Esselen Indians

Today I want to share with you some fascinating facts about the Esselen Indians, a Native American tribe that has a rich and ancient history in the Big Sur region of California. I have always been interested in learning more about the indigenous cultures of America, and the Esselen are one of the most mysterious and intriguing ones. Here are some of the things I learned from my research.

The Esselen are one of the oldest tribes in California, dating back to at least 6,500 years ago. They are part of the Hokan language family, which is a hypothetical group of languages that are not related to any other known language families.

The Esselen language is considered extinct, but some words and phrases have been preserved by the descendants of the tribe and by historical records. For example, the word “Esselen” means “the people” or “the rock people” in their language.

The Esselen lived in harmony with nature, adapting to the seasons and the resources available in their territory. They hunted deer, elk, rabbits, and other animals, and gathered acorns, seeds, berries, and roots. They also fished for salmon, trout, and shellfish in the rivers and the ocean. They used fire to manage the vegetation and to create clearings for their villages.

They made baskets, tools, weapons, and jewelry from wood, stone, bone, shell, and feathers. They wore clothing made from animal skins and plant fibers.

The Esselen had a complex and sophisticated spiritual system, based on their connection to the land and the cosmos. They believed in a supreme creator called Kaknu, who was responsible for everything that existed.

They also revered various spirits and ancestors who inhabited the natural features of their environment, such as rocks, trees, mountains, springs, and caves. They performed ceremonies and rituals to honor these beings and to ask for their protection and guidance. They also practiced shamanism, which involved entering altered states of consciousness to communicate with the spirit world.

The Esselen were one of the first tribes to encounter the Spanish missionaries who arrived in California in the late 18th century. The missionaries wanted to convert the Esselen to Christianity and to assimilate them into the colonial society. They built three missions near the Esselen territory: Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (1770), Mission San Antonio de Padua (1771), and Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (1791).

The Esselen were forced to leave their villages and move into these missions, where they were baptized, taught Spanish, and made to work as laborers. Many of them died from diseases, starvation, overwork, and mistreatment.

The Esselen survived despite the hardships and oppression they faced under the Spanish rule. Some of them escaped from the missions and returned to their homeland or joined other tribes. Some of them intermarried with other groups, such as the Rumsen, Ohlone, Salinan, Chumash, Yokuts, Miwok, and European settlers.

Major Diseases and Battles fought by the Esselen tribe


The Esselen Indians did not have many wars or battles with other tribes, as they lived in a relatively isolated and peaceful region. However, they did face conflicts and violence from the Spanish colonizers who invaded their lands and forced them into the mission system. Here are some of the important events that affected the Esselen Indians:

In 1602, the Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino visited Monterey Bay and encountered some of the Esselen people. He gave them gifts of beads and cloth, but also took some of them as captives to Mexico. He also claimed the land for Spain and named it after the Count of Monterey.

In 1770, the Spanish missionary Junipero Serra founded the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo near the Esselen village of Exse’ein. He began to baptize and convert the Esselen people to Christianity, and moved them from their villages to the mission. He also imposed Spanish laws, culture, and language on them.

In 1771, Serra founded another mission, Mission San Antonio de Padua, in the Salinan territory near the Esselen border. He also baptized and relocated some of the Esselen people to this mission. He also built a road that connected the two missions and crossed through the Esselen lands.

In 1791, Serra founded a third mission, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, in the Ohlone territory south of the Esselen lands. He also brought some of the Esselen people to this mission. He also established ranches and farms that exploited the natural resources and labor of the native people.

In 1793, a group of Esselen people rebelled against the Spanish rule and escaped from Mission San Carlos. They attacked a Spanish soldier who was guarding a herd of cattle near their homeland. They killed him and took his weapons and horses. They also freed some of their relatives who were held captive at the mission. They then fled to the mountains and joined forces with other escaped natives from different tribes.

