Chumash History in the Front Country

Same Trails, New Souls

Many, many moons ago, well before the Spanish explored the western coast of what is now known as North America, even well before the idea of exploration entered into the psyche of Europe, indigenous peoples of this continent lived and thrived. Estimates of the population of indigenous peoples in North America range between 7 million to 18 million people. These were people who lived in harmony with their natural surroundings, observed the ebb and flow of the changes in season and appreciated the varying bounty of the land and waters. They understood the gifts of the natural world; its plant-life, wildlife, rocks and minerals and took what they needed while offering thanks and gratitude and giving back to nature in return. They developed deep, spiritual rituals and rites that reflected their immediate environments. 

In the Santa Barbara area and through parts of the Central and Southern Coast of California, the Chumash peoples lived in relation with the ocean and mountains and the topography greatly influenced their culture. The Chumash name was ascribed to the people by Spanish colonists who used the word for every indigenous group that lived in the area. The Chumash people, however, had at least five distinct groups, each with their own language and many specific customs. In pre-colonial times, the population was estimated to be around 20,000 people. This number dwindled to around 75 people and now there are over 7,000 people in the United States who claim some Chumash heritage. At one point, many of the Chumash languages were surviving with just a few speakers. History is clear, Spanish colonialism and the expansion of the United States decimated the Chumash culture and way of life.

In the Front Country that we know and love, through our enjoyment of the trail system, we believe it is important to look at the beauty and wonder with new eyes and to know that we are walking on Chumash land. Many of the trails we utilize were also used by the Chumash people that lived here. Romero Canyon Trail is an historical trail that connected the people who lived on the ocean side of the Santa Ynez Mountains to those that lived in the valley on the other side. San Ysidro Trail connected the village that was situated in Montecito, to smaller encampments in the hills. Hot Springs lead to the hot springs which were used by the Chumash well before world-travelers trekked to its healing sulfur waters. Along the way, the people sourced plant life, hunted and gathered rocks and minerals as well as building materials and more. The area we all call home was alive with a community of people who had intimate knowledge of the natural resources we see every day. That knowledge, along with the knowledge of language, once almost lost, is growing within the Chumash community. We hope with new interest, the non-indigenous community may come to share that knowledge as well.

While we cannot remake history, we can be part of a growing acknowledgment of our shared history and the growing awareness that the Chumash people and indigenous populations world-wide, deserve to be honored and appreciated. More than that, that original way of life, of love for the land, of belonging to the land, rather than the land belonging to us, may just be the perspective that saves humanity from climate destabilization and environmental decimation. With an open mind and with open hearts, we can open our eyes to see the world around us and specifically the trails we all know and love with new eyes and, perhaps, walk them with new souls.

Be part of this movement and join us for Chumash Trails Day; Same Trails, New Souls, on Sunday, October 10, at 10:00 a.m., at the Romero Canyon Trailhead. We will gather together and then head out on the trail for a hike to encounter the land with new eyes with our new Chumash Trails Day Map.


The Chumash People: Materials for Teachers and Students, Santa Barbara Museum of History, Jan. 1991