The Wintu

Shasta Bally
Shasta Bally and Whiskeytown Lake. 'Bally' is the Wintu name for 'mountain'. NPS Photo.

Aside from the manmade Whiskeytown Lake, the most prominent geographical feature within Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is Shasta Bally. Although the top of this mountain is situated just a couple of miles from the lake as the crow flies, it is fully 5,000 feet (or about a mile) higher than the lake itself. Shasta Bally is 6,199 feet above sea level, making it the highest mountain in the park. The mountaintop often has a blanket of snow on it in winter and spring, and its soil is mostly comprised of decomposed granite.

Note the peculiarity of the mountain’s name. The highest, most dramatic peak within Whiskeytown is officially named Shasta Bally. The term “Bally” is a slight corruption of “buli,” the Wintu word for mountain (the Wintu historically called the mountain “Bohem buli,” which translates to “big mountain”). As the park is situated in the heart of the Wintu People’s homeland, I think it is fitting and symbolically important that the name of Whiskeytown’s tallest mountain comes at least in part from the Wintu language. Though things have changed substantially for the Wintu over the course of the last 200 years, the indigenous heritage within and around the park remains rich and relevant.

The Wintu People and their ancestors have lived in the area for thousands of years. Although their numbers were reduced substantially in the 1800s both before, during and after the California Gold Rush, and although many continue to face significant hardship well into the 21st Century, the Wintu as both a people and a culture persevere into the present.

 
Map of Wintu Homeland
California Map showing Wintu Homeland in black.

Acorns from Oaks, Salmon from the Sacramento: the Land was Their Livelihood

By the time European American pioneer Pierson Reading found gold on Clear Creek in 1848, the Wintu People and their ancestors had been in the area now comprising western Shasta County, eastern Trinity County, and northwestern Tehama County for hundreds if not thousands of years. Artifacts uncovered by Whiskeytown’s cultural resource management staff within the park attest to this long presence.

Like all indigenous peoples, the Wintu were intimately in tune with the cycles of the seasons. That is, they gained both sustenance and subsistence from the natural resources of the Klamath Mountains and upper Sacramento River regions.

Within what is now the park, multiple Wintu villages were established along Clear Creek and its tributaries. One particular village was located within today's Tower House Historic District, near the Camden House, at the confluence of Clear Creek and Willow Creek. This village was inhabited for thousands of years and was known as "Soo’-yeh-choo’-pus."

Using the life-giving waters of area streams for drinking, cooking, washing, and fishing, evidence suggests that these indigenous peoples lived along Clear Creek and other park streams in winter but moved higher into the mountains during the summertime.

It was on the slopes of Shasta Bally and other high mountains that they found relief from the scorching summer sun. As the summer growth of grass brought deer and other species into the high country for forage, the Wintu hunted. They also collected seeds, grasses, and berries. In fall, they set some areas on fire in order to attract new growth and additional game animals the following year. This periodic burning of the landscape to both attract new growth and maintain the health of the land is something that Whiskeytown’s fire management staff do today in a process known as prescribed burning, or prescribed fire.

While many plant and animal species were utilized for different purposes, and while travel and trade between other indigenous groups was common, two significant natural resources for the Wintu included oak acorns and salmon. The Wintu gathered acorns from trees such as the California live oak (also known as coastal live oak) and black oak. Acorns formed the basis of the Wintu diet, as they were ground into flour and then used to make soups and breads.

In addition to acorns, the Wintu fished for several species of fish. The massive spring and fall runs of salmon along major drainages such as Clear Creek and especially the Sacramento River were a particularly busy time of year. Wintu families would move down to the river to fish together, often working the water with friends and relatives and even other Native American groups to ensure everyone could harvest their share.

 

Guns & Germs: European Americans Change Everything

The Wintu are described historically as a peaceful people. However, when European American explorers and especially miners entered the Klamath Mountains in earnest, peaceful coexistence was not in many of these newcomers' vocabulary. Making mining claims and setting up towns on the Wintu homeland without asking the Wintu, the new arrivals often saw indigenous people as competitors for limited natural resources. Ultimately, the Wintu as well as the majority of practically all indigenous people across the world were decimated by what Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond refers to as guns, germs, and steel.

