Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/December 1896/The So-Called California Diggers

1235311Popular Science Monthly Volume 50 December 1896 — The So-Called California Diggers1896Mabel L. Miller



TWO years ago I began to collect notes bearing on the settlements, manners, and customs of Indian tribes once inhabiting the country along the banks of the Sacramento and Feather Rivers, from the American River, north to Chico Creek and eastward into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. These tribes have been considered the lowest type of California Indians; but by force of changed environment the few remaining are giving up their wild ways and adopting civilization, even Christianity. They have always been misunderstood and often misjudged: the very name "Digger," by which these Indians are known, is a misnomer and a term of reproach, which they have always resented. It is of uncertain origin. Old settlers say that they did not hear the name until some time after the year 1841, when it was first used by an abandoned type of white men in allusion to the Indian custom of digging camass root for food. Immigrants became familiar with the name, and the appellation soon spread. Without doubt the name originated in the Rocky Mountains; there might have been a band or village of the Shoshones, or of some kindred tribe, that bore a name so closely resembling the word "digger" as to be easily corrupted into it.

White people scarcely ever pronounce Indian names correctly. The miners and immigrants of early days spoke of the Nem-Sā-Win Indians as the Nimshews; the Sulam-Sā-Wins as the Sulamshews; and the Kem-Sā-Wins as the Kimshews. There are mining camps designated after each of these clans or villages, but named in the miner's dialect. The inappropriate name of "Digger," therefore, is not a tribal name. No tribal name has ever been found, although the Ethnological Bureau at Washington has sent men here to study the language and character of these Indians; these men gave them the name of Midu, which they understood to mean man, but this is not a tribal name.

There is no tribal name, because there is no tribe. One of the first things that strikes the observer is the fact of the entire separation of these Indians into local units or villages, each bearing its own name and having its own chief. On this point we have the evidence of General John Bid well, of Chico, who came to California in the year 1841; he has figured largely in the history of the northern part of the State, and has had large experience among these Indians. I have also met other old settlers, companions of such men as Kit Carson, Joe Walker, Pegleg Smith, and Isaac Graham, all men with whom Indian life and experience and the names of Indian tribes were subjects of constant mention and use. They do not believe that these Indians had tribal names, tribal chiefs, or organizations.

These Indians, then, were greatly scattered in villages. Many of these villages spoke the same language, and in this case the group might be said to form a tribe. For instance, one dialect was spoken by the Indians on the east side of the Sacramento Valley, from the American River on the south to Chico Creek on the north, and eastward to the summit of, or perhaps in some places beyond the summit of, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, thus covering a territory of about ninety by fifty miles. From 1840 to 1850 there were from eighty to one hundred villages on that side of the Sacramento Valley, and an Indian population of seven or eight thousand. Yet, though the area and population were large, they had no tribal name, as far as any of the old settlers could ever learn, nor have I been able to trace one in my own researches with Indians belonging to that tribe; I therefore conclude that there was an entire absence of any tribal feature other than language, and that we have here an unconscious, unborn tribe, possibly on the verge of conscious tribal union.

As for the villages, many of them bore the name of the creek on or near which they were situated: for example, Nem-Sa-Win (Nem meaning "good," and Sawin "stream") was the Indian name for Butte Creek, Sulam-Sa-Win for Chico Creek, and Tem-Sa-Win and Kem-Sa-Win for other creeks. An Indian village was situated on each of these streams, and bore the name of the stream.

The majority of the old Indian villages were inhabited between the years 1840 and 1860, and probably a few as late as 1865 or 1870. Most of these villages, it will be seen, had a population of from one to four hundred, excepting Colus, which, according to General Bidwell, had, as late as the year 1845, a population of a thousand or twelve hundred, and which would seem to have been a sort of capital city for the Sacramento Valley Indians. Upon the site of this old rancheria is located the present town of Colusa, which took its name from the Colus village. Many instances of this change of population are to be found throughout the State of California. Thus in the particular region above referred to are to be found the towns of Yuba City, Butte City, and Princeton, all built upon the sites of former rancherias. The city of Marysville, situated not far from the above-named towns, is located between two very old Indian villages, and the town limits even now are impinging upon one of them.

