Thomas Jefferson Mayfield (1843–1928) was among the first Americans to move into California’s San Joaquin Valley. He arrived in 1850, when he was six years old. His family had moved west to get rich quick in the Gold Rush, but the gold belonged to the land, and it cleverly hid from the loony looters. His father shifted to raising livestock, assisted by his two older sons. Young Thomas and his mother stayed at their small shanty, near Kings River.
The wild valley was a magnificent wonderland, millions of colorful flowers, with snow-covered mountains in the background. Neighbors included elk, deer, antelope, grizzly bears, black bears, raccoons, rabbits, gophers, ground squirrels. The sky swarmed with clouds of blackbirds. There were billions of geese, and flocks passing overhead might be four square miles in size (10 km2). Huge flights of pigeons would block out the sun. Wetlands were loaded with tules (bulrushes) that grew 20 feet tall (6 m). Along the streams were unbroken forests of ancient oak trees. Nearby was Tulare Lake, which was filled with fish and waterfowl. The region around the lake was home to a fantastic abundance of wildlife.
The Yokut Indians who lived across the river from the Mayfield’s shanty were friendly. They generously brought food to the family (…so the strangers wouldn’t shoot their guns and disturb the wildlife). Within a year of their arrival, Mayfield’s mother died. The Yokuts offered to take care of the young fellow, and his father agreed. The boy spent almost ten years among the Indians. He fluently spoke their language, dressed like them, ate their food, and had almost no contact with white society. He helped them hunt and fish, and spent lots of time playing with the other boys.
The Indians were warm people. They rarely quarreled, often laughed, shunned gossip, respected their elders, and only spoke when something meaningful needed to be said. Honesty was the norm, and theft was unknown. Mornings began with a bath in the river. In the hot summer months, much time was spent in the cool water.
The Indians built houses made with tule mats, and some lodges were 100 feet long (30 m). Acorns were stored in elevated cylindrical granaries. Mostly, they lived outdoors. Homes were only used for sleeping, and for shelter from bad weather. Cooking, eating, and other activities were done outside. Food was cooked in watertight baskets heated with hot rocks. They stored dried fish, dried meat, dried grasses, acorns, and many kinds of seeds. Tule roots were a staple food.
Around 1855, the Americans began rounding up Indians and moving them into concentration camps, known as reservations. Prior to the roundup, many had already died from the diseases of civilization. In captivity, living indoors made them miserable, and many died from tuberculosis and measles. Whiskey led to painful social breakdown. In 1850, at the beginning of Mayfield’s stay, there were over 300 in the tribe, but ten years later only 40 survived. In 1862, his father was killed in an Indian war, and the young man said goodbye to the Yokuts and drifted away into white society.
Mayfield almost took his story to the grave. He spent much of his life in the valley, but never told anyone about his childhood. White folks hated Indians, and he would have been stigmatized by revealing his story. But in 1928, Frank Latta was working on an oral history of the San Joaquin Valley, heard about the 85-year old Mayfield, and went to visit him. For the first time, Mayfield had an eager listener, and he gushed stories for several months, until he died.
Indian Summer is the story of his time among the Yokuts. It’s just 123 pages long, with large type. The writing is simple, just the facts. His story is the only eyewitness account of a colonist who knew California Indians when they were still wild and free, living in their traditional manner. It provides a wealth of details about how the Indians lived.
Even after Mayfield was a teen, old enough to take care of himself, his father left him with the Indians. “He said that I was in better company with the Indians than I would be staying around the white towns with him. There I would be in contact with saloons, gamblers, drunks, bums, and many other undesirables that I would not know at the rancheria.” Whites were notoriously untrustworthy, and masters in the fine arts of vulgarity and profanity.
When he was in his eighties, Mayfield said, “There is no use trying to deny that the Indians I knew were, for the most part, naked savages. But I have found that in the sixty-six or more years since I left them that just wearing a lot of clothes does not make people decent. Neither does going around naked necessarily make people indecent.” He added, “I knew the Indians in their natural state and I know that they were the finest people that I have ever met.”
In the good old days, Tulare Lake covered Kings County, and portions of Tulare and Kern counties. It was the biggest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, and it sometimes swelled to cover 760 square miles (1,968 km2). A thriving fish mining industry was established by the Americans. Four rivers once emptied into the lake, but water-mining farmers and land speculators diverted their flows, and the lake disappeared by 1910. Tulare Lake is now called the Tulare Lakebed, flat dry land, mostly cotton fields. In extremely wet El Niño years, like 1997, the former lake temporarily holds some water. Now the Americans are pumping out the groundwater, and the land is sinking. Some locations are falling two inches per month. Roads are cracking, and pipelines are breaking.
There were 16 subcultures of the Yokut people, and there may have been up to 50,000 of them in the San Joaquin Valley 200 years ago. Abundant wildlife and plant foods allowed them to live in high density for hunter-gatherers — in good health, usually peaceful, with a leisurely lifestyle. By 2010, the valley was home to 3,971,659 Americans, and it had air pollution comparable to Los Angeles and Houston. The current way of life does not have a long-term future.
Thomas Jefferson Mayfield was born in 1843, the same year as my great-grandfather, Richard Edward Rees. Richard’s granddaughter Martha lived until 2009, and she remembered him well. The Yokut people had lived in balance for several thousand years, but civilization furiously obliterated the wild paradise in less than three generations. Bambi was splattered by a runaway freight train, and nobody lived happily ever after. There may be important lessons here.
A huge and glaring omission from the book is California’s wars of extermination on the Indians. The Tule River War was waged against the Kings River Yokuts at the time Mayfield was staying with them. In the first 20 years of the American occupation of California, 90 percent of the Indians died. Bounties were paid for the scalps and heads of Indians. Who omitted the genocide — Mayfield, Latta, or the publisher?
Mayfield, Thomas Jefferson, Indian Summer, Heyday Books, Berkeley, 1993 (Original 1929).