The Sutter Buttes

Before the Europeans, for as long as perhaps 10,000 years, the original inhabitants of the Central Valley lived in the shadow of the Sutter Buttes. Then, as now, there was a mystique about the mountains that continues to intrigue people both near and far. Through the centuries, various cultures have accessed and utilized the landscape in diverse ways that reflect the values of their societies. Their words and language further define these attitudes.

Esto Yamani (Histum Yani) is the name that native Maidu people use to identify this small mountain range. The translation to English is The Middle Mountain. Variations in dialect manifested in a variety of pronunciations causing the discrepancies in the written name.

The Middle Mountain was figuratively and literally at the heart of the Maidu Indians’ spiritual beliefs. The story of its beginning centered on its appearance where once there was only sea. The very first Man and Woman were created there. They believed that after death, the souls of their people ascended to the top of its highest peak. The Buttes were a special place revered by the Maidu.

They did not live in the Middle Mountain, but rather came there to draw sustenance from the landscape, both physically and spiritually. By hunting and gathering they fed their bodies, and by reaffirming their living in harmony with the world, they strengthened their beliefs. All life was appreciated and respected.

Our 21st century lifestyles consume us, leaving little time to commune with the natural world. By identifying ourselves as the Middle Mountain Foundation, we are honoring the native people who traveled here before us and following their lessons to tread softly as we experience the Sutter Buttes.

Volcanic Origins

volcanicThe Sutter Buttes are the remains of an extinct volcano which erupted between 1.60 and 1.35 million years ago.

The volcano is almost perfectly circular, about 10 miles in diameter. Its highest point, 2117 feet above sea level, is South Butte.

Before the formation of the Sutter Buttes, the land was flat and composed of layers of sandstone, shale, gravel beds, and marine deposits. Most of these sedimentary layers were eroded from the rising Sierra Nevada mountains to the east, the Coast Range to the west, and the Klamaths to the north. Beneath these layers, melted rock, or magma, pushed its way upward and extruded at several different sites, solidifying into large domes.

The first few of these volcanic necks are identified as rhyolite, a light colored rock. Later, more voluminous extrusions cooled into a dark colored rock called andesite. Most of the large, high crags such as South Butte, North Butte, West Butte, and Twin Peaks, are examples of andesite domes.

Pushing through the earth’s crust, these extrusions forcibly uplifted, stretched, and cracked the pre-existing sedimentary layers, first arching them into a high dome. As the lava domes breached the surface, they released great volumes of hot, pressurized volcanic gases and steam with great explosive force. These detonations partially fragmented the domes into boulders and large rocks and created numerous small craters within the core area. Fragmented lava blocks and ash were washed away from the high domes by heavy rainfall running off the mountain.

The Sutter Buttes erupted during a Pleistocene glacial period. There were probably no glaciers in the Buttes, but it was a cooler, more rainy climate than today. The outwash of the frequently hot fragmental products of the explosive eruptions accumulated as the peripheral deposits. There is evidence of a deep central crater lake which filled in with this detritus to a depth of 1000 feet.

At last the volcano quieted down, and the long process of erosion began to carve away the softer sedimentary layers, leaving a natural structure that resembles a castle. Exposed now are the central peaks, a castellated core. Immediately surrounding the castle are several large valleys that form a topographical moat caused by the erosion of the sedimentary layers. Beyond the moat the ramparts radiate out in all directions, the remains of ash and debris flows now covered with grasses and oaks. Locally, the cluster of peaks is touted as the “World’s Smallest Mountain Range.”

Maidu Indians

Maidu GrindingThe Indians that lived in and around the Sutter Buttes were the Southern Maidu or Nisenan. These Indians, like all American Indians, were descendants of the migratory peoples that crossed the Bering Straits from Asia and then spread southward into the North and South American continents.

There is no precise way to date the American Indians’ arrival in what is now the United States, but by 15,000 years ago, people were living throughout the American continents. Currently, the best guess at the number of Indians living in present day California at the time of the arrival of the first Europeans is between 310,000 and 500,000. Authorities agree that the Indians of California made up about 10% of the entire Indian population north of Mexico.

The greatest concentration of Indians within the state was in the Central Valley. The Maidu, which simply means “the people,” lived in the Sacramento Valley and surrounding foothills. The southernmost Maidu were the Nisenan.

