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A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County



Sol P. Elias

Modesto, Cal.











Carson's Description of the Indian



James H. Carson was a sergeant in the Stevenson regiment and while on a furlough in 1848, prospected southward from the Mokelumne river. He discovered the richness of Carson's creek, named after him, which was a mining locality a few miles north of the Stanislaus river at Robinson's Ferry. He was a man of great practical foresight and had traveled from one end of the San Joaquin Valley to the other, and was familiar with the life and habits of the Indians in the Tulare plains which constituted the lands from the Stanislaus river to the Tulare river.


He wrote an article for the San Joaquin Republican, a Stockton newspaper, which was published in that periodical in February, 1852, in which he gives an interesting description of the Digger Indian.


Carson's description of the Indians was of the Digger race, a name given them because they lived in the winter in a circular hole dug in the earth, and a class of Indian of the old Mission tribe. His opinion of them is included in the following article:


The Indians of the Tulare valley number nearly 6000. About one-half this number inhabit the mountains and are fair specimens of the Digger race. The other portion inhabit the plains along the rivers and lakes. A great number of these are old Mission Indians who have introduced many traits of civilization into their different tribes. The Notonotos and the several tribes of the Apaches are among those most advanced in many respects in the means of covering their nakedness and procuring a livelihood such as human beings can subsist on. These tribes have been intermixed with the miners in the different mining districts and have in a great measure laid aside their old modes of life and to a great degree adopted that of the whites, at least so far as rascality is concerned.


Pg. 197


Between the Digger Indians and the grizzly bear there is but slight difference existing, which amounts to the bear being brave, while the Digger is not. The habits and customs of the Digger Indians are those of man in his most savage state. They have no article of clothing for their bodies, but go naked as they came into the world from their birth until the king hand of death puts an end to their miserable existence.


Their habitations during the summer season are constructed of the bowers of trees placed in a circle on the ground with their tops drawn together and formed into a cone of wick-a-work. In these they reside until the frosts of winter drive them into their holes, where they live until the sun of spring thaws them out again. These winter habitations are made by digging a circular hole in the earth and placing over it a frame of poles which is covered with bark or grass, over which the earth is piled to a depth of nearly two feet. An aperture is left in the side of this just large enough to admit the body of a man and serve as a door to the establishment. These huts are built without any regard to regularity or uniformity in size. Every family has a separate one and they are made large or smaller as the number of occupants require. The captain of the tribe has a home generally in the center of the rest, and is usually much larger than any that surrounds it. In looking into these habitations the beholder can scarcely believe that human beings could exist for a day under such circumstances, as they are unclothed, nearly unfed and packed into them in such small spaces as to prevent them from lying down and many of them hold continually ten or twelve persons where there is not room enough for three.


To each tribe or rancheria there is a captain or chief. Several tribes are usually combined together by having a chief captain over them, who holds despotic sway over his inferiors. The commands of these captains are the law governing the whole. The right to rule is hereditary in the male line, the oldest son taking the capacity occasioned by his father's death, but the rightful heirs are often dethroned and their places filled by a chief captain by promoting some of the tribe who have been successful in a thieving expedition.


pg. 198


As regards the knowledge of a supreme being or the existence of a soul hereafter, the Digger Indian has not the least idea. When questioned on this point they reply with an empty, idiotic laugh. They hold in reverence anyone possessed of the power of doing things by the sleight of hand or performing any feat of which they have no knowledge. Necromancy is the only faith in which they worship and incantations and mysterious acts are universally practiced amongst them.


When they want a squaw for a partner for life, or rather for a slave, the young man, after watching those who are unmarried closely for a length of time, chooses the one who in his opinion is most expert in gathering roots and acorns and can pack the greatest amount in her basket. After thus making his choice he asks the chief captain for her, who invariably gives his consent. When the fair one is informed by her lord that she is his lawful property for life, if she does not desire to become such, she can refuse, but in her refusal she subjects herself to the penalty of becoming the common property of all the male portion of the tribe to which she belongs and an outcast for the remainder of her life. Such a thing as courtship is unknown amongst them, but they usually marry young.


Under these circumstances the inquisitive mind will ask, “Why are they no more numerous? Why has not the Digger race long ago over-run the western world?” These questions are easily answered. We must consider how many perish yearly from want and disease owing to their mode of living and the inhuman articles on which they subsist, and, independent of this, after a man and woman have been blessed with a child they do not cohabit or live together as man or wife until the child is some three or four years of age and able to take care of itself.


The tribes who are under the constraint of the Mission Indians bury their squaws in a sitting posture – the men are, in most instances burned as with wild tribes, with the exception of those most civilized tribes along the lakes who bury their dead and adorn their graves for the season with arrows, feathers and all the fancy property of which they are possessed. Before the burial takes place the whole tribe spends a length of time in howling in piteous stains over the departed, who is finally consigned to mother earth amidst incantations and presents from the survivors of his people.


pg. 199


Amongst the tribes of Diggers in their natural state their dead are invariably burned. This barbarous habit is done alike to man, woman and child, and is partly one of necessity as well as usage, as they have no means of making graves for them nor have they any tools of any description, not even a knife.


I have witnessed many of the funerals of both sexes, from the aged, whose flesh has become dried and wrinkled by the length of years, down to the infant that had fallen from its mother's breast into the cold and sinewy hands of death. The first of these funerals which I witnessed was on the Consumnes river and the feeling I experienced while reviewing it will never be erased from my memory. On a cleared place of ground, a short distances from the buttes, a vast heap of dried wood was piled, on which the departed was to be laid and consumed. Curiosity led our party to the spot. The sun had set and night was drawing her sable mantle o'er the earth, when the whole tribe, chanting unearthly incantations, lighted the fires of their huts and waited until darkness had completely enveloped the scene.


