|Map of the Costanoan languages and major villages|
1800: 3000 • 1852: 864-1000 • 2000: 1500-2000+
|Regions with significant populations|
|California: San Francisco , Santa Clara Valley, East Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey Bay, Salinas Valley|
|Related ethnic groups|
The Ohlone people, also known as the Costanoan, are the indigenous people of Northern California who occupy the areas around San Francisco Bay(also called Point Sur), Monterey Bay, and the lower Salinas Valley when the Spanish arrived in the late-18th century. At that time they spoke a variety of languages belonging to the Costanoan sub-family of the Utian language family, which itself belongs to the proposed Penutian language phylum or stock. The term "Ohlone" has been used in place of "Costanoan" since the 1970s by some descendant groups and by most ethnographers, historians, and writers of popular literature. Most linguists, however, continue to prefer the term "Costanoan."
Before Spanish colonization the Ohlone lived in more than 50 distinct landholding groups, with no view of themselves as one unified group of people. They survived by hunting, fishing, and gathering, in the typical ethnographic California pattern. Their world view included shamanism. From 1769 to 1833, Spanish policies, including the Spanish missions in California, brought tremendous upheaval, hardship, and decimation to the Ohlone people.
The Ohlone living today belong to one or another of a number of geographically distinct groups, most, but not all, in their original home territory. The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe has members from around the San Francisco Bay Area, and is composed of descendents of the Ohlones/Costanoans from the San Jose, Santa Clara, and San Francisco missions. The Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen Nation, consisting of descendants of intermarried Rumsen Costanoan and Esselen speakers of Mission San Carlos Borromeo, are centered at Monterey. The Amah-Mutsun Tribe are descendants of Mutsun Costanoan speakers of Mission San Juan Bautista, inland from Monterey Bay. Most members of another group of Rumsen language, descendants from Mission San Carlos, the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Tribe Of Pomona/Chino, now live in southern California. These groups, and others with smaller memberships (see groups listed under the heading Present Day below) are separately petitioning the federal government for tribal recognition.
The Ohlone inhabited fixed village locations, moving temporarily to gather seasonal foodstuffs like acorns and berries. The Ohlone people lived in Northern California from the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula down to Big Sur in the south, and from the Pacific Ocean in the west to the Diablo Range in the east. Their vast region included the San Francisco Peninsula, Santa Clara Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey Bay area, as well as present-day Alameda County, Contra Costa County and Salinas Valley. Prior to Spanish contact, the Ohlone formed a complex association of approximately 50 different "nations or tribes" with about 50 to 500 members each, with an average of 200. Over 50 distinct Ohlone tribes and villages have been recorded. The Ohlone villages interacted through trade, intermarriage and ceremonial events, as well as some internecine conflict. Cultural arts included basket-weaving skills, seasonal ceremonial dancing events, female tattoos, ear and nose piercings, and other ornamentation.
The Ohlone subsisted mainly as hunter-gatherers and in some ways harvesters. "A rough husbandry of the land was practiced, mainly by annually setting of fires to burn-off the old growth in order to get a better yield of seeds – or so the Ohlone told early explorers in San Mateo County." Their staple diet consisted of crushed acorns, nuts, grass seeds, and berries, although other vegetation, hunted and trapped game, fish and seafood (including mussels and abalone from the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean), were also important to their diet. These food sources were abundant in earlier times and maintained by careful work (and spiritual respect), and through some active management of all the natural resources at hand. Animals in their mild climate included the grizzly bear, elk (Cervus elaphus), pronghorn, and deer. The streams held salmon, perch, and stickleback. Birds included plentiful ducks, geese, quail, great horned owls, red-shafted flickers, downy woodpeckers, goldfinches, and yellow-billed magpies. Waterfowl were the most important birds in the people's diet, which were captured with nets and decoys. The Chochenyo traditional narratives refer to ducks as food, and Juan Crespi observed in his journal that geese were stuffed and dried "to use as decoys in hunting others."
Along the ocean shore and bays, there were also otters, whales, and at one time thousands of sea lions. In fact, there were so many sea lions that according to Crespi it "looked like a pavement" to the incoming Spanish.