The Indians of this region were dependent upon the streams for existence, their villages being found only upon the banks of the Sacramento River and its tributaries. There were good fishing and hunting along these streams while the fertile soil of the valley yielded a heavy growth of wild grains, and the oaks here as elsewhere in California gave their contribution of acorns. It is of historical interest to note that the younger of the rancherias are those farthest from the main rivers, for the reason that, as the white population came in, the Indians retreated to the foothills. These Indians decreased and disappeared rapidly after the white people began to crowd them out of their possessions.

A period of fifty years has seen these villages completely depopulated and almost every trace of them destroyed. Towns and grain fields cover the spots where they once stood.

We can not imagine or realize what the taking away of their free life meant to the Indians. It was the one act of ours whichFull-blooded Young Indian from Feather River, about Twenty-seven Years Old.|}they could understand, and it is no wonder that a feeling of suspicion and hostility arose among them which has only been overcome within the last few years. Because of this suspicion it must have been impossible a few years ago to obtain correct information bearing on their old life; but the feeling, if not forgotten, is at least fast fading from their minds, and many Indians can be found who will talk freely and sensibly of the days before the white man came among them. These tribes were but little inclined to war. At the time of the outbreak with the Modoc Indians, they exposed their fear by crowding about the white people, saying, "That kind bad Indian" "Me no that kind," etc. Although they did commit many desperate and awful deeds, these were done secretly, never openly and daringly; they were the easiest tribe in the State to bring into submission.

The average "Digger" was of medium height and weight; a few were short and heavy set, but none were tall and thin. They had low foreheads, flat noses, large ears and mouths, and high cheek bones. Many of them had almost black complexions, while others seemed to be sallow or copper-colored. A few had very thin mustaches, or a few hairs here and there on the chin which might have been called a beard; the majority, however, were smooth faced. Both the men and the mahalas, as the women were called, had very heavy hair; old age did not thin it or turn it gray to any extent. A bald-headed Indian would have been looked upon as a phenomenon.

I saw two Indians last summer whose ages were given by their people as one hundred and twenty and one hundred and thirty years. Old settlers who have known of them for fifty years do not think the figures are much exaggerated. The wrinkles in their faces were so deep that the skin fell in folds, and their bodies seemed to have shrunken to one half their former size. They were deaf, dumb, blind, bent, and helpless, yet their hair wasA "Digger" Mahala from Feather River, Full-blooded, and of Finer Physique than the Average.barely streaked with gray, and so thick that a comb of ordinary size could not be passed through it.

The manners and customs of these Indians differed but little from village to village. During the summer months they needed only a shade to protect them from the hot sun. The wild, free life in which they reveled at this time of the year needed only food, but as winter drew near they had to build something which would protect them from the severe storms. An excavation several feet deep, and varying in diameter, was made first. Around the edge of this, willow poles or small trees were placed upright in the ground and drawn together at the top until a cone-shaped structure was formed. Bushes and strips of bark were then woven closely about this; lastly, dirt was thrown on and packed solid to the depth of six or eight inches. Only two openings were left—a round one at the top for the escape of smoke, and a square one close to the ground on the side most sheltered from the wind, which was used for a door; this opening was made just large enough for the occupants to crawl through. Furs and strips of matting woven from tule grass were used to sleep on. A fire was kept burning day and night in the middle of the "campoodie" (Kahm-Poo-Dy), the Indian name for these houses. They were usually occupied by a large family, and must have been warm, but close and smoky. In the Sierra Nevada Mountains a heavy fall of snow would change them into white pyramids. A village of two or three dozen campoodies with blue smoke curling from their tops, and a bright morning sun reflected

Mat of Tule and Cedar-root Bark, formerly used for Beds, Doors, etc.

in thousands of sparkling crystals in the snow about them, made a scene which I have heard many old settlers speak of as beautiful.

Through the summer the Indians prepared their winters store, which consisted mainly of dried acorns, used in place of flour or meal; berries, grasshoppers, grass seeds, fish, nuts, meats, and roots of various kinds. The camass (Camassa esculenta) was the principal root; it grew in abundance all over California, and is still plentiful in many valleys in the northern part of the State. It is about the size of the little finger, shaped like a sweet potato, and with much of the same flavor. A long, hard winter would cause these Indians to suffer more or less from privation. While in conversation with an old Indian he said: "Long time ago, 'fore white man come, big winter come, Indian no have enough to eat, lots of Indians die; my mahala, my little boy die."

