Historically, the Esselen Tribe is a small group of Indigenous Hokan speaking People who have inhabited the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Big Sur coast from Carmel Mission South 40 miles to Pacific Valley for over 6,000 years. The Esselen were the smallest tribe and least known in California. In 1602 the Spanish explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino, first visited Monterey. One hundred fifty years later Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary, traveled up the Pacific coast from Mexico to found the California Missions that still exists today. His goal was to convert the Esselen to Catholicism.
Grandmother Bernice Torres
This was the beginning of a transformation of the Esselen culture, as the people were gathered up and taken in to three missions: Mission Carmel, San Antonio Mission and the Soledad Mission. These missions were strategically placed in a geographical triangle around the Santa Lucia Mountains, the ancient homeland of the Esselen’s. The missionaries were here to save the souls of the heathens, as they called us. In this way they hoped to take the land for the Spanish king, Carols III. This had severe consequences for the Esselen and other tribes that called these mountains their home. There were four other tribes that were also affected by the missionary’s efforts for salvation.
At that time the Mexican Government gave all the former lands of the natives to their solders and they would become known as “Rancho’s” These were massive land grants that encompassed all of the native villages of the Esselen and Rumsen tribes. All of the remaining natives were released by the Mexicans to fend for themselves their culture totally disrupted. The remaining natives went back out to their lands and had a hard time surviving due to the new landowners on their ancestral homelands. Since that time the indigenous peoples of Big Sur have been a landless group.
Esselen members on Bixby Bridge
The Esselen, Rumsen (Southern Costanoan aka southern Ohlone), and the Salinan people were in these three missions. The men and their families were all separated like cattle and not allowed to speak their native languages or to practice their ancient cultural practices. This was devastating to these tribes. There are ethnographic studies and archaeology studies that have explored this history. There is evidence of habitation sites so remote in the Santa Lucia’s that they are hard to locate today. Thankfully, some of the captured Esselen survived this tragedy and continued to survive until the Spanish Missions fell into disuse after the Mexican Revolution.
Great Grandfather Fred Nason Sr.
Grandfather Fred Nason Jr.
Pico Blanco is considered the “Center of the Esselen World”; it is where the creation story for the tribe began. We have researched this site extensively and have references dating back to 1772 in mission records. In 1910 A.L Kroeber had contact with several natives and had recorded the following creation story.
When this world was finished, the eagle, the humming-bird, and Coyote were standing on the top of Pico Blanco. When the water rose to their feet, the eagle, carrying the humming-bird and Coyote, flew to the Sierra de Gabilan. There they stood until the water went down. Then the eagle sent Coyote down the mountain to see if the world were dry. Coyote came back and said: “The whole world is dry.” The eagle said to him: “Go and look in the river. See what there is there.” Coyote came back and said: “There is a beautiful girl.”
The eagle said: “She will be your wife in order that people may be raised again.” He gave Coyote a digging implement of abalone shell and a digging stick. Coyote asked: “How will my children be raised’?” The eagle would not say. He wanted to see if Coyote was wise enough to know. Coyote asked him again how these new people were to be raised from the girl. Then he said: “Well, I will make them right here in the knee.” The eagle said: “No, that is not good.” Then Coyote said: “Well then, here in the elbow.” “No, that is not good” “In the eyebrow.” “No, that is not good.” “In the back of the neck.” “No, that is not good either. None of these will be good.” Then the humming-bird cried: “Yes, my brother, they are not good. This place will be good, here in the belly. Then Coyote was angry. He wanted to kill him. The eagle raised his wings and the humming-bird flew in his armpit. Coyote looked for him in vain.
Then the girl said: “What shall I do? How will I make my children?” The eagle said to Coyote: “Go and marry her. She will be your wife.” Then Coyote went off with this girl. He said to her: “Louse me.” Then the girl found a woodtick on him. She was afraid and threw it away. Then Coyote seized her. He said: “Look for it, look for it! Take it! Eat it! Eat my louse!” Then the girl put it in her mouth. “’Swallow it, swallow it!” he said. Then she swallowed it and became pregnant. Then she was afraid. She ran away. She ran through thorns. Coyote ran after her. He called to her: “Do not run through that brush.” He made a good road for her. But she said: “I do not like this road.”
Then Coyote made a road with flowers on each side. Perhaps the girl would stop to take a flower. She said. “I am not used to going between flowers.” Then Coyote said: “There is no help for it. I cannot stop her.” So+ she ran to the ocean. Coyote was close to her. Just as he was going to take hold of her, she threw herself into the water and the waves came up between them as she turned to a sand flea (or shrimp: camaron). Coyote, diving after her, struck only the sand. He said: “I wanted to clasp my wife but took hold of the sand. My wife is gone.”
—Alfred Kroeber (1907)