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Natomas History

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Our Native American Heritage
by Barbara Graichen

The first settlers arrived in the Sacramento Valley as early as 8,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of them in Sacramento County is found along the Cosumnes River near Rancho Murieta where crude stone tools were recovered from gravels estimated to be 12,000-18,000 years old. The first Natomas residents, sometimes called the Windmillers, were mainly hunters. They established villages in Natomas about 4,500 to 5000 years ago. However, some of the sites have not been fully evaluated so they may be older.

Around four thousand years ago, the activities, language and cultural habits of Natomas residents changed. People began to spend more time gathering the abundant and tasty native food found in Natomas. They baked, made jewelry from shells, stones and crystals, and traded pelts and food for beads, obsidian, chert, greenstone, quartz, slate, and other materials not found in Natomas. By 500 A.D., the Maidu-Nisenan culture was firmly established. Many people were living in villages along the Sacramento and American Rivers along western and southern Natomas, and Dry and Auburn Ravine Creeks to the east and north.

By the 1800s, over 100,000 native peoples lived in the Central Valley. As many as 10,000 Maidu-Nisenan people lived in Natomas. In 1832, John Work counted 1,500 people living at the confluence of the Sacramento and Feather Rivers near present day Verona. These people, the Maidu, gave Natomas its name. "Natomas" is a Maidu word meaning north place or upstream people. The Maidu were a branch of the Nisenan people. The word, "Nisenan," means our people or among us.

Most of the Natomas Maidu lived on natural levees or high ground along our rivers and creeks. There were at least six villages along the American and Sacramento Rivers from Northgate Boulevard to Verona. They were called Wollack (near Verona), Leuchi, Nawrean (west of Power Line Road), Wishuna, Totola (in northern Natomas), and Pusune (southern Natomas). Other settlements were located along Dry Creek in eastern Natomas, and Auburn Ravine Creek in northern Natomas.

Remnants of villages, cemeteries, ceremonial grounds, trading sites, fishing stations, seasonal camps and river crossings still remain in Natomas. Their locations are kept hidden from the public so they won't be disturbed. There have been several archaeological digs in Natomas, and beautiful pottery and other items from sites, like the now destroyed Bennet Mound (west of Power Line Road), are on display in various California museums.

Natomas was considered the best place to live in Western North America because of the mild climate and abundant year round food resources. It was a bit like paradise, here. There was no need to work hard raising crops, tending livestock or going to work every day.

There was ample shade in the forested areas. Rivers, creeks, ponds and lakes teemed with Salmon, Steelhead Trout, Tule Perch, crawdads, ducks, geese, turtles, mussels, freshwater clams and bullfrogs. Grasslands and forests supported pheasants, rabbits, doves, and quail. Elderberries, grapes, onions, sweet potatoes, sunflower seeds, pine nuts, brodiaea bulbs, carrots, lettuce, potatoes, blackberries, nuts, roots and tubers, and grains grew wild in Natomas. They were easy to find and gather. There were forests and herds of elk, pronghorn antelope, and deer. Early explorers (Yount, 1837) wrote that the deer, antelope and elk were so tame that people could walk amid them without startling them.

The Maidu built granaries and made or traded milling equipment, mortars and pestles, baskets, harpoons, fish spears, bows and arrows, quivers, mats, pipes, nets, ropes, antler wedges, balsa canoes, obsidian knives, and other stone tools. Villages or groups of villages were organized into a tribelet under the authority of a "headman." The office could be elected but was usually hereditary. The main functions of the headman were to settle disputes, host visitors, and oversee other activities.

Maidu villages generally had 3-7 houses although larger villages housed up to 200-300 people. Dwellings were 10-15 feet in diameter and generally dome shaped. They were covered with bark or brush and placed over slight depressions. This kept residents very cool during hot Natomas summers. People also built 30 foot diameter or larger round houses for dances, gatherings and ceremonies. Natomas was a peaceful and marvelous place to live.

Unfortunately, paradise was lost. In 1832, a group of Hudson Bay Company workers brought malaria to Natomas. Within a few months, seventy-five percent of Natomas' residents died. The gold rush brought miners and settlers, some of whom destroyed villages, killed people or forced them into slave labor. Many other Maidu people died of measles, consumption or from horrible working conditions. The herds of antelope, elk and other large mammals disappeared.

Place names, like Elkhorn Boulevard and Natomas, provide some of the only reminders of Natomas' first settlers and the natural environment in which they lived. Perhaps, our "new" Natomas residents can think of ways to remember and honor those who came before us. If you would like to learn more about Natomas' history, help preserve and document our history and/or meet a lot of fascinating people, call 419-0509 (Natomas Historical Society).

Steelhead Creek in the Ueda Parkway?
by Barbara Graichen

Take a moment and imagine what Natomas was like twenty years before the gold rush. In those days, dozens of creeks and streams drained the eastern valley or Sierra foothills and meandered through Natomas. Some streams emptied into a motley assortment of year round lakes and marshes that were scattered throughout our basin. Others made it all the way to the big rivers.

