Native Americans of the Redwood Coast

Image of painting entitled

A Pomo Dancer (Kal-si-wa, Rosa Peters) by Grace Hudson

When lumber mills first began sprouting up along the 19th century Mendocino coast, Native Americans were still a constant presence. Settler-native interactions were not only common, they varied widely depending on the people involved and the situation.

Many indigenous place names were adopted by settlers and remain with us to this day. Others have faded into obscurity. We know, for instance, that the area now known as Mendocino village was originally called Bool-Dam or Buldam by subgroups of the Northern Pomo. Bool-Dam meant “big holes” and referred to the blowholes on the Mendocino headlands. Early maps created after California statehood refer to Big River as Bool-Dam River. Thirteen miles to the south, Greenwood Creek suffered a different fate. The name that appears on those same early maps is Donahue’s Creek, named after Michael Donahue, the pioneer rancher who owned much the land that became modern day Elk. But the subgroup of the Coast Central Pomo that made their home in that area called the creek Kan Ca Kaya, which meant “place for mussels.”

Pomo People South of the Navarro River

Sorting out the different language and social subgroups on the Mendocino coast can be challenging as ethnographers over the years have differed in their opinions about which groups were separate and which were consolidated. And such groupings changed over time. The increased presence of non-native people, the emergence of settlements and towns, and the increasing penetration of ranches and logging operations forced clusters of indigenous people who had once lived independently to seek safety in larger combined groups. Since my current focus is on the area between Fort Bragg and Point Arena, I’ve limited my intensive research to the Native American groups in that territory.

Partial map of Mendocino CountyThe large, related group of Coast Central Pomos that spread themselves from the Gualala River, the southern boundary of Mendocino County, to just north of the Navarro River were collectively known as the Bokeya. They were generally considered to be further divided into 3 subdivisions: the Kauca, the Pdahau, and the Latcupda. Much of my work-in-progress takes place around Cuffey’s Cove and Greenwood (Elk). The native people who occupied that area when the story takes place were the Kauca. They were a small band of no more than 100 people who made their home on what is now known as Cliff Ridge, an area between Greenwood and Elk creeks. According to ethnographer Clinton Hart Merriam, the name of their village was Kow-Shah.

Image of painting entitled Pomo House by Grace Hudson

Pomo House by Grace Hudson

The leader of the Kauca was a man named Kabekel. He is believed to have “sold” the Kauca land north of Mallo Pass Creek to the Spanish. That land would later be granted by the Mexican Government to William Richardson in the form of the Albion Rancho. While it’s uncertain when the Kauca abandoned their permanent settlement on Cliff Ridge, Pomos of one variety or another returned to temporary summer camps north of Elk late into the 19th century. Longtime resident Flora Buchanan mentions this in her 1969 memoir about the area. “Indians came in the summer from the valley. […] Their campground here was on the present school ground — before 1898 when the school house was built. That area was always referred to as the Indian Camp.”

The Pdahau were a much larger subdivision than the Kauca and spread out from Mallo Pass Creek south to modern day Point Arena. It is likely that Nathaniel Smith, a real person who plays a major role my story, took a Pdahau woman for his first wife. There are several references of him meeting a woman named Julia in Point Arena.

The last subdivision of Bokeya, the Latcupda, lived south of the Pdahau in territory that stretched almost to the Gualala River. There’s been heated debate about this group among ethnographers. Some believe they were an integral part of the Bokeya while others claim they were an entirely separate language group.

Native Americans North of the Navarro River

Image of painting Ma-tu, Pomo Medicine Man by Grace Hudson

Ma-tu, Pomo Medicine Man by Grace Hudson

The land north of the Navarro River, including Little River, Mendocino, and Fort Bragg, was inhabited by several groups of Northern Pomo.

The Mitom used the area surrounding Mendocino (then Buldam) as a seasonal village. Their permanent quarters were inland in the Little Lake area near Willits. The Mitom shared the region with the Mato people, whose territory spread north to Chadbourne Gulch, fourteen miles north of Fort Bragg. Suppression of all these indigenous people occurred over an extended period of time bu the treatment of the Mitom and Mato people was particularly sinister. I’ll cover that in later articles.

One other group in the area north of Fort Bragg was the Coast Yuki people who were an entirely different language group from the Pomo. It’s from the Yuki or Yukiah that the county seat of Ukiah gets its name. The Coast Yuki were a small subgroup of a much larger population that claimed inland territory further north and were eventually confined on the Round Valley Rancheria, a reservation that was the setting for one of the most heinous events involving native people in California. That too will be the subject for a future article.

A Note About the Artwork

Grace Carpenter Hudson was born in Round Valley in 1865 and later studied art at the San Francisco School of Design. Her father, Aurelius O. Carpenter, was a newspaper publisher and photographer who produced a seminal pictorial history of Mendocino County. Grace’s mother Helen was a teacher who studied the art and culture of the local Pomos. When Grace returned to Mendocino County as an adult, she began painting the Pomo people she had lived among as a child. She produced 680 such paintings before her death in 1937.

Thoughts, questions, or comments?