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The Wappo Indians of Napa Valley

by David on December 20, 2009

When Rey and Patt Gorsuch, our founders, purchased the site where Goosecross is located it was a peaceful cow pasture. As they began prepping the land to plant Chardonnay they came to realize that it must have been inhabited by Native Americans at one time – the plows kept turning up arrow and spear heads, and not just a few! They also found some old tools, such as stone mortars with pestle which are now on display with the arrow heads at the winery. His curiosity about the people who came before was piqued and he began to learn about who they were and how they lived. There are so few of the people we call the Wappo remaining, and they have become so scattered that information is scarce – some of it contradictory – but the following is a summary of what Rey managed to learn.

Archeological digs have uncovered local, cultural remains estimated at over 10,000 years old in Lake County, our neighbor to the immediate north. It’s possible that these remains were artifacts of the Wappo because the tribe was clustered in the areas around the south shore of Clear Lake, Alexander Valley, Russian River and Napa Valley. We know that a small segment, the southernmost group of the Wappo, lived by a little stream that drained into Conn Creek right here, where Goosecross Cellars is located.

The First Inhabitants of Napa Valley

The first Caucasians arrived here nearly 200 years ago. Life before then was quite peaceful, as far as we know, probably because the people had everything they needed, as did the neighboring tribes. Their natural environment richly provided for them with good fishing, hunting and gathering right outside the door of their dome-shaped homes. That may also explain why the white man saw them as primitive compared to other tribes they’d encountered. Other than making a once a year trek to the coast to trade for shells to make beads, and catch some salt-water fish and shellfish, there had been little need to mix with, or learn from, other tribes.

Plants and animals, which built their homes and provided their nourishment, were considered sacred, so ownership of any kind was discouraged. It was also considered immoral to force a person to do something he didn’t want to.

Cultivating crops wasn’t a part of the picture until Caucasians came on the scene because of the local bounty. Acorns were a dietary staple. They were ground into flour to make bread and other foods like mush; they hunted waterfowl, deer, elk, rabbit and even bear, usually in teams. They caught trout, salmon, freshwater shellfish and turtles with spears, their hands or with nets made from local plants. Nuts and berries were plentiful, which makes us wonder if they made any wine from the berries.

Marriages were monogamous and there was the traditional division of labor, with the men doing the hunting and fishing and the women tanning hides, gathering acorns and berries and preparing meals. George Yount observed that he found the people peculiar in that the children were kind to each other, unlike so-called civilized children, and there were almost never arguments amongst the adults, of any kind – that is until the white man introduced whiskey, which had an extremely negative effect.

Descendants tell us that the Wappo enjoyed a good party and were also very family oriented. Games, dances and music were a big part of life and the dance leaders, who would visit other tribes to learn new songs and dances, were generally the only well-traveled members of the group. Most villages were built around a communal sweat house and it was common to go for a steam and then plunge into the cold stream afterward.

The Wappo were known for their beautiful jewelry, made of bone and shells, and also for the magnificent baskets they wove.

The Padres Arrive in 1823

This was how Father Altimira, a Franciscan priest, found the Wappo when he arrived in 1823 to establish the northernmost of the 21 coastal missions, the Sonoma Mission. At that time, it’s estimated that there were about 4,000-8,000 Wappo living in the Napa Valley. Altimira’s arrival marked the end of a peaceful way of life. When the padres began moving the Wappos, and other neighboring tribes, to their missions for re-education, some went willingly, with the promise of food and comfort. Others were less cooperative and the natives were regularly rounded up and sent to the various missions to be converted to Christianity and also to become farmers and housekeepers who would support the Spanish colonies.

Records indicate that Altimira had converted 623 natives within a year. These converts also helped to raise buildings, bring up cattle from the south and plant orchards, row crops and Mission vines, the only wine variety available at the time. There was a small cellar in the mission to store the wine they made. Because of attempted escapes, the natives were no longer allowed to ride horses and those who were caught were returned to the mission to be punished.

When some of these natives put up greater resistance than officials anticipated, based upon their experience with other tribes, they began to call them Wappo, a corruption of the word “guapo”, which meant “brave” or “handsome”. In its way, the name expressed admiration, or at least respect, for the fierceness and skill they demonstrated in defending their way of life.

The original intent of the mission system was that the missions would last about ten years, after which the land would revert to the Native Americans working it and they’d become responsible, Christian, tax-paying citizens. As it turned out, the missionaries were quite reluctant to give up their vast land holdings and the free labor that came with them.

