The Native American Presence In Nineteenth Century Old Town San Diego, California: The Story Told By Stone Artifacts

By Michael P. Sampson

While working as an Archaeologist for California State Parks in San Diego, I was provided the opportunity to study an assemblage of over 8,000 stone artifacts recovered from the Eugenia Silvas-James McCoy House Site located within Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. This archaeological investigation, conducted by California State Parks staff from 1995 to 2000, served to provide architectural and cultural information used during the reconstruction of the James McCoy House, now a museum in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. The relatively large number of stone specimens recovered here, findings more typically expected in local prehistoric archaeological sites, originated from a site context dating between 1830s and 1850s, a time that was long into the historic period of this region. Thus, I thought we could tell a compelling story of Native American residency in Old Town many decades after initial Spanish colonization here, which initially occurred here in 1769 with the founding of San Diego de Alcala Mission and the San Diego Presidio. The latter mission and presidio [military establishment] represent the first Spanish settlements within the present-day State of California.

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Californio soldiers from the San Diego Presidio and their families, some of Spanish descent, built residences in the flat land below the hill upon which the San Diego Presidio stood beginning in 1821. This new residential area is now called Old Town San Diego. These domiciles became the foundation of the Pueblo of San Diego. Most of the stone artifacts recovered during 1995-2000 State Parks archaeological excavations originated from a parcel originally owned by Eugenia Silvas; this parcel was subsequently sold to Jesse Wilbur Ames. By 1866, James McCoy purchased all the parcels at this location (Davis 1992:24). An adobe dating to the 1830s sat on this parcel when Silvas owned it, but in 1869 McCoy built his large, two-story home on the Silvas parcel and the Snook parcel (Davis 1992:25-26, 29-30). The McCoy house and its gardens were demolished in 1927 and an auto court was built in this location in its place (Davis 1992:28-29, 31); later, it became a parking lot with no standing buildings in 1963 (Davis 1992:29, 31).

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Tipai (also known as Kumeyaay) people, the indigenous residents of southern San Diego County and northern Baja California (Carrico 2008; Luomala 1978), resided in 19th century Old Town San Diego; their numbers grew in Old Town with the secularization of the Spanish missions in 1834-1835 by order of the Mexican Governor. The Indian people worked as servants for the many Californio families living in Old Town at that time (Farris 2006:7; Pourade 1963:32-34; Walsh 2004:6). A census of the pueblo taken in 1836 listed at least 26 Indian servants working in Old Town San Diego (Farris 2006:7-9). They and their families would have resided in and adjacent to Old Town San Diego.

The Tipai village site of Cosoy or Kosoi, a community predating Spanish colonization, has been identified as being close to the Silvas-McCoy House Site in Old Town. Paul Ezell and Greta Ezell (1987) proposed that the village of Cosoy is located north and east of present-day Old Town and outside the state park, based upon their study of Spanish accounts, the results of archaeological studies, and the logic that Indian people would not have settled upon flood-prone landscapes. Their hypothesis does not necessarily preclude the possibility that the Native inhabitants of Cosoy, prior to Spanish colonization, visited what is today Old Town San Diego during food-gathering forays, or, even lived in Old Town short-term on a seasonal basis in prehistory. Indeed, limited evidence for short-duration prehistoric use within the present-day park has been observed. Again, the stone artifacts found at the Silvas-McCoy House Site during the archaeological work in 1995-2000 originated from site contexts that date to the historic period of our region, but predate McCoy family residency that began in 1869.

California State Parks archaeological investigations at the Silvas-McCoy House Site from 1995-2000 yielded a total of 8,171 stone artifacts in contexts dating from the 1830s to 1850s. As noted above, this area of Old Town was occupied by both Californio families and some Americans who were local businessmen and politicians (Farris 2006; Felton 2006). Tipai people would have been present here, in particular, as house servants; the evidence of stone tool use in the project area can be attributed to them. Stone flakes, the waste material from tool manufacturing work (that is, flintknapping), numbered 7,495 or almost 92 per cent of the entire lithic artifact count. The counts for other stone artifacts are as follows: 157 miscellaneous and fragmentary ground stone items, 94 flake tools, 91 cores, 51 core tools, 28 manos, 9 projectile points (including three made from glass), 4 pieces of soapstone or steatite, one soapstone bead, 3 pieces of a “Mexican” type of metate [made from non-local stone], 2 metates of local material, 2 gunflints (one chert, one chalcedony), and 8 flaked-glass items. From my long experience working in California archaeology, the Silvas/McCoy House site stone artifact assemblage is impressive in the number of artifacts and the variety of tool types.

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The 1995-2000 excavations also recovered a total of 273 fire-affected rocks; their presence represents good evidence for use of traditional [pre-Contact] food preparation methods in historic Old Town San Diego, such as, cooking within earth ovens and/or stone boiling. Earth ovens or roasting pits were employed by Southern California Indian people to cook many plant foods, including, agave, yucca, and various geophytes (Bean and Saubel 1972:31-35, 150-153; Shipek 1991; and others). Stone boiling is associated traditionally among California Indian groups with acorn mush preparation (see the descriptions of acorn mush preparation in Ortiz 1991:109-121; Timbrook 2007:158-159; and others).

The Old Town assemblage contains many unmodified volcanic or quartzite cobbles used in battering and hammering tasks. Certain implements that were purposefully shaped and exhibit pronounced battering use-wear, referred to as “battered tools” (Dodd 1979; Flenniken et al. 1993), would have been employed to produce metates, manos, and other ground stone implements and to sustain or “resharpen” the working surfaces of ground stone tools. And, many other tools with pounding use-wear served as percussive implements (hammerstones) in flintknapping. The number of well-used battered tools in the Silvas/McCoy House Site provides unequivocal evidence that ground stone tools, which were traditional Native American food-preparation implements, continued to be regularly used and played an important role for Indian people residing in 19th century Old Town San Diego.

