The Ethno-Botany of the Coahuilla Indians of Southern California,

Date: 1900

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The eastern half of southern California is everywhere a desert, separated from the coast by the lofty elevations of the Sierras and the Coast Range. Northward in Inyo county is the sterile and dangerous depression famous as Death Valley. Southward, stretching from the Colorado to the Sierras, is the Mojave, the most elevated and least barren of these plains. Although its appearance is desolate, owing to the volcanic character of its rocks and its drifting beds of sand, the southern portion, now traversed by the Santa Fe Railway route, bears a valuable growth of bushes, contains many water holes, and has always proved a safe and direct route of travel. It was crossed by the old Mormon road from Salt Lake City to San Bernardino, as well as the overland trail from Santa Fe, both roads meeting near the western side of the desert on the Mojave river. The San Bernardino range and a low spur running southeastward to the Colorado river, where it is known as the Chocolate mountains, separate the Mojave from the Colorado desert. This great depressed area occupies almost the whole southern part of the state and the northeastern part of Lower California, clear to the Gulf. The northwestern portion, enclosed by the San Bernardino range and the San Jacinto mountains, is the Coahuilla or Cabeson valley, the present home of the desert Coahuilla Indians. This valley is reached from the coast by the San Gorgonio pass. From Colton eastward, there is a long and continuous ascent for thirty miles, or nearly to Banning, where the divide is reached. From this point there is a descent through the pass into the Cabeson valley. Immediately from here onward one recognizes that the country and life have changed. Dry, gravelly stretches take the place of the red, alluvial soil on the other side of the summit. Stunted creosote bushes dot the plain, but there is an absence of trees and less hardy kinds of vegetation. Where the pass widens out into the valley the road crosses the White Water river. This considerable and refreshing stream, flowing from the snow peak of Mount San Gorgonio on the north side of the pass, pours itself across the rocky cañon, and then turning east onto the sands disappears before it has gone a mile. The descent is still very rapid. Vast deposits of wind-drifted sand impede one’s progress and desolate the upper end of the valley. Gradually, however, these disappear, and the soil becomes a fine dark silt, the alluvial floor of an ancient fresh-water lake of wide extent, over which are dotted "montes" or clumps of mesquite, amidst which the Coahuillas have for generations dug their wells and built their homes.

Underneath the soft deposits of soil that cover the Cabeson valley there is a constant seepage of the waters that, falling upon the desert faces of the mountains, sink into the hot sand of the desert as soon as they emerge from the cañons and gorges of the hills. The depth of this subsurface flow varies in different parts of the valley, being greatest at the upper end. Indian Wells, west of Indio, is twenty-five to thirty feet deep, but in the lower parts of the Cabeson, toward the Salton Sink, water is reached at from twelve to sixteen feet below the level of the sand. In his most delightful work, the Discovery of America, Mr. John Fiske, in reviewing the culture of the southwest tribes of the United States, speaks of their irrigating as "mainly an affair of sluices, not of pump or well, which seem to have been alike beyond the ken of aboriginal Americans of whatever grade." The statement is in part disproved by the Coahuillas. For generations they have been well-diggers. Their very occupation of this desert was dependent on their discovery of this art. The whole valley of the Cabeson is dotted with wells, most of them marking sites of homes long ago abandoned, the wells themselves being now only wide pits partly filled with sand, but many dug in the old way still remain, supporting life and giving refreshment miles and miles away from the rocky walls where the streams of the mountains disappear in the sands. These wells are usually great pits with terraced sides leading down to the narrow hole at the bottom where the water sparkles, built in such a way that a woman with an olla on her head can walk to the very water’s edge and dip her painted vessel full. The deeper it is down to the water, the larger, of course, is the excavation and the greater the diameter across its upper terrace. The Coahuillas call these wells téma-ká-wo-mal-em, a pretty figure. Ká-wo-mal is the word for a tinaja or water olla, and témal is the word for earth or the ground. There is no question but that the Coahuillas learned of themselves to dig these wells, and this practice cannot perhaps be paralleled elsewhere among American Indians.

The low San Bernardinos to the north of the Cabeson valley are called by the Coahuillas Ká-wish-Po-po-kú-ut, or the "mountains of mesquite and tales," a name which their desolate, sandy appearance belies. The splendid San Jacinto range on the south is called the Káwish-wa-wat-ácha, or the "lofty mountains." Across the San Bernardino hills is the way to the Chemehuevi country, and behind these peaks these Indians annually make their camps when they come to this region to hunt mountain sheep. Up the San Jacinto ridges, dark and gloomy with shadows, run the ancient trails by which the Coahuillas entered the mountains and became hillsmen, as well as men of the desert. These trails—or "pit-em," as the Indians call them—are almost unmarked paths. They ordinarily climb out of the desert across some great alluvial fan of cañon detritus and then follow up some deep gorge until the roughness of its torrent-swept bottom compels one to pull his scrambling pony up onto the great black ridges, that look like the giant vertebrae of fossil monsters. Water is terribly scarce in these mountains, and most of these trails converge at a little valley north of a peak of the range, Torres mountain. This valley is known to hunters as "Piñon Flats," from its forest of juniper, and here water can always be found. Long ago there was a small village here, and the site is still known to the Indians by its old name, Kwá-le-ki. High up on the northern side of Torres was another called Pá-nach-sa. These villages seem to have been halfway camps between the desert and the mountain rancherias farther on, and probably never more than a few families occupied them at a time. The elevation is five or six thousand feet higher than the desert, and the air bracing and fine. And from these eyries one can gain a wide view of the Coahuillas’ home.

