Who are the Coast Miwok?

That the Coast Miwok were the first indigenous people of California to make contact with Francis Drake in June 1579 is a fact noted by both descendants of the original inhabitants and non-native peoples. The World Encompassed author, generally regarded as Drake’s chaplain, Francis Fletcher, accumulated the earliest written account of any Northern California indigenous people. The documentation of the people Drake’s crew encountered at New Albion is so rich and detailed that, with great confidence, ethnographers have securely identified them as Coast Miwok.

Centuries later, Russian Baron Ferdinand von Wrangell, who visited Northern California in the early 1800s, described the indigenous people as ones with natural propensity for independence, inventive spirit, and a unique sense of the beautiful. Anthropologist Robert Heizer, who did defining work researching the Coast Miwok, described the people as “... the most remarkable objects of interest with which he (Drake) came in contact.” The Coast Miwok’s encounter with Drake was friendly time in which the two groups of strangers viewed each other with very deep interest and wonder.

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This map shows the general are inhabited by the Coast Miwok.

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Known as Muir Woods today, this was once in the heart of Coast Miwok land. It is several miles southwest and inland from Drakes landing at Point Reyes

The Coast Miwok lived in California before it was so called, and it was a land of unusual diversity. It was a land of searing deserts and redwood rainforests. It was a land with an immense mountain snowpack and hundreds of miles of both sunny and fog shrouded beaches. It was also a highly populated land with thriving people. Within a particular region of abundance was the Coast Miwok tribe. They inhabited the area immediately north of the Golden Gate, an area vaguely defined by Marin and southern Sonoma counties today. The area is a coastal region with a temperate climate moderated by the Pacific Ocean. The inland is folded with hills and small mountains, covered with thick forests, and laced with numerous riparian habitats. Along the ocean, the land has coastal plains with extensive fields of grass and brush. In addition to numerous creeks, the Pacific Ocean coast, San Francisco Bay, and San Pablo Bay are significant water features which were important to the Coast Miwok people.

The indigenous people of what is now California had cultures very distinct from one another. While cultures certainly shared similar traits, they also had significantly distinguishing differences. One difference in particular was the tribal languages. The great number of individual tribes in the area is reflected in the number of languages—over 60 distinct languages were spoken by the people. And even though there are other tribal people in California also identified as Miwok, the culture of the Coast Miwok was much closer to that of their neighbors, the Pomo, than it was to other Miwok.

It was typical of the tribes to respect each other’s territorial regions while also interacting with each other. There were extensive trade routes across the land, even in the areas such as deserts where travel presented certain difficulties. However, it was also common practice for tribal members to seek permission when entering another tribe’s territory. All of this reflected their cultural respect toward each other while also preserving their own.

This identification of the Coast Miwok as those contacted by Drake is not only confirmed with the latitude of period records, it also confirmed with precision and accuracy of the period accounts of these people. A writer from Drake’s crew, chaplain Francis Fletcher, recorded and described the people’s actions, appearances, artifacts, and even words so well that the Coast Miwok could be specified. Distinct ceremonies and identifiable artifacts have been recognized and identified by distinguished anthropologists and archaeologists nearly four centuries later due to Fletcher’s accounts.

In the early twentieth century, much invaluable information about the indigenous people of California is known thanks to Ishi, the Yahi tribe member who wandered from his homeland and traditional life into the mechanization of the twentieth-century world in 1911. Soon, he was in the care of anthropologists T.T. Waterman and Alfred Kroeber who were among the most qualified to understand his predicament, background, and even personality. Using their surpassingly detailed research of California native peoples, they were able to identify Ishi’s language and tribe, the Yahi.

This is the same linguistics research that allowed Kroeber to identify Coast Miwok as those whom Drake encountered. The author of The World Encompassed, kept careful records of the Coast Miwok including several of their words which Kroeber, and later, renowned anthropologists Robert Heizer and William Elmendorf both confirmed. With all of their surpassing linguistics work and Fletcher’s account, we now know with confidence words spoken by the Coast Miwok when they encountered Drake.

The Coast Miwok people lived in village communities which were typically located in a sheltered place near fresh water and food sources. The population of the villages ranged from 75 to several hundred people, and were part of a thriving economy based on hunting, fishing, and gathering. As was the typical practice of indigenous people in the region, the Coast Miwok actively managed the land. Acorn products—mainly from black and tan oaks—provided a staple to their diet. A root they called Petáh was commonly consumed. Wild game such as deer and cottontail rabbits provided a steady diet of meat. The coast and creeks provided much food, too. Coho salmon and steelhead would have been abundant according to their copius seasonal runs, and generally seafood was readily available through the year. Significant amounts of muscle shells, along with shark and skate remains, have been found in Coast Miwok middens. The Coast Miwok also harvested seaweed to include in their diets.

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Steelhead in Corte Madera Creek, Marin County

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This Pomo fully feathered basket is extraordinarily similar to the Coast Miwok basket described in The World Encompassed.

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This image is of Julia Parker who is of Coast Miwok and Pomo heritage. She is a master basket maker of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Fletcher described the Coast Miwok as “ . . . a people of a tractable, free, and louing nature, without guile or treachery.” The Englishmen were not so impressed with the Coast Miwok’s bows due to their relatively weak nature. This is to be expected. Until relatively recent times, few bows would ever match the strength and quality of the storied English longbow.

Fletcher seemed amazed as he described the great strength of the Coast Miwok men saying that they could easily take a load upon their back that could not be borne by even three of the Englishmen. He said they could even carry it up and down hill for the distance of an English mile. He stated they were swift runners and able to maintain their running for long distances. For the most part he said, they ran whenever going somewhere. Face painting was very common mainly in colors of black and white according to Fletcher. He also noted that these were not the only colors used.

