Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Miwok in our Valley

The Miwok in our Valley

The central purple area is Marinwood Park and Miller Creek School area as evidenced by Miller Creek.

Did you know that the Miwok sat and created beads and cooked their food, and buried their families, across the creek from Dixie Elementary School?

This oil painting, made in the spring of 1935 by George Dumont Otis, 1879-1962, captures some of the beauty of Upper Lucas Valley before it was developed into our home. It's on the Miller Creek Watershed website, a new resource found at http://www.nbwatershed.org/millercreek/. In section five, they show a surprising map of the Miwok residential areas in our valley.
The Center purple blotch is Marinwood Park and Miller Creek School.  The larger purple area is Round Tree, Casa Marinwood and Silveira Ranch/ St Vincents.

That littlest purple blotch on the left? that's in upper lucas valley, just east of where the creek that omes in at Dixie school, formerly joined the main creek. I say formerly, because I imagine that little creek has been redirected a little bit, when our homes were built, and Mlller Creek probably has been, a little, as well.

The Indians lived by hunting, fishing, gathering shellfish, and collecting seeds, acorns, plants from our valley, so they must have hiked up all the side creeks that we can walk on. But thanks to an excavation by Charles Slaymaker and some volunteers from the valley in 1969-71, and thanks to earlier maps, we also know where they slept, camped and worked on their crafts.

If you are really interested, it's possible to look through a copy of Slaymaker, Charles. 1977.The Material Culture of Cotomko’tca: A Coast Miwok Tribelet in Marin County, California. MAPOM Papers No. 3. Miwok Archaeological Preserve of Marin: San Rafael, CA. It's in the Anne Kent California Room, at the Marin Civic Center Library. Dr Slaymaker was also a major investigator at Ollompalli.

The book was published in 1977, but it documents what they found when they excavated the shell mound and some of the other Miwok sites on Miller Creek, just behind the junior high school, and also did a quick search at one of the sites up here close to us, before it was buried under either the Muir Creek subdivision or the office buildings (I'm not sure which).

For a very long time, the Coast Miwok thrived in Lucas Valley. We know that by the time the Spanish missions were active, the tribelet that lived here had a name, that was pronounced something like Shotomko-cha. One of their members from 'Rancheria Sotomcochi' was baptised in San Rafael Mission in 1921. Apparently it's most correct to write it, Cotomko’tca. Apparently, they had a fairly easy living, as, during the time they lived, the rivers had plenty of salmon, the bay was closer in and was rich in shellfish, and there were plenty of mammals to hunt. In addition to deer, bobcat, woodrats, mountain lions, and mountain beaver, there were formerly also roosevelt elk, and northwestern coast wolves. They had a rich social culture and some very sophisticated basket arts. In the book, Indian Baskets of California and Oregon Series, Vol. 1 #1: Indian Baskets of Central California: Art, Culture, and History, by Ralph Shanks and Lisa Woo Shanks, there are some exquisite Coast Miwok baskets with shell ornamentation.

The Indians did not last long in the valley after the spaniards arrive, due to illnesses and mandatory absorption into the mission I suppose, but there were visible remains for some time. There is a map by the archaeologist Nels Nelson, 1909, "Shellmounds of the San Francisco Bay", which shows the shellmound in Marinwood and traces of mounds or sites up in our part of the valley. The sites were surveyed formally in 1955 before marinwood was developed. And then, in 1969, after some informal digging and collecting was apparently happening, the formal excavation by Charles Slaymaker began.

Nelson's map shows a number of sites. In addition to our tribelet or town of cotomko’tca, there was also another village, Ewu, whic Dr Slaymaker thought was probably a cluster along gallinas creek 1.5 miles south of miller creek. There was another settlement, called Puyukuis, over deep in Ignacio valley. In upper lucas valley, he noted two sites, across from each other on our creek, now under development.

During the excavations in Marinwood, many tools and ornaments were found, in among the remains of the shellfish they ate: mussels (mytilus edulis), oysters (ostrea lurida) and other species, clinocardium nuttalli and macoma. There were stone mortars, obsidian arrowheads, antler tines, bird bone whistles, mussel shell spoons, horseneck clams made into fiber strippers, clam disc beads, and gambling bones. The site, formally known as Mrn-138, is also the only site in Marin county where an atlatl spur (a spear thrower) has been found. There were also people: they found a number of careful burials, in one place seven adults 2 infants, and they also found signs that some people had been cremated.

A lot of people participated in this excavation, adults and also junior high schoolers, so I am sure there are Valley residents around today who remember working on this.

