Buried in Shells

Corrina Gould and Michelle LaPena

To be wealthy was not to have, to be wealthy was to give.

— Malcolm Margolin, The Ohlone Way

The Native people of the East Bay Area are mostly overlooked by its modern dwellers. When people speak of Oakland as a place, most people likely think of a dense urban area — perhaps they think of the Oakland Raiders, with the team colors of silver and black. The Raider Nation. But do they consider the tribal nations that lived in Oakland before it was Oakland? Probably not.

“Imagine if you woke up every morning with the feeling ‘I am home.’ Imagine after breakfast walking over to a place — a known location a few miles from your home — where your ancestors lived for 5,000 years. Well, I am home,” Corrina, a Chochenyo (Ohlone) leader, recently wrote.1 Imagine living in your tribal homeland, except that today it is mostly covered with development and pavement and is inhabited by people from every corner of the world.

What would it feel like to be one of the few remaining descendants of the indigenous apocalypse survivors in the place that is now called Oakland? As Malcolm Margolin states in The Ohlone Way:

Like Costanoan, Ohlone is still a fabrication. There was no Costanoan or Ohlone tribe in the sense that there was a Sioux, Navajo, or Hopi tribe. One small Bay Area tribelet would have been loosely affiliated with its neighbors by bonds of trade and marriage, but there was never anything approaching a larger tribal organization. The Calendruc tribelet who lived near present-day Watsonville, for example, did not feel that they were in any way allied to the Huchiun, who lived near present-day Oakland — and indeed the two groups probably knew of each other’s existence only second hand, if at all. … They were only forty or so independent tribelets, each with its own territory and its own way of doing things, each working through its own destiny. In short Ohlone was not an ancient entity; it is merely a fiction that we have invented to deal with a human situation far more complex and far richer than anything our own politically and culturally simplified world has prepared us for.2

That the “Ohlone” people continue to live in their homelands is nothing short of a miracle, but survival came at great cost. When the Spanish missionaries first saw the lands of xučyun (West Oakland/downtown), halkin (east and south, including the southern hills of Oakland), and saklan (far northern Oakland Hills), they saw an abundant land that supported many tribelets. They also saw the Ohlone as Natives who could be subjugated for slave labor and who were potential neophytes. But back then, and thereafter, it was the shellmounds that captured the interest of all who saw them.

Site of the Emeryville Shellmound, now a California Historical Landmark

Pictured above, the site of the Emeryville Shellmound, now a California Historical Landmark, was partly destroyed in the 1800s to make way for an amusement park, dance pavillion, and racetrack. Image credit: evilleeye.com

A shellmound is a complex, cone-shaped structure built by Ohlone people over thousands of years, until the Spanish missionaries arrived and began to colonize the Native lands. The Ohlone built the shellmounds out of the remains of the dead, which included the remains of Ohlone as well as the remains of all other creatures and plants that they consumed. That the Ohlone buried their dead in mounds with the remains of abalones, clams, mussels, oysters, and cockles, as well as the bones of other mammals, has always confused non-Indians. A news account written in 1942 in the Berkeley Daily Gazette provides the most common interpretation of a shellmound by non-Indians: “As you undoubtedly know, a shellmound was the combination burial ground and garbage dump of California’s first settlers. Mounds grew as departed Indians were buried there in shells.”3

The difficulty non-Indians have in understanding the Ohlone perspective comes from the separation by non-Indians of humans from the rest of the environment. The Ohlone consider the remains of all who lived before to be sacred; whether it is a human or a clam, it is valuable, even sacred. The shells of clams, abalones, oysters, mussels, and cockles are so valuable to the Ohlone — in fact, to all California Indians — that they are still considered precious and valuable. The shells are still sanded, drilled, and lovingly crafted into fine jewelry today, as a reflection of the great value of these important sea creatures. To be buried in shells, even today, would be an incredible honor.

Linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests that the Ohlone have lived in and around Oakland for many thousands of years. There is no doubt that during the extensive time of habitation they “achieved something rare in human history: a way of life that gave them relative peace and stability, not just for a generation or two, not just for a century, but for thousands of years.”4 It is believed, based on maps from Spanish missionaries and others, that there were at least 425 shellmounds around the shores of San Francisco Bay, and many hundreds more across the central California coast. The Emeryville shellmound, which is located between Oakland and Berkeley, was one of the larger shellmounds in the East Bay Area, estimated to be a 60-foot-high mound with a diameter of about 350 feet. The Ohlone built their village on the mound and buried their dead in its center over several thousand years. Imagine a burial mound that included the remains of all of the people who lived and died there over centuries. Imagine living there in your home on high ground overlooking the bay and being able to see the other villages across the lands, living on their own shellmounds. Imagine being home. If you can imagine that it is home, then you can understand that the sacred remains of living things, now deceased, cannot be called “garbage.”

In addition to a large central cone, a mound had several smaller cones. We do not know why there were different-sized cones; perhaps there were some people who needed to be buried apart from the rest for some reason that we may not ever know. Perhaps if given enough time, those smaller mounds would have grown to the size of the Emeryville shellmound, because over time the mounds grew larger and taller from the accumulation of shells, animal and human remains, ceremonial objects, sediment, ash, and rock, along with the remains of everyday items. The mound was a sacred tomb of all that had come before.

The repeated construction and use of the mounds allowed for the living Ohlone to be surrounded by their ancestors. The living and the dead, the human and nonhuman, all coexisted on, in, and around the shellmounds. In this way, the shellmound could be considered a temple, a holy place, because the continuous link of life over time was holy. It may have seemed that it would have no end, that it was an endless cycle of birth, infancy, childhood, adulthood, and death. The shellmound held the stories of all of them. And we can assume that someone in each village knew those stories, and they were passed down over generations, teaching the genealogy and territory of all who came before.

The village on top of each mound could be seen from across the region and held significance for those who witnessed it from afar. While each shellmound told the story of that particular place, taken together, they told the history of all that had happened before. They were a physical map of the past. Significance cannot be overstated for Ohlone descendants, even through damage or alteration. If a particular mound was disturbed by a flood or storm, that would not detract from the story but rather add to it.

Indian People Organizing for Change (IPOC) gather at the Emeryville Shellmound for a prayer

Indian People Organizing for Change (IPOC), a community-based organization in the San Francisco Bay Area, gather at the Emeryville Shellmound for a prayer. IPOC members include Ohlone tribal members and conservation activists working together in order to accomplish social and environmental justice within the Bay Area Indian community. Image courtesy of Indian People Organizing for Change.

It is important to note that the Spanish missionaries who came to the area before the white settlers during the gold rush were more interested in the souls of the Natives than creating playgrounds for the rich. We know from mission records that the first contact between Ohlone groups and the Spanish probably took place in 1602 when Sebastián de Vizcaíno’s expedition arrived in the Monterey area, searching for a safe harbor for Spanish ships. But it was not until 1769, when Gaspar de Portolá’s expedition arrived in the Monterey area, that a presidio was established and the Ohlone were continuously in contact with the Spanish. The mission system sought to convert Ohlone lifeways before there was any real attempt to understand them. During the one-hundred-year time span between Portolá and the destruction of the Emeryville shellmound, traditional Ohlone life was destroyed. Somehow Ohlone people survived, along with the Emeryville shellmound site and the stories contained within.

The Emeryville shellmound was a complex of conical mounds, with the largest at the center. But its unique character and its sacred nature, obvious due to the fact that it was a burial mound, did not prevent settlers from turning it into an amusement park. Shellmound Park operated on the site from the 1870s through 1924. A dance pavilion was built on top of the shellmound to provide “a fantastic view of the bay for the partygoers,” as marketing materials explained. Around the mound, the park developed a racetrack, another dance hall, a carousel, a bowling alley, and a shooting range where national competitions were held. Shellmound Park was a popular attraction for people coming to the Bay Area. However, with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment, prohibition laws led to a decline in the number of visitors, and the park was eventually sold.

