Today’s Island City began life as a peninsula where Native Americans, members of the Ohlone tribe, first lived more than 3,000 years ago. These first settlers took advantage of the climate and the readily available staples — acorns, game, fresh water and oysters. The Ohlone found today’s Alameda an attractive place to live. Willow trees grew along Sausal (“Willow”) Creek to the north. The Ohlone used the branches from these trees to build their homes.
As Sausal Creek emptied into today’s San Leandro Bay, it created a marshland that attracted ducks and other birds. Some of these birds nested further east on “Wind Whistle Island,” as the natives called the Uplands on today’s Bay Farm Island. These nests provided the Ohlone a ready supply of eggs.
Most importantly, however, the bay offered up oysters in such abundance that over the years the natives created shell mounds all over the peninsula. The Native American presence was especially concentrated in the peninsula’s eastern end. Imelda Merlin tells us in Alameda: A Geographical History that “Four mounds were found east of Park Street and two others between Park and Chestnut streets.”
The largest mound measured 400 feet by 100 feet and was 14 feet high at its apex. A nearby spring provided fresh water, which, no doubt, first attracted the Native Americans to the site. This large mound was bounded by today’s Central Avenue on the south, Johnson Avenue on the north, Court Street on the east and Gibbons Drive on the west. (It is no accident that Mound Street intersects the area. The street was one of the original streets in William Worthington Chipman and Gideon Aughinbaugh’s 1852 Town of Alameda.)
If you walk the mound’s circumference, you’ll notice that Santa Clara Avenue goes right through its heart. This street was cut through the mound to accommodate streetcar in the late 1890s. The area around the mound was cleared in 1908 to make room for houses. This is when the above photograph with “Captain Clark” was taken. As they cleared away what was left of the mound, Clark and his men found remains of everyday living (including mortars, pestles and a British medallion; some of these are on display at the Alameda Museum). They removed 450 bodies from this mound, all of them had been laid to rest facing east in the fetal position.
There were other smaller shellmounds in today’s Alameda. In 2006 a Public Works crew working on Washington Street discovered a skull. By the time the day was over the Alameda County Coroner’s office had unearthed the entire skeleton of a young Native American girl.
Not so long ago the police were called to a home on one of the streets where the Sather Mound was once located because a work crew discovered human remains. These remains were too old to raise any suspicions, we were told off the record that they were likely from the shell mound.
So what happed to the Ohlone? They kept no written records, so we have to rely on the Spanish to find out. Three Spanish expeditions trekked into and through the East Bay. The expeditions’ diaries offer the first written descriptions of these Native Americans.
Pedro Fages, a man his soldiers nicknamed “L’Os,” (the Bear), set out from Monterey on the first of these treks. Fages’ party — six Catalonian Volunteers, known as Spanish Bluecoats — set off on November 21, 1770, in search of a land route around the “estero” (San Francisco Bay) that Gaspar de Portola had discovered year earlier.
Here is one of the first descriptions of the natives through Spanish eyes (note they refer to the Indians as “heathen”):
“We came upon a very large pool and at the head of this, a village of heathen in which we saw about 50 souls. Two of these heathen went about with two little rafts hunting ducks on the pool
“Try as we might, we were not able quiet them. All they did was shout. Two of them hastened off across the plain.
“(They had gone to inform) two very large villages of our passing. Consequently these villagers turned out see us at long range and were very much surprised to see soldier kill in passing nine geese with three shots.
“On the way we saw a very large village. When we approached it the inhabitants fled. However coaxing them freely we succeeded in quieting them to accept some strings of glass beads.”
Fages returned in 1772 and trekked further north until the Carquinez Strait go in his way. His party turned inland and explored the San Ramon Valley before returning to Monterey. In 1776 the Anza Expedition; came through East Bay. The party spent the night on today’s Mills College and drew the first map ever of Alameda.
The Europeans Arrive
The arrival of the Europeans spelled an end to Native American culture. First the Spanish set out to baptize the Ohlone, convert them to Christianity. In order to better control the indigenous peoples, Spanish soldiers and padres herded the native men, women and children away from their settlements and onto mission property. The Spanish “properly clothed” the Ohlone and treated them as little more than slaves. The Indians that the Spanish did not capture or kill either died from the diseases the Spanish brought with them or they fled inland.
The Spanish settled San Francisco in 1776, and founded Mission Santa Clara the following year. The Franciscans began keeping baptismal records of the Indians. These records show that from 1778 to 1786 the missionaries from San Francisco recognized 15 inhabited places along the southeast shore of San Francisco Bay.
In 1795 a party led by Lieutenant Hermenegildo Sal set out from Monterey to find a spot to establish Mission San Jose. Friar Antonio Danti accompanied Sal. Neither man mentioned any encounters with Native Americans in their diaries. Two years later, the Franciscans founded Mission San Jose. They kept a baptismal book, which identified their converts according to general areas, not specific villages.
The Spanish noted six such areas:
- Palos colorados, the redwoods in the Oakland hills
- de la Alameda, Alameda Creek and adjacent plain (the area around today’s Alvarado and Union City)
- del Estero, the Bay shore (the area encompassed by today’s Hayward, San Lorenzo, San Leandro, Alameda the Oakland flatlands and Berkeley
- del Norte, the Bay shore north of the mission
- del Este, the territory east of the mission
- del Sur, the territory south of the mission.
According to the baptismal book, the Indians who lived in the first three areas, which included Alameda, were the first to be converted. This book tells us that by 1801 no “heathens” remained locally. They had been converted; they had run a way or they had died of disease.
In 1820 Luis Maria Peralta received the entire East Bay west of the hills as part of his retirement package. His holdings stretched from today’s El Cerrito in the north to San Leandro in the south. He chose to put down stakes in today’s Fruitvale, not far from Alameda. The following year, the Mexican government gained control of the government of New Spain, which included all of California. Twelve years later, in 1833, the Mexican government secularized the missions. By then the Ohlone had all but disappeared from the today’s East Bay.
Dennis Evanosky is the Editor of the Alameda Post. Reach him at [email protected]alamedapost.com.