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California has been home to indigenous people for close to 12,000 years. Before 1769, when the first mission was established in San Diego, more than 300,000 native men, women, and children lived in villages of family groups up and down what is now the Golden State. Loosely organized into “tribelets,” they built their lives around food, culture, and ritual. About 5,000 of them made their home in and around the Sonoma Valley as the eighteenth century began, and today are called the Miwok, Patwin, Pomo, and Wappo.
The Miwoks lived in the valley but also far beyond it, from the Sierra Nevada to the coastline, and the Coast Miwok made their home here. Their basketry was unique to whatever region they inhabited, with the work deeply influenced by neighboring tribelets. They also shared characteristics of clothing, language, and ceremonies with the other people who lived in the valley.
Patwin peoples settled and wandered within a three-hundred-mile radius of Sonoma’s borders. They had a worldview made up of legends shared through storytelling, and leaders whose powers included healing the sick. They set up their permanent and temporary villages near water, which is why they are sometimes called “river people.”
The Pomo were more loosely organized than the people they shared the Valley with, and were wide-ranging traders. When the Russians established Fort Ross on the northern Sonoma coast in 1812 the Pomo began to trade with these new inhabitants, including their baskets, which were some of the most intricate in California.
The ancestral home of the Wappo was north and west of the Napa Valley, all the way to the Russian River. Early visitors to the region wrote that the Wappo were fierce and yet also artistic in their basket-making.
No matter the differences in their culture, local tribelets all shared in Sonoma Valley’s abundant game and native plants. Deer, elk, and antelope were meat sources, along with game birds like ducks and geese. Hunters fashioned arrow points and other tools out of obsidian, a naturally occurring volcanic glass, remnants of which are still found around the valley today.
Salmon and trout splashed through Sonoma Creek. Nuts came from buckeyes and junipers, and wild grapes and blackberries also grew everywhere. Spring greens, so important after the winter, included clover, Miner’s lettuce, and cow parsnip. But the most important source of food was the acorn. Acorns came from the great variety of oak trees in northern California: coast live oak, valley oak, and black oak. But turning the hard acorn into something edible was a long and detailed process.
To prepare acorns for eating, the shells were first removed, so the kernel inside could be ground in a stone mortar into something like flour. This was sifted through a basket and prepared for leaching: sending water through the crushed acorns to remove what are called tannins. These make the flour very bitter and inedible. (Tannins aren’t all bad: wines also have this characteristic, though their taste is managed by skilled winemakers.)
There were a few ways to do the leaching process. One was to put the acorns in a basket or some sort of container filled with layers of sand of different consistencies. Then someone poured water through the mixture over and over until experience told them when the bitterness was gone. The basket could also be placed in a running stream, or just buried in mud.
At this point, the now-leached sifted acorns could be made into a mush by placing the flour into a basket with water and heated rocks, causing it to boil and cook. Cooled, it could be eaten as is, or made into a type of bread, baked in a pit lined with leaves and more heated stones, where it was steamed until cooked. Once it hit the cooled outside air, the “loaf” hardened up and was ready to be stored or eaten.
Although the Miwok, Patwin, Pomo, and Wappo peoples sometimes clashed with each other, life was comprised of food preparation, religious observance, art, and family. Two hundred years ago, a village called Huchi thrived near Sonoma Creek. It is here in the fall of 1823 that everything changed for the Sonoma Valley’s first inhabitants.
Up next - the rise of the California mission system in Sonoma Valley: Mexican roots, American takeover.