The History of the Native Peoples of the Americas/Californian Cultures/Chumash

The Chumash are Native American people who historically inhabit chiefly central and southern coastal regions of California, in portions of what is now San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties, extending from Morro Bay in the north to Malibu in the south. They also occupied three of the Channel Islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel; the smaller island of Anacapa was uninhabited. Modern place names with Chumash origins include Malibu and Simi Valley.

Chumash rock art


Before Spanish ContactEdit

Archaeological research demonstrates that the Chumash have deep roots in the Santa Barbara Channel area and lived along the southern California Coast for millennia. The Chumash people thrived at a very early period in California prehistory, with some settlements dating to at least 10,000 years before present. Sites of the Millingstone Horizon date from 7000 cal BC to 4500 cal BC; they evidence a subsistence system focused on the processing of seeds with metates and manos. During that time people used bipointed bone objects and line to catch fish and began making beads from shells of the marine olive snail.

Spanish ArrivalEdit

Chumash people first encountered Europeans in the autumn of 1542, when two sailing vessels under Juan Cabrillo arrived on the coast from Mexico. Cabrillo died and was buried on San Miguel Island, but his men brought back a diary that contained the names and population counts for many Chumash villages, such as Mikiw. Spain claimed what is now California from that time forward, but did not return to settle until 1769, when the first Spanish soldiers and missionaries arrived with the double-purpose of Christianizing the Native Americans and facilitating Spanish colonization. By the end of 1770 missions and military presidios had been founded at San Diego to the south of Chumash lands and Monterey, to their north.

The Chumash people moved from their villages to the Franciscan missions between 1772 and 1817. Mission San Luis Obispo, established in 1772, was the first mission in Chumash-speaking lands, as well as the northernmost of the five missions ever constructed in those lands. Next established, in 1782, was Mission San Buenaventura on the Pacific Coast near the mouth of the Santa Clara River. Mission Santa Barbara, also on the coast, and facing out to the Channel Islands, was established in 1786. Mission La Purisima Concepcion was founded along the inland route from Santa Barbara north to San Luis Obispo in 1789. The final Franciscan mission to be constructed in native Chumash territory was Santa Ynez, founded in 1804 on the Santa Ynez River with a seed population of Chumash people from Missions La Purisima and Santa Barbara. To the southeast, Mission San Fernando, founded in 1798 in the land of Takic Shoshonean speakers, also took in large numbers of Chumash speakers from the middle Santa Clara River valley. While most of the Chumash people joined one mission or another between 1772 and 1806, a significant portion of the native inhabitants of the Channel Islands did not move to the mainland missions until 1816.


The Chumash people depended on the ocean for their way of life. They caught crabs and dug clams for food. They also hunted otters for their skins which they traded to other tribes for other commodities.

Chumash villages were of different sizes, some having as many as a thousand people. The large villages would choose a chief. A group of smaller villages might choose one chief to serve them. The position of chief was often hereditary. If a chief had no sons, a daughter might serve as the next leader.

The Chumash had a valuable natural resource that other Californian cultures did not have. In some areas, tar seeped up from the ground. They used the tar to seal the insides of baskets to make them waterproof. They also used tar to seal the cracks between the boards of large wood canoes.

The Chumash were some of the best boat builders in California. Their canoes were called tomols. The canoes were built from redwood planks bound together with milkweed string. The seams between planks were sealed with tar. Each canoe had at least one double-bladed redwood paddle. The canoes were often decorated with colorful paintings that reflected tribal legends. They sometimes paddled to the California Channel Islands about 30 miles away from the coast to trade.