Mortars, baskets, and flat rocks were their principal utensils for cooking. The mortars were made from rocks of various sizes, generally somewhat rounded but never uniform. The deep round hole in the center was ground with sharp, rough rocks. It was a slow process and required patience, for it took many days of work to complete one large mortar. These mortars were not only used for cooking but also for grinding food, when a round stone pestle would be required. No household was complete without the large, flat rock, which was generally stationary, and contained a half dozen or more round holes, varying in depth and diameter, used exclusively for grinding, and often surrounded by busy groups of mahalas. Their greatest manufacture was that of baskets; they made hundreds of them yearly, of all shapes and sizes. The larger ones were woven from long, slender willows, the smaller from delicate strips of the willow bark. Some were decorated with beads and feathers, in others indescribable designs were worked with colored

"Digger" Implements, from the Collection of Dr. Jewett, of Martsville.

barks. The baskets that were made for cooking purposes were water-tight. Meats, soup, and so forth, were boiled in them by dropping in hot stones, replaced by others as fast as they cooled. Mortars were also used in this way, as the direct heat of fire was apt to break them. For frying meat, hot flat rocks were used. Large cone-shaped baskets were made to transfer household effects, gather food, and in general to carry. They were bound on the back, fastened by a belt about the waist and by a band from the top of the basket around the forehead.

The mahala was invariably the burden-bearer: these great baskets, loaded with all they could hold, were never strapped to the back of the man; he carried only his bow and arrow. Their method of starting a fire was most skillful. Two round pieces of hard wood were used, one tapered to a point at one end. These were rubbed together between the hands until the friction produced a spark, which, thrown into a heap of fine, dry bark, produced fire almost instantly. I wondered how it could be done without burning the hands, so I hired an old Indian to satisfy my curiosity. He started a fire for me, and it was done so quickly, easily, and ingeniously that I was still left wondering.

During the warm months these Indians wore little or no clothing; the men sometimes tied a small girdle around their hips which was woven from grasses; oftener they went entirely naked. The women were never seen entirely nude. They wore a short skirt or apron, also woven from grasses, which, separated on both sides, reached to their knees in front and behind. Children of both sexes went naked, but when a girl reached the age of maturity she put on her grass skirt. Their winter clothing was made from skins.

Earrings of bone and wood, beads of berries, shell ornaments, and feathers arranged in many fashions for the head were their adornments. The bows and arrows used by this tribe differed very little from those carried by other Indians. The arrowheads were made mostly from flint, bone, and obsidian, though some schist was used. There are large ledges of flint and obsidian in the northern part of the State, and this material was widely distributed among the different tribes by trade.

Not every Indian could make an arrowhead, for it required a skillful workman. The process of manufacture was as follows:

"Digger" Implements, from the Collection of Dr. Jewett, of Marysville.

The material for the arrowhead was heated to a certain temperature, when it was chipped as desired with a spikelike stone implement, which was dipped in cold water, placed quickly upon the hot flint, and the necessary stroke given. The drop of water coming in contact with the hot flint and the simultaneous stroke cut the chip off about as desired. A rough stone was used to grind the points and edges into shape. Another weapon was the spear, which was made of hard wood, often five feet in length, and tipped, like the arrows, with flint or obsidian. These heads were from three to nine inches long and from one to four inches in width. The points of these spears, as also the arrowheads, were sometimes poisoned by dipping them into liquid made from a poisonous plant or by the drippings from a putrid deer's liver. The Indian was a sure shot at close range with his bow and arrow. He had many ingenious ways of decoying his game. Sometimes a hunter would disguise himself with the skin and horns of a deer, and in a stooping position crouch about the alkali spots where the deer were in the habit of coming to "lick" until he was close enough to the animal to be sure of his shot, when a flint-tipped arrow just behind the left shoulder was as sure as any bullet. A deer, unless frightened, never jumps anything of any height; it will walk around a very small log. The Indians discovered this trait, and used it to their advantage. They would stretch a buckskin line across a trail that deer were frequenting, and station themselves in ambush at each end. The deer would walk up to the line, pause to sniff at it a moment, then follow it to the end, and generally to his death.

