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Interactive History Feature: 1628 Across the Continent

Plains & Mountains
West Coast
Caribbean Islands

Photo of totem pole
A totem pole crafted by natives of the Pacific Northwest.
As of 1628, few Europeans had explored the western coast of what is today the United States. In 1542, traveling north from Mexico, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo of Spain sailed into what is today the San Diego bay, up to Monterey bay, and perhaps as far as Point Reyes, north of San Francisco, or the southern Oregon coast. Another Spaniard, Sebastian Viscaino, explored the California coast between 1602 and 1603. Sir Francis Drake of England reached northern California in 1579 on his voyage around the world -- and may also have glimpsed what is now known as Oregon. He claimed the area for Queen Elizabeth, calling it "Nova Albion," Latin for New England.

Accounts of Drake's arrival in California state that his crew was greeted by Miwok Indians who ritually lacerated their faces and offered sacrifices to the English. The Miwok were one of many native groups that inhabited what is today California -- a region that, according to various estimations, had a population of 300,000 to more than 400,000 people before the arrival of Europeans.

Photo of Indians
Members of the Mono tribe stand before a cache of acorns, a staple of many native Californians' diets.
This population was divided between some 500 culturally independent communities that spoke as many as 50 different languages. One major language family was Hokan, which gave rise to the Yuman-speaking peoples of southern California, the Pomos of coastal California, and the Shastas and Yanas of the northern Sierra.

The presence of so many independent cultures and languages is often ascribed to the notion that, over the ages, various small migrating groups found their way into California's natural plethora, and never left. The complex pattern of the mountains, and the resulting diversity of climates, may also have contributed to so many pockets of specialized populations. These were hunter-gatherer societies that subsisted on acorns, nuts, seeds, roots, berries, and small game. Coastal Indians fished and hunted marine mammals such as seals and sea lions.

Further up the coast, the Pacific Northwest remained in relative isolation for much longer. Large numbers of Europeans did not begin arriving to this area until the fur traders of the late 18th century. The natives of the lush coastal area were prosperous hunter-gatherers, subsisting largely on salmon, as well as seal, elk, deer, bear, and other land and sea mammals. The area's vast natural wealth resulted in one of its inhabitants' well-known local customs, the potlatch -- a lavish ceremonial feast given by a host as a means of establishing or maintaining social status. The ceremonies involved song and dance and the distribution of gifts such as food, slaves, copper plates, and blankets to all the invited guests. In the case of a high-ranking host, a potlatch may have included members of many different tribes. Tribes such as the Makah, Quinuet, Salish, Puijallup, and Skokomish inhabited the area around Puget Sound, while the Chinook, Cowlitz, and Klickitat lived along the Columbia River. These tribes are often recognized for their artwork, including basketry, ceremonial masks and rattles, and -- in particular -- the totem pole.

-- John Uhl

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