These mountains, arid as they are, and scantily supplied with vegetation as they seem to be, are nevertheless rich in botanical species, and the region is one of wondrous interest to the collector and of great value to the Indian, for it is from here that there come many of his most valued plant products. . . .

Such in general are the characteristics of life everywhere on the southern parts of the American desert. The Colorado desert, the particular home at present of the Coahuilla Indians, has, however, bizarre features peculiarly its own.

This arm of the desert was in very recent geologic time an arm of the Gulf of California. More than 1,600 square miles is still below the level of the sea, the most depressed portion being 275 feet lower than the ocean.

The Colorado river in its course south to the ocean built up a flood plain on a higher level that finally shut off the western part from a direct communication with the sea, and evaporation, with a gradual uplifting of the whole section, finally laid it bare, although leaving a great part of it below the present sea level.

The waters of the Colorado, 275 feet above sea level at Yuma, break through their banks at the summer season of high water and flow southwestward and then northward and inland, forming a widely inundated area with many sloughs, the best known being the New river. This formerly took place in sufficient volume to form in the center of the valley a huge inland lake, a vestige of which still remains in the saline lagoon at Salton.

There are three principal soil levels noticed in crossing the desert: an upper, made of great "alluvial fans," which skirt the western mountain ranges and are formed of great masses of rock, gravel, and detritus, washed by cloudbursts from the hillsides and swept far out over the sands; mingled with this layer are bits of silicified wood and oyster shells; second, a sandy middle layer, representing the former bed of the sea; and, third, a lower layer of clay or fine silt, laid down in still water and extending for many miles, representing the bed of the former freshwater lake and subsequent lagoons, that are even now occasionally filled by water from the New river overflows. Over the surface of this latter level are scattered great quantities of fresh-water shells, mostly small univalves Amnicola protea and A. longinqua and the Physa humorosa, and a single bivalve, a species of Anodon now found in the Colorado river (A. Californiensis Lea). The physa is also sometimes found, still inhabiting springs on the New river. . . .

The atmospheric conditions are fully in keeping with the other features of the desert. A temperature in summer during the daytime of 115°–120° is not uncommon in the coolest and shadiest spot obtainable. Owing to the exceeding dryness of the air, however, moisture from the body evaporates very rapidly, and even this extreme heat is not very hard to endure. A large supply of water is, however, for the white man an essential. Through the whole course of the desert, from Yuma to San Gorgonio, there rages much of the time a furious storm of wind and sand. Its effects are most curious. The mountains on the northern side of the pass are piled almost to their summits with drifted sand. Enormous dunes collect at this side of the valley and vast stretches Of the desert are left as smooth and clean of vegetation as a plowed and harrowed field. The wagons of parties crossing the desert along this one hundred and fifty mile sand-swept line are buried to their boxes every night by the drifted sand piles. The effects of this silica-laden wind are as terrific as a sand-blast. Telegraph poles are rapidly worn away and have to be frequently renewed. The windows of the section houses or pieces of broken bottles left on the sand are soon converted into ground glass.

Rain seldom falls on this desert in a natural manner. When it comes it is in terrific water-spouts or cloud-bursts that flood the country briefly like a lake and cut great gullies, twenty-five feet deep, in the sand. For miles the railroad track is little but a succession of culverts bridging these steep barrancas. . . .


As already suggested, to the unsophisticated it would seem that the dry and rocky slopes of the desert’s sides, with their curious and repellant plant forms, could yield nothing possible for food, but in reality the severe competition and struggle with aridity have operated to invest desert plants with remarkable nutritive elements. The very hoarding of strength and moisture that goes on in many plants is a promise of hidden nutrition. And, while many plants protect their growth against destruction by animals through the secretion of poisonous or noxious elements, the cunning of the savage woman has taught her how to remove these. Beside every Coahuilla home there stands ever ready the wide pá-cha-ka-vel, or leaching basket. The results prove far more than the expectation would warrant.

I cannot pretend to have exhausted the food supply of these Indians, but I have discovered not less than sixty distinct products for nutrition, and at least twenty-eight more utilized for narcotics, stimulants, or medicines, all derived from desert or semi-desert localities, in use among these Indians. To my regret I cannot in all cases announce the botanical name of the plant from which these are derived. A number of these plants, which were seen by me but once, were pointed out and the Indian name and uses described, on a trip through the desert to the Cabeson valley, with a single Indian, Celestin Torte, of Torres mountain, in the summer of 1897. Some, by their very nature, could not be carried along in the saddle, as we were; a few others, gathered and preserved, could not be identified, owing to damaged condition and absence of flower or fruit. This indeterminateness particularly applies to the numerous species of the cactus family, which grow forest-like over many of the rocky cañn sides of the descent to the desert.