In general, along the bayshore and valleys, the Ohlone constructed dome-shaped houses of woven or bundled mats of tule rushes, 6 to 20 feet (1.8 to 6 m) in diameter. In hills where Redwood trees were accessible, they built conical houses from Redwood bark attached to a frame of wood. Redwood houses were remembered in Monterey. One of the main village buildings, the sweat lodge was low into the ground, its walls made of earth and roof of earth and brush. They built boats of tule to navigate on the bays propelled by double-bladed paddles.
Generally, men did not wear clothing in warm weather. In cold weather, they might don animal skin capes or feather capes. Women commonly wore deerskin aprons, tule rush skirts, or shredded bark skirts. On cool days, they also wore animal skin capes. Both wore ornamentation of necklaces, shell beads and abalone pendants, and bone wood earrings with shells and beads. The ornamentation often indicated status within their community.
The pre-contact Ohlone practiced shamanism. They believed that spiritual doctors could heal and prevent illness, and they had a "probable belief in bear shamans". Their spiritual beliefs were not recorded in detail by missionaries. However, some of the villages probably learned and practiced Kuksu, a form of shamanism shared by many Central and Northern California tribes (although there is some question whether the Ohlone people learned Kuksu from other tribes while at the missions). Kuksu included elaborate acting and dancing ceremonies in traditional costume, an annual mourning ceremony, puberty rites of passage, shamanic intervention with the spirit world and an all-male society that met in subterranean dance rooms.
Kuksu was shared with other indigenous ethnic groups of Central California, such as their neighbors the Miwok and Esselen, also Maidu, Pomo, and northernmost Yokuts. However Kroeber observed less "specialized cosmogony" in the Ohlone, which he termed one of the "southern Kuksu-dancing groups," in comparison to the Maidu and groups in the Sacramento Valley; he noted "if, as seems probable, the southerly Kuksu tribes (the Miwok, Costanoans, Esselen, and northernmost Yokuts) had no real society in connection with their Kuksu ceremonies."
The conditions upon which the Ohlone joined the Spanish missions are subject to debate. Some have argued that they were forced to convert to Catholicism, while others have insisted that forced baptism was not recognized by the Catholic Church. All who have looked into the matter agree, however, that baptized Indians who tried to leave mission communities were forced to return. The first conversions to Catholicism were at Mission San Carlos Borromeo, alias Carmel, in 1771. In the San Francisco Bay area the first baptisms occurred at Mission San Francisco in 1777. Many first-generation Mission Era conversions to Catholicism were debatably incomplete and "external." 
In Ohlone mythology and traditional legends, and folk tales, the Ohlone participated in the general cultural pattern of Central and Northern California. Specifically, Kroeber noted that they "seem also to lean in their mythology toward the Yokuts more than to the Sacramento Valley tribes."
Ohlone folklore and legend centered around the Californian culture heroes of the Coyote trickster spirit, as well as Eagle and Hummingbird (and in the Chochenyo region, a falcon-like being named Kaknu). Coyote spirit was clever, wily, lustful, greedy, and irresponsible. He often competed with Hummingbird, who despite his small size regularly got the better of him.
Ohlone mythology creation stories mention the world was covered entirely in water, apart from a single peak Pico Blanco near Big Sur (or Mount Diablo in the northern Ohlone's version) on which Coyote, Hummingbird, and Eagle stood. Humans were the descendants of Coyote. 'Bold textItalic text"""/<costanoan is also named as ohlone
Some archeologists and linguists hypothesize that these people migrated from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River system and arrived into the San Francisco and Monterey Bay Areas in about the 6th century AD, displacing or assimilating earlier Hokan-speaking populations of which the Esselen in the south represent a remnant. Datings of ancient shell mounds in Newark and Emeryville suggest the villages at those locations were established about 4000 BC.
