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Letter from the Bay Area

California's Coastal Homelands

How Native Americans defied Spanish missionaries and preserved their way of life

May/June 2022

California Perbrandt PaintingIn the shade of a ground-floor parking deck inside a campus garage, Santa Clara University archaeologist Lee Panich points out a dark rectangle etched into the gray concrete surface. It marks the foundation of an adobe structure, one of the few physical reminders of a part of California history usually left out of the books. Between 1777 and 1833, what is today the city of Santa Clara was the site of a Spanish missionary outpost. Home to a few Franciscan friars, a handful of Spanish soldiers, and hundreds of Indigenous Californians, it was one of a string of missions that extended the reach of the Spanish Empire nearly 2,000 miles north of Mexico City in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


In 2012, construction work prompted the university to dig up an area the size of a city block a few hundred yards from the campus’ mission-style church, built in 1926 after a fire destroyed the original. Historical records showed that many of the mission’s Native inhabitants were crowded into long adobe barracks near the mission church like the barracks whose foundation is marked in the parking garage. During the excavation, archaeologists found evidence—postholes, artifacts, and plant remains—that other Native residents had made their homes nearby in dwellings constructed of lightweight tule reed, creating a bustling town around the church. Members of Native American tribes from across the San Francisco Bay Area lived alongside each other, for perhaps the first time. “This was the core of the Native neighborhood,” Panich says, walking out into the bright California sun. “The only way you could have found it was with ground-penetrating radar or a big construction project like this.”


The soil stains left by postholes and firepits weren’t all that researchers uncovered. Hundreds of obsidian tools, glass and shell beads, and other finds now rest in dozens of cardboard storage boxes at the university. These artifacts and others are helping to illuminate how Indigenous Californians reacted to Spanish missionaries—and how their cultures outlived the missions, persisting long after Spanish rule ended. At Santa Clara and other sites across California, archaeologists are working to better understand the mission period, which began in 1769 with the establishment of Mission San Diego and ended in 1833 when the missions were dissolved by Mexican authorities.


This 64-year period is typically thought of as the end of the state’s Indigenous communities. “The predominant story is that Native people had their time and that it ended in the mission period,” says Tsim Schneider, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a member of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, a group made up of Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok people. For more than a century, that dark narrative has dominated how California’s colonial era is remembered. But new excavations in the Bay Area and new studies of collections in museum and university storerooms are allowing researchers to reconsider that old interpretation.


Over the past decade, Panich and others have uncovered evidence that Indigenous Californians maintained their traditions throughout the mission period, both within and outside the missions’ adobe walls. “People thought Natives came to the missions and lost their culture,” Panich says. “You can look at the archaeology and see that wasn’t the case.” The story archaeologists are telling now is a hopeful one in which Native communities in and around San Francisco responded to the missions by retreating to remote areas or by adapting their traditions to cope with the new European ones. In fact, these Californian Native Americans are still here. “Histories leave out the survivors,” says Schneider. “We’re putting people back in the picture.”



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