Posted by: James Wapotich | October 30, 2017

Trail Quest: Sisquoc Trail Survey

The sky is still overcast as we leave camp, delaying at least the heat of the day. It is the last volunteer trail project of the season before temperatures in the backcountry become unbearable. The project is based out of Manzana Schoolhouse Campground, which is located at the confluence of Manzana Creek and Sisquoc River.

It’s the morning of the second day and the volunteers are being divided into groups to tackle various projects organized by Los Padres Forest Association.

One group makes their way back up Manzana Trail to clear brush, picking up where they left off the day before. Another group is tasked with clearing the bypass trail that leads around one of the private inholdings, and a third group is heading out along Sisquoc Trail to cut out several large trees that have fallen across the trail.

I’ve been invited to join Joan Brandoff and Jim Blakley. Their task is to survey sections of Sisquoc Trail between Manzana Schoolhouse and Water Canyon Camp to ensure that no significant archeological resources will be adversely affected by trail maintenance.

Roberts Flat Sisquoc Trail San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest hike Jim Blakley homestead Joan Brandoff archeologist

Roberts Flat

Earlier in the year, Mr. Blakley had surveyed the trail, backpacking in along Jackson Trail to Sycamore Camp and hiking Sisquoc Trail down to Manzana Schoolhouse. He had run out of time to thoroughly visit several places between Water Canyon Camp and Manzana Schoolhouse and was returning to survey the sites he’d missed.

Joining him is Ms. Brandoff, who worked as an archeologist for the Forest Service from 1973-2009, starting with Monterey Ranger District and later becoming Heritage Program Director for Los Padres National Forest. It was through the Forest Service that she met Mr. Blakley’s father, E. R. “Jim” Blakley. Mr. Blakley Sr. had done extensive research on the homesteads along Sisquoc River, interviewing settlers and their descendants; gathering old photos of homesteads; and visiting the different sites.

In some ways, Mr. Blakley’s interest in backcountry history grew out of his father’s work. “He had not paid as much attention to the rock art sites he had visited,” Mr. Blakley told the News-Press, “and later recruited me to go hunt them down and gather more precise information when he got too old to go himself and verify what he remembered seeing.”

“It then made sense to share what I found with the Forest Service.” he added, which is how he got know Ms. Brandoff, the Forest Service archeologist at the time.

Roberts homestead Sisquoc Trail San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Jim Blakley archeolgocial survey

Stove parts from the Roberts homestead

In preparation for the survey, they had gathered the available information from the Forest Service for the different sites along the route to verify and update that information with what we find.

Our route leads across Manzana Creek and up onto what’s known as Roberts Flat, one of the many terraces, or benches, overlooking the floodplain of the river.

Roberts Flat is cut by several dry creek channels that drain Hurricane Deck. As we approach the first side canyon I remember reading Mr. Blakley Sr. had noted that stove parts from the Roberts homestead could be found leaning against an oak tree. Having been through the area several times without ever finding them, I mention it off-handedly to Mr. Blakley.

He hasn’t heard that detail, but from previous visits has a sense of where the site should be. As we near the area, he makes a bee-line to the exact oak where the stove parts are located, as if the answer was already written in his DNA.

We pause here, while Mr. Blakley notes the location and takes measurements and photos of the stove parts for the site record that will be created when we return. We then search the area for other evidence of the homestead but come up empty.

Henry Irving Roberts was the son-in-law of Hiram Preserved Wheat, who was the de facto leader of the homesteading community along Sisquoc River and Manzana Creek. In the late 1800s a group of settlers, largely interrelated through marriage, headed out from Santa Maria and lived here until the early 1900s.

Sisquoc Trail follows sections of the old road built and maintained by the homesteaders.

Sisquoc Guard Station San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Jim Blakley Joan Brandoff archeology survey

Joan Brandoff and Jim Blakley take notes and measurements at the Sisquoc Guard Station site

Our next stop is what’s left of Sisquoc Guard Station. The administrative cabin was built in 1910, and is said to have been made with wood salvaged from the homesteads. The site was used by backcountry rangers and is off the main trail near a side canyon with a spring. The structure collapsed in 1983, and was never rebuilt.