The use of a sacred place to hold boozy parties was common in early California history. Several hundred miles inland from the Bay Area, in Calaveras County, is a place now called Calaveras Big Trees State Park. The “Discovery Tree” was first seen by a non-Indian, Augustus T. Dowd, in 1852. It was thirty feet in diameter at its base and was determined by ring count to be 1,244 years old. Seemingly with little thought, it was quickly cut down to advertise the giant sequoia grove as a new tourist attraction. The Discovery Tree was soon turned into a dance floor and renamed the “Big Stump.” This pattern was repeated across California’s Indian Country through the early 1900s, and so the treatment of the Emeryville shellmounds by white settlers is disturbing but not surprising.

By 1902, the University of California, Berkeley, had established its new Department of Anthropology, which was the first department of anthropology in the western United States. The department’s first focus was the excavation of Bay Area shellmounds. The sacred nature of the shellmounds is painfully obvious to an observant and thoughtful person, but to archaeologists at UC Berkeley, it was like having King Tut’s tomb just a quick trip away.

The Emeryville shellmound was identified as an “archaeological deposit” that represented the lifeways of the Ohlone people. Although there were still Ohlone people living in the Oakland area who could help the anthropologists gain insight into the Ohlone ways, UC Berkeley archaeologists decided instead to excavate the mound. The Emeryville shellmound, like many others in the area, including the West Berkeley shellmound, became the source of new wealth for UC Berkeley. Excavations by archaeologists in 1924 reported over seven hundred burials, which were excitedly removed from the site to the university for “study.” Most of these Ohlone remains have been housed at UC Berkeley and have not been repatriated for reburial.

The timing of the first archaeological dig while Shellmound Park was still in operation must have helped promote both the tourist attraction and UC Berkeley’s new anthropology department. It drew interest from wealthy families who had acquired fortunes during the gold rush. In 1902, the department was funded by Phoebe Apperson Hearst, and the treasures that it dug from the ground became the property of the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, including the great wealth that was removed from the Bay Area shellmounds. Perhaps it was subconscious, but there is irony in the fact that the Phoebe Hearst Museum classified Bay Area shellmounds as “midden” sites, applying an imported idea of “trash” to Indian burial sites, while at the same time quickly digging and removing all of the valuable items buried in them.

The pillaging of over four hundred Bay Area shellmounds by amateur and professional archaeologists in training did not take long. The first excavation of the Emeryville shellmound was conducted by Nels C. Nelson, A. V. Wepfer, and Pliny E. Goddard from May 28 to June 20, 1902, under the supervision of Samuel A. Barrett and John C. Merriam. Nelson was a graduate student of the fledgling anthropology program, then led by Frederic Ward Putnam and funded by Phoebe Hearst. At the time, Wepfer, Goddard, and Barrett were also graduate students at Berkeley, while Merriam served as an assistant professor of paleontology as well as a member of the advisory committee that guided the young Department of Anthropology. There is no doubt that the esteemed careers of these men were derived from the wealth of the Ohlone people. They, and many others, were handsomely rewarded as professional grave diggers.

Shellmounds in San Francisco Bay Area, 1909

Shellmounds in San Francisco Bay Area, 1909. During the first years of the twentieth century, University of California archaeologist N. C. Nelson mapped shellmounds still present around the shores of San Francisco Bay. Nelson published his map in 1909, showing over four hundred shellmounds ranging in size from a few meters in diameter to tens of meters in diameter. Image credit: Matthew Booker and Allen Roberts / Spatial History Lab, Stanford University; courtesy of Indian People Organizing for Change.

The focus here is on the Emeryville shellmound, but it is just one example. The UC Berkeley Museum of Anthropology holds “collections” from many, including Sausalito, Greenbrae, San Rafael, Carquinez, Ellis Landing, West Berkeley, Emeryville, Castro, San Mateo, San Mateo Point, San Francisco, and Half Moon Bay. It is also important to note that the larger UC system holds “collections” from shellmounds from Humboldt County to San Diego. To be buried in shells is an honor that was shared by Indians across the state.

