Long before there was a railroad or a Roseville, there was the land, encompassing mile after mile of waving grasslands. Towering over this sea of grass were thick groves of valley oaks, which provided protective canopies for carpets of wild flowers. Golden poppies, buttercups, lilies and monkey flowers blended with the darker hues of brodiaeas, lupine and purple owl's clover that blanketed the plains. Several sparkling streams meandered through this beautiful countryside and along their shady banks grew wild roses with their delicate shades adding to the mosaic of color. Wild game such as deer, antelope, Tule elk and California grizzlies roamed over the lush grasslands, while California quail and other game birds frequented the thickets and brush lands. Today, only a few signs of this wonderland remain.
Oak groves - City collection
Other accounts were not so complimentary, particularly during summer months when green grasses turned brown under the relentless California sun. This was quite different from lands east of the Mississippi River where summer rains brought rich harvests. In contrast, the broad plains of California’s inland valleys were seared and cracked by summer droughts and 100 degree heat. The myth of the California desert, for many, would persist for some time.
Long before the first Europeans invaded this unspoiled wonderland, native civilizations had existed here for thousands of years. Over 300,000 people, divided into seven linguistic families encompassing 64-80 different languages, inhabited California. One of these groupings was the Maidu, whose territory embraced the vast valley region which extended from the Sacramento River to the edge of the Sierras. The southern Maidu, also called Nisenan or Nishinam, held the entire American, Bear and Yuba rivers’ drainage systems. The abundance of plants and animals encouraged the development of numerous Maidu towns in the Roseville region. One important Maidu center of activity was along the banks of Strap Ravine, east of downtown Roseville, on lands which later became part of Johnson Ranch. Evidence of their existence can still be seen in the bedrock mortars where they ground acorns with stone pestles. Petroglyphs (ceremonial markings) may still be seen on the large boulders found in the Maidu Historic Site.
Dry Creek - City collection
Another Maidu town in the Roseville area centered along Dry Creek adjacent to the old Enwood gravel pit, which extended downstream to where the Lincoln Estates subdivision is now located. Considerable excitement occurred around 1964 when contractors uncovered traces of Maidu culture. Amateur and professional archaeologists alike rushed here in large numbers searching for ancient artifacts. Community leaders Myron and Dorothy McIntyre, who had previously donated creekside lands for today’s Lincoln Estates Park, donated an additional 15 acres in 1998. Four of those acres are to be used for an extension of Lincoln Estates Park and 11 are to be preserved in perpetuity as a “passive” open park area.
Dry Creek - City collection
A third major Maidu area, which was concentrated along Dry Creek west of present day Riverside Avenue, extended to today’s railroad tracks. Thomas Dudley, one of the area’s earliest white settlers, recalled paying the chief of a nearby tribe a 50 pound sack of flour for relinquishing his claims to lands staked out here. The Maidu actively managed the landscape to create an Eden-like setting with floral and faunal abundance supporting a large Maidu population. Most of their homes were simple brush covered conical shaped huts – of the single family type. Their most important structure was an earthen-covered ceremonial Roundhouse - a rounded structure 30 to 40 feet in diameter, made of timber, brush and earth, built over and around a four or five foot deep depression. In the center of the Roundhouse was a fire. The Roundhouse served as the spiritual and healing center for the community.
Many oak trees grew in the area, providing acorns, a Maidu food staple. The acorns would be ground, leached to get rid of their bitter taste, cooked in a water-tight basket and eaten plain or mixed with berries, grasshoppers or dried salmon. Roots, seeds, nuts, leaves and shoots were gathered and stored for year-round use for food, medicines and material goods. Rabbits, ground squirrels, quail, ducks, geese, fish from area streams and other small wildlife were also part of the Maidu diet.
Disease, miners and settlers killed or forcibly removed many of the Maidu from their traditional homelands. Today, Maidu descendants still live in Placer County and celebrate their heritage and traditions that helped them withstand this cultural onslaught.