San Diego: Where California Began



San Diego’s native population tended towards vegetarianism. Here, in a photograph taken in the early part of the century, a native woman demonstrates grinding with millstones.

“In the beginning the Indians of this port showed themselves very haughty and arrogant … They are very intelligent Indians, noisy, bold, great traders, covetous, and thievish.” In these terms did Father Francisco Palou introduce San Diego’s native people to the Spanish world In his Historical Memoirs of New California, written soon after the founding of San Diego. He wrote further, “All the men go naked and most of them are painted, but the women are covered modestly in front with woven fibers and behind with the skins of animals. They go armed with bows and quivers of arrows.”

The native population who lived near what is presently the modern city of San Diego were called Diegueños by the Spanish. Anthropologists now call the Diegueño people north of the San Diego River the Ipai and the more southeastern people the Tipai. Linguistically, these natives were related to the Yuma people. They tended toward vegetarianism, acorns were an especially important part of their diet, and tribes fought battles for the possession of oak groves. The mortars, manos or milling stones and stone pestles now found all over the county were used to grind acorns into flour, which was boiled into gruel in pottery bowls. Diegueños also ate various kinds of seeds. They did not scorn meat, but they were basically foragers. They killed rabbits, crows, mice, snakes, frogs, coyotes, and crawfish with weapons that varied from arrows and slings, to clubs, throwing sticks, and bare hands. Ocean and bay beaches provided shellfish, a staple of their diet. Fishing was done by means of weir, net and, less often, from canoes with hook and line. From the seashore to the valleys, the mountain oak groves and on to the desert, they roamed In search of food.

There were a few creatures they did not eat, for religious reasons. Sacred and not to be considered as food were squirrels, bears, doves, pigeons, and mudhens.

Along the coast, families were likely to occupy basket-like huts of tules; inland, the huts would be of brush or branches. Dwellings of blood-clan groups were gathered together in villages of as many as three hundred people. Valleys, such as that of the San Diego River, were heavily populated because of their trees and water, and of the animals which these things attracted. Knowing no metals, they might be called a Stone Age people; their tools were fashioned from stone, wood, bone and shell. Soapstone from the Channel Islands occasionally was used for vessels. Sandstone was fashioned everywhere. It even was used for metates and grinding bowls along the coast, although for this a harder rock was preferred. Pottery, an exception throughout most of California, was common for the storage of water and food.

In 1602 Sebastian Vizcaino noted that the men went “naked and besmeared with black and white paint … wearing many feathers.” The paint was used to frighten away both mortal enemies and evil spirits. Random tattooing was common, and more popular among the women than the men. Two or three vertical lines on a feminine chin were thought beautifying; they were commonly worked into the skin, as a part of adolescence ceremonies, by an artist using cactus spines to prick charcoal through the surface.

Because there was little tribal organization, crimes usually went unpunished, although sometimes damages were demanded by an aggrieved survivor of a murder victim. When an execution was conducted, arrows were the instruments employed. At such times the action was one of vengeance, effected by relatives of the dead man; retribution by a group or society was unknown.

Rock art painting among the Diegueño was highly developed. It was abstract and geometric entirely. Diegueños also practiced sand painting, carved bone and ceramic etching. Creation myths were varied, as were other legends. Animate and Inanimate objects were personified; the bear, like the eagle, was venerated, and the porpoise was thought by the coastal people to be the guardian of the world. Medicine-men were much respected. They treated localized ills by sucking the blood from the painful area, by blowing smoke on it, or by spitting on It. Some of the medicine-men specialized, setting themselves up as snake-bite experts, headache men, rainmakers and so forth. The headache specialists often pretended to suck the demons, which were responsible for the misery, out of the victim’s skull; the demons actually were animals or reptiles small enough to be concealed in the specialist’s mouth.

Natives near the coast were likely to occupy basket-like huts of tules; inland the huts would be of brush or branches.

The local natives failed to arouse great enthusiasm among some Europeans. Baron von Humboldt gave them a low classification, along with the Tasmanians, but admitted that in large numbers, they could be dangerous. In 1787 Pedro Fages, Spanish governor of California, described them as “… absolutely opposed to all rational subjection and full of the spirit of independence” and bluntly added that “… a considerable armed force must be on hand … to repress their natural and crusty pride.” From a non-European view, however, these traits can be considered positive. The Diegueño resisted the Spaniards and hoped for trade through reciprocity. Better organized natives might have overpowered the Spanish powers sent to California and delayed settlement indefinitely, perhaps long enough for some other European power to occupy the land and so change the course of history.