Herds of deer and antelope, fattened on lush grasses, tules and marsh plants, roamed the lowlands of Natomas. Salmon, Steelhead and other fish were abundant as were the plump water birds. River otter feasted on fresh water clams. Forests of huge oak and cottonwood trees were visible in every direction.

This was the place that thousands of native Maidu-Nisenan people called home. Many made their homes on the natural levees that paralleled the Sacramento and American Rivers and Natomas’ larger creeks. Other natives simply enjoyed hunting and fishing trips along our creeks and streams. It was a bit like paradise.

Times changed. By the early 1900s, an urge to farm or sell land for profit caused the promotion of remarkable plans to drain the land. Landowners and residents reacted favorably to expensive engineering proposals to tame the rivers and creeks that flooded the basin. Dreams turned into an enormous land reclamation effort that caused Natomas to earn national renown as "the Holland of California."

Lakes and marshes were drained. Natural creeks were captured in canals, with portions of their channels shunted in unfamiliar directions. Between May 1912 and December 1914, a ring of levees rose around 55,000 acres of land blocking the natural waterways that once crossed the great basin. Our streams became captive creeks; at best called sloughs; at worst drainage canals.

Some local residents and groups have decided that it’s time to begin to acknowledge our natural heritage by changing the name of the Natomas East Main Drain Canal (NEMDC), the eastern boundary of Natomas, to Steelhead Creek. Reasons vary. Some people simply don’t like the official name because it brings concrete to mind rather than wildlife viewing and recreation. Some, like County Parks Commissioner, Bob Bastian, think that it helps people focus on a local recreation opportunity. "The ponds just north of Sorento Road are a great place to spend a Sunday morning fishing with my son!” he said. “Two weeks ago, we saw Canadian Geese, Mallards and a variety of other birds."

Many Natomas residents who support the new name want more people to appreciate the area’s history and learn about wildlife that live in and near the creek. Valley View Acres resident, Jeanie Brower, remembers her brother catching Steelhead in the NEMDC. Jack Alvarez remembers sitting under the old Sorento Road Bridge catching Black Bass while waiting for his future wife to finish dinner. Seventy-two year old Lou Lawrence relates stories from his boyhood when friends caught Steelhead in what they then called Steelhead Creek.

Some people, like me, remember year round water in the northern NEMDC and more trees. We want others to share our vision of a restored creek. Most younger residents have only seen Steelhead Creek’s degraded northern channel and few people realize that the beautiful stream that enters the Sacramento River on the north side of Discovery Park in the American River Parkway is actually the NEMDC!

Many of the volunteers who helped breathe life into the Ueda Parkway, like equestrian Mike Harriman, look forward to riding horses or bicycles on the many miles of trails planned to be constructed beginning in spring 2001. They would like to see more shaded trails. Many, like Beverly Dir, enjoy seeing the trees and shrubs that have already been planted and would like to see more.

"The name 'Steelhead Creek' may serve as a reminder that captive Natomas streams can provide opportunities for education, wildlife viewing and recreation." said Alta Tura, president of the Sacramento Urban Creeks Council. "They need to be kept clean and attractive for wildlife and for us."

The State passed SB 2261, which requires that, the State Department of Fish and Game double the natural production of Steelhead. Perhaps Natomas can further efforts to obtain state and federal dollars for restoring and enhancing Steelhead and Salmon fisheries in our creeks by supporting the new name for the NEMDC. This could mean more scenic places for picnicking, fishing and other recreation.

ABOUT STEELHEAD  Steelhead were once abundant in central California streams from Mexico to Oregon including Dry Creek and the NEMDC. For years, no one saw any Steelhead in our smaller creeks (Salmon runs continue in low numbers). In recent years, residents and scientists have begun to report Steelhead sightings.

A Steelhead Trout is often called a Rainbow Trout that has the urge to travel to the sea. An adult Steelhead has a bluish back, silvery side, and small, sharply defined spots on the head, back, and sides, and on dorsal and tail fins. In fresh water, a reddish stripe can usually be seen from head to tail. Steelhead average 2 to 15 lbs. Six lbs. is considered large although a few have reached 40 lbs.

Like the salmon that inhabit Steelhead (proposed) and Dry Creeks, Steelhead usually return to spawn in the upstream gravels where they were spawned. However, they do not die after spawning. Counts taken between 1943 and 1947 indicate that local Steelhead generally migrated in the spring although many Steelhead migrate between October and April. Young Steelhead spend from one to two years in fresh water before returning to the ocean.

The ideal spawning location for a Steelhead is slower moving water with 2 to 14 inch depths available for babies (fry) and juveniles. Year round water temperatures need to remain below 60 degrees making Dry Creek’s spring fed upstream and higher elevation locations suitable habitat.