By DENNIS WYATT
Four thousand years before Joshua Cowell walked over the Sierra from Nevada’s Carson Valley in 1862 and decided the sandy plains found near the southeast edge of the Delta would be the perfect place to buy land and farm, there were people living in the area we now call Manteca.
Archeologists employing carbon dating to determine the age of buried artifacts determine the first long term settlers in the region were the Yokut tribe of American Indians.
The area was a virtual smorgasbord up until Western Civilization started transforming the region spurred on by the California Golf Rush.
The snowmelt unchecked by dams and not contained by levees would overwhelm rivers and streams in the spring often forcing them to spread out for miles. The spring runoff spurred a repertoire of moisture long plants such as cattails, hyacinths, and tule that would turn golden brown by the time deep summer hit. The landscape was laden with mink, otter, raccoons, beavers and other fur-bearing mammals.
It is what brought the Hudson Bay Company to the southern terminus of the California-Oregon Trail used by French trappers to establish French Camp in 1832, San Joaquin County’s oldest settlement. The trappers were able to spend 13 years collecting pelts for shipment back to the East Coast and Europe.
The Yokuts built their villages as close to the river as possible seeking out high ground and spots where rivers could be crossed.
The Yokuts were gatherers and hunters. That meant their villages were also built to near where they could harvest nature’s boundaries. The valley offered berry bushes, wild grapevines, as well as grasses of which some were edible. Up until perhaps 150 years ago large herds of tule elks, deer, and antelope roamed the valley along with grizzly bears, rabbits, coyotes, badgers, and other small mammals.
Water fowl such as geese and ducks were said to be so thick that when in flight to and from marshes the skies darkened.
Like many Manteca residents today, once summer hit they headed to the high Sierra. But instead of seeking rest and relaxation they camped there to live off wild strawberries, edible roots, various other berries, horse chestnuts, and pine nuts as well as to collect medicinal herbs and soap plants.
And just like today, the local Yokut economy was bolstered by travel to the Bay Area. But instead of paychecks they brought home clams, abalone, and other shells from Coastal Indians that they primarily traded furs to obtain. The trade route was over the Altamont Pass via Livermore.
The shells were used by the Yokuts as their form of money.
Although the exact extent of the Yokut population in the region is hard for researched to determine, it wasn’t unusual for tribes to number 2,000 members.
The Yokuts were part of the balance of nature for thousands of years until the settlement of California spurred by the Gold Rush deprived them of their ancestral hunting and fishing grounds. Not only were they displaced from their lands but they were often killed when they resisted. On top of that, they proved especially susceptible to diseases cared by white people.
By 1970, the number of Yokuts in San Joaquin County had dwindled down to 363.