The site record for the cabin isn’t very detailed and so we take extra time to do a thorough survey, noting the plants and topography, taking measurements and recording various features, as well as creating a diagram of the area.

The information gathered from these site records is put into a database so researchers and resource managers can access it without necessarily visiting the site.

“We talk so much about resources.” Ms. Brandoff reflected. “There are renewable resources like the water, plants, and animals. And then there’s non-renewable resources, things that you can’t grow back again, like cultural resources.”

Cultural resources provide us a richer understanding of our local heritage and the people who came before us. However, time and the elements can degrade site features. And unfortunately artifacts both historic and prehistoric have been removed by people, starting with the first explorers and homesteaders, and including modern-day visitors.

Older site records often describe items at sites that are no longer there.

Not only is it illegal to remove artifacts from federal land, it reduces the contextual experience of a site.

“If you can go out and find parts of the plow, or old cooking equipment that was there, or other parts of the settlers’ lives,” Ms Brandoff added, “it enhances the experience, more than just coming up to the remains of a chimney.”

Chumash tools arrowheads drills chert Sisquoc River San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest archeology cultural resources survey

Spent chert core used for making stone tools

While hiking along the trail, I would often observe Mr. Blakley scanning the trail corridor, looking for what he called lithics. The terms means stones, however, in this context specifically refers to stone material that has been intentionally worked.

No Chumash sites were found along the route we surveyed, however, Mr. Blakley did find what they both described as a spent core along the trail. The small piece of chert was left over from a larger nodule of material that was used to produce stone tools such as arrowheads, scrappers, and drill points. Pieces of material would’ve been cleaved from the original rock, and the chips and flakes worked further to produce different tools.

Chipped stone scatters are one of the more common remnants of Chumash activity in the backcountry, however they do not always indicate that a site was a village or camp. They can also be found where a native person was sharpening or creating new tools, for example, while waiting and watching for game.

Men were not the only ones who made stone tools as Ms Brandoff pointed out. “Women also needed sharp tools to cut basketry materials and it is not uncommon to find chipped stone scatters near bedrock mortars.”

In this case it’s likely the person carrying the spent core had gotten all the useful material they could from it and either discarded it or lost it.

Placing the item back where he found it, Mr. Blakley notes its description and location, but does not create a site record. There would need to be additional pieces or other artifacts nearby to record it as an archeological site.

Root Cellar Lucien Forrester homestead Sisquoc River San Rafael Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Joan Brandoff archeology survey

Joan Brandoff surveys the remains of Lucien Forrester’s root cellar

Eventually our route leads across Sisquoc River, and we arrive at an open flat on the north side of the river. Here, the trail branches. To the left the trail follows the old road cut as it continues above the river. To the right, an off-trail route follows the river rejoining the trail further upstream.

Near the intersection are the remains of William Henry Spitler’s homestead. In his research, Mr. Blakley Sr. noted that Spitler had an apple orchard near his cabin. Today, all that can be found are the hearth stones. The fruit trees were likely swept away by the river during heavy rains.

From here, we opt to follow the use-trail route along the river and include it in our survey, since it will also take us past the homestead of Lucien Forrester, which lacks a site record.

At the site we find remnants of Forrester’s root cellar, a rectangular stone wall with oak saplings now growing in the center. Root cellars were used in the days before refrigeration to keep vegetables, fruits, and preserves cool. Along with chimneys, or hearth stones, root cellars are some of the more common remnants from the homesteading period still found in the backcountry.

Past the Forrester site we visit two more homestead sites before returning to camp. The next day we make our way back to the trailhead and head home. The information we’ve gathered will be added to what the Forest Service has on file and this particular section of trail is now clear for trail maintenance projects.

This article originally appeared in section A of the September 25th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.


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