Native Americans

What was the world of the Ohlone and other local tribes before Europe found America?  How did they live?  What did they eat?  What did they use to make their homes and tools?  How did they manage the local landscape in order to produce the materials they needed to live?  What were their migration patterns and what were their trade routes?

Many books have been emerging lately that indicate the local Indians were not just passive foragers.  They were skilled land managers that had spent over 10,000 years experimenting and developing the methods that maximized the production of their raw materials and minimized other animal’s competition for those resources.  What did their world look like just before Columbus arrived?

Local resident and researcher Mark Vande Pol shares his theory about the dynamic between Indians and Grizzly Bears and the effects that had on our landscape.

Bear In Mind

Amid the heated battles timber landowners so often endure at the hands of activist groups is the implied ideal of “how things were before the white man came,” the fallen Eden acquired by dispossessing the many Indian tribes that once tended these lands. The theme is everywhere, from the term “old growth redwood” to our very concept of “Nature.” To its true believers, a redwood forest was always a redwood forest, while evidence to the contrary goes unobserved, simply because of the presumption of this supposed stability.

Twenty-five years’ research into native plant restoration has taught me that these ideas are enormously destructive to the function of native plant, soil, and wildlife systems because uninterrupted successional processes so often proceed to catastrophic events. That lack of disturbance can preclude the expression of many early successional species, particularly after the introduction of so many exotic plants. In undoing that damage, one is necessarily led to the parallel question of how to best maintain post disturbance plant systems when the principal processes Indians used (annual burning and harvesting) are now no longer allowed.

As I removed exotics from our property, I was moved to learn about how these plants were once managed and configured by which to discern how they work as successional systems. We are surprisingly fortunate to have a rich and extensive record of the early European observations of coastal California. Fray Juan Crespi (principal diarist to the Portolá expedition) in particular had obviously been carefully trained to recognize and record what he saw in quantitative terms: how many animals, how big, what types of plants, how much stream flow, grades, dimensions of arable plots, soil attributes, indications of aboriginal management, foods the natives offered, how they were housed, what they wore… and not just a few representative descriptions from time to time, he recorded most of these metrics DAILY, diligently noting each on parchment with an ink quill, usually without benefit of a tent (there is a recent translation by Alan K. Brown available at Amazon). In addition to Crespi’s diary, Pedro Fages and Miguel Costansó added the functional realism of military men. Fray Francisco Palou’s Memoirs over 25 years comprise 1,600 pages of not only land explorations and the history of mission establishment, but coastal voyages all the way to Alaska. To the Spanish record we add later American observations in the accounts of Richard Henry Dana (1835) and Zenas Leonard (1834, a “must read” and a free download, and John Bidwell (1841).

From so many detailed observations repeated over a huge area and at various times within a short period, as coupled with archaeological data, it should be possible to infer how much acreage was devoted to various land management processes and carrying capacity, whether supporting the Indian population or animal habitat, thus gaining a more realistic estimate of their actual requirements. Our place, for example, once adjoined a trail used by the Sayante tribe for trading purposes. Upon learning that, I found patches of plants the Indians probably used as a food supply for the trip. Stunningly, (considering all that is at stake), very little of that kind of survey work into spatial relationships between plants and people has been done around here. Indeed, very few students of ecology have ever read any of these historical sources other than by reference. Needless to say, when immersed in the battles in which original conditions are a key consideration, it would be useful to be able to cite authoritatively how much of this area was forested versus in grassland or other types of cover as indicative of the food sources not only for people but for the entire wildlife food pyramid.

As is not unusual when one begins such a study of such a question (involving some 15 of these diaries and Crespi’s several times), as I read I slowly realized that there was something wrong about the usual understanding of the relationship between the Indians and the land. Continued study has revealed a hypothesis that has astonished experts in wildlife biology, one that may explain much about how the landscape around us took the shape the explorers witnessed. It turns out that it may not have been only because of the Indians.

It is well accepted among ecologists and archaeologists that the area in and around San Francisco and Monterey Bays was “originally” dominated by early seral vegetation, primarily with annual forbs, grasses, and bulbs. This was no accident. The reports in the Spanish diaries make it abundantly clear that Indians burned grasslands at least annually, usually after the grass harvest in June. At that time of year, if there were tarweeds also in that grassland then they would be a low rosette stage which, though it would too burn, would easily recover and bolt to make seed for the year. Indians typically burned tarweed just before harvesting its seed to eliminate the sticky goo all over the plant that would make using a beater and basket to collect the seed into frustrating mess. Hence, burning in some areas might even have been twice a year as a way to obtain two harvests from the same space (possibly three when one includes early season leafy vegetation and digging up bulbs).

