Esselen people

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Distribution map of the Esselen language in California prior to contact with European cultures.

The Esselen are a Native American people belonging to a linguistic group in the hypothetical Hokan language family, who were indigenous to the Central California coast and the coastal mountains, including what is now known as the Big Sur region in Monterey County, California. The members of this tribe are currently scattered, but many still live in the Monterey Peninsula and nearby regions. Historically, they were one of the smallest native American populations in California and due to their proximity to three Spanish Missions they were likely one of the first whose culture was severely repressed as a result of European contact and domination.


Archaeological and linguistic evidence indicates that the original people's territory once extended much farther north, into the San Francisco Bay Area, until they were displaced by the entrance of Ohlone people. Based on linguistic evidence, Richard Levy places the displacement at around AD 500.[1][2] Breschini and Haversat place the entry of Ohlone speakers into the Monterey area prior to 200 B.C. based on multiple lines of evidence. Carbon dating of excavated sites places the Esselen in the Big Sur since circa 2630 BCE.[3] Recently, however, researchers have obtained a radiocarbon date from coastal Esselen territory in the Big Sur River drainage dated prior to 6,500 years ago (archeological site CA-MNT-88).[4]


The name Esselen probably derived from the name of a major native village, possibly from the village known as Exse'ein, or the place called Eslenes (the site of the Mission San Carlos). The village name is likely derived from a tribal location known as Ex’selen, "the rock," which is in turn derived from the phrase Xue elo xonia eune, "I come from the rock."[5] "The Rock" may refer to the 361 feet (110 m) tall promontory, visible for miles both up and down the coast, on which the Point Sur Lighthouse is situated. It may also have referred to Pico Blanco, the mountain they believed that all life came from.

The Spanish extended the term to mean the entire linguistic group. Variant spellings exist in old records, including Aschatliens, Ecclemach, Eslen, Eslenes, Excelen, and Escelen.[6] "Aschatliens" may refer to a group around Mission San Carlos, in and around the village of Achasta. That would be a Rumsen Ohlone group, totally unrelated to the Esselen.

Achasta was a Rumsen Ohlone village, possibly founded only after the founding of Mission San Carlos. It was the closest village to Mission San Carlos, and was 10+ miles from Esselen territory. "Eslenes" was nowhere near Mission San Carlos.


Main article: Esselen language

The Esselen language is a language isolate. It is hypothetically part of the Hokan family. The language was spoken in the northern Santa Lucia Range. Prior to contact with European culture, there were between 500 and 1000 speakers.[7] No native speakers of the language have been known since the beginning of the twentieth century.[8]


The Esselen resided along the upper Carmel and Arroyo Seco Rivers, and along the Big Sur coast from near present-day Hurricane Point to the vicinity of Vicente Creek in the south. Carbon dating tests of artifacts found near Slate Hot Springs, presently owned by Esalen Institute, indicate human presence as early as 3500 BC. With easy access to the ocean, fresh water and hot springs, the Esselen people used the site regularly, and certain areas were reserved as burial grounds. The Esselen's territory extended inland through the Santa Lucia Mountains as far as the Salinas Valley. In early times, they were hunter-gatherers who resided in small groups with no centralized political authority. The coastal area along the Central California coast between Carmel and San Luis Obispo is mostly rugged with high, steep cliffs and rocky shores, interrupted by small coastal creeks with occasional, small beaches.[9] The coastal Santa Lucia Mountains are very rugged except for the narrow canyons. This makes the area relatively inaccessible, long-term habitation a challenge, and limited the size of the native population.[9] Rainfall varies from 16 to 60 inches (410 to 1,520 mm) throughout the range, with the most on the higher mountains in the north; almost all precipitation falls in the winter. During the summer, fog and low clouds are frequent along the coast up to an elevation of several thousand feet. Surface runoff from rainfall events is rapid, and many streams dry up entirely in the summer, except for some perennial streams in the wetter areas in the north.[10]

Due to the relative abundance of food resources, the Esselen people never developed agriculture and remained as hunter-gatherers.[11] They followed local food sources seasonally, living near the coast in winter, where they harvested rich stocks of mussels, abalone and other sea life.

