Tolowa people

Published on December 16, 2012 by Amy

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Tolowa Womans Primitive Dress
Tolowa Womans Primitive Dress

The Tolowa people are a Native American tribe. They still reside in their traditional territories in northwestern California and southern Oregon. Tolowa are members of the federally recognized Smith River Rancheria, Elk Valley Rancheria, Confederated Tribes of Siletz, Trinidad Rancheria, as well as the unrecognized Tolowa Nation.

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The Tolowa people traditionally lived in the Smith River basin and vicinity in northwestern California and southwestern Oregon in the United States. The area was bounded by Port Orford, Oregon to the north and Wilson Creek, north of the Klamath River, in California to the south. They lived in approximately eight permanent villages in what is now California and Oregon, including on Crescent Bay, Lake Earl, and the Smith River. The name “Tolowa” is an Algonquian name given to them by the Yurok people. Their autonym is Xus, meaning “person.” (Their Karuk name, yuh’ára, “Indian from downriver” was also used for the Yurok).

They have traditionally spoken the Tolowa language, one of the Athapaskan languages. Their subsistence was oriented around riverine and marine resources and acorns. Their society was not formally stratified, but considerable stress was put on personal wealth.

Tolowa villages were organized around a headman and usually consisted of related men. The men brought wives in from neighboring tribes. The brides were usually related (sisters), in order for the wealth to remain in the paternal families.

Epidemics hit the Tolowa before face-to-face contact with non-natives. Jedediah Smith and his exploration party were the first known non-native to contact the Tolowa in 1828. During the 1850s, over half of the Tolowa people died from disease and mass murders by Anglo-Americans, such as the Yontoket Massacre and the Achulet Massacre. In 1860, after the Chetco/Rogue River War, 600 Tolowas were forcibly relocated to Indian reservations in Oregon. Later, some were moved to the Hoopa Valley Reservation in California. The tribe embraced the Ghost Dance religion from 1872 to 1882.


Estimates for the pre-contact populations of most native groups in California have varied substantially. Alfred L. Kroeber estimated the 1770 population of the Tolowa was 1,000. Sherburne F. Cook initially reduced this to 450, but subsequently raised his estimate to 2,400, with which Martin A. Baumhoff also agreed. The 1920 census listed 121 Tolowa left in Del Norte County, California. Kroeber reported the population of the Tolowa in 1910 as 150.

Today there are approximately 1,000 Tolowa Indians.

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Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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