Course:FRST370/The Esselen Native Nation of Monterey County, California, USA and Their Ancestral Lands and History

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The Esselen Tribe is a group of Indigenous people native to the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains in today’s Monterey County, California. The Esselen Tribe acquired 1,200 acres of an undeveloped ranch with assistance from the Western River Conservancy and the California Natural Resources Agency. They have plans to conserve vital streams used by threatened fish species for spawning. The Esselen people’s recent history is comprised of ~250 years of colonization, disownment, and cultural genocide, perpetrated by multiple different parties. Tenure history and changes in land use and property rights serve to paint a picture of the federal and social neglect the Esselen people faced. After acquisition of property rights the Esselen people will face climate change based issues affecting landscape management, and associated flora and fauna.

Keywords: Esselen Tribe; Huelel; Santa Lucia Mountains; Tenure Arrangements; Community Forestry; Monterey County; Stakeholders; Conservation; Land Management; Steelhead; Threatened Species; Alder Ranch; Land Back


Today the Esselen Native people are a group who occupy 1,200 acres of undeveloped private property in Big Sur, known as the Adler Ranch. Alder Ranch was recently transferred to the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County in an act to preserve tribal heritage. [1] Esselen lived on this land for over 6000 years before being"discovered" by the Spanish over 200 years ago scattering the Esselen populations to live in the upper Carmel Valley, in the rugged and densely-forested Santa Lucia Mountains, now a part of the Los Padres National Forest. Much of Esselen territory is now included within the Ventana Wilderness area. [2]

The Santa Lucia Mountains are the traditional tribal lands of the Esselen people.

The landscapes they occupy in the Santa Lucia Mountains are extremely rugged, characterized by jagged peaks and steep canyons. The portion of the coast controlled by the Esselen generally lacks wave-cut terraces; it consists largely of high steep cliffs cut by small coastal creeks. Traveling north and south along the coast would have been extremely difficult. It is most likely that such journeys involved traveling inland to the crest of the coast ridge, and then following that ridge north or south. The rugged terrain in which they lived contributed to their way of life. Other than the restrictions that the terrain imposed on their settlement patterns and subsistence strategies, it would have also affected trade and communication with their neighbors, and influenced their lives in a multitude of more subtle ways. [2] The Esselen Tribe is a small group of Indigenous people [3] with a population of its communities estimated to around 1,285 individuals. [2] Constant threats to the Esselen peoples livelihoods confined small populations to safe neighborhoods and other types of hiding such as the mountains to avoid colonizers and other foreign parties. This long story of exploitation of native american labor, racialy motivated changes of the landscape and its use, and cultural genocide shaped the path of the Esselen peoples acknowledgment process. [4] The Esselen people practice traditional resource management techniques such as burning, irrigating, coppicing, pruning, sowing, tilling, transplanting, weeding, as well as hunting, fishing and foraging for their livelihood. [5]

Esselen Creation Story

The Esselen Creation story is a great indicator to how the Esselen people see the beginning of the world. The creation story is the story of how the tribe began. It starts off with an eagle, a humming-bird, and a Coyote standing on the top of Pico Blanco. [6]

Then When the water started to rise to their feet, the eagle, carrying the humming-bird and Coyote, flew to the Sierra de Gabilan. There they stood until the water went down. Then the eagle sent Coyote down the mountain to see if the world were dry. Coyote came back and said: “The whole world is dry.” The eagle said to him: “Go and look in the river. See what there is there.” Coyote came back and said: “There is a beautiful girl.”The eagle said: “She will be your wife in order that people may be raised  again.” He gave Coyote a digging implement of abalone shell and a digging stick. Coyote asked: “How will my children be raised’?” The eagle would not say. He wanted to see if Coyote was wise enough to know. Coyote asked him again how these new people were to be raised from the girl. Then he said: “Well, I will make them right here in the knee.”

The eagle said: “No, that is not good.” Then Coyote said: “Well then, here in the elbow.” “No, that is not good” “In the eyebrow.” “No, that is not good.” “In the back of the neck.” “No, that is not good either. None of these will be good.” Then the humming-bird cried: “Yes, my brother, they are not good. This place will be good, here in the belly. Then Coyote was angry. He wanted to kill him. The eagle raised his wings and the humming-bird flew in his armpit. Coyote looked for him in vain. Then the girl said: “What shall I do? How will I make my children?” The eagle said to Coyote: “Go and marry her. She will be your wife.” Then Coyote went off with this girl. He said to her: “Louse me.”

