A man stoops to pick up a stone, inspects it, and with a few carefully placed strikes of a small hammerstone, skillfully reduces it to a size that fits comfortably into his hand.  He slips it into a carry bag, and returns to his village.  Lost or discarded, this artifact will surface atop a gopher mound some six thousand years later to become the earliest evidence of man found on the Santa Rosa Plateau. 



California before the Spanish arrived is difficult to imagine.  Somewhere between 310,000 and 1 million  [1] Native Americans[2], speaking as many as 100 different languages, occupied the many diverse geographic areas of California. Our Information regarding the cultures of these people here prior to the establishment of the missions and the pre-historic people, is like a big jigsaw puzzle with many pieces missing.  The few journal accounts of the lifestyle of the people who would become the Luiseno are through the eyes of a very different culture.



.  Stone artifacts have been collected on the Plateau and along Murrieta Creek for as long as there have been non-Indian people here to collect them.  Every pioneer residence in the Murrieta area once seemed to have its collection of mortars (called “bowls” by the collecting populace) pestles, “metates” and “manos”[3].  Pottery shards, arrow and spear heads, also show up saved carefully in boxes and baskets.  Every El Nino weather event uncovers a fresh collection of stone artifacts and local collectors avidly walk the creeks.  Cowboys who worked on the plateau remember  that these artifacts were just lying around and regularly went into the backs of pickups


Sadly, some of these enthusiasts went further, digging into promising sites, keeping their finds secret, and leaving no record of where the objects extracted were found.  These actions not only led to the loss of knowledge regarding the retrieved artifacts, they often spoiled a site beyond any future archeological value. 

.  Clearly this area supported a large population of native people over a long period of time.  Who were these people, and where did they go?  Perhaps the first humans to walk the lands of the Santa Rosa were Paleo Indians, nomadic hunters who arrived here from the north, following the large game herds, perhaps fifteen thousand years ago[4], if not longer.  Archeological evidence places them on the site of what is now Diamond Valley Lake. But, until someone finds a mammoth bone with an embedded spear point, or something as obvious, we can only speculate about the presence of Paleo People on the Plateau. 




Written accounts of these people must wait until the arrival of the Spanish in 1769, so most of what we know must be reconstructed from archaeological evidence. the sites that we know of on the Plateau are probably only a few of the many places that were occupied over the six thousand or more years that humans called this beautiful oak studded land their own. Although a few archeological sites were identified in the ‘60’s, it was not until Federal and State environmental quality acts were passes in the 1970’s that any organized efforts were made to save our archeological heritage.  Most of the information on sites in or near the old Rancho were made in the 1970’s and ‘80’s.  These sites contain one or two bedrock milling stones.[i]  If they fell within the borders of the Ecological Reserve, they were protected and it was felt there was no need to do further studies.  One anomaly is some unusually long and deep bedrock “metates”, called by the non-archaeologist people interested in such things “mortreros.”  Archaeologists call them “bedrock milling stations”-a term that doesn’t specify whether they were used for pounding or the pushing of the hand stone back and forth in the hollow.


These are not typical of the usual bedrock “slicks”[ii] found in grassland areas throughout southern California.  These grooves appear  to be very old and are found in well-eroded granite boulders along Cole Creek.


 A few sites have been excavated in the La Cresta, Santa Rosa West, and Tenaja areas when they were in the path of proposed grading or construction. The  artifacts found at all of these sites;  bedrock slicks and mortars, pestles, pounding rocks, manos and pottery shards are similar to those found throughout southern California.


There are a few large village sites on the Plateau, and many smaller, seasonal food gathering sites. One of these is a milling site that was given  extensive investigation.  This site provides us with a glimpse of about 1400 years of aboriginal life on the plateau.  Around 2600 BP a small group of people began to camp on a site overlooking a marshy pond.  Somewhere around this time a woman died and was buried, providing a glimpse of the life she lived so long ago. This site was probably not more than two or three days travel from a home village.  This food gathering site was open grassland  with no apparent  shade.  People might have erected some type of shade structure, or ramada.  There would have been no need to construct more durable houses since they would be returning to their village before cold and rain made more weather-proof shelters necessary.  Here large game would be attracted to the pond, and seasonal grasses and other necessary plant material could be gathered and processed as well.  Artifacts at this site indicate that life did not change much from year to year.  The first hundred years or so large game animals were a part of their diet, but in later years smaller animals became the steaks on their basket platters.  We can only guess what caused this change in their diet.   Did they over-harvest these larger species-the deer and the antelope?




Early historians recorded three named village sites on or near the old Rancho. These are Temeku, noted by Father Lusuan in 1798, and Avaxat and Meqa, noted by John Peabody Harrington around 1900.  There would have been no reason for Father Lasuan to have noted sites any distance from his route down Murrieta Creek, and by 1900 sites farther removed from the beaten track could easily have lost their Indian identifications.  There is one other old village site, but it was not noted by the early historians, and no other sites were identified by name.




