For many years a debate hung over the use of the word “discovered” when talking about Columbus Day. Italian Americans lobbied Congress in 1934 for a holiday to honor their heritage and recognize the contributions of their immigrant ancestors. However, Americans failed to acknowledge the role of the many people who lived in the Americas when the Italian navigator Christopher Columbus landed in the West Indies on the island the Lucayan people called Guanahani. Claiming the island for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Columbus renamed it San Salvadore.
In 2021 President Joe Biden officially endorsed the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ day. Many states now observe this holiday instead of, or as well as, Columbus Day. I found this holiday a good reminder to reflect on Native American heritage and even to discover what tribes lived on the lands I’m now on. An interactive map for the Canadian website Native Land Digital (native-land.ca) shows territories throughout the Americas that Indigenous people inhabited. You can learn about this nonprofit’s sources for its map on its website. When I clicked on the California state area, a box popped up listing the names of the many tribes that had dwelled there. I’ve researched several of them and found that each group had its own language, customs, ceremonies, foods, and tools depending on its location. For example, some peoples used locally-sourced clay to make pots while others living near marshes used reeds to weave baskets and mats. I feel I now have a better understanding of their lives and their world before Spanish explorers came.
US Route 101 trails along the California coastline from San Diego and beyond the northern California border. As far as San Francisco, it follows much of the same route that the Spanish explorer (conquistador) General Gaspar de Portolá traveled from 1769-1770, when he led an expedition for the Spanish king. The path was labeled El Camino Real, the Royal Road. Franciscan friars trudged along hundreds of miles with the Spanish expedition and started to build a chain of missions in Alta California along El Camino Real, which stretched from Mexico City to the San Francisco Bay. The Royal Road sprouted branches leading east over mountains and desert to Santa Fe, which was also Spanish territory. Spanish and Mexican soldiers, settlers, fur trappers and traders, messengers, Native Americans, and the Richardson family rode along El Camino Real.
Today, Californians and tourists drive US Route 101, never realizing that a good portion lies on the route along which General Portolá guided his expedition. During his explorations, Portolá established the California cities of San Diego and Monterey. He also served as the first governor of Alta California. Of the twenty-one Spanish missions constructed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some have disintegrated, but many people visit those that have been preserved and are still places of worship today.
Mexican soldiers wore uniforms of dark blue wool jackets with scarlet collars and cuffs and brass buttons, matching wool trousers, and wide-brimmed black hats. But for protection from indigenous peoples’ arrows, the soldiers wore leather coats that hung to their knees. They carried long lances and leather shields as shown in this photograph. This display is in the San Francisco Presidio museum on the site of the original Spanish Presidio. Because the soldiers often herded cattle and horses, rode as escorts for the friars, and carried mail between presidios, the cumbersome leather coats were shortened to jacket length. The jackets were made of antelope hide with red felt collars and cuffs. Antelope-hide leggings or breeches covered the soldiers’ legs.
News articles recently reported that a person is serving time in prison and paying fines for approaching too close to a grizzly bear and her cubs in Yellowstone National Park. All park visitors are warned about the dangers of approaching any of the wild animals and given specific distances to stay away from them. For grizzlies, you are told to keep 100 yards (that’s 300 feet! 91 meters!) between you and them. If you are closer and a bear decides to chase or attack you, you will not get away. These bears can run up to 40 mph, a lot faster than any human. They can run up and downhill, swim, and also climb trees although because of their long, curved claws, not as good as black bears. Males can weigh up to 700 pounds and females up to 400 pounds. A large male standing on his hind feet might be seven to nine feet tall. Not something you’d want to wrestle. I read that even though millions of people visit Yellowstone each year, records kept since 1892 show only 16 people were ever killed by bears.
When I visited Yellowstone National Park, I was thrilled to observe so much wild life up close. Some of these animals can still be seen in California but not in such numbers as in the past. Huge populations of elk, deer, black bears, wolves, and grizzlies once roamed the hills and valleys of California. Some such as wolves and grizzlies are gone forever.
In 1846 American settlers in Alta California rebelled against the Mexican government. They chose the grizzly as a symbol for their flag because the bear never backed away from a fight. These rebels became known as the Bear Flaggers. When California joined the United States, the rebel flag with the grizzly was adopted as the state’s official flag. The grizzly still flies on the state flag even though the last California grizzly bear was shot in 1924.
The clothing and decorations the indigenous people wore were all from nature— furs, grasses, shells, feathers, and even bear claws. Some California Native American customs and apparel have been preserved . A few years ago I watched Miwok and Pomo men, women, and children dance to drum music wearing beaded necklaces, feathers, and headdresses made of black-tipped feather shafts similar to those shown in a painting by Louis Choris, a French painter. I read the woven headbands were made with flicker feather shafts stripped of the wispy, feathery sides. Flickers are large, brown woodpeckers with a black feather bib. In the West, their feathers have reddish shafts ending in black tips. The photograph shows two feathers I found in my garden. The bottom feather is from a flicker’s tail.