Through shell mound dating, scholars noted three periods of ancient Bay Area history, as described by F.M. Stanger in La Peninsula: "Careful study of artifacts found in central California mounds has resulted in the discovery of three distinguishable epochs or cultural 'horizons' in their history. In terms of our time-counting system, the first or 'Early Horizon' extends from about 4000 BC to 1000 BC in the Bay Area and to about 2000 BC in the Central Valley. The second or Middle Horizon was from these dates to 700 AD, while the third or Late Horizon was from 700 AD to the coming of the Spaniards in the 1770s."
The Ohlone culture was a relatively static until 1769, when the first Spanish soldiers and missionaries arrived from Southern California with the double-purpose of Christianizing the Native Americans by building a series of missions and of facilitating Spanish colonization. The Rumsen were the first Ohlone people to be encountered and documented in Spanish records, in 1602, when Sebastian Vizcaíno who was surveying the Northern California coastline for Spain, and reached Monterey in December of that year. Spain claimed what is now California and began to build a network of religious outposts, arriving in Ohlone territory in 1769. The Franciscan mission chain was founded under the leadership and vision of Father Junípero Serra and the military control was led by Gaspar de Portolà.
Spanish mission culture soon disrupted and undermined the Ohlone social structures and way of life. Under Father Serra's leadership, the Spanish Franciscans erected seven missions inside the Ohlone region and brought most of the Ohlone into these missions to live and work. The missions erected within the Ohlone region were: Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo (founded in 1770), Mission San Francisco de Asís (founded in 1776), Mission Santa Clara de Asís (founded in 1777), Mission Santa Cruz (founded in 1791), Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (founded in 1791), Mission San José (founded in 1797), and Mission San Juan Bautista (founded in 1797). The Ohlone who went to live at the missions were called Mission Indians, and also neophytes. They were blended with other Native American ethnicities such as the Coast Miwok transported from the North Bay into the Mission San Francisco and Mission San José.
Spanish military presence was established at two Presidios, the Presidio of Monterey, and the Presidio of San Francisco, and mission outposts, such as San Pedro y San Pablo Asistencia founded in 1786. The Spanish soldiers traditionally escorted the Franciscans on missionary outreach daytrips but declined to camp overnight. For the first twenty years the missions accepted a few converts at a time, slowly gaining population. Between November 1794 and May 1795, a large wave of Bay Area Native Americans were baptized and moved into Mission Santa Clara and Mission San Francisco, including 360 people to Mission Santa Clara and the entire Huichun village populations of the East Bay to Mission San Francisco. In March 1795, this migration was followed almost immediately by the worst-seen epidemic, as well as food shortages, resulting in alarming statics of death and escapes from the missions. In pursuing the runaways, the Franciscans sent neophytes first and (as a last resort) soldiers to go round up the runaway "Christians" from their relatives, and bring them back to the missions. Thus illness spread inside and outside of the missions.
For 60 years in the missions, the Ohlone population suffered greatly from cultural shock and disease; they were vulnerable to foreign diseases to which they had little resistance, in the restricted and crowded living conditions inside the mission compounds. Almost all moved to the missions. The practice of "monjeria", which was "isolating unmarried women in a separate locked room at night," was strictly enforced. In the poor and crowded conditions the women picked up illnesses; their pregnancies ended in many stillborns and infant deaths. Syphilis has been identified, and it causes women who have it to miscarry fifty percent of the time, along with high infant mortality rates. One of the "worst epidemic(s) of the Spanish Era in California" was known to be the measles epidemic of 1806: "One quarter of the mission Indian population of the San Francisco Bay Area died of the measles or related complications between March and May of 1806."
Under Spanish rule, the intent for the future of the mission properties is difficult to ascertain. Property disputes arose over who owned the mission (and adjacent) lands, between the Spanish crown, the Catholic Church, the Natives and the Spanish settlers of San Jose: There were "heated debates" between "the Spanish State and ecclestiastical bureaucracies" over the government authority of the missions. Setting the precedent, an interesting petition to the Governor in 1782, the Franciscan priests claimed the "Missions Indians" owned both land and cattle, and they represented the Natives in a petition against the San Jose settlers. The fathers mentioned the "Indians' crops" were being damaged by the San Jose settlers' livestock and also mentioned settlers "getting mixed up with the livestock belonging to the Indians from the mission." They also stated the Mission Indians had property and rights to defend it: "Indians are at liberty to slaughter such (San Jose pueblo) livestock as trespass unto their lands." "By law," the mission property was to pass to the Mission Indians after a period of about ten years, when they would become Spanish citizens. In the interim period, the Franciscans were mission administrators who held the land in trust for the Natives.