Sometime around 500 AD a group of Indians settled into an ideally situated permanent village located near the confluence of Temecula and Murrieta Creeks and the Santa Margarita River.[5]  Their descendents were to remain at this location through the Mission Period until their land was taken over by Mexican and American ranchers.  Life in the village was not so different from life at the seasonal camp a thousand years earlier.  Women still fashioned fine baskets for water and cooking.  But at about the time of the establishment of this village  a new innovation had arrived from the southwest…pottery! Now they could store seed materials safely from the local fauna, and cook without using the hot-rock-in-the-basket method, although it appears they did not entirely give up this earlier practice.   A century or two later they were using obsidian collected from the bed of ancient Lake Cahuilla, where the smaller Salton Sea is today.  They collected berries and grass seeds, sometimes parching them to improve flavor or perhaps before storage to prevent sprouting in case the stored seeds should get wet.  Parching was usually accomplished by tossing the seed on a flat basket along with hot coals.  However, despite the variety of flora and fauna available to the Indians, acorns were the staff of life. (See “What’s For Breakfast?”)


While not on the plateau, the people who inhabited this site were certainly close neighbors.  Unfortunately, at the time of the original dig, carbon dating was in its infancy, and exact dates for the various levels are estimated by depth of soil and type of artifacts found.  It is estimated that each six inch soil layer represents about 100 years.  Obsidian from the Salton Sea area is not found in the lowest levels, but appears in the 7th level, and then becomes more prevalent.  Presumably this material was not available until the waters of the sea receded about 1300 years ago.  The Temeku site continued to be used as a storehouse by the Spanish during the Mission period.  Sometime during this period burial overtook cremation as the accepted way of honoring their loved ones after death. 



Avaxat (‘Ax, Axaxa, or Exaxa)


Contemporaneous with Temeku there were two other large Indian villages in the area.  Both of these were on the old Santa Rosa Rancho.    One of the Indian villages is now called Avaxat.  The Murrieta School system tells us this is pronounced “ah va ha”.  We’ll have to take their word for it as Spanish and English speakers were somewhat challenged in their attempts to record spoken Indian language.  Avaxat is translated into Spanish as alamos, or cottonwood, or variously, sycamore.  One would guess that it was plural since there had to have been more than one cottonwood or sycamore tree growing at the site. 


In 1984 a small dig was organized to look at this documented Indian village of Avaxat located on Cole Creek, at the base of the plateau.  It started as a modest endeavor led by archeologist, Jean Keller, utilizing the volunteers of the local archeology society, students, and other eager volunteers.  Before long they discovered a burial, and a simple dig became more complex and extensive[6].  This site was included within the Copper Canyon development, and has been carefully protected from further disturbance.  



Meqa (Meha or Mekha)


This site was first remarked upon by J.P. Harrington, who noted its presence and identified it as a village called Meqa.  It has also been reported under several other spellings, which again reflects the difficulty of Spanish or English speakers trying to render Indian words in their own languages.  Native speakers will also provide variant pronunciations


 Several large deep middens [7]  indicate the presence of a long-established permanent population at Meqa.  Located at the present historical area, it is situateded where there was a year-round water supply, sheltering oaks, large flat granite slabs for communal bedrock mortars to process acorns, fertile grasslands and abundant wildlife.  It is a perfect spot for a year round village.  There would also have been an ample supply of large and small game available as well.  Steelhead, turtles, fresh water clams were available on Cole Creek and the Santa Margarita River.  The ocean was only a day or two’s walk away, allowing convenient access to another source of plant and animal material.  For all-around, year-long outdoor living it’s hard to envision a better climate, far enough away from the cold damp coast to be warm in the winter, but still tempered by the coastal influence to be somewhat wetter and cooler in the summer than the inland valleys. 


There are many communal bedrock grinding rocks within the perimeter of the old rancho, and in at least two areas of the reserve.  One is at the village site of Meqa in a large midden which includes the present location of the ranch manager’s house.  A stone core, a palm sized piece of stone that provided chips for spears and arrowpoints, was picked up not far from the existing cupule rock identified as a women’s ceremonial site.  This artifact was identified as being from the San Dieguito period,  approximately 6000 years old. 


          Ceremonial Sites

There are at least two religious sites known on the old ranch. Interestingly, both of these sites have an Englemann oak tree nearby that appears to have been unnaturally bent and formed to indicate the site’s position.  There has been a bit of speculation about these trees.  It seems obvious that their shape was deliberately formed at a tender age and tree experts feel that this could not have occurred naturally.  We know of no other such trees in this area.  Were they accidentally or deliberately shaped?  We will never know, but it is curious and invites discussion. 


