History Pages: 1 - The Ohlone

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For a table of contents, see History pages.

Update: July 29, 2014

Recent reading of first-hand accounts from the 1769 Portola expedition has yielded some new information about the Ohlone and other native California peoples. Their descriptions of native life, customs and behavior contributed to our understanding of the pre-European peoples.

It should be remembered that the mostly-coastal tribes met by the Portola expedition were not totally ignorant of Europeans. Spanish and other sailing ships had been plying the Pacific waters off California for more than 200 years before Portola made the first exploration on land. Many of those ships had landed at harbors they found along the coast, and others had come to grief on the offshore rocks. Portola found the natives in possession of artifacts salvaged from or traded by those earlier mariners. Those encounters had apparently been mostly positive, for Portola encountered very little outright hostility during his journeys.

Only one bit of information about the natives from the writings of Portola and his companions inspired an addition to a Wikipedia article about the natives (as opposed to details about interactions with the Spaniards during the expedition). Lieutenant Pedro Fages, third in command, wrote a later recollection of the expedition, in 1775. He wrote at length about the native peoples, and was the only one of the expedition chroniclers to comment on the ubiquity of male homosexuality among the California natives. A quote from his report, with a citation footnote, were added to the article Two-Spirit.

Following is the original post, from July 20, 2011:

The Ohlone

Ohlone-Dancers-400px.png

The native people of the central California coast are usually referred to today as the Ohlone. Until about 40 years ago, writers used the name Costanoan, from the Spanish word for coast. The image at right (courtesy of OAC) is a drawing of a group of native dancers at Mission San Jose, from ~1803-1807. They likely represent a different tribal group from the people who lived near Santa Cruz, but we have no pictorial record of Santa Cruz natives from such an early date.

You can find Ohlone on a few signs around the S. F. Bay area, but none (that I’ve found) in Santa Cruz. Only three possible vestiges of local Ohlone words survive on Santa Cruz area signs: Aptos, Soquel and Zayante. Because the Ohlone had no written language, these names are presumed to be phonetic renderings of Ohlone words. The Spanish sound of the words is due to the fact that the earliest written versions of the names were recorded by Spanish explorers, mapmakers and missionaries. The words’ origins are not clear, and many alternative spellings have come and gone over the years. Historian Donald Clark found these variations on Aptos: Abtos, Avtos, Otosh, Autosh, Autos, Outos, Otas, Atos and Ortos.

The name Soquel emerged from similar spelling adventures. Most early mission records wrote it Osocales. Later English-speaking settlers (possibly during visits to local pubs) offered their own theories on the word’s origins. One of them goes like this: a local miner came into a tavern complaining that his new boots hurt his feet. He asked if anyone knew how he could make the boots more comfortable and was advised to “soak ‘em”. “Soak, hell!” was his retort. This anecdote does not explain how the spelling of ‘soak-hell’ morphed into Soquel.

Several non-local Native American words have been imported from other parts of the country for use on our street signs. We have Dakota Avenue, Cherokee Lane, Delaware Avenue and others. Visitors from New England might be surprised that so few local Native American place-names have survived. That may be because the first Europeans in this area were Spanish, rather than British or French. That fact also accounts for the large number of Spanish names on local signs.

Further Reading:

Next: History Pages: 2 - The Explorers