Ulistac Natural Area has seen many changes throughout time, from its settlement by the Ohlone Indians many years ago, to its present restoration campaign.
Many historians and ethnographers have referred to the indigenous people of the South Bay as Costanoans, derived and anglicized from the Spanish word at the time of contact “costeños,” or, people of the coast. This name was never adopted by the Native Americans themselves, each of whom had a name for his or her own group. Around 1916, descendants of different groups of “Mission Indians” began calling themselves Ohlone, which may have been the name of a prominent village along the San Mateo coast, or could have been a Miwok or Native American word meaning “western people”. The name has come into general use since the 1970’s and today is understood by many to include all native Americans tracing their lineage back to the East and South Bay. Different sources suggest that the early ancestors of today’s Ohlone people may have inhabited the Bay Area anywhere from 500 AD to as long ago as 3000 BC. From as early as 1000 BC until the end of the 18th century, Ohlone inhabited the site and founded a village called Ulistac. In their language, “tac” means “place,” while Uli was most likely the name of a chief. Thus, Ulistac meant Uli’s place, although other sources define it as “at Ulis.” The Tares Indians, a Tamien triblet, lived in the area undisturbed by European influence for several centuries.
The Missionaries and Americans
With the advent of the age of exploration, parties of surveyors and travelers began to pass through the area. On October 31st of 1769, Portola and his expedition arrived in Half Moon Bay. The following day, Jose Ortega became the first documented European to see the Santa Clara Valley, which he calls the “Llano de los Robles,” the valley of the oaks. A member of their party, Fray Juan Crespi observed that “this entire port is surrounded by many and large villages of barbarous heathen who are very affable, mild, and docile, and very generous.” The Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and his team arrived at the site in early 1776. They named the adjacent Guadalupe River (Rio de Nuestra Senora De Guadalupe) after the patron saint of their expedition, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Soldiers and priests roamed the valley and endorsed it as a possible site for the mission. De Anza wrote in his journal on March 30,
“To this arroyo or river we gave the name of Gaudalupe. It has abundant and good timber of cottonwood, ash, willow, and other kinds. In all directions there is a great abundance of firewood, and likewise agricultural lands for raising crops by natural humidity, or by irrigation if the river is permanent, as we conjecture, in which case it would make possible a large settlement.”
De Anza and his company attempted to forge onward to the northwest along the estuary but become bogged down in the mire. They traced several streams in exploring the valley and found a road that “runs close to a small range completely bare of trees.” On this day’s exploration, they came across “six villages, whose inhabitants, not accustomed to seeing us, fled like wild beasts.” Many of the native tribes feared De Anza’s men, although he notes that “forty heathen have come close to us and I have given them presents.” Most likely referring to the Ohlone, De Anza describes local tribes as “not short haired like those from the mission of San Antonio to the port of San Francisco. These of which we are now speaking wear their hair tied up on the very top of their heads where only a piece of thread is to be seen.” The land at this time was primarily open oak savannah, populated by valley oaks and California bunch grasses, which are typically distinguished from the European invasive species by their tendency to stay green in the summer. Due to the presence of Indians and elk (which have the same eating and trampling effects as cattle), not many bushes grew in the area. Riparian habitats provided fertile grounds for cottonwoods, sycamores, willows, and ashes to thrive. The current location of the Ulistac Natural Area is the brackish intersection of saltwater wetlands from the Bay and freshwater sources including rivers and groundwater. At the north end of the park, groundwater is only three feet below ground; at the south end, it is ten feet down. In early 1777, Father Thomas de la Pena, Lt. Jose Joaquin Moraga, several soldiers and their families, and a Yuman Indian convert named Marcello established Mission Santa Clara de Asis. Missionaries recruited native tribesmen to work there and converted them to Catholicism. At the end of the year, El Pueblo de San Jose de Guadalupe was established along the Guadalupe River as the first incorporated city in California. Captain George Vancouver, an English explorer, visited the area in 1792. He noted the Santa Clara Indians “building for themselves a range of small but comparatively speaking comfortable and convenient habitations-each consisting of two commodious rooms with garrets over them.” In 1799, Marcello and 200 other natives planted three rows of willow and poplar trees to create the Alameda which now connects Santa Clara with San Jose. They dug irrigation canals to divert water from the Guadalupe River to the trees.