One of the religious sites is the cupule rock at the edge of the very large midden near the adobes at the Meqa village.  When the Nature Conservancy took title to the first 3100 acres that are now the core of the reserve, several Native American leaders visited the area and gave us their interpretations of the site based upon their knowledge and experience.,  All agreed that  this cupule rock was  related to puberty rites for young girls.  In 1984, Vince Ibanez, then a leader of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, indicated that women who were infertile might also come to this place for ceremonies asking the spirits for a child.  Many of the rocks on the small rise behind the large cupule rock also have similar small indentations.



 One of these Native American visitors was a Cahuilla woman from the Torres Martinez tribe.  Chapa was the last native Cahuilla speaker of her band, and had never seen a white person until she was twelve.  Although her tribe had incorporated some changes in their lifestyle, she remembered very clearly the ceremonies performed by the elders.  She believed the cupule rock was a women’s ceremonial site and that the girls would have been left at the rock for several days with water only, while they chipped an indentation in the rock and made special prayers.  This isolation was more a psychological separation rather than a physical one.  The women of the tribe would have carried on their daily routines within a relatively short distance. 



          A large red diamond rattlesnake guarded a second religious site in another corner of the Reserve.  According to Chapa, the presence of this guardian spirit was not uncommon around important ceremonial sites.  Barely visible today, there is a nearly circular ring of small boulders placed around a clearing of well-packed earth.  Nearby is a small cave containing a zig-zag pictograph symbolizing a snake.  The layout of this site led her to believe that it was used by the tribe to initiate boys into manhood and full tribal membership and responsibilities. 



Journal entries


  While there is a great deal of archeological evidence, there are very few first person accounts by the early missionaries and explorers.    The California Indians were subjected to a lot of bad press and their virtues were rarely appreciated.   While Drake reported that “the people were friendly and supplied his crew with fresh water and fish,” the description by Pedro Fages, a member of an expedition to Monterrey in 1769, is more typical.


“The Indians of the entire region between San Diego and San Francisco Solano are of a light brown color with homely features and ungainly figures; they are dirty, very slovenly, and evil-looking, suspicious, treacherous, and have a scant friendship for the Spaniards.”[8]


Considering the fact that the Spanish had probably not bathed in months and with many of them sick with scurvy, the Indians probably would have described the Spanish as evil looking, smelly, hairy, and most certainly treacherous.


 Historians who have thoroughly  studied all the available accounts have determined that the California Indians were relatively peaceful.


“Except for the tribes along the Colorado River, the California Indians generally were peaceable and un-aggressive.  The chief of the tribe was not necessarily the military leader, unless he had given some special evidence of military skill. Wars were seldom more than local feuds of revenge, more commonly involving persons and families than tribes.  Murder was the prime cause, and ordinarily the victim’s relatives could be propitiated by some sort of payment for their loss.  Even when an intertribal offense led to a small battle, one side would often pay the other to prevent further attacks.  If a series of reprisals occurred, it might end with each side compensating the other for the damages.  Trespassing and food poaching were also occasional causes of war.  Although there was no individual land ownership, the concept of tribal property was strongly developed. “[9]


According to Douglas Monroy, “They often resorted to violence for retribution”…. These hostilities might appear more quaint than imperial, but the participants took them seriously and waged them mercilessly.  The opposing warriors were killed on the spot, with women and children receiving the same treatment or being captured and incorporated into the tribe.”[10]


          Native peoples in Southern California spoke languages from two linguistic families.  These were the Yumans and the Uto-Aztecan, families as different as English and Chinese.  The people of the plateau, at the time the Spaniards found them spoke Luiseno, named after the mission San Luis Rey.


Father Lusuan traveled through the vallley in search of a site for what would be the San Luis Rey Mission.  He noted that the native peoples spoke three different languages in the territory of this mission. Our academic definition today would probably call these “languages” dialects.  But an experience many years ago in an interview with two women of the Cahuilla tribe convinced me that the Indians themselves felt that their language was completely different from that of their neighbors.   Certainly there are some English dialects that sound very different from the English spoken on our local radio and television.


Very few written accounts of native life exist.  While a few were written by the early Spanish, most were gathered long after the Mission period came to an end, over 100 years since these people had lived and worked here.  Unfortunately a great deal has been lost. The Spanish worked hard to eliminate local languages and superimpose their culture over the natives


If this is the case, acceptance of the accounts by early informants must be taken as the heritage of the band, not for the entire coastal region of California. Their legends and religious practices will be left to their descendants. For now I urge a bit of skepticism of these early written accounts.  Based on our understanding of what it is to be human, I will try to tell how it might have been on the Plateau three hundred years ago.


In areas near the coast in Southern California the Indians were named by the Spaniards for the mission in their territory.  The Gabrielino were named after Mission San Gabriel, the Diegueno after Mission San Diego, the Luiseno after Mission San Luis Rey, the Juaneno after Mission San Juan Capistrano.  Of course, these peoples had their own names for themselves.  The Luiseno people lived in the area from the coast inland up to the San Jacinto Mountains.


