Pre-history of the North Fork American

Faint petroglyphs at Palisade Creek East, 6600' elevation

The last, Tioga glaciation seems to have reached a peak around 20,000 years ago, and the massive ice sheet which spanned the upper reaches of the South Yuba and North Fork American began its retreat around 15,000 years ago. So much of the world's water was bound up into ice, that sea levels were around 300 feet lower than now. A land bridge connected Asia and North America, and it is thought that humans entered the Americas via this land bridge. The oldest well-dated human occupation sites are around 12,000 years old.

As the glaciers waned and meltwater flowed down both flanks of the range, Lake Lahontan, a huge Pleistocene lake covering much of central Nevada, reached a high stand around 12,000 years ago. Today, the wave-cut terraces marking this high stand are found high above the dry desert basins once occuped by the lake. The oldest human artifacts are found in caves near these wave-cut terraces. It is notable that a climatic cooling coincided with this high stand of Lake Lahontan; examination of pack rat middens near Pyramd Lake (the largest remnant of Lake Lahontain) show that Whitebark Pines grew near the Pleistocene lake, thousands of feet in elevation lower than they do today. Whether this cool epsiode coincided with a rejuvenation of the waning glaciers in the North Fork American high country is unknown. They may have already disappeared by this time.

The earliest humans are called the "paleo-Indians." Their arrival in North American coincides with the extinction of various large mammals (such as the Wooly Mammoth, and species of horse and camel), and it is thought that hunting pressure was the cause of these extinctions, although climatic change may have also contributed. The Paleo-Indian period spanned 11,500 to 7000 years ago. The Archaic period is conceived to have begun around 9,000 years ago, and extended to around 500 years ago. A gradual increase in sophistication in use of plant food sources marks the Archaic period.

The Martis Complex culture of the Truckee River, Lake Tahoe, and Pyramid Lake also left its mark in the North Fork American. These people are considered to exemplify the Middle Archaic period, from about 4,000 to 1,500 years ago. Their culture preceded the adoption of the bow and arrow, and the principal weapon used in hunting was the spear-thrower, or atlatl. Martis Complex people made spear points and other tools from fine-grained basalt, in a fairly distinctive style. The petroglyphs of the headwaters of the Feather, Yuba, and American rivers--what is called Style 7 rock art--are ascribed to the Martis Complex people, since their signature basalt points are often found in association with the petroglyph sites.

In the higher elevations, petroglyphs were incised in glaciated granite and metamorphic rock surfaces. Very little is definitely known about these petroglyphs. They contain a mixture of natural and seemingly abstract motives; of the former, the most notable being a stylized bear footprint--the hind foot, the foot, on a bear, which leaves a track much like that made by a human foot. The sites are sometimes near game drive locations, where deer and bighorn sheep were herded into narrow passes or ridges flanked by cliffs, and slaughtered by men hiding in stone blinds.

I have found two hunting blinds in the high country, both on the summit of Snow Mountain, that great sentinel of the upper North Fork, which soars 4500 feet above the river. The blinds are circles of boulders. Both have been disturbed, one, possibly, added to; the other, broken down. Both show small amounts of lithic scatter, with an obsidian component which evokes a Washoe, or at least, eastside Sierra, connection. Possibly they date only from the Martis Complex people.

I used PhotoShop to enhance the visibility of the two bear footprints. Palisade Creek East.

An overview of Palisade Creek East; the summit of Devils Peak is barely visible to the west.

Following the Martis Complex, the Washoe and Paiutes occupied this area. One or the other of the groups may have descended from the Martis Complex people. On the west slopes of the Sierra, the Penutian-speaking Maidu and Nisenan Maidu lived in what are now Placer and Nevada counties. The Maidu and Washoe are both known to have frequented the high country in the summer. The upper limit of Maidu villages seems to be around 4000 feet in elevation. Casa Loma, above Green Valley, is an example of a "high" village.

The Donner Trail,and also the Old Emigrant Road which forked from the Donner Trail to pass through what would become Alta, Dutch Flat, Gold Run, and Colfax, both followed pre-existing Indian trails. Some of these old trails may still be followed, although with but little certainty. I have observed that the trails made by cattle in the high country, even when decades old, remain fairly well-marked and might easily be mistaken for old human trails (not that they weren't also used by humans).

Permanent Nisenan Maidu villages were located in the lower elevations, below 4000 feet, for the most part. The villages were a notable feature on the divide between the Bear and North Fork of the American, in 1849; over the following winter, the whites, organized under the title of the Placer Blades, drove the Indians away, burned their villages, and scalped quite a few Indian men, hanging their scalps along the Old Emigrant Road between Colfax and Auburn. This was done in reprisal for thefts of livestock.

In 1851 and 1852, the Barbour Treaties were negotiated with the Indians of California, including various Maidu tribelets, including that of Chief Weimar, for whom the town was later named. The treaties provided for the legal transfer of title to the lands of California from the Indians, with large reservations of land provided. They were signed by the Indians and representatives of California and the federal government, and sent to Washington. There, the U.S. Senate had the Barbour Treaties placed in a sealed secret archive, which was not discovered for over 50 years. The Maidu got nothing, not one acre.

There was never any legal transfer of title from the Indians to the federal or state government, in most of California, although much later, in the 1930s, efforts were made to get surviving Indians to sign away their rights to the land. These efforts were mainly successful.

The hunting and gathering culture of the Maidu and other peoples of Central California is interesting. Relics of their existence are found everywhere in the Sierra foothills. There are many Indian sites in the Dutch Flat area, including one village site partly on BLM lands at the Gold Run Diggings.

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