The Esselen were a Native American linguistic group in the hypothetical Hokan language family, who resided in what is now known as Big Sur in the Monterey Bay Area, California. Archaeological and linguistic evidence indicates that the original people's territory once extended much further north, into the San Francisco Bay Area, until they were displaced by the entrance of Ohlone speakers. Richard Levy places the displacement around AD 500 based on linguistic evidence.

The Esselen resided along the upper Carmel and Arroyo Seco Rivers, and along the Big Sur coast. There were also settlements in the coastal mountains. They were hunter-gatherers who resided in small groups with no centralized political authority.

The Esalen Institute in Big Sur is named after this group.


The name Esselen "probably derived from the name of a major native village", possibly from the village known as Exse'ein, or the place called Eslenes the site of the Mission San Carlos. Another possibility is that "Exse'ein" or "The Rock" refers to the large promontory on which the Pt. Sur Lightstation is situated; it is visible for miles both up and down the coast. The Spanish extended the term to mean the entire linguistic group. Variant spellings exist in old records, including Aschatliens, Ecclemach, Eslen, Eslenes, Excelen, and Escelen. Hester was wrong: "Aschatliens" refers to a group around Mission San Carlos, in and around the village or Achasta. See Breschini and Haversat 2004.


Estimates for the pre-contact populations of most native groups in California have varied substantially. Alfred L. Kroeber suggests a 1770 population for the Esselen of 500. Sherburne F. Cook raises this estimate to 750. A more recent calculation (based on baptism records and density) is that they numbered 1,185-1,285.

The Esselen were absorbed into the population of Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo in present-day Carmel, California, where many died from disease, demoralization, poor food, and overwork.


The Esselen language is a language isolate. It is hypothetically part of the Hokan family.

See also



  • Bean, Lowell John, editor. 1994. The Ohlone: Past and Present Native Americans of the San Francisco Bay Region. Menlo Park, CA: Ballena Press Publication. ISBN 0-87919-129-5. Includes Leventhal et al. Ohlone Back from Extinction..
  • Breschini, Gary S. and Trudy Haversat 2005. A Brief Overview of the Esselen Indians of Monterey County. Available online. File retrieved Sep. 7, 2007.
  • Levy, Richard. 1978. Costanoan, in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 8 (California). William C. Sturtevant, and Robert F. Heizer, eds. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1978. ISBN 0-16-004578-9 / 0160045754
  • Cook, Sherburne F. 1976. The Conflict between the California Indian and White Civilization. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Kroeber, Alfred L. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin No. 78. Washington, D.C.
  • Hester, Thomas R. 1978. Esselen, in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 8 (California). William C. Sturtevant, and Robert F. Heizer, eds. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1978, pages 496-499. ISBN 0-16-004578-9 / 0160045754

Further reading

  • Breschini, Gary S. and Trudy Haversat. 2004. The Esselen Indians of the Big Sur Country: The Land and the People. Salinas, CA: Coyote Press, 2004. ISBN 1-4044-0003-6

External links

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