Now here is exactly what Mr Slaymaker wrote about our local site that he excavated:

Mrn 403, nicknamed Ripoff because of its destruction, was located in upper lucas valley about 2 miles west of mrn-138. On the south bank of miller creek, its dimensions approached 30x30 meters with a depth of close to one meter in some sectors. The average depth was about 60 centimeters. A 2% sample was recovered from the site prior to trenching and grading operations undertaken by developers. While the site surface was being scraped 5 human burials and a number of features were observed.
The artifact inventory from Mrn-403 suggests a Phase II late horizon temporal placement for the site. Small corner notched projectile points, clam disc beads, lipped Olivella fraction beads, steatite disk beads,in addition to scant bone artifacts, comprise most of the assemglage. Numerous Olivella shells, shell fragments and finished lipped Olivella beads suggest bead making activities at the site. Mortar and pestle fragments were conspicuous by their rarity.
Faunal remains consist of large numbers of artiodactyls remains, especially long bone fragments. Most probably represent the remains of coast black tail deer, Odocoileus hemionus. Most other types of faunal remains, so common at Mrn-138, were absent. Shell fragments were scarce compared with other sites in the valley. Bay mussel, Mytilus edulism, and bay oyster, Ostrea lurida, were the most commonly observed species.

A number of features resembling roasting or steaming pits were found as the midden soil graded into the sterile adobe clay. In some of the pits carbonized grass and hazel nuts were preserved. It appears as if the grass were used as a lining for the pits and that, inadvertently, several hazel nuts were buried during a steaming or roasting process.

No structures were located either during systematic excavation or during grading operations. Occasional lumps of grass impressed daub were found but none were concentrated at any specific locus. No hard packed earth house floors were encountered

A small, compact cemetery of five interments was observed on the western margin of the site during grading operations. All were adults except for one infant. One child, seven to ten years of age, was excavated during the random sampling of the site prior to grading. This interment was dissociated from the main cemetery by about 10 meters

Some evidence of cremation was found in many of the excavation units. This evidence consisted of small, calcined bone fragments some of which were morphologically identifiable as human remains.

The artifacts and features suggest that this site was a settlement of temporary or short term occupation in contrast to Mrn-138 and associated structural loci. It is doubtful that Mrn-403 was an integral part of the village of Cotomko`tka; it was probably a separate settlement within the tribelet territory. It is impossible to determine if it was occupied on a permanent or temporary basis. Te floral and faunal remains suggest an autumn occupation. Some deer remains preserved antlers. Hazel nuts mature in the late summer and early fall. The presence of burials and cremations is a contraindications; seasonal camps rarely exhibited cemeteries. Although bead making activities could be in operation at permanent or temporary sites, most Central California Indians carried on these activities at permanent winter settlements. The rarity of mortars and pestles also argues against the use of the site as a fall campsite. Possibly, acorn preparation was undertaken at Mrn-138 with the other women of the tribelet, but that would seem to be unusual. Until further work is done on a similar site located to the north of 403 across Miller Creek and the full sample from Mrn-403 is analyzed, its function and a determination of permanence must remain obscure.

His comments and discussion of the whole area includes such interesting comments as:

It has been shown that the residents of Gallinas Valley probably maintained a secret society and a semi-subterranean dance house at the village… it is suggested that the triblet population approached 150 people who were aggregated at a number of permanent and impermanent villages…

In the book, there are sketches of burials on page 230. Pictures of the obsidian arrowheads are on page 231.


So, what does an amateur would-be archaeologist do after reading this and seeing this? well, of course. I went out exploring, ducking under blackberry vines, walking up and down the creeks, thinking I might find an overlooked arrowhead or two. Or maybe an intact basket with little shells on it. Of course they aren't there. But maybe the ghosts are. And maybe some neighbor will show me the arrowheads they found in 1967, or whenever. And anyway now when I walk up the side valleys of this canyon, and look at the little springs and fern grottos and rock outcrops, I have a different feeling about it. Like this place I'm in was someone's sacred space. Or, this valley I live in now, was once someone's entire world, and they may never have gone anywhere else and never seen a white person and never heard a word that wasn't Miwok. And those are pretty neat thoughts.

On the Marin oral histories web pages there is an interview with one of the descendants of the Miller family, at

"I was in my father’s uncles’ place, Bernard Miller, in San Rafael and he of course was the son of James Miller and this was in 1930, ‘28 and ‘30, and he had a lot of things there that came from the ranch and he had his sister’s wonderful collection of Indian baskets, California Indian baskets, and a lot of Indian artifacts."

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