Annual burning kills seedlings that make woody vegetation very hard to establish in all but perennial riparian areas. With a regimen like that practiced everywhere, it would be a wonder there were any forests at all. Sure enough, in many areas proximate to Indian settlements Crespi often notes “not a tree or shrub to be seen.” But, as the explorers traveled between settlements, there were often long stretches without even signs of “the heathern” anywhere. Besides stands of redwood, there were groves of hazelnuts and oak that showed obvious signs of management. Crespi describes “lush plants” and grasses (in places) even in October. So how was this at all possible if annual burning was practiced everywhere?

Obviously, it was not. Curiously, it was primarily in these lush areas with more vegetation that the Spanish describe any game at all, and not just a little. Crespi reports herds of antelope, elk, deer, and “many bears” upon many an occasion. Similarly, when one consults the account of Drake’s landfall near Point Reyes in 1579, the diarist describes “infinite was the company of very large and fat Deere (probably elk), which there we sawe by thousands.”

Contrary to the usual Edenic fantasy of that time, this bounty of game in coastal California was unusual in the rest of North America. Lewis and Clark for example went some 18 days in what is now Yellowstone without seeing a single large-bodied animal; the only places where they did report substantial game was in war zones between tribes! Zenas Leonard records the first white crossing of the Sierra Nevada to the San Joaquin Valley in 1834 and that of John Bidwell to the Sacramento Valley in 1841. Both report a landscape generally lacking game east of the Sierra Nevada. Both report that everything changed when they entered the California Central Valley.

What gives? In most of North America the Indian was the undisputed apex-predator of the biological food pyramid. Indians in California were obviously just as proficient at hunting as anywhere else, their weapons were the same, and the animals not significantly different. So what explains this difference in numbers? Why was there so much game in coastal California?

The coastal Mediterranean climate is unique in North America. With its warmer winters, food was available to predators all year long. Therefore, grizzly bears had no need to hibernate. In most of North America, Indians hunted grizzlies while they were denning, particularly females giving birth in mid-winter. After thousands of years of hunting, den sites would be known to all the tribes, so there would be reasonable expectation of a successful sneak attack. Killing birthing females would render the Indian the sole apex predator.

For example, in the foothills of Butte County bears hibernated. That didn’t mean it was easy. The following account is derived from the last surviving Yahi Indian from Butte County, Ishi in Two Worlds (p195): A grizzly bear is not game that a lone man armed with only bow and arrow seeks out. The Yahi hunted a grizzly if it was hibernating and only if there were several men together, enough to surround it with a circle of burning brush before it was fully awake… They shot into the open mouth if possible… to induce hemorrhaging. If a bear charged, a man tried to defend himself with a firebrand while his companions closed in with bows and arrows.

It was not easy for an Indian to kill an 1,100 pound grizzly, even if it was hibernating. To take one fully awake would require a large hunting party; while attacking a group of bears would be suicidal. Nor were the bears at all afraid of entering the Spanish camp of 68 men and 189 mules at night, never mind an Indian village of 20. Yet the early Spanish explorers reported groups of 16-20 grizzlies together at a time, tearing up the landscape in search of roots “as if it had been plowed.”

One must conclude therefore that the relationship between bears and people along the coast of California was an uneasy dynamic tension between DUAL apex predators: humans and grizzly bears. The result would have a profound effect on the distribution and character of vegetation. Annual burning around Indian villages would have an important ancillary benefit beyond agricultural purposes: It would make an undetected approach virtually impossible (particularly because almost all Indian villages had dogs). Such areas “burned bare” were in several instances reported between areas with abundant game and lush plants and areas occupied by Indian villages, usually along perennial streams. Effectively, these grasslands may have been a defensive buffer as well as an agricultural resource.

Now, repeat that process for thousands of years. There would be no trees in areas burned at least annually nor much of any perennial vegetation beyond grasses other than along streams. This is exactly what the Spanish described. When Americans invaded what was left of those areas after the Spanish, we concluded there was something inherent to them being grasslands.

