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Ohlone Indians in Pacifica

When Francisco Gali sailed past the coast of Half Moon Bay in 1585, he had no idea that his ship was under constant surveillance. All he reported was the sharp outline of Pillar Point. And the crew marveled at what is now called Sail Rock; it was then a significant islet five hundred feet long with two towering peaks 150 feet high.

Other than the crescent-shaped bay, the Spanish navigator observed nothing else. But from the rocky shoreline, a little-known band of Indians witnessed the event ominously. Yet, for nearly 200 years following Gali's momentous voyage, the Costanoans, meaning "coastal people," were spared the effects of contact with European culture.

Had Francisco Gali explored the local terrain on foot, he would have noticed a conspicuous lack of trees. Only a layer of native grasses covered the landscape, and to the east, the nearby foothills supported a dense growth of brush.

In this isolated setting, protected by mountainous barriers and facing a treacherous sea, the Costanoans, who may have inhabited this area for as long as five millennia, pursued a simple way of life. Unknown to them, the King of Spain had now claimed their land.

But the King continued to neglect his possessions in upper California until Russian fur trappers threatened these holdings in the eighteenth century. Worried, the king called the eminent explorer, Gaspar de Portola, to his side. Portola hardly suspected when he accepted the assignment of leading military expedition through northern California, that he was on his way to discovering San Francisco Bay.

In 1769, Portola and his men headed overland north from Mexico. When, just south of Half Moon Bay, they met a friendly tribe of Indians carrying red staffs and wearing wreaths of leaves in their hair, the weary travelers thought they were dreaming.

Some of the native women decorated their faces with tattoos and many of the sun-worshipping Costanoans painted their naked bodies with stripes of red, black, and white - so deceptive it was nearly mistaken for striped clothing. Still others showed off elaborate headdresses fashioned from as many as 250 kinds of bird feathers.

Although the Costanoans needed little clothing in their natural habitat, the women occasionally wrapped themselves in rabbit fur capes and wore deer-skin skirts. When the weather turned cold, the men coated their bodies with mud to keep warm.

By establishing temporary villages beside coastal streams, the Indians tapped a source for their food, water, and fuel. Each tribe built dome-shaped shelters, thatched with brush and grass surrounding a much larger assembly house. Portola encountered one of these at White House Flat, south of Pigeon Point. He was so impressed when he saw 200 natives disappear inside that he called the structure, "Big House."

Though the Costanoans hunted with bows, carrying their arrows in a skin bag slung over one shoulder, they were primarily gatherers. Food gathering followed the seasons and a native village often shifted along the long stream valleys. Still, some Indians proudly displayed ugly battle scars received from bouts fought with grizzly bears. But the natural environment, particularly the sea, provided the bulk of nutrition.

At low tide, the Costanoans from the village of Shagunte (Pillar Point) scoured the rocky shoreline for food. Northwest of the point at Frenchman's Reef, they gathered all the visible abalone, mussels, sea urchins and limpets. All these, plus fresh roots and insects steamed in water-tight baskets, added to their diet of local edibles.

Discovery of a stranded whale generated an atmosphere of goodwill. Such a rare occasion called for a special celebration. The Indians hung the whale blubber up to dry and later ate it as we would eat bread.

When the salmon and steelhead season arrived, the natives trapped the teeming fish in coastside creeks using clever devices called "net sinkers." Fashioned from reed and weighted down with grooved rocks, the Indians dropped these snares into the rushing streams. One of their favorite fishing grounds was at Pilarcitos Creek, near the Main Street Bridge in Half Moon Bay.

Both Portola and Rivera described the unusual grass-burning techniques practiced by the Costanoans. While the natural growth of trees and bushes was suppressed, they wrote, the yield of grass seeds was dramatically increased. The natives crushed these seeds with a stone mortar and pestle until they achieve a black, doughball mixture. It was a food with a distinctive almond flavor.

The Costanoans pursued life as they had for thousands of years when the Spanish arrived to institute the mission system. Within half a century, a chain of missions staffed with padres stretched from Sonoma to San Diego. The Costanoan religion, based on sun worship, brought only disapproving glances from their new masters who sought to convert them to Christianity. And on the heels of Spanish exploration, the Indians at Half Moon Bay faced a crisis threatening their very existence.

It all began innocently enough with the missionaries' peaceful visits to neighboring tribes, always accompanied by a guard of Spanish soldiers. On these occasions, the missionaries used the art of persuasion to endorse the new religion. The response was not always encouraging.

But the padres, whose glowing reports promised an abundant life at the mission, passed out irresistible samples of succotash and other taste delights. If all else failed, the Spanish soldiers with their strange firearms tended to frighten the Indians, whose simple weapons consisted of the bow and arrow, into submission.

At every opportunity along the way, the padres performed baptisms. They dipped into the Old Testament, replacing original native names with new Christian ones. At San Gregorio, Chief Isuu was christened Juan de los Santos. But soon the reservoir of names ran out, and practically everyone was called Jose.

Despite strict regulations forbidding missionaries to spend even one night in an Indian village, their methods paid off. Before long the padres performed a Christian burial at the village of Shalaihme (Purissima Creek). Entire tribelets converted to the new religion and native villages dissolved. By 1800, all of Half Moon Bay's Indians experienced the process of conversion.

The majority were taken to the San Francisco Mission Outpost at Pedro Valley where the Sanchez Adobe now stands in Pacifica. Chief Lachigi, along with 30 of his followers from the village of Zucigim (San Gregorio), joined the mushrooming number of converts there.

Here they learned a different lifestyle employed as mission laborers. Many appeared in new roles as talented masons, carpenters, vaqueros, tailors, blacksmiths, weavers, seamstresses, and woodcutters.

[Later] an epidemic wiped out one third of the mission Indian population. Among them were Half Moon Bay Indians who perished in great numbers from such European diseases as measles, mumps, malaria, and small pox.

An excerpt from Half Moon Bay Memories, The Coastside's Colorful Past by June Morrall (Moonbeam Press, El Granada, CA 1978) with the permission of June Morrall.

Editor's note: The name for the coastal tribes, Costanoan, is believed to have derived from the Spanish word, Costeno - people of the coast. Many scholars now call these people the Ohlone. If you want to know more about the fascinating people who lived here first, read The Ohlone Way by Malcolm Margolin (Heydey Books, Berkeley, CA 1978).