Home » A short history of Southside Park’s original inhabitants

A short history of Southside Park’s original inhabitants

Prior to arrival of Europeans in the 1700’s, California’s Central Valley, including what is now Sacramento’s Central City, was one of the most densely populated areas of the continent. The Nisenan people lived from just south of present-day Sacramento to north of where the Sacramento Airport is now, around what is now called the Bear River.

For thousands of years (2500? 4000? more? –estimates vary), the Nisenan and others thrived, enjoying an abundant natural food supply of acorns, game, fish, and much more. There were towns and villages throughout the area, usually on high ground near water. Towns typically had hundreds of inhabitants; a large town such as Sama (not far from present-day Southside Park) may have been home to over 1000 people.

In 1808, a party from Mission San Jose made an exploratory trip here, becoming the first non-Natives to come through Nisenan territory. The Nisenan, however, did not enter the mission system then or ever. Over the next few decades, numerous trappers frequented the area, and in 1839 John Sutter established the area’s first permanent non-Native settlement, the precursor to the city of Sacramento. Then of course the Gold Rush suddenly brought thousands of new people here. The Nisenan both resisted and tried to adapt to these various non-Native incursions into their land. But throughout the 1800’s, their population and that of neighboring Native groups declined dramatically due to foreign diseases (including, but not limited to, the 1833 malaria epidemic that claimed the lives of approximately ¾ (!) of all Native people in the Valley), and due to conflict with the new arrivals.

During the 1840’s, Sutter used Sama as a “fishing station”. But like most villages in the area, Sama was apparently gone by the time of the Gold Rush. One of the larger Nisenan towns, Kadema, on the American River not far from present day Watt Avenue, lasted until the 1930’s.

Originally 300,000 or more Native people lived within the boundaries of California. By 1900, there were perhaps 25,000. Since then Native population in the state has steadily increased. There are now more Native people in California than ever before. A number of Valley Nisenan people now live around Shingle Springs, in the foothills between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe.

It strikes me that Native society, which may have had its drawbacks, did thrive here for several thousand years without destroying the environment. Contrast that with modern industrial society, which in spite of all its attractions, has in a century and a half caused massive changes that put our very survival in question. Perhaps we have something to learn from the Nisenan? I hope knowing something about these people, their culture, and their history, can help us prepare for and shape the future.


Cook, Sherburne F. "The Population of the California Indians 1769-1970", an academic look at the subject (available at Sacrmento Public Library)

Burrill, Richard. "River of Sorrows", historical novel that paints a detailed picture of Valley Nisenan society (available at the Maidu Interpretive Center in Roseville)

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