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First People

History is long, but memory is short. Anderson Valley’s early settlers (“The Ties that Bind,” Anderson Valley Advertiser, January 10, 2018) may have arrived in the 1850s, but the valley’s history began millennia earlier, with the coming of Native Americans. These First People left little to indicate their presence here, but they were here.

The Pomo tribe of Native Americans has long been associated with Anderson Valley, but were not the first indigenous people to reside here. An old postcard shot near Yorkville shows a large boulder covered with ancient petroglyphs. The Yorkville petroglyphs are distinctly different from known Pomo petroglyphs in Willits and Lake County, suggesting a much earlier origin.

In contrast, the Pomo are relatively well documented. One of forty Native American tribal groups in California, the Pomo inhabited an area roughly bound by Fort Bragg and Longvale to the north, the western shore of Clear Lake to the east, Santa Rosa and Jenner to the south and the Pacific Ocean to the west.

Within the Pomo tribal area, there were seven distinct Pomo subgroups — Northern, Northeast, Eastern, Southeast, Central, Southern and Kashaya (Southwest) — each with its own territory. In addition, each Pomo band (as they were known) had its own language, as distinctive from one another as the romance languages — French, Spanish, Italian, etc. — of Europe.

The Pomo were hunters and gatherers, drawing on local bounty for food, clothing and housing. In addition to hunting — with bow and arrow, snares and spears — elk, deer, bear, rabbits, squirrels, seals, sea lions and birds, and fishing — with traps or nets — salmon, steelhead, perch and trout, they harvested abalone, mussels, acorns, buckeye nuts, bulbs, roots, berries and seaweed for food. Depending on the location, homes included round, domed thatched reed, brush or grass mat houses on willow frames, conical “teepees” made with redwood bark and flat-roofed pole houses. Clothing was made from shredded bark or hides. The Pomo also were skilled basket-makers; Pomo baskets are considered among the most beautiful Native American baskets ever produced.

Anderson Valley served as a demarcation for the Pomo, as the boundary between the Northern Pomo and Central Pomo ran from the Pacific primarily along the base of the hills west of the Navarro River and Rancheria Creek before heading east just below Boonville. A dozen Northern Pomo villages in Anderson Valley proper (and a similar number of seasonal camps) were scattered along the Navarro River, Rancheria Creek, Anderson Creek and Bell Valley: a smaller number of Central Pomo villages could be found near Yorkville at the headwaters of Rancheria Creek and Dry Creek.

Perhaps not surprisingly, both the Northern and Central Pomo in Anderson Valley were concentrated on the valley floor and eastern foothills; then mostly open meadows, wooded draws and mixed forests near the major watercourses. The steep, heavily forested terrain to the west was very sparsely populated, though Pomo from Anderson Valley likely traveled through it during their annual summer trips to the coast to harvest shellfish and salt.

Anderson Valley’s isolated location and rugged surrounding landscape protected the region’s Pomo from many of the disasters that befell fellow tribespeople living to the south and east during the early years of contact with Europeans, from 1820 through 1850. In 1833, a number of Pomo in southern Sonoma and Napa counties were forced into slavery by Mexican rancheros. A cholera epidemic in 1833 and a smallpox epidemic four years later killed many Pomo in Sonoma and Napa. In 1840, a posse lead by Salvador Vallejo massacred 150 Pomo and Wappo near Clear Lake. On May 15, 1850 in Lake County, the U.S. Cavalry carried out the Bloody Island Massacre in erroneous (the village attacked was not involved) retaliation for the murder of two ranchers who had abused and slayed local Indians: the massacre killed between 150 and 800 Pomo. By 1851, the Pomo population was estimated at 3,500 to 5,000, less than half the estimated population in 1800.

Approximately 600 Pomo were believed to be living in Anderson Valley in 1855, three years after the first European settlers arrived. That number declined rapidly, though the exact reasons are not documented. Almost certainly most of the local population was forcibly moved to the Mendocino Indian Reservation (established in Fort Bragg in 1856 and closed in 1864) or the Round Valley Indian Reservation (created as a sub-reservation near Covelo in 1856 and formally established as a reservation in 1870). Some of the remaining population may have died from diseases, either caught directly from European settlers or contracted from other Pomo during their annual migration to the coast. Pomo children were forced to attend Indian schools in Manchester, Noyo, Hopland and other locations, and some likely never returned home.

Contemporary accounts by Anderson Valley residents from the era mention the Pomo only in passing; a Pomo couple who worked for a local apple grower, Pomo weir fishing on the Navarro River, a theft of clothing by migrating Pomo. By 1914, there were only two Pomo families remaining in Anderson Valley; less than 10 individuals.

Today in Anderson Valley, there are few clues the Pomo were ever here: a few Pomo words incorporated into Boont, the valley’s nearly extinct language, artifacts collected by locals and kept by the Anderson Valley Historical Society, and Pomo village sites now almost completely forgotten.

