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Gary S. Breschini and Trudy Haversat

Paper Presented at the Annual Meetings of the Society for California Archaeology, Riverside, April 21, 2000.


The Esselen were one of the least numerous groups in California, and are often cited as the first California Indian group to become culturally extinct. Some researchers placed cultural extinction as early as the 1840s (Kroeber 1925:544; Hester 1978:497; Beeler 1978:3).

New information suggests that some of the Esselen avoided the Spanish by retreating deep into the Santa Lucia Mountains. This information concerns two areas within Esselen territory: first, in the upper watersheds of the Carmel and Arroyo Seco rivers, and secondly, in the lower watersheds of the Big and Little Sur rivers.

1) The northwestern subgroup of the Esselen, called the Excelen, were the first encountered by the Spanish. There is evidence of skirmishes between soldiers and the Excelen which resulted in a number of fatalities, and possibly removal of many of their children to the mission. The Excelen's response was twofold: about half of the group surrendered almost immediately to the missionaries, while other members appear to have sought refuge in the distant mountains.

2) The southernmost Rumsen (a subgroup of the Ohlone), situated in the Sarhentaruc area between Carmel Highlands and the Little Sur River, appear to have had a similar response. Many went to the missions within a short period, while others appear to have moved south into Esselen lands, where they sought refuge around the Big Sur River and in the rugged coastal mountains (Breschini, Haversat and Nason 1999).

It is not known how long they survived in the Santa Lucia Mountains, but they appear to have lived there through the 1820s, and perhaps for several decades longer.

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Early Contacts

The first documented meeting between the Spanish and the Esselen comes from Carmel baptism number 350. On May 9, 1775 Junípero Serra baptized a 40-year-old man, named Pach-hepas, who was the chief of the Excelen. The baptism took place in at Xasáuan, 10 leagues [about 26 miles] southeast of the mission [this location is still named Cachagua, a close approximation of the Esselen name Xasáuan].

In the next three years, between 1776 and 1778, 39 additional Excelen were baptized, including 14 children, but then there was a lull in the baptisms. During the following three year period only seven individuals were baptized.

To explain this lull, one has to read between the lines. In the instructions he left to his successor in 1782, Governor de Neve wrote:

The repeated patrols that have been sent out to importune them [i.e., runaway Indians] to come back have resulted in deaths among the non-Christian natives, due to the poor supervision of the officers in charge. ...It was as much a danger to the little parties which the Presidios were able to send into the mountains where the natives took refuge. There was little that our troops could do in that rugged, rocky country, which obliged the soldiers to dismount and enter villages on foot. The non-Christian natives are coming to understand our small number and weakness faster and more frequently [Neve 1782:82 in Milliken 1990:56; emphasis added].

From this it is clear that deaths occurred among the Esselen prior to 1782 because of Spanish attempts to capture runaways. It is also likely that these deaths were at least partially responsible for the lull in baptisms between 1779 and 1782. Within a dozen years after the Spanish arrived, it had become dangerous to send the small parties of soldiers "into the mountains where the natives took refuge" because the soldiers could not make full use of their horses "in that rugged, rocky country."

Another clue to the drop in baptisms comes from a previously unpublished portion of the Galiano manuscript, which notes that at Carmel Mission, Indians speaking the Rumsen and Esselen languages were brought together, and that the two groups were so hostile to one another that reconciling them cost endless labor. The strong dislike was mutual (Beeler 1978:16).

After the lull between 1779 and 1782, baptisms picked up again, with the greatest number occurring in 1783. This occurred after a battle between the Excelen and the soldiers in which a few of the Excelen were killed (Culleton 1950:104).

While Governor de Neve's account specifically mentions runaways, there is another likely source of friction between the Spanish and Excelen. Many of the Esselen baptized during 1776, and a few of those baptized during the following years, were children. After baptism children were permitted to live with their parents in their home villages until they reached the age of reason, about nine years of age. It is possible that the battle resulted when the missionaries tried to force those baptized children to the mission. Not knowing which child was which, the soldiers probably just rounded up all of the children of the right age. If this was indeed the case, then the large number of Esselen baptized during the following months would be understandable--they knew that they could not resist the soldiers' weapons, and they simply wanted to be reunited with their children.