Prior to 1769 the Indians lived in family groups.  Villages varied in size from perhaps 60 to 150 individuals[11].  The larger villages appeared to be along the coast where an abundance of sea food was easily available.  The size of a community would have been determined by the ability of the land to provide the necessary resources.  Groups were dynamic.  People socialized, traded, and intermarried.  They were, with a very few exceptions, [12] all closely related.  Archeological evidence indicates that there were several year round village sites on the lands of the old Rancho Santa Rosa. The village of Meqa was obviously occupied by many people for thousands of years, and yet the Pechanga tribe of Luisenos remembers only that these lands were used in summer.  The Meqa village was apparently abandoned sometime early in the 1800’s.  Since there was no dramatic climate change, what happened to the population?


 What happened during these years was the arrival of smallpox, chickenpox, malaria, mumps, measles, and flu, all diseases to which the Indians had no immunity.   Many years ago the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles estimated the death rate of the Indian population under the Spanish, for the forty year period from 1769 through 1822, at eighty percent![13]  For the twenty-four year Mexican Period, from 1822 through 1848, the death rate stood at forty percent of those still surviving, and under the Americans, from 1848 to 1900, another 80 percent of those few remaining died.  The Indian population of California before 1769 has been estimated to be around 310,000.[14]  By 1850, the Indians remaining in California were reduced to a mere 20,000.  Recent examination of Mission records has indicated that the losses among the native population were far greater, particularly among children, than had previously been reported.  


 The greatest loss of life was in those tribes living along the coast, and the best chance of survival was for those who lived greater distances from the missions.   The Chumash, a tribe of about 20,000 people inhabiting the coastal regions and who traveled routinely to the Channel Islands, were reduced to 200 members by the end of the colonial era, for a rate of survival of 1 in 110.


We don’t know the exact population of Native Americans of the old Santa Rosa lands.  The population density was about 15 people per square mile in Southern California.


 This could be an underestimation, but if there were three villages of 100 each, the population could easily have been reduced to at most sixty people by 1822, and within a few years only thirty-five or so would have survived.  Of varying ages, and scattered in groups perhaps as small as ten individuals, these few remaining people probably would have combined forces and moved down to the village of Avaxat at the foot of Cole Canyon, in an attempt to continue their way of life together.  Interestingly, Mission San Diego and Mission San Luis Rey were the only missions that had intact groups left by the early 1900s.  All the other missions nearly wiped out their Indian populations.  


If by the end of the American period only two people of a given family group remained to pass on the survival skills and the tribal memories, just who were they?  Were they the Shamans, the ones who were trained to tell the stories of their tribe?  Were they very old – very young?  Anthropologists do their best to reconstruct a lifestyle based upon archeological evidence and fragmented stories using logical thinking.   A Luiseno tribal leader told me some years ago that it was not uncommon for informants (Indians who told their stories to white men who paid for their information) to spin tall tales of bizarre practices to hold the interest of the anthropologist, to protect family secrets, to avoid admitting his own ignorance, and to prolong the flow of cash. 


Many years ago Jane Penn and Katherine Saubel, Cahuilla elders from the Morongo Reservation near Banning, and co-founders of Malki Museum visited the Plateau.  Malki Museum was the first museum by and for Indians on a reservation in California.  It was originally in Jane Penn’s tiny house on the Morongo Reservation.  It was moved to an adobe building specially built for the purpose.  Every year they have events, the biggest being the Memorial Day Fiesta or Kewet.  Their list of technical and popular publications on California Indians is impressive.


 Mrs. Penn and Mrs. Saubel explained how the Cahuilla shamans managed the harvest of their crops.  The Shaman inspected the food source each year, directing how much should be harvested for the community and determined how much should be left for the animals and for the gods.  There were some years when the production was so small that everything would be left for the animals and the gods. Like humans today, Native Americans changed their environment just by being there.


Life was not as bucolic as we might like to imagine.  Except for differences in available plants and animals, the lifestyle of the people who lived on the Plateau varied little from any other California coastal people.   They lived in small villages and collected most of their food within a two or three hours walk from their homes.  Unappreciated by the early Spanish was the fact that this “Eden” had been sculpted by man for thousands of years. California was not a pristine paradise.  It was a garden, carefully cultivated to provide a sustainable lifestyle for the people living here.


 The most conspicuous of these cultivation practices was the regular burning of grasslands to keep the brush under control, and encourage new succulent growth that provided optimum grazing and browsing for game animals. By changing the makeup of the plant communities it changed the numbers and distribution of animal species.[15]   Food and herb crops were encouraged by regular harvesting and removal of competing plants.  One species, known as Dickelostema, (Wild hyacinth or Blue dix) was regularly harvested for its nutritious bulbs.  It is now discovered that thinning of these bulbs by regular harvesting allows for larger and healthier plants.


Acorns were the primary food for most California tribes. But, the oak trees do not produce a bumper crop every year. And, the crop could fail entirely in a dry year.    Therefore it was in the interests of everyone to share this resource. While there was no concept of individual “ownership” of land itself, there was a tradition of ownership of certain trees. According to some sources there was a wide-spread economic system throughout southern California based on acorns, by sharing a plentiful crop with neighbors in a good year, and thus establishing credit, for years when your crop failed.