The baskets made by the indigenous people of California are among the finest ever made by anyone. Watertight baskets were common. Not only did the Coast Miwok make such baskets, they made a particular, uniquely distictive basket—one commonly referred to as a fully feathered basket. Fletcher described these type of baskets. Among the basket traits he documented was also that “they were wrought vpon with the matted downe of red feathers, distinguished into diuers workes and forms.” These baskets were only made by the Coast Miwok and a handful of other nearby tribes. Very few of these Coast Miwok treasures remain today.

A particular practice displayed by the women was their self-wounding, scratching themselves when first meeting Drake’s crew. While very puzzled by these actions and relating it to others they witnessed, Drake’s crew thought the Coast Miwok were worshipping them as gods. This was a clear misunderstanding.

Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, described the Englishmen’s mistake in a 2016 interview in The Point Reyes Light. "So it’s very interesting that when the white people and Drake landed here, we thought the dead were returning. After all, they were pale-faced, they looked sickly, and when they came ashore they smelled terribly."

To the Coast Miwok, Drake and his crew were not gods, but a type of ghost of their deceased ancestors. Sarris explained that the ship came from “a place where we say the dead step off to go follow the moon—the line of the moon to the land of the dead when they die.”

Drake’s contact with the Coast Miwok people was not just a time of cultural misunderstandings; it was a time when the encroachment of the Coast Miwok and other native peoples’ land was foreshadowed, an omen of tragedy to come. And as friendly as the Englishmen and Coast Miwok were toward each other, one must remember an important fact: Francis Drake—acting on a grand ceremony in which he seemed to be crowned king by the Coast Miwok—claimed their land for his queen, Elizabeth I. Despite their grand ceremony in which they highly honored Drake, it seems clear the Coast Miwok did not understand he claimed their land for England. And even had they with certainty understood and approved of Drake’s claim, they absolutely lacked full disclosure of what this could mean to them and their way of life.

Ultimately, Drake’s claim had little immediate, even short-term impact on the Coast Miwok. Centuries would pass before they felt the effects of international events Drake helped set into motion. Immediate impact was minimal because Drake left no colony nor did the English ever follow up on this claim on the west coast. But his claim would have significant consequences by influencing English colonization on the east coast at roughly the same latitude only a few years later.

And encroachment did eventually and slowly occur; tragically it resulted in almost complete destruction of a native culture and entire population of the people. The first real impact came with the Spanish mission period when the Coast Miwok were among the last to be missionized. Missionization, while first disrupting their lives, eventually did much to destroy Coast Miwok culture. This is one of the reasons so few of their baskets exist today.

With the 1833 secularization of missions and the Gold Rush beginning in 1849, the destruction of the indigenous people’s existence marched relentlessly toward totality. Deadly influenza and smallpox epidemics were rampant—microbes carried by encroaching outsiders spread quickly. And incredibly, in the late 1800s, a soul-sickening extermination practice—sanctioned and financially incentivized and rewarded by the California and United States governments—almost entirely eradicated a once thriving, prosperous, and good people.

Annihilation was endured by indigenous people across the state. The first governor of California, Peter H. Burnett did not start the genocide, but he added to it. His example is an apt one of the time, and the California State Military Museum has captured Burnett’s words. In January 1851, he stated:

That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected. While we cannot anticipate this result but with painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert.

The Coast Miwok felt all of this combined misery as terribly as any other of the indigenous peoples. While once numbering up to 5,000, the Coast Miwok population dwindled to as low as 13 after the violation was complete.

But as is human history and human nature, times changed and so did attitudes. In the late 1800s, a lively commerce developed in which there was high demand for native people’s baskets. This was especially important for the women of whom basketry was sought. It opened up a livelihood in a time when job opportunities were limited for them. In 1924, Congress ensured that all people of native, indigenous ancestry were accorded full citizenship. The notion, the one of people looking upon others as remarkable, was slowly being kindled. Today, it is even desirable—and somewhat ironic—for people who have almost no discernable native traits, or none at all, to proclaim heritage as an indigenous person.

The Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo have re-constituted as a tribe and are recognized as the Federated Tribes of Graton Rancheria. Today, many of their efforts are expended in a new commercial venture, one which they hope will have great success for their people: a destination resort. It is the Graton Resort and Casino, located in Rhonert Park, California, a city in the area of their traditional homeland.

  • “California Indians Language”, California Indians Language Groups. California State Parks https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=23548. Retrieved 17 August 2018.
  • “Coast Miwok at Point Reyes”, Point Reyes National Seashore, U.S. National Park Service, retrieved 17 August 2018
  • https://gratonrancheria.com/culture/history/
  • Heizer, Robert (1947). Francis Drake And The California Indians, 1579. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.
  • Hudson, Travis (2015).Treasures from Native California: The Legacy of Russian Exploration. United Kingdom: Penguin Classics.
  • Kimmey, Samantha. “Differing Takes On A Historic Landmark,” Point Reyes Light, October 27, 2016.
  • Lightfoot, Kent and Otis Parrish (2009). California Indians and Their Environment: An Introduction. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • May, James. “Coast Miwok Fight For Recognition”, Indian Country Today, August 2, 2000. https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/archive/coast-miwoks-fight-for-recognition-DCvoXpbNMUG663ULzmQ5hQ/. Retrieved 28 August 2018.
  • militarymuseum.org/HistoryIW.html
  • nps.gov/pore/getinvolved/supportyourpark/volunteer_opportunity_streamteam.htm