Today it is hard to imagine large groups of Native Americans living off the land in the Antelope Valley. Hundreds of years ago, however, the landscape of the Antelope Valley was very different. Vast plains of tall native bunch grass covered the valley floor and active springs and pools were plentiful. The lush vegetation and abundant water supply supported many types of wildlife which are no longer found in the valley. Archaeological evidence from what appear to be several major village sites indicate that substantial numbers of Indians occupied the valley floor year round at one time. Major trade routes from the coast to the eastern Mojave and Southwest, as well as north-south routes from the Central Valley and Owens Valley to the Los Angeles Basin also crossed the Valley.
Archaeologists believe that Native Americans have been living in, or at least visiting, the Antelope Valley for at least 11,000 years before the present. Over time, many cultural groups have passed through the Valley and left their mark. The original inhabitants were Paleoindians. These peoples were probably hunters of large game animals that have since become extinct. Among their weapons were spears with fluted projectile points. Little is known of the culture of these original people and only their artifacts survived.
From 9000 to 7000 years ago, as the Ice Age ended, great lakes formed in the Valley. Evidence exists of large groups living near these lakes. Many grinding tools have been found from this era pointing toward more dependence on plants for food, however, hunting remained an important activity. Many archaeologists believe that during this period, the atlatl (spear thrower) became more important as hunting activities became centered on faster game animals such as dear and antelope. Some people have speculated that these early people may have been Hokan speakers, the language ancestral to present day groups like the Chumash, Pomo, and Dieguenó. These groups may have formed the oldest semi-permanent settlements in the Great Basin.
During the period from 6000 to 4000 years ago, larger groups began to establish more permanent settlements. Game animals became smaller as evidenced by the increased use of dart points and other archaeological evidence. Plant processing also became more important in everyday life. As these settlements became more advanced toward the end of the period, a complex religious life began to emerge as well.
Starting about 4000 years ago and lasting until 1500 years ago, the people of the Antelope Valley became seasonal hunters. The mountain sheep was of major significance in this culture. Many of the rock art sites throughout the Coso Mountain Range near present day Ridgecrest appear to celebrate hunting and the mountain sheep. Archaeologists theorize that the rock art constituted a form of “hunting magic.” These peoples often had summer and winter camps which were spread throughout the Antelope Valley and nearby mountains. These camps helped in the seasonal gathering of food. The ceremonial life that evolved to produce such beautiful rock art is little understood.
After about 1500 to 1000 years ago, people depended more on gathering than on hunting. Hunting itself also changed considerably during this period. The invention of the bow and arrow forever changed the way the people hunted. Fewer men could acquire game more quickly and with more stealth.
From the period 1000 years ago, and perhaps earlier, until the Spanish arrived in California, the culture of the Antelope Valley changed dramatically. It is believed that this is the time the “Shoshonean Wedge” swept through the Great Basin and California. The Uto-Aztecan (Shoshonean) speakers more or less took over the Great Basin and parts of Southern California during this period. The details of their origins or how rapidly they spread remain controversial.
More is known about these people than about those that came before them. The cultures that developed during this time are what we today call the Great Basin people. They lived in summer and winter homes. They created the great communal grinding stones found throughout the Antelope Valley. They supplemented their diet of acorns and piñon nuts with small game and deer. These are the people the Spanish first encountered when they began to explore the Antelope Valley.
When the Spanish and other Europeans began to come to California about 400 years ago, the Antelope Valley’s population had already begun to decline, probably because of the increasingly arid climate. Groups of Serrano, Kitanemuk, Tataviam, and Kawaiisu were living in and around the Valley, but not in great numbers. Many of these groups shared the Paiute culture with the people living further north in the Owens Valley. Some Chumash influence also existed in the Valley, as evidenced by different language groups. Trading among the different groups was extensive. Obsidian from the Mono Lake area and sea shells from the coast are still frequently found today throughout the Valley.
The first fully documented contact with the people of the Antelope Valley came in 1776 when a Franciscan priest, Father Francisco Garcés began a trip to Monterey through the Mojave Desert. Garcés’s diary of the trip has been used by many scholars to identify the people, cultures, and language groups living in the Antelope Valley at this time. For several years, the contact with the Spanish was limited and benign, however, increasingly the people of the Valley began to be “resettled” to the San Fernando Mission. In 1808, the Spanish sent a military expedition into the Valley. There is no documentation of any violence during this expedition, but it began the continual and eventually deadly contact with the Spanish. In 1811, Mission records indicate the “resettlement” of two entire villages.
The slow decline in the population of the Antelope Valley followed that of other native Californian societies. Disease spread by contact with the missions and forced labor continued to take its toll. To the Europeans, tribal and clan affiliation held little meaning. As with many California cultures, the old ways began to die along with the people.
Many revolts were staged against the Spanish, as various tribal groups attempted to free themselves from the oppression of the government-sanctioned Mission system. Only a few succeeded, and then only for short periods. In the mean time, the Spanish, by then under the flag of the Mexican government, and other Europeans began to establish farms and ranches in Southern California, thus dislocating the original people. By the time California was transferred from Mexico to the United States in 1848, the people of the Antelope Valley were losing their struggle for survival.
While the Gold Rush did not directly impact the people of Southern California, it was important in many ways. The massacres of many tribes to the north cut off centuries old trading patterns. As more people came to California in search of gold, many filtered south for the rich farming land of the San Joaquin Valley. The United States government began a policy of relocating Native Americans to give the best land to the European settlers. In 1853, Fort Tejon was established in the mountains on the western edge of the Antelope Valley. The United States government established a reservation there to “protect the Indians.” By 1864, the 1000 people living there had deserted the fort in an attempt to return to their ancestral lands in the Tehachapi Mountains and in the Antelope Valley. However, the government continued its reservation and relocation program well into the twentieth century. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most native groups remaining in the Antelope Valley simply faded into the European culture growing up around them. More information about native populations in the Antelope Valley can be found in:
Learn more about Indians that live in Antelope Valley