Wednesday, May 18, 2022



Were there wolves in Grass Valley? Yes, gray wolves (Canis lupus) lived throughout much of North America until the early 1900s, when they were almost eliminated by predator-control programs throughout most of the contiguous United States. They were certainly present in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and the Sacramento Valley where their main prey items were deer, tule elk and pronghorn, an animal similar to an antelope. When the landscape of the Sacramento Valley became soggy in winter ungulates found it more difficult to range and escape predators because their sharp and narrow hoofs sunk into the ground, so they migrated into the foothills where they encountered indigenous hunters who were well aware of this pattern.



Wolf Creek is the main feature of a small foothill watershed that begins on the southwest slope of Banner Mountain, in Nevada County, at 3,400’. Every year there’s some snowfall at this elevation, but not much lately. The creek is about 23 miles long with 18 named tributaries. It contains a variety of life zones, but its upper reaches are predominantly in the lower ponderosa pine, incense cedar and black oak belt, with Douglas fir in its upper reaches. Grass Valley’s downtown, at 2,410’, was a gold mining town, but it’s becoming a tourist destination featuring historic buildings. 

Wolf Creek Entering Downtown Grass Valley

In the downtown area Wolf Creek and South Fork Wolf Creek [sic] are confined to puny channels and big culverts that were buried under tons of asphalt when the freeway between Grass Valley and Nevada City was completed in 1969. Wolf Creek flows out of Grass Valley, past the former North Star powerhouse, now a museum, and past a tributary called Little Wolf Creek, before it turns south and assumes a wilder look. 

Wolf Creek Flowing Parallel to Tin Loy Street in Downtown Grass Valley

Most of the southern portion of Wolf Creek is private property and I’ve visited very little of it, although according to John Schaffer’s 1850 diary, “Wema’s village” was a mile downstream from Grass Valley and, based on another source (Crawford:2017) there is a salt marsh on a tributary downstream, which was probably used by the Nisenan and was considered a valuable trade commodity.

Usually, towns built along water courses are built near the mouth, at a confluence with other streams. But Grass Valley emerged close to the headwaters of Wolf Creek because gold was discovered at this location in 1849. From Grass Valley, Wolf Creek flows south to the Bear River at about 1,000’, which is in blue oak-savannah country close to the Nevada–Placer County boundary and just above Camp Far West reservoir. Bear River continues flowing to the Feather River in the Sacramento Valley where it flows south to the Sacramento River and eventually to the San Francisco Bay.

South Fork Wolf Creek is a three-mile-long tributary that begins near the Idaho-Maryland Mine on Brunswick Road. It parallels East Bennett Street on its north side. It originally joined Wolf Creek in a meadow-wetland environment. Today it disappears under asphalt and concrete in the flat area at the intersection with the freeway on-ramp and reappears squeezed between the freeway and the back of Safeway in downtown Grass Valley.

Grass Valley in 1851. Painting by Edward Fanshawe




I looked at drawings, lithographs and maps depicting this valley, hoping to get a glimpse of how it looked 173 years ago when cattlemen and gold miners first arrived. In illustrations and verbal descriptions Grass Valley is consistently depicted as a gently rolling meadow area surrounded by conifers and hardwoods with riparian environments and intermittent wetlands.


The Nisenan are the indigenous people of the Wolf Creek watershed, who were hunter-gatherers with several camps and important settlements in the Grass Valley area. The prevailing  landscape was the conifer forest surrounding meadows, wetlands and riparian stretches. 

Areas where two ecosystems meet or intermingle creates a phenomenon known as the “edge effect.” It’s also known as ecotone. These overlapping life zones are typically very diverse and productive. The Nisenan were well aware of this process and managed the landscape to create small open meadows by burning and thinning. There is still a meadow out Bennett street on Empire State Park land (public land) and the former Loma Rica Ranch meadow, which is currently being converted into housing. Today, meadows are simply real estate to be profited from – that’s the way we live.

Meadow on South Fork of Wolf Creek (Bennett Street)

There were numerous wetlands in the flats of the Grass Valley area. The native people created other ecotones where there were willows and other plants for basketry as well as habitat for plants, animals, fish, birds and invertebrates that made this a superb place to camp or settle.


There were also ecological niches that were much appreciated by the Nisenan. An example is the outcropping of serpentine located on Spring Hill, in the area of the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, where, because of its unique chemistry and shallow soils, support particular plant species used as herbs and medicines. Also, on Spring Hill there are stands of gray pine, which produced highly desirable nuts. Typically, gray pine appears 10 or 15 miles downslope to the west. There is another serpentine outcrop west of town where Ridge Road meets the Rough and Ready Road.

Wolf Creek Flowing to Grass Valley

Still another area, rich in biodiversity, was the Brunswick basin, a place that had seasonal streams, meadows and wetlands, which for thousands of years, flowed to Wolf Creek via Olympia Creek. In the historic period, a community gathering place was created here by damming the stream in the southwest portion of the basin and calling it Lake Olympia. Now it’s a shopping center and most of its former grassland-meadows and riparian habitat are paved with heavy construction going on in this area as I write. Just over the northern ridge bounding Brunswick basin (now Banner Mountain Road) are Gold Flat and Nevada City in the Deer Creek-Yuba River watershed.


