The Indigenous Dawn of the San Gabriel Mountains

Mount San Antonio, a.k.a Mount Baldy, at sunrise | Photo: Daniel Medina

The brilliant heritage of the San Gabriel Mountains is largely unknown to millions of Southern Californians. Etching a captivating relief into the horizons of Los Angeles each morning, they chart a rousing history that enriches the region's collective identity. Far from a mere geological backdrop, these omnipresent mountains have fostered, threatened, and inspired generations of civilizations that have taken root in Los Angeles and its greater areas. The historical and cultural impact of the San Gabriels on one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world is astonishing, yet few have heard their stories.


Land-god vs Sea-god and Mount Baldy

One of the earliest indigenous people believed that the first chapter of the San Gabriel Mountains began on the highest summit in the range, Mount San Antonio, more commonly known as Mount Baldy. In the creation legend of Mount San Antonio, published in G. Hazen Shinn's "Shoshonean Days," John Morongo, son of a Yuhaviatam leader in Morongo Valley, recounts a time, when "there was nothing; all was darkness." Then two quarrelsome brother deities, Sea-god and Land-god, worked together to beget land, sea, and animals. The brothers fell into discord, however, over their opposing visions for man's form. The disagreement turned disastrous when Land-god decided to create man to his liking, while Sea-god was away:

When Sea-god returned and saw what had been done in his absence, he became very angry and threatened to destroy his brother and man by flooding the land ... At that time the land was perfectly level. Sea-god plunged into the sea and caused huge waves to rise and roll over the land. Land-god first raised up hills and the high mountains to protect himself and man from the sea, and so thwarted the evil designs of his brother.

It was believed that Land-god, from his position at the apex of Mount San Antonio, sculpted these ramparts that thwarted Sea-god. Around the same mountain, according to another legend, the Yuhaviatam people (also known as Serranos) came to settle, after following a "pure white eagle, the bird of their great captain Kukitatc, (Land-god)" from the north. The symbolic peak of Mount San Antonio marked an approximate boundary between Yuhaviatam territory, which primarily occupied the eastern end of the San Gabriels, and parts of the San Bernardino Mountains, and the expansive realm of the Tongva (later known as Gabrielinos) to the west.

Looking west from the snow capped summit of Mount San Antonio | Photo: Augie Medina


Asuksangna and the San Gabriel River

Territory of the Tongva and Yuhaviatam relative to other Takic-speaking groups.Mount San Antonio was also of vital importance to the thriving Tongva communities in the lowlands of the San Gabriel Valley. One of the largest permanent villages, Asuksangna, was established near the gaping drainage of the San Gabriels' largest watershed, which collected the generous snowmelt of Mount San Antonio. In the looming shadow of the mountain, the San Gabriel River was born, and was the lifeblood of Asuksangna and other villages that dotted the valley south to the sea.

On a rise just south of San Gabriel Canyon, the thatched huts of Asuksangna, known as a kich, stood firm above the river, subject to extensive winter flooding in the wet winter months. As spring warmed the foothills and mountain flora ripened, the Tongva would prepare to make their seasonal ascent, up ancient mountain footpaths, into cooler climates to construct summer and autumn camps. The purpose of these seasonal migrations was crucial: to obtain enough food and material to ensure a sustainable, and ultimately survivable, winter down in the valley.

The <em>kich</em>,a Tongva family dwelling, that would have been located in permanent villages in the valleys | Photo: Daniel Medina

Tongva would head north into the San Gabriel canyon to reach higher elevations. | Photo: Daniel Medina

In the highlands, as well as below, the elements of nature -- from granite boulders to acorns -- were considered sensate. All was kin to the human community. Out of respect for these relations, hunting and gathering expeditions were always performed in moderation, taking only what was needed. On the game trails, men tracked animals in the thick maze of chaparral. Hunters preyed on bounding deer and rabbits, with arrow shafts fashioned from Greasewood. Below in the San Gabriel River, fishermen hauled in Steelhead trout, using nets woven with fibers from the towering Yucca plants.

As the primary plant harvesters and processors, women played a pivotal role in the survival of their people. More than half of the average diet was comprised of vascular plants. Women applied their honed ethnobotany skills to meet this demand, by scouring the parched chaparral slopes and canyon duff for major dietary staples. Stiff shrubs yielded precious mountain cherries and chia seeds. Berries from the burgundy trunk of the indispensable manzanita were plucked to brew a sweet cider. Acorns, known as kwi, were collected in tightly woven baskets by women and children, and ground to meal in granite mortar holes that can still be found today.

Great care was taken to manage this sustainable ecosystem. Fires were often deliberately set on elevated shrublands to promote advantageous growth. A common practice in California tribes, conflagrations would enhance the density of specific edible plant communities, increase the food supply for animals, and support the development of material used in construction and medicine.

Fires could lead to colorful blooms like these seen here in the foothills of the eastern San Gabriels. | Photo: Augie Medina

Cider was made from Manzanita berries | Photo: Daniel Medina

Mortar holes found on the eastern terminus of the San Gabriels in the Cajon Pass. | Photo: Augie Medina

In addition to guiding their ecosystem, the Tongva managed their economy by blazing well-worn trade routes into the mountains to barter with local tribes. The people of Asuksangna followed a route that led up the West Fork of San Gabriel Canyon and scaled the mountains. A complex system of footpaths led to major landmarks, like Mount Wilson, Red Box Saddle, Millard Canyon, and the camps of the Chilao backcountry. These gathering sites set the stage not only for an exchange of goods, but also functioned as a place to swap songs, gossip, embrace distant family, and meet youth from other mountain areas. Few groups continued north as well, crossing the entire transverse range and dropping into the blazing sands of the Mojave Desert.

The prosperity of Asuksangna would meet an ineluctable fate, however, when Mission San Gabriel laid its foundations a few miles downriver in 1775. An empire of Spanish colonists would deliver destructive change to a society, that for so long thrived below the nourishing sanctuary of Mount San Antonio.

Yucca dominate the morning sky near Mount San Antonio | Photo: Daniel Medina

Indian pictographs on a rock near the confluence of the West and North Forks of the San Gabriel River in 1937. | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

An ancient footpath once led into the sylvan heights of Little Santa Anita Canyon via the West Fork of San Gabriel Canyon en route to Mount Wilson. | Photo: Daniel Medina

About the Author

I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and enjoy exploring Los Angeles and learning about its origins.
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