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map of bay area circa 1867

See a map of the San Francisco Peninsula circa 1867.

The San Andreas Valley area was once a rich and beautiful landscape of rolling hills and gentle valleys that supported a hugely diverse array of plant and animal species. Its waterways teemed with salmon, steelhead and trout. Before the Crystal Springs Reservoir was created, a creek flowed through the valley into a natural lake just northwest of the Pulgas Water Temple.

Native peoples lived successfully and creatively upon this land for over 10,000 years before the San Francisco Bay Area became a bustling center of urban activity. Ohlone people typically built their community villages near a reliable source of fresh water for drinking, bathing, and foods. As the seasons changed, they moved to smaller villages and family camps to be near newly available plant and animal resources. By careful management they made sure the land would provide for them year after year. Each fall Ohlone would burn the brushy hillsides to encourage new plants and the animals that fed on them.

Food and Medicine

Ohlone people used an array of plants for food and medicine. Some are familiar: wild blackberries and strawberries, acorns, and hazelnuts. But the people also ate many plants that most Californians have not tasted: tule pollen, the seeds of tarweed, manzanita berries, and wild onion. Acorns were one of the most important food sources for the Ohlone people, they are nearly as nutritious as some cereal grains. Ohlone ate ground acorns as porridge or baked into bread.

Tools and Other Uses of Natural Resources

Tools and houses were also made from plants. The Ohlone traveled in boats made of bundled tule reeds on the waters of the San Francisco bay, its inlets and marshes. They made baskets from willow, sedge, and bracken fern, and thatched their houses with tule, grass, and fern. Some buildings were roofed in redwood bark. Ohlone people knew the qualities of each of these natural resources and used them to create things that were both functional and beautiful.

boat made of bundled tule
Traveling in a boat made of bundled tules. - Copyright © 2008 Linda Yamane


Illustration of Ohlone people spearing salmon
Ohlone people spearing salmon - Copyright © 2013 Linda Yamane
Large and small mammals were hunted and trapped for food and for their hides. Little went to waste. Ohlone hunters stalked blacktail deer, Roosevelt elk, antelope, grizzly bear, and mountain lion. When tracking deer, the hunter might wear a deer’s head as a disguise and imitate a feeding deer to get close to his prey. Rabbits were caught with very large nets, while mice and ground squirrels were caught in traps. Ducks and geese lived in the marshes along the bay and were an important food for the Ohlone. Waterfowl were caught with nets, using decoys to lure the birds. In season, the rivers teamed with salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, and many other fishes that were speared or caught in nets or woven traps.

Traditional Burning Practices

brush fire
Fire was used as a landscape management tool.
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

California’s environment changed dramatically after Spanish, Mexican, and American settlers made their homes here. The traditional burning practices of the Ohlone people were outlawed by Spanish authorities to protect their cattle and many plant species disappeared because of over-grazing. Cattle and sheep competed for food with native animals like elk and deer. As California’s population grew, its rivers were diverted to supply water to people and irrigate farmland, hurting fish populations.

All these actions had unintended consequences for the Ohlone people’s traditional way of life which, for thousands of years, had taken advantage of each season’s abundance. River banks became off limits and groves of oaks that had been the exclusive property of certain families since the deep past were felled for their bark.

Ohlone People Today

traditional basketToday, many Ohlone people are reviving traditional practices. They cultivate willow and sedge roots to make baskets in the old ways. They collect abalone and clam shells, and cut and grind them into beads and pendants for decoration, clothing, jewelry, and musical instruments.

This traditional Ohlone ceremonial basket was made by contemporary Ohlone basket weaver Linda Yamane (Rumsien Ohlone). It was woven of traditional native plant materials and patterned with red feathers and sequin-like olivella disk beads incorporated into the stitches as the basket was made. Abalone shell pendants complete its adornment. It was completed in 2012 and was the first to be made in 250 years!

Last updated: 9/16/2016 11:06:12 AM