The Oakland shellmound

One thing geologists have to do, in any city in the world, is to erase the human changes imposed on the ground so they can see the landscape beneath. Whenever I do that in Oakland, mentally removing the accumulation of 150 years of buildings and development since Horace Carpentier (boo! hiss!) came across the Bay and staked out his downtown grid, I envision a wide grassland and wildflower-covered hills, punctuated by thick stands of oaks near the Bay and a striking redwood grove around Redwood Peak: the Ohlone world.

The Ohlones didn’t do a lot of building or digging on their land, just a little bit here and there, like the ocher quarry up by Holy Names University. They may have scooped out swimming holes in the creeks near their sweathouses. They left grinding holes, from centuries of pounding acorns into meal, where the rock was good. But they did make one kind of big thing, they and their ancestors — shellmounds. Geologists, be warned: one of these might fool you.

Shellmound near Mill Valley, 1909 (source)

The name is undignified, but the shellmounds can be thought of as the local version of the tells in the Middle Eastern countries, the remains of successive mud-brick villages that dot the ancient floodplains of the Fertile Crescent. The shellmounds may have begun as refuse heaps at seasonal campsites where abundant seafood and other resources supported generations of feasts, but the larger ones came to serve as burying grounds and ceremonial sites of regional importance. They became sacred. There were thousands of shellmounds around the Bay. Oakland had some too.

When agents of the Spanish empire came, removing the Ohlones and taking the land, the shellmounds were no longer living destinations. Later, American settlers saw them as a raw resource and started to dig them up in the 1850s. The mounds had good soil. The shells were mined and burned for lime, or crushed for roadbeds. The bones were dumped; artifacts were taken for souvenirs by generations of kids and passers-by, to be lost or broken. Museums hoarded some collections. The subject is a bitter one for the Ohlones and other Indigenous peoples, who still live among us and deserve better.

Wood and Munro-Fraser’s history of Alameda County, published in 1883, noted: “At some remote period there had been Indian camps upon the northern bank of the San Antonio Creek, and the mounds, composed mainly of oyster-shells, are not yet entirely obliterated.” San Antonio Creek was the brackish inlet where the Oakland harbor is today; see it on the inset of the 1869 Sessions map.

On the point at the east end of the creek, a shellmound is shown on the main map. Halley’s history of Alameda County, published in 1876, made note of its presence in the 1850s: “Shell Mound, the residence of Captain E. F. Rodgers, at the head of the estuary, became noted as a nursery and for the excellence of its fruit orchard.”

It became a military site during the Civil War years (which may be when this place took on the name “Union Point”), but the mound survived to be recorded in 1889 when the land was being subdivided as the Shell Mound Tract, at the intersection of Livingston and Water Streets.

When Nels Nelson, a UC Berkeley archeologist, published his survey of the Bay area’s shellmounds in 1909, he noted several in Oakland.

The map isn’t entirely reliable at the scale of publication (or the scan preserved online), but he located the cluster of big ones at the mouth of Temescal Creek, known collectively as the Emeryville Shellmound. He noted three more that had once existed in the Elmhurst area and another at the mouth of Brooklyn Creek, directly beneath the O in “Oakland.” Perhaps that last one was really the Union Point shellmound.

Remarkably, that location, 1901 Livingston Street, is a city-owned parcel, a triangular gravel lot by railroad tracks that’s now leased to a construction firm.

Perhaps the Ohlones would take it back. They could make it a nice adjunct to Union Point Park, the Embarcadero Cove Marina collection of historic buildings, and the art workshops in this modest district.

One Response to “The Oakland shellmound”

  1. mpetrof Says:

    From my, not recent, reading of Malcolm Margolin’s book, The Ohlone Way, the Ohlone didn’t consider them mounds sacred (whatever that means, beyond being highly culturally significant) and that they the abhorred bodies of the dead or even any mention of them.

    I understand that anything having to do with their past would be extremely important to those having/professing an Ohlone identity (as opposed to an Ohlone culture…language, means of support, means of organizing social relationships, etc.

    Meanwhile, anent other input, I question your characterization of the cultural significance of the shellmounds.

    I also appreciate your suggestion that the site in Oakland be given over to Ohlone cultural education, much as the site in Coyote Hills is. Another case in point is the Spenger’s parking lot in Berkeley. A court case some years ago determined that the purported identification of it as a shellmound site, by a bunch of U.C. undergrads, was deeply flawed, false even, and the site was under the tracks and lumber yard. I thought that then developer’s offer of space for an Ohlone museum and cultural center was reasonable or even generous.

    To me the identification as Ohlone of a few people with, at most, a modest genetic component is of little value other than to remind the rest of us that our, “ownership,” or title to the land we so value is at best a relationship of power, theft in a sense. During the People’s Park riots of the 1960’s someone put out a beautiful flyer to that effect with the image of a Plains Indian on it and a powerful quote from said indigene. Aside from someone next to me being hit with buckshot, that has been my enduring, and most important memory.

    I once read a dry, almost grind of a book about land title in California by a highly regarded real estate title agent. It was beyond educational.

    Yours, Mark P. ________________________________

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