Arcata History: Our ’Cata Was Originally Their Kori And Oket’oh

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

This is the first of a series on the history of Arcata, excerpted from a 137 page report prepared by Guerra & McBane, LLC, for the City of Arcata, Department of Planning and Community Development.

The title of the report is City of Arcata, Historic Context Statement dated March 2012. Those individuals and organizations that assisted in the preparation of this report include: Suzanne Guerra, Susie Van Kirk, Joan Berman and Edie Butler of the HSU Library Humboldt Room, Kathleen Stanton, Leslie Heald, Matina Kilkenny, Fran Beatty, Susan Doniger, Alex Stillman, Kevin Hoover, Historical Sites Society of Arcata, Humboldt County Historical Society, Humboldt County Library, Bancroft Library and Environmental Design Library and Archives of UC Berkeley, and staff of the City of Arcata Department of Planning and Community Development. Other volunteers included Samantha Wise, Brandy Hurfado, Les Cook, Jack Surmani, Margo McBane, and Karen Clementi.

These articles will provide a foundation upon which residents can understand and appreciate the historical development of our city. The first article is about the Wiyot Indians who lived in the area long before the coming of the Euro-Americans.

– Donald Tuttle

WIYOT HOMELAND (prior to 1850) 

The City of Arcata is located within the territory of the indigenous people identified by anthropologists as the Wiyot. The territory which they inhabited was bounded by the Little River on the North, and incorporated all of the area surrounding Humboldt Bay.

“Kori”was the name of the Wiyot settlement that existed on the site of what would become Arcata. The name “Arcata” comes from the Yurok term oket’oh that means “where there is a lagoon” and referred to Humboldt Bay which is a barrier lagoon. Potawot is the Wiyot name for what is now called Mad River.

This was a culturally and linguistically rich region, and the Wiyot and Yurok region are the farthest-southwest people whose language family is related to the Algonquian which is generally found east of the Rockies. The population at the time of Euro-American contact was estimated to be around 3,000 people.

At that time the region was characterized by seasonal wetlands, creeks and sloughs around the shore of the Bay, surrounded by forested hills. Settlements included both permanent villages and temporary camps associated with gathering of food and materials or spiritual practices. Buildings and structures within this region at this time were semi-undergrounded constructions covered with wooden slabs, well suited to the local weather conditions. Sweathouses served as sleeping quarters for males, for ceremony, and gambling.

The Wiyot utilized the tributaries to Humboldt Bay for food, such as coastal cutthroat trout, steelhead, and Coho salmon, and for transportation. The annual fish runs on the Eel and Mad Rivers enabled them to smoke enough fish to provide a dependable source of protein during the winter months. Various plant species provided food, fiber and medicine and lands were managed to encourage the growth of beneficial plant and animal species. Supervised burnings helped to maintain open space for food, materials, and game. Early settlers often commented on the abundant game animals and the “natural” prairies and meadows to be found on the hillsides, which they found suitable for farming.

A network of trails around the Bay and inland on established trade routes would form the basis for roads and trails developed during the American Gold Rush settlement period. The arrival of gold mining interests and subsequent dominance of Euro-American settlers, who gained control over the land and resources, would prove devastating to the indigenous populations.

While only archaeological evidence remains of the earliest indigenous communities, the historic transportation corridors which they established have been incorporated into our local road system , including the first road around the Bay-Bayside-Old Arcata Road, and West End Road, Myrtle Avenue, Freshwater Road, and Fickle Hill Road, among others.

Today, Arcata is the headquarters of the Big Lagoon Rancheria tribe, and the site of Potawot Health Village, a modern facility constructed on lands that are historically documented as fishing and gathering grounds.

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