San Mateo County History

Tales of the San Francisco Peninsula
Theron G. Cady
A series of articles first published in 'Peninsula Life Magazine'
Published by C-T Publishers, San Carlos, California, 1948

The Castro Indian Mound

        On San Antonio Road, south of Palo Alto, and midway between Middlefield Road and Alma Street, is one of the largest existing Indian mounds on the Peninsula.  Known to many archeologists as the Castro Indian mound because of its proximity to the Castro railroad station, this mound, about ten feet high and 300 feet in diameter, is all that remains of a once thriving village of California's aborigines.
        Tracing back through the exciting and colorful pages of California's early history, sparse mention is made of the early redmen who inhabited the land of sunshine before the coming of the "chinshinabros."  Little is known of the Castro mound and how it happened to be there but the welding together of information gleaned from early records provides us with a fairly definite picture of its activities.
        Robert D. McFarland, who noticed the mound in 1893, called it to the attention of Stanford University professors who investigated the mound for evidence of early Indian life.  Even before that time the mound was known as Indian Hill and Secondino Robles, an old Spaniard, related many interesting stories of the band of 2,000 Indians who camped on the plateau near the mound in the days of his father.
        The Juan Bautista de Anza party of thirteen, pushing its way northward through the unchartered wilds of California in March, 1776, may have passed the Castro mound but failed to mention it.  They did, however, record the fact that a small Indian village of about twenty huts was found on the banks of San Francsquito Creek in the vicinity of the "Palo Alto" tree.  The natives of this village were found to be friendly and offered the De Anza party food and assistance.  Just what connection this small village had with the larger one isn't known, but it is naturally supposed that they were either a scouting party or a small band living by themselves because of some tribal difficulty.
        The Indians who lived on the Peninsula long before the coming of the Franciscan Fathers, belonged to a group known as the Costanoans.  They were given this name by the Spanish missionaries because they were found living on the coast and along the shores of San Francsico Bay.  Of this group the Ohlones and Alchones practically made up the entire populaton of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.  They were rather small of stature, but compactly built and possessed of great strenght and endurance.  The men were generally beardless, but all had long, black coarse hair.  They were very dark skinned and from the skulls found in various sections of the Peninsula they were comparatively low in the rank of intelligence.
        The Department of Anthropology of the University of California groups the language of these Indians as Costanoan and the dialect spoken by them was known as the San Francisco dialect.  In 1776 when Mission Dolores was established, Father Junipero Serra reported that the shores of the San Francisco Bay were thickly populated by the Ahwashtees, Ohlones, Altahomos, Romanons, Tuolomos, and other tribes.  The mission books of the Mission Dolores contained names of some 152 rancharitas upon which different Indian settlements were located.
        Because of the climactic conditions on the Peninsula the Indians living along the shores of the Bay gave little thought as to what they should wear or how they should provide themselves with a livelihood.  They usually ran about naked, men and women alike, except at certain periods of the year when the women would clothe themselves in a short skirt made of tule grass as protection against the numerous flies and insects which were so common during the summer months.  They were known, however, to have possessed houses, for historians have made repeated references to the Indian house where the Spanish soldiers became so infested with fleas that they dashed from the dwelling shouing "las pulgas, las puglas" (the fleas).  Father Palou in his description of the journey into San Mateo County also mentions the large Indian houses found in the vicinity of Pigeon Point.
        The Indians on the Peninsula leaned heavily upon Mother Nature for their subsistence.  They depended largely upon the oak trees and the acorns which they gathered in large quantities.  These were ground, dried and made into flour from which small Indian cakes were baked.  Buckeyes were also used extensively for food but had to be carefully processed before being consumed.  They had to be ground as finely as possible in mortars and bleached by frequent washings to remove the small amount of poison and the bitter taste before the resulting paste was palatable.  From the waters of the Bay the Indians obtained oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp and other varieties of edible fish which greatly augmented their diet.  They were also adept at capturing birds and snaring the wild animals that roamed the foothills.
        For material to construct houses and boats, the Indians also relied on Mother Nature.  Instead of going to the nearby hills for fir trees, which were plentiful, they chose to employ tule grass in their boat construction.  The tule grass was bound and twisted together and made into a fairly serviceable water raft, pointed on each end.  These small vessels were only used along the short for had they been used in rough water the venture would have terminated in disaster.
        The Indian mounds on the Peninsula are the only indications left of these people.  These mounds are simply the evidence of the camping or dwelling places of these Indians, and the mound's formation usually would indicate approximately the lenght of time of their residence in that particular spot.  It has been discovered by digging in these mounds that the different layers revealed the habits and food of the natives living around them.  The bottom layer, which was usually at ground level, was often covered with small shells.  The next, or second layer, contained a generous covering of clam or mussel shell and the third, a layer of oyster shells.  Upon these a layer of small or periwinkle shells would usually be found.  This method of construction would continue until the top of the mound was finally reached.  The mound was never planned.  It was made by simply throwing the refuse from the village into a heap, and as the heap grew, the mound would become clearly defined.
        Indian mounds were not only used for a place to dump refuse, but deceased Indians were also buried there.  The disposing of a dead Indian often varied for some would be found laid out full length and others in a sitting position with their knees bound tightly against their chests.  Bodies bound in this fashion were always placed in small holes to conserve space.  Cremation was also practiced to some extent on the Peninsula for evidence of such disposal has been found in the Castro mound.  When cremation was employed the body was bound closely and placed upon a huge pile of firewood. The mourners, with their faces smeared with pitch, set up a fearful howling and weeping, accompanied by the wildest gesticulation.  When the body had been entirely consumed by the flames the ashes were carefully collected and mixed with pitch.  This sticky preparation was then daubed on the faces of the mourners who had the weird belief that the virtues and stamina of the departed would strengthen their own bodies.
        Among the many things found in these mounds are cooking utensils, arrowheads, snares, spearpoints, and ornaments of stone and shell.  The largest utensils found are the stone mortars which were used for the grinding of acorns and grain.  They often varied in size and capacity from a mere cupful to that of several gallons.  The different stones unearthed were used for awls, sinkers, grinders, and weapons of defense.  The charm stones which the medicine men employed to ward off sickness and to effect cures have also been found.
        On the old Ano Nuevo Ranch, just south of Pigeon Point, many remnants of arrow and spearheads and large quantities of obsidian have been found.  Since this black, glassy, volcanic variety of rock is not native to this section the question has often been raised as to how it happened to get there.  The only answer is that the weaponmakers brought it to the coast during the summer season and then made their weapons which were to be used in later seasons of the year.  In a mound just east of San Mateo County's Memorial Park an Indian doll was unearthed many years ago.  Very few of the toys with which the primitive children amused themselves have ever been found.
     The largest mounds on the Peninsula were found in the vicinity of South San Francsico.  Other mounds were found in Burlingame and San Mateo.  Main Street, one of the principal business streets of Redwood City was formerly called Mound Street.  It was so named because at one time it traversed one of these mounds.
        Today, the redman who lived and died on the Peninsula, is only a memory.  His place has been taken by the white man who, throughout the years, has erased all evidence of his ever having been here except for the few remaining mounds.

© 1948 Theron G. Cady. All rights reserved.
Posted here with permission of his granddaughter, Andrea Van Norman.
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