Within the tribe's area at that time there were five distinct Esselen groups: Excelen, Eslenahan, Imunahan, Ekheahan, and Aspasniahan.[9] Each group had several villages that were occupied on a seasonal basis depending on the availability of resources such as food, water, shelter, and firewood.[9] In the summer and fall they moved inland to harvest acorns gathered from the Black Oak, Canyon Live Oak and Tanbark Oak, primarily on upper slopes above the narrow canyons.[12]:270

A large boulder, known as a bedrock mortar, is located in Apple Tree Camp on the southwest slope of Devil's Peak, north of the Camp Pico Blanco. More than 9 feet (2.7 m) across, it contains a dozen or more deep mortar bowls worn into it over several generations. The holes were hollowed out by Native Americans who used it to grind the acorns into flour. Other mortar rocks have also been found within the Pico Blanco Boy Scout camp at campsites 3 and 7, and slightly upstream from campsite 12, while a fourth is found on a large rock in the river, originally above the river, between campsites 3 and 4.


Archeological evidence of settlements have been found throughout Esselen territory. Artifacts found at a site in the Tassajara area (archeological site CA-MNT-44) included bone awls, antler flakers, projectile points including Desert side-notched points, and scrapers. Excavation at a second site at the mouth of the Carmel River (archeological site CA-MNT-63) found more projectile points, a variety of cores and modified flakes, bone awls, a bone tube, a bone gaming piece, and manos and pestles.[9]

Dress and living standards[edit]

Prior to European contact, the people wore little clothing. The men were naked year-round and the women wore a small apron. In cold weather they may have covered themselves with mud or rabbit or deerskin capes.[3] Pedro Fages described their dress in an account written before 1775:

Nearly all of them go naked, except a few who cover themselves with a small cloak of rabbit or hare skin, which does not fall below the waist. The women wear a short apron of red and white cords twisted and worked as closely as possible, which extends to the knee. Others use the green and dry tule interwoven, and complete their outfit with a deerskin half tanned or entirely untanned, to make wretched underskirts which scarcely serve to indicate the distinction of sex, or to cover their nakedness with sufficient modesty.[13]

Traders and sharers, they bartered acorns, fish, salt, baskets, hides and pelts, shells and beads. Their diet consisted primarily of acorns, which they first put through soaking to leach out the tannins and then cooked into a mush or baked as bread. From the Pacific, they caught and gathered fish, abalone, and mussels. And from the sloping, grassy Big Sur hills, they hunted deer.

There are virtually no contemporary records of the Esselen people's lives. Researchers believe that they lived in a manner very much like the Ohlone people to the north and the Costonoan people near present-day Monterey. Miguel Constanso, who traveled with Portola's expeditions 175 years later, wrote about the homes of the Indians who lived on the Santa Barbara Channel. He described how they lived in dome-shaped dwellings covered with bundled mats of tules. The homes were up to 55 feet (17 m) across and three or four families lived in a single dwelling. They built a fire pit in the middle and left a vent or chimney in the center of the roof.[14]:43 In mountainous regions where Redwood trees grew, they may have built conical houses from Redwood bark attached to a frame of wood. One of the main village buildings, the sweat lodge was low into the ground, its walls made of earth and roof of earth and brush. They built boats of tule to navigate on the bays propelled by double-bladed paddles.[15][16][17]

Spanish explorer Sebastian Viscaino reported,

Their food consists of seeds which they have in great abundance and variety, and of the flesh of game such as deer, which are larger than cows, and bear, and of neat cattle and bisons and many other animals.[14]

Spiritual beliefs[edit]

The Esselen left hand prints on rock faces in several locations, including the Pine Valley area and a site a few miles east of Tassajara where about 250 hand prints are located in a rock shelter and elsewhere in the Tassajara Valley.

