The Early Days of First Contact

The Early days of first contact with the Cochimi People

Of Rancherias and Visitas

Most of the following is extracted from Harry W. Crosby’s book Antigua California with a very small amount of input from myself. While the book covered more of the Spanish history, I am focusing on specifically the Cochimi people.

The Jesuit padre Kino’s group founded the first mission at San Bruno, some 32kms north of what is now Loreto in 1683. It failed in 1685 because it was not self sufficient and the Jesuits left for Sonora, not to return for another twelve years. There is little information about the Cochimi that can be gleaned from this initial occupation. One can infer that the Jesuits found themselves in a threatened position with little or no help or co-operation from the local Cochimi peoples.
Later, when Padre Juan Salvatierra landed at the Loreto area on the 24th October 1697, he needed all his previous mission experience and all of Padre Kino’s information and advice to gain a foothold among California’s people. Each band, tribe or nation in the new world was distinct, but not many were as unusual as the groups on this isolated peninsula of what we now call Baja.
Despite three distinct linguistic stocks and therefore three somewhat different cultures the material attainments of all the peninsular peoples where strikingly similar. Few cultures North of Tierra del Fuego and south of the Canadian Arctic had such rudimentary technology. Compared to the Maya and Inca civilizations in mainland Mexico who had vastly superior knowledge and technology, Salvatierra found himself among people who had no agriculture, no fixed places of residence, no permanent or portable shelters and little clothing. None at all on the men and only grass skirts on the women, They had no boats, no pottery, and no domestic animals, not even dogs. The list of what they lacked seems more impressive than the tally of their possessions and attainments. However that tally is based on sources of information that are few, fragmentary and biased. Very little archeology or anthropological studies were done and reported on, and, by the time formal ethnography began to develop, all the cultures of the central and southern peninsula were extinct. The few 17th and 18th century accounts of native Californians suffer from the limitations of their authors and European perspectives. In the cases of Jesuit observers, missionary needs and objectives also influenced what was, and was not, reported.

I propose that the Cochimi culture was not as impoverished as it was proclaimed to be. Consider that Europeans of the time placed high value on structured societies with complex agriculture, fixed communities, large permanent constructions, durable implements, elaborate clothing and realistic art. Visitors to Baja found none of these. It seems, the Cochimi people had rather egalitarian societies lightly ruled by a headman and informal councils of elders. Decisions were tempered by shamans, weather and the availability of food. The Cochimi moved about constantly so they manufactured for long term use only objects small enough and light enough to be transported readily. They used fibers from agaves and yuccas and other plants to make strong light cordage and various nets, some for fishing others for containers. The same fibers were the basic material of women skirts. In making skirts, short segments of fine cane carrizo were strung on the twisted fibers like beads on a thread and fashioned to fall into two broad bands centered, one in front and the other to cover the rear and suspended from the waist. The Cochimi also worked fibers and leaves into fine basketry and fans. They wove mats of various sizes, some to offer shelter from wind, rain and sun, and others to lay on. Although they almost always slept on bare ground with just a slight hollow for their hip. They pierced their ears and noses and wore decorations of wood, shell or bone. A carved stone bracelet was found in the San Juan arroyo that is quite beautifully made and must have afforded the wearer no small amount of prestige. They tattooed designs into their skin with various colours. They created elaborate hairstyles enhanced by inclusive ornaments of pearls, mother of pearl from shells, or seeds. They worked wood to form bows, arrows, spears, atlatyl and harpoons. They fashioned knives, scrapers and hunting edges from knapped stone. They traded with others for sources of obsidion and non-local pigments. They made containers from the hides, stomach and intestines of animals to carry water and to cook in. They made bowls and ceremonial objects that were elaborately and expertly painted. They collected, traded and processed colored minerals to very fine powders to be used as pigments for rock paintings located on the walls or ceilings of caves and rock shelters. They had the expertise to be able to mix pigments with a binder to cause the paint to stick to surfaces and to last through environmental weathering for thousands of years. They painted different subjects in different areas. In the north and the south of their territory, abstract figures predominate, In the mid-peninsula larger-than-life, stylized men, animals, birds and fish. They carved and engraved the soft rock found in caves and the hard basalt rock faces with images of everything from humans to animals and abstract designs. They co-ordinated their art with the much older art left by “The Ancients”
Sadly, for the most part, only the art remains, although there are some artifacts of a non-durable nature, most have been destroyed by the elements.

The Cochimi were divided into small, semi-autonomous bands The Spanish called them rancherias which contained up to maximum of about 80 people and who had to move about in an annual cycle to pry out their living from the land. Despite the fact that the land had to support only about 1 person per square mile, existence was tenuous at the best of times. The Cochimi gathered edible roots, stems, seeds and fruits, eating some as they were found, and grinding, roasting or boiling others. They caught grubs, insects, rodents, birds, bats and rabbits and pretty well anything that moved. Occasionally, larger game such as foxes, coyotes, deer, mountain sheep or antelope were successfully hunted. They combed the seashore areas for shellfish and caught fish in nets, with hook and line, bow and arrow and by spear. They built simple rafts from bundles of cane or from felled tree trunks. All their activities were limited and controlled by the constant scarcity of water and they were expert in extracting water from seemingly dry arroyos. People normally foraged around an area with a known water supply, then were forced by necessity to move quickly to another once the water level dropped beyond practical reach.

The Cochimi struggle for existence was the most laborious that the Spanish had, up till then, ever witnessed. Padre Salvatierra had discussed its implications for their new mission and adopted what he felt was a simple and powerful plan.