Considering “the lay of the land,” such a conclusion should not have made sense to us. In our immediate area, the ridge above us was once a tribal trade route burned at least annually for the same defensive purposes as a village. I have photos of the area around our property from the 1920s. They were predominantly grasslands. Yet people assume that because that area is forested now that it must have always been so since before the white man arrived. Not so. As I have removed exotic plants from our oak woodland forests that have been thinned, I have had the blessing of seeing some of those “grassland plants” start to express their long dormant seed in densities too great to have been allowed by the exotic grasses that had been there since almost immediately after the Spanish arrived in 1791.

Were there redwoods here? Sure, but compared to today the stands were less extensive and probably sparse but for areas immediately along the creek well below us. Yet today on our property, we have several stands of redwood that were obviously logged at the turn of the 20th Century. These trees were obviously large enough to harvest by 1890. So, am I wrong?

Here is where perceptions of permanence enter the picture. Curiously, the sizes of stumps are here are non-uniform: they decrease as one goes higher in elevation. At the top of our property there were redwoods maybe 15 years old when we arrived. Immediately below them where it had been logged, there wasn’t a stump larger than 24 inches. At the bottom of the property the biggest stumps we have are about the same size or slightly smaller than the four-foot diameter trees we have now. In effect, when the redwoods on our property were first logged, none were more than 100 years old and were far less dense than the monoculture stands we have today.

How did the trees suddenly get there for Americans to log them? The Spanish banned Indian burning in 1793, two years after the founding of Mission Santa Cruz. Stop burning, and the forest begins to spread, rapidly. We just aren’t used to how rapidly, but then, it’s not like we have a great deal of experience with primary succession on this continent. Experiments on our property show that it can go from almost pure sand with no seed present through the entire successional progression to a densely impacted forest in perhaps as little as 30 years.

So much for “preservation”; one couldn’t do it even if one wanted to. Yet to maintain a diverse landscape, with plants representing all stages of succession actively reproducing, with sufficient early successional native forbs and shrubs to support wildlife nutrition then REQUIRES detailed management, else exotic weeds and succession WILL have their way. Wait too long and that native seed bank eventually breaks down (which is what we found had happened when we started our project). Lose that native post-disturbance seed bank over a large enough area, and eventually the native bacterial soil system is done for good.

This requirement for detailed site-specific management works directly against the government activist command-and-control regulation-and-protection model, simply because restoring native annual forbs to a landscape long infested and negligently abandoned is an enormous amount of work involving processes that are yet to be developed. Experiments here at the Wildergarten are showing ways of reducing the cost, but in no way are top-down preservation and emphasis upon large predators going to deliver those native early seral conditions upon which the entire wildlife system depends! We should be holding these activists accountable for the damage that they are doing, to the production of native seed, to the soil bacteria with specific relationships with these plants, to the insects and thence birds and foragers that depend upon them, damage to an entire food chain that for hundreds of years hasn’t been allowed to function as it did for millennia. Nor can we simply light it on fire and see it bloom. The weeds will have their way.

Landowners own that moral high ground if only they would wield it. Productive and vital native habitat is a product of arduous labor and expense that the public has shown a demonstrable willingness to fund. Unfortunately, the incredibly expensive government projects we have seen toward that end show debatable results at best, with virtually NONE dedicated to establishing native post disturbance forbs. The question really is: who is best qualified to supply those management services: bureaucrats subject to political pressure with pensions to protect in offices miles away, or associations of landowners, each making the most of their unique and unbelievably complex combinations of assets day by day, year after year, from generation to generation? Are we going to let tax-exempt foundations and trusts cash in on “nature’s services” providing that product? The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County has but one full-time employee dedicated to management for all of their 15,000 acres. Can they do it that way?

I think you know that answer. I documented the Land Trust’s failure to deal with an infestation of the most aggressive weed I have seen in my lifetime: Dittrichia graveolens (aka “stinkwort”) in Scotts Valley. Lacking the manpower to deal with it, I’m the guy who called Ken Moore of the Wildlands Restoration Team to pull them. And when he brought this problem to the Land Trust’s attention, did they do better this year? No! The WRT had to come in again, this time with the weed having since escaped into the Scotts Valley High School parking lot. The seed is sticky, that means it will soon be everywhere. Repeat photography will show over time the encroachment of forest and weeds and the loss of forbs that once supported several Federally listed endangered species there, and their loss will be on their watch. It is high time we had such failings on the tips of our tongues, because this is the real debate at issue: Who can do it? How will it be paid for? How do we verify performance to contract? How do we fix it if they fail?

I have a great more to say on that topic, which you can peruse at your leisure for free, at,, and a free online 800pp picture book describing our project at

Enjoy! Mark Vande Pol