The white man did not teach the Indian to gamble; it was born in him. Men, women, and children were slaves to its fascination. They had all kinds of queer games, in which furs, beads, and any property, in fact, that they might possess could be exchanged in a manner that would do credit to white people. The men often wagered their mahalas against a few furs or bows and arrows, and in such cases loss or gain would not seriously affect the commercial standing of the parties involved.

In regard to matters of morality, the general statement may be made that these Indians did not have any set punishments for what they regarded as crimes; the criminal was, however, ostracized by them. Polygamy was practiced to a large extent among them; one man often had two or three wives, and a chief sometimes more. Virtue was not held precious by the women, but the men had regard for it in so far as their own families were concerned. When an Indian had more than one wife he hired each to watch the other. They had no marriage ceremony; when an Indian made up his mind that he wanted a mahala for his wife, he went to her home and asked the father for her; if there was no objection he was asked to eat with them, after which he had the right to take his bride away whenever he wanted to. If the girl opposed her suitor she was given one chance of escape—she ran a race with him. She was allowed a certain number of feet the start when the signal was given to run. If she won she was free, but if he caught her she had to go with him without a murmur. The following story on this point was told to me by a civilized Indian woman:

Her grandmother was a great belle and had many suitors. There was one whom she hated but was forced to marry because he could pay the highest price for her. He was the chief of a village and had great possessions, but he was middle-aged and lame, while Napana was young, strong, and beautiful.

He had asked her father and been invited to eat, and, having turned over the stipulated price, Napana was his. In this casePapoose in his Gebelle made of Tule and Soft Tanned Leather.the price was so large that the bride was even denied her chance of winning freedom by the accustomed race. When Captain Lofonso came to take Napana away she refused to go and he had to carry her. Before he reached his home his strength gave out and he was obliged to stop for rest.

An Indian woman never had the right to beg for her freedom, but she had the privilege of struggling for it. Napana's strength increased as she realized her unhappy situation, and she fought madly for freedom; for if she could escape from him and get back to her own home before she had entered his she would be free, and he would lose his wife as well as the price paid for her. Captain Lofonso lacked the strength to get Napana on his back again, but he was determined that she should not get away, for his lameness would deprive him of all hope of catching her. Night came on, and still he held her tight by both wrists, while her strong jerks and pushes swayed both bodies back and forth until they sank to the ground exhausted. Toward morning his strength failed and he fell asleep. As she felt his hands loosen their hold on her wrists she mustered all her remaining strength and crawled back toward her home; but she never reached it. Just as the sun rose over the mountain above her home she sank insensible at the threshold. Here Lofonso found her and bore her back to his home with never an opposing struggle.

Childbirth was of no inconvenience to the average Indian mother; a few hours after delivery she was attending to her usual duties, even though it happened to be a walk of many miles. An acquaintance of mine had employed the same mahala for several months to do the washing for her family. It finally became evident that she was about to become a mother. She had the washing well started one Monday morning when she said: "Me feel heap bad, me go home; me think papoose come." Early the"Digger" Boy of about Ten, from Feather River.next morning she came back; the baby had been born and she was ready to finish the washing.

The male child was held in greater favor than the female; frequently a child of the latter sex was destroyed as soon as born. These Indians, though seemingly strong and vigorous, succumbed easily to disease; consumption and smallpox were the most prevalent and fatal diseases; much of the former was undoubtedly caused from their sweat dance, followed by the cold-water plunge. This dance was a festive event. The sweat-house was an immense cone-shaped structure, built near water, and much in the same way as their homes. All important events were celebrated with one of these dances, and Indians gathered from long distances to take part in them. A fire was built in the middle of the close, smoky house, and around it the naked, face-and-body-painted Indians danced. As the flames darted upward their enthusiasm increased until they leaped and shrieked in a frenzy of excitement. They kept this up until the perspiration poured from their bodies and exhaustion caused them to drop from the ring, when others would take their places, and they hurried to the stream to plunge into the ice-cold water. These dances were also used to cure disease, but more often caused death. The time for these dances, like the time for everything else, was reckoned by reference to the moon and by such natural periodical events as the ripening of various varieties of berries and the emigration of certain species of birds.

