Santa Cruz County History - Places

Coast Dairies Property: A Land Use History

[Excerpt from Coast Dairies Long-Term Resource Protection and Use Plan: Draft Exiting Conditions Report for the Coast Dairies Property, Section 1.0.
Figures and photos referenced in text are not included in this online version.]

1.1 - Prehistory


The physical geography of the northern Santa Cruz coast--the North Coast, in local parlance--is marked by broad marine terraces that rise eastward from the ocean to the Santa Cruz Mountains. These terraces comprise two rock formations, including the Santa Cruz Mudstone Formation (a soft, eroding bedrock), and the Monterey Formation, a hard silica-rich deposit containing Monterey chert, an important source of toolstone for the Native Americans of the Central Coast.[1] These terraces have been exposed to continuous wave action, resulting in the formation of the distinctive steep cliffs that stand sentinel along the coastline. Sandy "pocket" beaches occur intermittently where streams have cut through the marine terrace to meet the sea, and are often paired with the small estuaries formed by some of the larger streams such as Scott and Waddell Creeks.

The modern climate of the region is considered to be Mediterranean and is characterized by relatively dry summers and moist winters. Average annual rainfall is 27 inches and mean annual temperature is 59 degrees. In the summer months, seasonal upwelling of cold ocean waters generates morning coastal fog. On-shore north or northwesterly winds usually increase during the day, clearing off the fog, and die down again by evening when the fog returns.

Paleoenvironmental studies suggest that climatic conditions 30,000 to 5,000 years ago were slightly cooler and more moist than today. Pollen studies indicate that the climate was more like present day Fort Bragg in Northern California (Jones and Hildebrandt, 1990). Current conditions appear to have been in place by 5,000 years ago.


The Coast Dairies Property incorporates four major ecological zones [2] including coastal terrace, ridge system, riverine, and upland meadow (Hylkema, 1991). Modern vegetation was most likely present for many centuries before recorded history, and its diversity provided early inhabitants an array of plants and trees for food, medicine, tools and baskets.

For the first human inhabitants of the Property, there was a variety of natural resources that might have been the envy of more interior peoples. Plants bearing edible seeds and/or leafy greens are known to have been used throughout the year, as revealed by plant remains from archaeological sites. In the spring, lupine [3] was harvested for its edible green leaves, while chia provided edible seeds. During the late spring and summer a variety of seed-bearing plants were gathered including tarweed, goosefoot and elderberry. Soaproot was particularly important as it was used for food (edible root), fish poison, soap, and brushes (Fitzgerald and Ruby, 1997). Numerous species of trees and shrubs were also a source of edible nuts and berries including baynut, hazelnut, and tan oak, all of which were harvested in the fall (Fitzgerald and Ruby, 1997). Buckeye, California bay laurel and coast live oaks are also considered to have been economically important (Hylkema, 1991).

Acorns and grass seeds constituted a significant proportion of the native diet. Ethnographic accounts indicate that the natives sought to increase seed production of coast grasslands through intentional burning. Rediscovered as "prescribed burning" in modern times, this prehistoric practice also served to increase forage and attract large mammals such as black tailed deer, which were regularly hunted (Jones and Hildebrandt, 1990). Other animals in the aboriginal larder came from the coastal scrubland and forests of the area, habitats for terrestrial mammals, reptiles, fish, and amphibians. Oak woodlands in particular harbor a large number of animals and birds for thermal cover, escape, dens, nests, and foraging (Barrett, 1980). Modern and historic use of the region has altered somewhat the ecology of the Central Coast and reconstruction of prehistoric conditions is at least partly by inferrence, but species known to have been important to native peoples include a wide variety of small to medium mammals including the jackrabbit, cottontail rabbit, kangaroo rat, ground squirrel and badger.

Studies have identified more than two hundred resident species of birds in the region but, perhaps more importantly, the cold and nutrient-rich waters immediately offshore lie astride the Pacific migratory waterfowl flyway. Avifaunal remains from archaeological sites on the Santa Cruz coast indicate that waterbirds such as canvasback duck, common merganser and blue winged teal were part of the prehistoric diet (Dietz et al., 1988).


