It’s November again and thoughts turn to images of Pilgrims and Indians. It should be obvious to most people that Pilgrims never came anywhere near the town of Riverbank, but Indians, or rather, Native Americans did.
So what were the Native Americans who occupied our valley and likely had a village where Riverbank now stands, like? How does one summarize all that they were in one small article? We will have to give a brief overview for now and return to the subject later and fill in more detail.
For starters, the people who occupied our region of the valley in the 1600s were called Yokuts. The entire tribe consisted of perhaps around 25,000 people with 50 subtribes. They used shells for money, drilling holes in them to create necklaces. Different types of shells had different values. They wore no shoes and mainly wore their hair long and unbraided. The men wore breech clouts made of deer skin while the women wore short skirts made from two aprons. The women used a variety of plants and animals to create these.
The primary diet of the Yokuts was acorns. Valley acorns were large, measuring three inches in length and one inch in diameter. Special baskets that slid along the ground were used to gather these and acorns were flipped in. The acorns were stored in tall granaries until they were used. Typically, the acorns were mashed and made into bread, soup or mush.
Acorns were not the only thing eaten, however. There were also grapes that grew on vines that were six inches in diameter and blackberries that climbed 20 feet up the trunks of oak trees. One had to be careful in gathering berries, however and take a dog along to warn gatherers if a grizzly bear was found among the bushes. Sunflower seeds and pine nuts, buckeyes, nutmeg and roots were also gathered.
The lush environment also provided an abundance of game in the form of deer, elk, antelope, rabbits, squirrels and other large and small creatures. In the right season, the waters of the river were crowded with either salmon or trout and plenty of waterfowl. Fishing was done with hooks, nets, harpoons and weirs. Sometimes, poison was used as well. Large game, such as deer and elk were often driven over cliffs or into snares. Small traps were used to capture birds.
The Yokuts lived in relative peace until the coming of Spanish missionaries in 1806. The story of the Indians’ reaction to the missionaries will have to be left for another time as it is long and involved. We have tried to give a brief overview here of the Indians who occupied our area and a brief description of what they were like. If one would like further detail, a good book to read would be The Handbook of Yokuts Indians by F.F. Latta which can be found in the library at Stanislaus State University. More details on the lives of the Yokut Indians will follow at a future date.