top of page

Driving along the gently curving Arroyo Seco Road, passing through the hundreds of acres of lush vineyards, the Arroyo Seco Valley first appears as a smaller, less populated Napa Valley. However, Arroyo Seco has additional merits that set it apart from this more famous Northern California tourist attraction:  the welcoming presence of the lovely Arroyo Seco River flowing due east from the Santa Lucia coastal mountains and the surrounding vistas of the Ventana Wilderness and the Los Padres National Forest.

However, life in this region was not always so bucolic.  Over the last 350 years, from the time of the discovery of Arroyo Seco by western civilization the encounters with the region’s earliest residents and the struggles of the American Settlers it is worth remembering that life throughout this history were not nearly as welcoming as we enjoy now.


The Arroyo Seco was likely first seen by the white man when the pathfinder Gaspar de Portola, on his first march into Alta California, marched northward searching for Monterey and descended the Santa Lucias into the Salinas Valley. According to historian H. H. Bancroft (History of California, p 150) and Zeth Eldredge (The March of Portola, p. 35) the descent was made down Reliz Canyon through what are now the Powderhorn and Gould ranches. This must have taken place September 24, 1769, as after a march of six days the party, on September 30, approached the mouth of the Salinas river “within sound of the sea.”


The Rancho Arroyo Seco consisted of some 16,500 acres. Its north­west corner is near where the Paraiso Springs school stood. For this property, Joaquin de la Torre filed a claim founded on a Grant of four square leagues, made to himself by Governor Alvarado on December 30, 1840. Don Joaquin was a Mexican patriot of energy and courage, active against incoming foreigners. To the southeast lay Rancho Poza de los Ositos, consisting of 16,938.98 acres of rolling land lying on the west side of the Salinas River.



The Rancho and canyon, at first devoted chiefly to cattle, became virtually worthless following the widespread drought of 1864. Some of the land was known to sell for as little as $1.00 per acre. Later droughts, especially those of 1876 and 1898, further devastated the area, with thousands of cattle dying of starvation and lack of water. Mrs. De Etta Cline, who was born in the canyon in 1902, (in a personal interview in 1975) quotes her mother, Mrs. Ivy Jorgenson, (who was born in the canyon in 1877) as telling her that in 1898 the ranchers would go out each morning to cut moss from the oak trees and green brush for feed to keep the cattle alive. Most of the river was dry, with only an occasional pothole with water in it. The springs were all dry. Some stock was driven over the mountains to the coast where some green feed was still available; however, the loss of so many animals due to their weakened condition, the long drive, the rough terrain, and depredations by bears and mountain lions, made the venture unprofitable.


Intermittent droughts over the years continued to plague the ranchers and cattlemen. Cattle grazing was gradually replaced by hay and grain farming, and in the 1920s that portion of the Rancho within the Salinas Valley came under intensive irrigation, reducing the dependence on rainfall.



Because the Indians did not have a written language it was not easy for historians to trace their origin and describe their way of life prior to the advent of the Spanish explorers and missionary fathers. Most of what is known about the Indians of Arroyo Seco following the Spanish conquest has been found in Soledad Mission records.


It is believed that prior to mission days there were three distinct and separate Indian groups, each speaking different languages and occupying specific territories within Monterey County. These groups later became known as Costanoans, Esselens and Salinans. The Costanoans are believed to have occupied the area from San Pablo and San Francisco bays as far south as present day Greenfield, and west into the Arroyo Seco Canyon. The Salinan group resided from there south to the Santa Margarita Divide. The Esselens, a small group, inhabited an area about 25 miles along the coast from Point Sur to Point Lopez and inland possibly as far as Junipero Serra Peak. They also inhabited the upper watershed of the Carmel River and the whole upper drainage of the Arroyo Seco River. After 1791 all Esselens, along with Salinans and Costanoans, excepting those in the Carmel Drainage System, were cared for by the Fathers at Soledad Mission. In the lower Arroyo Seco and its tributaries were found the Costanoans. Some writers have referred to the Costanoans as Ohlones, a word of uncertain origin. The Spaniards some times referred to them as Costeños, people of the coast. The word was later picked up by the English-speaking settlers, who mispronounced it Costanos, and finally twisted it into Costanoan. Salinan also was a word coined by the white man, but Esselen appears to be a white man's understanding of an Indian word. The word has been spelled seventeen different ways by writers and historians.