Offshore vegetal resources such as kelp, seaweed and sea palm are known to have been exploited prehistorically. Native peoples collected these plants on-shore and roasted them for immediate consumption or dried and stored them for future use (Jones and Hildebrandt, 1990). Shell refuse from an extensive menu of mussels, barnacles, limpets, chitons, abalone and clams are commonly found in coastal archaeological sites. Migratory marine mammals known historically on the Central Coast were probably present prehistorically, and no doubt harbor seals, northern elephant seals, and sea lions were sources of protein and fat. These species were attracted by the same fish exploited by humans: Pacific mackerel, night smelt, white croaker, righteyed and lefteyed flounder and anchovy (Jones and Hildebrandt, 1990).


The coastal region stretching from Santa Cruz to San Francisco has been the focus of numerous archaeological surveys and excavations since the early 1900s. The earliest of these investigations reflected the trophy-hunting mentality of the times, collecting museum specimens for display purposes from some of the largest prehistoric residential sites elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay region. These studies were extremely limited in scope and provided little understanding of prehistoric life-ways of people who inhabited this part of the Central Coast.

Beginning in late 1960s, academic research by students at San Francisco State University (and later San Jose State University) expanded the number of recorded archaeological sites along the coasts of San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. While much of this research was limited to site recording and limited sampling, a few important studies provided valuable information for the development of a regional chronology and an integrated understanding of prehistoric life (Roop, 1976; Hylkema, 1991). Hylkema's 1991 thesis was particularity important, as it not only provided the first integrated examination of prehistoric adaptations along the San Mateo-Santa Cruz coast, but it also provided the basis for comparisons of local economies with those of surrounding areas including the San Francisco Bay, Monterey Bay and inland valleys.

Finally, studies driven by the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) since the 1980's have also supplied invaluable chronological information, filling the gaps in archaeological data amassed from this part of the North Coast since the early 1900s (Jones and Hildebrandt, 1990; Fitzgerald and Ruby, 1997).


Archaeological and ethnographic studies indicate that the North Coast was possibly occupied from as early as the 10,000 years ago. The earliest evidence for occupation of the region comes from a site located in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Scotts Valley. This deeply buried site has been dated to 8000 BC and is the only evidence of what archaeologists refer to as the Paleo Indian period (Cartier, 1993), a designation that subsumes all occupations dating earlier than 5000 BC. Progressively rising sea levels documented for this period may have obliterated additional evidence for occupation of the coast during this time. As with the climate, sea levels appear to have stabilized to current conditions by 5000 years ago.

Evidence of habitation along the coast proper comes later, during the Lower Archaic period (3000-5000 BC) and from a site immediately adjacent to the Coast Dairies Property at Sand Hill Bluff (Jones and Hildebrandt, 1990). This locale appears to have been occupied over a span of time difficult for modern Californians to comprehend: 5000 years, beginning about 6000 years ago. Habitation of both the coastal and interior regions in and surrounding the Property is evidenced in numerous sites dating to the Middle Archaic (3000 - 1000 BC) and Upper Archaic (1000 BC - AD 1000). The latest prehistoric occupation appears to have occurred during what is known as the Emergent Period (AD 1000 - 1800) as evidenced at a site located at Davenport Landing (Fitzgerald and Ruby, 1997), and at a site about 5 miles inland in the Santa Cruz Mountains (Hylkena, 1991). Native inhabitants of the region were first encountered by Spanish explorers in 1602 and again between 1769 and 1776. Aboriginal groups of the San Francisco and Monterey Bay area came to be known collectively as Costanoan, a word derived from the Spanish word Costaños meaning 'coast people' (Levy, 1978).

