Illustration of a typical Maidu village captured by illustrator Henry B. Brown during his visit to California 1851 - 1852.
Inhabitants before 1820
The Maidu People
From the crest of the High Sierra, west to the Sacramento River and south to the Consumnes River, four groups of closely related people have inhabited the land for thousands of years. Collectively known as the Maiduan, they are the Mountain Maidu of Plumas and Lassen counties, the Mechoopda of Butte county, the Konkow of Butte and Yuba counties, and the Nisenan of Yuba, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, and El Dorado counties.
Long before there was a railroad or a Roseville, there was the land, encompassing mile after mile of grasslands and thick groves of valley oaks. Wild flowers blanketed the valley and foothills in profusion. Poppies, buttercups, lillies and monkey flowers joined the multicolored varieties of brodiaeas, while lupines and purple owl’s clover added their own unique scents and shapes. Many streams coursed through what would eventually become lower Placer County and were the highways and breeding grounds for numerous fish species as well as retreats for other reptiles and amphibians. Along their banks shaded by oak, black walnut, willow and alder, grew wild roses, native black berries and grapes. Wet lowlands supported vast stands of cattail and tule, making safe forage and nesting sites for the millions of seasonal and permanent waterfowl that filled the Sacramento River valley. A vast intertwined ecosystem was supported by this bountiful landscape from the smallest gnat and grass seed to the mighty apex predators of the grizzly, wolf, cougar and eagle.
The Original Inhabitants
Approximately 9000 years ago, Roseville's first inhabitants would have seen a very different world than that of today. In addition to the familiar herds of deer, elk and antelope, packs of wolves, and black and grizzly bears that were commonly seen until 150 years ago they would have also seen columbian mammoths, giant ground sloths, horses, camels and their contemporary predators - saber tooth cats, American cheetahs, American Lions and perhaps even the Dire wolf.
The Nisenan Maidu Arrive
Paleo Indians freely roamed, settled and then moved on following the game and seasons. Wave after wave of new immigrants crossed the area for thousands of years. Then around 2,000 years ago a distinct language could be heard, a Maiduan dialect from the ancient Penutian family of Native American tongues. Linguistically and culturally, the Nisenan Maidu cemented their presence in the Roseville area.
Managing The Land
For over 2,000 years the Nisenan people and culture thrived and grew until our region became one of the most densely populated areas of a hunter-gatherer culture in all of North America. What was the secret to their success? Through selective burning, gathering and pruning, the Nisenan helped the land to prosper and produce an abundance of food and material resources that in its "wild" state could not have sustained or supported their growing population.
The Food Quest
The "Eden" reported by so many later travelers was not the "wild untamed west" of fiction but a carefully managed natural garden, based on the stewardship of Roseville's first permanent residents. If you look carefully, you can witness the remnants of this ancient horticulture in a few remaining undisturbed parcels of land in Roseville. Careful viewing will show dense stands of brodiaea and other flowering plants that supplied tasty and nutritious bulbs. Countless generations of Native women used digging sticks to gather this valuable food resource that could be eaten raw, steamed, boiled or stored for future use.
The staple food of the Nisenan was the nut of the oak tree, the acorn. Valley and Blue oak acorns were favorites and plentiful, but the Black oak acorns were prized and often traded down from the high foothills. Acorns were very nutritious and could be stored. Acorns stored during high yield years were especially helpful during times when the oaks failed to produce. An incredible variety of plant foods and seeds were gathered and stored.
Fish and other aquatic resources were carefully managed to ensure all peoples along the watershed could partake of this bounty. The lower Sacramento, American, Bear and Feather rivers and their tributaries received seasonal runs of anadromous fish: King salmon in spring and fall, steelhead from fall through early spring and Pacific lamprey in spring. All could be cooked and eaten fresh, although salmon was also dried and stored for later use and trade.
Herds of large game animals afforded year-round hunting resources, supplemented by squirrels, rabbits and hares from the fertile woods and valleys of the region. Pigeons, doves and countless waterfowl provided food and feathers. Acorn, hazel and pine nuts, plant bulbs and corms provided an almost limitless supply of vegetable starch, protein and oils. Crickets, wasp larvae, seasonal greens including clover and miner’s lettuce, together with fruits such as blackberries, strawberries, wild plums and grapes rounded out the complex diet of the Nisenan. Their encyclopedic knowledge of the plant world provided myriad medicines and remedies to treat diseases, injuries and ailments.
The Maidu Language Family
The Nisenan or Southern Maidu are part of the larger Maiduan family that shares its language roots with the Mountain or Northern Maidu, the Konkow or Northwestern Maidu and the Mechoopda. These Maiduan groups shared social, familial and political ties that were the basis of a vast intra-Maiduan trade network that could supply each of the groups with wanted or needed resources not available in their own geographic areas.
Landscape and Shelter
The combined valley and foothill topography of Roseville has always offered the same climactic challenges, the heat of summer and the bone-chilling, moist cold of winter. Summer time for the Nisenan meant leaving their hometowns and heading to higher elevations to follow the seasonal flora and fauna. Towns were not abandoned though as the elderly and young remained.
A more lasting way of dealing with the seasonal weather variations was the ingenious design of dwellings that changed by elevation. On the valley floor, subterranean, earthen-roofed structures were both cool in the summer and warm in the winter, while tule or grass-covered, willow-framed round huts were sufficient for the middle elevations of the lower foothills. In the higher foothills, a tripod of sturdy poles was covered with overlapping slabs of pine or cedar bark, which made them warm and structurally sound enough to support the snows of winter.
Although scant clothing was worn regardless of the season, sewed hides and skins or more often, a blanket of woven rabbit skins were used to stay warm. Hide moccasins and snowshoes were worn in the higher elevations.
The most significant structures erected by the Nisenan were ceremonial Roundhouses found in larger town sites. The Roundhouse was a combination spiritual and social center and provided a large work area during inclement weather. Other structures seen in even the smallest of villages would be acorn granaries, open-sided shelters providing shade for outside activities, a women's menstrual hut and a sweathouse for ritual healing and cleansing.
Banner illustration by Henry B. Brown, May 1852. Original pencil and gray wash archived at John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, Providence, in the John Russell Bartlett Collection. To view original source document, click here.