As Wolf Creek leaves downtown Grass Valley and turns south, Little Wolf Creek enters from the east. This is a two-mile-long-creek that drains the low hills in what is today the Empire Mine State Park. Beyond the Little Wolf Creek culvert the channeling of Wolf Creek ends and it begins to resume its wild character.


South Fork Wolf Creek With Animal Statuary


Grass Valley was the richest and most famous gold mining district in California. “The value of the total output of the lode mines is estimated to have been at least $300 million” (Clark 1992:54). In the early historic period the flatlands of Grass Valley were used for placer mining and sawmills, with some agriculture and orchards (there are still pear and apple trees around). 

Former North Star Powerhouse on Wolf Creek. It's Now a Museum.

In 1850 gold was discovered in a quartz outcropping on Gold Hill in Grass Valley and underground mining became all the rage prompting investors to build stamp mills and other mining facilities with limited knowledge about underground mining or any experience in separating gold from quartz. Despite being California’s highest producing lode mining region in 1855 this type of mining was in its infancy. To paraphrase a contemporary observer, mine managers were amateurs operating untested equipment. This led to poor performance and soured a taste for investment in the mines of Grass Valley. But, by the 1860s, a steady accumulation of experience, persistence and a high-grade ore body made the Wolf Creek watershed one of the most heavily mined watersheds in the world, renowned for innovation and production. Mined until 1957, Wolf Creek once had the greatest concentration of large hard-rock mines of any watershed in California. 


The local tourism industry usually includes a shallow retelling of stories about the gold rush, which by the way, was over by the mid-1850s, “Mining is not a folk industry” said geographer, Richard Francaviglia. “By the early 20th Century all but the most marginal operations were either influenced by or came under the ownership of large multi-national corporations or mineral cartels.”


An Underground Map Showing a Cross-Section Near the North Star Mine Mine.
The Tiny Dimple in the Top-Center of the Map is Wolf Creek


Mining disturbance in the Wolf Creek watershed is well documented. Internationally renowned gold mines like the Empire, the North Star and the Idaho-Maryland and numerous smaller mines released mine waste and toxic contaminants into Wolf Creek and residual toxins continue to erode into the stream. Meanwhile, if you can believe it, the Idaho-Maryland Mine, at the head of South Fork Wolf Creek, is currently requesting a permit to resume mining for an 80-year period. the decision is up to the five member County Board of Supervisors.


A Segment of the Wolf Creek Trail


Grass Valley’s citizens are becoming more concerned with the health of Wolf Creek than the vague prospect of jobs by investors from a foreign country. Reopening the Idaho-Maryland mine is a project that will severely impact Wolf Creek and the town’s well-being. The Wolf Creek Community Alliance ( was formed to advocate for Wolf Creek in 2004 and in 2006 the City of Grass Valley approved the Wolf Creek Parkway. Today there is a small, but well-used, trail that genuinely contributes to the vitality and environmental awareness of Grass Valley. Even as I write, there is an ongoing public art performance ( that merges with educational and scientific perspectives about consciously living in a biome. The first of many creative exchanges of ideas, I hope.

• • •


Crawford, Josie. Wolf Creek Watershed Disturbance Inventory & Assessment of Conditions: Part 1 Physical Abiotic Conditions (2017).

Clark, William B. Gold Districts of California, Bulletin 193. (1970).

Johnston, W.D. North Star Mine Geologic Cross Section [Map] USGS (1940).

Francaviglia, Richard V. Hard Places: Reading the Landscape of America’s Historic Mining Districts. (1991).

Friday, March 4, 2022


It’s been awhile since my last post because I’ve been working hard helping my friend, Tanis Thorne, finish her most recent book, Nevada City Nisenan. Collaborating on this book has been demanding, but illuminating, and worth every hour invested. 


Nevada City Nisenan is the story of an Indigenous population’s survival in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California. A story that underscores the importance of place and the resilience of Nisenan Cultural institutions. It tells how the Nisenan of Oustomah (Us tu ma) and Wokodot, living in the watershed now known as Deer Creek were able to remain in their ancestral homelands. The topographies here, with the advent of gold mining, were penetrated by shafts, adits, tunnels and trenches. Hills and canyon walls were dissolved by high pressure water cannons, sending everything but gold downstream. Waterways were stripped of vegetation and wildlife, filled with siltation, dammed and diverted and contaminated, while life-giving salmon choked on opaque and muddy water 


The topography today retains its industrial features but is softened by attrition, landslides, precipitation, wind and vegetation, which with needles, leaves and litter begins to create soil to cover the rawness and memories of violence to the geography and ecosystems. A landscape/garden that was subtly, but effectively and with respect, cultivated to yield desired results.


The campy mythology of the superior and rugged individual moving westward and opening the frontier is still very much alive in Nevada City, a town that, today, depends on tourism. The frontier thesis was fostered by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in the late 1890s in his influential book, The Frontier in American History (1921). In it, he explains how the availability of very large amounts of nearly-free farm land promoted agriculture, pulled ambitious families to the western frontier, and created an ethos of unlimited possibilities. 


