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A Little Bit of Local History

Laguna Beach from 15,000 B.C.
Through 1833 A.D. to ? A.D.

[Reproduced from the "Diary of Susi Q" column, Coast Line News 4-1-1994]

A skull discovered in Laguna Beach in 1933 was radio-carbon dated to circa 15,000 B.C. The person to whom it belonged did not leave much else behind to be learned by future generations except for stone tools known as "choppers," and centuries later, symmetrical "cogged" stones.

Between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D. these original Hokan speaking natives were overrun and split by the arrival of the Shoshone peoples of the Uto-Aztecan stock from the Nevada-Utah basin. Circa 1200 A.D., these Indians had stabilized into clans and independent village-states discovered by Cabrillo in 1542.

Much later the Franciscan missionaries took it upon themselves to name the tribes "Gabrielenos" and "Juanenos." The Gabrielenos, numbering some 5,000, occupied most of North Orange County and Los Angeles County, although some had drifted down to Laguna. Middens, tools and burial sites have been found on the north point in Emerald Bay. The Juanenos, numbering 1,000 or so, lived near the San Juan Capistrano Mission with Aliso Creek acting as a border. At the lower reaches of Aliso was the large Juaneno village of Putuidem presided over by the rotund chieftess, Coronne.

They lived in hemispherical houses made of tule rushes covering a pole frame. The "sweat" house was covered by earth, and which is where the men ritually cleansed themselves before ceremonies. Other times, the house was simply used as a place to hang out with the boys. The padres, unaccustomed to such bodily cleansings, were appalled at the Indians unhealthy habit of daily bathing.

Clothing was not a problem. Men and children usually went naked. Foreheads were tattooed and body paint was applied according to status. Boys were initiated into manhood inside a willow enclosure called the "wankech" where they drank the often lethal Jimson weed tea to produce visions. The ceremony ended with the candidate being buried in a large pile of ants to build courage.

Girls coming of age faced an equally rigorous ordeal. They were buried in a pit of "mother earth" for four days with only their heads exposed, during which trials they were being constantly counselled by older women.

Rules were strict about marrying outside one's clan. Marriage with maternal cousins was forbidden unto the fifth generation. Wives were purchased with gifts, and chiefs could have two or more wives. An unfaithful wife could be punished by her husband including death, but it was more common to leave her to her seducer and usurp his wife instead.

Food supplies were plentiful. The grassy hills nourished deer and antelopes. Bears and mountain lions prowled the area. Some evidence exists that local Indians bumed off the grasses every two or three years to promote new growth whose seeds contained valuable protein and which stored well. In those days, not one eucalyptus tree, nor mustard nor tobacco tree grew in the area. If the locals got tired of meat, they caught sea otters and numerous fish. Using strings of shells for currency, they traded otter pelts and dried fish with the inhabitants of Catalina who made flne soapstone utensils. Their canoes were seaworthy, carrying up to ten people.

What happened to these gentle peaceful people is not one of the shinier epochs in California history. The arrival of "floating houses" piloted by Cabrillo, Vizcaino and Drake was only the beginning. Portola's arrival in 1769 with the missionaries also brought occasional slave trading but mainly white man's diseases.

By 1833, the Indian villages were essentially abandoned, their diminished inhabitants integrated into the Spanish-Mexican mission culture. A 1977 census revealed 75 persons of Indian descent lived in the Capistrano area, none in Laguna. Unless someone has unearthed more evidence since then, the Laguna Indian culture seems irretrievably lost, a victim of the relatively non-violent but all-prevailing white man's progress.

(I am beholden to oldest son, Charlie, who has a deep interest in our early inhabitants.--EHQ)


[Clips from original newspaper articles appear here for educational purposes and purposes of comment, rather than commercial purposes. They are reprinted under the fair use doctrine of international copyright law. Copyright Coastline News]