During the mission period, AD 1770-1835, devastating changes occurred for the Costanoan people. The population was recruited into nearby missions and their traditional subsistence economy was replaced by an agricultural one. Analyses of mission baptismal records demonstrate that the last Costanoan tribelets living a traditional existence had disappeared by 1810 (Levy, 1978). As was true in much of the Americas, the population experienced a dramatic decline due to the introduction of European diseases, which consequently caused lower birth rates. And in a further blow, the mission culture that had absorbed and to some degree supported the Costanoans was short-lived. The secularization or abandonment of the missions by the Mexican government in 1832 caused people to relocate to different areas and establish small settlements, fragmenting the survivors and separating them farther away from their cultural heritage. It is believed that the Costanoan languages were probably not spoken after the year 1935 (Levy, 1978).

Most of what we know about native inhabitants of the region has been pieced together from the Spanish exploring expeditions, ethnographic accounts in the 1920s and 1930s (Krober, 1925), and archaeological research. The Costanoan territory was occupied by approximately 50 separate triblets, each one occupying one or more permanent village sites. The Coast Dairies Property is located within the boundaries of the area inhabited by the Cotoni tribe, which occupied the land from the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, north to Año Nuevo Creek, and east as far as Bonny Doon Ridge (Milliken, 1995).

The Costanoans encountered by the Spanish were hunter-gatherers who managed their resources to ensure a sustained livelihood. They lived in sedentary communities in domed structures covered with thatched roofs, and relied for subsistence on nuts and seeds from various trees and plants, local fauna, and fish, particularly salmon [4] , from the rivers and Pacific Ocean. Materials crafted by the Costanoans and used in subsistence activities included baskets, mortars, pestles, nets, net sinkers, anchors, and a variety of chipped stone tools. Trade with the surrounding Plains Miwok, Sierra Miwok and Yokuts allowed nonindigenous materials and food (i.e. piñon nuts) to be brought into the area as well. In exchange, the Costanoan are thought to have exported bows, salt, and salmon to neighboring groups (Levy, 1979). Economic reciprocity, in addition to intermarriage, is thought to have linked settlements together, some of which, by Spanish accounts, indicate stable and prosperous villages with as many as 200 people (Milliken, 1995). Overall population density along this part of the coast was nevertheless very sparse.

Archaeological research has helped us to understand what life was like prior to European contact, in at least some of its complexity and richness. For example, examination of numerous sites along the coast, adjacent terraces, and ridge systems of northern Santa Cruz County indicates that prehistoric inhabitants made use of a range of ecological zones including coast terrace, ridge system, riverine, and upland meadows, and that native inhabitants moved between these ecological zones to support a diverse human ecology. In what is referred to as a forager economic strategy, groups of people move from one location to another exploiting the resources in the immediate vicinity. Using their settlements as a base of operations, group movements were on a seasonal basis to optimize resource harvesting. It has been hypothesized that this strategy is extremely efficient in an ecological context like northern Santa Cruz County where resources are relatively dispersed, or not concentrated in one area. The distribution of marine and terrestrial mammals within a mosaic pattern of the coastal terraces and mixed hardwood forests are thought to have encouraged a foraging strategy until very late in time, possibly up until contact with Spanish explorers.


1 The term "Central Coast" applies to the region between San Francisco and San Luis Obispo. In this report, the local term "North Coast" applies to the Coast Dairies Property before it was subject to historic boundaries, and may include areas from Point Año Nuevo to the modern day City of Santa Cruz.

2 Other classification systems, based on alternate vegetation or geological associations for example, will be used in subsequent sections.

3 Plant and animal lists, with scientific names, are included in Section 3.0.

4 Curiously, a cursory examination of fish remains from sites in and around the Coast Dairies properties reveals only a single steelhead trout element from a site at Davenport Landing (Fitzgerald and Ruby, 1997).

Other sections:

View similarly tagged articles:

archaeology, geology, North Coast, Spanish explorers


It is our continuing goal to make available a selection of articles on various subjects and places in Santa Cruz County. Certain topics, however, have yet to be researched. In other cases, we were not granted permission to use articles. The content of the articles is the responsibility of the individual author. It is the Library's intent to provide accurate local history information. However, it is not possible for the Library to completely verify the accuracy of individual articles obtained from a variety of sources. If you believe that factual statements in a local history article are incorrect and can provide documentation, please contact the Webmaster.