In 1834, the Mexican government ordered all Californian missions to be secularized and all mission land and property (administered by the Franciscans) turned over to the government for redistribution. At this point, the Ohlone were supposed to receive land grants and property rights, but few did and most of the mission lands went to the secular administrators. In the end, even attempts by mission leaders to restore native lands were in vain. Before this time, 73 Spanish land grants had already been deeded in all of Alta California, but with the new régime most lands were turned into Mexican-owned rancherias. The Ohlone became the laborers and vaqueros (cowboys) of Mexican-owned rancherias.
The Ohlone eventually regathered in multi-ethnic rancherias, along with other Mission Indians from families that spoke the Coast Miwok, Bay Miwok, Plains Miwok, Patwin, Yokuts, and Esselen languages. Many of the Ohlone that had survived the experience at Mission San Jose went to work at Alisal Rancheria in Pleasanton, and El Molino in Niles. Communities of mission survivors also formed in Sunol, Monterey and San Juan Bautista. In the 1840s a wave of U.S. settlers encroached into the area, and California became annexed to the United States. The new settlers brought in new diseases to the Ohlone.
The Ohlone lost the vast majority of their population between 1780 and 1850, because of an abysmal birth rate, high infant mortality rate, diseases and social upheaval associated with European immigration into California. By all estimates, the Ohlone were reduced to less than ten percent of their original pre-mission era population. By 1852 the Ohlone population had shrunk to about 864–1,000, and was continuing to decline. By the early 1880s, the northern Ohlone were virtually extinct, and the southern Ohlone people were severely impacted and largely displaced from their communal land grant in the Carmel Valley. To call attention to the plight of the California Indians, Indian Agent, reformer, and popular novelist Helen Hunt Jackson published accounts of her travels among the Mission Indians of California in 1883.
Costanoan is an externally applied name (exonym). The Spanish explorers and settlers referred to the native groups of this region collectively as the Costeños (the "coastal people") circa 1769. Over time, the English-speaking settlers arriving later Anglicized the word Costeños into the name of Costanoans. (The suffix "-an" is English). For many years, the people were called the Costanoans in English language and records.
Since the 1960s, the name of Ohlone has been used by some of the members and the popular media to replace the name Costanoan. Ohlone might have originally derived from a Spanish rancho called Oljon, and referred to a single band who inhabited the Pacific Coast near Pescadero Creek. The name Ohlone was traced by Teixeira through the mission records of Mission San Francisco, Bancroft's Native Races, and Frederick Beechey's Journal regarding a visit to the Bay Area in 1826-27. Oljone, Olchones and Alchones are spelling variations of Ohlone found in Mission San Francisco records. However, because of its tribal origin, Ohlone is not universally accepted by the native people, and some members prefer to either to continue to use the name Costanoan or to revitalize and be known as the Muwekma. Teixeira maintains Ohlone is the common usage since 1960, which has been traced back to the Rancho Oljon on the Pescadero Creek. Teixeira states in part: "A tribe that once existed along the San Mateo County coast." Milliken states the name came from: "A tribe on the lower drainages of San Gregorio Creek and Pescadero Creek on the Pacific Coast". The popularity of the name Ohlone is largely because of the book The History of San Jose and Surroundings by Frederic Hall (1871), in which he noted that: "The tribe of Indians which roamed over this great [Santa Clara] valley, from San Francisco to near San Juan Bautista Mission...were the Olhones or (Costanes)."
Two other names are growing in popularity and use by the tribes instead of Costanoan and Ohlone, notably Muwekma in the north, and Amah by the Mutsun. Muwekma is the native people's word for the people in the language of Chochenyo and Tamyen. Amah is the native people's word for the people in Mutsun.