In 1987, historian Patricia Limerick wrote The Legacy of Conquest:The Unbroken Past of the American West in which she reveals that this is a privileged white male perspective that sees the West as a land of conquest and open opportunity. Furthermore, she points out that the frontier is more than a concept but a place with, “many complicated environments occupied by Natives who considered their homelands to be the center, not the edge.”


The Nisenan, who had lived here for thousands of years, had deep and enduring relationships with the land and an awareness and delight in belonging to this place. So skillful were their manipulations and enhancement of their habitat that virtually every invasive explorer, trapper and gold miner was fooled into thinking that the land was a wilderness unaffected by humans. Stephanie Lumsden wrote in “Settler Law” (Notes from Native California, Summer 2014), “The cultural practices that accompany the traditional environmental knowledge of California Indians are more that common-sense strategies for sustainability; these are expressions of indigenous cosmologies which center on belonging to the land.”


Those early gold seekers who made the arduous journey to California had no intention of settling here. The goal, for most, was to make a “pile” and return home better-positioned to attract the most desirable wife available – for others getting rich was sufficient. But the easy to find surface gold was gone by 1852 requiring new technologies, like hydraulic mining, that involved earth moving and water contamination on a scale never before imagined. This was not a folk industry, but rather progress in its most virulent form: environmentally destructive mining on an industrial scale.


These two perceptions of land use could not have been more different. Why and how the Nevada City Indigenous community survived into the twenty-first century is noteworthy, Nevada City was no remote outpost, but viable mining ground, rich in gold with international financing attracting some of the best minds of a generation – the foothill town and mining district became an internationally known center of engineering and innovation. Today there is no gold mining in Nevada City but the Nisenan are still here.

Find out more about the availability of this book and an upcoming book signing at:


Sunday, October 31, 2021

 Notes on Early Italian Settlers in the Yuba River Region of the Sierra Nevada in California

Columbus Day, 1890s, CA
Courtesy of the Calaveras County Archives

We have just celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day, formerly known as Columbus Day. It’s unlikely that the second Monday of October will ever revert to Columbus Day again because, in the spirit of discovery, we are more aware now and must correct course. This year (2021) President Biden acknowledged the obvious by recognizing the importance of the people native to the USA.


None of this rethinking is inspired by negative impulses toward our valued Italian-American community, who deserve a day to celebrate their roots like the Irish (St. Patrick’s Day), Black Americans (Juneteenth) and Chinese New Year – there are plenty of other examples of cultures that celebrate their contributions to the American mosaic.


In 1492, after nearly ten weeks at sea, Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer-entrepreneur representing Spain, landed on what is today San Salvador island in the Bahamian archipelago thinking he was in India. He was greeted by the Lucayan-Taino people who called the island Guanahani. Archaeologists believe the aboriginal settlers arrived 800 years prior to Columbus. Personally, I think that the “finding” of the America continent is a topic worthy of historical accuracy. It’s very important to be clear about who was here first and preposterous to credit a foreign explorer for “discovering” a place where people already lived, and to reflect on what happened in our history after that, in terms of the colonization, then displacement and oftentimes genocide of those people.


Columbus was hardly a hero, but his continually propagandized story sanctioned the “founding” of the United States by European Christians. Well before the creation of Columbus Day, Kings College in New York was renamed Columbia College in 1784, the District of Columbia was created in 1790, and Columbia, South Carolina was named in 1786, while Columbus, Ohio was named in 1810. There is also the Columbia River and hundreds of other places with similar names. Then there is the female personification of the United States as Columbia who was commonly used in patriotic graphics until the Statute of Liberty largely replaced her about 1920.


John Gast’s 1872 painting American Progress, depicts Columbia as the Spirit of the Frontier, carrying telegraph lines across the Western frontier to fulfill manifest destiny, another imperialistic rendition of superiority and sanctity because, supposedly, was God's will. 

American Progress by John Gast, 1872
(Note the Indigenous People and Buffalo being run-off their land)

It’s telling to note that both Indigenous peoples and Italian-Americans sought respect and recognition on the national level after suffering oppression.  Most Italian affinity groups, like the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), don’t exonerate Columbus for his crimes, they believe that the holiday’s true meaning, Italian-American cultural pride, shouldn’t be sacrificedSan Francisco’s Italian Americans celebrated their first Columbus Day in 1869 and in 1882, a group of Irish Catholic priests founded a fraternal service group called the Knights of Columbus, which grew to have a heavy Italian American membership.

Front Page of a Newspaper in 1888
The Caption Says: "Italian Immigration and its evils – A summer night scene in the Italian Quarter, 
New York City"

Despite living and working for hundreds of years in what would became America, Italians were vilified and faced religious and ethnic discrimination. In 1891 there was a mass lynching of eleven Italian Americans by a mob in New Orleans (there were so many Sicilians in the French Quarter at the time that it was known as “Little Palermo”). Six Italian men were accused of murdering the police chief, but despite a trial resulting in six not-guilty convictions and three mistrials, the city went wild. Italian Americans sought a way to mainstream and humanize themselves in the face of rampant discrimination. Meanwhile in the same year, in Sierra County California, where many Italians had settled, the Messenger, despite world-wide news coverage warning of potentially dangerous Italians, editorialized in their support: “They are fully the equal of any other class in everything that goes to make good citizens.”