Once a year one of these sweat dances was followed by a burning of baskets, at which time the baskets that were not needed by the people of the village were heaped together and set on fire, the Indians dancing, laughing, and howling while the flames destroyed a good part of their year's work. It was a custom for which I have not been able to find their reason. "Indian have good time then," they say, when you inquire into the reason for this ceremony.

This tribe had their medicine men, whose treatment consisted in the use of herbs, magnetic motions, and rubbing, the sweat and cold plunge, and the sucking process—disagreeable enough, one would say, for the operating healer, when it is explained that he claimed to suck from the diseased part all malignant disease, and would spend consecutive hours in this loathsome practice of his art, spitting out of his mouth the poison drawn from the afflicted part.

This tribe of Indians were and are still exceedingly superstitious. If anything unusual took place in their village, such as a number of deaths closely following each other, every Indian would move camp: or, when one of their number met his death in some unknown way, they believed that the Bad Spirit was the cause and they could not leave the place quickly enough.

There is a beautiful fresh-water lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains which years ago was a great fishing place for these Indians. One day a large party had gathered there to camp and to fish. It was near night when two young Indians fell from their canoe and were drowned without the others seeing them. They saw the empty canoe and the disturbed water, and one Indian saw a face which he declared to be that of the Bad Spirit. They fled from the place that night, not even stopping to search for the bodies of their companions. They have never fished there since, for they believe that if a drop of water from that lake could touch them they would die in the same way.

I was much interested in what we must call their religious belief as shown in their burial customs and the manner of mourning for their dead. Because they were savages shall we call it superstitious imagination? It is certain that they believed in a future life. They also believed in a Great Spirit as well as a good and a bad one, and had distinct personal conceptions of their gods. Thus they worshiped the sun because they believed the Great Spirit was making what they called the happy hunting ground there. After an Indian was dead and buried, if you asked his people where he had gone, they would point to the sun. It was their heaven. Before the white man came among these Indians they burned their dead. Whatever a dead man had owned was destroyed with him, that he might have it when he reached the happy hunting ground. They believed that the smoke was the transferring agent between life here and there. When these Indians first saw the palefaces, as they called the white men, they thought them some of their dead returned to them in a new guise, and one that they by no means liked. After this time they began to bury their dead, explaining the change of custom by saying: "Indians go long way; no more smoke take 'em. Indians have to carry bow, arrows, skins, eberyting; take long time, no more want to come back."

The body was prepared for burial while still warm in the following manner: First, the knees were tied close to the chest and the head pressed down between them; the whole body was then compressed into as small and as round a form as possible, tied securely with buckskin string, wrapped in skins, and tied again. It was then buried in a large, round hole, the face turned upward, as were also the feet. The possessions were heaped upon the body and buried with it. After the Indians had begun to own horses and dogs, these were shot on the graves of their masters and their bodies left there.

This tribe now prepare their dead and bury them as nearly like the white people as possible, even neglecting to give them the accumulated property of this life.

Since obtaining the above information I have made a number of excavations in their old burial places and find that no particular position for placing the body could have been observed. The head sometimes faced the east, but just as often the west, and in several instances it faced upward and downward. These Indians did not make mounds, but selected soft soil for their graves. The bodies were buried from two to three feet deep; earth and sometimes stones were heaped up until something resembling a mound was formed. This, however, only depended upon the amount of work the living were willing to do for the dead.

They had many customs of mourning. The most interesting one was that adopted by a bereaved wife or mother. The hair of the mourner would be burned from the head, a sacrifice which meant as much to her as the laying away of bright colors means to us, and the ashes mixed with charcoal and pitch. With this mixture her cheeks, chin, and forehead would be streaked, and this emblem of mourning would be worn for many weeks. At the time of burial every Indian was expected to moan or howl, while many of them would writhe about on the ground and utter most unearthly shrieks. For a certain number of days after they had burned or buried their dead, the chief mourners would go to the grave a half hour before sunrise and, looking toward the spot where the sun was to appear, would express their sorrow in cries and moans until the golden rays fell about their world, when they would go back to their homes, calmed and comforted why, they alone know, but can not or will not tell. A half hour before sunset they repeated the visit, remaining until the sun dropped from sight, when the expression of their sorrow often rose to wild screams and shrieks which only exhaustion could calm, for they found no comfort until the sun rose again.

