Shirleen Davies

Indian Tribes of California 1860-1900

Indian Tribes of California 1860-1900

The Native Americans of Northern California, who inhabited the crest of the High Sierra west to the Sacramento River and south to the Consumnes River, consisted of three closely related tribes:

  • Mountain Maidu —Plumas and Lassen counties
  • Konkow—Butte and Yuba counties
  • Nisenan—Yuba, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, and El Dorado counties

Nisenan Tribe

The Nisenan dwelled in the foothills of Nevada County for thousands of years. They were born in pre-contact villages such as Waukaudok, Woloyu, Ustomah and Kiwimdo. They were part of a wholly balanced ecosystem, which flourished on the Yuba, Bear, and American River watersheds, and their tributaries, along with the wildlife that also lived in this lovely terrain.

Chief Culley

In 1887, Tribal Chief Charley Cully attained a land allotment for a portion of this same ancient land, in hopes of procuring a permanent home for the Nisenan. At his death in 1911, Chief Cully’s land allotment was converted by President Woodrow Wilson’s executive order into the Nevada City Rancheria, so the land on Cement Hill became Federal Trust Land. Moreover, the tribal government became a federally recognized entity… and remained so for decades.

Culture of the Nisenan

The Nisenan observed an annual fall mourning ceremony.  Their healers could be of either gender, although women were considered less likely to hurt a patient. Their religious leaders included religious shamans, poison shamans, singing shamans, and weather shamans.

Maidu Tribe

Known as the Mountain or Northern Maidu, this tribe occupied the area where the Feather River and its many tributaries run. The landscape was made up of forested ridges, high lakes, and verdant valleys.

The Maidu language is part of the Penutian language family and is similar to the Konkow and Nisenan dialects. The language is verbal only and there is no written history of the Maidu before the arrival of Euro-Americans.

Maidu Shelter

The Maidu built their villages near rivers and waterfalls, and on hills and mountains in spots protected from strong winds and flooding streams. The villages were also located near game and edible plants. Each group generally remained in their own valley. They’d migrate to the mountains to hunt and gather food in warm seasons. When the snow began to fall, they’d spend the winter in large, round cedar bark lodges called K’ums.

History of the Maidu

Before 1700, when they abandoned it to the Paiutes, Maidus also controlled territory east of Honey Lake into present day Nevada.  In 1833, many Maidus died from a severe epidemic, possibly malaria.

 Customs of the Maidu

The Maidu had a nature-based religion. Lakes, rocks, and waterfalls were revered. They also had a high regard for animals and honored grizzly bears, and rattlesnakes in special dance ceremonies.  They practiced the Kuksu cult, a ceremonial and dance organization led by a powerful shaman. Only those properly initiated could join. Members followed a dance cycle in which dances represented different spirits.

Their spiritual beliefs included a creation story of a great spirit named World Maker, who created the earth and everything on it. The Maidu made offerings to World Maker, and in turn, asked the spirit to bless them with them plenty of food and rain.

Konkow Tribe

Occasionally, the Konkow are referred to as the Northwestern Maidu. They lived along the Feather River and part of the Sacramento River in the area that is now Butte County.

In 1863, the newly formed State of California forced 11 tribes including the Konkow on a 100-mile death march, known as California’s Trail of Tears, to the Round Valley Reservation. Of 461 Indians who set out under guard, only 277 completed the 14-day trek.

History of the Konkow

At first contact with Euro-Americans in the 1830s, the tribes caught deadly diseases and many Konkows, Maidus, and Nisenans died. Also, the 1849 Gold Rush had a horrific effect on the tribes. As increased numbers of miners and pioneers moved into the area, they plundered and devastated the Native Americans’ traditional sources of food, which caused starvation among the tribes. Many of the tribal villages were also destroyed during that period.

 The Clothing of the Three Tribes

Northern California Tribal Clothing

 Men—They wore different clothes in summer than winter. In warm weather, they wore a breechcloth or went nude. In the winter months, they wore clothes made from buckskin or the hides of elk, squirrel, rabbit and wildcats. The items of Maidu clothing included warm fur robes and cloaks, shirts, wrap-around kilts, mitts and leggings decorated with fringe. They wore one-piece moccasins with a front seam while hunting or traveling, but they went barefoot in warm weather.

Headdress—Their formal headdress consisted of a band of flicker bird feathers that covered the forehead and was tied at the back. Flicker birds are part of the woodpecker family. The Native Americans took the longest and thinnest dark pink or yellow feathers and sewed them together side by side, creating a long headband. These were bordered by dark brown feathers and attached to the head with twined string. Feather hair plumes were added as a separate decoration to complete the headdress.


Women—Women wore blouses and front and back aprons made of shredded willow bark. Their fringed and belted dresses hung to their calves. Ceremonial clothes were strung with ornaments, tassels and porcupine quills. They wore moccasins year-round. And, in winter they wore fur robes as outerwear for warmth.

The Food of the Three Tribes:

Acorns were a basic food for the tribes. They soaked the nuts in water or left them until they turned black to rid them of the bitter taste. Then, they roasted the acorns and ate them whole or ground them into acorn meal to make bread. The chief type of fish they ate were trout and salmon. The main game they hunted were deer, geese, duck, quail, rabbit, and small rodents. They also ate fruits, seeds, nuts, bulbs, roots and when meat was scarce they ate baked crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and locusts. They also drank cider made from Manzanita berries and tea brewed from wild mint.

Northern California Indian Tribes populates the region in my latest release, Blaine’s Wager, book 7 in the MacLarens of Boundary Mountain historical western romance series.



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