Then the girl found a woodtick on him. She was afraid and threw it away. Then Coyote seized her. He said: “Look for it, look for it! Take it! Eat it! Eat my louse!” Then the girl put it in her mouth. “’Swallow it, swallow it!” he said. Then she swallowed it and became pregnant. Then she was afraid. She ran away. She ran through thorns. Coyote ran after her. He called to her: “Do not run through that brush.” He made a good road for her. But she said: “I do not like this road.”

Then Coyote made a road with flowers on each side. Perhaps the girl would stop to take a flower. She said. “I am not used to going between flowers.” Then Coyote said: “There is no help for it. I cannot stop her.” So she ran to the ocean. Coyote was close to her. Just as he was going to take hold of her, she threw herself into the water and the waves came up between them as she turned to a sand flea (or shrimp: camaron). Coyote, diving after her, struck only the sand. He said: “I wanted to clasp my wife but took hold of the sand. My wife is gone.” [6]

Tenure arrangements

In 1769, early colonizers and the mission system, established in today's Monterey county, seized the land from native populations through repeated family separation and religious conversion. The missions continued this land grabbing up until ~1834 when the mission system was abandoned and the land was redistributed. [7] Despite the mission mandating that native lands would be returned to the Esselen people, the land was broken apart and sold off by prominent Monterey county Californio families. Mostly wealthy households bought up the new parcels, however in 1834, Governor José Figueroa declared that communal lands would be given to freed Native people and family heads would receive ~70-280 m² sized parcels of private land. A couple of select families received ~15 land grants from 1822-1844. [7] Some members of the Esselen tribe were picked up by the newly established ranchos as unpaid laborers, others had to assimilate in the growing town of Monterey. Unpaid native labor fueled the Monterey economy and made up a majority of the town’s labor class. In 1855, after many legal proceedings, Governor José Figueroa’s grant was ruled ingenuine by judge M. H. McAllister. [7] After Monterey was declared a part of the United States in 1846, the Esselen’s call for aboriginal title to the land was ignored by the U.S. Land Commissioners, which fully opened the land to private ownership. [4] In the following years relationships between Native people and settlers were tense and often turned violent. During the California gold rush many Indigenous individuals were targeted by acts of violence and persecuted legally. Laws allowing the disowning of Native people and limiting their civil rights, prevented any possibility to regain rights to their traditional and ancestral land. [4] This continued up until about 1906, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was tasked to identify native communities and purchase land for “homesites'' under the Congressional Appropriations Act. Although some land was made available to native people, many homeless native americans were left with no land. [4] Additionally to the federal neglect the people of the Esselen tribe also faced anthropological erasure. In 1925, California anthropologist Alfred Kroeber incorrectly classified the Esselen and Costanoan people as extinct. Kroeber came to this false conclusion after examining the family lineages and information he could gather on the spread of the Esselen language (Huelel). [8] Kroeber later retracted his conclusion in 1950, however being classified as extinct meant the Esselen could not claim their aboriginal title to the land. Only post 1980 did government agencies and companies start acknowledging the Esselen people. Federal acknowledgement process started in the 1990s. [4] The Esselen people have fought to prevent any development on their traditional lands up until 2020, when the Esselen people were awarded a land grant from the federal government with support of Western Rivers Conservancy.

As part of a $4.5 million land deal, the ancestral homeland of the Esselen Tribe has been returned to its people after being landless for a quarter of a millennium. [7] Private property purchased through a grant from the U.S. federal government. This Esselen territory is a Freehold tenure under which land is held (relatively) free of obligations to the State. This Private ownership of the Esselen land invelop most or all strands in the bundle of rights. Tom Little Bear Nason, Chairman of the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County told the Monterey County Weekly "We are back after a 250-year absence.. we are back home.. we plan on keeping this land forever." Working on behalf of the tribe, Portland-based environmental group Western Rivers Conservancy secured a $4.5 million grant from the California Natural Resources Agency to cover the land purchase.[1]

Administrative arrangements

Esselen Tribal Lands Conservation Project

Western Rivers Conservancy Project Brief ~

Little Sur River Alder Ranch conservation project area map; Map by Western Rivers Conservancy

