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CHAPTER 1, Geography, Climate and Natural History
Geography | Climate | Geology | Rivers | Flora & Fauna | First Settlers

To begin, we must consider where we are, because geography and climate dictate the ways in which people can use any place.

We are located in Southern California, the 275-mile-long strip of coastal land west of the mountains and between Santa Barbara and San Diego. This strip is from one to 100 miles wide. Altogether, it forms an area of about 11,729 square miles.

To the west is the Pacific Ocean, the source of rain and cooling fogs and ocean breezes, and for many years our only “highway” to the rest of the world.

To the east and north are the mountains of the Transverse ranges - the Tehachapis, San Bernardinos, San Gabriels, and San Jacintos. Some of their mountain peaks reach 10,000 to 11,600 feet. They keep out the heat and dust of the interior deserts, and are high enough to form clouds from the ocean breezes, capturing rainfall.

These mountains and the deserts east and south of us were a barrier to settlement. That is why California was not settled by Europeans until long after the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

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With only a few other places in the world, Southern California can boast of a Mediterranean climate. Our summers are warm to hot. Our winters are cool, with temperatures rarely falling below freezing. While most of the world's climates have precipitation (rain or snow) evenly distributed throughout the year, our rains fall in the winter, with rare showers the rest of the year. During the remaining winter months, rain may fall for weeks and only then do our rivers flow.

Cerritos has a unique climate pattern even within the Southern California - Los Angeles Basin area. It is called “semi-marine.” The fog that often covers the beach areas rarely comes this far inland, yet a cooling breeze comes up our San Gabriel River channel from the ocean. We are rarely affected by the smothering heat and smog of the central Los Angeles Basin or the scorching “Santana” winds that hit towns closer to the mountain passes. This made our area ideal for the dairy cows that once lived here and even more ideal and comfortable for people.

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For millions of years, this region was deep underwater, perhaps as much as 5,000 feet deep. Mountains rose and eroded away hundreds of miles west of our present coastline, while this part of California was filled with an inland sea. Fossils of small sea creatures can be found imbedded in the rocks of nearby mountains and in the gravels of the lowland areas.

Very slowly, the land rose and the water receded, until about 250,000 years ago, there was a shallow bay gleaming with white sands that stretched from Santa Monica to Newport Bay. Signal Hill, Dominguez Hill, the Baldwin Hills, and the Coyote Hills rose above the waters as small islands, while the Palos Verdes Hills formed a larger island offshore.

The mountains of our Transverse ranges had begun uplifting only a few million years ago, recent in geologic time. This is a young geologic area and the mountains are still growing with movement along the fault lines right next to them. This is responsible for the shivers and shakes of the earth that we sometimes experience.

As the mountains were rising, streams began to cut canyons and joined to form three major rivers - the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Santa Ana. During the rainy part of the year, these rivers and tributary streams carry torrents of water from the mountains into the basin and on to the ocean. Sometimes the rivers would flood all across the basin and then form new channels. Settlements were often in danger of being flooded out until the rivers were located in permanent cement channels in very recent times.

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Two of the larger rivers flowed in much different channels than they do now. The Los Angeles River emerged from the San Fernando Valley where it does today, but turned west to reach the sea at Santa Monica Bay. The San Gabriel came down from its canyon, through the hills at Whittier Narrows, and angled southwest and south to end near San Pedro. A smaller stream, the San Jose Creek, flowed south where the San Gabriel River flows today. None of the rivers had a clear channel to the ocean, but tended to spread out into wide marshy areas from which rivulets would drain.

During the dry season, the rivers would all but disappear from the surface though their waters ran underground. When it rained, vast amounts of water poured down the mountain canyons and spread across the flatlands making the whole basin into an enormous lake that slowly disappeared into marshes.

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Flora & Fauna
About ten thousand years ago, the sea water was gone, and most of the basin was marshland, meadow, and oak woodland with a warm, moist climate. Many strange animals lived here which are now extinct - mammoths, camels, wolves, saber-toothed cats, and horses. There were also elk, bear, bison, storks, turkeys, and many smaller animals. Fossil remains can be seen at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum in Los Angeles and nearer by at Clark Park in Orange County. Among the animal fossils, a few human remains have been found that indicate prehistoric man lived in the Los Angeles Basin area perhaps twenty-four thousand years ago.

By the time Native American Indians reached the basin, perhaps four thousand years ago, the exotic animals had long been gone.

The ground was covered with green vegetation year round. The native grasses were always lush and green until they were replaced with the wild barley and oats that Europeans introduced. In the lowlands were marsh reeds and thickets of willows, alders, and sycamores tangled with wild grapevines and thickets of berries and wild roses. The hills were dotted with oaks and walnut trees.