The Costanoans, like others, were a “Stone Age” people. Their arrows, spearheads, mortars, and pestles were made of stone and their tools were made of bone, shells, or wood. They used no metal, had no agriculture (as we know it), wove no cloth and made no pottery, although they did weave baskets of grass and reeds. In the usual sense, the Costanoans were not homogenous, made up of forty or so tribelets and speaking eight to twelve languages and dialects (The Ohlone Way, Margolin).


This did not mean, however, that these various groups could not communicate with each other; intermarriage, trading and mutual need made it not only convenient but necessary to be able to understand each other. In a vocabulary and dictionary of the language of the natives at Mission Soledad, the Reverend Bonaventure Sitjar O.F.M. says “it was also spoken by those of San Antonio and San Miguel.” For that reason he felt it quite proper to classify those neophytes as belonging to one linguistic group. However, Father Pedro Font O.F.M., who as chaplain accompanied the expedition of Captain Juan Bautista de Anza from Sonora to San Francisco, describes the natives in the Soledad area as being distinct from those at San Antonio and Sierra de Salinas. He may have been referring to their physical appearance and general behavior rather than their language.


Sumner Gould and others of his family, who were old-time residents of the area, collected what is probably the finest collection of tools, bowls, arrows, and other Indian artifacts. Elmer Gould was responsible for having the collection donated to the California Academy of Sciences Museum in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Nearly every ranch in the Arroyo Seco has some of these relics, many of which were uncovered during farming operations. The best example of bedrock mortars has been found on the Cahoon-Bell Ranch in Paloma Canyon and in the Basin area of Arroyo Seco, as well as in Reliz and Vaquero canyons.


Tiny mortars made from sandstone were also used. They were probably used for powdering pigment and for grinding herbs for medicinal use. Angelo Riva, a farmer near the foot of Reliz Canyon, has an outstanding collection of these at the present time.


In general the Arroyo Seco Indians, like most of those along the Central California coast, were amiable and gentle. Portola and his men in 1769 found the natives very docile. Gary Breschini, in his Indians of Monterey County, writes, “They had a sense of brotherly love and treated their families with regard and kindness. A contract was considered sacred because if an Indian lied or cheated no one would deal with him in the future. Enemies were avoided rather than provoked.”


James Culleton, in Indians and Pioneers of Old Monterey, writes, “Murder was very rare. When an Indian was killed by a group of his fellows, the Spaniards presumed that he deserved it.” This, of course, referred to those Costanoans of the Carmel Mission after the Spaniards arrived, but it is not illogical to believe that the descriptions would also fit those in Arroyo Seco.


Without doubt, wars did occur in pre-Spanish times, but it is believed that they took the form of feuds rather than actual combat. The Costanoans and the Salinans were hostile toward each other but any evidence of actual warfare between them has not been recorded. Indeed, it is believed that a “No-Man’s Land” existed in the Greenfield-King City area, separating the Salinans to the south from the Costanoans of Arroyo Seco in order to avoid hostilities. As further evidence that the Indians of Monterey County were not basically warlike, one has only to read the accounts of the Mission Fathers to see that many tribes and linguistic groups were integrated at Mission Soledad without resentment or problems. No native attacks were ever made at this Mission as were made at Mission San Antonio in the year 1775, and even there, little damage was done.


Since food in many forms was plentiful in Central California, there was little need to go to war to obtain it. Overpopulation was not a problem in Monterey County. The estimated number of Indians in 1770 was about 7,000 so, unlike the situation in places with overcrowded conditions, there was no necessity to fight to survive.


The Costanoans practiced no agriculture and raised no domesticated animals except the dog. Their subsistence was based upon hunting and gathering.


Since proximity to a water supply was an important factor in selection of habitation sites, it can be assumed that the Arroyo Seco Canyon was the home of numerous natives and many rancherias. Costanoans made no pottery of which there is any record. They cooked in large watertight baskets by an extremely laborious and fuel-consuming process called “stone boiling.” Stones were heated, dropped into baskets filled with water, and when cool replaced with fresh ones. Little by little, water was brought to a boiling point. Food materials were added and the heating process continued.