In the world's southernmost redwoods on the waves of the Big Sur coastline, Western Rivers Conservancy (WRC) is working in organization with the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County to save a 1,199-section of undeveloped ranch land along the Little Sur River. This significant California stream flows 25 miles (~40 kilometers) from its headwaters in the Santa Lucia Mountains, inside the Ventana Wilderness, north of Andrew Molera State Park. [6]

The WRC launched the Little Sur River conservation project was launched in early 2016. [9] A contract was signed in mid-2019 by WRC to purchase the undeveloped ranch and in the Fall of 2019, the Esselen tribe and WRC received a grant to purchase the ranch. [9] The grant was from the California Natural Resource Agencies Culture, Community, and Natural Resources grant program. [9][6] The WRC successfully protected the 1,199 acres along the Little Sur River in July of 2020 and then transferred the land to the Esselen people. [9]

The Little Sur territory provides an excellent habitat to the imperiled wild life, including California spotted owl, endangered California condor and compromised California red-legged frog. The river is viewed as the Central Coast's most significant and unblemished generating stream for threatened south-focal coast steelhead, which once got back to this stretch of the California coast by the many thousands. Today, less than 100 fish revisit the Little Sur River every year, making the attempts to monitor the stream vital.

The focus is to make an undeveloped ranch at the edge of the Los Padres National Forest, 20 miles south of Monterey. By preserving the property, WRC will secure approximately a mile of the Little Sur River and stands of old-growth redwood trees. These endeavors will safeguard significant upland meadows, oak forests and chaparral and madrone woodland and help guarantee permanent habitat connectivity between the sea and the peak of the Santa Lucia Mountains, all in a territory of basic significance to coastal wildlife.

With financing from the California Natural Resources Agency, WRC will pass on the grounds to the Esselen Tribe, whose predecessors have lived for thousands of years. The lands are sacred to the Esselen Tribe and will be accessible to ancestral individuals for traditional ceremonies, local plant gatherings and reparations of tribal members. This will be a milestone preservation accomplishment on the Big Sur Coast for the Esselen People, the territory's fish and wildlife life, the redwoods and oaks, and the Little Sur River itself. [6]

Affected Stakeholders

An affected stakeholder is any person, group of people, or entities who live in the area and is affected by the activities happening in the area.

Affected Stakeholders Relevant Objectives Relative Power and Affected Level
Esselen Tribe Stewardship of ancestral and traditional lands High Importance and High Influence  

Affected Level 1

Native Nut Harvesters Reliance on natural resource for provisioning or financial services High Importance but Low Influence

Affected Level 1

Native Hunters and Fishers Reliance on natural resource for provisioning or financial services [5] High Importance but Low Influence

Affected Level 1

Native Forest Fire Managers Ensuring fire safety in forest management [10] High Importance but Low Influence

Affected Level 1

Interested Outside Stakeholders

An interested stakeholder is usually standing for any person, group of people, or entities that have shown an interest, or is known to have an interest in the activities of a forest area.

Interested stakeholders Relevant Objectives Relative Power and Affected Level
US Fish and Wildlife Species Conservation Medium level of importance, high level of influence

Affected Level 1-2

Western River Conservancy Choosing a Native Nation to assist them in regaining their land Medium importance and high influence

Affected Level 2

Hikers Hiking and backpacking on either the coast or mountains Low level of importance and low influence

Affected Level 2-3

US Forest Services Forest Management Medium level of importance and high level of influence

Affected Level 1

California Natural Resource Agency Providing the grant necessary to acquire property rights to land High level of importance and influence

Affected level 1


Climate Change

The Esselen will face critical issues in light of climate change. In Monterey county, the average annual maximum + minimum temperature and the number of days above the maximum temperature threshold are projected to increase over the next one hundred years. [11] Additionally, the future of fog, an essential water resource for streams and native plants,  is uncertain (Langridge, 2018). Currently, coastal fog contributes up to one third of all water needs for coastal ecosystems. [11] These fog events are crucial for preventing salmonidae from drying up in  late summer months. [11] If these fog events decrease, as projected by a dynamic mechanistic model, it would be detrimental to critically threatened South-central California coast Steelhead populations who return to spawn. [11][7] Climate projections project an increase in extreme dry events, like droughts, rising temperatures and a small increase in precipitation. [11] Based on these projections, the Esselen will be presented with water management challenges in the future. [11] Stream and river ecosystems are threatened by projected extreme weather and swings from drought to floods, compounded by fire and erosion burying habitats in sediments. Climate impacts threaten the survival of already endangered species like Steelhead and the biodiversity of sensitive insects. [11]