Although the shellmounds extended well below the surface of the land around the conical structures, most excavations did not dig deeper. It was easier to merely cut into the side of a well-built mound to expose its inner life. It is possible that many East Bay area shellmounds still partially exist under pavement, between pilings of high rises, and beneath Oakland residential homes. One way of “preserving” a burial ground or other tribal cultural site is to “cap” it. Capping is a fancy way of saying that it is covered with a layer of soil and sometimes cement. There are places in Oakland today where people walk over the bodies of the dead. We drive over them and between them. Train tracks may separate a family so that some members are on one side and some on the other, or even dissect a grave, leaving only part of the human bones intact, while the rest have been carted away to a spoils pile. At least one gas station in the Bay Area was built on top of a burial ground, and when the underground tanks needed to be replaced, it was discovered that a dense portion of the burial ground had been scooped out and hauled away to some unknown location. Some skeletons were hastily cut in half in the process, separating a head from a body, or legs from a torso forever.

But some Ohlone ancestors faced other experiences, such as contamination by industrial waste dumping, as occurred in Emeryville. The story did not end with the cutting and removal of human bones and the village’s sacred remains. The land was sold by the owners of Shellmound Park, and it became an industrial site that included a steel mill, a paint factory, a cannery, and an insecticide plant over the next seventy years. It was contaminated with industrial waste that capped the site.

In the 1990s, Bay Area developers decided that although the shellmound site was well documented and historic, it would be the perfect site for a new mall. A new generation of archaeologists, including Allen Pastron, found the site to be still highly significant and recommended that the entire site be fully excavated prior to development. Ohlone descendants and their allies demanded that the site finally be protected and the site avoided. But the city of Emeryville was swayed by proposed developers to move forward with the retail project. Despite the warnings, construction began, and burials were discovered amid the toxic soup leftover from earlier industrial use. Despite the urging of Ohlone elders to avoid digging on the land, it was soon discovered that at least eight feet of the shellmound remained on the site, and it held the sacred remains of hundreds of Ohlone ancestors. The resting place of the Ohlone ancestors was capped, and the development was built on it and in it anyway.

A common form of “mitigation” offered by developers who move forward with a development on top of and cutting into a burial ground is to remove as many human burials as possible (to be stored in off-site curation facilities or reburied some other place), and then commission the development of a memorial to the site that was destroyed. Across the state there are statues of Native dancers in front of a Walmart, a bronze cast of an Indian leader at a strip mall, and a shellmound that is a replica of the one that was destroyed during a century of ignorance. At the Bay Street Mall, there is such a memorial next to the Old Navy retail store. It is a small place of respite with a concrete pathway to protect visitors’ feet from dirt. There is an artificial creek that forms a water feature to sooth shoppers and guests. It is a replica shellmound, facing a hotel located across the street. One section of the mound is exposed, much like the depiction of the Emeryville shellmound in old photographs of the excavations by Nels Nelson. Shells are embedded in the bottom of the mound for visitors to gaze upon, and a fountain sprays water from artistically rendered boulders into a small pool lined with rocks. People now have a monument to what was once there that has now largely been erased.

Knowing what we know today, what should be done about the shellmounds? Ohlone leaders and elders will tell you that the best course of action is to avoid those places altogether. Perhaps they can be set aside as open space in the ever-expanding urban landscape. Perhaps they can be restored by the Ohlone people who still remain in their homelands in and around Oakland today. Maps of shellmound locations are sold on the Internet today, or at least they have been in the past. If we know where they are, they can be protected. Developers will try to tell the Ohlone people that they are mistaken, that the mounds are not where they are known to be. But the laws today direct local governments to ask the Ohlone people — ask them because they know. They are the descendants. They are still here. They are still home.


  1. Corrina Gould, “Opinion: Desecrating the Ohlone Village Site at West Berkeley Shellmound Won’t Solve Housing Crisis,” Berkeleyside, May 23, 2018, online edition.
  2. Malcom Margolin, The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco–Monterey Bay Area (Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 1978), 1–2.
  3. Hal Johnson, “So, We’re Told,” editorial, Berkeley Daily Gazette, December 30, 1942.
  4. Margolin, “A Settled Way,” in The Ohlone Way, 930, Kindle.