August 12, 2006

Wintu talk at the lake


The Wintu are the northern most group of the Wintun people that inhabit a long narrow stretch of the western Sacramento Valley north of the San Francisco bay to the Trinity/Sacramento/McCloud rivers (Lapena 324). Other names associated with the Wintu have included: Wintun, Wintoons, Kenesti, Patawe and Northern Wintun (Brandt and Davis-Kimball xviii). Du Bois identified nine major Wintu groups:

nomtipom 'in-th'west-ground' (upper Sacramento valley),
wenemem or wenemen 'middle water' (McCloud),
dawpom 'front-ground' (Stillwater),
'elpom 'in-ground' (Keswick),
λ'abal-pom 'good (peaceful) ground' (French Gulch),
nomsu·s 'those being west (Upper Trinity valley people),
dawnom 'front-west' (Bald Hills),
norelmaq 'south-uphill people' (Hayfork), and
waymaq 'north people' (upper McCloud River valley). (Lapena 324).


The Wintu inhabit portions of Trinity, Tehama, Shasta and Siskiyou counties bordered on the north by the upper Trinity River Valley, Black Butte, and Mount Shasta and extending southward to Cotton wood Creek and the south fork of the Trinity River (Lapena 324). At the time that the first Europeans arrived in the area the Wintu occupied the foothills and mountains of the northern Sacramento Valley near present day Redding (Chase-Dunn, Clewett, and Sundahl).


Lapena reports precontact population estimates of the Wintu to be about 14,250 (325). The Wintu had "relatively high population densities" because their villages tended to be located close to one another (Chase-Dunn, Clewett, and Sundahl). There were about 12,000 Wintu in 1770 and 1,000 in 1910. The 1930 Census reported 512 Wintu, Wintun and Wappo.

First Contact with Whites

The Wintu were first encountered by Euro-Americans in the 1826 expedition of Jedediah Smith, followed by a 1827 expedition led by Peter Skene Ogden. Between 1830 and 1833, many Wintus were lost to malaria in an epidemic that killed off around 75% of the indigenous population of the upper and central Sacramento Valley. In following years the weakened Wintu fell victim to the occupation strageties of incoming settlers, which include the destruction of the Wintu food supply due to sheep and cattle invasions and river pollution caused American gold miners. The Wintu were forced as laborers in gold mining operations. In 1846 John C. Frémont and Kit Carson killed 175 Wintu and Yana (McMurtry 2005). Further efforts tried to control Wintu land and relocate them to west of Clear Creek. In a "friendship feast" of poisoned food served by Whites in 1850, 100 Nomsuus and 45 Wenemem Wintus were massacred. This was followed by another massacre and destruction of Wintu land in 1851 (LaPena 1978:324).

Explorers and trappers began visiting the upper Sacramento Valley in the early part of the 19th century. Soon to follow were parties of settlers on their way to central California and Oregon, and in 1848 gold was discovered on the Trinity River just west of Whiskeytown. "Boom towns", such as Shasta, Whiskeytown, and French Gulch grew quickly, as large numbers of miners arrived in the area. Placer mining for gold required dependable water supplies and emigrant Chinese laborers helped to build an elaborate system of ditches and flumes to meet this need. By the turn of the century, lode mining had replaced placer mining, leaving behind a profusion of tailings, pits, tunnels, and shafts. These remains of the mining history of the area are clearly evident at many places in the Whiskeytown NRA (Griffin and Smith 1995). Other examples of structures, features and orchards dating from the 1850's are located in the Tower House Historic District (Toogood and Henderson 1973).


The Wintu are Wunuan speakers (Wintu, Nomalaki and Patwin) one of the Penutian languages (Brandt and Davis-Kimball xix). The Wintu speakers, relatively latecomers "migrated into California from southwestern Oregon about 1200 years ago" displacing the Hokan speakers (Chase-Dunn, Clewett, and Sundahl). Moratto specifically states that the Wintu moved north from the Cottonwood area into the "upper Sacramento and Trinity River drainages" sometime between 1,100 and 1,000 years ago (562). Presently, there are only 5 or 6 speakers from an ethnic population of 2,244, as speakers have shifted to English (Shephard 1997)


The Wintu territory ranged from low land valleys to rolling hills and steep mountains. Summers are hot and dry, and winters range from cool and wet at lower elevations to cold with considerable snowfall in mountainous areas. The terrain and climate conditions make for diverse plant and animal populations. Plant communities include chaparral, pine and coniferous forests, oak woodland and riparian communites. Wildlife includes mammals, birds, reptile and amphibians (National Park Service).