The staples of the Coahuillas are fortunately all determined, some of them having a very wide use among the Indian tribes of the Southwest. It is with a description of some of these staples that we will begin.

On the desert the main reliance of the Coahuilla Indians is the algaroba or mesquite. This remarkable tree is well known to anyone who has traversed the sandy Southwest. Its range is wide, from the desert slopes of the California mountains, eastward in southern latitudes to Texas. Of the Colorado basin it is the characteristic tree. It grows to a height of from thirty to forty feet. Its wood is close-grained and hard; its leaves small but abundant, and its branches well armored with spines. On the Colorado river and its affluents and overflow streams, the New and Hardy rivers, it grows abundantly along every slough and about each lagoon. Looking down upon the Colorado desert from the heights below Jacumba pass, the desert appears banded with long stripes of splendid green. In the Cabeson valley, far above the level of the overflow, these trees grow in clumps or montes, striking their roots down through the sand to the subirrigation below. Frequently the wind has lodged the sand among these montes, until dunes fifteen to twenty feet high have been built up, covering acres in extent and burying all but the upper limbs of the trees—a curious phenomenon.

The fruit of the algaroba or honey mesquite (Prosopis juliflora) is a beautiful legumen, four to seven inches long, which hangs in splendid clusters. A good crop will bend each branch almost to the ground, and as the fruit falls, pile the ground beneath the tree with a thick carpet of straw-colored pods. These are pulpy, sweet, and nutritious, affording food to stock as well as to man.

Everywhere in the Colorado country, to the Mojave, Yuma, and Cocopah, as well as to the Coahuilla, they are the staple of life. The Coahuillas gather them in July and August in great quantities, drying them thoroughly and then packing them away in the basket granaries. The beans are never husked, but pod and all are pounded up into an imperfect meal in the wooden mortar. This meal is then placed in earthern dishes and thoroughly soaked. It is then ready to be eaten, and is called by the Coahuillas, pé-chi-ta, or méu-yi-kish, according as it is, or is not, sifted. A light fermentation, which shortly results, improves it. The mass itself, while requiring vigorous mastication, is sweet and wholesome. It is sometimes rolled into compact balls and carried for food on a journey.

According to Mr. Havard, this pulp contains "more than half its weight of assimilative principles, of which the most important is sugar, in the proportion of 25 to 30 per cent."

The "screwbean" or tornillo (Prosopis pubescens, Benth.) is less abundant than the algaroba. Its fruit is a cluster of little yellow spirals united at one point. It contains even more saccharine matter than the algaroba, and may be eaten with relish as plucked from the tree. A fermented beverage can be made from this meal and was once much drunk by the Indians of the Colorado river. Major Heinzleman described its use among the Yumas: "The pod mesquite begins to ripen in June, the screwbean a little later. Both contain a great deal of saccharine matter; the latter is so full it furnishes by boiling a palatable molasses, and from the former, by boiling and fermentation, a tolerably good drink may be made."

Along the overflowed banks of the New river, and elsewhere about the desert’s edge, where cloudbursts or freshets send their sudden streams of muddy water out over the sand, there grows up luxuriantly an enormous species of Chenopodium. In the New river country I have seen the growth higher than a man’s head as he sat on horseback. The stalks are sometimes six inches in diameter. The leaves are eaten readily by horses, and the plant is of much value to parties crossing the desert and to stockmen. Its local name is "careless weed." The seeds are eaten by the Indians and the leaves used for greens. Northward, in the Cabeson and Coyote, a smaller and probably distinct species, identified by Mr. Jepson as Chenopodium Fremoatii, flourishes after freshets. Its dry branches are covered with seeds which are gathered by the Indians in large quantities, and ground into flour which is baked into little cakes. The Coahuillas call the plant kit or ke-et. After a good harvest of this Chenopodium the edge of the Coyote cañon will be fringed with granaries holding stores of this food.

Another queer little plant that starts up after storm irrigation is the Salicornia subterminalia. Its structure is pulpy and almost leafless. I once found it growing abundantly about Indian Wells. The Coahuillas call this plant hó-at, and formerly used its seeds for food. These seeds were crushed finely into meal on a metate.

The most varied stores of food, however, do not come from the fluviatile plain of the Colorado, but from the forbidding mountains that rise high and abruptly on the westward. The character of these ranges has already been partially noted. Their sides are very steep. There are no ranges of foothills or graduated ascents. From the level of the sea at Palm Springs, San Jacinto rises almost sheer upward to a height of 11,000 feet. Only by certain cañons can these mountains be ascended, even by foot climbers. The Ta-quitch cañon that enters Palm Valley is said to be insurmountable. Partly because of this precipitancy and partly because grass and protective foliage are wholly absent, there is little opportunity for soil formation on the desert side. The fragments of rock and soil arc swept away and deposited in the great alluvial fans that clog for miles the foot of the cañons.