In 1926, the natives under Altimira’s care revolted against the frequent flogging and imprisonment employed in the effort to “civilize” them by attacking and burning the Sonoma Mission. The discouraged padre put in for a transfer, unsuccessfully, and eventually returned to Spain. The attack prompted the Mexican government to send in soldiers for protection. But, in spite of this, there was another attack of 2000 natives on Mission San Rafael three years later, effectively putting off others who considered settling in the region.

Colonization Under Mexico

When the region came under Mexican control, the growing population of colonial ranchers throughout California demanded that the government force the missions to “free” the Indians and redistribute the land, leading to the secularization of the missions.

In 1835 General Mariano Vallejo was made director of colonization in the region and was authorized to issue land grants to settlers. It was a method of securing a great deal of territory in the face of sparse colonial population. He granted huge tracts of land, totaling 180,000 acres in what are now Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties to relatives, friends and cronies. This was very bad news for the small groups of natives who had managed to maintain tribal village life rather than go to the missions. The Mexican Republic’s 1824 constitution declared Indians to be citizens with rights to vote and hold public office but, in reality, they were still treated as slaves. Any settlements within the ranchos were considered the property of the owner and the Indians became slave-like servants for these settlers. As the land owners sold off pieces of their ranchos, the new residents, even those of very modest means, had at least a few Indian servants.

Enter George Yount

Enter George Yount in 1836, an American from Missouri and the first Caucasian to settle in Napa Valley. He was the recipient of a 12,000-acre grant called Caymus Rancho. This 18-square mile parcel began below today’s Yountville and extended all the way up to just south of what is now St. Helena. He settled in, built a block house and ranched cattle in the area that is now Yount Mill Road. He procured most of the Indian labor he needed for the Caymus Rancho and also Rancho La Jota, which was granted to him a few years later, by promising safety and plenty of food. Yount’s biographers wrote that the relationship with the natives was one of mutual respect and good will. It was the smart way to go for Yount because, at least at first, his closest Caucasian neighbors were eighteen miles away in Sonoma. And it was the safest approach for the Wappo, too, because they didn’t own guns.

It wasn’t long before Salvador Vallejo settled on another large grant, south of Yountville, and then more Americans came on the scene such as E.T. Bale, who had married into the Vallejo family and became a neighbor to the north. Other well-known local names were grant recipients who settled in the areas that were eventually named for them, such as Pope, Chiles and Berryessa.

Yount began as a fur trader and cattle rancher, but is acknowledged as having been greatly influential in converting the area from a region of cows and wheat to one of fruits and vegetables including, of course, grapes. Wine historian Charles Sullivan was able to track down an account of the beginnings of winemaking in the Napa Valley by Yount’s granddaughter: “The grapes were put in rough troughs and the Indians, girt with their loin cloths only trampled out with their bare feet the mass until it was reduced to a pulp. This pulp was then placed in suspended ox-skins. They were hung from four strong stakes sunk in the ground, and when the fermentation process was complete a hole was made in the skin and the wine was drawn off.”

The Wappo Gradually Disappear From the Region

When he first settled in what is now Yountville, Yount estimated that there were about 8,000 Wappo living in the Napa Valley. But with the growing non-native population, which increased very rapidly with the onset of the gold rush, the Wappo fled, or were rounded up and sent to Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties.

In 1850, California changed hands, again, and became the 31st state in the union. According to Yount, there were less than 500 Wappo in the area by then – countless dead due to disease, many relocated by the successive governing bodies, and others had simply scattered, joining and marrying into other tribes. By 1880, it’s estimated that there were about 50 Wappo remaining. Today, to quote Yolande Beard, “a few Wappo families live in northern California. Typically they maintain a low profile.”

The Native American Garden at Bothe State Park

You can visit a very interesting Native American garden, in Calistoga, at Bothe State Park. It displays twenty of the plants important to the Wappo, especially native iris, wild rose and elderberries. You can see the black oaks that provided the all-important acorns and the sedge, willow and redbud they used to make their beautiful baskets. There’s a sacred redwood circle that is said to symbolize the harmonious relationship between the native people and the universe. One of the last remaining Wappo to speak the language, Laura Fish Somersal, was quoted: “Although these are modern times, these plants still give us a living. They feed us, help us get along. Heal us when we’re sick, and remind us we’re still Indians, even in these times. That’s why it’s so important to keep them.”

Thank you

It’s important to acknowledge that two wonderful books were of particular help in putting this together: Yolande Beard’s The Wappo, a Report and also Victoria Calkins, The Wappo People.

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