A cascarón is an emptied chicken egg that has been filled with confetti. The Spanish word cascarón means “eggshell.” Similar to Easter eggs, popular in many cultures, these hollow eggs are a tradition that started in Spain and spread to Mexico when Spain colonized Central America. It is still a widespread tradition in the southwestern United States and Mexico. María Antonia Richardson and her daughter Mariana would have made many cascarones for fiestas during their lifetimes. To make these eggs, early California women poked small holes in one end of the eggs, blew out the raw contents, and rinsed the empty shells. After the shells dried, the women filled them with cologne or tiny pieces of brightly colored cut paper and sealed the holes with melted candle wax. The cascarones were saved to use at an Easter fiesta or a party. As guests arrived or during the dancing, a woman or man would secret an egg in one hand, hide it behind his or her back, and crack the cascarón on the head of the surprised partner or friend. A shower of fragrant cologne or bits of colored paper would cover the unsuspecting victim’s hair. Today, decorated cascarones are popular for birthdays and holidays such as New Year’s, Carnival, Cinco de Mayo, the Day of the Dead, and of course, Easter.
Just as many other people are, I’m anxiously waiting for a Covid-19 vaccination. How fortunate we are to live now when so many vaccines are available to prevent deadly diseases that regularly dispatched people at a young age. As I read in Bill Bryson’s book The Body: a Guide for Occupants, vaccines for smallpox, diphtheria, polio, and measles saved the lives of millions. Better sanitation, improved diets, and fresher foods also helped in a major way.
In the early 1800s in Alta California, there were no doctors and little medicine. Smallpox caused virulent epidemics in the Native American population, but occasionally the vaccine was available to inoculate some of them. Because Captain Richardson had some medical experience during his service in the British merchant marines, he helped the friars at the California missions when he could. For common illnesses, most medicines were made from plants. Blackberry syrup was used to treat coughs. Indigenous people in California drank a tea made with the leaves of a native shrub, now known as mountain balm, as a remedy for coughs, colds, asthma, and bronchitis. After they taught Spanish settlers to use it, the Spanish called the herb yerba santa, meaning “holy or sacred herb.” Chemicals in the leaves are effective in loosening phlegm. Chumash people in Southern California probably taught Richardson to use the leaves in a poultice to relieve pain from sprains, bruises, and arthritis. When doctors or naval surgeons visited California, they might provide doses of medicines such as laudanum, mercury, or calomel. Some of these proved to be worse than the illnesses they were supposed to cure. Laudanum was addictive, and mercury, used to treat syphilis, could kill the patient.
Bull and bear fights were a common entertainment in early California. Vaqueros rode into the hills, searched for a grizzly bear, lassoed it, and dragged it back to a corral, which was often set up near a California mission. When a bull was dragged into the same corral, the bear’s rear leg was tied to one of the bull’s forelegs, and the two beasts were forced to attack each other. Somewhere I had read that these fights were the early origins of the stock market terms. The way the animals attack inspired the name. A bull thrusts its horns up, while a bear swipes its claws down. A bull market refers to a rise in stock prices while a bear market portends a downward trend. In her recollections of social life and customs in the 1830s, Captain Richardson’s daughter Mariana described watching such a fight when she was nine years old, the animals attacking each other as they tried to break away and escape. However, after checking on the Merriam-Webster website, I found another origin story. An old proverb warned it was unwise to sell a bear’s skin before catching the bear, meaning don’t buy something of no value. The term “bearskin jobber” came into use, “bearskin” was shortened to “bear,” and that term was applied to a stock being sold by a speculator or the actual speculator. Bull market might originate from the use of bulletin board notices for the early London Stock Exchange: the more bulletins on the board, the stronger the market.
A notice about knitting scarves for homeless people caught my attention and I am now adding my donation to the cause. As I calculated how long the project might take (probably about two weeks), I paused to think about making clothing two hundred years ago. It took me a year to knit just one sweater, but in early California, every stitch of clothing was sewn by hand. Talk about labor intensive! All baby clothes, dresses, shirts, linens, bedding. Often many pieces were decorated with embroidery. The Native American women at the missions were taught to weave to make blankets and rough cloth, using the wool from mission sheep and goats. The Franciscan friars taught them to sew clothing also. My knitting is just a hobby. The women in the past made their clothes out of necessity. And some men too. They did buy some clothing from trading ships—boots and shoes, hats, fine Peruvian wool or Chinese silk shawls, men’s jackets.
Pioneers across the West did such work. We have all heard of sewing bees and women neighbors gathering to make patchwork quilts as gifts for soon-to-be-married couples. But think of all the cooking and cleaning that women did as well! Churning butter, making cheese, baking bread, endless housework. They served as the family doctors and nurses and prepared birthday and holiday celebrations. They performed truly amazing amounts of work and should be remembered and honored as much as the well-known male historical figures are.
I never realized how large the California territory was when Spain and then Mexico claimed the land. The region called Californias stretched past the Sierra Nevada Mountains and across the current states of Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, as well as some of Arizona. Baja California was also part of this area. The Republic of Mexico governed Nuevo Mexico and Tejas (or Texas) as well. This land fit like puzzle pieces next to what is now known as the Louisiana Purchase, which the United States purchased from France. The United States annexed the Mexican territories of Alta California and Nuevo Mexico after the Mexican-American War in the 1840s. Texas had become a republic but then joined the States as well. The United States actually compensated Mexico for these territories — a highly unusual action at the time for a victor in a war.