We could site numerous accounts of brutal treatment of the Sacramento Valley’s indigenous humans during the first century after the arrival of Europeans to their homelands. If that is something of which you wish to learn more, we recommend reading Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi in Two Worlds or Robert Heizer’s They Were Only Diggers. While the retelling of those atrocities is an important reminder of the nature of the dominant culture, for this topic we’ve chosen to try to capture the story of the fecundity of the land prior to European settlement. We feel this speaks volumes about the wisdom of the cultures that lived here before. While history gives some mention to the horrible treatment of the indigenous people, what gets less attention is how horribly the land has been treated. Clearing riparian forests and oak savannas, channelizing rivers and creeks, poisoning rivers to mine gold, poisoning wildlife to prevent crop damage, hunting several species to extinction, cutting ancient forests and clogging up rivers and creeks (and the life therein) with silt from erosion, plowing up grasslands, building roads, diverting and damming creeks and rivers…the list goes on and on…these are the day-to-day norms of civilized life, and their cumulative effect leaves us living in land that every year is less fertile, less stable, less biologically diverse, more prone to diseases and drought and widespread high-severity fire.
To get an idea of what the Sacramento Valley was once like, thanks to hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and thousands of years more of land-care practices by California’s first peoples, here are a series of excerpts and paraphrases from Kat Anderson’s meticulously researched book, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources.
It is estimated that tens of millions of birds lived in California or passed through on an annual basis as migrants, nesters or over-winterers. Many kinds of birds, such as quail, occurred in extremely large concentrations. In the mid-1870’s, flocks of 1000 to 5000 California quail were considered commonplace. A rancher of that era wrote in 1867, “I saw quail by the thousands everywhere; every canyon, gulch and ravine contained quail…and the whole country seemed to be alive with them.”
Of all the displays of wildlife, the tremendous flocks of geese—snow geese, Ross’ geese, white-fronted geese and Canada geese—were perhaps the most striking in appearance. They could appear in thick, cloud-like congregations, so large that the roar of their wingbeats as they took flight was deafening. In the 1850’s, an observer wrote, “These birds often cover so densely with their masses the plains in the vicinity of the marshes as to give the ground the appearance of being clothed with snow.” Another observer saw so many white geese in flight that he was certain one band of them would cover four square miles when they landed.
As many as a half million tule elk fed on the lush grasses and forbs of the Sacramento Valley and other interior grasslands. Herds as large as 1000 to 3000 were reported. Around 1850, a traveler in the southernmost Sacramento Valley wrote, “At times we saw bands of elk, deer and antelope in such numbers that they actually darkened the plains for miles, and looked in the distance like great herds of cattle.”
Grizzly bears ranged throughout all of northern California, averaging more than one every fifteen square miles. In 1841 in the Sacramento Valley, grizzly bears were almost an hourly sight in the vicinity of streams, and it was not uncommon to see thirty to forty a day. Many bear trails crisscrossed chapparal thickets, and numerous tracks could be seen at springs. Large paths worn half a foot below the surface of the earth appeared in the alluvium of flat valleys.
The rivers were full of otters, mink and beavers. River otters’ dens were located under steep river banks, and their loud, shrill voices or low coughs or grunts could be heard from every major central and northern California river. River mussels, frogs, crayfish, newts, salamanders, turtles and snakes were prolific.
The riverbanks and overflow channels harbored a unique riparian flora that included a large variety of sedges, reeds, grasses, deergrass, and deciduous trees and shrubs such as large oaks, cottonwoods, redbuds, willows, alders, maples and sycamores. These riparian woodlands, before 1850, teemed with animal life. Lining many of the rivers and creeks in the Central Valley, above the overflow channels in the sandy flats, were huge valley oaks that reached diameters of eight to twelve feet and heights of 150 feet. Valley oaks occurred not just on the upper sandy river benches, but also in two- to six-mile-wide bands alongside the rivers. Away from the immediate river channels, these swaths of valley oaks formed savannas with luxuriant grass and wildflower cover underneath. Valley oaks created a micro-climate for many kinds of understory plants and fungi that only survived under the trees. Thus, these giants of the plant world were like arks supporting a great diversity of life.
Valley oaks can live for six hundred years. To native people, these trees marked the seeming timelessness of the earth and also the continuity of life. They were massive fixtures on the landscape bearing witness to many generations of humans. The rich soil of valley oak woodlands and savannas was the result of thousands of years of management by the indigenous peoples, who used fire regularly to stimulate better grass growth and to shape trees to have broad crowns, which results in high acorn production.
A French consul to California between 1843 and 1856 had this to say about valley oaks: “One remarkable thing that I have observed in all parts of Upper California in which I have traveled is that one never finds any of the large oaks broken down, fallen into decay or partly consumed by age and weather. All are sound and vigorous.”
What this last excerpt implies, of course, is that the humans tended the land meticulously, particularly the great oaks. This area was not a wilderness at all, it was heavily populated by humans, elk, pronghorn, deer, oaks, birds, and thousands of other species, all living in balance with each other.
For one example of the enormity of the loss to life here, this comes from the Tehama West Watershed Assessment:
Riparian forests near the Sacramento River have declined to just two to three percent of the original area. Large-scale agricultural clearing and fuel harvest for riverboats from about 1850 to the turn of the century initiated this reduction. During the early to mid 1900’s, reservoir and levee projects to assist with flood control resulted in additional reductions in floodplain riparian stands.
“Additional reductions.” That is a gentle way to say “almost complete annihilation.”
The above descriptions are glimpses into the fecund world of the Sacramento Valley at the time of the first invasion of Europeans. This rich and diverse region was home to tens of thousands of humans who were living as part of the equilibrium of a mature biotic community. Much of what has transformed the land since then is now invisible to most human residents, as each generation is born into a world less intact than that of their parents, the cumulative effect being ignorance of the huge diminishment of life, both in quantity and vitality. So when we look around at the land that is the Nomlaki homeland, or the Konkow homeland, or the Wintu homeland, we try to imagine what it used to be like.
We don’t believe we can return to a world like that of the indigenous peoples of this region. But knowing what that world was like informs our approach to our work. It helps us know what to look for, helps us take cues from what the land is telling us. We think that without knowing the real history of this region, we will not be able to envision a future that is rooted in the land.