Indigenous Peoples of the Bay Area: A History of Survival

By Tobin Jones


While the term “Ohlone” is today the name most commonly used to refer to the family of peoples indigenous to what is now known as the San Francisco Bay Area, the widespread adoption of the term dates back no further than the early 20th century.


Given the massive diversity in languages, family groups, customs, and cultures, the native people of the northern and central California coasts likely would not have seen themselves as belonging to any single common group prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

To some degree, this persists today, with many local Indigenous people self-identifying primarily as members of one or more of approximately 58 distinct regional cultures that are grouped under the umbrella-term “Ohlone.” These include the Ramaytush of Yelamu, or San Francisco, and the Chochenyo, of Huichun, or Oakland, and much of the greater East Bay.

The Ohlone history of colonization differs significantly from that of more well-known plains nations such as the Lakota or Comanche. They share with many other California Natives an experience of invasion and oppression dating back to arrival of the Spanish in the 18th century.

The Indigenous people across California were forced to labor on behalf of the Franciscans, the religious order which oversaw the Catholic missions. Native language, culture, and customs were suppressed, and malnutrition, violence, and disease resulted in a staggering mortality rate. The labor performed by Indigenous “converts” in the areas of ranching, farming, and wine production created considerable wealth for the Franciscans.


Following Spain’s 1821 defeat in the Mexican War of Independence, control of Alta California passed to newly independent Mexico, which instituted a secularization policy designed to curb the power of the Church.

The Indigenous people under missionary rule were to be emancipated from Franciscan control and become eligible for Mexican citizenship. The mission system’s extensive land holdings were to be expropriated and redistributed, with half designated for newly freed Natives.

These promises of land and freedom proved to be worth little more than the paper they were written on. The majority of mission land would go to wealthy and politically influential Californio families, who used it to create enormous ranches and farms. Landless and destitute Natives were employed as laborers on the very land that had been promised to them.

Owners purposefully created systems of debt designed to trap workers in peonage, and conditions were often as bad as or worse than those the Indigenous had suffered under the Franciscans.

However, arguably the darkest period in the history of California’s Indigenous peoples began in 1848, when the territory was transferred to the United States, and gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Enticed by the lure of easy riches, white settlers poured into the territory. Seeing natives as an obstacle to full exploitation of the land, white Californians resolved upon a course of extermination.

What followed is believed by many scholars to be the worst instance of genocide against Indigenous people in US history. State sponsored death squads, as well as individual whites, committed widespread and indiscriminate violence against Natives throughout the state.

Fearing for their survival, Indigenous groups agreed to treaties which ceded the majority of their traditional lands in exchange for guaranteed reservations. However, due to pressure from California settlers, Congress never ratified these agreements, and many of California’s Indigenous peoples continue to be unrecognized by the United States government.

Today, Ohlone struggles continue to center on land and cultural survival. One noteworthy example was a 2011 spiritual encampment and blockade at Glen Cove, Vallejo, where a coalition of Ohlone activists and allies successfully prevented the destruction of the Karkin Ohlone Sogorea Te’ burial and ceremonial grounds.

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