It is difficult to obtain information on what they believe to have been their origin. It is the one thing which they seem to hold sacred and do not care to talk about. One Indian smiled as he said: "Oh, all same as white man; Indians think lots of things 'bout that." However, the following traditions were told to me by one old Indian, and I afterward learned from a civilized Indian woman that they were what the majority of these Indians believe.

The first was that two big mountains, probably Mounts Shasta and Lassen, got mad one day a long time ago and threw up lots of dirt, all kinds of wild animals, one big chief, and two mahalas.

The second is best told in the Indian's own language:

"Long time ago, no Indians, no white man, no nothing; all water, one big lake. Sometimes little mountains, little trees, little grass, but no Indians. Lots of deer, lion, bear, wild cat, ebrything like that. Great Spirit come in big canoe, take good deer, good lion, good wild cat, good bear, make Indians; then tell these Indians kill all bad deer, bad lion, bad bear, bad wild cat—they all bad." There is a shadowy relation here to the Oriental idea of the transmigration of the soul, which the student of comparative religions may take for what it is worth.

There is no evidence whatever of any written language among this people. While there is much of legendary lore among them, it is entirely traditionary in its character. It is also pervaded to a great extent with a spirit of mysticism so as to render many of their legends almost unintelligible. The following tribal legend is a fair sample of their poetical stories. It is well known among the members of the tribe, and is related in substantially the same language by all:

A dead pine tree has stood many years in the deep, clear water of Homer Lake, which lies at the foot of Mount Keddie, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. According to the old Indian tradition, it turns around once every year, when a great Water Spirit imprisoned in its base raises its head to take a look at the world. The legend says that when the Indians first came to the valley where the lake is situated they found it one great body of water. They came in canoes and lived for years on the tops of high mountains. The Water Spirit had full control and made them no end of trouble. One day they gathered in a body and made supplication to the Great Spirit, who answered by commanding the Water Spirit to fill itself with water and make trip after trip over the mountains until it had emptied all the water into the ocean, after which it was imprisoned in the base of the tree, and the small lake left for its drinking water. It must remain there until the end of time. Only once each year, in January, is the spirit allowed to look out from its prison, and woe to the Indian who is unfortunate enough to be seen by this monster, which possesses a fascinating power that can not be resisted! The Indian is drawn down into the prison and devoured.

This is a crude legend, but many Indians still believe in its truth, and could not be hired to camp near or fish in Homer Lake.

This tribe is fast disappearing. The younger generations have intermarried to a large extent with other tribes, and in some instances with other races. Their enforced association with a superior race has also had the usual effect. These conditions, together with their total disregard of the ordinary rules of health, have brought about the usual result, and it is doubtful if more than one hundred and fifty Indians can be found to-day in the Sacramento Valley who are descendants of this once powerful tribe, and one tenth of this number would easily include those of pure blood.

In Plumas County, which lies in the mountain district and affords somewhat different conditions from the valley in the matter of climate and sparse white population, the proportion of survivors is very much larger, although the same conditions of intermarriage, etc., prevail here as well. It is a significant and perhaps hopeful fact that the population of this mountain region has been increasing within the last decade. Whether this be owing to intelligent appropriation of hygienic ideas gained from association with white people, or to the chance for a slower evolution, or whether it be the expiring flash of the candle in its socket, remains for further examination. It is apparent that they have made a successful effort to lift themselves from their low condition of savagery to a higher plane of civilization, as is instanced by their adopting proper clothing, living in more comfortable houses, using civilized food, and properly cooking the same. They also evince an inclination to Christian worship and education, but with rare exceptions the Indian seems incapable of acquiring a complex education. Beading, writing, and spelling are readily learned by them, and they particularly excel in the imitative studies, writing and drawing.

Whether on the whole these Indians will become civilized before the race becomes wholly extinct remains a problem which time alone will be able to solve.