Remembering the Ohlone: Alameda’s first inhabitants

Dennis Evanosky    This display at the Coyote Point museum gives us an idea as to how the Ohlone lived along the San Francisco Bay shoreline. They fashioned their boats and homes from the branches of willow trees and tule reeds.

Today’s Island City began life as a peninsula where Native Americans, members of the Ohlone tribe, first lived more than 3,000 years ago. These first settlers took advantage of the climate and the readily available staples — acorns, game, fresh water and oysters. The Ohlone found today’s Alameda an attractive place to live. Willow trees grew along Sausal (“Willow”) Creek to the north. The Ohlone used the branches from these trees to build their homes. 

As Sausal Creek emptied into today’s San Leandro Bay, it created a marshland that attracted ducks and other birds. Some of these birds nested further east on “Wind Whistle Island,” as the natives called the Uplands on today’s Bay Farm Island. These nests provided the Ohlone a ready supply of eggs. 

Most importantly, however, the bay offered up oysters in such abundance that over the years the natives created shell mounds all over the peninsula. The Native American presence was especially concentrated in the peninsula’s eastern end. Imelda Merlin tells us in Alameda: A Geographical History that “Four mounds were found east of Park Street and two others between Park and Chestnut streets.”

The largest, the Sather Mound,  mound measured 400 feet by 100 feet and was 14 feet high at its apex, see Take a Hike! on this page. There were other smaller shellmounds in today’s Alameda. In 2006 a Public Works crew working on Washington Street discovered a skull. 
By the time the day was over the Alameda County Coroner’s office had unearthed the entire skeleton of a young Native American girl. 

Not so long ago the police were called to a home on one of the streets where the Sather Mound was once located because a work crew discovered human remains. These remains were too old to raise any suspicions, the Alameda Sun was told o that they were likely from the shell mound. 

The Alameda County Coroner’s Office retrieved the remains and turned them over to the Native Americans. The coroner would not disclose what happened to the remains, but suggested that the proper authorities reinterred them in the Ohlone Indian Cemetery in Fremont. 

So what happened to the Ohlone? They kept no written records, so we have to rely on the Spanish to find out. Three Spanish expeditions trekked into and through the East Bay. The expeditions’ diaries offer the first written descriptions of these Native Americans.  

Pedro Fages, a man his soldiers nicknamed “L’Os,” (the Bear), set out from Monterey on the first of these treks. Fages’ party — including six Catalonian Volunteers, known as Spanish Bluecoats — set off on November 21, 1770, in search of a land route around the “estero” (San Francisco Bay) that Gaspar de Portola discovered a year earlier. 

Fages returned to today’s East Bay in 1772 and trekked further north until the modern-day Carquinez Strait got in his way. 

His party turned inland and explored the what we know as the San Ramon Valley before returning to Monterey. In 1776 the Anza Expedition; came through East Bay once again. The party spent the night on today’s Mills College and drew the first map ever of Alameda. 

Editor’s note: Under normal curcumstances, Alameda Sun  publichers Eric J. Kos would be leading history tours for the city’s “Alameda Walks” program.  Instead Eric and Dennis are presenting  six weeks of history story. This week’s  presentation includes a sketch of one of their city  walks: a stroll around the East End’s Sather Mound.