Tribal memory is spotty regarding the simple details of everyday life.  Was it acorn for dinner and bread baked on a hot rock for breakfast along with some dried meat or berries? Did they all gather around the fire for breakfast and dinner, or just for an evening meal?  These practices probably varied from family to family, day to day and season to season. People would have eaten when they were hungry, whatever food was available.  When the sun set they could then settle down before a fire to visit, sing and tell stories. 


Although acorns were the staff of life for the Native Americans, estimated as being up to 80% of the diet for many California tribes, common sense tells us that a tasty squirrel or even a gopher stew every now and then would beat a bowl of acorn porridge any day. 



Work was shared by all, particularly, as in the case of grasses, where the harvest season can be very short.  Some activities were limited to a single sex.  Men hunted, and fashioned their hunting tools, arrowheads, and spear points and shafts. They also participated in the acorn harvest.  Children would have brought water from the nearby creeks in baskets closely woven by the women from tules and fibrous plants gathered the year before.   Uphill on the slopes, dry branches of chamise were gathered for the fire, and more pliable ones to weave into brush shelters. 





What’s For Breakfast?




Acorn mush [16]

Take 30 to 40 acorns, shells removed

Put in blender and add water and a heaping teaspoon of baking soda.  Blend thoroughly and pour out liquid

Add more water blend thirty seconds and drain.  Repeat second time, and run blender again.[17] 


Cook in microwave five minutes until will be dark brown in color.

Add brown sugar if desired.  




Consider no blender, no microwave.   Two hundred years ago a nice acorn mush cooked to perfection in a basket next to an open fire, and served warm or cold on a leaf lined basket.  I wonder if even with the brown sugar most Americans could approach a bowl of acorn mush at any time of day, let alone at breakfast.





 The work involved in getting that acorn mush to the dinner table was prodigious.  The many steps included harvesting, sorting, storing, shelling, winnowing, pounding, more winnowing, leaching, and finally, cooking.  This work was all done on a community basis, much like our pioneer women getting together for a quilting bee.  There would have been songs sung to the rhythm of the shelling and pounding.  You can imagine the women sitting at the milling stations telling stories and gossiping while the small children played nearby.  The children would help as they were able, and thus learn the skills necessary to carry on the traditions.  



The autumn acorn harvest would have been the most important event of the year.  Certainly there would have had to be ceremonies to honor the spirit of the acorn prior to harvest.  Everyone who could, would take part in gathering the acorns.  As much as one third of the acorns harvested might be empty shells, or insect infested.  Considering that only every other year yielded a good harvest, it was vital that every food-filled acorn reach the granary.  Each person needed about 500 pounds of acorns a year.  A California coastal live oak produces an average of 200 pounds of acorns.  So, five trees were needed to provide for each adult individual’s  food for two years.  A village of 100 could need 500 trees.  That’s a lot of oak trees.  It is a matter of speculation as to whether the trees were planted and tended while small.  Some trees were better producers than others, and in the off year would probably supply some fruit, but however you look at it, it’s a lot of walking, gathering, sorting and hauling.  Odds are that, for our locals they would sort and dry the acorns on site, reducing the weight that had to be carried back to the village. 


To store the acorns, large granary baskets approximately three feet in diameter and nine feet high were made.  They were woven using several long upright branches which were then interwoven with chemise or willow, probably including some bay or artemesia branches to dis-courage insects.  It would take several of these large granaries to hold the harvest in a good year. In some tribes these thick baskets were mounted on a wooden frame to keep them off the ground, encouraging air flow to discouraging spoilage from molds.  This would certainly not deter a determined rodent, deer or bear, looking for an easy meal.  This valuable food source would have had to have been guarded day and night.  While children could have undertaken this job during the day, nighttime guard duty would most likely have been done by an adult. Some tribes smeared the legs of the granary with pitch or resin to deter the smaller rodents, but a determined ground squirrel wouldn’t have been bothered in the least by this measure.  Maybe the loss was not so significant that it was worth guard duty, and maybe rodents learned to stay away lest they end up in a cooking pot.  It immediately comes to mind that dogs would have been fine rodent catchers.[18]  However, I could find no references of dogs in California prior to the historic period.  


Each day or so, mom would sit down with her mortar and pestle and prepare the acorn flour for the next day.  First the shells were cracked and removed by placing the acorn tip on a granite rock and striking the stem end soundly two or three times.  With the cracked shell removed any remaining inner skin would be scraped off using a rock shard blade.   An inch and a half or so of yesterday’s flour was put into the bottom of the mortar to prevent the pestle from chipping.  Then the first of the day’s acorns were dropped into the mortar and pounded until they were reduced to a flour consistency.  Next the whole mix was tossed in the air to remove any remaining bits of the inner skin.  Finally, the flour would be leached by one of several methods, using a basket lined with leaves, or in a leaf lined depression in the sand by a stream.  Water, either hot or cold, was poured over the flour, stirred, and allowed to drain.  This was done as many as five times until the bitter tannins were leached away.   Now the acorn flour was ready to be cooked.  Without modern refrigerated storage, all of this work had to be done prior to a morning meal, so maybe all you got for breakfast was last night’s leftovers.  All of this took up a great deal of the women’s time. 