It is estimated that just prior to European American contact there were 34,000 Wintu living in the Wintu homeland. However, by 1910 there were only 710 Wintu people left. If accurate, this represents is a staggering loss of 99.8 percent of an entire people – 99.8 percent!

Some Wintu were outright murdered by whites. One specific example of this involves the Hayfork Massacre, also known as the Bridge Fork Massacre, in which over 150 Wintu men, women and children were killed just west of the present-day national recreation area in 1852. Other than murder, many Wintu died from diseases such as cholera, smallpox, and influenza; they did not have immunity to these illnesses carried by the newcomers. Some were stolen outright and sold into servitude, as in the story of Kate Camden, who may or may not have been Wintu, while others were forcefully marched onto chronically undersupplied rancherias or reservations. Finally, as human use of the land extended beyond carrying capacity, and as natural waterways were polluted and muddied by mining activity, some Wintu starved.

It's important to note that not all Caucasians wanted indigenous people gone. Some were sympathetic to the plight of the Wintu and other Northern California Native Americans, and some even intermarried. Nevertheless, collectively, the white man’s guns and germs proved overbearing.

 
Wintu dancers celebrating their heritage. Wikipedia Photo by Michael Marmarou.
Wintu dancers celebrating their heritage. Wikipedia Photo by Michael Marmarou.

Against All Odds, a Culture & People Persevere

The few Wintu that survived the California Gold Rush era continued to face extreme prejudice and hardship on many fronts. Railroads coming into the area and copper mining booms brought additional European Americans onto the Wintu homeland. Nevertheless, as time marched on, outright killing of American Indians gave way to more “humane” treatment.

By the early 1900s, at least a few Wintu families had been given “Indian land allotments” from the federal government along Clear Creek inside the present-day park. Much like European Americans claiming public land parcels in 160-acre tracts to then homestead and farm on, some American Indians and specifically Wintu were given this opportunity as well. In addition to these allotments, at least one Wintu, Sarah Green (known as ‘Num Ken Chata’ in the Wintu language) lived in the actual community of Whiskeytown into the early 1930s.

The Redding Rancheria was established by the federal government in 1922 on a small piece of land along the lower section of Clear Creek, and it was here that homeless members of the Wintu, Yana, and Pit River tribes were required to settle. The rancheria was abolished in 1962 as part of a government-wide push to convert community-based reservation lands to individual person-based land parcels. However, local American Indians successfully pushed for reinstating the Redding Rancheria, which officially occurred in 1983.

As for Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, no Wintu People live within the park boundary. However, as part of park’s preservation mission as well as its ongoing work to support and improve communication and collaboration with indigenous communities, local tribal members are employed in the park thanks to a partnership with the Northern California Indian Development Council. These indigenous employees assist in the preservation and physical maintenance of the Tower House Historic District, park trails, and public use facilities around Whiskeytown Lake. In addition, park staff consult with Wintu leaders and other local tribal groups, particularly regarding the management and preservation of the national recreation area’s archeological resources.

Things have certainly changed for the Wintu over the years, no doubt. But park features like oak acorns, salmon runs, the constantly flowing water of Clear Creek, and even the naming of Shasta Bally, can remind us and help us reflect upon the indigenous heritage. We must learn from the past to make the future more inclusive for everyone.

Article written by Scott Einberger, Visual Information Specialist. May 2021.

The primary source used for this article was Douglas Deur, Rochelle Bloom, Katie Wynia, and James Hebert, “Wintu Homelands on Clear Creek: Ethnographic Accounts of Whiskeytown National Recreation Area,” U.S. National Park Service, 2020.

For Further Reading
M. Kat Anderson. "Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources." Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.
Dottie Smith. "The History of the Indians of Shasta County." 1995.
Al M. Rocca. "Whiskeytown National Recreation Area: A History." Redding, CA: Renown Publishing, 2010.
Bureau of Land Management and California Native American Heritage Commission. "The Wintu Indians and Their Heritage."

Last updated: October 4, 2021

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