In 1850 a group of unnamed Italians discovered a quartz ledge in Sierra County that would later become the famous Sierra Buttes Gold Mine. It was situated at 5,292’ and ultimately produced $17-20 million dollars in gold. The nearby towns of Downieville and Sierra City were based on gold mining employing a considerable number of Italians who also planted gardens and orchards on terraces that they created in the steep North Yuba canyon. Prior to the gold rush most of the east coast Italians lived in ghettos where they worked as laborers. 


California’s landscape and climate are similar to Genoa’s where most of the early migration originated. Within Genoa is the region of Liguria where there are 25,000 miles of terraced hillsides, peaks as high as 6,500’ and an average altitude of 3,200’. Italian miners, at home in the north-central Sierra Nevada, began buying agricultural land, tending shops and pursuing professions like stone masonry, carpentry and charcoal manufacturing. 


Charcoal Flat, North Yuba River 


Italians in California did not confine themselves to winemaking. The giardinieri (or gardeners) developed a thriving industry growing produce on the outskirts of San Francisco and other towns. The size of their gardens ranged from small plots on the edge of town to large ranches. John Lavezzola arrived in Sierra County in 1851 and settled at Charcoal Flat where he created a large potato patch. G. B. Castagnetto who was from a farming family in Genoa, arrived in California in 1854, and in Sierra County in 1857. He settled in Sierra City, where he engaged in ranching and merchandising. Other early residents included Antone Costa, Joseph Mottini, and Michael Lavezzola. Other ranches included the Romano Ranch, the Lagomarsino Ranch, the Bottaro Ranch, the Costa Ranch the Lavezzola Ranch and Joseph Maria Pianezzi’s place at China Flat. These industrious people typically identified with the regions where they were born – Italy wasn’t united as a country until 1861. Most arrived as single men, eventually traveling to Italy to find wives and then returning to California to raise families.

Lavezzola Ranch


For authoritative research on the Lavezzola, Costa, Romano and other Italian families of Sierra County, California I recommend Corey Peterman who is a historian for the Sierra County Prospect. He is a descendant of the Mottini family, who first came to California from Domodossola, Italy in 1869.(



The regions of Liguria and Piedmont are steep and were extensively terraced so Northern Italians were practiced at stone masonry and dry-wall rock stacking and brought their skills with them. In the 1970s I remember the elders of Downieville, mostly men of Italian ancestry, meeting on the public bench and discussing the building of Highway 49 in the 1920s, a road that required many rock retaining walls and frequent repairs. Several of these men worked for the highway department and were clearly the experts with tales to tell that featured their superior craftsmanship. Many of the dry-stacked rock walls in the Sierra Nevada foothills were created by Italian Americans, although after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, there were also Chinese work crews building ditches, roads, trails etc. This kind of work was always available and not limited to a specific group.


Tyler-Foote Crossing Road, 1923
Photo by Ed Bawden

In 1913 Tyler-Foote Crossing Road was built to connect North Columbia and the Alleghany mining regions by crossing the Middle Yuba River. On the south side of this narrow and steep canyon a road was carved into the hillside then secured with dry-stacked rock retaining walls and bolts that are daring in design, perform efficiently and display marvelous craftsmanship. Most of the laborers were Italian, Swiss and Slovenian.



As early as 1850 unnamed Italians discovered hardrock gold on the Sierra Buttes and by 1852 there were 20 arrastras functioning. The Arrastra was a circular milling device, of Spanish origin, that utilized drag-stones for milling that were powered by mules or water. It’s not certain that Italians were using those first 20 arrastras, but they appeared to have an affinity for this technique. According to Farriss & Smith’s Sierra County history (1882) arrastras were used in the ravine below the Sierra Buttes Mine. At the time there were 30 in operation, all powered by water and all run by Italians. Those men were John Trombetta, John Fopiono, Mateo Arata, Isaac Martinetti and Ned Tartini, and John Lavezzola.

Water-powered Arrastras near Sierra City
Photographer Unknown

An article in the Daily Alta California on February 14, 1888, reports that Italians were heavily involved in mining in the mineral counties of California, especially in Amador, El Dorado, Calaveras and Sierra, and in the State of Nevada. Actually, they were ambitious and worked at many jobs, but preferred ranching, farming and underground gold mining.



Until the early 1870s charcoal manufacturing was pursued solely by the Chinese. In Truckee, when the transcontinental railroad was completed, Sisson, Wallace, & Company hired 350 Chinese laborers who cut wood and produced up to 58,000 bushels of charcoal a week for smelters in the gold and silver mines of Virginia City. As intolerance and persecution against them reached a feverish pitch the Chinese were forced to yield the trade to the Italians. 


The charcoal making trade was ancient in Europe but in the American West it was a multifaceted industry requiring a labor force that included: wood cutters, muleteers to transport the timber, kiln or pit builders and charcoal providers (retail or shipped). The kiln or pit controllers were responsible for monitoring the varying temperatures inside. Once the charcoal was produced it was bagged and loaded onto freight wagons and then transported to smelting furnaces. That kind of solvency applies only if you’re working for a big company. Life for most Italian charcoal burners was extremely harsh; they were required to live outdoors most of the year in makeshift camps near their wood sources.