The Esselen believed that because rocks held memory, when they put their hand into a hand that was carved on the rock, they could tune into everything that ever happened at the site. (This claim is not supported by the ethnographic literature.) The Esselen people gave names to everything, including individual trees, large rocks, paths, even different portions of a path. They believed everything, including the stars, moon, breeze, ocean, streams, trees, and rocks, were alive and had power, emotion, intelligence, and memory.[9]

A peak dominated by a prominent limestone cap named Pico Blanco splits the north and south forks of the Little Sur River. It was sacred in the native traditions of the Rumsien and the Esselen, who revered the mountain as a sacred place from which all life originated.[18] Although widely cited currently, no references to this mountain being sacred can be found in the early ethnographic literature.

European contact[edit]

For more details on this topic, see Spanish missions in California.

Viscaino, likely the first European to land on the Central Coast of California, wrote about his visit to Monterey Bay from December 16, 1602 to January 3, 1603.

The Indians are of good stature and fair complexion the women being somewhat less in size than the men and of pleasing countenance. The clothing of the people of the coast lands consist of the skins of the sea-wolves (otter) abounding there, which they tan and dress better than is done in Castile; they possess also, in great quantity, flax like that of Castile, hemp and cotton, from which they make fishing-lines and nets for rabbits and hares. They have vessels of pine wood very well made, in which they go to sea with fourteen paddle men on a side, with great dexterity, even in stormy weather."[14]

A drawing of Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo prepared by Captain George Vancouver depicts the grounds as they appeared in November 1792. Round, native huts of thatched branches are shown in the background. From A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World.

Father Junipero Serra first established the original mission in Monterey on June 3, 1770, near the native village of Tamo. In May 1771, the viceroy approved Serra's petition to relocate the mission to its current location near the Carmel River and present-day town of Carmel-by-the-Sea[19] and named it Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. Serra's goal was to put some distance between the mission's neophytes and the Presidio of Monterey. The Presidio was the headquarters of Pedro Fages, who served as military governor of Alta California between 1770 and 1774. Fages and Serra were engaged in a heated power struggle.[20]

Spanish missions[edit]

Serra established the new mission within a short distance of the Rumsen Ohlone villages of Tucutnut and Achasta.[9] The latter village may have been founded after Mission San Carlos was relocated to Carmel. The mission was about 10 miles (16 km) from the nearest Esselen territory, Excelen.[9] On May 9, 1775, Junípero Serra baptized what appears to be the first Esselen, Pach-hepas, who was the 40-year-old chief of the Excelen. His baptism took place at Xasáuan, 10 leagues (about 26 miles (42 km)) southeast of the mission, in an area now named Cachagua, a close approximation of the Esselen name.

Baptisms and forced labor[edit]

Under Spanish law, the Esselen were technically free men, but they could be compelled by force to labor without pay. More correctly, upon baptism they were considered to be part of a monastic order, subject to the rules of that order. This placed them, by Spanish law, under the direct authority of the padres.

King Charles V of Spain issued the New Laws (in Spanish, Leyes Nuevas, or "New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians") on November 20, 1542. These were replaced around the beginning of the 17th century with Repartimiento, which entitled a Spanish settler or official to the labor of a number of indigenous workers on their farms or mines. The Spanish state based its right over the land and persons of the Indies on the Papal charge to evangelize the indigenous population. This motivated the Jesuits to build missions across California.[21]

The priests baptized a number of Esselen during 1776, most of them children, and a few more in the following years. The priests allowed the children after baptism to continue to live with their parents in their village until they reached the "age of reason," which was about nine years old. In 1783, the soldiers fought the Excelen and killed a few of them. The battle may have resulted from the soldiers' attempts to collect the children and force them to live at the mission. Baptisms picked up again after this date, perhaps because the Excelen saw they could not defeat the soldiers and decided they wanted to be with their children.