Retreat to the Mountains

Following this "battle" a full 40% of the Excelen accepted baptism during the period 1783-1785. But Xasáuan and Excelen were not abandoned immediately. CA-B 1940 (Carmel Mission baptism no. 1940), on April 25, 1794, was for José María, interpreter of the Esselen language, who was baptized in the village of Xasáuan, in danger of death. Three individuals were baptized at Soledad Mission in the early 1790s from Xasáuan, and CA-B 1952 from 1794 shows that the district still had enough people to have a headman. But by 1798 the majority of baptisms had occurred, and it is likely that only a few dozen individuals were left in the mountains.

Only one Excelen baptism occurred between 1799 and 1804, but there was a sudden rise in baptisms between 1805 and 1808 due to the energy of a new priest, Father Amorós, who arrived in September, 1804. In all, 25 individuals from Excelen were baptized during these final four years. These 25 individuals, nearly 10% of the total Excelen population which eventually accepted baptism held out for 33 years after proselytizing began in their district. The mission effort ended in 1808.

The last five Esselen to be baptized, in 1808, were elderly. They were: a man of 45 years, two men of 60 years, and two women of 60 and 80 years. It is likely that their children had joined the mission earlier, and they had no families to support them in their old age, but it is also possible that some of their children or grandchildren were moving into the rugged interior mountains and these elderly individuals were unwilling or unable to accompany them.

Post-1808 Occupation of the Ventana Wilderness

Based on the above information, it appears unlikely that all residents of this mountainous territory went to live at the missions and accepted baptism. But how many individuals managed to avoid the missions? And what eventually became of them?

We know from archaeology that one individual, a girl of about six years of age, was buried in Isabella Meadows Cave (CA-MNT-250; Meighan 1955) in the Tassajara Creek area. Based on shell and glass beads, the date attributed to this burial was approximately A.D. 1825. This individual was raised, and then buried, by someone else.

In a small cave nearby, another individual was found who reportedly had not been buried at all. We do not yet know all the details of this find, but the cranium was reportedly examined by a forensic anthropologist who determined that the individual died approximately 150 years ago (Tom "Little Bear" Nason, personal communication 1992).

Another clue is provided by Professor Clem Meighan, who noted that "wild" Indians are reported to have occupied the general region until 1850 or later (Meighan 1955:21). Meighan does not provide the source of his statement, but anthropologist Arnold Pilling heard the same story when he worked in the area in the late 1940s (Arnold Pilling, personal communication 1992). Growing up in the area, the senior author also heard the persistent rumor of a group of Indians still hiding in the hills; it usually took the form, "I never saw them myself, but my cousin saw them once and swore never to tell where they live." This rumor, this "rural legend," echoing down the years, may reflect back to the time a hundred years earlier when there actually were Indians hiding in the Santa Lucia Mountains.

Recent investigations on the upper Carmel River provide additional evidence for occupation during the late Mission Period and perhaps afterward. A change in bedrock mortar usage patterns suggests a short-lived increase in the population. Additionally, four radiocarbon dates from the upper component of CA-MNT-1601 average approximately A.D. 1815 (Breschini and Haversat 1993, 1995).

With clear evidence for Indian occupation of the mountainous portions of Esselen territory at least into the mid-1820s, it becomes likely that a few individuals survived long enough to bypass the mission system entirely.

As the missions were disbanded in 1834, and in fact had been nearly powerless for years before that date, it would have been possible for surviving Esselen to have moved directly from the remote mountains to the newly settled ranchos, where they could have found employment as cowboys or servants, and lived with relatives, now free of the missions. It is also possible that individuals freed from the missions returned to their original homelands. However, because of the growing settlement of the upper Carmel Valley, it is doubtful that any individuals survived even in the remotest mountains after the 1850s.


There is now evidence from two separate areas of Esselen territory which clearly shows its use as a refuge from the Spanish. The pattern is similar in the Excelen and Sarhentaruc/Ekheahan districts: large numbers of baptisms some years after initial contact, followed by a significant reduction in baptisms, then a last group which accepted baptism between 1805 and 1808.

In the Excelen district we have archaeological evidence of occupation beyond 1808, when baptisms ended. We also have limited evidence from the Sarhentaruc/Ekheahan district in an archaeological feature dated to A.D. 1800-1816.

The Ohlone around Carmel expressed their distaste for the mission environment by running away, often to the east, where they joined Yokuts groups and engaged in horse raiding. The southernmost Ohlone, in the Sarhentaruc area, unable to move east, moved south into Esselen territory instead. And the Excelen in the upper Carmel Valley, moved quietly back into the Santa Lucia Mountains and passed from the historic record. Who knows how long they were able to survive?


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