What Is the History of Miwok Houses?

The earliest Miwok lived in small groups in cedar tepees and lean-to shelters made from strips of bark or branches stacked around a center pole with floors of woven pine needles. Anthropologists group the Miwok into four distinct sub-groups based on cultural and geographic similarities. The Coast, Bay and Lake Miwok fished for salmon and trout and followed seasonal spawning patterns while the Plains and Sierra Miwok hunted elk, deer and antelope and followed the migratory patterns of these animals.

The early Miwok never intended for their tepees to be permanent since they would abandon them and continue their pattern of hunting and fishing within a short period of time. The Miwok also held a spiritual belief that forbade them from encroaching upon the land in a way that destroyed its natural state.

The Miwok eventually formed small villages of between 100 to 500 people. They began to live in pit houses that were dug up to 15 feet into the ground and layered with sheets of bark and groups of sticks or reeds arranged in a conical shape around a center beam. These homes contained an earthen oven or fireplace for warmth and cooking. Many villages also contained a large assembly house and a smaller sweat house that were set 3 to 5 feet into the ground with a roof supported by center beams and walls strung together with twigs and branches, and then covered with layers of mud and grass.

A vast majority of the Miwok died from disease after encounters with Europeans and approximately 80 percent of those who survived relocated to Franciscan missions or government reservations. Others became indentured farmers committed to the land they worked, or seasonal migrant workers who continued to live in temporary shelters.