By Paula White
I love maps, especially historical maps; they offer a bird’s eye view of a place, capture its contours, and provide a resume of the culture of its inhabitants. My favorite maps are both beautiful and informative, opening a window into the past. If you’ve ever wondered what the San Francisco Bay Area was like before the Gold Rush and massive immigration to California, take a look at these maps:
This map of the Native Peoples of the East Bay shows the 23 tribal groups who lived in what is now Contra Costa and Alameda County. Following European colonization, the original inhabitants lost access to their ancestral lands. Today, descendants of these tribes who live near the shoreline call themselves Ohlone. For more information about present-day Ohlone efforts to reclaim their lands, visit the Sogorea Te’ website.
Notice the contours of the land — the Bay flats, hills in the east, and the streams that snake through the hills and meander through the marshes. Can you figure out where you live on this map without contemporary names of streets, cities, and counties?
The next map zooms in on the present-day Albany/El Cerrito area. Note the trapezoidal cove formed by Point Isabel on the center left map edge and Fleming’s Point to the south. Albany Hill rises east of the cove and the line running along the base is labeled “Road from San Pablo to Oakland”. Codornices Creek is the southernmost creek shown, running downhill to the marsh without quite making it to the Bay. Cerrito creek on the north makes a curlicue near the base of Albany Hill where it is joined by another unnamed creek before finishing its sinuous route to the Bay. The Friends of 5 Creeks has a wealth of information about local historical creeks in this area, including more maps.
Shell mounds were once common throughout the Bay shoreline, and shell mounds found today indicate the presence of indigenous communities. Pre-contact daily activities like eating shellfish, making what we now call regalia, making tools, building shelters and so forth led to the accumulation and compaction of tons of shells and other material in sloping mounds of soil, often on the shoreline. Over generations, they kept returning to these shell mounds as sites for sacred ceremonies, such as burial ceremonies. The shellmounds as burial grounds wove their daily lives with the afterlife.
Look for the small round dots on Map 3 to see where shell mounds were in 1909 — it’s not entirely clear what the shaded areas on the map represent. Generally, these mounds were within 50 feet of the shoreline and were close to freshwater sources. Indeed, one of the dots is located near Cerrito Creek at the base of Albany Hill and in fact, early European settlers sometimes used the shellmounds to guide them to freshwater. Shortly after settlement, though, the shellmounds were dug up for their rich topsoil, razed for development, looted by artifact seekers, and excavated by archeologists to showcase at museums.
It’s interesting to compare the locations of these sacred disposal shell mounds sites with the locations of landfills created over the past century. In addition to the Albany Bulb, the Berkeley Marina is also a former landfill for construction waste. The West Contra Costa landfill in North Richmond and the Davis St. Transfer Station are both very close to the Bay Shoreline. It’s too bad that unlike shells, today’s waste products are toxic.
Though not a map, this beautiful view of the Bay Area in springtime strips away the trappings of the modern world. Gone are the distracting buildings and power lines, the Golden Gate bridge, I-80 with all its traffic, and Pt. Isabel, unencumbered by Costco, juts out into the Bay in the rough center of the image. Albany Hill has darker green areas on the northern slopes where the oak forest is today but there are no eucalyptus trees. As a matter of fact there are very few trees of any kind. Historically, most of the East Bay was a grassland, with some oaks and buckeyes growing near creeks. The majestic redwood forests were confined to the Sausal Creek watershed. This is due in part to the land management practices of the indigenous people, who relied on acorns, grass seeds and tubers for food. Annual burns stimulated the growth of desirable food species and also thinned forests, maintaining an optimal plant density. Take another look at the photo–the lighter tan patches in the middle foreground of the painting are human habitations.
Stay tuned for an upcoming Earth Day event featuring activities to explore these human traces and the natural world!
East Bay Regional Park District Native Peoples of the East Bay: Past to Present map: https://www.ebparks.org/civicax/filebank/blobdload.aspx?blobid=30644
Sogorea Te’ Land Trust: https://sogoreate-landtrust.org/
Friends of 5 Creeks maps: http://www.fivecreeks.org/history/
Cunningham, Laura. A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California. 2010.