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Bay Miwok of the San Ramon Valley

By Randall Milliken

In late March of 1772, Spanish explorers entered the lands of the Tatcan tribe in the San Ramon Valley, “We came to three villages of little grass houses. As soon as the heathen caught sight of us, they ran away, shouting and panic-stricken without knowing what had happened,” wrote diarist Juan Crespi.

The Tatcans, many people learned at a conference held at Diablo Valley College on September 20, 2003, were one of six Bay Miwok-speaking tribes living in Contra Costa County at the time of first contact with Spanish explorers and missionaries.

The Tatcans probably numbered about 270 people spread among three separate villages, perhaps at Alamo, Danville and San Ramon. They had numerous small seasonal hunting and gathering camps, spread from Bollinger Canyon on the west to Shell Ridge and Rock City on the east.

The Bay Miwok language the Tatcans spoke is related to the Sierra Miwok language of Yosemite, and the Coast Miwok language of the Marin Peninsula. The first modern scholar to recognize the Bay Miwok language was linguist Madison Beeler. In 1955 he studied a tiny vocabulary written in a notebook by a Franciscan missionary back in 1821 and determined that “Saclan” was a Miwok language.

Few of us who grew up in Contra Costa County learned about the Bay Miwoks when we were in school. Our teachers drew their local Indian curricula from the 1925 Handbook of the Indians of California by A. L. Kroeber. Kroeber knew from historic sources about the Saclan of the Lafayette area, but presumed that they were a Costanoan (Ohlone) speaking group.

The term “Bay Miwok” was introduced by James A. Bennyhoff in a 1961 Ph.D. dissertation.  Bennyhoff noted that Saclan shared linguistic features with the languages of four other local East By groups, the Chupcans, Julpuns, Ompins, and Volvons. Only in the past few years have we come to realize that the Tatcans were also Bay Miwoks, and that the nearby Jalquins of Crow Canyon and San Leandro Creek were bilingual Bay Miwoks and Ohlones.

Archaeologists believe that Bay Miwok speakers were pushed down into Contra Costa ounty from the lower Sacramento Valley by Patwin speaking people from still further north.  The push may have occurred around 1,500 years ago, but new evidence suggests that it happened as recently as 400 years ago.

Prior to the Bay Miwoks, unknown Indian languages were spoken in the San Ramon Valley.  Radiocarbon dates indicate that Indian people have lived in California for over 13,000 years. So far, the earliest evidence for occupation in Contra Costa County reaches back only 9,000 years. That evidence was discovered at a deeply buried archaeological site near the spillway for the Los Vaqueros Reservoir.

The Bay Miwok speakers were all removed to Franciscan missions between 1794 and 1812. Most Tatcans moved to Mission dolores in 1804. At the missions, their language disappeared, as their descendants learned Spanish and intermarried with people from Ohlone, Patwin, Yokuts, and Plains Miwok groups.

Ironically, the Franciscan mission registers are out primary sources of information abut the early Tatcans and their neighbors. The missionaries were zealous record keepers. They wrote entries, in registers that still exist today, for each individual that they baptized. The entries always included the date, the individual’s age, native name, and new Spanish name. Some entries included information about the person’s home village or tribe and the names of a person’s parents and/or children.

Ethnohistorians are learning many details about the early Tatcans and their neighbors, the Volvons of Marsh Creek, the Saclans of Lafayette, and the Seunens of Dublin, by linking their baptismal and death records together, then reconstructing their genealogical ties.

Only four tribal Tatcans were still alive when Mission Dolores was closed as an Indian mission between 1834 and 1836. Three of those Tatcans were bachelors who died without issue. However, one Tatcan woman, Sincletica Jilumaye, had three living children in the late 1839s, Descendants of those children may exist today, although none have made themselves known.


About the author.

Anthropologist, archaeologist and ethnohistorian Randall Milliken holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from U. C. Berkeley. More of his writings about the Tatcan can be found in his book, A Time of Little Choice: The Disintegration of Tribal Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1769-1810, published by Ballena Press, 1995.

Article from the Valley Sentinel in October 2003