The Plaque at Lincoln Park
It’s hard to say exactly what this plaque meant to me, growing up, adopted, in Alameda. This was a tangible symbol of my Native American heritage; something connected to my identity. Proof that my people actually existed somewhere. Even though I couldn’t see them, or be with them. It was also a source of horrors; knowing that I was living on an Indian Burial Mound.
This was supposed to be an art project; with some ghost stories, hand made beading, and hand-made historic reproductions of traditional Native American garments and adornments.
All I wanted to do was find out if my grandfather’s house really was built on an Indian Burial Mound. I thought I was asking a simple question, that local historians would be able to answer in the same way they could erudiate on Victorian Houses, and Electric Railways.
Instead–when I went to the Alameda Museum–the subject was dismissed.
“Somebody already did that,” I was told.
An unnamed docent from the Alameda Museum asked me, “Wasn’t it just a trash heap?”
Searching For Answers
It soon became obvious that Non-Native Historians were neither interested, nor knowledgeable about the Alameda Shellmounds, or the First Alamedans;
I realized I would have to perform the work.
Not just to find out for myself; but to counter non-native apathy, and gate-keeping; and hold this knowledge in trust for other native people who search for their own heritage, too.
But how do I find out more about the Alameda Shellmounds, and their history, when the Alameda Museum doesn’t even care?
I would have to find, search, index, and analyze several volumes of information; across several sources, and locales.
This is the progression of sources I consulted, regarding this topic. Research is still ongoing. Check the ANHP Wiki for specifics, excerpts, transcriptions, and more.
Existing, Aggregated Information RE: Shellmounds in Alameda
- Alameda: A Geological History, Imelda Merlin, 1977
- Shellmounds of the San Francisco Bay Area, N.C. Nelson, 1914
Alameda Historic Records
- Where the “Sathers Mound” actually was;
- There was more than one shellmound in Alameda;
- People used shellmounds to pave sidewalks and roads.
Search expanded to regional and state newspapers; like the Oakland Tribune, and the Alta Daily California.
- First excavation of the Alameda Shellmound was 1892, sponsored by the San Francisco Call newspaper;
- California Academy of Science was involved in 1892 excavation;
- Several artifacts reportedly gifted to U.C. Berkeley Anthropology Museum.
Relevant material found in the holdings of:
- University of California, Berkeley;
- San Francisco State University;
- California Academy of Science.
- Phoebe A Hearst Museum, Berkeley, California
- California Academy of Science, San Francisco, California
- Coyote Hills Regional Park, Fremont, California
- California Indian Museum and Cultural Center, Santa Rosa, California
- California State Indian Museum, Sacramento, California
- Alameda Museum, Alameda, California
(Errantly attributed Ohlone artifacts to “a branch of the Miwok tribe” for decades.)
Imelda Merlin is a famous Alamedan. Her Master’s Thesis for the University of California, Berkeley, was published in 1977 as Alameda: A Geological History. This book contains a Map of Live Oaks, which features several shellmounds.
Imelda Merlin’s book is considered the “Alameda bible” as far as local historians are concerned. It contains excerpts from, and references to, some of the core historic records of the City of Alameda. However, the map is of Live Oaks, and does not appear to be a serious attempt to show the accurate locations of shellmounds which existed in Alameda around 1850; and the sections concerning indigenous occupation of Alameda and extremely light on verifiable citations.
N.C. [Nels Christian] Nelson
Was an anthropology student at the University of California, Berkeley. Worked for John C. Merriam. Merriam and Nelson both went on an exploratory expedition of the San Francisco Bay Region, where Nelson surveyed and analyzed shellmounds.
In 1914, N.C. Nelson published his findings in “Shellmounds of the San Francisco Bay Region”, which featured the “Map of the San Francisco Bay Region, Showing the Distribution of Shell Heaps”.
This is the most thorough survey of the Bay Area Shellmounds ever made; and Nelson’s work is heavily cited by historians, newspapers, and researchers, alike. Nelson’s map represents the positions of shellmounds he and his team personally observed, which makes his work a primary source.
Confronting the Current Record
Reconciling local “common knowledge” with Public Records and Official Studies
Issues presented by Imelda Merlin’s Map
Citations are missing, incorrect, and/or do not substantively match or explain the locations of shellmounds in content, or context. For instance, the 1850 “Whitcher’s Survey” map of the Alameda area has been lost to time, even though it was referenced as being on prominent display in Alameda’s City Hall. This survey appears several times in Merlin’s work, all with hand-drawn additions by Imelda Merlin, herself.
Multiple Versions of N.C. Nelson’s Map
Aside from the official U.C. Berkeley, University Press printing of Nelson’s Map; there are versions with more Shellmounds, and different numbers. However no addendum or update by Nelson has been recovered; drawing into question the accuracy of these other, unofficial, maps purportedly attributed to Nelson.
Complete Reliance by Non-Native Historians on Unvetted Sources
Hometown pride may have blinded local historians. But even credible witnesses can give unreliable testimony. There is an argument for considering Merlin’s map as a Tertiary Source.
Non-Native Attitudes that the Burial Mound Issue is “Settled”
Resulting in a fundamental lack of knowledge and comprehension of local historical events by local historians and curators–who are supposed to be the experts on this subject, among other Alameda History. The assumption that there is nothing more to find, and no more to learn about the Alameda shellmounds, meant that no research was performed regarding the History of the First Alamedans–until now.
As this project continued, I learned that there was a lot left unsaid, and even more Alameda History to be uncovered beyond answering the question: “What happened to the shellmounds?”
End Part One
Stay tuned for Part Two.