The Santa Margarita River Trail is currently a popular place for hikers, bird watchers, horseback riders and dog walkers to experience nature. The narrow dirt and stone trail winds its way along the river, around plants and bushes, shaded by trees and rocky hills.
The people who use the trail may not know it, but many of the same features that draw them here today made it a good spot for travelers at least as far back as1000 to 1500 years ago. According to archaeological studies, it was a popular place for the Luiseno Indians to stop for a few days on their trips from inland areas (including the Temecula area and Palomar Mountain) to the ocean and back.
Native plant life is plentiful along the fresh running water. Present day travelers see wild flowers like California poppies and lilacs, Indian paintbrush and monkey flowers, as well as hawks, quail, ducks and other birds.
The Luiseno collected acorns from the Coast Live Oak trees, a variety of seeds, blackberries and miner’s lettuce for food; willow and mugwort for medicine and tool making, and white sage for all those purposes, along with ritual use. They would have also caught fish, birds and rabbits to eat.
Over the years, constant flooding in the narrow river valley washed away much of the physical evidence that the Luiseno had been there. In 1948, an archaeological dig conducted by the Archaeological Survey Association of Southern California in an area by the river recovered some artifacts left behind at a temporary camp site.
The items that were dug up, and then given to the San Diego Museum of Man, included 29 late prehistoric projectile points, worked shell and bone, and pottery. They also found pestles, which are stones used as tools to grind acorns and seeds in mortar depressions in boulders. <A report on the dig by B.E.McCown was sent to the Smithsonian Institution on January 29, 1948.>
One frequent visitor to this river valley, who also knows the location of several mortars, is local artist Brett Stokes. He was six months old when his family moved to Fallbrook and he has been traveling the trail for more than 50 years. Therefore, Stokes is very familiar with the river’s more recent history.
On a hike last month, he said that the valley had the most vegetation that he has ever seen there. He remembers when “steelhead used to spawn in the river in the old days” and that “the beaver dam was washed out this past winter.” He also said that now is the time when ‘buzz worms’ (rattlesnakes) make their appearance.
Stokes also knows where the old train tracks used to run, and where the lone train rail is left sticking out of the sand by the river. Built through the canyon from Temecula to Fallbrook in 1880, the railroad tracks were washed out in a flood more than once and were finally abandoned in 1916.
Indian customs are another subject that Stokes, who is part Cherokee, knows a lot about. He identified several plants that Indians still use today including cedar, sweet grass and Indian tobacco. He explained that “mugwort is used in a ceremony similar to a spiritual cleansing by the Chumash.” He knows another tribe that uses dried white sage in purification ceremonies during the reburial of their ancestors when their burial sites are relocated.
Stokes’ local knowledge of Indian artifacts extends beyond the Santa Margarita River Valley. He can also locate mortars (also known as grinding stones) in several areas around Fallbrook. With several creeks running through town, near oak trees and granite boulders, it is not surprising to find mortars in those spots. The Luiseno Indians needed rocks and water to prepare their food, particularly the acorns.
According to Margie M. Burton, PhD, Research Director at the San Diego Archaeological Center, “Grinding stones were used to process a variety of plants, animals, and minerals. Mortars have rather straight-sided circular bowl-like depressions and were used with pestles to pound or pulverize materials.”
Burton, who received a grant from the National Science Foundation to research hunter-gatherer grinding technology, said, “Location near a water source might have been preferred for several reasons, including a ready supply of drinking water and water for leaching the acorn meal (necessary to remove tannins and make the acorn meal palatable). Most bedrock grinding installations in this area are on granitic rock.”
She added that “Grinding depressions often occur in clusters near each other. Grinding was a communal activity, and some of the depressions may have been in use simultaneously. However, others may have been abandoned because they became too deep or were no longer preferred for other reasons. Some depressions may have been used to hold materials at various stages during the processing sequence.” The results of her research project will help archaeologists to understand how the mortars were used and what materials may have been processed with them.
People who are interested in learning more about how the Luiseno Indians lived can visit the San Diego Archaeological Center, which contains a museum and provides educational programs. The Center is located at 16666 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido, and can be contacted at (760) 291-0370 or visited at
Another place to see local Indian artifacts is the Native American section in the Fallbrook Historical Society’s museum at 260 Rocky Crest Road (the entrance is on Hill Street.) The museum is open Thursdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. and by appointment. Messages can be left at (769) 723-4125 and more information can be found at http://www.fallbrookhistoricalsociety.com.
Bands of Luiseno Indians who live in this region now are San Luis Rey, Pechanga, Rincon, Soboba, and La Jolla. For a list of their Web sites, see the sidebar.
Although there is still more to learn about the Indians who passed through the Santa Margarita River Valley, much of the environment they lived in still exists. The river still flows, and floods occasionally; the Coast Live Oaks still produce acorns, willows and white sage still grow, and the stones on which the Indians ground acorns and seeds still lay alongside the river.
For a look at Luiseno life today, as well as their history, go to:
San Luis Rey Band
La Jolla Band