Anthropologists aren't certain how many Indians lived in California prior to the arrival of the Europeans, but estimates range from about 130,000 to 350,000; some estimate as high as one million. The Ohlone people lived in the area which now approximately covers San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito, and Monterey County.
In the 1700's, Spain, England, Russia, and France were competing to claim territory in the New World and gain control over its resources. Spain claimed the territories that are now called Central America, Mexico, and the southwest United States, including most of California.
In 1769, Carlos III, the king of Spain, sent Junipero Serra, a Franciscan priest, and Gaspar de Portola, a military commander, to lead an expedition to establish missions in what is now California. The missions were established for both religious and political reasons. The missionary plan was to teach the Native peoples how to be "civilized," for example: avoiding , eating with utensils, and most importantly, adopting the religion of Christianity. The missionaries believed that, through baptism, they were saving pagan souls from being put into hell for eternity. The original idea was that, after ten years of living in the missions, the Indians would become citizens of Spain (though this never happened). It was hoped that these citizens would then protect the new territory lands for Spain.
The missions founded in the Ohlone territory were: Mission San Carlos Borromeo (1770), Mission San Francisco de Asís (Dolores) (1776), Mission Santa Clara de Asís (1777), Mission Exaltación de la Santa Cruz (1791), Mission Nuestra Señora de Soledad (1791), Mission Gloriosísima Patriarca Señor San José (1797), and Mission San Juan Bautista (1797).
Thousands of central California natives were baptized and brought to live in these missions. Once baptized, natives, by law, had to transfer their rights to the missionaries and completely comply to their will (but this was not made clear to them). Baptized Indians were not allowed to leave the missions, and if they did, they were forcibly returned by soldiers. If they tried to escape again, they were punished by being whipped and/or shackled. After being baptized, the natives were given new Spanish names and were prohibited from speaking their own language or practicing their own religion. Their everyday activities were controlled and strictly supervised. Unmarried Indian women were protected from Indian men in prison-like conditions. Women were taught and required to spin and weave cloth, wash clothes, and prepare meals. Men were required to till the soil, plant crops, and learn blacksmithing. Indians were taught how to prepare hides, make soap, produce olive oil, and make adobe bricks for constructing mission buildings.
Before the Spanish arrived, there were about 10,000 Ohlones. In the 40 years after the arrival of the Spanish, an estimated 8,000 Ohlones died as a result of the Spanish intrusion. The Indians caught various European diseases such as measles, cholera, mumps, influenza, and venereal disease, which accounted for 60% of the deaths at the missions. They also died from malnutrition and occasionally by violent means.
In the 1820's, Mexico won its independence from Spain, California became Mexican territory, and California Natives became Mexican citizens. The Mexican government took control of the missions. Some Indians left the missions, others stayed. At that time, the Mexican government granted large areas of land called "ranchos." One such rancho, Rancho San Pedro, was granted to Francisco Sanchez in 1839.He used the labor of Ohlone Indians to build his Sanchez Adobe, a grand ranch house. It was built on the site of an old Mission Dolores "asistencia," or outpost, that had supplied food to the mission. Archeological excavations show that this same site had been an Ohlone village centuries before the Spanish arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In 1848, California became a territory of the United States. That same year, gold was discovered in California. People from around the world, and especially Anglos from the United States, came to California in search of gold and to seek a better life. Most Anglos viewed the Indians as a pest, a nuisance, or at best, a labor force to be exploited. California law said, "...in no case shall a white man be convicted of any offence upon the testimony of an Indian." Indians were not allowed to testify in court, which meant that a white person could murder an Indian and basically get away with it. From 1850 to 1863, California state law allowed officials to hire out Indians, imprisoned for begging or being "immoral," to the highest bidder. Even though California was considered a free state, this was a form of slavery. Additionally, Indian children were frequently kidnapped for use as slave labor. Sometimes their parents were killed first so that the children would be left defenseless and could be more easily taken.
During 1853 - 1887, the first Indian reservations were set up. The original treaties between the Indians and the federal government promised Indians 7.5 million acres of California land, but only a bit more than 500,000 acres were actually received. Many rancherias, or small villages, were given to the Indians by the government. The reservations and rancherias were mostly on infertile land or mountainous terrain. At that point in time, there were no reservations or rancherias given to Ohlone Indians by the government (though there is one now).
The Europeans had a big impact on the Ohlone environment and habitats. Domesticated animals destroyed much of the land from overgrazing. The hunting of grizzly bears, the draining of marsh lands for agricultural fields, and the slaughter of elk herds also had a negative impact on the environment. Fences were put up everywhere to divide territories, and natural resources used by the Ohlone in everyday life were no longer accessible. As their environment was altered, so was the traditional life style that the Ohlone had practiced for generations.
Because of the oppression Indians endured from the whites, the Ohlone and other Indians retreated to small, isolated villages. One such village, named Alisal, was located south of the city of Pleasanton. It became dangerous to be an Indian. To protect themselves from anti-Indian attitudes, some Indians even denied their Native American heritage by claiming they were of Hispanic, Black, or Oriental descent.
In 1924, the United States Congress gave Native Americans the same rights as other citizens. For the first time, Indian children were allowed to attend public schools.
In 1964 construction of a new freeway was planned directly over an old Ohlone gravesite close to Mission San Jose in the city of Fremont. At least 130 Ohlone descendents gathered to successfully protect the destruction of their ancestors' graves.
Excavation of several archeological sites has also added to interest in the Ohlone culture and a renewed interest by Ohlone descendents to remember and regain the old ways and traditions. At Coyote Hills Regional Park, near the city of Fremont, visitors can see a constructed Ohlone village and learn more about Ohlone culture.
Even more significant has been the recognition by the United States government of the Mutsun Ohlone group. This recognition, after a long struggle, allowed the Mutsun people to regain possession of their ancestral land, known as Indian Canyon, near the city of Hollister. Another Ohlone group, the Muwekma, direct descendents of the people who lived at Alisal, are also working to revitalize their communal identity.
The Native Americans of California are continuing to heal from the wounds of the past. As California recognizes the value of its multi-ethnic diversity, its native people are encouraged to celebrate their heritage and share it with the wider California culture.