Social Organization

The Wintu were organized into autonomous tribelets comprised of extended family groups, with the basic social, political and economic unit being the village. A sedentary foraging people, they occupied permanent villages near rivers and streams. Villages were territorial in that they claimed particular hunting and gathering areas as their own. Others who wished to use the land were required to obtain permission, and usually gave the owners "gifts" in payment for hunting and gathering on their territory. Autonomous, tribelets often cooperated on "projects or came together for celebrations and religious ceremonies" (Chase-Dunn, Clewett, and Sundahl).

Village leaders were men who were "well liked", knowledgeable, and good singers and dancers. While leadership was often passed from father to son, if the son did not possess the required qualifications, another man would be chosen to lead. The leader's duties included arranging meetings and dances; it was also his responsibility to invite leaders from other villages to attend important functions. Village members provided their leaders with gifts of food, which they then redistributed at feasts and gatherings (Lapena 326).
Marriage was simply a matter of the couple living together in their own household. Taboos existed against marriage between cousins and other close relatives; therefore, marriages were exogamous (Lapena 329). Marriage partners usually came from neighboring villages, which aided inter-village relations. Chiefs practiced polygyny, often marrying women from distant villages. This provided the chiefs with a widespread kinship network that they could call on in times of need (Chase-Dunn, Clewett, and Sundahl).

Parents gave a feast when their sons reached puberty, and had killed their first deer or caught their first salmon. No other ceremony was given to mark the passage of a boy into manhood. Girls had a more elaborate rite of passage. When they reached their first menses they were secluded for several months. During this time they only ate acorn soup, observed taboos against touching their bodies, and received life instructions from elders. During the first five days of seclusion, a girl was not allowed to fall asleep, as it was believed that dreaming would be harmful to her future health and sanity. In the fall, a puberty dance with five days of singing and dancing was held to honor several girls at the same time (Lapena 328).

A large number of taboos were observed during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum. Births took place in the menstrual hut or in other specially constructed huts and were attended by midwives. Both parents observed food taboos during pregnancy and after the baby's birth. New mothers remained in seclusion for one month after childbirth (Lapena 327).

The dead were buried in graveyards near villages, and they were interred with personal items, their dogs and acorn meal water. Those who had contact with the deceased underwent purification rituals. Mourning lasted for one year, and widows cut their hair as was the tradition throughout Northern California, and blackened their faces with pitch and charcoal. The name of the deceased was not spoken again until someone else had been given the name (Lapena 328).


The Wintu were sedentary foragers who hunted, fished and gathered wild plants. Hunting and fishing were the primary responsibility of the men while women gathered wild plant foods and basket making materials (Chase-Dunn, Clewett, and Sundahl). Although deer and acorns were the primary food sources, a wide variety of other plant and animal resources were also utilized.

Deer hunting was done both by individual hunters and communal hunts. Hunters used bows and arrows, snares, dogs, and drives for deer hunting. A popular method was to drive deer over cliffs. Men butchered their kills while women were responsible for distributing the meat to other families. Venison was prepared by cutting the meat into strips and roasting them over hot coals. Occasionally, meat was steamed by putting hot rocks into baskets containing water. Other important subsistence animals were: brown bear, rabbits, gophers, wood rats, ground squirrels, and other small rodents. Grizzly bears were considered taboo and never eaten (Lapena 337). Moratto mentioned that waterfowl and quail were taken using nets, snares and traps (172).

Spring and fall salmon runs were important fishing times for the Wintu. Chinook salmon were obtained from both the McCloud and Sacramento rivers, while Steelhead were caught in the upper Trinity River. Although considered inferior to salmon, the Wintu fished for suckers "which were found in all streams and creeks" (Lapena 338). Salmon fishing was done with dip nets and spears, suckers were driven into fish weirs, and fishhooks were used to catch trout and whitefish. Fish poisons were utilized in small streams. Salmon was sun dried and stored in baskets for winter use (Lapena 338).

