Nisenan (Native Americans)

More than 6,000 years ago, the Bear River people began collecting hard seeds for food, relying less on following the animal migrations. Villages appeared by 3,000 BC. The trade routes were developed for coastal shells and obsidian from the eastern Sierra. They were already using fire to manage the landscape for their preferred grass seeds and browse for deer.

The Nisenan lived in stable villages along the Bear, Yuba, and American rivers. They lived in balance with the land, enhancing the flora and fauna that supported them. Their primary tool was fire, for the lands of the Bear River are a fire ecosystem. The natural fire return of 5-15 years was accelerated by the Nisenan; tree ring analysis shows the fire return 400-600 years ago was every two to three years, leaving an environment free of brush and bramble. When European emigrants first came to the Bear River, they described the lands as park-like — galloping their horses through the open forest understory at full-speed.

For well over a millennium, the Nisenan lived stable and local lives and developed a rich oral tradition. Their language was localized — Bear River Nisenan would not have recognized much of the vocabulary of the Cosumnes or Feather River Nisenan.

The Nisenan culture was one of the last in California to clash with the Europeans. Over three quarters of the Valley Nisenan died in the malaria epidemic of 1833. The Hill Nisenan were destroyed by the Gold Rush. Though there were some hard-fought battles, a vigilante army calling themselves the Placer Blades annihilated almost all the Bear and American River Nisenan. The violence against the Nisenan was so extreme that the Army established Camp Far West on the Bear River (near present day Wheatland) to protect the natives from the emigrants.

Photograph by Richard Simpson

"During the summer of 1849 a small detachment of troops had been sent to Johnson's Rancho, on the Bear River, to establish a post for the purpose of preventing conflicts between the Indians and the increasing number of settlers at the mines of the Yuba and Feather rivers … for the purpose of putting an end to outrages that were then being committed by the whites upon the Indians of that neighborhood." (Derby, George, "The Topographical Reports of Lieutenant George H. Derby, Sacramento Valley in 1849," Quarterly of the California Historical Society, Vol. XI No. 2, June 1932, pp 101 & 104). The Barbour Treaties, negotiated and signed in 1851 and 1852, transferred title away from the tribes and although large reservations were promised, none were provided to the Maidu or Nisenan.

Some traditional Nisenan life did continue in small, out-of-the-way pockets, until there was just one left who lived in the old way. Her story is as close as we can come to knowing what it was like before the Gold Rush to the Bear River.

Read the story of Lizzie Enos, a Maidu Indian, in Ooti: A Maidu Legacy.