Skip to main content

Style Magazine

Native Legacy

Jun 30, 2009 05:00PM ● By Wendy Sipple

While the foothill area’s population has boomed in recent decades, its human history dates back hundreds of years to its oldest inhabitants.

The earliest recorded residents are the Nisenan people of the Maidu tribe. Their influence spanned from modern day Placerville to Sacramento. Vibrant and friendly, they identified themselves by village and spoke a Maidu recognized dialect. They adapted to the varying conditions in the foothills by designing dwellings that changed with the elevation. Earthen-roofed structures cooled in the summer and warmed in the winter in the valley, and in the higher foothills, homes were reinforced with bark-covered poles to withstand snowy winters. Ceremonial roundhouses in each village were both spiritual and social centers for gathering. Ceremonies celebrating seasons were held within, and the roundhouses were also safe havens during inclement weather.

The Nisenan people utilized willows, redbud, hazel, ponderosa pine, and various other grasses and brush, in combination with bone needles that were used to craft intricate baskets and textiles. Baskets were used for storage, gathering, food processing and cooking, and also for traps, mats, hats and infant cradles and carriers.

The diet of the Nisenan varied by location, but included their staple of acorns, seeds, berries, local fruits, deer, elk, black bear and even mountain lions. Small game such a rabbits were hunted with use of traps, nets, handcrafted hooks, bow and arrow, and even fire. Salmon harvested by harpoon and nets were a staple of the indigenous people of our area. With sustenance complete with salmon, acorns, and wild game, the Nisenan made creative provisions for their members. Throughout the area can still be found hollows called grinding stones on which acorns would be pounded into flour. Acorn flour was used to for Indian breads that would sustain the villages through the winter season.

Euro-Americans and the foothill Nisenan first made contact in the 1820s, and many Native Americans were employed under John Sutter performing agricultural and construction work. The discovery of gold in 1848 brought droves of Euro-Americans to the area, and much of the Nisenan territory became occupied by these settlers and miners in search of fortune. By 1880, the estimated Maidu population in the area had diminished from 7,000 to a mere 1,000 due to disease, violence, and general loss.

Today, bedrock mortar grinding stones, petroglyphs, and museum artifacts serve as remnants of people of Placerville past. Like the Nisenan did so long ago, as we celebrate the season of warm weather and long days in our own ways, let the relics of the past be reminders of how this wonderful area so many call home got to be that way, and the people that inhabited it first.