Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

The abundance of life-sustaining resources in the Bay Area created a culture of trust and sharing that almost killed the Native American Ohlone tribes. The abundance of wealth concentrated in the hands of one woman created a culture of appreciation and preservation that may have saved the Ohlone tribes.

Phebe (original spelling) Apperson was born in Missouri when Missouri was the western edge of the United States. She entered the world long enough after the removal of Missouri’s Native Americans that they were likely forgotten in her little town. She entered a world where slave owners lived nearby and tensions were building toward the Civil War.

But living on the stagecoach line from St. Louis, she entered an optimistic world filled with possibilities of untold riches to be discovered by those venturing westward. Those possibilities became reality for her in the form of George Hearst, a successful miner returning to visit his ailing mother; the man she would marry.

100 years earlier, the western edge of the continent belonged to Native Americans, as it had for many thousands of years. Until then, most Native Americans of the Bay Area were not warring people. They weren’t without bloodshed or territorial skirmishes, but they were generally quite content. Abundance was such that they remained hunter-gathers rather than develop agriculture — there was no need. The land and the sea provided. Trade with distant tribes, who also lived in abundance, was built on a presumption of trust and was cause for celebration.

In fact, the first Spaniards to sail into San Francisco Bay in 1775, were warmly welcomed and treated to a feast. In the worldview of the Ohlone tribes, strangers represented new opportunities for trade. Living in a world of bounty with endless fish, game, and vegetation year-round — why not throw a feast to share with these potential new trading partners?

The Spaniards, of course, were not coming from a world of bounty but rather a ruthless need for conquest. A worldview of perceived scarcity justified atrocities to claim these precious resources for the European elite. For the Ohlone, “…it became almost seventy years of slavery, dehumanization and cultural genocide…” according to Edward Castillo of the California Indian Education Center. As the Mission period came to an end, Spanish rule transferred to Mexico and then to the United States when the discovery of gold ushered California into statehood.

George Hearst ventured west in search of gold, ultimately becoming one of the wealthiest men in the world as a result of the silver rush of 1859. In 1862, Phebe married into this tremendous wealth, changed her name to Phoebe Apperson Hearst, and moved to San Francisco. Upon George’s death in 1891, she inherited an estimated $20 million and property exceeding one million acres.

By this time the genocide that had ravaged Native Americans from coast to coast was nearly complete. A few dozen Ohlone lived in the last traditional village near Phoebe’s sprawling hacienda in Pleasanton, California. By all accounts, she probably never spoke to any of them but she hired some to work as servants on her estate. She traveled the world gaining an appreciation for and possession of the finer things. Her collection of Egyptian artifacts, Peruvian pottery, and Navajo rugs, which decorated her massive home, showed her appreciation of those cultures as well as their variety. Her interests gradually turned to anthropology, yet likely not the indigenous culture of her servants.

Phoebe’s tremendous generosity is well documented. The school of anthropology at the University of California in Berkeley is named in her honor. Her patronage can be directly linked to the recordings of Albert Kroeber who captured the voices, stories, and songs of the last native Ohlone speakers; their descendants would disappear into the dominant culture of the invading settlers. Those voices, those stories, those songs provide one of the only surviving links back to the indigenous culture. Those voices allow Ohlone descendants to preserve the language. Those stories give clues to understanding their way of life. Those songs give life to the spirits of their ancestors. And from those, the Ohlone are once again becoming visible.

One needn’t look far to appreciate the abundance in the Bay Area. It’s impossible today to look past the unsustainable abundance of people, of material growth, of extractive cultures. Despite that, you can still see the abundance of natural beauty.

Affluence means “to flow abundantly”. Thus, someone or something blessed with affluence has received an incoming flood of riches. In one tale, these riches flowed naturally and sustained life for countless generations. In the other tale, these riches were brutally extracted yet, through the philanthropy of Phoebe Hearst, ensured the voice of the invisible would be preserved for future generations.

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