Linguists identified eight regional, linguistic divisions or subgroups of the Ohlone, listed below from north to south:
These division designations are mostly derived from selected local tribe names. They were first offered in 1974 as direct substitutes for Kroeber’s earlier designations based upon the names of local Spanish missions. The spellings are anglized from forms first written down (often with a variety of spellings) by Spanish missionaries and soldiers who were trying to capture the sounds of languages foreign to them.
Within the divisions there were over 50 Ohlone tribes and villages who spoke the Ohlone-Costanoan languages in 1769, before being absorbed into the Spanish Missions by 1806.
The Mutsun (of Hollister and Watsonville) and the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe (of the San Francisco Bay Area) are among the surviving groups of Ohlone today petitioning for tribal recognition. The Esselen Nation also describes itself as Ohlone/Costanoan, although they historically spoke both the southern Costanoan (Rumsen) and an entirely different Hokan language Esselen.
Ohlone Population in year 1769:
Various Expert Opinions
|7,000||Alfred Kroeber (1925)|
|10,000 or more||Richard Levy (1978)|
|26,000 including Salinans
"Northern Mission Area"
|Sherburne Cook (1976)|
Published estimates of the pre-contact Ohlone population in 1769 range between 7,000 and 26,000. Historians differ widely in their estimates, as they do with the entire population of Native California. However, modern researchers believe that American anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber's projection of 7,000 Ohlone "Costanoans" was much too low. Later researchers such as Richard Levy estimated "10,000 or more" Ohlone.
The highest estimate comes from Sherburne F. Cook, who in later life concluded there were 26,000 Ohlone and Salinans in the "Northern Mission Area". Per Cook, the "Northern Mission Area" means "the region inhabited by the Costanoans and Salinans between San Francisco Bay and the headwaters of the Salinas River. To this may be added for convenience the local area under the jurisdiction of the San Luis Obispo even though there is an infringement of the Chumash." In this model, the Ohlone people's territory was one half of the "Northern Mission Area". It was however known to be more densely populated than the southern Salinan territory, per Cook: "The Costanoan density was nearly 1.8 persons per square mile with the maximum in the Bay region. The Esselen was approximately 1.3, the Salinan must have been still lower." We can estimate that Cook meant about 18,200 Ohlone based on his own statements (70% of "Northern Mission Area"), plus or minus a few thousand margin for error, but he does not give an exact number.
The Ohlone population after contact in 1769 with the Spaniards spiralled downwards. Cook describes rapidly declining indigenous populations in California between 1769 and 1900, in his posthumously published book, The Population of the California Indians, 1769-1970. Cook states in part: "Not until the population figures are examined does the extent of the havoc become evident." In fact, the population had dropped to about 10% of its original numbers by 1848.
The population stabilized after 1900, and as of 2005 there were at least 1,400 on tribal membership rolls.
The Ohlone language family is commonly called "Costanoan", sometimes "Ohlone". Costanoan is a member of the hypothetical Penutian language phylum or stock, and (along with the Miwok languages) the Utian language family. The most recent work suggests that Costanoan, Miwok, and Yokuts may all be sub-families within a single Yok-Utian language family.
Costanoan comprises eight dialects or separate languages: Awaswas, Chalon, Chochenyo (aka Chocheño), Karkin, Mutsun, Ramaytush, Rumsen, and Tamyen. Overall, divergence among these languages seems to have been roughly equivalent to that among the languages of the Romance sub-family of Indo-European languages. In some cases, however, neighboring local groups along division boundaries seem to have been able to understand and speak to each other.
The number and geographic distribution of Ohlone language divisions partially mirrors the distribution of Franciscan missions in their original lands. While the known languages are, in most cases, quite distinct, intermediate dialects may have been lost as local groups gathered at the missions. A newly-discovered text from Mission Santa Clara provides evidence that Chochenyo of the East Bay Area and Tamyen of the Santa Clara Valley were closely related dialects of a single San Francisco Bay Costanoan language.
