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Morgan Hill
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August 7, 2020

Ohlone Indians Were First South Valley Inhabitants

Morgan Hill – Along the Uvas Creek a few miles southwest of Morgan Hill stands the Chitactac Adams County Park. On this site a Native American village stood for many centuries before Europeans arrived in this region.

Archeologists believe that for more than 3,000 years, according to Santa Clara County Park literature, the Mutsun Ohlone Indians lived in relative peace in this canyon setting on the eastern side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. And among the stories these original inhabitants told their children was one of how they first came to the South Valley.

Thousands of years ago, said Quirina Luna-Costillas, a member of the Mutsun tribe and the owner of the Mission Cafe in San Juan Bautista, the Ohlones first built their homes along the creeks in the eastern portion of the San Francisco Bay Area. But one winter, exceptionally heavy storms came. The rains pelted the land so hard, the water rose to sweep away their community’s tule huts.

“Mt. Diablo was the place where we went during the great flood,” Luna-Costillas said. “That’s how we survived. And after the great flood, we moved south.”

In what’s now the Santa Clara Valley, the displaced Ohlone built new villages and spent much of their days exploring the land for its resources. They built an intricate society here, and the land provided them with everything they needed, Luna-Costillas said.

“We were hunter gatherers,” she said. “We lived in tule huts. We used tule boats to get around. Our diet consisted of a lot of salmon and acorns.”

Every year after the fall harvest of acorns and berries, the various tribes in the region would come together in a gathering of about 4,000 Indians, she said. During this festival, food and goods were traded. It was also a time for young men and women to find marriage partners.

And in the winter months, stories were told to entertain the tribal community during the long cold nights, Luna-Costillas said. “Oral history was very strong and very accurate,” she said. “Winter time is the time to tell the stories. That’s the learning time. There’s always the lessons to be learned.”

Even though the children didn’t attend schools as we know them, they needed to learn important skills for the tribe’s survival. Girls were taught how to weave baskets and gather food and cook. Boys were taught how to hunt for deer, rabbits and other animals that lived in the valley.

All children were taught the important rituals and ceremonies that provided order and continuity in the tribe’s society. This included a religious ban on eating certain birds such as owls, eagles, ravens, and buzzards, and amphibians including frogs and toads. “Rules had to be followed,” Luna-Costillas said.

Like modern-day citizens of Morgan Hill, on some hot summer months the Ohlone liked to cross over the Santa Cruz Mountains to enjoy the beaches of the Monterey Bay. They feasted on abalone, then took the beautiful shells back to trade with other tribes.

For many generations, the Mutsun lived an idyllic life in their village by the Uvas Creek. With a limited population competing for the abundant resources, they existed in relative peace with neighboring Indian tribes.

According to author Malcolm Margolin in the book “The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco and Monterey Bay Area,” in 1770 the Indian population in South San Francisco and Santa Clara Valley numbered about 1,200 people. In this area, the Ohlone had eight social groups – each tribe numbering between 100 and 250 people – who considered themselves independent of each other. They had their own distinctive tribal name, leaders, languages, customs, and territory.

But in the last decades of the 18th century, their world would collide with the people coming from across the Atlantic Ocean. The Spaniards began the permanent European settlement of California by establishing Franciscan-run missions and creating pueblo communities along the coastal region.

In March 1776, Captain Juan Bautista de Anza made an exploratory journey through what’s now Santa Clara Valley. On the 25th day of that month, he wrote in his diary: “After traveling a short distance in the plain we turned to the west-northwest, and then began to meet many heathen, who went notifying those ahead, greedy for the glass beads which I gave them.”

That entry recorded the first time many of the Mutsun ever met Europeans. Perhaps they saw the white-skinned Spaniards as simply from another tribe of Indians who were passing through on a trading journey. They could never have known that the men riding on the strange four-legged animals called “horses” would bring about the end of their centuries-old way of life.

Quickly, the Spanish displaced the Mutsun from their village and sent them into a life of servitude at the Mission San Juan Bautista. They forced the original inhabitants of the South Valley area to accept Christian beliefs and European tastes. “They devastated our culture,” Luna-Costillas said. “A lot of our traditions had to be done underground for our protection.”

Despite the dramatic upheaval, the remaining Ohlone people now living in the coastal regions have preserved many of the old ways into the 21st century. The Mutsun language is now being reconstructed and the traditions and rituals are once again being practiced.


Before the Spanish, about 10,000 Ohlone people lived in the California coastal region between Big Sur and the San Francisco Bay’s Golden Gate gap.

The Ohlone mythology centered around an animal hero Coyote, an irresponsible yet clever being. Other mythological figures include the Eagle and Hummingbird.

Isabel Meadows was the last fluent speaker of the Ohlone language. She died in 1939.

Currently, the Ohlone tribal council claims about 500 people from 13 extended families. About 60 percent of these reside in Monterey and San Benito counties.

The Spanish originally called the Ohlone “costaños” which means “coastal people.” The name evolved into “Coastanoan.”

Native Americans of this tribe prefer to call themselves “Ohlones.” The origin of the name is uncertain.

Ohlone tribes traded extensively with tribes in the Central Valley of what is now California. They went as far as the Great Basin of Nevada.

Tribes from Walla Walla, Wash., came to the South Valley region to trade for cinnabar found in the New Almaden region.

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