After I wrote this title I realized I was still caught up in the “Nothing Happened Here Before White Men Came” School of Thought that I was raised on in elementary, middle and high school throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. However, now I know better; Niles was neither an “empty” nor a “vacant” land, regardless of what Jefferson or Benton would have you believe. Thousands of people lived in California for thousands of years before white folks showed up and Ishi was NOT the last California Indian!
The Costanoan or coastal Indians located in the Niles area before contact were Ohlones. They lived a semi-nomadic life hunting and gathering, with abundant fish, fowl and game available to supplement their diet of acorns and roots. They sailed on San Francisco Bay in boats they made of tule reeds and took part in trade with other tribelets that stretched as far away as today’s British Columbia.
Russell Skowronek wrote that the Franciscan missions were either romanticized or reviled by both scholars and the public over the past century, and the California Native Americans have suffered this same historiography. When Spain set up a string of missions during the late 1700s in an attempt to make good their claim on California against potential English, French and Russian incursions, one of the sites they chose was just a few miles from Niles as the crow flies. Dedicated on June 11, 1797, the Mission San Jose had two goals: to convert the Ohlones to Catholicism and thus save their eternal souls, and to till the land. Within three years, the friars claimed to have 286 converts. They were running 367 cattle, as well as 1600 sheep and goats, and had produced 1500 bushels of wheat. They were also growing barley, corn, grapes, olives and figs, utilizing the rich alluvial soil and nearly year-round growing climate that promised such great agricultural potential within the region. (Ironically, the Californios who controlled the land after the missions were secularized were only interested in cattle ranching, and the European and American settlers who followed them were contemptuous of the fact that so much agricultural potential was "going to waste." Just as Americans felt that Native Americans did not utilize the potential of the land, so they believed about the Californios.)
Conversion was risky for both friars and Ohlones. Over 4000 Ohlones died of diseases they had never been exposed to before the arrival of the Spaniards, including smallpox, measles and tuberculosis. Many of these Indians were buried in the Ohlone Cemetery located on today’s Washington Blvd. The friars and the missions were under potential attack from hostile Indians who objected to being imprisoned and treated harshly; more than one mission was burned down, and the Mission San Jose majordomo and priest were attacked by local Indians in 1805. The majordomo was killed and Father Cueva only escaped by hiding in thick fog. Despite the tremendous cultural differences and difficulties, by 1831 Mission San Jose was home to 1877 Ohlones.
The missions were secularized after Mexico won its independence from Spain; independence came in 1821 and secularization began in 1834. The mission lands theoretically had been developed to provide the California Indians land on which they could earn a living, be it ranching or agriculture. While many of the friars fought for the mission lands to go to the Indians who had lived and worked on them for decades, they ultimately lost the battle. The governor of California sold the 30,000-acre mission tract to his brother and a partner for $12,000 in 1846. They in turn sold it to three white settlers in 1850 but the United States government annulled that sale in 1859; most of the land became public domain. The 1868 earthquake destroyed most of the mission buildings and an adobe church that had been built in 1809. Another church was built on the site and the mission was restored in various phases over the 20th century.
In 1904 a Niles historian wrote in The History of Washington Township:
In the 40’s and early 50’s, when the white men first came into the valley to settle, there were still many Indians living here; the largest rancheria in this neighborhood was on the banks of the lagoon on what is now known as the Tilden place.
To-day the wretched remnants of all these villages is gathered either at the Pleasanton village [the Pheobe Hearst estate at Castlewood off Highway 680] or in the little cluster of rude houses just below Niles bridge [between Niles Blvd. and Overacker Rd.]. Scattered here and there throughout this neighborhood are still found a few traces of this peculiar people. On the Meyer’s place [today’s Dry Creek Park at Mission Blvd. and Decoto Rd.], back in the small canyon, are portions of a ditch and a walled spring of stone and cement made by the Indians. Their adobe huts were in the edge of the hills close to the mouth of the canyon. Here some fine metates, or grinding stones, have been found; one in the Meyer’s garden is no less than three feet in circumference.; and in the almond orchard south of the house was located a temescal, or sweat-house. Piles of stone on the hills back of the Meyer’s and Mosher’s ranches are the remains of the devil-worship practiced by these Indians. Another very old Indian village was doubtless on the northeast corner of the Ellsworth place, for metates, stone tools and bones have been unearthed there.
This little history falls more on the reviled side, not atypical of white 1904 attitudes. The “little cluster of rude huts” near the old Niles bridge are long gone--as is the bridge—but Ohlones still live in the area. In 1982, two great grandsons of Ohlone chief Tarino, who helped lay the cornerstone for Mission San Jose in 1797, assisted with placing the new cornerstone for the restored mission chapel. Clearly these modern-day Ohlones have no problem reconciling their past with the mission.
The sources I used for this blog were: 1) Fremont City History Book (eds.), City of Fremont, The First Thirty Years: History of Growth (Fremont, CA: no imprint, 1988): 10-16, 2) Country Club of Washington Township Research Committee, History of Washington Township (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1950-1965, 3rd ed.): 137, 3) Russell Skowronek, “Sifting the Evidence: Perceptions of Life at the Ohlone (Costanoan) Missions of Alta California,” Ethnohistory 45:4 (Autumn 1998): 675-708, and 4) Kevin Starr, California: A History (New York: A Modern Library, 2005): 45.
Coming up: Niles-First a Mill Town (Take Two) and Niles-A Railroad Town