The land was abundant with animal life. Deer, tule elk, and antelope fed on the grasses. Black beers and grizzlies raided the thickets for berries. Bighorn sheep, cougars, grey wolves, coyotes, and bobcats lived in the mountains and hills. Rabbits, gophers, opossum and other small mammals were everywhere.

Trout and other fish were abundant in the rivers. Ducks, geese and other waterfowl filled the marshlands in enormous numbers. Quail covered the low hills, while flocks of bandtailed pigeons lived in lower elevation forests. In the sky hawks, several kinds of eagles, and giant condors circled. The beach sands held huge Pismo clams and Pacific oysters as large as platters. Offshore were seals, sea otters and salt water fish; underwater were crabs and abalone. Whales migrated past in large numbers.

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First Settlers
The first Native American Indians to come into this area were probably wandering hunters. More and more came and clustered with their families and relatives into villages. They arrived as separate groups from several different regions, as they spoke some twenty-two separate languages and over a hundred dialects. Eventually there was a great number of people. Anthropologists say that from 130,000 to 700,000 natives lived in California before the Europeans came.

The Indians settled in small communities - perhaps fifty to a hundred interrelated people. One would be designated chief and another man or woman would be a shaman (priest or medicine man), but otherwise the social organization was very loose.

Each village (the Spaniards called them rancherias) was completely independent and occasionally would war with the “enemy” from over the next hill, but the fighting wasn't serious and ended when someone was hurt.

We call the Indians who lived in this area Gabrielinos after the mission that was later founded near here. They were the largest group of all the Southern California Indians, the most wealthy, and the most highly developed. They spoke a Shoshonean language similar to that of the Hopi Indians of Arizona. They disappeared before their culture could be studied, but some missionaries and early settlers wrote about them and from these records and study of the remaining Indian cultures, we can get an idea of what they were like.

The people were short and dark-skinned, with flat noses and long, straight hair. Men and children usually went completely naked. The women modestly wore two-pieced aprons fashioned of grass fibers or rabbit skins. When the weather was cold, cloaks of rabbit fur or deer skin provided warmth. They liked to wear necklaces and bracelets of shell beads and painted or tattooed their faces.

The Gabrielinos built houses that were shaped like domes with a hole in the top to let out the smoke from the cooking fire. The material used was reeds fastened over a willow framework.

Food consisted of anything that could be gathered, snared, or hunted, with the exception of bear meat. Only the Yuma Indians on the Colorado River did any gardening. For most of the California Indians, the staple food was acorn mush, made by a laborious process of toasting the acorns, grinding them, and then washing the acorn flour many times to get rid of poisonous tannic acid.

They had no clay pots, but learned to make excellent and beautiful baskets. In order to hold water, a basket would be coated on the inside with tar or tree pitch. Some water baskets could hold as much as five gallons. Baskets were even used for cooking, by someone heating stones in the fire and then dropping them into the food while the cook stirred to keep the grass-fiber basket from burning.

Other utensils were fashioned from wood, shells, or bone. They also made utensils from steatite (soap-stone), a soft rock that could be obtained from Indians who lived on Catalina Island and who came to the mainland in wood-plank boats that were sewn together with laces and then caulked with tar.

The Indians knew many uses for the things they found about them. Herbs were used for medicines, food, and dye for their basket fibers.

Quite a bit of trade went on between the rancherias and even outside California. Inland people traded skins and acorns and other seeds with the coastal Indians for dried fish and steatite items. Things were usually bartered, although sometimes disc-shaped clamshell beads were used as currency. Hohokam pottery from Arizona has been found in a California Indian village, while sea-shell beads have been found in pueblo ruins in Arizona and New Mexico.

Several important village sites later became Spanish communities, as they were located on flat ground near rivers, and because the missionaries settled where the Indians had already established themselves. Thus, Yangna eventually became Los Angeles, Sibagna became San Gabriel, and Hutucgna became Santa Ana. Closer to Cerritos was Tibahangna, near the site in Long Beach of the Spanish Rancho Los Cerritos, and Puvunga near Rancho Los Alamitos. Farther north was Nakaungna, and somewhere near modern Norwalk and Downey was Suva, or Sehat. No village sites have been found within our city limits, but the area was probably well known to many of the Indians who passed to and fro.

When it was necessary - for example, when the acorn crop was ready for harvest, or the wild geese were migrating - the Gabrielinos worked very hard. When there was no need for work, they whiled away the time playing many kinds of games or simply sunbathing.

This pleasant life style could have gone on forever. However, events were taking place on the other side of the world that would make life very different for the Indians of California, and mean extinction for the Gabrielinos.

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