To celebrate the 150th birthday of Kern County — officially established April 21, 1866 — The Californian is digging into its archives and other research and serializing pieces recounting local history.
Today we turn to Kern’s first residents, specifically the tribes of the Yokuts, Shoshonean and Chumash Indians that once flourished throughout the San Joaquin Valley. This piece ran in The Californian in April 1966, the county’s centennial anniversary.
The earliest aborigines in Kern lived in the mountains bordering the Indian Wells Valley. A number of their former villages and campsites have been charted in the volcanic terrain.
Their presence is best documented by the thousands of carved petroglyphs and drawn pictographs crowding both flanking walls of Little and Big Petroglyph Canyon within the present boundaries of the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. Numerous naturalistic outlines of mountain sheep abound. Also present are simple and intricate geometrical designs, some surprisingly “modern” looking.
Human representations are also common, family groups in colorful costume as well as individual forms in various postures. Authorities who have examined these rock “galleries” believe some of the oldest art to be several thousand years old, although later examples are believed to have been executed as recently as the time of the first white incursion in the mid 1850s.
In the canyons running north out of Tehachapi Valley there are many stone “circles” thought to be additional works of these ancient folk. There are, however, far more extensive stone circle complexes on the summit and flanks of Black Mountain, tallest peak of the El Paso Range. This desolate appearing ridge begins on the west at Red Rock Canyon and extends eastward almost to the boundary of San Bernardino County.
According to word-of-mouth tradition passed down from early miners of the area, these rock circles were used during religious ceremonies by the original aborigines who regarded Black Mountain a place sacred to their gods. The circles measuring from six to 15 feet in diameter are found in clusters throughout the upper slopes, and a few small ones rest on the peak of an unusual “pyramid” of basalt boulders that rise from the western end of the highest ridge.
It is said that during annual religious ceremonies a truce was observed between warring nations and tribes to provide safe passage for representatives passing through otherwise hostile territory.
If sizable groups disassemble here they must have carried nearly all of their provisions with them. Plant life on Black Mountain has probably always been sparse and the killing of sufficient local mountain sheep, antelope and deer would scarcely have been practical during the limited period of their stay.
A number of natural rock “tanks” might have provided some drinking water but more likely their needs were largely supplied by “canteens” fashioned of tightly woven basketry that were commonly carried in desert country.
A NOMADIC LIFE
During later times the Indians of this area lived a nomadic life under harsh and precarious conditions. Family groups were necessarily small, and accounts of early white travelers say these poorly equipped natives would eat almost anything: insects, worms, lizards as well as any large animals they could catch.
In season many kinds of seeds, roots and berries were eagerly sought. These people, often contemptuously referred to as “diggers,” were actually members of the great Shoshonean family who once occupied thousands of square miles in the West.
Their neighbors in the Sierra Nevada in Tehachapi and Kelso Valleys were Kawaiisu, also Shoshoneans of the Uto-Aztecan family. These lived a more sedentary life and possessed permanent villages.
Their brush dwellings were vastly superior to the flimsy wickiups of their desert cousins and the plentiful crops of acorns and pine nuts gathered from the forested slopes provided them with a surer supply of staple food. Their hunting spears and bows and arrows were also more efficient.
Undoubtedly they regularly shot both deer and antelope for their meat and hides.
Padre Francisco Garces, famed explorer priest, encountered the Kawaiisu in Tehachapi Valley during his 1776 entrada into the San Joaquin Valley. In his journal he called them “Cobaji” but they referred to themselves as Nuwu — “people.” Those living in Kelso Valley were regarded by their neighbors as powerful rainmakers. Here the richest man automatically became chief. They were so resentful of the incursion of early white miners they killed a few.
Further west and a bit south on today’s Tejon Ranch property was the land of the Kitanemuk. They were also of Shoshonean stock. For the most part they lived on the upper reaches of Poso and Tejon creeks. They were celebrated for their basketry.
Twenty or thirty miles west around the southern curve of the San Joaquin Valley were villages of the Chumash of the Hokan family. Beginning here their territory extended over the Coast Range to the Pacific Ocean.
In Kern four permanent living sites have been located, two on San Emidio Creek, one on Tecuya Creek, and one in Canada de los Uvas north of Fort Tejon.
Back in the Kern River Valley near the present site of Lake Isabella lived still another branch of the Shoshoneans. A closely related group, the Bankalachi, occupied the west slopes of Greenhorn Mountain and another, the Palagewan, lived in three villages on the south fork of the Kern River. One of these called Tush-Pan was on the site of present-day Weldon.
After the arrival of white miners and settlers in the region, their numbers decreased rapidly and the last Indian census of the 1930s revealed the total to be a mere 145 people.
THE BEST KNOWN
The Yokuts nation, located on the floor of the San Joaquin Valley and in the foothills of both the Coast Range and the Sierra Nevada were the most numerous and best known of all the Indians native to Kern County. Their original territory extended as far north as the city of Stockton and south the vicinity of Fort Tejon.
The name “Yokuts” to them meant “people,” but they were known by other names as well. Padre Garces called them “Noche” in his journal. They were also termed “Mariposans” and “Tulare” Indians after Mariposa County and the Tulare Valley, the latter a prior name for the San Joaquin. The Yokuts were of Penutian stock.
Possessing both permanent rancherias and temporary campsites, these valley people were for the most part a peaceful and cooperative nation. They traded extensively with their neighbors and early white travelers found them to be friendly and quite affectionate.
Their dwellings constructed of willow framework sided with tule matting was flimsy by modern standards but to the Yokuts they were adequate and practical. Their permanent villages were invariably on the banks of running streams or on the margins of the numerous lakes and sloughs that in those days covered vast areas of the valley plain.
Their knowledge of plant life was extensive and many varieties were gathered and processed for food and medicine. Fish and fresh water were abundant while meat was available by their skillful trapping of wildfowl that nested in the vast tule forests. Great herds of antelope and elk roamed the plains, and in the bordering foothills numerous deer herds grazed on the slopes. In the fall expeditions were undertaken to gather acorns and pine nuts from the higher mountains.
Like a number of other California Indian nations, the Yokuts combined practicality and artistic expression in their household artifacts. In food preparation, cooking and storage they used sewn baskets for everyday use that many experts agree are among the finest examples of stitched ware ever produced by any people.
By fortunate coincidence, ideal basketry plant materials were present for the gathering by Indian women. Their fine baskets, in which intricate patterns and designs were painstakingly sewn, were eagerly sought by neighboring nations and represented valuable trading items by which they secured seashells from coastal areas and obsidian from Owens River country.
Yokuts religion was largely animistic and many of their wild neighbors were credited with human attributes. They believed in a heaven and that it was located atop the highest ridges of the Coast Range to the west of the valley.
The rattlesnake was known as “messenger” and “spy” for the heavenly gods who was placed among the Yokuts to ensure their good behavior. This notion pretty well explains why a rattlesnake was never harmed by them. Even today the remaining Yokuts still possess a certain respect for the “messenger” of their forefathers.
The arrival of miners and stock raisers into Kern County following the discovery of gold in the early 1850s marked the end of the primitive life that had been enjoyed by Kern Indians for hundreds of years.