While there were many different Indians in California at the time of the missions; the Chumash were the most widespread. They numbered in the tens of thousands and their territory spread from present-day Malibu to present-day southern Monterey County. To the east they extended all the way to the Carrizo Plain of present-day Kern County. To the west, the Chumash territory spread to the coast and further, out to the Channel Islands, west of today’s Santa Barbara. Their land comprised 7,000+ square miles. [Note: The large territory the Chumash occupied was largely defined by the Spanish. In fact, that territory encompassed approximately six different, but similar, groups with six different languages.]
They were very important because you could not travel far north/south in California without encountering their territory, and they were a highly intelligent and developed peoples; both prosperous and peaceful. Padre Palóu wrote that the area was “so densely populated with heathen that right on the road, which runs close along the shore, there are twenty-one large towns, and it is necessary to pass through them in the middle of some and on the edge of others and past others about a gunshot off.”
The Chumash called themselves the “First People” (although “breadmaker” and “sea shell people” are sometimes also used). Over time they developed an extensive astronomical science integrated into their religion. Important points in the year, such as fall harvest and winter solstice, were marked by ceremonies. They carefully observed the “Sky Coyote” and the “Sun” move across the “Mishapashup” (sky) to determine how the weather would develop. They trusted the stars to lead them and each village had its own shaman/astrologer.
To travel up and down the coast and to the Channel Islands the Chumash built large wooden plank canoes. These were very seaworthy as the cracks were sealed with natural tar. Side note: The canoes were called “tomols” and were largely built near present-day Carpinteria (which Padre Juan Crespi, traveling with Portola, named after the Spanish word for “carpenter’s shop”). The tar-like asphaltum deposits, used for caulking, can still be found near the Carpinteria State Beach campgrounds.
The Chumash were also skilled artisans and made excellent baskets and stone cookware. Some of their sacred caves and cave art exist today. The dolphin, in particular, was sacred to them and can be seen in many of their cave drawings. Their other artworks were prized by other tribes who traveled long distances to trade. The art shown here is a replica of Chumash art painted on the wall of the museum at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.
Chumash villages were made of dome-shaped homes made of willow, whalebone, and tile mats for roofing. Rooms were created by hanging reed mats. Up to 50 people could live in a home using platforms for sleeping.
Today, the nationally-recognized Chumash tribe lives just outside Santa Ynez (near Mission Santa Inés which often causes some confusion in naming). Other groups who claim Chumash association are spread throughout the original Chumash territory.