Maidu, literally translated, means "man." There were about 9,000 Maidu Indians residing here before the white man arrived to the area. Today it's estimated that there are 1,100 full and mixed blood descendants. Maidu territory was broken into three distinct areas with accompanying language differences. The southern Maidu lived along the entire length of the American, Bear, and Yuba Rivers. The northeastern Maidu inhabited the upper reaches of the North and Middle Forks of the Feather River. The northwestern Maidu lived in the foothill areas of the Oroville region, on the upper Butte and Chico Creeks, and in the open Sacramento Valley.
The Maidu villages were erected in well-situated parts of their environment, either on a ridge crest, a knoll overlooking the surrounding countryside, or near the water. The villages of the northwestern Maidu were made up of about fifteen houses, of which there were several types.
Each family was allowed to hunt, fish, and harvest the natural food crops from the land. Acorns were their main food source, but they also hunted large and small game including deer, birds, salmon, trout, and lampreys. In addition, they collected nuts, berries, and seeds.
The Maidu believed that they were created locally and had not migrated to this area. They believed the earth was round and the land mass was surrounded by water. The land floated on this great body of water and was held in place by five large ropes that had been stretched by the creator. Earthquakes were believed to be caused by the creator shaking these ropes.
The lives of the Maidu were disrupted after the 1848 gold discovery when the Feather River was also found to be rich in gold. Gold seekers and entrepreneurs flocked to the area and small mining towns started everywhere; many are now under the lake. One tent city, named Ophir, became the present town of Oroville.
While gold brought wealth to some, it brought disease to the Maidu, who had no immunity to white settler diseases. In addition, many of the small towns that were established, were on land that belonged to the Maidu. Today, a few remaining Maidu people still live around Oroville, and in the Chico area.
Ishi, who has become well known through numerous publications, was a member of the Yahi tribe. The Yahi tribe inhabited the area around Mill and Deer Creeks. The Yahi were called Mill Creeks by the early settlers. The Yahi population was estimated at about 300 persons during the 1850's. The Yahi fought back against the white man more than most other California tribes, and because of this fighting, they were decimated by 1865. Ishi, along with some of his relatives, escaped and lived in isolation until Ishi wandered into the town of Oroville in 1911. It was believed that he was mourning the loss of his relatives because his hair was cropped short, which was a custom of the Yahi. Ishi lived five more years under the protection of two professors at the University of California, Berkeley, until he died of tuberculosis. During that time, he provided much of his knowledge about the Yahi.
Compiled from several sources by Jon Joseph, Lake Oroville State Recreation Area and edited by Dorothy Hill, Professor of Anthropology, CSU Chico.