After the preparation came the cooking.  First the fire had to be prepared, started and tended.  Several large basalt rocks were then heated until they glowed.[19]  The rocks were lifted from the fire using a stick about three feet long with a fork at the end.   The flour was put into a basket along with a sufficient amount of water to make a mush.  Then the hot rocks were carefully placed in the basket and kept moving by stirring with the cooking stick.  If the rock was allowed to fall untended in the bottom of the basket it would burn a hole, ruin the basket, and dinner could end up on the ground.  Length of cooking time was crucial as too short of a cooking period adversely affected the quality and texture of the mush.  I doubt many Indians today would go back to this difficult and demanding cooking method. 


Shortly after the establishment of the missions, domestic grains and animals began to supplant the native acorn as the primary food.  Only those villages far away from the missions continued to hunt and gather in the traditional way.   By 1900 there were probably no villages still reliant   upon the acorn, and its use has now become almost entirely reserved for special ceremonial occasions.  Acorn mush is called wiwish in Cahuilla or shawii in the language of the people around Mission San Diego.


Years ago, we were told that the local Indians spent only half of each day working to support themselves. Just a look at the work it took to harvest and prepare acorns seems to belie that statement.  Also, a good basket could take 100 hours to make, and if it was a special ceremonial basket it could take twice that time.  Add to that the time necessary to collect the materials for weaving.  There was more to life than maintaining the essentials.  Were these taken into account?  The women and children gathered and prepared the food, and the men hunted and “managed” the forces of nature.  And these forces were prodigious.



Area Economics


           Culture is dynamic, and there were undoubtedly small differences in the everyday practices between one band and the next.  Intermarriage and trade would spread good ideas and inefficient practices would have been dropped.  While there is general agreement about the important things, the small details may have varied widely from one area to the next.  There would have been few hard borders where one practice came to an end and another adopted.   Plant materials used for food, medicines, houses, arrow shafts, etc., would have varied depending upon their availability.  And over time, trade would have developed for those items with desirable qualities not available locally. 



Food plants, animals, medicinal plants and materials for tools do not distribute themselves in accordance with human needs.  People need to go looking for them or to gain them through trade.  Obsidian is the most obvious example of these materials.  Evidence of organic materials traded among the native peoples is dependent upon efforts of a few early anthropologists.  Language also moved from place to place, as people traded with each other for the necessary items unavailable near their homes.  Sparkman, who lived near Rincon, is the acknowledged source for information about plants used by the Luisenos.  But we have to keep in mind that plants growing in Julian don’t grow in Palm Springs, and some plants growing on the Santa Rosa Plateau do not grow in Julian.  If something was particularly useful, it gained in value.  Trade became an important part of the California Indian culture, and not just with plants.  Some people were particularly gifted in the manufacture of baskets, or tools, and these items would also gain special value.


Plants from other ecological areas are found in the inland foothills.  Mesquite trees, which grow in the desert are found near Temecula.  Dsert Fan Palms, which naturally only grow on the desert have a single naturally occurring colony in Indian Canyon near Hemet.  In both these cases it is thought that the Indians brought them there.





The lives and the beliefs of the indigenous peoples remained relatively stable over thousands of years.  In general, change in their way of life was gradual.  However, some change occurred rapidly.  Pottery and the bow and arrow came into the local area about 1,500 years ago.

Sense of time was static or cyclic, unlike our own linear sense of time.  We can imagine that things seemed to remain the same into the future, unlike our sense of rapid progress.



 Groups of related people lived in small communities close to a reliable water supply.  No matter how wonderful the view from the top of a mountain, pitching a shelter and setting up a kitchen for the benefit of the view was highly impractical. There were also good reasons to place your main village far enough from a known creek or river that it did not get flooded out when the gods sent an excess of rain. 



 Life for the Indians that lived here followed the dictates of the season.  Because the climate was benevolent they needed only minimal shelter.  They wove their homes like a large basket, using long flexible branches of fast growing riparian trees, usually willow or alder.  These uprights would have been interwoven with other plant material depending upon availability.  In summer, if no trees were available they built the equivalent of a patio cover.  But our Santa Rosa Plateau families had abundant oaks to give shade and cooling air. 



