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Ohlone History in San Mateo Area

The Ancient Past
Archaeologists believe that people have been living on the San Francisco peninsula for at least 10,000 years. In these early times, it’s believed that people lived a semi-nomadic life. Family groups lived in small temporary camps, collecting plant foods, fishing, and hunting game in the surrounding area. When resources became lean, the people simply moved on. Camps were often located near a seasonally available food source, to be moved again at the changing of seasons.

drawing of Ohlone children
Ohlone children at play. - Copyright © 2013 Linda Yamane

illustration of a hummingbird

Storytelling was an important way of learning. Hummingbird is a very important character in the Ohlone world. In one Ohlone story, Hummingbird brings fire back to the people after the world floods so they can cook and keep warm again. That's how Hummingbird got his red throat! Remember that the next time you see Hummingbird. Thank you, Hummingbird! - Copyright © 1999 Linda Yamane

Archaeological evidence indicates that Bay Area people began to lead a more settled lifestyle about 5000 years ago. Instead of frequently moving camp, people lived in larger villages. These settlements would temporarily change location to take advantage of seasonal foods such as fish runs and acorn crops, but returned to the same sites year after year. The remains of several of these village sites have been found in the San Andreas Valley.

According to archaeologists, the ancestors of the Ohlone (pronounced: O-LO-nee) people moved into the San Francisco Bay area about 1500 years ago, although Ohlone creation stories say that the ancestors have always lived in this area. Ohlone lands extended from the Monterey Bay to the San Francisco Bay. Depending on the time of year, some Ohlone people lived in village groups of perhaps as many as 400 people. The San Andreas Valley was home to the Ssalson (sahl-SOHN), a small group speaking the Ramaytush (rah-MY-toosh) language. Ramaytush is one of eight languages spoken by the Ohlone.

Spanish Contact
Between 1769 and 1776, seven parties of Spanish explorers made their way into Ohlone territory. The Spanish and other explorers who followed were usually greeted with generosity and hospitality. In fact, their gifts of food saved the lives of some of these travelers. Explorer Juan Crespi wrote in his diary of meetings with Ssalson people:

"Near Purissima Creek at a quarter past nine o'clock in the morning we set out from here....on a due north course, accompanied by four Indians from this place who offered to show us the watering-places."

“As we were about to set out… three very well-behaved [Indians] came over to the camp from the villages of this vicinity… laden with a good many dark-colored tamales and a sort of cherries, very fresh, which they made us a present of… giving us to understand we should go to their village and they would feed us.”

(Excerpt from the 1796 journal of Juan Crespí, translated by Alan K. Brown.)

Like other Ohlone, Ssalson people had temporary settlements as well as permanent towns. Explorer Francis Palaou wrote in 1774 that he passed five seasonal villages while exploring the San Andreas Valley.

Mission Life
The Ohlone people experienced dramatic changes to their traditional way of life following their first contact with the Spanish. Mission San Francisco de Asis was founded by Spanish missionaries in 1776 in what is now San Francisco and called Mission Dolores. Mission records show that four years later, 41 Ssalson people were baptized and lived there.

Mission life was very different from the traditional Ohlone people’s way of life. At Mission Dolores, Ohlone lived side by side with other native people from all over the Bay Area who spoke different languages and had different cultural backgrounds. They lived close to one another in European-style housing, and farmed and raised livestock instead of gathering and hunting their food in the hills and valleys of their own group’s territory. Native American people were very susceptible to European diseases such as smallpox and dysentery, and many died while living at the missions.

With the other missioned Indians, Ohlone people worked at the command of the mission priests. As converts, they were not allowed to perform their centuries-old ceremonies. Each person baptized at the mission was given a new Spanish name. Records kept by the mission priests suggest that by 1810 no Ohlone group still lived a traditional lifestyle on its ancestral territory.

drawing of Ohlone dancers
Ohlone dancers at Mission Dolores, ca. 1816. Painting by German-Russian painter and explorer Louis Choris.

Recent Past
Mexico took control of California from the Spanish in 1821 and by 1827 began to break up the missions’ power and the land they controlled. The Ohlone people were free to leave the missions but now had no villages to go to. Some tried and failed to reestablish a traditional way of life, for Spanish and Mexican settlers now claimed the land. Most Ohlone left the missions to work on nearby Mexican ranchos as servants, laborers, or vaqueros. Some formed new communities with people they had lived with at the missions, even those from other groups. Many once again spoke their native language, sang their songs, and performed their traditional ceremonies and dances. But the communal, village way of life was over. As elders died and young people moved out of the community, knowledge of the Ohlone languages and lifeways became increasingly rare.

The Ohlone People Today

Today, there are many Ohlone people in the San Francisco Bay Area and Central California, living and working as other modern Americans. Languages are being revived and some also honor the Ohlone ancestors by practicing their cultural traditions and working to protect and preserve their ancient cultural and sacred sites.

Here are some books and websites to learn more about the Ohlone. 

Bean, Lowell John, editor
1994. The Ohlone: Past and Present Native Americans of the San Francisco Bay Region. Menlo Park, California: Ballena Press.

Margolin, Malcolm
1978. The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area. Berkeley, California: Heyday Books.

Milliken, Randall.
1995. A Time of Little Choice: The Disintegration of Tribal Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area 1769–1910. Menlo Park, California: Ballena Press.

Oakland Museum of California, Oakland
The Ohlone Basket Project

Ohlone Profiles: Media by and about San Francisco’s Original People

Being Ohlone in the 21st Century

Santa Cruz Museum, Santa Cruz
The Ohlone: Native Peoples of the Santa Cruz Region

Last updated: 7/26/2018 11:06:41 PM