In 1794, the Spanish authorities launched a military campaign to capture and punish the rebels. They sent soldiers and Indian allies to track down and fight the fugitives. They also burned down some of the Esselen villages and crops. They managed to recapture some of the rebels, but others remained at large.

In 1797, another group of Esselen people revolted against the Spanish oppression and fled from Mission San Antonio. They attacked a Spanish outpost near their homeland and killed two soldiers. They also took their weapons and horses. They then joined the other rebels in the mountains.

In 1805, a smallpox epidemic broke out among the native people in California. It killed many of them, especially those who lived in crowded and unsanitary conditions at the missions. The Esselen people were among the hardest hit by the disease, as they had no immunity to it.

In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain and took over California. The Mexican government secularized the missions and freed the native people from their obligations to them. However, they also granted large tracts of land to Mexican settlers, who displaced and exploited the native people further.

In 1848, after the Mexican-American War, California became part of the United States. The US government did not recognize the rights or sovereignty of the native people in California. They also encouraged more settlers to move into California during the Gold Rush, which resulted in more conflicts and violence between them and the native people.

Bands, Clans and Family Structure of the Esselen people


The Esselen people are divided into several bands, which are geographic and political units that occupy a specific territory. Each band has a name that reflects its location, such as the Sur Band, the Carmel Band, the Soledad Band, and the San Antonio Band.

The bands are further subdivided into clans, which are kinship groups that share a common ancestor and a totem animal. The clans are named after their totem animals, such as the Bear Clan, the Eagle Clan, the Deer Clan, and the Coyote Clan.The clans have their own leaders, ceremonies, rituals, and traditions.

The family structure of the Esselen people is based on both patrilineal and matrilineal descent. This means that they trace their ancestry through both their father’s and mother’s lines. The Esselen people practice exogamy, which means that they marry outside their own clan. This helps to maintain social harmony and avoid inbreeding.

The Esselen people also practice polygyny, which means that a man can have more than one wife. However, this is not very common and is usually reserved for the clan leaders or wealthy men.

The Esselen people lived in small villages or hamlets that consist of several families. The villages were located near rivers, creeks, springs, or other sources of water. The Esselen people built their houses from poles, branches, grasses, and animal skins. The houses were circular or oval in shape and had a central fireplace.

The Esselen people also construct sweat lodges, granaries, ceremonial structures, and burial grounds in their villages.

The Esselen people have a strong sense of community and cooperation. They shared their resources, food, tools, and skills with each other. They also helped each other in times of need, such as during wars, famines, droughts, or epidemics.

The Esselen people have a complex social organization that includes chiefs, elders, shamans, warriors, hunters, gatherers, artisans, and healers. They have a system of laws and customs that regulate their behavior and interactions. They also have a rich oral tradition that preserves their history, myths, legends, songs, and stories.

The Esselen people are a remarkable example of how humans can adapt to different environments and circumstances. They have survived many challenges and changes throughout their history. They have also contributed to the diversity and beauty of the California culture and landscape.

Some of them maintained their identity and culture as Esselen people. Today, there are about 460 descendants of the Esselen tribe living in Monterey County and other parts of California.

The Esselen tribe has been working hard to preserve and revitalize their heritage and traditions. They have been involved in various projects and initiatives to reclaim their ancestral lands, protect their sacred sites, restore their language, practice their ceremonies, educate the public about their history and culture, and advocate for their rights as a sovereign nation.

In 2020, they achieved a historic milestone when they acquired a 1,199-acre property along the Little Sur River that was part of their original territory. This land will allow them to reconnect with their roots and to continue their legacy as Esselen people.

They are an amazing tribe that deserves more recognition and respect for their contributions to California’s history and diversity. 

Further Reading:

Esselen Tribe of Monterey County 

Esselen Tribe – ASI Cal Poly 

Indian Wars: Definition, Dates & Wounded Knee – HISTORY 

American Indian Wars: Timeline – Combatants, Battles & Outcomes