Nevertheless, the mountains support a bewildering variety of plant life. Nowhere could the relationship of plants to their surroundings be more copiously illustrated. While numbers are few and growth is sparse, the species are very numerous. Most of these plants grow in clumps or communities, and afford illustration of the coöperation and mutual support compelled by the desert. From the lower levels of the cañons, by which one begins an ascent, to the summits, where the character of living things suddenly changes, plants and shrubs are met everywhere, growing amid the broken rocks. Curious cacti cover a hillside with an armanent of spines, and small annuals dot the sandy levels along the bottoms of the gorges. So it is to these arid but fruitful slopes that the women of the desert plain and the mountain valley both go for food.

Most remarkable of all the plants that flourish in these wastes is the agave, perhaps the most unique and interesting plant of all America. It ranges Widely throughout southwestern United States and Mexico with a large number of species, perhaps one hundred in all; and outside of Mexico, where it furnishes "pulque" and "vino mescale," it is used for food by Apaches, the Pah Ute family, and desert tribes in general. By all these Indians it is prepared for food in much the same way. Several species have become familiar, as the "century plants" of California gardens, but they are not handsome plants except when in bloom, though they give themselves most beautifully to the wants of the Indian.

The life history of all these species is much the same. They come up in little round heads or cabbages. For years this head enlarges, throwing out fibrous leaves armed with a spine at the point. Even in the hot air of the desert it is twelve to fifteen years before the period of flowering is reached. Then from the center of the plant there starts up a stalk, growing with great rapidity. In the larger species this stalk may be twenty to thirty feet high and eighteen inches through at the base. From this stalk clusters of pale yellow blossoms, thousands in number, open in the hot, quivering sunshine. This supreme act ends the life of the plant.

Within the territory of the Coahuillas there is but a single species, the Agave deserti, Engelm., which grows abundantly along the eastern base of the coast ranges in San Diego county, and southward into Baja California. It was first discovered by Lieutenant W. H. Emory, of the Mexican Boundary Survey, in 1846. It is a small species with leaves densely clustered, thick and deeply concave, only six to twelve inches long. The scape or stalk is from ten to twelve feet high and slender. The flowers are a bright yellow. From April on, the cabbages and stalks are full Of sap and are then roasted. Parties go down from the mountain villages into Coyote cañon for the purpose. Great fire pits or ovens, called na-chish-em, are dug in the sands and lined with stones. Fire is kept up in the pit until the stones are thoroughly heated; the mescal heads are then placed in the hole and covered over with grass and earth and left to roast for a day or two. Mescal heads thus cooked consist of fibrous, molasses-colored layers, sweet and delicious to the taste and wonderfully nutritious. Pieces will keep for many years. The agave is called a-mul, the sections of the stalk, u-a-sil, which are also roasted and, though fibrous, are sweet and good, and the short leaves about the head, ya-mil. The yellow blossoms, amu-sal-em, are boiled and dried for preservation, and then boiled anew when ready to be eaten. The fibers from the leaves of the agave, amu-pa-la, are exceedingly important in manufactures and their uses have been noticed above.

The Yucca Mohavensis (Coahuilla hú-nu-vút) grows abundantly on various hillsides and sandy cañons of the southern exposure of the San Jacinto range, as well as near the summits of the cañons on the desert slopes. The species is quite different in appearance from the Yucca Whipplei, Torr., which grows so abundantly nearer the coast and in the vicinity of Pasadena, and is known as the "Spanish bayonet" or quijotes. In the Yucca Mohavensis the clusters of spines are very dense about its foot, and its short, thick stump or caudex rises to a height sometimes of six feet from the ground. Its flower stalk or scape is short and thick, but clustered with the delicate waxy flowers of the yucca kind. The fruit, nin-yil, appears as plump, sticky, green pods, three or five inches long with big, black seeds filling the center in four rows. These are picked when green and roasted among the coals. They have a sweet, not unpleasant taste, slightly suggestive of roasted green apples. When ripe, the pods are eaten uncooked and are sweet and pleasant, though slightly puckering to the taste.

The Yucca Whipplei grows but sparsely in the territory ranged by the Coahuillas. Its stalk, called pa-nu-ul, is cut before flowering when full of sap, and roasted in sections in a fire pit for one night. The dates or seed bags, wa-wal, are also eaten, as well as the flowers, which when in bloom are picked and cooked in water in an olla. Growing with a clump of agave and yuccas, on the north slope of Torres mountain, I had once pointed out to me a different variety of yucca, probably an unnamed species, which the Coahuillas call ku-ku-ul. It is small with slender spines. The head and stalk are roasted and eaten.

The variety of trees and shrubs of peculiarly desert characteristics, which grow over the desert side of the mountains from bases to summits and whose products are made by the Indian to yield food, follow next in our description.

The "ochotilla," or Fouquiera spinosa or splendens, has already been described. It is a splendid example of desert modification, but its anomalies make it difficult of classification. It grows in clumps on the rocky ridge slopes near the base of the San Jacinto mountains. The Coahuillas, who call it o-tos, eat its splendid crimson blossoms, which cluster at the extreme end of its long, drooping branches, as well as its small fruit, which consists of oblong capsules filled with minute seeds. These branches, loaded as they are with thorns, are ingeniously used by the Cocopah Indians far south in the Colorado desert of Baja California in making fences. Two or three of these branches tied above one another between posts make a barrier through Which the most persistent burro will not pass. In this way the Indians inclose many acres of soil, annually inundated by the overflow of Hardy’s Colorado river, and subsequently planted to maize, beans, and melons.