Catastrophic events such as earthquake, flood, drought, eclipse, disease, and other mysterious happenings  that we now explain through science were all the province of the shaman.  The people depended upon his magic to warn them and protect them.  It was said that a mistake made in the rituals could cause these events, and in some cases the shaman would then lose his position of trust.  It was through his magic that the people could be warned of these events.  Curing of serious illness was done by the shamans.  The religious leaders kept track of their history and of the prayers sent to the spirits.  Any mistakes required immediate repetition of the entire prayer from the beginning.  Of course the proof of perfection was in the results.  If the shaman failed to predict a disaster he might be quickly deposed, or worse!  The shaman, to protect himself, often had a second in command who inevitably took the blame for any missteps.  There were a great many “spirits” to tend to, any one of which could take offense at any time.  Current thought is that the Shaman class had access to astronomical secrets, allowing them to prove their powers periodically by predicting such things as solar or lunar eclipses. It is hard to corroborate these things so many years later, and local Indian tribes now explain it all in a different context.  The solstices were kept track of by the shamans and marked in the pictographs and petroglyphs they made.  An effort to visit rock art sites and record things like shadows and beams of light that cross them only on the morning of the solstice have been made lately. 



Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in California, the Manila galleon, was involved in a regular trade route from Mexico to the Philippines following the currents across the ocean to the western American continent, and down the coast to Mexico.  Periodically these ships came to shore along the California coast to replenish their water and food.   It was about this time that the idea of a single god began to grow among the California tribes.  This was an easy concept to accept since it was apparent that these “white” people had metal, guns, ships, and therefore their god must really be very powerful.  This acceptance of one god set the stage for the easy occupation by the Spanish missionaries.  (Footnote)



          A religious cult, perhaps influenced by Christianity, was recorded in the Spanish period.  Misdeeds were punished by rattlesnakes, spiders, nettles and bears, which were thought to be the avengers of the god Chinigchinich.



The early peoples on the land did not refer to themselves by any given name.  Each tribe, or family group, saw themselves as “The People.”   The group in the next canyon was probably referred to by some geographic or climatic feature – such as “bend of the river people”, “land of the mists people”, or whatever seemed appropriate.    


Mission Indians


Then along came the Spanish/Mexican Padres, soldiers and settlers. Political lines were drawn, as they always seem to be, arbitrarily, disrespectful of existing tribal territories.  Most native peoples along the coast lost their tribal identification and became identified by their residency within the lines of a particular mission.  The political boundaries of that mission extended to all the land they could occupy, defined only by the borders of the neighboring mission, or land that was not agriculturally viable.  Thus, the lands of the San Luis Rey Mission were defined by lands of Missions San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, San Gabriel, and the territory of the Cahuilla Indians who occupied the rough areas of the mountains and desert.  The people living within the political boundaries of the missions were named for them.San.  The native people of the Santa Rosa Rancho were included within the lands of the San Luis Rey Mission and therefore became Luisenos.  When Mission San Luis Rey  was established, there were cases where a family, or an individual could have been considered a Juaneno (someone associated with the San Juan Capistrano Mission) for twenty years only to suddenly become a Luiseno (under the auspices of San Luis Rey Mission).  The mission records of baptism and marriage record the names of the villages people came from. 


There was no choice in this tribal nomenclature, no sensitivity as to the Indian’s previous village or tribal identity.  And the sad thing is that now, over 200 years later, they often have no remembrance of what their great-grandfathers called themselves.  We call ourselves Americans, but the current popularity of genealogy today shows us that, as a  people, we have a need to identify our multi-great grandparents as being French, Basque, Ibo, or any number of viable nationalities before the opening of new worlds mixed us into the melting pot of the Americas. 



Mission San Luis Rey was established in 1798, some thirty years after Mission San Diego, as the eighteenth California Mission.  The Spanish king originally designated a land area around each mission of approximately fifteen miles in each direction.  In actual practice, the mission lands included all the good agricultural lands they could effectively control.  The Santa Rosa Plateau and the Temecula area were originally included within the territory of Mission San Juan Capistrano.  Four Indians from Avaxat were baptized at San Juan in the early 1800’s.  The mission records show the terrible toll they had on the Natives.



The Indians beyond the Rockies and in northern Mexico had been struggling for their lands for two hundred years, winning a battle here and there, but eventually losing their land to the Europeans.  Change came almost overnight for California’s coastal Indians.  The establishment of San Diego Mission in 1769, San Juan Capistrano in 1773 and San Luis Rey in 1798 changed the Indians’ carefully managed ecological balance.  An economy based upon acorns quickly became an economy based upon domesticated livestock and grains.  Those Indians who did not immediately join the missions soon found themselves competing with pigs, cattle, horses, and sheep for limited natural resources.  This left them with little choice but to join the missions, move inland or stay where they were and starve.  Coastal California did not provide the depth of land to allow for migration east to find new homes.  They were at the mercy of the Spanish.  Within twenty years their world and their culture was destroyed.


One of the most important things to remember when we try to understand the Native Americans is that they were people like ourselves.  Some were geniuses, and some were “challenged” mentally and/or physically.   They interpreted their world in accordance with their best knowledge, and undoubtedly, like us, favored figuring out the best way to make life easier.  Someone had to invent the first baskets and the first pottery, and someone had to figure out which foods were safe and which to avoid.  Undoubtedly there were failures on the way to success.  The knowledge necessary to survive by hunting and gathering was considerable and was not a simple matter.



