mexican control and the secularization of the missions, land and other mission wealth was appropriated by those in power, and many Indians became laborers on private ranchos. But with the 1848 cession of Alta California to the United States, the Gold Rush and ensuing Anglo settlement, the fate of California Indians deteriorated even further with more extensive colonization.

"Volunteer" military companies received reimbursements for campaigns of slaughter of Indians in California in a "dreary story of subsidized murder," wrote historian Edward Castillo in the Handbook of North American Indians, 1978. The colonization of lands by whites, who were also usually less interested in using Indian labor than their earlier Mexican counterparts, destroyed much of the remaining native Indian economy. Legalized kidnapping of children and young girls, and vagrancy laws that allowed Indians to be jailed and farmed out for labor on the word of a white man added to the destruction of their society.

Nevertheless, some new groups of Indians settled in small communities or rancher’as, frequently supplying agricultural or domestic labor to the more receptive white landowners, while attempting to re-establish some of their native traditions. These were now modified, in part due to the blending of different tribes. Alisal, for example, with a population of about 50, had not only Ohlone but also Miwok, Yokut and possibly others.

One such new "tradition" was the so-called Ghost Dance, a tradition that first developed among the Paiute of Nevada in 1870. It predicted the destruction of EuroAmerican world, with the assistance of returning ancestors.

"It's called 'The Apocalypse,'" said Galvan. "The Ghost Dance is a combination of remembrance of traditional religion and a heavy dose of Christian theology, and it shows how frustrated they were."

The last known Ghost Dance in the Bay Area occurred at Alisal in 1897. The sweat house where it took place was destroyed in 1900, according to tradition, after the 1899 death of Chief Tarino of Alisal.

Alisal, near Sunol Road and Happy Valley roads, stood on what was then Phoebe Hearst's property. Hearst, sympathetic to the local Indians, treated them with relative kindness.

Galvan remembers as a child wondering who this "Aunt Phoebe" was that his grandmother and her sisters often talked about. In fact, she was their employer; they worked as housemaids. On a visit to the area when he was about 10, they told him how they used to wave to "Aunt Phoebe" to assure her that they had returned home safely.

Galvan grew up hearing the stories about the Native American side of his family.

"(Great) Uncle Dario shared family legends and stories," he said. "And while Dad documented all this stuff, I would be listening to it all."

Garibey, on the other hand, delved into her Indian roots more recently. She joined a program run by the East Bay Regional Park District, led by naturalist Beverly Ortiz, she said.

"She wanted 10 Ohlone descendents to learn their culture that she had learned from a lot of the elders no longer alive, so we can demonstrate and teach the public what they've learned," she explained. Each also took on some special skill; Garibey learned how to make soaproot brushes.

In all, Galvan estimates that anywhere from 500-1,000 people in the Bay Area identify themselves as Ohlone descendents.

While the destruction of their ancestors and their way of life can never be undone, many of these descendents hope to at least bring greater awareness of this cultural heritage to themselves and to society at large, and to keep some of their history alive.


Information resources on Ohlone: ¥ "The Ohlone Way," by Malcolm Margolin. This popular 1973 treatment presents a sympathetic and knowledgeable treatment of the Ohlone. According to archeological consultant Andrew Galvan, some of the material is speculative. ¥ "A Time of Little Choice - The Disintegration of Tribal Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area 1769-1810," by Randall Milliken, 1995. ¥ East Bay Regional Park District. Naturalists at Coyote Hills, Sunol and other regional parks are knowledgeable resources and organize educational programs Bay Area Native American culture. Museum displays on the Ohlone can be viewed at the Coyote Hills visitor center in Fremont. ¥ American Indian Center, Junction Avenue Middle School, Livermore. Conducts some educational outreach programs.



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