Charcoal Kiln Near Gaston, South Yuba River, n.d.
Photograph Courtesy of the Nevada County Historical Society

Charcoal requires slowly heating wood in the absence of air (pyrolysis). Slow charring removes moisture and volatile gasses producing a light, black form of carbon resembling coal. Charcoal burns much hotter than wood (twice the heat of seasoned wood) and more evenly and consistently. Carbonization leaves a low ash content and low amounts of trace elements like sulfur and phosphorous, meaning it produces “clean” heat that is intense enough to reduce iron oxide into pig iron (2,600 ̊F to 3,000 ̊F). Charcoal is also much easier than wood to transport and store with one-third its weight and one-half its volume. Before the 1830’s all iron in the United States was produced by using charcoal as the fuel. After the Civil War coal and coke iron production became significant, but production of charcoal iron increased until 1890 and remained significant until after World War I. 


California charcoal producers typically used an open pile, or meiler, or temporary surface ovens. They were shallow fire pits with tightly packed wood billets stacked on their ends to form a conical pile with openings at the bottom to admit air and a central shaft to serve as a flue. The whole pile is then covered with soil, turf or moistened clay. The firing begins at the bottom of the flue, and gradually spreads outwards and upwards. It took constant surveillance and considerable skill to keep the smoldering wood from bursting into flame and losing the charcoal. In the 1980s, while conducting an archaeological survey at Wild Plum, near Sierra City, I was mystified by shallow circular and rectangular features on the ground in an even-aged forest of black oak and incense cedar, until I realized they were surface ovens for producing charcoal. Discoveries in the field are way more exciting than breakthroughs in a book or document – it must be the fresh air. In the 19th and 20th centuries there was charcoal making observed in the Yuba and Bear River watersheds at Sierra City, Gaston, Chicago Park and other places.

Carbonari in Sonoma County
Photographer Unknown

Professional charcoal burners were called colliers, the same term used to describe coal miners. In the Sierra Nevada foothills colliers were usually Italian and they were called Carbonari. It was a lonely and smoky job, they had to tend the wood piles for long hours and ensure that fires neither flared up nor died out. It took 35 cords of wood to yield 1,750 bushels of charcoal. Once the charcoal cooled it was broken into short lengths about six inches long and was placed in sacks for distribution. Charcoal manufacturing in California was a minor industry when compared to similar industries in the state, such as sawmills, shake manufacture, planing mills, and other forms of lumber manufacturing. An aspect of charcoal production that is seldom discussed was the through depletion of trees and the slow growth and regeneration after a decade, or so, of woodcutting.


Gaston is no more, but it was once the site of a former mining community in Nevada County. At an elevation of 5,062’, Gaston was mid-slope between Washington on the South Yuba and Graniteville on the San Juan Ridge. In 1898 the Gaston Ridge Mine employed 20 men and by 1900, there was a population of about 200, enough to support a town with stagecoach service, two stores, a hotel, a saloon, a hardware store, a post office, a water system, a fire company and a school. In 1904, the town boasted electric lights and a telephone line to Nevada City. By 1934 there was a 40-stamp mill in operation. About 1910 a group of Italians from southern Italy arrived, enough to warrant a “New Town” below the “Old Town”. Many of the Italians were employed to cut wood and produce charcoal for use in the mine’s forges.


In the Nevada County towns of Nevada City and Grass Valley Italian names were frequent in the City Directories where they had long been prominent in business and other professions. Among the family names are Gallino, Personeni, Seghezzi, Ghidotti, Pardini, Falconi, and Tassone to name just a few. In the 1880s J. Debernardi was a charcoal dealer on Spring Street in Nevada City, while in the same town G. Ramelli sold cedar posts and charcoal. If you were looking for something exotic to dine on while downtown you could sample Italian Swiss confectioner, Antonio Tom’s Nevada City restaurant, which served "ice cream and oyster dinners" (Nevada Daily Transcript July 3, 1885).


There were also Italians living near Camptonville, in eastern Yuba County, which included the Martignone, Massa, Zerga, Cassano and Pendola families.


Antone Agostini and Louis Orzalli settled near what would become Chicago Park in about 1875. They and other Italians worked as woodcutters and charcoal manufacturers. Most of them left when the trees were depleted, but Antone Agostini remained and was a member of the first school board in Chicago Park in 1898. In 1881 the Orzallis purchased 40 acres in Chicago Park and planted an orchard and vineyard. In 1901 Mary Orzalli opened Orzalli’s Pine Grove Resort, a stop on the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad.

After 1880 most of the emigration was from the Mezzogiorno, or southern Italy. The vast majority were farmers and laborers looking for a steady source of work – any work. By 1920, when immigration began to taper off, more than 4 million Italians had come to the United States and represented more than 10 percent of the nation's foreign-born population. This new generation of Italian immigrants was distinctly different in makeup from those that had come before.


There is seldom any mention of women in California history until American foreigners first started settling in Alta California in the 1840s. Up front, there is no mention of Indian women at all. The most visible women in the gold rush were Indigenous, Mexican, Chilean, French and Chinese women who worked in the domestic marketplace and in commercialized leisure. Most white women were prevented from more robust participation in the gold rush economy by Victorian mores and men who saw them as possessions. Most white women enjoyed a comparatively luxurious lifestyle, being spoiled by men looking for their companionship and their hand in marriage, while minority women had a much different and adverse experience during the California gold rush.