From 1783-1785, about 40% of the Excelen were baptized. Another three Esselen were baptized at the Soledad Mission in the early 1790s, but by 1798 the majority of the Indians had been baptized. A new priest, Father Amoró, arrived in September 1804 and injected fresh energy into baptism efforts. From 1804 to 1808, 25 individuals from Excelen were baptized during these final four years. They comprised nearly 10% of the total Excelen population who were baptized. They had held out for 33 years after proselytizing began in their area. The last five baptized were all older, from 45 to 80 years. The total number of Esselen baptized is estimated to range from 790 to 856.[22]

It may be that the older Esselen were baptized last because they were left alone after their children and grandchildren had already been coerced into living at the mission. They may have been unable to support themselves in the rugged, higher reaches of the mountains where the last remnants of the tribe hid out.[23] This is supported by recent evidence which shows that some Esselen were able to move beyond the reach of the Spanish soldiers on their horses in the rugged upper reaches of the Carmel River, Pine Valley area, Tassajara Creek, and other areas. Some may have survived into the 1840s, when they were able to filter out and find work on the nearby ranches.[4] The priests were ignorant of the cultural differences between the tribes and forced the Rumsen and Esselen Indians to live together. The two tribes were very hostile and their proximity to one another brought ongoing strife.[23]


Further information: Population of Native California

The Esselen were and are one of the least numerous indigenous people in California.[21] The Spanish mission system led to severe decimation of the Esselen population. Estimates for the pre-contact populations of most native groups in California vary substantially. Alfred L. Kroeber suggests a 1770 population for the Esselen of 500.[24]:883[25] Sherburne F. Cook raised this estimate to 750.[24]:186 Breschini calculated based on baptism records and population density that they numbered 1,185-1,285.[9]

The Esselen are too often regarded as the first California Native American tribe to become culturally extinct, much to the frustration of current generations of Esselen people. By about 1822, much of the regional California Indian population had been forced into the Spanish mission system, at a time when most of their interior villages within the current Los Padres National Forest were largely uninhabited.[21] Due to their proximity to three of the Spanish missions, Mission San Carlos in Carmel, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad in Soledad, and Mission San Antonio de Padua in Jolon, the tribe was heavily impacted by their presence.[9] The native population was decimated by disease, including measles, smallpox, and syphilis, which wiped out 90 percent of the native population,[26] and by demoralization, poor food, and forced labor.

The first (factor) was the food supply... The second factor was disease. ... A third factor, which strongly intensified the effect of the other two, was the social and physical disruption visited upon the Indian. He was driven from his home by the thousands, starved, beaten, raped, and murdered with impunity. He was not only given no assistance in the struggle against foreign diseases, but was prevented from adopting even the most elementary measures to secure his food, clothing, and shelter. The utter devastation caused by the white man was literally incredible, and not until the population figures are examined does the extent of the havoc become evident.[24]:200

Some anthropologists and linguists assumed that the tribe's culture had been virtually extinguished by as early as the 1840s.[9] However, existing tribe members cite evidence that some Esselen escaped the missions system entirely by retreating to the rugged interior of the Santa Lucia Mountains until the 1840s when those remaining migrated to the ranchos and outskirts of the growing towns.[23] Archeologists located the grave of girl estimated to be about six years old buried in Isabella Meadows Cave in the Church Creek area. They calculated the date of her burial to be about 1825. Two experts received reports of Indians living in the area through the 1850s.[23] Today, contemporary generations of Esselen trace their ancestry to Esselen who were counted in early U.S. census efforts.

In popular culture[edit]

The Esalen Institute in Big Sur is named after this tribe as was the former Boy Scouts of America Monterey Bay Area Council Order of the Arrow Esselen Lodge #531.[27]

