Shooting, spearing, grabbing, trapping

by Joel Pomerantz

June 5th, 2010

When you take your next stroll along Divisadero Street, walk a little slower than usual. You wouldn’t want to scare the deer.

In fact, if you were coming here to hunt, as so many people have done over the last five millennia, you might consider covering your head with a deer costume, complete with antlers. It could allow you to settle in among the herd at close quarters and have your pick of the animals for your village’s upcoming feast!

According to all the journals and reports from early European visitors, wildlife were abundant to such a degree that it was sometimes possible to reach out and grab an animal: a quail, a fox, even a deer. But the people who called this area home for 4,500 years (or more) hunted carefully and with elaborate ritual that protected the many local species from over-hunting. The Yelamu family groups and tribelets that populated the seasonal villages at each end of Divisadero—Chutchui near the south end and Petlenuc near the north—followed a complex set of rules that included fasting, sweats in a lodge, abstinence, and appeals to family-specific and activity-based totem animal spirits before they could draw a single arrow across a bow.

The bow came into the lives of these people, often called Ohlone Indians, 1500 years ago. According to the physical anthropology available, the introduction of bow and arrow represents the only known major cultural shift in the extremely stable societies of Central California during the hundreds of generations during which they sparsely occupied this land. This represents a stability equal to or surpassing all other known examples of human societies, which usually shift dramatically after only a few generations.

The shift to arrows from the use of spears represents a major transition in the rigidly followed local rituals, but not as dramatic, of course, as the transition that occurred when European cultures arrived in the 18th Century. Both the Indians and the Whites used trapping and nets for quail, salmon and other birds and fish, but the Spanish, Russian, French and English who came ashore brought firearms.

The first encounters between these old and new hunting technologies, and their accompanying rituals, must have been astounding to witnesses. In one passage from Charles Darwin’s travel journals (I was so enthralled by it, I don’t mind that it represents an encounter in an entirely different—and seemingly more disputatious—part of the world), he writes:

An European labours under great disadvantages, when treating with savages like these, who have not the least idea of the power of fire-arms. In the very act of levelling his musket, he appears to the savage far inferior to a man armed with a bow and arrow, a spear, or even a sling. Nor is it easy to teach them our superiority except by striking a fatal blow.…

Captain Fitz Roy on one occasion, being very anxious from good reasons to frighten away a small party, first flourished a cutlass near them, at which they only laughed; he then twice fired his pistol close to a native.

The man both times looked astounded, and carefully but quickly rubbed his head; he then stared awhile, and gabbled to his companions; but he never seemed to think of running away. We can hardly put ourselves in the position of these savages, and understand their actions. …when a savage sees a mark struck by a bullet, it may be some time before he is able at all to understand how it is effected; for the fact of a body being invisible from its velocity, would perhaps be to him an idea totally inconceivable. … Certainly I believe that many savages of the lowest grade, such as these of Tierra del Fuego, have seen objects struck, and even small animals killed by the musket, without being in the least aware how deadly an instrument it is.

The technology was the least of the differences between early American and European cultures; as Darwin’s final sentence so completely illustrates, the two concepts of causality and even of death were essentially different.

Long after the few hundred occupants of the San Francisco Peninsula were supplanted, miserably, by the thousands of Europeans and Americans who came, hunting on Divisadero continued.

After the Gold Rush, for decades, a lodge stood near what is now the intersection of Fulton and Divisadero Streets. There’s a pet grooming service there now, Kate’s, across Fulton from Café Abir. The lodge, known by the more typical San Francisco term “roadhouse”, was called the San Souci, a misspelling of the French words for carefree. The valley it occupied was, for the better part of a century, named after it.

And, to my water-loving mind, most important, there appears to have been a San Souci Lake, as well. This lake, apparently spanning a triangular area for a couple blocks along what is now the low part of Divisadero, and sweeping toward the intersection of Baker and Grove, is mentioned in only one place I know of. Edward Morphy wrote a newspaper column in 1919 and 1920 called San Francisco’s Thoroughfares.

In early 2010, thanks to a Google Alert I set up on the terms “San Souci” and “San Francisco”, I got a ping about a newly (and badly) digitized copy of the collected Morphy columns. Luckily, one of the seven or so iterations of the phrase “San Souci” was digitized properly by the OCR software and set off the Google Alert.

In Morphy’s column, he describes a San Souci Roadhouse and Lake which was a favorite place to get away from the growing city of the bustling and lawless early days. He did not depict it as a hunting location. But given that other lakes among the dunes of San Francisco’s outside lands were documented as hunting grounds, it is likely that the lodge was used as a hunting lodge by some. Water fowl would not have been the only wildlife to stop by such a lake.

Please comment, especially if you have seen any other documentation concerning San Souci Lake (or Sans Souci Lake).

One Comment to “Shooting, spearing, grabbing, trapping”

  1. Chris Dichtel says:

    (I have a horde of such references, my friend; and will shortly present you with some more.)

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