Prostitution was not normally found in Indian tribes, but due to the hardships of war and starvation some Native women were vulnerable and white men found they could kidnap and rape native women with little fear of retribution. Chinese women were also imported into California for the sexual gratification of men. In the 1850’s hundreds of Chinese women were slaves imported by wealthy Chinese merchants and sold to brothel owners at regular auctions.


Mexican women were actively engaged in the gold rush. They sold food on the streets and in restaurants, took in laundry, worked as entertainers, as waitresses and they ran Faro and Monte games. When Josefa, a card dealer in Downieville, refused the unwanted advances of a drunken man she killed him with a knife and she was hanged the following day after a sham of a trial (see: Josefa of Downieville. Yuba Trails and Tales. June 28, 2019). Because French women were often running hotels, restaurants and gambling halls they were sometimes assumed to be loose and accessible. Women of different races and cultures were considered subordinate to the white population which made it acceptable for the men to ignore their religious and moral codes.


Generally speaking, an Italian man seeking a wife returned to Italy for one, married her there, then brought her back here. Some families settled in Italian communities and some did not, they seemed to value the community they chose to live in. The Italian culinary legacy is especially apparent in California and Italian women played a large role in this facet of cultural expression – they did most of the cooking and a lot of gardening in far more labor-intensive times. Italian agriculturalists introduced key crops such as eggplant, bell peppers, broccoli, and artichokes. They also played an integral role in the development of the state’s wine industry.


One Italian woman who lived about ten miles from the aforementioned Josepha was Madam Romargi. Her story, like Josefa’s, is often repeated with free-ranging opinions about “what really happened.” She and her husband operated a way-station, or stage stop, on the road between Camptonville and Downieville for over three decades.


Their original venture was called Florida House and was located on the trail to Goodyears Bar. Soon afterwards she moved it to the main road and called it the Sierra Nevada House. Most people crudely called it “Nigger Tent” because supposedly two black men set up a blacksmithing shop or made shakes at this location. It was well known as a dangerous hangout for thieves in a dark and remote part of the forest.


She and her husband were Italians and were sometimes referred to as gypsies (?). According to her friend, local stagecoach driver Bill Meek, she was beautiful and escaped a bad marriage in Florida by running away to California with an organ grinder named J.D. Romargi and his monkey. They, all three, played in mining camps until changing professions and settling at this location in a dense forest at 5,000’.

A Wanted Poster for Algi Romargi after He and Another Man Escaped from Jail in Downieville

Madam Romargi’s road house (she was clearly in charge) was constantly badmouthed as a rendezvous for bad men and bad women, yet it was a popular watering stop for stages, with whom she had good relationships. Meek, based in nearby Camptonville, was a stage driver for most of his life (1856-1936) and knew Mrs. Romargi from the time he was a young boy and was her friend as long as she was in business. In his autobiography he admitted that the house was often full of “rough characters” but he was always treated with kindness and never had any problems with her or her associates. But according to local newspapers, other people did. Wells Fargo and Co. carried gold from the mines and robberies and holdups were becoming too commonplace in this locale, so they sent their detective, Captain Charles Aull, to investigate. After a stagecoach robbery on the LaPorte Road he was able to gain enough evidence to convict Algie D. Romargi, Mrs. Romagari’s grandson, and send him to Folsom Prison. Jane Romargi suffered acute blood poisoning from a wound on the back of her hand and died at the age of 78.

In 1936, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s director, began to secretly surveil individuals and organizations he deemed likely to side with the enemy during the impending war. A year later President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday, largely as a result of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, an influential Catholic fraternal organization.

John Florea/ The LIFE Picture Collection/ Getty Images

Then, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Though war had not been declared on Italy, FBI agents began arresting Italians anyway in anticipation of entering the war in Europe. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a series of proclamations that declared citizens of Japan, Germany and Italy to be “alien enemies of the United States.” One hundred forty-seven Italians were already in custody when the U.S. declared war on Italy on December 11, 1941.


In 1937 President Roosevelt created Columbus Day, a national holiday. Naturally the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere objected to the holiday that commemorated them being “discovered” and subsequently colonized and enslaved. On Columbus Day in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in this hemisphere, Berkeley, California became the first U.S. city to switch to Indigenous Peoples' Day. This year, San Francisco, a city with a profound Italian presence in its past celebrated its first Italian Heritage Day. We’re moving in the right direction.

Nisenan Basket

* * *
* *

Note: A few miles east of Sierra City and over the summit is Sierra Valley, a large, flat and beautiful grassland/wetland area that is the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Feather River. A group of Italian-Swiss from a similar region in the Alps settled here because it resembled their homeland – but that is another story (see: The Sierran, Spring/Summer 1998). 