Women did the gathering of vegetal foods. Acorns were a staple of Wintu diet as it was with most of California's Indian population. Men assisted with the acorn harvest by shaking the acorns from the branches while the women collected the fallen nuts. Acorns from black oak and valley oak were preferred. Acorns were dried, pounded into acorn meal, leeched in sand pits, and made into soup or baked into bread. Other important plant foods included: buckeyes, manzanita berries, "clover, miner's lettuce, skunkbush berries, hazel nuts, pine nuts, wild grapes, and sunflower and cotton flower seeds" (Lapena 338-339).


According to Jerry Rogers, Department of the Interior, The Wintu people considered Mount Shasta to be sacred ground:
Mr. [sic] Shasta is a commanding mountain that is visible over a wide area of Northern California and is important not only to American Indian tribes residing in the immediate area but also for those located considerable distances from the mountain... Mt. Shasta is mentioned frequently in Indian cosmology and is significant in creation myths, purification ceremonies and the pursuit of 'power'. It encompasses places used for healings and blessings, spiritual quests and ceremonies. Indian groups that attach spiritual significance to the property include Wintu, Pit River, Shasta and Modoc Indian tribes. (quoted in McLeod)

The Wintu believed in a supreme being. Many of their myths concerned the natural world: moon, stars, thunder, lightening, and animal behaviors. Origin myths referred to a time before humans when the first people, who were part human and part animal, existed. Charmstones, peculiar or small flat shaped rocks were important for bringing luck and affecting cures for illnesses. They were hidden or buried in places away from dwellings (Lapena 331).

Shamans were adept at curing illnesses and predicting the future. Illness could be brought on by soul loss, spirit possession, or a foreign object. Shamans were paid to exorcise evil spirits, suck out objects causing an illness, and capture wandering souls (Lapena 332). However, a shaman who repeatedly failed to cure patients might be accused of witchcraft and killed (Chase-Dunn, Clewett, and Sundahl).

Novice shamans were initiated during ceremonies held in the spring or fall. During the ceremonies the initiates attained a state of frenzy through dancing would eventually become unconscious, after which they underwent five days of instruction and fasting. The ceremony concluded with a shaman's dance (Lapena 332).

Material Culture

Lapena states that houses were constructed by placing poles in a conical shape and covering them with bark. Earthlodges were also used as a men's place for sweating, places where bachelors slept in winter, and for shamans's initiation ceremonies (325).

In 1880, George Redding attended a Wintu ceremony held in a sweathouse, and he provided the following description of the structure:
In the center of the rancheria was the temescal, or sweathouse. It was constructed by digging a large circular, basin-shaped hole in the ground, four or five feet deep. Around the edge of this hole large posts are sunk, about five feet apart, which extend upward to the top of the ground. In the center are planted four large trunks of trees, with the original limbs upon them, extending a few feet above the surface. From these four trees stout limbs of trees are laid, reaching to the posts at the edge. These limbs are fastened firmly by withes to the branches at the center trees. The whole is then thatched with pine and willow brush, and covered with a layer of earth about a foot in thickness. The entrance is a long, low passage, and is made by driving short, thin pine posts side by side, about three feet apart, and covered in the same manner as the house proper. To enter, one has to stoop quite low, and continue in this position until he comes into the sweathouse. (343)

The Wintu used a variety of plant materials in their daily lives. Grasses were fashioned into baskets for cooking, storage, transporting goods, sifting, and as dishes. Bows for hunting were made of yew wood. Ash wood was used to make pipes. Logs were placed across streams for bridges, and wooden rafts were used for stream crossings.

Obsidian was used for arrowheads and other sharp cutting type tools. Red and white were preferred over other colors of obsidian, and red obsidian was considered to possess a supernatural poison.

The Wintu utilized everything from the animals and fish they killed. Salmon skin was used as glue to attach arrowheads to arrow shafts. Bow strings were made by twisting the sinew of deer backbone. Daggers were made of deer bone (used only for fighting) and large 10" daggers were fashioned from bears' foreleg bones. Quivers were made of hides. Clothing and blankets were made of deer, fox and rabbit animal skins (Lapena 334-336).


