The Ohlone Peoples: Botanical, Animal and Mineral Resources

by Susan Labiste




Goal: This research paper attempts to list the natural resources available to and utilized by the Ohlone Peoples prior to the 1769 arrival of Franciscan Missionaries in Monterey, California. At that time, their numbers are estimated at 10,000 (Bocek 1984:240 from Levey 1978)

The term Ohlone originally applied to a small tribelet (Oljón) living in the area midway between San Francisco and Monterey, but now it applies to all of the 8 groups of culturally and linguistically similar peoples originally termed Costanoans by the Spanish (Bean 1989:30 from Milliken 1991:445-46).  Their lands included the South and East San Francisco Bay Region extending south to Big Sur and inland to the foothills of Mt. Diablo (Bocek 1984:240). This group now usually self-identifies as one of several subgroups of Ohlone. Please note that despite some really desperate times in California history, California’s Ohlone Indians are still here and many are active participants in shaping a vibrant and contemporary Native culture.

The drawing above shows the territory of the Ohlone Peoples in central California (Bocek 1984:241).

The title: Much of the information about the lives of those living here when the Spanish arrived was recorded many years later. Most often these were non-Indian ethnolographers/linguists (primarily John Peabody Harrington for the Ohlone). Harrington interviewed a very limited number of Ohlone descendants in the southern portion of the land occupied by this linguistic group. In an attempt to fill so many gaps, I have included information about neighboring cultures, but never without identifying the Native group for whom the resource was actually documented.

Be aware that just as there is no one way of cooking eggs or of preparing wheat flour in contemporary American cuisine, there was no one way Native Peoples used local resources. California Native American culture was and still is not one, but many cultures which change over time. This research cannot hope to do the subject justice.

My target audience: This research was begun to ensure my own teaching was as factually correct as possible. I am happy to share it with classroom teachers K-6 or other adults looking to verify a bit of information, or anyone wanting to expand their knowledge.

Students: If you are not an adult, and want to read this, I’m delighted. Do not be alarmed by the somewhat formal style of my writing. I have tried to make it clear I am not making wild guesses about which natural resources the Ohlone Peoples used. I tell you where I found each bit of information so you can check my source to find out more. If I don’t have a source, and I am imagining something was probably true, I will write in (author). That’s me.

You will notice interruptions in the flow of the reading as you encounter parenthesis. Inside each parenthesis you will see this: (the author’s name, the year they published that idea: and the page on which I found it). If you want to know where the idea came from, just look in the reference section at the end of this article to see what that author wrote, and the date it was published. You can read their book or their article if you want to see what evidence supports their idea. I have taught California history to lots of kids. I know you are smart and can pursue whatever really fascinates you.

Oh, and if you are tempted to copy and paste this into your class report due tomorrow . . . . just remember who my target audience is . . . . Your teacher!

Photography: I have only included my own photographs. An online search using the scientific name, will yield far more visual information for plant identification. CNPS is a particularly nice source.

A note on cultural sensitivity: I do not claim Native American ancestry. It is always difficult to interpret someone else’s cultural history. I use the terms Indian, Native American and indigenous people synonymously. Apologies to anyone offended by the geographically inaccurate term Indian or by the generalization implied by Native American. In truth, it is difficult verbal turf to navigate. If you claim Native ancestry, and would like to improve my cultural sensitivity, I am open to suggestion. Email me. So far, I have just met those who are proud to consider themselves American Indian, but identify themselves by their affiliation with a specific cultural group.

I’d like to express gratitude to those Native Peoples who collaborated with ethnographers, and to those individuals who have shared their own personal cultural heritage with me. It has allowed me the opportunity to enrich my life with an appreciation for both the generosity of the land and the rich cultural heritage of those who lived here prior to the arrival of my own ancestors. 

Studying this subject leaves me with a reminder that the behavior of my American and European ancestors was not as exemplary as my grade-school texts once implied. The texts were sometimes factually incorrect, but more troubling was their failure to address the cultural, racial and religious intolerances of history. I was 28 before I realized what “manifest destiny” really meant to the indigenous population of California. While researching an entirely different subject at the local historical society, I read an old newspaper article that shocked me. It was a notice about the bounty paid for Indian scalps in Napa, California. From there I learned worse. Then, as now, xenophobic thinking leads to a profound cruelty to those defined as “other”. However, my research is not a venue for social commentary. I state it here because you will not see reference to such things in the following text and to leave it unsaid casts a long shadow.

I’d also like to say thank you to my loving husband, Dino, who shares this and other interests with me and will, no doubt, spend hours and hours converting this text and accompanying photographs into web pages.


Index of Plants:
Berries and Fruit
Root Crops or Geophytes
Fiber Plants
Wood for Bows and Arrow Shaft Materials
Basketry Materials
Insecticides and insect Repellants
Dye Plants
Other uses of Plants

Animal Resources

Insect Resources

Seafood and Aquatic Resources

Mineral Resources

Land Management





Photographs by Susan Labiste. All photo rights reserved.

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