Saturday, September 11, 2021



Bedrock Mortars on a bench above the South Yuba River

Bedrock mortars are anthropogenic circular depressions in a rock outcrop or a large boulder or slab, used by people in the past for the processing of acorns, seeds and other food products. There are often a cluster of mortars in proximity indicating that people gathered in groups. Mortars are used in conjunction with pestles with a variety of shapes, often with modified surfaces, for other food preparation and ceremonial functions. Pestles, because of their size and/or graceful shapes, are often removed from the site by collectors. Bedrock mortars are the most prevalent artifacts (or archaeological features) found in California from the east side of the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific coast. Even though they exist in many other parts of the world California, by far, has the greatest density.

They are reminders of the peripatetic, yet focused, hunters, fishermen, plant gatherers and herbalists who skillfully managed these lands for thousands of years. Originally, indigenous people were focused on big game hunting but over the centuries shifted to a reliance on botanical foods. Their descendants are still here. The people who made the bedrock mortars are called hunters and gatherers, but that’s a woefully inadequate description for a range of activities that encompassed efficiency and a deep understanding of ecology blended with practical, social, spiritual and aesthetic dimensions.  

Cut-Eye Fosters Bar. North Yuba River

Bedrock mortars are generally associated with the settlements and camps of indigenous peoples, but here in the Sierra Nevada foothills they appear at various elevations and in different ecosystems, from meadows with springs to ridgetops with wetlands, near creeks and rivers, on flatlands and slopes and in many other settings. They also can be isolated or scattered in “neighborhoods” along a creek or in a shallow valley. Outcroppings and boulders usually contain from one to twenty mortars and sometimes more. “Tco’Se”, a former Miwok settlement, also known as “Chaw Se”, or “Indian Grinding Rock State Park”, near the town of Volcano in Amador County, California, has an outcropping with over 1,000 mortars.

Dry Creek, a tributary of Bear River

Although they are most often associated with acorn pounding they were not limited to that function. Early and modern ethnographers, as well as those who used them, acknowledge the use of mortars to process nuts, roots, berries, herbs, medicinal plants, fungi, insects, small animals, rodent and fish bones for soups, for softening dried fish and meats, as well as for paints, pigments and substances used in ceremonial contexts. Shallow mortars may represent multifunctional tools and workstations for tasks other than acorn processing.

Fragments of a milling slab, or "metate", used for milling or grinding small seeds.
Round Mountain, South Yuba. 

Sugar pine nuts in sub alpine forests and gray pine nuts in lower elevation rolling hills are other desirable foods. There are hundreds of bedrock mortars in sugar pine habitat within the Yuba River watershed. Nut hunters would often camp at a favorable elevation then search for the most productive trees. Archaeologist David Hunt applied GPS data and statistical analysis to the location of Nisenan and Washoe campsites in the watersheds of the Middle and South Forks of the American River and determined that sugar pine nuts were collected at many locations and processed at numerous small bedrock mortar locations. In his opinion sugar pines probably extended farther westward than they do now.

Archaeologists refer to bedrock mortars as “BRMs” and estimate that they were widely used in the Sierra Nevada appearing about 1,300 years before the present era (BPE), and that this adaptation was coincident with the arrival of the bow and arrow. Since there is no way to accurately date BRMs archaeologists used associated artifacts such as projectile points with distinctive shapes and created a typology based on radiocarbon and obsidian hydration dating of artifacts from key regional sites. This is less than ideal because the stone tools may have been left before or after the BRMs were in use. There is no direct correlation.

Bedrock mortars at Starvation Bar on the South Yuba River

In the early 1960s California archaeologists hypothesized there might be a relationship between mortar size (as measured in volume) and population size and/or duration of occupation of the site. They theorized that the amount of stone removed from the grinding process is important. If a volume change rate per unit of meal created in the mortars could be found it could provide insight into the amount of food consumed in a specific time period. Other archaeologists followed, testing similar research designs. Eventually the California Office of Historic Preservation developed a new series of archaeological site recording forms, including one specifically designed for recording attributes of bedrock milling features. In time this focus began to shed light on women’s activities and suggested that they had more authoritative control than was represented in many of the ethnographic accounts collected by male anthropologists.


When BRMs were found between 6,500’ and 7,500’ within what is now Yosemite National Park archaeologists surmised that either lots of people gathered for a relatively short time span to process acorns or fewer people habitually reused the same bedrock mortars. They asked, what prompted the change from “portable” mortars to bedrock mortars? Since portable mortars are, despite the name, way too heavy to transport, I think the answer seems obvious.


An influential 1985 study of bedrock mortars at Crane Valley, divided mortars into three classes according to their depth. Depth followed function, according to the contemporary indigenous Western Mono people. The Crane Valley study determined that to render hulled and peeled acorns into a useable flour, or meal, shallow “starter” mortars, less than 2.2” deep, were used, followed by pounding in medium depth “finishing” mortars, between 2.2” and 3.75” deep. Mortars deeper than finishing mortars enabled the processing of hard seeds. It’s a valuable study, providing considerable insight, but the quantitative approach to mortar typology is highly reductive. Crane Valley is hundreds of miles south of the Yuba River, where I’m writing from. 