Maidu society was organized in tribes. A tribe was a conglomeration of villages numbering from two to twenty or more. One village was the main village, sort of the capitol, and this would be the site of the ceremonial and religious buildings such as the temescals or sweat houses. Some villages had populations of 500 or more, and others were made up of one or two families. The villages were very loosely organized. Leaders of the villages were mainly advisors, not decision makers. There might be one leader for war, another for religious matters, but there was not a designated leader who could speak for the entire village on all matters.

Maidu Indian basket makerBeing hunters and gatherers, much of their energy went into food gathering and preparation. As with most Native Californians, the acorn was the staple of the Nisenan diet. It took a great deal of time to gather and prepare the approximately 2,000 pounds of acorns every adult ate in a year. Acorn meal provides more calories per serving than either wheat or corn, an important factor in a hunting/gathering society’s diet. However, before an acorn can be used for food, it must be processed. Acorns contain tannic acid, and this must be removed prior to using them as food.

The acorns would be gathered in the fall, with some being prepared immediately while the rest of the supply was stored in cone-shaped baskets for use over the winter months. After shelling the acorns and removing the membrane that surrounds the meat, the meat was ground into a meal in mortars. The meal was then placed in a sand basin near a stream or river, and warm water was poured over the meal. This was repeated until the water leached the acid out of the acorns and left the Nisenan with a nutritious meal that they could eat as a mush, soup or bread.

Besides acorns, the Nisenan utilized nearly everything that nature had to offer as a food source. A few animals were not eaten, such as the grizzly bear, coyote or owl, but for the most part, the diet of the Nisenan was varied. Fish, game, seeds, insects, nuts, berries and grasses all had places in their diet. The Nisenan were not farmers because there was no need to farm. The valley and foothills provided enough food and shelter to meet their needs.

The Nisenan were followers of the Kuksu ceremony. This religion originated among the Patwin people and spread throughout the entire Central Valley. Partially because of the abundance of food sources, the Nisenan had the time to develop and practice a very elaborate and intricate form of this religion. The ceremonies consisted of dressing up in elaborate costumes and impersonating gods by performing ceremonial dances. Death released a person’s soul to travel west. A spirit might enter a coyote, an owl, a snake, a lizard or perhaps become a whirlwind and be transported to the final resting place. If someone died in a home, the dwelling was abandoned, and the name of the deceased was never mentioned again. The Nisenan cremated their dead and performed yearly mourning ceremonies to honor those who had died.

As with all Native Americans, the most deadly contact the Nisenan had with Europeans came in the form of microbes. In 1833, a trapping party from the Hudson’s Bay Company brought malaria into the Central Valley. Within a few short months, thousands of Indians had died. It is estimated that 75% of the Central Valley Indians died in this epidemic alone. In a few short months villages that had numbered in the hundreds were empty. When the discovery of gold was made in 1848, thousands of men poured into the region to hunt for gold. The fertility of the valley floor was soon recognized, and the farmers and ranchers began carving up the land. The Nisenan’s environment was altered forever, and those that remained were forced to live in a new society.
Suggestions for further reading:

The California Indians by R.F. Heizer and M.A. Whipple. 19.71, The University of California Press.

Indians of the Feather River by Donald P. Jewell. 1987, Ballena Press.

Maidu, An Illustrative Sketch by Roland B. Dixon. 1910, U.S. Government Printing Office.

The Natural World of the California Indians by Robert F. Heizer and Albert B. Elsasser. 1980, The University of California Press.

The Northern Maidu by Marie Potts. 1977, Naturegraph Publishers Inc.

Ringtail Cats

Ringtail CatMargit Sands, a Buttes’ ranching family member and MMF Board Director cradles an endearing Ringtail that was live trapped recently on a research outing at the Dean ranch in the center of the Buttes. Calm in her hands due to a sedating injection, the elusive nocturnal mammal is a cousin to the raccoon.

Researchers, Gene Trapp and David Wyatt from the Department of Biological Sciences at CSU Sacramento, have uncovered significant findings in the course of twenty years of accessing the Buttes to study the Ringtail. Their studies have revealed our Buttes Ringtail population density to be among the highest documented anywhere in the wild. For more detailed information, we invite you to attend our outings in the Buttes. The preservation of open and undeveloped places like the Sutter Buttes provides pockets of wildlife habitat that are accessible for research and study. We all benefit from this land use.