Native Americans

The Chumash & Salinan Era (6500 BC – 1769)

Scholars believe what is now San Luis Obispo County had a sparse Native American population. Most of this area’s Native American people gradually migrated into the County during the 7,500 years between 6500 BC and 1000 AD from the Santa Barbara Channel, home to the Chumash Tribe.

Between 1500 and 1700, two different tribes established permanent villages in San Luis Obispo County: the Salinans in the north, and the Chumash in the south. The two tribes traded with each other and with tribes further inland. Both tribes met in the area that was later to become the Santa Margarita Valley. Near the current Santa Margarita Ranch house is a registered archaeological site containing “lithic scatter” (crude stone tools). Another site of similar age is just off the Ranch along El Camino Real. The scatter areas and their stone artifacts indicate Native Americans may have lived in this area around 6,500 years ago. 

The Chumash

When Spaniard Jean Rodriquez Cabrillo arrived in California in 1542, the Chumash were one of California’s largest tribes, numbering as many as 22,000 people and ranged from Malibu Canyon in the south to San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay in the north.

The Chumash were one of the most complex and highly organized California tribes. They had at least six regional groups, all speaking the same language and sharing the same culture and political structure. Their invention and use of the plank canoe, their complex village and religious life, their extraordinary craftsmanship, and distinct language (a version of the Hokan language) made the Chumash unique.

Chumash rock paintings (pictographs) are believed to have depicted concepts or ideas. The pictographs are probably semi-abstract representations of supernatural beings such as the Sky Coyote. Five basic designs are repeated including symbols for fertility, water, and rain. Remote caves contain the most complex paintings. Examples of Chumash pictographs can be found in the Carrisa Plains, east of Santa Margarita.
See :

Santa Margarita Valley is an area where the Chumash and Salinans may have lived in relatively close contact. In the Valley tribes found abundant wildlife and plant life, including deer, bear, rabbit as well as an ample supply of the important acorn. The Salinas River, Santa Margarita Creek and numerous springs provided water. The tribes engaged in regular trade with each other – the Chumash bringing shell ornaments, soapstones and wooden items to trade with the Salinans.

The Valley may have also been a meeting place where the Chumash and Salinans traded with a third tribe, the Yokuts from further inland. The Chumash traded for pottery and obsidian tool stones while the Salinans traded for with the Yokuts for salt, obsidian, hides and freshwater fish.

The Spanish Arrive

The Spanish explorers arrived in the area in 1769. The Franciscan friars and the soldiers, who came with them, drafted the Native Americans into the settlements as ?neophytes.?

Native Americans provided the labor to build the California missions. The Franciscan missionaries founded five missions on the lands of the Chumash and three on the land of the Salinans. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, eight miles south of Santa Margarita, was founded in 1772 and built by the Chumash. The “Assitencia” of Santa Margarita, an outlying farm that supported the Mission, was also built by the Chumash within the decade following the founding of Mission San Luis Obispo. Mission San Miguel Arcangel, 27 miles north of Santa Margarita was founded in 1795 and built by the Salinans.

Padres taught the Indians farming, trades, crafts and livestock herding and put them to work in all areas necessary to run the missions, which functioned as farms and ranches in addition to churches. The Padres brought new foods including grain, cattle, grapes, oranges and olives. The neophytes were allowed to hunt and fish to supplement the Mission’s food supplies, but were increasingly dependent on the Missions for food and security.

Throughout the colonial period, the Native population dwindled rapidly.
Following the building of the five missions, native birthrates were drastically reduced. Spanish and later Mexican soldiers took Native American women as wives, raising their children as European settlers- not native Americans. Stress caused many Indians to flee east over the hills to the San Joaquin Valley. Mexican soldiers brought back the deserters they could capture and shot those they couldn’t bring back. The most tragic result of mission life was the heavy loss of life from European diseases, such as measles and smallpox.

Mexican Independence

After Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1810, the mission system was seriously interrupted by lack of money and supplies. In 1821, after 11 years of war, the people of New Spain won their independence and formed the Republic of Mexico. Tensions between the Indians and Mexican soldiers stationed at the missions flared into a revolt in 1824. Extra troops were sent in and the Chumash rebels were forced to surrender.

The mission system came to an end after lasting only 60 years in the Chumash area. During that time, the once proud and culturally advanced Chumash society had ceased to exist in its original form. Nevertheless, the Chumash had managed to preserve a number of their traditional customs and beliefs.

In 1833, the missions’ holdings were broken up by the Mexican government, and passed from the control of the Catholic Church into the hands of private Mexican landowners. The mission no longer offered the Indians security or a livelihood, but their ancestral villages and hunting and gathering grounds were controlled by new landowners. Many left to seek jobs as domestic servants and cowboys on large ranches. Others who wished to retain their way of life had to move further west, to the southern San Joaquin Valley, where they lived a more traditional way of life with the Yokuts and Kitanemuk.

Although no up-to-date census exists, it is estimated that about 1500 people of Chumash ancestry live in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. The Chumash Tribe has a reservation in Santa Ynez (Santa Barbara County). A growing number Chumash ancestry individuals are involved in a revival of their traditional culture. They have initiated projects to ensure that their sacred shrines and burial grounds are not disturbed.

The Salinan Tribe has also dwindled but historians note the smaller tribe had a higher rate of intermarriage and assimilation into the culture of the Central Coast’s Spanish, Mexican and American settlers. In the late 1990s, the tribe opened a Historical Museum outside Mission San Antonio (Monterey County). As of 2004, the Salinan Tribe did not have a reservation or tribal lands. The Salinan Indians are currently seeking federal recognition as a tribe.


Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, The Chumash People,
EZ Nature Books, San Luis Obispo, CA 1991

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, California’s Chumash Indians,
John Daniel, 1986

Campbell Grant, The Rock Paintings of the Chumash, EZ Nature Books, San Luis Obispo, CA 1993

Myron Angel, The Painted Rock, Padre Productions, San Luis Obispo, CA 1979

Roger Emanuels, California Indians, Diablo Books, Walnut Creek, CA 1990

Pauline Brower, Missions of the Inland Valleys, Lerner Publications Company, Minneapolis, MN 1996