Mission and Rancho Periods


San Diego mission was established in 1769 and the Spanish immediately set about saving the souls of the heathens.   At first this was relatively easy.  The single god basis of the Catholic theology, coupled with the presence of the saints would have been easily understood by the native population. These Indians endowed all natural things with spirits and recognized a single creator.  Some historians say that a single god system of belief arose about the time of contact; however they viewed these first missionaries, the California natives could not have envisioned the change that was to come. 



As the missions spread throughout California they changed the ecology of the land.  Tilled fields and grazing domestic animals destroyed the balance so carefully cultivated over thousands of years by the natives, and they were soon unable to support themselves in the manner of their predecessors.  They were left little choice but to move into the missions, or to move away and hope for acceptance into other tribes.  


Life in the mission for the neophytes was not easy.  A people used to an ordered life following the seasonal gathering of food and materials, with long periods in winter to make clothing and tools, found themselves unable to cope with their new conditions.  Crowded together working from dawn to dusk, living on unfamiliar foods, and exposed to new diseases, all contributed to the appalling death rate of the California Indians during this period. 


By the time the missions were secularized in 1832, the Coastal Indians had been reduced to complete dependence.  Tribal structure was totally destroyed, Mission discipline and support was gone, and the Indians were left with no choice but to work as laborers for the Mexican landowners.  At week’s end the laborers headed for town, where obliging bar owners provided them with enough liquor to leave them in debt for another week.  Then they were tossed in jail.  On Monday morning, the Gente would pay off the debts and the Indians went back to work off their debt to the ranchero.  This was a very satisfactory arrangement for everyone but the Indian laborer.  The early town that grew into modern day Los Angeles was largely built by Indian labor.  Much of the hard work on the ranchos was done by Native Americans. 

[1]  Numbers of native people and the various languages spoken vary from reference to reference.

[2]  Recent estimates are considerably larger.

[3]  Mortars and pestles

                [4] James A. Sandos, “Converting California” pages 2-4

[5]  In 1951 a large dig was undertaken on the site of village of Temeku on the Santa Margarita River in Temecula.  This dig was well-funded and included two sites, one near the Vail headquarters, and the other along Santa Gertrudis Creek, near the confluence.  It was undertaken under the sponsorship of the Smithsonian and was extensive and well documented.

[6] it is interesting to note that there have been five burials found in these excavated sites, and they are all women.  Is this concidence? .

[7]  A midden consists of the soil, along with organic matter including bone and shell, along with waste flakes from chipping tools, broken milling stones and artifacts that accumulated from years of living in the same spot.

[8]  Fages Description of California, p. 11,

[9]  California, an Interpretive History, Walton Bean, James W. Rawls, 5th edition 1968 McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., p9

[10]  Thrown Among Strangers, Douglas Monroy, University of California Press, 1990, p13

[11]  Interestingly, this 150 number seem to be the largest number of individuals that can forge and maintain social bonds.  Robin Dunbar, anthropologist

[12]  The Chumash who lived along the coast of present day Ventura and Santa Barbara are generally accepted to have a different language and culture from other southern California Indians.

[13]  Date of Contact for first arrival of Spanish in California is set at 1569

[14]  Estimates of the population range up to 1 million. I use this figure since it appears with the number of survivors and gives some feel for the death rate.

[15]  Contested Eden, Page 35

[16]  We wish seems to be the accepted Indian term for cooked acorn meal.  But each tribe had their own language, and the type of acorn also determined just what the food was called, just as we might differentiate between cooked whole wheat cereal and Farina.

[17] This is a slight variation of a recipe given to me by James D. Adams, Jr., co-author of Healing with Medicinal Plants of  the West

[18]  The first dogs in the Americas came across the Bering Strait land bridge and DNA from a specimen found in Thunder Cave***** (where) finds no common DNA with European dogs brought by the early Spanish in the 1500’s.   There are reports that the Aztecs had dogs, and dog mummies have been unearthed in Peru.  One report of the Indians in Baja, made in the 1600’s, specifically notes that these people did not even have dogs.   (need reference)

[19]  This description comes from a Yosemite Woman. She said that they used large basalt stones – described as being approximately six inches in diameter — heated them until they glowed bright orange, then placed them into a basket one at a time, replacing them as they cooled. Granite that has been heated in a fire turns reddish.  This “fire affected rock,” as the archaeologists call it, is a tell tale sign of a habitation site.

[i] Milling stones: Womens’ tools, evolved from the simple selection of a promising stone, to a polished and well-used grinding tool.

[ii] Bedrock mortars: Deep holes in large, immovable boulders, used  for processing acorns with a pestle. Slicks: Also on large, immovable boulders, used  with a mano for processing smaller grains.

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