Acorns were probably the main staple as a whole, supplying both carbohydrates and fats.


California live oak (Quercus agrifolia), so abundant in the Arroyo Seco, is inferior in quality to the Tanbark acorns of the Santa Cruz mountains, which are also found in lesser quantities in the Santa Lucias. However, in the Sierra de Salinas and also in the Santa Lucias, are found the Blue Oak, Valley Oak and Black Oak, all major acorn producers. The Tanbark is not a true oak, belonging as it does to the genus Lithocarpus rather than Quercus.


Buckeyes were also collected but were probably one of the last of their choices because of their extremely bitter taste, which was partially removed by crushing and leaching.


Pine nuts were prized but these were found only in the higher elevations of the Santa Lucias.


Grass seeds were an important source of food, especially the wild oats which appeared, however, only after the advent of the Spaniards.


Men usually hunted and fished, and the women and children gathered nuts and berries. Wild cherries, which abounded in canyons, together with berries, provided them with their fruit.


Wild onions were used for seasoning. Unleavened bread was made from acorn flour and salt. Yeasts and shortening were not available until the Spaniards arrived in the area.


The Indians’ taste for food was not discriminating by white men’s standards. Young fat larvae of bees, wasps, and wood-boring beetles were considered a delicacy. Also white grubs from the sod, termites from decaying wood, and maggots from many sources. Lizards and grasshoppers were also part of their diet. The desire for sweets was satisfied by honey from the nests of the bumblebee. The honeybee was unknown in California until it was introduced by American settlers.


During the rainy season the Costanoans gathered mushrooms. Long experience taught them what varieties were edible and which were to be avoided. In the early spring they gathered their greens–clover, miner’s lettuce, poppy, cow-parsnip shoots, and the very young leaves of alum root, columbine, milkweed, and larkspur. Shortly after the spring grass appeared came the time for gathering roots. Digging sticks were used to pry out cat-tail roots, brodiaea bulbs and soap-root bulbs. Soap root, or amole, was roasted (one missionary described it as tasting like “preserved fruit”). It was also used for glue and fish poison. These supplies, along with large and small game and fish from both the Arroyo Seco and Salinas rivers, provided the Costanoans with a plentiful diet. According to early visitors, the Costanoans meals were not only adequate but delicious as well.


The political and economic structure of the Costanoans was socialist rather than capitalistic, in the sense that it emphasized cooperation and sharing rather than competition and exploitation. Rather than valuing possessions, the Costanoans valued generosity. Instead of having inheri­tances, which is a way of perpetuating wealth within a family, they generally destroyed a person’s goods after his death. They measured wealth and judged good breeding by how generous a person was. To be wealthy was not to have; to be wealthy was to give (The Ohlone Way, Margolin). From this perspective it would appear that they practiced the Christian ethic much more than the white Christians who came to conquer and Christianize them.


However, theirs was not a classless society. There were the “better” families, and there was the expectation that a youth would marry someone within his or her social class. Thus, the sons or daughters of a chief would marry into chiefly families of other tribelets. This tended to create and perpetuate a class of important people that would provide leadership, counseling, guidance, and good examples. It also imposed upon them the obligation to excel in the virtues that their position required; failure to do so would lose them the esteem and respect of the people. They practiced a system of government that served without oppressing. No autocracy was possible under their system, and bad or unworthy chiefs could, by popular opinion, be ignored or deposed. This system seems to have worked well for hundreds of years, and was not destroyed until the white men arrived and changed their whole social and economic structure (The Ohlone Way, Margolin).


The exact number of Indians who inhabited the Arroyo Seco watershed is not known. A. L. Kroeber (Handbook of the Indians of California), estimates that there were in the neighborhood of 7,000 natives in Monterey County in 1770, most of whom were Costanoans. Of this total, probably not more than a few hundred lived in the Arroyo Seco area. By 1910 there were none that could be accounted for in the recollections of early day Arroyo Seco settlers.


Such a complete and rapid disappearance of a whole ethnic group is probably unparalleled at any time in American history. It appears to be a fact that the rate and rapidity of this disappearance was in direct ratio to their proximity to the white establishments, especially the Spanish missions. However, it should be pointed out that it was not the intent of the Spaniards to exterminate the natives but to employ them, even if by force, in useful pursuits and to incorporate them into their social and economic structure, and especially into the Catholic religion (Heizer and Whipple, The California Indian).


