In History: Native Nourishment; All About Acorns
Trees have leafed out, spring flowers have faded, and oak trees are covered with the beginnings of the fall acorn harvest. For the Miwok tribes who inhabited these regions prior to the discovery of gold, the health and well-being of the tribe depended on the acorn crop.
The Miwok were hunters and gatherers who relied on the land for their sustenance. Family groups inhabited several camps throughout the year, moving from one to the next to take advantage of the natural crops available each season. The Natives knew the importance of sustainability, taking only what they needed to survive and allowing plants to regenerate for the next season.
Acorns—which contain fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and tannic acid, the latter of which makes them bitter and (in some cases) toxic if eaten raw—were a wholesome addition and main staple of the Miwok diet. In the fall, families collected and dried the acorns then stored them in the family granary, or cha’ka, for future use. Resembling a large basket on stilts with upright poles interwoven with willow or other brush, the cha’ka also contained a thatch roof of white fir or cedar boughs to help protect the harvest from rain and snow, with an interior lining of pine needles and wormwood to stave off insects and rodents. Each family had several granaries, which provided a supply of acorns until the next harvest.
To make the nut edible, the Miwok learned to process it, which was done at the chaw’se, or grinding rock, by the women. These grinding rocks can still be found throughout the county near rivers and streambeds, including one at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park above the picnic area. The largest example, however, can be found at Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park in Amador County.
John Doble, a miner in Volcano, described the scene at a chaw’se in his journal in 1852. He noted that the squaws were seated on a flat rock “each had between her legs and in a small round hole in the rock a small pile of acorns on which they were pounding with an oval-shaped stone about eight inches long with all their power…They thus begin to pound their acorns on the smooth surface of the rock, but the continual pounding soon wears a hole, which gradually deepens until it becomes too deep for use.”
The fine meal produced at the chaw’se was then leached to remove the tannins. According to Doble’s account, this process involved digging a circular hole about three inches deep and placing the ground meal into the hole to a depth of two inches. Water was heated in finely woven baskets by placing hot stones from the fire into the water. Once the water was boiling, it was poured over the meal in the hole. The acorn flour would settle to the bottom, while the reddish husk would settle on top.
The red top layer was scooped away, placed in a basket, and thinned with boiling water to produce a thick soup; the middle layer of white flour was removed and made into oblong cakes; while the bottom layer was scooped into a basket, with as little dirt as possible, and thinned with water to settle out the dirt and make soup.
With a good acorn harvest and a few sound cha’kas, a Miwok family could supplement their diet with acorn flour for most of the year.
By Jerrie Beard
John Doble’s Journal & Letters from the Mines, Volcano Press Inc., Copyright 1962, pages 48-49.
Cha'ka photo by Lindsey Edwards. Grinding rocks photo courtesy of Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park. Roundhouse sign photo by Lindsey Edwards.