Santa Lucia Mountain meadow; photo by Doug Steakley, Western River Conservancy

Native Species Shift as a Result of Climate Change

Tree species native to the Monterey Bay area’s wetland areas, springs and valleys include Acer negundo ‘Californicum’ (Box elder), Acer macrophylla (Bigleaf maple), Aesculus californica (California buckeye), Alnus rhombifolia (White alder) , Platanus racemosa (California Sycamore), Populus balsamifera (Black cottonwood), Juglans californica var. hindsii (California walnut), Quercus lobata (Valley oak) and Salix spp. (Willow) [12] These species require ample amounts of water and are typically found close to streams or in water receiving valleys. Decreases in coastal fog will impact the water table and limit the available water needed for these species’ ecological needs. This might change stand composition and influence understory regeneration. [12]

As a result of increasing average annual temperatures, native species will shift depending on unique climatic adaptations. Plant species growing in mountain ranges will migrate upslope to follow warming temperatures and plants growing in the lowlands will migrate north over time. (Little 1979) Native Monterey tree species such as Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon), Prunus ilicifolia (Hollyleaf cherry), Quercus agrifolia (Coast live oak), Quercus kelloggii (California black oak), and Quercus douglasii (Blue oak) are found growing on rapid draining slopes in california foothills or crowing along coastal ridges. These species would increasingly move up slope to reach higher elevation or migrate north to cooler temperatures. [12]

Wildlife Conservation

The Esselen tribe worked with the Western Rivers Conservancy (WRC) in a partnership to conserve a 1,199 acre, undeveloped ranch located along the Little Sur River. [6]

The conservation area provides vital habitat for indigenous species at risk (Western Conservancy, 2020). Some of these species include the endangered California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), the threatened California red-legged frog (Rana draytonii), the California spotted owl (Strix occidentalis), as well as stands of endangered old growth coastal redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens). [13][9][14] The Little Sur River is one of the most vital spawning streams for South-Central California Steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) (Western Rivers Conservancy, 2020). The Esselen are committed to the preservation of important oak woodlands, upland grasslands, chaparral and madrone forest as well as ensuring habitat connectivity between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the ocean. [9]

The face of a steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss).

Low Number of Spawning Steelhead Return

The Little Sur River is considered one of the most vital spawning streams for the critically threatened south-central coast steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus). [7][4][15] Steelhead are projected to go extinct within the next 50 years. [7] Steelhead are a migratory species; they are born in freshwater, and then move out to the open ocean mature and then return to freshwater streams to breed [16].

The once returned to the Little Sur River from the open ocean by the tens of thousands but today, fewer than 100 return to spawn (WRC, 2020). Their habitat is vulnerable to human caused degradation. [16] These factors include human activities that affect the flow of streams, changes in water temperature, and increases in sedimentation, and percentage of vegetative cover along the stream. [17]

Conservation of the Little Sur River and preservation of steelhead spawning habitat are essential for their survival.


The assessment of governance and the relative power of each group of social actors, and how that power is being used:

  1. Esselen Social actors
    1. Tribal Chairman
    2. Tribal Council
    3. Youth Tribal chairman
  2. Wester Rivers Conservancy (WRC)
    1. Board of directors
      1. Chair
    2. California program director
    3. Director of Government Affairs and Special Projects
      1. The director of Government Affairs and Special projects  
  3. California Natural Resources Agency

The first social actor in our case study is the Tribe of the Esselen people. Composed of a Tribal Chairman, a Tribal Council, and a Youth Tribal Chairman, the Esselen Tribe now has full ownership of the land included in the grant giving them control over the management of the landscape and access rights. The Esselen people use traditional silvicultural and land management practices to ensure sustainable stewardship of the land and conserving the native flora and fauna. Additionally to managing the land, the Tribe conducts tour guides aimed to educate the public on the wildlife and plants and their tribes history. [6]

Another key social actor is the Western River Conservancy. [15] This NGO seeks to conserve riverlands, streams and bodies of water through land acquisition. Critical areas used as habitat by endangered species are purchased to function as a sanctuary. WRC uses funding from many different agencies to then transfer purchased lands to public and private stewards formanagement. Partnering with government agencies, private corporations, Native american tribes, and other landowners, WRC has a large network of social capital and connections. [15]