During our time in the valley (beginning in the late 1950s), my siblings and I occasionally found a Pomo relic; one or two whole and a handful of pieces of mortar bowls for grinding acorns, five or six pestles for the same purpose, and a flaked spear point. They resided on our front porch for years.

During that time, I also frequently visited one of the Pomo village sites in the valley. The location was unremarkable; a road passed nearby and forest growth had overtaken previously cleared ground. Nevertheless, I could see the round indents of house sites, etched in the earth from decades of habitation, and could guess the path they took to reach a nearby creek.

History is long, but memory is short. Despite a major resurgence in Pomo culture among Pomo descendants in the past 35 years, the northern Pomo language essentially became extinct in 2005 with the death of the last native speaker, and only a few native speakers of the central Pomo language remain. Pomo presence in Anderson Valley was gentle and left few marks on the landscape.

The way the Pomo lived here and the way they left here offer lessons worthy of consideration by today’s Anderson Valley residents and landowners, both on how we care for the land to preserve (and in the case of local creeks and the Navarro River, restore) its natural bounty and how we behave towards those different from us.


  1. Aaron Sawyer March 10, 2018

    Like many native tribes in California the Pomo used fire to manage the land and influence the plant and animal communities they relied on for sustenance. Their impact on the Valley was substantial, but likely not what we would perceive as negative or destructive. By regularly burning vegetation, especially in oak woodlands where acorns were harvested they actively managed the land to make it hospitable to their way of life. Without burning, many of their oak woodlands eventually would have been overtaken by Douglas fir, which can grow in under the shade of a forest canopy more readily than true oaks. The taller, and relatively more shade tolerant Douglas fir, will over top and eventually replace the oaks unless they are removed by a disturbance such as a low intensity fire (ie: one that is confined to ground and in light fuels). Looking around the eastern foothills of the Valley, how much of the Douglas fir growth that we see in and around the oak woddlands and savannahs would have been allowed to gain a foothold under the Pomo’s management scheme? Would the thick forest growth one sees driving up Greenwood Ridge Road, for example, been allowed to accumulate and pose such a risk of a catastrophic stand replacing fire (not to mention the greater human risk of loss of life and property)? Fire was the chief tool the Pomo used to have a substantial effect on the Valley, its just that their efforts resulted in what we perceive as desirable and “natural” effects. Like so much of our region, this was a landscape that people intensively managed to provide the necessary resources for their way of life.

    • Marshall Newman April 22, 2018

      There are no accounts that suggest the Pomo used fire to burn vegetation on the east side of Anderson Valley. A more likely scenario is heavy early logging in those portions of the valley northeast slopes that had redwoods, followed by periodic burning by sheep ranchers to limit reforestation and maintain pastures. In addition, the southwest sun exposure creates a drier environment, one more conducive to grasslands and hardwoods rather than redwood and fir. With the removal of the latter by logging and fire, the former – except in isolated pockets – became the norm.

      • George Hollister April 22, 2018

        OK, test the hypothesis. Look at the old growth stumps and see if there are any old fire scars from fires that occurred prior to logging. My guess is the scars are there. The primary source of fires, after people came to America, was people. We like to think lightning, but the evidence suggests people were the primary source. What has also been observed, is fires only burned hot enough about every 25 years, during the Indian period, to result in fire scars. So these old growth stumps should show fire scars on a periodic basis, about every 25 years.

        Remember, also, Indians did not have CalFire available to put a fire out once it got started. So a fire started in one location could potentially got anywhere.

      • Bill Kimberlin October 23, 2021

        “In the fall before the rains many Pomos went to the ocean to gather seaweed, shell fish, fish, seal meat, and salt. Returning to their villages, they often set fires that cleared the forest of underbrush and also helped to control the bugs that could infest acorns.” AV Historical Society paper.

        Most of the oak trees that produced the acorns were, and still are, on the Eastern side of Anderson Valley.

  2. Jerry Karp June 11, 2018

    Just as an FYI, we do have a permanent exhibit on display on Anderson Valley Native American life at the AV History Museum. It’s not as large as we’d like, but it is there, lovingly assembled several years back. Of course, we’re always interested in any contributions of photos and/or artifacts folks might like to make to enlarge the exhibit. The Anderson Valley History Museum, just across Anderson Valley Way from the Elementary School, is open Saturdays and Sundays from 1-4 pm. Cheers!

  3. Todd L March 8, 2020

    Marshall, on what part of El Rancho Navarro would you find the artifacts? I once found a rock with round indentation in it. I am not sure how accurate my memory is. I seem to recall that one year one of the counselors built a pond somewhere near the fire pit. I left the rock there. The next year it was gone. I had always assumed it was an Indian artifact.

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