In the cañon bottoms as they open out into the desert, grows quite abundantly the "palo verde" (Parkinsonia Torreyana), which the Coahuillas call o-o-wit. Its bright green bark and abundant, though deciduous foliage, make it a handsome tree in the midst of its surroundings. Its fruit is a slender bean, two or three inches long, which the Coahuillas grind and cook into an atole.

The Zizyphus Parryi, Torr., is a very spiny and intricately-branched shrub, from five to fifteen feet high. It grows about the springs in the higher parts of the cañons, and bears a small yellowish red berry or fruit, which is dry and almost hard. The Coahuillas call this plant o-ot and use the fruit by pounding it into meal for stole.

Besides the legumens already described there is a third, whose pod furnishes food, though in somewhat sparse quantities. This is the Acacia Greggii, Gray. In the San Felipe valley, below Warner’s Ranch, there is a great deal of it, and a considerable harvest of pods can be gathered by the Indians of the valley. But it does not grow abundantly in the territory of the Coahuillas and is only occasionally used. It is called sí-ching-al.

Higher up on the mountains grow two species of wild plum or cherry. One, the Prunus ilicifolia, Walp., has an extensive range along the California coast and had a wide use among the California Indians. It is called by the Mexicans "yslay" and by the Coahuillas chá-mish. It grows abundantly in all the cañons of the San Jacinto mountains, its dark, handsome foliage crowding many a pass and hillside. Its fruit is of a reddish-yellow color, and resembles very small gage plums. The pulp is, however, very thin and puckery and the pit preposterously large. It is the kernel of the latter and not the pulp that is mostly utilized. These plums are gathered in very large quantities in August and are spread in the sun until the pulp is thoroughly shrunken and dried. The thin shells of the pits are then easily broken open and the kernels extracted. These are crushed in the mortar, leached in the sand basket, and boiled into the usual atole. The other plum tree has with some question been identified by Mr. Jepson as the Prunus Andersonii, Gray. I found it growing along the eastern summits of the San Jacinto range. Its fruit somewhat resembles the Zizyphus and was formerly eaten by the Coahuillas, who called it cha-wa-kal.

The Prunus demissa, a shrub with a wide green leaf, grows about the springs and moist cañons of Coahuilla valley. Its fruit is a small red berry called a-tut.

A small grayish-green shrub, doubtfully identified by Mr. Jepson as Halodiscus discolor, Maxim, is called by the Coahuillas tét-nut. I have never seen the fruit, but the Indians say that though small it is good food.

Before dismissing the truly desert plants that yield food, a word is merited by the palms. These have been referred to above. They grow in long, waving lines along the gorges leading into the desert wherever water stands in pools or seeps through the sandy bottoms. Beneath the wide fronds the dates grow in great clusters, supported by a strong but drooping stalk. These dates are very small and the seeds are disproportionately large, but early in the fall, when they ripen, the Coahuillas lasso the clusters and draw them down for food. Swarms of bees surround the fruit as it ripens, and in the fronds of the palms are multitudes of "yellow jackets’" nests. The Indians of Lower California cut out the heart or center of the top of young palms and eat them with great relish. I have not known the Coahuillas to indulge in these "palmitos."

In the valleys near the summit of the range and especially in the Piñon Flats are groves of the Juniperus occidentalis, Hook., low evergreen trees, with thin, shreddy bark. The fruit, a bluish-black drupe the size of a small marble, is eaten by the Coahuillas and called by them is-wut.

The acorn was one of the most generally used foods of the Indians of the Pacific coast. Its use was noticed by Cabrillo, the first white explorer to navigate these waters. "They eat acorns and a grain which is as large as maize and is white, of which they make dumplings. It is good food." Certain parts of the coast, the Upper San Joaquin valley and the mountains of the Coast Range are thickly covered with forests of this stately tree. There are no less than fourteen species of oaks in the whole of California and about eight are found in the southern part of the state. Their fruit contains "starch, fixed oil, citric acid, and sugar, as well as astringent and bitter principles." The largest and most palatable acorn is that of the white oak, or Mexican "roble" (Quercus lobata), "common throughout the state, on the plains and in the foothills, in the southern part of the state somewhat higher in the mountains." It was mostly from this tree that the Indians of the past supplied themselves.

All the "live oaks" also, among them the Quercus Englemanni, yield palatable acorns. There are several desert and shrub species, Q. undulata, Torr., Q. oblongifolia, and Q. Wislienzi, var. fructescens, the "desert oak" of the Southwest, from three to ten feet high. Q. agrifolia, Née, is the only one of the black oaks affording food to the Indians. It is the coast live-oak of California, the "encino" of the Mexicans. The oak is, however, somewhat rare within the habitat of the Coahuillas and the acorn is not to them of great economic importance. They do not put the same dependence upon it as did the Indians along the coast.

