Late Prehistoric life in the Eastern Sierra ended soon after the arrival of Anglo settlers in 1860. Land was taken for ranches and farms, wild seed crops destroyed by livestock, and many game animals hunted to the brink of extinction. With the traditional economy destroyed, native people turned to wage labor to survive. Some historic changes can be seen in the archaeological record, but others survive in early accounts written by anthropologists and historians. One of the most important anthropologists in the Eastern Sierra was a man named Julian Steward.


Although many things changed when Anglo settlers arrived, Indian people continued to live in traditional houses until the 1920s. These were of similar size and construction to late prehistoric houses, with some new additions. The traditional pole framework was often covered with canvas before the house was thatched with reeds. This made it warmer, dryer, and would have prevented the thatching from catching fire. Another historic addition to houses were wooden doors that were more secure, easy to close, and reduced drafts. A final change to many historic houses was the addition of a wood-burning stove. This kept houses warmer, allowed people to cook inside, and reduced the amount of firewood needed.

Although houses stayed the same, their grouping into large villages was something new. Late Prehistoric houses are found by themselves, or in small groups of about two to six houses. This is nothing like the 200 person villages that Steward described, which would have had around 30 houses. Native american workers hayingThe difference in the size of historic and prehistoric settlements indicates major changes in social organization. When the traditional economy collapsed, Indian people started to work as ranch hands and laborers. Nearly every ranch and town had a separate Indian community on its outskirts, where laborers and their families lived. These were larger and more permanent settlements than the small, seasonal camps of prehistoric families, who moved frequently in search of food. What Steward wrote was an accurate description of early historic Indian life that was in many ways different from that before Anglo settlers.


Many artifacts changed or disappeared in Historic Times. Some of this reflects economic and other changes in traditional life and some of it reflects new ideas, materials, and technology that arrived with Anglo settlers. What is interesting is how quickly technology changed for all but a few things like grinding stones, baskets, and houses that were made and used long after most stone age tools were replaced or abandoned.


Flaked stone artifacts like arrowheads, stone knives, and scrapers disappeared in just a few years. Bows and arrows were quickly replaced by more efficient firearms, ammunition for which is found in early historic Indian sites. Stone knives and choppers were replaced by steel knives and axes that were more reliable and lasted longer. Obsidian scrapers that were used for many tasks were either abandoned or replaced by artifacts made of more available bottle glass.

One of the few traditional artifacts that remained in use were grinding stones. These continued to be used to shell pine nuts and grind seeds. Nothing can really replace a milling stone and hand stone for preparing these traditional foods. In fact, the Paiute names for these artifacts (Tu-Su and See Vee) are remembered today as street names in the town of Bishop, California.

Many additional tools and ornaments were never abandoned, but replaced with new materials or something else. Traditional pottery was quickly replaced by lighter, easy to obtain, and less breakable metal pots, pans, basins, and recycled cans. Bone awls for basketry weaving were replaced with metal-tipped versions. These were thinner, worked somewhat better, and rarely snapped the way that bone awls do. Basket weaving changed little, however, with beautiful historic period baskets from the region displayed in museums around the world. Long pinyon poles and chuckawalla hooks for collecting pine nuts and lizards were improved with the addition of metal wire that made them sturdier and more efficient to use. And finally, traditional shell, stone, and bone beads were gradually replaced by glass trade beads.


While many traditional food sources were destroyed or abandoned in Historic Times, others are still eaten today. As with most of us, decisions about what to eat depended on the cost of different foods. As many wild foods became harder to find, they were replaced by store-bought food. This was purchased with money from ranch, mining, and other jobs that replaced hunting and gathering as traditional work became less economical.

Many seed crops were abandoned when they were destroyed by cattle and became harder to exploit. These were replaced by store-bought flour that was more economical than the effort needed to gather and prepare wild seeds. An important exception was the gathering of pine nuts. These survived destruction in much of the Eastern Sierra, where mining was limited and few of the pinyon forests completely logged. As in Late Prehistoric times, historic families traveled to pine nuts groves in the fall to gather nuts. Some people would even leave their jobs for the pine nut harvest. This preserved some of the pre-Anglo life, and had other economic benefits. Pine nuts could be sold to local stores for more than Indian people earned at ranch and other jobs. This meant that an hour collecting pine nuts in the “old way” could buy more at the store than an hour working at ranch or other Anglo jobs.

Game animals were never abundant in the Eastern Sierra, and meat a limited part of the diet. Men continued to hunt with guns instead of bows in Historic Times, but it put probably little meat on the table. Most historic period sites have the bones of domestic livestock, not wild game. Cattle and other farm animals were raised or purchased for slaughter and meat occasionally bought at the store. But store records from the late 1800s indicate that bacon, lard, and canned fish were the most common meat products purchased by Native American shoppers.


Although historic period people lived in large villages or communities, the traditional family (mom, dad, and the kids) remained the basic social unit. Family households were responsible for themselves, and did not expect to give or receive much help from others. Store records show that individuals or families managed their own affairs, with their friends, neighbors, and relatives doing the same. This was similar to the way that Anglo families lived, and the way that most of us organize our lives today. This made it easier for Native American people of the Eastern Sierra to adapt to the new Anglo world.

"Native Populations"
With people living in permanent settlements and buying many of their supplies at the local store, families had little reason to move around the countryside. Seasonal trips were made to the pine nut groves and elsewhere and to visit friends and relatives in surrounding areas. Travel on these trips was often faster and easier with the help of horses, wagons, and early roads that connected various towns and ranches. United States Census and other historic and archaeological records also show that many families relocated to different parts of the Eastern Sierra. For example, many people living near the California/Nevada border moved to agricultural and mining centers in places like Owens Valley, Benton, and Bodie, where there were more paying jobs. This increased the size of local settlements and populations and explains why some of Julian Steward’s descriptions of Indian life are so different from the archaeological record.


While historic era people spent most of their time
close to home, trips were made to pine nut camps in the mountains, annual celebrations in different parts of the area, and periodic funeral services for those who had died in the previous year. Longer trips to places like San Francisco were made by some individuals, when the need or opportunity arose. As Historic Times progressed and economic opportunities changed, some Eastern California residence left the area, though many original families still have members living in the area.