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The Silvas/McCoy artifact assemblage contains 94 flake tools used in everyday tasks such as cutting, scraping, planing, and woodworking. The various functions attributed to the flake tool assemblage were determined by my microscopic analysis of these artifacts and my knowledge of traditional stone tool use. Particular types of tool functions produce specific forms of use-wear on the tool margins that can be detected with careful examination under a microscope (Ahler 1979; Hanten and Stevens 2010; Hayden 1979; Keeley 1980; Lemorini et al. 2006:922-923, Table 1; Sampson 1982:54-55, Figures 5-7, 69-75; Setzer 2012; and others). Flake tools with unmodified working edges represent an effective implement for a variety of everyday tasks and can be made easily (cf. Allen 1998:77-83; Frison 1978:311; Gould et al. 1971; Miller 1979:402-405; and others). Prehistoric people of this region and elsewhere regularly relied upon simple flake tools for many day-to-day tasks. Tool users in 19th century Old Town thus followed age-old traditions to similarly employ simple flakes of quartzite or volcanics without modification for everyday tasks. I can attest to the efficiency of simple flake tools from my own use of such tools to butcher both large and small animals (Sampson 1982). I also found within the Silvas-McCoy stone artifact assemblage cobbles of locally available stone with a few flakes removed to create a functional edge (referred to either as a “cobble tool” or “core tool”) that were employed in tasks similar to the latter flake tools.

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The stone raw materials known to be local to Old Town, specifically, volcanics and quartzites based upon personal observations and geological studies (Kennedy 1975), were primarily used by Native tool makers in 19th century Old Town. It would appear that traditional trading networks and raw material quarrying practices predating Spanish colonization broke down in historic times in the Old Town San Diego area, leaving the prospective stone worker living in 19th century Old Town to rely almost exclusively upon nearby geologic sources. The traditional sources of non-local stone raw materials commonly used in prehistoric times to make tools and ornaments, such as, chert, quartz, obsidian, and soapstone, had apparently become no longer available to Tipai residing in 19th century Old Town.

The stone artifact assemblage from the Silvas-McCoy House site in Old Town San Diego that the author examined and analyzed is noteworthy for the relatively large number and the variety of tool types and their uses and the abundant evidence of stone tool manufacture. All of this evidence occurred when Indian people in Old Town San Diego had already been affected by historic colonization and new settlements for over 60 years. The proportionally large number of flakes, the battered tools and hammerstones, the variety of functions reflected in the flake tools, and the lithic technology are consistent with the traditionally used lithic components of local Late Prehistoric Period archaeological sites. Thus, the Old Town San Diego stone artifact assemblage reflects a strong continuity in traditional lithic technology and tool usage in historic, post-Contact times. Certain types of stone tools were no longer viable or necessary in post-Contact living conditions of Old Town, which can account for the low number of hunting items and warring weapons and lack of hide scraping implements in the stone tool assemblage. The Silvas-McCoy archaeological collections also showed strong evidence of sustained use of traditional aboriginal ceramic vessels [not Mexican or European ceramic objects] in historic Old Town (Felton 2006:6-8); this finding nicely complements the stone artifact evidence. Some minor modification of old traditions was noted in the occasional use of glass rather than stone to make certain tools and the relative lack of non-local stone. Significantly, the many stone artifacts found at the site represent conspicuous, tangible, and abundant evidence of a Native American presence in early 19th century Old Town San Diego; otherwise, the historical record for Old Town San Diego gives us little information on their activities.

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Stone toolmakers in Old Town San Diego recognized the economic necessity and practicality to continue using stone implements. I hypothesize that cultural factors, as in a need to maintain one’s traditional values and customs, played an important role in sustaining stone tool use through time, in addition to tool functionality or economics. A continuity in stone tool use thus can be viewed as the symbolic outward boundary that aided Indian people living in historic Old Town and other areas in historic times in maintaining their aboriginal values and customs they cherished. There is no historical evidence that Indian people participated fully or equally in the Old Town Society and its economic affairs other than at the bottom of the social scale. Therefore, the maintenance of traditional practices could provide self-esteem and an identity as an individual and a people. There is also ample historical evidence that Kumeyaay (both Ipai and Tipai) people resisted Spanish and, later, Mexican colonization and through historic times actively sought to sustain their cultural practices (Carrico 2008:19-40; Carter 1957:293-294; Cline 1984; Luomala 1978; Rogers 1936; Shipek 1991; Van Wormer 1986). As Tipai people worked in Old Town for Californio families, they maintained their age-old cultural traditions and a unique social identity by various means including use of their traditional tools for everyday tasks and traditional cooking practices. The artifacts we saw at Silvas-McCoy House site not only tell us a lot about the types of activities performed by local Native people at this time, but abundantly demonstrate the resilience of their culture in the face of a changed social order.

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 The 1995-2000 archaeological project at the Eugenia Silvas-James McCoy House Site was directed by David L. Felton, then a Senior State Parks Archaeologist in Sacramento (now retired). He invited me to conduct the stone artifact analysis which I performed in 2005 and 2006. I thank all the California State Parks staff, both in San Diego and Sacramento, who assisted me in my efforts. I am grateful to Susan Hector for her comments on a draft of the present article. The Silvas-McCoy House Site collection is stored in the State Archaeological Collections Research Facility in Sacramento under Accession Number P1116.

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