Central California coast, south of Monterey Bay (Monterey County)
Language: Hokan family
1770 estimate: 500
1910 Census: 0
Very little is known for sure about the life of the Esselen people. By the early 1800's, there were no members of the group left. They were the first early Californians to vanish completely. What little is known was learned from Costanoan people who remembered bits about the Esselens. Since the Esselen lived in an area similar to that of the Costanoan, there were probably many things alike in the way they lived.
The territory of the Esselen included the upper part of the Carmel River, the Big Sur River, and the Little Sur River. They occupied a stretch of coast line about 25 miles long, from Point Sur to Point Lopez. The coast is rocky here, and the mountains rising up from near the coast are rugged. The Esselen were considered to be mountain people.
The explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno visited this coast in 1602 and reported seeing villages along the coast and inland. It is likely that the Esselen lived in small family groups in permanent villages, but went further into the mountains in the summer and fall to gather food. At least six groups of villages (or tribelets) have been identified.
One Esselen site that has been found is a rock shelter in the hills. The people who lived in this shelter left drawings on the rocks.
Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo was built in 1770 on a site called Eslenes by the Franciscan padres. This name probably referred to one village of the Esselen people. Later it was used for the entire group of people. The people were taken into the mission. Many died of diseases; within about fifty years, there were no Esselen people left.
The houses made by the Esselen were probably round, made on a framework of poles bent toward the middle and bound together at the top, leaving enough opening for a smoke hole. This frame was covered with bunches of grass or reeds bound together and tied on to the frame poles with vines. They may also have used some bark slabs to cover the sides of the houses.
The sweathouse in the Esselen village was a round hole dug in the ground, covered over with brush and dirt. A narrow low entrance, just big enough to crawl through, was left. The fire built in the sweathouse made the room smoky and hot, but no water was used to make steam.
Acorns were one of the main foods of the Esselen, as they were for most early California people. The acorns were gathered in the hills and valleys away from the coast in the fall, when they ripened and fell from the trees. The people tried to gather enough acorns to last an entire year, until the next autumn. The acorns were stored in acorn granaries, tall baskets attached to poles to keep them off the ground, and lined with grass to protect the acorns. When the acorns were to be used for food, they were broken open with a stone, dried in the sun, and then pounded or ground into a fine meal. Acorn mush was made by putting the meal with water in a basket and adding stones that had been heated in the fire. The mush had to be stirred to keep the stones from burning the basket, and so all the mush would cook. Acorn meal was also made into small cakes about three inches across, and baked in an earth oven between layers of damp grass.
Both hunting and fishing supplied food for the Esselen, but they liked the game from the inland areas better than the fish and ocean food. They fished only when game was not available. Animals eaten by the Esselen included not only deer, antelope, and rabbits, but also skunks and dogs, which many other groups did not eat. Rabbits were roasted on sticks over the open fire. Lizards were caught with snares woven of grasses, and roasted.
The earth oven was used to roast meat as well as to bake acorn cakes. The earth oven was a hole dug in the ground and lined with stones. A fire was built on the stones. When the stones were hot, the fire was removed and damp grass was placed over the hot stones. The food was put on the stones and covered with more damp grass. It was often left there overnight to cook slowly through.
Both the ocean and the rivers provided fish to add to the food sources for the Esselen. From the ocean shores they collected shellfish, especially abalone and mussels, and seaweed. They probably did not go out on the ocean to catch fish or sea mammals, but when a sea lion, an otter, or a whale came ashore in their territory, they took the meat.
Other plant foods that grew in Esselen territory included dandelions, seeds of various kinds, roots (particularly the camas root), many kinds of berries, and buckeye nuts.
It is likely that the Esselen wore no clothing when the weather was warm. Women may have worn an apron made of tule reeds, tied together with fiber cord and fastened to a waistband woven from tule reeds or other grasses. When the weather was colder, both men and women wore a cape or blanket over their shoulders. These blankets were made from deerskin or rabbit skins. Rabbitskin blankets were made by cutting the small skins into strips and sewing together many strips of skin.
There is no record that the Esselen wore any kind of moccasins. For decoration, they likely used shells and pieces of bone to make earrings and necklaces. They may have painted their bodies with dyes. They could make red, white, blue, and yellow paint from plants and minerals found in their area.
The Esselen did not use boats on the ocean or the rivers, but they may have made rafts from bundles of tule reeds, bound together. These rafts would have allowed them to reach off-shore rocks along the coast.
Tule reeds and roots were also the basis for the baskets that they made. They used baskets for many purposes: to carry things, to cook and serve food, and as baby cradles. Some of the baskets were woven so tightly that they could hold water.
To grind acorns and other nuts and seeds, the women put the nuts or seeds on a rock that had a bowl-shaped dip in it, and then pounded the nuts with another piece of rock, called a pestle. Stone was also shaped into knives and points for arrows and spears. Bows and arrows were used in hunting. The Esselen may have been able to get obsidian (volcanic glass) in trade from their neighbors to the north or east. This was used to make arrowheads.
Cord to fasten things together was made from fibers of the hemp plant, and from strips of deerhide. Deerhide was also used to make headbands.
The Esselen no doubt used the clamshell disk money like many of their neighbors. Pieces of clamshell were shaped into small beads, a hole punched in the middle, and the beads strung on a string. The Esselen also had strings of olivella (a small sea snail) shell beads. It is likely that the Esselen engaged in trade with the Costanoans, who may have served as middlemen in supplying the Esselen with items from the valley-dwelling Yokuts.
Little is known of Esselen ceremonies, though they surely had dances of celebration.