The Anglo-American system, on the contrary, had no place for the Indian and he survived only if he did not interfere with the supposed rights of the American settlers. Physical violence against Indians was the rule rather than the exception. To the Anglo, miscegenation was felt to be repugnant. However, this did not prevent widespread hybridization. Still, the Mestizo or half-breed was relegated to the same status as his Indian parent.


Despite the acceptance by the Spaniards, the gathering of the Indians at the missions was nonetheless the beginning of the end of their way of life and their continued existence. With no resistance to the diseases of the white man, thousands died from smallpox, cholera, measles, diphtheria and venereal diseases, including syphilis on a large scale. Other factors were the unhealthy concentration of people at the missions, forced labor, and a complete change in life style. Intermarriage was encouraged by the missionaries. Cohabitation and concubinage–as practiced by the soldiers and settlers, and encouraged by the secular authorities–was designed to facilitate control and absorption of the race.


As of this writing, only a few families still living in Monterey County, most of whom bear Spanish surnames, possess some Indian blood, along with that of their Caucasian forebears, and the dilution increases with each generation.


With the secularization of the missions many of the remaining Indians found employment on the various ranches, mainly as cowhands (or vaqueros, the Spanish term commonly used), since livestock was almost the only industry. They did not have a tradition of horsemanship. Marjorie Pierce noted in East of the Gabilans that “before 1818 it was not legal for Indians to ride horseback–it was feared they might become warriors like the Apaches. This was according to the Law of the Indies, under which the missions were ruled.” Subsequently, though, they became magnificent horsemen and became indispensable to the missions and later to the rancheros.


The Settlers


The first American settler in the Arroyo Seco Valley was a man called Robinson, who arrived in 1868. He brought along a yoke of oxen and building lumber. At that time, there was no road up the valley, but a trail over the river terraces was not difficult to traverse. Later on, others arrived and found the river terraces inviting places on which to stake their claims. There is no record indicating where Robinson settled in the valley or how long he remained. Government records do not indicate that he ever filed for or received patent to homestead land.


Prior to this, only the cattle from the Mission and the ranchos used the land. At that time, all the land in the valley and on both sides of it was government-owned, or open land, as it was called. In contrast, most of the acreage in the Salinas Valley was held in immense Mexican or Spanish land grants and was not available for settlement.


It was not until the Homestead Act was signed by President Lincoln on May

20, 1862, and made effective January 1, 1863, that the flood of immigrants to the West was able to occupy and file for ownership, with a filing fee the only cost. By the time Congress started to debate the Homestead Bill in 1862, the proponents of the bill had generally agreed to limit homesteads to 160 acres. Land was to be given only to a bona fide settler, a man who intended to live on the land and bring it under cultivation. On December 29, 1916, new legislation provided for maximum patents of 640 acres for stock-raising only.


Once the settler had found suitable land within the public domain, it had to be surveyed. He had to make a personal on-site inspection before he filed his application at the nearest land office. This was his “passport” to occupy the land and to start cultivation. Once the application was filed the clock started running. He had five years in which to meet all requirements. Within six months he had to move onto the land. He was required to reside on the land for a period of five years.


There were two other requirements: the settler had to build a habitable house and he had to cultivate one-eighth of the land. At the end of the fifth year the settler was entitled to a patent on the land if the local land office determined that all requirements had been met. This was called “proving up”.


From April 15, 1880, when the first tract of 80 acres was patented to a George H. Moore, until August 22, 1924, when 320 acres were granted to Ivy Gilkey, a total of 316 homesteads were granted in the Arroyo Seco area. Moore’s patent was signed by President Rutherford B. Hayes, and that for Mrs. Gilkey by President Calvin Coolidge. Other early day grants

were made to Samuel A. Hodges for 160 acres on October 22, 1881, 162 acres to Ardilous Tash on June 30, 1883, and two grants to Robert B. Cockrill for 320 acres, also on June 30, 1883. All were signed by President Chester A. Arthur. For all practical purposes homesteading had ceased in Monterey County by 1924, as all suitable land had already been patented.*


  • This History section borrows extensively from the book authored by Albert Coelho, titled The Arroyo Seco

bottom of page