Before the arrival of the first Caucasian people less than 200 years ago, Shasta County was inhabited by five Native American tribes, each with their
own territory. Archaeological evidence now proves and confirms that these Native American tribes inhabited the Shasta County area for over 12,500 years! The five Native American tribes were the Wintu, the Yana, the Atsugewi, the Achomawi and the Okwanuchu. The major difference between these five tribes was their language. There were two different languages that the tribes spoke; the Wintu, Atsugewi and Achomawi spoke Penutian and the Yana and Okwanuchu spoke Hokan. Other than the language differences, the tribes were very alike in every other characteristic of their lives.
The Wintu lived along the upper Trinity River, along a part of the Sacramento and McCloud rivers. There were around nine groups of the Wintu. Each village had from four to 30 houses where 20 to 150 tribal members lived. A number of villages were in each of the groups. The members considered themselves part of their village, not a larger group. The leaders were expected to know how to guide the daily life of the villagers as well as be talented singers and dancers. They did not hunt, the people hunted for the leaders. The leader’s first born son inherits this position from his father. The name Wintu derives from Wintuh, which members called themselves and translates to “person”.
The Yana resided east of the Sacramento River in the foothills and valley that was the border of the Wintu territory. The large volcano, Mt. Lassen, was the main landmark of the Yana’s territory. The territory’s elevation range was between 300 and 10,000 feet. Like the Wintu, the name Yana simply means “people”. The Yana was not often kind to their neighbors, resulting in sour relations much of the time. The Yana consisted of many villages throughout the territory. Unlike the leader of the Wintu, the leader of the Yana did not have power to control people but could only make suggestions to the community.
The Atsugewi lived in the valleys along the creeks that flowed northward into the Pit River, specifically Hat Creek, Burney Creek and Horse Creek. The villages would have from three to 25 houses. The village leaders led their people in gathering and hunting food as well as settled villager’s quarrels. The Atsugewi were known as the Pit River Indians and divided into two groups. The Atsuge, or “pine tree people”, had territory north of Mt Lassen and had a lot of lava from the volcano. The Apwaruge, or “juniper tree people” resided on the pains easy of the Atsuge.
The Achomawi resided along the Pit River as well, and along some streams and rivers that ran into it. Much of the land they had away from the rivers was high elevation mountain country – forested with pine and fir. Other parts were covered in lava from Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen eruptions. The Achomawi had nine villages in their territory. Each village had their own leader, chosen by the people of the tribe. When addressing someone in the tribe, a member would always refer to them as their relationship ( such as mother, aunt, cousin), not their personal name. It was considered rude to call someone by their actual name. The name Achumawi means “river people” originated from the people’s name of the villages, located along the Fall River. The Achumawi were also known as Pit River Indians. The river received its name from the people’s practice of digging holes and pits multiple feet deep and covering them with brushwood in order to trap deer.
The Okwanuchu lived at the northern end of the Sacramento River and covered a heavily treed and mountainous area around 60 square miles starting at the north fork of Salt Creek and the upper Sacramento River, to the headwaters of the Sacramento River to the McCloud River from its junction with Squaw Creek Valley. Not much information is known about the Okwanuchu – even the origin of their name is unknown. Their population was estimated to be no more than 200 to 300 people in the late 19th century and by 1918 the Okwanuchu were thought to be extinct.