Shellmounds: Spanish and American Influence on Indigenous Burial Practices and Shellmound Use

A shellmound is a graveyard, a mortuary complex, an ancient structure. It’s a place where the first peoples who live along the coasts and rivers of California, used to bury their dead. This article briefly explores why that is.

Spanish Influence on Indigenous Use of Shellmounds

This changed when Spain Conquistador’s invaded the San Francisco bay area, on June 27, 1776, and established what’s known now as The Presidio, in San Francisco, California. [On July 4th, 1776, thirteen British colonies in North American declared their independence, and formed the United States.] Three months later, on October 9, 1776, is when Mission San Francisco de Assisi was founded and missionization of the Bay Area officially began.

This missionization of local indigenous people can be characterized by the abduction, forced baptism, and slavery of Indigenous people by Spanish Priests and Conquistadors. And, the outright theft of natural resources (like food) which indigenous people had helped cultivate and depended upon for all of their food, medicine, building materials, etc.

In spite of the homefield advantage, and larger numbers, indigenous people could not defeat the colonizing Spanish force.

Spanish conquistadors were cruel, paranoid, psychopathic, mass murdering kleptomaniacs. Their expeditions were marked by massacres of unarmed people; looting of villages’ water, food and gold; and the enslavement of surviving indigenous people. Indigenous objections to the Spanish invaders were often met with attacks on villages, and public executions–a fear tactic meant to terrorize local indigenous people into submission.

Spanish Missions are places where indigenous people were brainwashed into accepting their slavery and the belief that “indigenous people are inferior to Spanish” colonizers, conquistadors, and especially clergy. Indigenous people were indoctrinated into the Catholic labor system by Clergy through coercion, torture, and threat. And reinforced with food, personal living quarters, better jobs, and some form of acceptance into the Spanish way of life.

When Spanish colonizers had ruined the ecosystem by grazing, logging, razing, and waste, indigenous people found themselves with little choice but to join the missions or flee to places outside of the reach of the mission system. (In reality, no Indigenous Californians were safe from the missions, except those in the far North of California, where Missions did not exist.)

Because the Missions were located in Central Areas; and because of the Area of Influence Spanish Invaders were able to exert dominance over was so vast (due to horses); indigenous people of the area known as the Bay Area were forced to abandon their burial practices because they had to abandon the land their graveyard was situated upon.

This meant that indigenous people had to figure out how to bury their dead using the resources found away from the coasts and rivers they were used to.

It also meant that, indigenous people were being buried in graveyards at Catholic Missions all around the Bay Area.

American Influence on Indigenous Use of Shellmounds

Soon, American aggressors would begin to appear in what they though was their frontier land; an “Indian Frontier”. This was during the time of the “Wild West”, when Indian Wars were being actively fought.

The Indian Wars would be romanticized for years to come in newspaper stories, and on the screen especially during the 1950’s with such films/shows as:

  • Winchester ’73
  • Gunsmoke
  • The Lone Ranger
  • Davey Crockett
  • They Died with Their Boots On

But there was nothing romantic about the real story of the California Genocide.

Americans would purposely destroy or vandalize sacred sites for entertainment or out of spite. One famous shellmound, in Alameda, California, was used to pave Bay Farm Road in 1908. The bodies of ancestors were routinely ground up and used as aggregate for cement, or even calcium enrichment for roses and other flowers (instead of eggshells.)

The vandalization, desecration and disrespect of Native American Graves and Bodies continues to this day.

Militias were paid by the United States Government, and (later) the State of California, to hunt and kill all indigenous people. The United States Army “expeditions”, especially what they liked to call “punitive expeditions”, were marked by the execution of indigenous men, and the rape, torture, and mass-murder of indigenous women and children.

In 1848, the area now known as California was ceded by Mexico, at the end of the Mexican-American war. Two years later, California would officially earn statehood, and its first governor, Peter Hardeman Burnett, during his first State of the State address mentioned the California genocide explicitly.

“A war of extermination will continue … until the Indian race becomes extinct,” Peter Hardeman Burnett, the First Governor of California continued, “the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert.”

Now, all Indigenous people were actively under threat by all white people, who were paid for each “Indian” they killed, baby they stole, or person forced into slavery via “prisoner debt” to white business and property owners. Prison debt was money owed to a person or business for a crime committed against it. These were often times for extraordinary amounts of money which the debtor was only able to pay through involuntary labor or servitude. The prison debt system was created to control Indigenous People, and People of Color, and prevent them from gaining any foothold or capital in a society and world which white people viewed themselves as being solely entitled to because of their religious or racial beliefs.

Once Native Californians were being displaced, forced onto reservations, into indebted servitude, boarding schools, orphanages; and their burial places forced abandoned, and desecrated by American invaders. Many indigenous people began the practice of cremation. One of the most common reason for why someone is cremated was because they wouldn’t be able to be buried with their ancestors, next to their loved ones, or with their family or tribe. It was better to live the afterlife free of their body than to have it defiled.