The Quercus dumosa, Nutt., which has a thick, large fruit, grows on the Coahuilla mountain and is gathered in considerable quantities by the Indians of Coahuilla valley.2 This acorn is called by them kwín-yil. It is ground in the mortar and leached in the sand basket. Dr. Havard reports that the sand mixed with the meal by washing has "a decided effect upon the teeth. My informant, a medical officer, tells me that he has seen an Indian forty-five years old with the crowns of his otherwise healthy teeth half gone, while in Indians Sixty years old it is not uncommon to see all the teeth worn down even with the gums." Although the sand basket as a means for preparing food is in constant use among the Coahuilla Indians, I have never myself noticed any such effects.

The piñon or pine nut is a very important article of food. The lower limit of the pineries, in southern California, is, of course, high, being almost everywhere about 5,000 feet, and it is only by reason of the fact that the Coahuillas have penetrated into the mountains from the desert that this source of food is available to them at all. The summits of Torres and Coahuilla mountains and the higher San Jacinto peaks are covered with pines of several species; the gigantic sugar pine of the Pacific slope (P. Lambertiana, Dougl.) with a cone a foot and a half in length, the Mexican nut pine (P. Sembroides), and (P. Parryana, Eng.), and also the single-leafed or Nevada nut pine (P. Monophylla), so precious to the Indians of the Great Basin. These nuts are gathered in large quantities, generally in the late fall of the year. Mr. B. H. Dutcher, of the Death Valley Expedition of 1891 has given a careful account of piñon gathering among the Panamints on the west side of Death Valley. The tree was the P. monophylla, which has a small cone three inches long. These were pulled and beaten from the trees with a pronged stick and collected in light packing baskets while still sticky with gum. They were then piled on a heap of brush and roasted, which dried the pitch and spread the leaves of the cone. The nuts were then jarred out by a heavy blow from a stone on the apex of the cone. The nuts were winnowed from the chaff by tossing them from a flat basket in the breeze. The Coahuillas harvest the nuts in precisely the same manner. Sometimes in mid-summer the cones are beaten from the trees, before the ripened harvest time, thoroughly roasted in a fire, split open with a hatchet and the nuts extracted. Piñones are called by the Coahuillas te-wat-em; the cones te-vat, and the little almond-like cavities in which the nuts lie and which are exposed in section when the cone is split open are called he-push or the "eyes" of the te-vat. The pine most used is the pinus monophylla.

The sambucus or elder is of well-known value to the Indians of North America and many are the purposes it serves. The Spaniards in this state fully appreciated it and gave it the name by which it is still well known, "sauco." The Sambucus Mexicana, Presl., is highly prized by the Coahuillas. By them it is called hun-kwat. Throughout the months of July and August the berries are gathered in large quantities. The little clusters are usually dried carefully on the drying floor and so preserved in considerable amounts. When wanted they are cooked into a rich sauce that needs no sweetening. They are delicious thus prepared. An Indian family during this season of the year will subsist largely on these messes of "sauco."

Several species of the manzanita, an exceedingly handsome tree or shrub with a rich red-colored bark and small ever-green leaves, grow on these mountains. It has a red fruit and is very common. The "great-berried manzanita" (Arcostaphylos glauca) is common throughout the coast. Manzanita is a Spanish word, the diminutive of "Manzana," meaning "little apple." The fruit is much enjoyed by the Coahuillas and is called ta-tu-ka. It is eaten raw and is also dried, pounded into a flour, and mixed with water.

The sumac (Rhus trilobata, Nutt.), the twigs of which are so important in basket making, bears a very small red berry, sel-it-toi, which is very sour but much used both fresh and dried. Soaked in water it makes a refreshing drink. The use of the thus was noticed by Dr. Edward Palmer.

Perhaps the most important of the seed foods used by the Indians is the justly famed "chia" (Salvia Columbariae Benth.), called by the Coahuillas pá-sal. The plant is one of the smallest of the sage family. It grows up from an annual root with a slender branching stem, terminated by several curious whorls containing the seeds. These are dark, round, flat bodies, that have a slippery, uncertain feeling to the touch. The genus Salvia has an exceedingly wide range and use as a food plant. According to Dr. Havard the Salvia polystarchia, Ort, is largely cultivated in northern and central Mexico. These seeds are rich in mucilage and oil. "After careful roasting they are ground into meal, which, when thrown into water, expands to several times its bulk, the mucilage rapidly dissolving. By adding lemon and sweetening a very popular Mexican beverage is produced."

Chia was a staple food with the Indians of the Pacific coast. Large quantities, already parched, have been taken from graves on the Santa Barbara channel. The seeds are gathered by the Coahuillas with the seed fan and fiat basket, and are parched and ground. The meal is then mixed with about three times as much wheat flour and the whole pounded up together. It makes a dark looking meal. This is "pinole," called by the Coahuillas to-at. It is an old and famous preparation. Molina gives the following definition of its constituents as made in Mexico: "Pinolli la harnia de mayz y chia antes que la deslian." A little sugar is usually mixed with it. In this shape it is a much prized article of food with all who have become acquainted with its nutritive and reviving qualities. Experienced prospectors and desert travelers carry a little bag of it with them, and when the warm, alkali water holes are reached, a few teaspoonfuls of the pinole in a quart cupful of the water seems to neutralize somewhat its dangerous qualities and make a refreshing drink more nourishing than gruel.