In 2010 the Esselen Nation petitioned the federal government for recognition as a tribe.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Levy, p.486
  2. ^ Bean, p.xxi
  3. ^ a b "The Esselen Indians". Esalen Institute. Retrieved November 3, 2011. 
  4. ^ a b Breschini, Gary S.; Haversat, Trudy. "Linguistics and Prehistory: A Case Study from the Monterey Bay Area". 
  5. ^ Friedburg, Peter. "The Esselen Hands". Esalen Institute. 
  6. ^ Hester, pp.498-499
  7. ^ Kroeber, Alfred L. (1925). Handbook of the Indians of California. 
  8. ^ Golla, Victor (2011). California Indian languages. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520266674. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Breschini, Gary S.; Trudy Haversat. "A Brief Overview of the Esselen Indians of Monterey County". Montery County Historical Society. Retrieved November 3, 2011. 
  10. ^ "Santa Lucia Range ecological subregion information". Archived from the original on March 15, 2005. Retrieved February 22, 2014. 
  11. ^ Pritzker, Barry M. (2000). A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 112. ISBN 978-0-19-513877-1. 
  12. ^ Henson, Paul (1993). The Natural History of Big Sur. Donald J. Usner. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-20510-3. 
  13. ^ Priestly, H. I. (1937). A Historical, Political and Natural Description of California by Pedro Fages. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  14. ^ a b c Watkins, Rolin G. (1925). History of Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties, California. Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co. pp. 41–42. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  15. ^ Tule rush houses, redwood houses and sweat lodges, Teixeira, 1997:2
  16. ^ Redwood houses in Monterey, Kroeber, 1925:468
  17. ^ Tule boats, Kroeber, 1925:468
  18. ^ Elliot, Analise (January 2005). Hiking & Backpacking Big Sur: A Complete Guide to the Trails of Big Sur. Wilderness Press. p. 323. ISBN 0-89997-326-4. 
  19. ^ Smith, Frances Rand (1921). The Architectural History of Mission San Carlos Borromeo, California. Berkeley, California: California Historical Survey Commission. p. 18. The mission was established in the new location on August 1, 1771; the first mass was celebrated on August 24, and Serra officially took up residence in the newly constructed buildings on December 24. 
  20. ^ Paddison, Joshua (ed.) (1999). A World Transformed: Firsthand Accounts of California Before the Gold Rush. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books. p. 23. ISBN 1-890771-13-9.  (Fages regarded the Spanish installations in California as military institutions first and religious outposts second.)
  21. ^ a b c Blakley, E.R. "Jim"; Karen Barnette (July 1985). "Historical Overview of the Los Padres National Forest". ForestWatch. 
  22. ^ Breschini, Gary S.; Haversat, Trudy. "A Brief Overview of the Esselen Indians of Monterey County". Retrieved November 6, 2011. 
  23. ^ a b c d Breschini, Gary S.; Haversat, T rudy. "Post-Contact Esselen Occupation of the Santa Lucia Mountains". Retrieved November 3, 2011. 
  24. ^ a b c Cook, Sherburne F. (1976). The Population of the California Indians, 1769-1970. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  25. ^ Kroeber, A. L. (1925). "Handbook of the Indians of California" (78). Washington, D.C.: Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin. p. 883. 
  26. ^ Kripal, J. Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion. University of Chicago Press. (2007) p. 31
  27. ^ Doane, Jeff. "Legend of White Bear". Salinas, California. Retrieved February 8, 2010. 
  28. ^ "Tribe Petitions For Federal Recognition". Central Coast, California: KSBW Action News 8. April 29, 2003. 


  • Bean, Lowell John, editor. 1994. The Ohlone: Past and Present Native Americans of the San Francisco Bay Region. Menlo Park, CA: Ballena Press Publication. ISBN 0-87919-129-5. Includes Leventhal et al. Ohlone Back from Extinction.
  • Breschini, Gary S. and Trudy Haversat 2004. The Esselen Indians of the Big Sur Country: The Land and the People. Salinas, CA: Coyote Press.
  • Breschini, Gary S. and Trudy Haversat 2005. A Brief Overview of the Esselen Indians of Monterey County. File retrieved Sep 7, 2007.
  • Levy, Richard. 1978. Costanoan, in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 8 (California). William C. Sturtevant, and Robert F. Heizer, eds. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1978. ISBN 0-16-004578-9 / 0160045754
  • Cook, Sherburne F. 1976. The Conflict between the California Indian and White Civilization. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Kroeber, Alfred L. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin No. 78. Washington, D.C.
  • Hester, Thomas R. 1978. Esselen, in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 8 (California). William C. Sturtevant, and Robert F. Heizer, eds. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1978, pages 496-499. ISBN 0-16-004578-9 / 0160045754

External links[edit]