The Wintu carried on trade with their close neighbors, and they acted as middlemen in the movement of dentalium shells from the north and clam disk bead money, their primary currency, from the south. Clam disk beads, manufactured by the Pomo Indians, "were used in the trade of goods up and down the Central Valley" (Chase-Dunn, Clewett, and Sundahl).

Chiefs conducted almost all formal trade and gift-giving, utilizing some of the provisions provided by their village members. These exchanges between chiefs ensured village survival during times of shortages (Chase-Dunn, Clewett, and Sundahl). Some of the items traded by the Wintu included: deer hides, clams, pine nut beads, acorns, baskets, and woodpecker scalps. In return they received bows, arrowheads, obsidian, dentalia, deerskins, and pelts (Davis 37).

Archeological Resources

To date, a total of 116 archeological sites and 299 isolated artifacts and/or features have been formally documented within Whiskeytown. Of the former, 43 comprise prehistoric or ethnographic components, 41 with historic components, 25 with mixed prehistoric/ethnographic and historic components, and seven of unknown vintage (Bevill and Nilsson 2001). Roughly 3250 acres, or 8% of the non-lake portion of the park, have been surveyed for archeological resources. The earliest archeological surveys were conducted in the late 1950s prior to the construction of the Clair A. Hill/Whiskeytown Dam. These were followed by inventories initiated to fulfill requirements set forth in Sections 106 and 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Since at least the late 1980s, most survey projects in Whiskeytown have employed more rigorous methods in regard to the identification and evaluation of archeological resources than previous investigations. Recently, the scope and scale of archeological surveys has increased in response to the rapid growth of the Whiskeytown fire management program. Eleven archeological sites at Whiskeytown have been subjected to archeological excavations. These ranged from small-scale testing projects to full-fledged data recovery efforts.

Whiskeytown is within the ethnographic territory of the Wintu (DuBois, 1986) which includes the Northern Sacramento River, tributaries to the east and west, and portions of the upper Trinity River drainage. The Wintu are relatively recent arrivals, and are believed to have entered the area about 1000 years ago. Wintu life centered around their villages which were situated along the rivers and the larger streams such as Clear Creek. Deer and acorns were primary sources of food, and a wide variety of other plant and animal resources were also utilized. Two sub-groups, the Keswick and French Gulch Wintu, occupied or exploited resources within the present boundaries of Whiskeytown (DuBois, 1986). Although the Park has conducted only limited consultations with local Wintu, it is clear that traditional ties to places like Whiskeytown remain.

Archeological investigations at Whiskeytown revealed Native American occupation spanning at least 8000 years (Bevill and Nilsson 2001). On the basis of shifts in artifact types and styles and adaptive modes through time, five distinctive archeological patterns have been identified in the archeological record of the Whiskeytown region. Native American archeological sites at Whiskeytown consist almost exclusively of habitation sites and lithic scatters. The former are characterized by the presence of dark midden soil, architectural remains, diverse artifact assemblages, faunal remains, and, on occasion, human remains. Habitation sites represent long-term seasonal or permanent use.

Bevill and Nilsson (2001) identified 43 recorded habitation sites at Whiskeytown. Major excavations were conducted at the Tower House Site, a large habitation site located at the confluence of Clear and Willow creeks (Bevill and Nilsson 1999), and several others on lower Clear Creek and Boulder Creek have been subjected to limited testing (Eidsness 1988; Bevill and Nilsson 1996). Twelve lithic scatters have been documented at Whiskeytown (Bevill and Nilsson 2001). Lithic scatters are typically comprised of flaked stone tools and waste flakes, sometimes ground stone, and probably resulted from one or more occupational episodes. Obsidian from sources to the north and east of Whiskeytown account for the majority of the raw material represented in flaked stone tools and waste flakes, although locally available chert and igneous types are not uncommon. The distribution of Native American archeological sites at Whiskeytown appears to have been influenced by the occurrence of perennial or reliable intermittent water sources, with most sites found in close proximity to these features. The majority of these sites lie between 1000 and 2000 feet in elevation, although this may reflect survey coverage rather than actual settlement preferences.