Foothill Women Pounding at a Bedrock Mortar

The Nisenan, Koncow, Northeastern Maidu and Washoe people of the Yuba River watershed were mobile for most of the year following the patterned ripening of plants and the movements of animals and fish within two to three ecosystems. They participated in ecological processes and influenced outcomes by the judicious use of burning as a tool. They also adjusted visits to seasonally accessible camps based on available resources such as food, medicine, basketry materials, flicker feathers, woodpecker scalps, etc., to coincide with trade opportunities, the ceremonial cycle, socio-political necessities and visiting. Two Nisenan events, similar to what westerners  call holidays, were Weda, or the first flower ceremony, signaling spring and the splendor of nature’s fecundity. And in the fall was the Big Cry, when the dead were honored, and it was also the time for acorn gathering. Both of these events and others featured feasting, singing, dancing, gambling and socializing.

Julia Parker Winnowing Acorns

Lizzie Enos, a Nisenan woman who preserved Nisenan knowledge and skills into the 1960s had this to say about Weda, “From all over they come, and when that dance end, maybe it was here or down in Auburn, then pretty soon they have another one up there at Colfax. Then from there, oh maybe next ten days. They have another Flower Dance over to Grass Valley and Nevada City. Every camp have to have that Flower Dance in spring.” Her comments show that Nisenan culture was very much alive in the 20th century (Enos was born in 1881) and her rendition gives a positive feeling of jubilation and cultural revitalization. Moving from place to place was part of the fluidity and resiliency that characterized Nisenan lifeways and was not perceived as drudgery.


Two common misunderstandings about bedrock mortars have been hanging around for many years. Many observers speculate that mortars deepened though wear; that they deepened as a result of pestles striking their bottoms. This notion holds that the deeper the mortar the older it is. The Crane Valley study, and other sources, demonstrated that this is not true. There is a second, and even more prevalent, misconception that mortars are grinding holes. Native women use bedrock mortars to pulverize shelled and hulled acorns by pounding and not grinding. There is always a layer of acorn meal between the pestle and the interior of the mortar. Acorn pounding is a skill with very high standards and any rock chips or grit in the finished product is not acceptable. The demonstrations of Lizzie Enos and Julia Parker, indigenous cultural interpreters, exemplified this detail.

Lizzie Enos Pounding Acorn Meal
Photo Courtesy of Richard Simpson

Archaeology is conducted within theoretical constructs and insists on its scientific validity by heaps of measurements and statistical analysis. As computer-generated site recordation forms evolved, they have become more data-intensive at the expense of the flavor and feeling of a locale and its constituents. Even determining site boundaries has become more problematic because of modifications in the historic era. Concerns about property ownership and “cultural resource management” considerations can hinder the designation of a site as an agglomeration of neighborhoods (or loci within a large site) because there is a tendency to create separate sites for ease of management. Many technological advances are valuable, but humans of both the past and the present can be unpredictable, endlessly creative and sometimes tricksters. It’s difficult to keep an open mind in a sea of conveniences.

Mortars on a Tributary of Rock Creek/South Yuba River

The appeal and usefulness of the scientific method is in its continual theorizing, testing of hypotheses, comparisons and an extreme reluctance to arrive at conclusions (especially in archaeology, which in my opinion, straddles social science and humanities). This isn’t necessarily a problem because concluding or “knowing” tends to close the discussion. It’s important to feel uneasy with conclusions because the search for knowledge is an ongoing process. In Ursula LeGuin’s, Four Ways to Forgiveness, she concludes that “All knowledge is local. All knowledge is partial.”


Bedrock Mortars in the Lower Foothills
Near Dry Creek/Bear River

In the latter half of the 19th century many bedrock mortars were impacted by ferocious bouts of placer gold mining that was prominent in Yuba River country. There is still gold, and its allure remains a threat today, but try to imagine how many bedrock mortars were destroyed, tumbled over, re-located, inundated and buried? I worked as a field archaeologist and historian in this region for over twenty years and I remain a curious rambler, so I have seen hundreds, if not thousands of bedrock mortars. Often, they are all that remains of an aboriginal campsite or settlement – the remnants of an archaeological site that has returned to the earth, or a place that has been destroyed, or looted. 

Appropriating Bedrock Mortars at Sweetland Creek/Middle Yuba River

My response to bedrock mortars and their settings has always been more visceral than scientific. I find them sculpturally simple but complex, both metaphorical and literal, stark (but formerly lively) and enduring forever, at least in human terms. The bedrock mortar’s place in space is persistent, but dynamic because soil-creep, mass-wasting, duff accumulation, alluvial deposits, erosion and other natural processes have covered many outcrops. In time, many of them are folded back into the earth and become invisible. Are they then gone? A place where young children hovered around their mothers, where women pounded foods and medicines while joking, gossiping, sharing skills, ideas and songs? How will sub-surface bedrock mortars affect behavior on the newly formed surface fifty or a hundred, or thousands of years hence? Will the place have a certain “vibe?” Why do some places have a special or “magical” feel about them? 

Bedrock Mortars on the South Yuba River/ Canyon Creek

Americans have grandiose notions and specific ideas about monuments. Examples include Mount Rushmore, Maya Lin’s Viet Nam Memorial and the toponym that designates a unique geological feature in the Sacramento Valley of California as the “Sutter Buttes.” Today, California’s bedrock mortars serve as diffuse cultural “monuments” or touchstones, if you will, that honor and promote reflection on the unique and effective practice of hunting and gathering, and women’s important role in that process for centuries to come.