Foothills Water Network

The Nisenan

The Nisenan, or southern Maidu, whose name means “People” (1) are a Penutian speaking Central Californian group.  They occupied territory bounded by the crest of the Sierra on the east, the Sacramento River on the west, between the Yuba and Feather Rivers on the north, and between the Cosumnes and Mokelumne Rivers on the south(2), living in the drainages of the American, Bear and Yuba rivers.(3)   They spoke a dialect which identified them from the Northern Maidu and they diverged into distinct cultural groups known as the Valley Nisenan and the Mountain (or foothill) Nisenan. “Beals (1933: 337) notes that, ‘The hill and mountain Nisenan differ as much from the valley Nisenan as they do from the Maidu and Miwok to the north and south of them’.  This hill-valley dichotomy is apparently based on different resources.  The valley Nisenan (Nis’-sim Pa’-we-nan) were well adapted to riverine resources.”(4)  The mountain Nisenan lived in small villages of 4 to 12 huts along the ridge tops of the American, Bear and Yuba canyons and relied more on acorns and less on the fish and fowl which sustained the valley villages.

The Nisenan were among the last of the native peoples to have prolonged contact with Europeans.  When it occurred, however, that contact was most often devastating as both violence and disease took their toll.  We have, as such, scant information as to the social and economic structures of the Nisenan.  The first, brief, contact was in 1806 with the Moraga expedition, followed later by American and Canadian fur trappers.  In 1833, trappers from the Hudson’s Bay Company brought malaria to the Sacramento Valley.  It is estimated that 75% of the Central Valley natives died in this one epidemic.(5)   In 1839, John Sutter built his fort in Sacramento and settlement of the valley quickly followed. 

While the valley Nisenan culture had been decimated, the mountain Nisenan had little contact with Europeans until the gold rush.  With the discovery of gold and the consequent wave of emigration, attacks on the Nisenan became quite common.  A number of permanent villages on the divides between the Bear and American River basins were a notable feature of the area.  In 1849, white settlers, calling themselves the Placer Blades, attacked and burned the villages, killing and scalping the men.  Their scalps were hung along the Old Emigrant Road between Colfax and Auburn.(6) 

The Barbour Treaties, negotiated and signed in 1851 and 1852, transferred title away from the tribes in exchange for a promise of large reservations, though none were ever provided to the Maidu or the Nisenan.  The violence against the Nisenan was so extreme that the Army established Camp Far West on the Bear River (near present day Wheatland) to protect the natives from the emigrants.  “During the summer of 1849 a small detachment of troops had been sent to Johnson’s Rancho, on Bear River, to establish a post for the purpose of preventing conflicts between the Indians and the increasing number of settlers at the mines of the Yuba and Feather rivers…for the purpose of putting an end to outrages that were then being committed by the whites upon the Indians of that neighborhood.”(7) 

By the turn of the 20th century only a few Nisenan families remained with any ties to the traditional way of life.  Prominent among them was Elizabeth Enos, a foothill Nisenan who lived near Auburn, and Mr Kelly, a mountain Nisenan from Nevada City.  Extensive ethnographic information was gathered from them in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  They passed on the food technology taught to them as well as descriptions of village life.  This information, particularly details on food gathering and processing, is presented in Norman L Wilson’s “Notes on Traditional Foothill Nisenan Food Technology”, Papers on Nisenan Environment and Subsistence, Center for Archaeological Research at Davis, Publication Number 3, 1972.  Unfortunately, most of the available information applies to the foothill Nisenan and relatively little is known about the food use patterns of the valley Nisenan. 

Acorns, especially of the California black oak, were the staple food for the foothill families.  All five species of oak reported to be used by the Nisenan occur between 1000 and 3000 feet.(8)   Fish were an important part of their diet; however, most salmon were obtained by trading with the valley villages.  Trading was often limited as the valley Nisenan were hostile toward the foothill villages.(9)  The hostility was such that when visiting another village, if soup were served in a very old basket it would be refused for fear of poison.(10)  It is known that the valley Nisenan depended on salmon and water fowl to a much greater extent, including salmon from the Bear River.(11)  The salmon were taken by spears, nets and poison; mullen, soap root, and buckeye seeds were used which, when crushed, would stupifiy the fish, allowing the people to scoop them up and toss them to the shore.(12)

1. Wilson, Norman L, The Nisenan People Smithsonian Handbook of North American Indians, Vol 8

2. Matson, RG, “Aspects of Nisenan Ecology” Papers on Nisenan Environment and Subsistence,  Center for Archaeological Research at Davis, Publication Number 3, 1972

3. Wilson, op cit

4. Matson, op cit

5. Wilson, op cit

6. Meadow Vista Vegetation Management Project, PTEIR, 3/10/03

7. Derby, George, “The Topographical Reports of Lieutenant George H. Derby, Sacramento Valley in 1849” Quarterly of the California Historical Society,  Vol XI No 2, June 1932 pp 101 & 104

8. Erskian, Malcolm G and Eric W. Ritter, “Nisenan Ethnobotany Notes” Papers on nisenan Environment and Subsistence, Center for Archaeological Research at Davis, Publication Number 3, 1972.

9. Wilson, Norman, “Notes on Traditional Foothill Nisenan Food Techonlogy” p. 35

10. Wilson, ibid, p. 37

11. Deer Creek School, “The Nisenan – The People of Nevada County.

12. Carville, Julie, Friends of Spenceville, “Comments on the Yuba County Water Agency’s Phase II Report,       8/2/99 


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