Pinole, by the Coahuillas, is sometimes baked into little cakes or biscuits. Either way chia is used, it is very good; has a pleasant, nutty flavor, and is exceedingly wholesome. Moreover, it grows in considerable quantity through the mountain ranges of the Coahuillas, and in the early summer ollas stored with these seeds stand in every home, and throughout the cooler hours of the day and evening there is ever a woman grinding at her mill.

Beside the salvia, several others plants yield seeds that attract the Indian woman and keep. her busy through the months of May and June with her yi-kow-a-pish and chi-pat-mal. Some of these seeds are very beautiful, and possess a real fascination for the eye and touch. The seeds of the Lasthenia glabrata (Lindb.), called by the Coahuillas ák-lo-kal, in mass resemble iron filings, being of a dark color and fine elongated shape. They are prepared by being pounded up into a very fine flour, which is eaten dry.

But the most beautiful little seed of all is that of the small crucifer called "pepper grass," Sisimbrium canescens, Coahuilla ás-il, a tiny reddish-brown seed, round, and fiat in shape. It is ground up, cooked in a large quantity of water, and eaten with a little salt.

The Atriplex lentiformus, Watson, one of the "salty sages," is found in the Coahuilla valley and on the slopes of the Sierras. Its seeds somewhat resemble the chia. They are prepared for food by grinding and cooking with salt and water. It is called ká-sil.

The dry flats and valleys of the Coahuilla mountains are frequently closely planted with wormwood, the Artemisia tridentata, Nutt. Its feathery foliage whitens the landscape, and for long distances its pungent odor dominates over every other fragrance. The seeds ripen late in the fall, and are gathered by the Coahuillas and pounded up for pinole. The plant and seed are named by the Coahuillas wík-wut. . . .

Among the fruits most important to the Indian inhabitants of the Southwest stand those of the cactus family. There are over fifty species in the United States and a majority of these are found in California.

The Mexican prickly pear or "tuna" (Opuntia tuna, Mill) is said by Dr. Havard to have been brought to the Pacific coast from Mexico, where it had been cultivated from time immemorial. It was planted in hedges about the missions and ranch-houses, where it thrives still in picturesque clusters and is now thoroughly naturalized. Its fruit is the well-known "Indian fig." While it has not been planted anywhere on the reservations of the Coahuillas, they sometimes obtain the fruit from other Indians of the valleys. The cactus plant is called by the Coahuillas na-vit and the little bud-like fruit na-vit-yu-tu-ku or "the little heads of the cactus."

There are numerous species of cactus throughout the mountains down to the desert level. About a dozen yield fruit products utilized by the Coahuillas. In most cases it is the ripened fruit or "fig" that is eaten. In several cases it is the abundant seeds, in others, the buds and succulent joints of stalk. Except in a few instances I can do no more in the way of identification of these species than to give a description of the plant and state its uses and Indian name.

The Opuntia basilaris is an especially valuable cactus plant of the Coahuillas. It is one of the small varieties and has a tender slate-colored stem in flat joints. The young fruit in early summer is full of sweetness. These buds are collected in baskets, being easily broken off with a stick. The short, sparse spines are wholly brushed off with a bunch of grass or a handful of brush twigs. The buds are then cooked or steamed with hot stones in a pit for twelve hours or more. This cactus is called má-nal. Mr. Coville describes exactly the same use of this plant by the Panamints. This cooked cactus is, he says, called nä-vo. I would call attention to the similarity of this word to the general Coahuilla word for cactus fruit, na-vit. No vocabulary of the Panamints has ever been published, but they are undoubtedly of the same great stock as the Coahuillas and such verbal similarities are to be expected.

Mu-tal is another of the opuntia, with flat, ugly jointed stems, growing low and spreading over the ground in the most arid stretches of the valleys. The flat joints, the size of one’s palm, are crowded along their edges with buds as big as the last joint of a man’s thumb. They are gathered in large quantities, brushed, and dried. They are often stored for subsequent use, and when needed for food are prepared by boiling in water with a little salt and lard. Very frequently also the fruit is allowed to ripen for its seeds. The figs, after being dried, are spread out on a hard, smooth, dirt floor and then the woman sits down beside the pile of cactus heads and with a flail, made from the leaf stem of the desert palm, thoroughly threshes out the seeds. These are then winnowed from the chaff and stored for winter use. Along through the winter, as needed for food, they are pounded into meal and cooked into an atole. These seeds are called wi-al and they are obtained from several species of cactus besides the mu-tal.

