Indigenous People

An Idyllic Place for Human Settlement
Just as it does today, Temescal Creek flowed into the bay from the eastern hills, and the willow thicket around its mouth provided an idyllic place for human settlement. Mudflats rich with clams and rocky areas with oysters, plus fishing, hunting, and acorns from the local oak trees provided a rich and easily exploited food source. For thousands of years prior to European contact, indigenous people lived here in small villages.

However, when the Spanish explored the East Bay region in the 1770s, they did not encounter any native settlements in the Emeryville area, although villages were found to the north along the Carquinez Strait, and to the south along San Lorenzo Creek. They attributed the scarcity of natives in the area to the great abundance of bears. There is no recorded evidence of indigenous habitation following the arrival of the Spanish, and archeological evidence shows no native habitation after 1650, so it appears that the Emeryville area was abandoned by the native people long before European settlement of the area.

The First Americans Ohlone.gif
The 1st people to arrive in North America came in small groups over a period of thousands of years, crossing the Bering "land bridge" between present-day Russia and Alaska when sea levels were lower than they are today. About 10,000 years ago humans arrived in what is now California, and the oldest remains found in the Bay Area are about 5,000 years old. The oldest remains found in Emeryville date from 800 BC, and settlement of the area began in earnest about 2,000 to 2,500 years ago after the widespread accumulation of oyster beds, although remains as old as 3,700 years have been found nearby in West Berkeley.

The 1st inhabitants of what is now Emeryville lived here for about a thousand years, and what little is known about them derives mainly from archeological evidence. These Hokan-speaking people were displaced or assimilated by another group of native people who are believed to have migrated to the area from the Central Valley around 500 AD.

Coastal People
These new arrivals occupied the area for another 1,200 years until the arrival of the Spanish in the 18th century. The Spanish referred to them as Costeños, or "coastal people," which was later Anglicized to Costanoan. Today, the preferred name for these indigenous people is Ohlone, although that term might have originally derived from a Spanish rancho called Oljon, and referred to a single band that inhabited the Pacific Coast near Pescadero Creek on the San Francisco Peninsula. Rather than a single tribe, the Costanoan or Ohlone people were actually a language group of approximately 50 different nations or tribes with about 50 to 500 members each and an average of 200, who inhabited the area from San Francisco Bay to the Big Sur coast prior to Spanish settlement of the area.

The Ohlone sub-group that occupied the East Bay west of Mount Diablo was known as the Chochenyo. Since the terms "Costanoan" and "Ohlone" are both of Spanish origin, it has been suggested that a more appropriate name for the indigenous people of the East Bay might be "Muwekma," which means "the people" in the Chochenyo language.

The Ohlone subsisted mainly as hunter-gatherers and harvesters. They inhabited fixed village locations, moving temporarily to gather seasonal foodstuffs like acorns and berries. Cultural arts included basket-weaving, seasonal ceremonial dancing events, female tattoos, ear and nose piercings, and other ornamentation. The Ohlone villages interacted through trade, intermarriage and ceremonial events, as well as some conflict.

Disruption of the Indigenous Culture
claimed what is now California and began to build a network of religious outposts, arriving in Ohlone territory in 1769. Spanish mission culture soon disrupted and undermined the Ohlone social structures and way of life. Spanish Franciscans erected 7 missions inside the Ohlone region and brought most of the Ohlone into these missions to live and work. The Chochenyos of the East Bay moved en masse to Mission San Francisco de Asís, founded in 1776 in San Francisco, and Mission San José founded in 1797 in what is now the City of Fremont.

Most were baptized and were educated to be Catholic "neophytes," or "Mission Indians," until the missions were discontinued by the Mexican Government in 1834. Then the people found themselves landless. A large majority of the Chochenyo died from disease in the missions shortly thereafter. The speech of the last 2 native speakers of Chochenyo was documented in the 1920s. Today, the Chochenyo have joined with the other San Francisco Bay Area Ohlone people under the name of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe and are currently petitioning for U.S. federal recognition. For further information about the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, visit their website.

At its peak, the Ohlone population is estimated to have reached 10,000 to 25,000 people. After Spanish arrival in the late 18th century, the Ohlone population dropped precipitously, to fewer than 1,000 individuals in the late 19th century. After that the population stabilized, and there were at least 1,400 on tribal membership rolls in 2005.

One of the most distinctive features of early native settlements around the bay were shellmounds, small hills composed of sea shells, food waste, and human remains accumulated over thousands of years. Hundreds of such mounds existed all around the bay, and 1 of the largest was at the mouth of Temescal Creek.

The "Emeryville Shellmound" actually consisted of several mounds of various sizes, built at various times by the pre-Ohlone people. The "big mound," which survived into the early 20th century, was conical in shape and measured about 60 feet tall and 350 feet in diameter. The Ohlone may have expanded this mound and had a village atop it, but the Emeryville Shellmound appears to have been abandoned about 700 years ago, around 1250 AD. The house of a European settler was reportedly built on 1 of the nearby smaller mounds around 1840.

For almost 50 years, from 1876 to 1924, the big mound was the site of an amusement park, "Shell Mound Park," and in 1924 the mound was leveled to make way for industrial development. (Fortunately, prior to its demolition, a number of archeological investigations were undertaken in the early 20th century, providing insights into the culture of the pre-Ohlone people that created the shellmound.) Over the next 75 years, the site was extensively contaminated by industrial waste, and the shellmound, no longer visible, was largely forgotten; the only reminder was a dead-end street called "Shellmound Street" that provided access to the paint and insecticide plants and steel mills in the area.

Site Remediation Process
In 1999 the Emeryville Redevelopment Agency demolished the industrial buildings and began remediation of the contaminated site in preparation for development of the Bay Street Mixed Use Project. During the process of site remediation, the earliest remains of the shellmound, dating from the pre-Ohlone period about 2,000 to 2,500 years ago, were discovered below grade level. A "Most Likely Descendant" was appointed by the California Native American Heritage Commission to oversee excavation work, and many native artifacts and human remains were unearthed.

Following completion of excavation work, the human remains were reinterred on the site in an undisclosed location, 1 of the streets in the development was named "Ohlone Way" in honor of the indigenous people who lived at the site after the shellmound was abandoned, a "memorialization park" was created along the banks of Temescal Creek (now a flood control channel), and an informational website was created. The Emeryville Shellmound website provides extensive data about the shellmound and the native people of the area.