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Aboriginal Pathways and Trading Routes Were California’s First Highways

Much of California's highway and thoroughfare system dates back to before European contact; they were indigenous routes long before settlers arrived.
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On July 16, 1769, the Spanish Franciscan friar Junipero Serra planted a cross and founded the Mission San Diego near the Kumeyaay village of Nipawai. Over the next 54 years, friars would establish 20 more missions and military forts and call the road connecting them El Camino Real (the King’s Highway).

But for thousands of years before the Spanish conquest, California had been crisscrossed in every direction by hundreds of Native pathways and trading routes, many of which would reach far beyond the state’s present borders.

While the California Missions Foundation seeks to nominate El Camino Real as an international cultural corridor and historic site, a growing number of Native Californians prefer to have their traditional pathways and trade routes recognized in a special way.

Examples of such trade routes abound, according to historians, archeologists and anthropologists. The noted anthropologist Alfred Kroeber chronicled the discovery of a woven burial cloth imported from the Pueblo Indians near Buena Vista Lake in what is today California’s Kern County. He called it one of the few authentic instances of long-distance trade of any manufactured article, either into out of California.

The Franciscan explorer Pedro Font, who accompanied the Juan Bautista de Anza expedition from Arizona to California, also witnessed woven cotton blankets imported form the Southwest being worn by the Chumash Indians on the coast and islands of the Santa Barbara channel.

Anthropologists Erin Smith and Mikael Fauvelle have written in the American Anthropologist that these interlocked trade connections spanned the continent, and that California shells, asphaltum (oil tar) and obsidian flowed east beyond the Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, to sites in Oklahoma, the Great Plains and Mississippi, while textiles and pottery flowed back to the west.

“Prehispanic inhabitants of North America lived in a world that stretched from Canada to Panama,” Fauvelle told ICTMN. “We look at the past, and we tend to think everything was local and small scale. Actually, people were traveling all over the place. And these were highly developed civilizations.”

The Trading Routes

A map of pre-contact California shows multiple trading routes. Goods traded included food (fish, pine nuts, meat), tobacco, beads, shell products, furs, basketry, minerals (obsidian) and textiles, as well as feathers and birds.

In fact Indian clam disc beads flowed northward form the San Francisco Bay Area to Alaska, and pelts, sinew-backed bows and stonework flowed southward to the Bay Area and beyond, according to a study published by James Davis of UC Berkley’s anthropology department. The study shows several examples of tribal trade. The Achomawi tribe, located in California’s Pit River Valley, traded salmon and tule baskets with the Northern Paiute in exchange for bows, baskets and shell beads.

The Cahuilla, located in what is now Riverside County, received gourd rattles from the Yuma and basketry from the Chemehuevi. The Central Miwok of northern California suppled shell and glass beads to the Eastern Mono, and the Mono furnished them with baskets, red and white paint, and rabbit-skin blankets.

Highways and Railroads

The UC study also showed that many Indian trails evolved into modern thoroughfares. The Mohave, for example, used a well-worn route from Arizona to California. In fact, Mohave and Yuma scouts assisted De Anza in his expedition to reach San Gabriel mission in California. Later this route became an emigrant trail, a horse express, and finally the Santa Fe Railroad.

When an expedition of Nez Perce Indians traveled, in the 1880s, from eastern Washington south to the Sacramento River Valley, their pathway became known as the Walla Walla Trail.

Aboriginal roads also pre-dated at least 15 modern roadways, such as U.S Route 101 from the Oregon border to Ventura; State Highway 1 from Rockport south to Bodega Bay; U.S. Route 99 from the Oregon border to Los Angeles, and U.S. Route 50 from Oakland to Manteca and from Sacramento to the Nevada border.

“If you are talking about the importance of El Camino Real, you need to put it into perspective,” said archeologist Kent Lightfoot of UC Berkeley. “Native Californians had trade routes for thousands of years. You can’t just talk about what came afterward. You need to look at the long-term history to have a balanced perspective. You need to look at the tribal side of this.”

Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, is doubtful that the California Missions Foundation will get the cooperation it needs from California’s tribal councils for the UNESCO nomination of the El Camino Real cultural corridor.

“Meanwhile,” said Lopez, “we need to focus on our own Native pathways and trading routes. We want UNESCO to recognize these, not just the route the Spaniards used to conquer our people.”

Indigenous pathways that turned into major thoroughfares. (Photo: Courtesy San Diego State University, Geography Department)

Indigenous pathways that turned into major thoroughfares. (Photo: Courtesy San Diego State University, Geography Department)

This story was originally published on December 1, 2016.