To this point, submerged archeological resources at Whiskeytown have failed to receive much attention. Twenty-four archeological sites were documented within the high water mark of Whiskeytown Lake during the initial survey (Treganza and Heickson 1960); this number is unquestionably a major underestimation. Furthermore, the middle reaches of the Clear Creek watershed were a focus of activity from the 1850s onward, and these remains were virtually ignored during the first survey. However, the bed of the reservoir was prepared by removing and piling trees and brush with bulldozers, during which time the integrity of these resources was almost certainly compromised to at least some degree.

Two archeological districts and seven archeological sites in Whiskeytown are listed or have been formally determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The Tower House Archeological District comprises 10 archeological sites, and was listed on the National Register in 1985 (Bevill and Nilsson 2001). The contributing sites are located on and near the confluence of Clear, Willow, and Mill creeks. Among these are several habitation sites, one of which (Tower House Site) has undergone excavation on several occasions, and was occupied perhaps as early as 8000 BP (Bevill and Nilsson 1999). The Tower House Archeological District was nominated based on the potential to yield information on the initial occupation of the region, as well as prehistoric human adaptations to riparian and woodland environments, and the ability to perform comparisons of material cultural between sites. Although nominated due to association with Native American occupations, several of the contributing sites also contain historical components, including materials associated with the Tower House Historic District, described in greater detail below.

The Lower Clear Creek Archeological District is comprised of six archeological sites located in the Clear Creek watershed below Whiskeytown Dam (Anderson et al. 1979). Each of these possesses Native American components, including substantial villages containing house pits and midden. Historical components, reflecting mining and homesteading, are also found on four of the sites. One of the sites within the district, CA-SHA-177/H, was excavated in 1970 and 1971 in anticipation of proposed construction activities (Johnson and Skjelstad 1974). These investigations revealed a meter-deep midden deposit containing flaked stone tools and debitage, ground stone, and assorted historic artifacts. Several methods and analyses that were uncommon at the time were employed, including use of fine-meshed screens, flotation to recover botanical remains, and pH testing. The primary significance of the district was seen to lie in the potential for buried and surface deposits to provide comparative data for local and regional archeological and environmental studies. Specifically, the Native American components could contribute to an understanding of regional cultural history, social organization, and the use of available biotic and abiotic resources. The district was determined eligible for listing on the NRHP, but never formally entered. In 1986, small-scale subsurface testing was performed at several of the district sites with the intent of obtaining additional information on site content and integrity (Eidsness 1988).

The relative paucity of archeological sites at Whiskeytown listed on the National Register or formally evaluated for significance is more a reflection of the nature of National Park Service management practices than the condition of the archeological record. For example, the preservation mandate provides for the utmost consideration of the impacts of a given undertaking on the cultural, natural, and physical environment, and the project specifics and location would generally be revised if resources cannot be avoided as planned. Thus, relatively few sites are excavated and/or documented in greater detail. While probably no archeological resources at Whiskeytown have escaped at least some type of disturbance, those that remain assume even greater importance. Many large Native American habitation sites that formerly lined the margins of Clear Creek were destroyed during the construction of Whiskeytown Dam, lending to the significance of those habitation sites along Clear Creek above and below the dam. That the Boulder Creek Site was found to possess elements consistent with inclusion on the National Register suggests that other relatively intact habitation sites found at the middle elevations in Whiskeytown are also worthy of significant status.

Irrespective of site significance and integrity, contemporary Native Americans with links to the Whiskeytown area are very concerned with the disposition of the physical and material remains of their ancestors (Emberson 2000). Finally, the construction of Whiskeytown Dam also resulted in the inundation of innumerable historical archeological resources, those dating to the earliest periods of use in particular. The sites that remain are critical for filling a void in local cultural history information.

While the region encompassing Whiskeytown is also rich in Native American and historical archeological resources, many of these are at risk from the rapid growth of the Redding metropolitan area, as well as multiple-use practices associated with those on adjacent public lands. As such, with proper management, Whiskeytown offers the potential to preserve and protect a large assemblage of diverse archeological resources in perpetuity.

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