FOCC Booklet
Water trickling down the rocks

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A Cultural and Natural History Of Cordilleras Creek Watershed
by Anouk Mackenzie

A Creek Called Cordilleras

To walk through the wooded canyon of Pulgas Ridge Open Space Preserve, west of San Carlos, CA, is to take a step back in time. Here, where the headwaters of Cordilleras Creek originate, a viewer can enjoy scenic ridge-top views as the early tribal people did. Following the creek through the chaparral and into the shadowy realms of the oak woodland, the only sounds are from the rivulets of water trickling over moss-covered rocks. With the song of birds overhead, wildflowers include crimson-petaled Indian-warrior, clarkias and Hound’s tongue, whose dainty flowers resemble lilac stars. Above them oaks include coast, live and ‘lobata’ species standing tall, while a madrone with smooth, chestnut-brown bark curves over as shepherd’s crook.

Bay laurels and toyons have their place also. Winding their way among the shrubs are the trailing honeysuckle and marah vines. Underfoot are trillium, Douglas iris, triteleia and others which are first to greet the Spring. You’ll find many bird species here: robins, jays, cedar wax wings, woodpeckers and nuthatches. The thrushes, quails and tohees scratch in the brush, while the screechy sounds of sharp-shinned and red tailed hawks punctuate the peace.

At the nearby Edgewood County Park and Nature Preserve, other headwater tributaries trickle through the watershed protecting rare and endangered species such as San Mateo thorn mint with its delicate pinkish-white blooms. Both preserves support a web of life: moles, brush rabbits, raccoons, salamanders, chorus frogs, lizards, ring neck and rattle snakes are seen in these parts as are bobcats, mule deer and coyotes. Although the grizzly bears are long gone, mountain lions are seen on occasion.

As British navigator Captain George Vancouver traveled through the oak plain of San Carlos in 1792, crossing Cordilleras Creek just east of Stanford Lane in Redwood City, he wrote this of the beauty of the pastoral landscape: “For about twenty miles it could only be compared to a park, which had originally been planted with the true old English oak.”

The Earliest Creek Stewards

As you explore the headwaters, imagine the earliest inhabitants making their way along the leafy banks. These were the Lamchin tribe, indigenous people who lived in villages along all of the bayside creeks. Creeks were the life line, a living entity that offered fresh water to drink and bathe in. These waterways supported a variety of fish and plants that were used for food, tools and to cure various illnesses.

The Lamchin were part of the Ohlone, the collective name given to those who inhabited the Peninsula from before the 4000bce. They hunted grizzly bear, elk, deer and harvested the bay’s abundant fish and marine life, catching salmon, trout, sea otters, sea lions, sturgeon, abalone, clams, shrimps and oysters using harpoons, nets or traps. The marshes and tidal wetlands also provided ample opportunity for hunting ducks and geese. Migrating birds, such as swallows, still use this area for raising their young, building nests from the mud of the creek banks.

Seaweed was made into cakes dried in the sun and as salt. Mounds of shells called middens can still be seen around the bay. Willows were used for basket weaving and arrow shafts. The wild cucumber vine provided twine. Various artifacts demonstrating the skills and resourcefulness of these people have been preserved such as bone awls to pierce holes in leather, mortar and pestles and grinding wheels. The Lamchin women would gather, grind and leach acorns in hand-woven baskets in the running water of the creek. Mush and a soup called atole were made from the acorns. During the dry season, the people would set fire to the vegetation to keep the brown brush from dominating the grasslands. Fires stimulated growth of acorns and pine nuts ensuring plentiful grazing for the animals and ample harvests as well. Well-fed animals meant good hunting.

Ohlone tools discovered include an arrowhead found on Bayport Avenue. Local rock was fashioned into arrowheads for the spears made of straight willow branches. We know from Miguel Costanso’s journal of Portola’s expedition to the area in 1769 that deer were plentiful everywhere and one can imagine the Lamchin stalking prey with spears poised, as the deer grazed on the slender native bunch grasses, some called melica and nasella.

The coming of the Europeans

The English captain, Francis Drake sailed along the San Mateo coast and perhaps into the bay in the mid 1500’s during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Over 200 years later the Spaniards trekked northward along the California coast reaching present day San Carlos, Redwood City and Belmont. When they came to the San Mateo Plain they found not just a landscape full of enchantment and promise, but one rich in natural resources. Before them lay fertile valleys patterned with the vibrant blooms of wildflowers and thriving creeks that flowed through arroyos into the bay at intervals of about a mile apart.

The mission era lasted about 60 years, (1760-1820), until Mexico rebelled against Spain. The missionaries used the plains for cattle and farming for the missions. The Lamchin were exposed to new ways and succumbed to the diseases brought in. Their way of life was gradually eroded, lost to overwhelming cultural dominance. Within a few years the fate of the Ohlone was sealed, their way of life lost forever.

Huge ranchos on the peninsula like Los Cochanitos later called Pulgas Rancho encompassed the area from San Mateo Creek to San Francisquito Creek. Don Jose Arguello was awarded this area of rolling hills and arroyos by King Carlos lll. Arguello had been a commander on the Franciscan expeditions and was well rewarded. The land stayed in the family as son Luis Arguello married Soledad Maria Ortega.

Their simple adobe in San Carlos was seldom used as they stayed at the Presidio in San Francisco. To the north and south, vast flocks of sheep grazed the land. There were also hundreds of horses, many goats and swine. Intensive grazing was a first wave in a series of impacts that would change the landscape.



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Copyright © 2005
Last modified: February 13, 2005