California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) is a branch of the California government that focuses on conserving, protecting, and restoring  natural areas. In this case study CNRA was instrumental in the acquisition of the land by providing the funding needed for WRC to purchase the land and provide it to the Esselen Tribe. [15]


Four Biological levels of Resource Management

Resource management was practiced on four different levels: the organism, the population, the community, and the landscape. [5] Resource management techniques at each of these scales were implemented to promote the persistence of individual plants, plant populations, plant associations, and habitat relationships. [5] Techniques commonly used by native nations in California included burning, irrigating, coppicing, pruning, tilling, transplanting, and weeding. [5] Each technique implemented was designed to mimic a disturbance. [5]


Burning is the active application of fire to vegetative areas under specified conditions for cultural purposes. [5] Fire was the most significant, efficient, effective and widely employed method of vegetation management. [5]

Frequency of Harvest

To prevent over harvesting, different plant species harvested by California tribes were gathered at different intervals to allow the plant populations to recover. [5] Some plant species, like deergrass, can be picked annually and others, like dogbane and milkweed stems, do better when picked. [5]

Intensity of Harvest

The harvesting of plants, fungi, algae should not exceed the biological capacity for plants to recover. [5] To ensure that harvests could occur the following year, when gathering large quantities of rhizomes for basket weaving, about half of the rhizomes are to be left behind to reproduce. [5] Cultural rules prohibit gatherers from collecting plant parts of a certain size. [5] For example, if a gatherer comes across a large bulb that is too big, a “mother bulb”, or a bulb that is too small, “a baby bulb”, the gather refrain from collecting these bulbs to ensure future abundance. [5]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Chamings, A. (2020, Jul 28). After 250 years, big sur land finally returned to native american tribe. TCA Regional News
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Breschini, G. S., & Haversat, T. (2001). An Overview of the Esselen Indians of Monterey County.
  3. Shaul, D. L. (1995). The Huelel (Esselen) Language. International Journal of American Linguistics, 61(2), 191-239. doi:10.1086/466251
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Laverty, P. (2003). The Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation of Monterey, California: Dispossession, Federal Neglect, and the Bitter Irony of the Federal Acknowledgment Process. Wicazo Sa Review, 18(2), 41-77. doi:10.1353/wic.2003.0015
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 Anderson, M. K. (2005) Tending the wild: native american knowledge and the management of california’s natural resources. University of California Press, pp. 125- 306.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 Nason, T. L. (2018). Esselen Tribe of Monterey County: About us.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 California Trout. (2019). South-central coast steelhead: Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus. California Trout.,making%20fresh%20water%20migrations%20impossibl
  8. Laverty, Philip Blair. (2010). Recognizing Indians: Place, Identity, History, and the Federal Acknowledgement of the Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 Western Rivers Conservancy. (2020). Little Sur River: Conserving the redwoods of the Big Sur coast Project Brief. Western Rivers Conservancy.
  10. Marks-Block, Tony; Lake, Frank; Curran, Lisa (2019). "Effects of understory fire management treatments on California Hazelnut, an ecocultural resource of the Karuk and Yurok Indians in the Pacific Northwest". Forest Ecology and Management. 450 – via Elsevier Science Direct.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 11.6 Langridge, Ruth. (2018). Central Coast Summary Report: California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment. University of California, Santa Cruz. Publication number: SUM-CCCA4-2018-006.8
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Little, E. L. (1979). The Audobon Society field guide to North American trees, western region. New York, NY: Knopf.
  13. Farjon, A. & Schmid, R. (2013). Sequoia sempervirens. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2013: e.T34051A2841558.
  14. Western Rivers Conservancy. (2020, January 2). In Big Sur, a Big Step for Steelhead, Redwoods and the Little Sur River. Western Rivers Conservancy.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Western Rivers Conservancy. (2020, January 2). In Big Sur, a Big Step for Steelhead, Redwoods and the Little Sur River. Western Rivers Conservancy.
  16. 16.0 16.1 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (n.d.). Fish and aquatic conservation: steelhead trout Onchorhynchus mykiss. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
  17. British Columbia Ministry of Fisheries, & Habitat Conservation Trust Fund.  (n.d.).  BC fish facts: steelhead trout Oncorhynchus mykiss [Fact Sheet]. British Columbia Ministry of Fisheries, & Habitat Conservation Trust Fund.

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
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