Then arose a wild scream from out of the hut of the departed, that was answered by everyone in the camp, torches were lighted and by the glare the corpse was drawn to the funeral pyre. The body placed on top of it and more dry fuel heaped around. Then began the wild chanting and incantations, and the weird, unearthly music for the funeral dance. The chief applied the first torch to the pile and in an instant it blazed forth in a hundred places. The screams of all combined arose, wild and unearthly. The forked flames enveloped the body, shot high up among the tall pines and lighted up the wild spot around.


When the body had become charred by the fire, poles with sharpened points were repeatedly thrust through it to aid the flames in their work of destruction, and amidst the howling of these demons the death dance continued until the body was consumed.


The funeral of a captain is attended with more ceremony and the wailings kept up for several days. The only marks of mourning for the departed are worn by the squaws on the death of their husband. It consists of dobbing their foreheads, cheeks and breasts with a mixture of pitch and coals from the funeral pyre.


pg. 200


During the time the squaw wears this mark of respect for the dead, her person is held sacred and she is exempt from work of any kind.


Doubtful, wonderful and unbelievable are the ways in which the Digger Indian supports life. He sows not, neither does he reap, but feeds on the grass and roots of the earth with the wild beasts. He knows no seed time nor harvest but watches with a keen eye the growth of the grass and the fall of the acorn. He tilleth not the earth nor buildeth stone houses or granaries nor lays up stores for the morrow for fear they may spoil.


In the spring of the year the Digger Indian lives on a species of clover with which the small valleys and the mountains are covered from the first of April until the drought of the summer months dries it up. This grass is fine, soft and sufficiently nutritious to support human life and with some few roots gathered by the squaws from the rivers and creek bottoms. When this grass is no longer fit for use the different species of seeds, young shoots of tule, buds, worms, frogs, snakes and many kinds of small roots are the food of these beings until the low stages of water in the rivers. The rivers are filled with the finest fish in the world and when water is low they are able to catch with their hands, spears and shoot with arrows, quantities of them.


During this time they feast daily and become in some instances almost torpid. The fall of the acorn is hailed with jubilee and at the season when fish and acorns are very abundant they hold the annual feast, which usually continues for several days. At these feasts, if a horse or steer can be obtained by stealing or otherwise it is barbecued in a way peculiarly Digger.


During the winter months, when the rains have rotted the seeds and the acorns have been consumed, a few roots, the seeds of the burr of the white pine and such insects and small animals as they can kill constitute their entire means of subsistence. Many annually died from starvation, as they make no provision for the winter season. Some few tribes where the Mission Indians are mixed with them, lay up quantities of acorns by making frames of twigs in the forks of trees, out of reach of the grizzly bear, which are used in the winter season.


pg. 201


The labor of procuring this subsistence is performed by the squaws. They labor incessantly from daylight until dark, while their lords and masters lie around the camps from one day to another in perfect idleness and apparently happy amidst their misery. They have no thought of tomorrow nor care about futurity.


(Mr. Carson says that the Indians invariably burn the remains of their dead. Mr. Freeborn of this city (Stockton), who feels much interest in such matters, states that the Viacita near Murphy's is a mount at the summit of a hill which has been excavated by a mining company and found to contain a number of human skeletons, buried about five feet below the surface of the earth, lying north and south with their heads to the north. Now if the Indians burned all their dead, how came these bodies to be buried at Viacita? Or are they the remains of a more ancient race like those found in Missouri and Kentucky?)


As I remarked before, the Notonotos and Apache tribes of the Tulares appear to be a distinct race from the Digger Indians and the Notonotos declare themselves to be the remnant of a great people. These Indians inhabit the shores of the lakes and north of King's river and cultivate corn and vegetables. They also catch and dry fish, kill wild horses and jerk their flesh and usually have plenty to eat. The great portion of them go into settlements and towns during the summer and work, for which they get well paid. They then purchase blankets and clothing and but a few of them go naked in the winter season. Their habitations also approach more toward civilization, being made of mats of woven tule and flags which are stretched on poles similar to the lodgings of our eastern Indians. Their lodgings also contain many of these mats on which they sleep.


I h ave been several times at the rancherias and partaken of the hospitality of the Notonotos, which were situated on a point of land at a junction of King's river and Tulare lake. These Indians are intelligent, hospitable and great friends of the white man, and the only Indians in California, perhaps, that have anything like recollections or traditions. They also keep a species of reckoning of time by cutting notches in a stick. This tribe's history is kept by old men who appear to have the highest respect paid them by their tribe. Each notch in their stick has a legend or traditionary rule of the times in which it was made.


pg. 202


They have no numerals to express a greater number than ten, which is a great detriment in finding out any time kept by them.


Among the many legends which they entertain is one which bears with it some shade of probability, as it points to a phenomena in nature that we can see as being possible. They say that many moons ago their tribe was rich and powerful, they built large cities and tilled all the land. In those days all the great valleys of the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Santa Clara were one, they had no outlet where it now is at San Francisco, but the water rushed into the sea near Monterey, through where the Pajara river now runs. But when the people were great and powerful, the mountains melted and burned up and in the flames the people were most all destroyed, and while the mountains continued to burn, the earth shook and great hills fell down and the waters rushed over them into the sea where they now do at San Francisco and left these valleys dry.


This tradition is also related by the remnant that is left of the Santa Cruz Indians and from the formation of the country to which it relates it bears a likelihood of truth. On the Tulare plains there is to be found pieces of shell and fossil remains. These shells, in many instances, are found in the low hills 70 feet above the level of the valley.”





Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.

Source: Elias, Sol P., Stories of Stanislaus – A Collection of Stories on the History & Achievements of Stanislaus County.  Modesto, CA. 1924.

© 2012 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.



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