There are two cacti growing along the slopes of Tortes mountain that in growth and structure much resemble the Opuntia tuna. I have not seen them in bloom and know nothing of their flowers. Both yield luscious fruit in large quantities. Ti-nup-em might readily be mistaken for a neglected and stunted growth of the cultivated tuna. Na-u-tem is not so thrifty and grows low on the ground. Its flat stems have exceptionally long spines, two to three inches. The a-yu-vi-vi is a very small cactus, only about four inches high and covered with little hooked spines. It has a very small, sparse fruit.

The cho-kal is a very furry cactus, with round jointed stems two to three feet high. It is light brown in color and grows in communities, sometimes covering a rocky cañon side for a half mile to the exclusion of almost everything else. It throws off extremely disagreeable balls of spines which fasten in a horse’s fetlocks and give instant trouble. Its fruit, which I have never seen, is said to be very good.

U-a-chim is one of the cylindrical or barrel-shaped cacti, light colored and furry. It has an edible fruit.

Ko-pash is the famed "nigger head," the Echinocactus cylindricis. It appears above the sand simply as a round fluted globe, a little larger than a man’s head. It is covered with spines and bears a small edible fig. But its chief value does not lie in its fruit, but in its succulent and thirst-relieving interior. No plant could be more admirably contrived as a reservoir, and the thick tough rind and protective spines enclose an interior that is full of water. This plant is often resorted to by thirsty travelers and, according to the stories told over the desert, frequently saves life.

A review of the food supply of these Indians forces in upon us some general reflections or conclusions. First, it seems certain that the diet was a much more diversified one than fell to the lot of most North American Indians. Roaming from the desert, through the mountains to the coast plains, they drew upon three quite dissimilar botanical zones. There was no single staple, on the production of which depended the chances of sufficiency or want. Any one of several much used products might be gathered in sufficient quantities to carry the entire tribe through a year of subsistence. There was really an abundant supply of wild food, far more than adequate, at nearly all times of the year, for the needs of the several thousand Indian inhabitants of former times, although hardly a score of white families will find a living here after all the Indians are gone. And the secret of this anomaly lies in the fact that the Indian drew his stores of food from hillsides and cañons, where the white man looks for nothing and can produce nothing. The territory is a very large one, perhaps 4,000 square miles of cañons and mountains, rough plains, and sandy deserts. In all of it, as we have seen, there are few spots of beauty; only the valleys of pines, the wonderful cañons of palms, and the green potreros about the springs; while over most broods the hot, throbbing silence of the desert. And yet this habitat, dreary and forbidding as it appears to most, is after all a generous one. it bears some of the most remarkable food plants of any continent. Nature did not pour out her gifts lavishly here, but the patient toiler and wise seeker she rewarded well. The main staples of diet were, indeed, furnished in most lavish abundance. Let us notice a few instances. The crops of legumens, that annually fall from the splendid mesquite groves of the Cabeson or the New river country, could not be wholly utilized by a population that numbered a hundred thousand souls. I have seen the mesquite beans fallen so heavily beneath the trees in the vicinity of Martinez as to carpet the sand for miles. Centals could be gathered about every tree. Hundreds of horses and cattle that ranged the valley, to say nothing of the busy women that had crowded their granaries full, effected no visible diminution of the supply.

In the splendid moonlight, after the heat of the day, from all directions there would come the busy thud of pestle in wooden mortar, as the women worked leisurely at the mills, while jest and laughter broke the continuity of their toil. Every bush or tree was dropping fatness. The desert seemed the very land of plenty, where the manna fell at each man’s door.

Or, consider the agave. The various portions of a single plant might keep a family in food for a week. It is a splendid food, delicious, nourishing, and when roasted seemingly superior to deterioration. The lower levels of the cañons of the San Jacinto range or the sides of the Coyote valley could annually feed an army with agave. The "chamish" or "yslay" (Prunus Andersonii) in certain parts of the mountains grows very abundantly and yields splendidly. A single cañon often contains enough to supply an entire village with meal of pounded pits. Within the habitat of the Coahuillas scores of such cañons could be found.

The road from Coahuilla valley down to Ahuanga creek descends along the bottom of a gorge. The sides of this cañon are covered with Yucca Mohavensis. In July or early August these palm-like trees, for so they almost are, are all crowded with stalks hung with heavy pods, more fruit drying in the sun than the entire tribe could devour. The groves of oaks and pines in the higher valleys of San Jacinto; the abundant crops of chia and other seed plants; the elder berry, so greatly enjoyed, that frequently families will live for weeks on little else; all of these can be found in inexhaustible quantities. Another fact very favorable to the Indians is the long season over which the gathering of these staples is distributed. The harvest time opens in April, with the budding out of agave and yucca stalks, and from this time until late fall there is no month without its especial product. The chia and other seed plants are ready for the fan in May and June, the wild plums in June and July, the mesquite and sambucus in August, and the piñons and acorns from September on. For only about four months of winter was it necessary to hoard food. The ollas and basket granaries were sufficient store-houses.


2 In the mountains, west of the desert in which the majority of the Coahuillas live.—Ed.

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Chicago: The Ethno-Botany of the Coahuilla Indians of Southern California, in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024,

MLA: . The Ethno-Botany of the Coahuilla Indians of Southern California,, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: , The Ethno-Botany of the Coahuilla Indians of Southern California,. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from