The Costanoan languages were all considered extinct by the 1950's. However, today Mutsun, Chochenyo and Rumsen are being "revitalized" (relearned from saved records).
The native people belonged to one or more tribes, bands or villages, and/or to one of the eight linguistic group regions (as assigned by ethnolinguists). Native names listed in the mission records were, in some cases, clearly principal village names, in others the name assigned to the region of a "multifamily landholding group" (per Milliken). Although many native names have been written in historical records, the exact spelling and pronunciations were not entirely standardized in modern English. Ethnohistorians have resorted to approximating their indigenous regional boundaries as well. (The word that Kroeber coined to designate California tribes, bands and villages, tribelet, has been published in many records but is advisably offensive and incorrect, per the Ohlone people.)
Many of the known tribal and village names were recorded in the California mission records of baptism, marriage, and death. Some names have come from Spanish and Mexican settlers, some from early Anglo-European travelers, and some from the memories of Native American "informants". "Informants" were natives still alive who could remember their group's native language and details.
Some of the former tribe and village names were gleaned from the land maps ("diseños de terreno") submitted by grantees in applying for Spanish and Mexican land grants or designs ("diseños") that were drawn up in Alta California prior to the Mexican-American War. In this regard, a large untranscribed trove of material is available for research in the records of Clinton H. Merriam housed at the Bancroft Library, and more material continues to be published by local historical societies and associations.
Correct pronunciations of native words are tenuous at best. Many of the original sounds were first heard and copied down by Spanish missionaries using Spanish as a reference language, subject to human error, later translated into English and Anglicized over time. Spelling errors crept in as different missionaries kept separate records over a long period of time, under various administrators. In spite of this, we have some clues. Ethnohistorians Kroeber, Merriam, and others interviewed Ohlone "informants" and were able to define some pronunciations on word lists. Ethnolinguists have used this to some advantage to create phonetic tables giving some semblance of languages, notably the Selected Costanoan Words by Merriam.
|Selected Costanoan Words by Merriam|
|English Word||Schedule #56||Schedule #57||Word #|
|Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)||-||Ho-o-pe||280|
|Valley Live Oak
(Quercus agrifolia or Quercus lobata)
|Big Round Tule||Rōks||Ró-kus||409|
A partial table of words comes from Indian Names for Plants and Animals Among California and other Western North American Tribes by Clinton Merriam. This published list covers 400 Ohlone-Costanoan words from interviews of native speakers. The Ohlone words listed are by "phonetic English" pronunciations. Some special marks do not translate; they may require additional treatment by ethnolinguists.
The chroniclers, ethnohistorians, and linguists of the Ohlone population began with: Alfred L. Kroeber who researched the California natives and authored a few publications on the Ohlone from 1904 to 1910, and C. Hart Merriam who researched the Ohlone in detail from 1902 to 1929. This was followed by John P. Harrington who researched the Ohlone languages from 1921 to 1939, and other aspects of Ohlone culture, leaving volumes of field notes at his death. Other research was added by Robert Cartier, Madison S. Beeler, and Sherburne F. Cook, to name a few. In many cases, the Ohlone names they used vary in spelling, translation and tribal boundaries, depending on the source. Each tried to chronicle and interpret this complex society and language(s) before the pieces vanished.
There was noticeable competition and some disagreement between the first scholars: Both Merriam and Harrington produced much in-depth Ohlone research in the shadow of the highly published Kroeber and competed in print with him. In the Editor's Introduction to Merriam (1979), Robert F. Heizer (as the protege of Kroeber and also the curator of Merriam's work) states "both men disliked A. L. Kroeber." Harrington, independently working for the Smithsonian Institution cornered most of the Ohlone research as his own specialty, was "not willing to share his findings with Kroeber ... Kroeber and his students neglected the Chumash and Costanoans, but this was done because Harrington made it quite clear that he would resent Kroeber's 'muscling in.'"
Recent Ohlone historians that have published new research are Lauren Teixeira, Randall Milliken and Lowell J. Bean. They all note the availability of mission records allow for continual research and understanding.