August 29

This Day in History

Old West

Aug 29, 1911:

Ishi discovered in California

Ishi, described as the last surviving Stone Age Indian in the contiguous United States, is discovered in California.

By the first decade of the 20th century, Euro-Americans had so overwhelmed the North American continent that scarcely any Native Americans remained who had not been assimilated into Anglo society to some degree. Ishi appears to have been something of an exception. Found lost and starving near an Oroville, California, slaughterhouse, he was largely unfamiliar with white ways and spoke no English.

Authorities took the mysterious Indian into custody for his own protection. News of the so-called "Stone Age Indian" attracted the attention of a young Berkeley anthropologist named Thomas Waterman. Gathering what partial vocabularies existed of northern California Indian dialects, the speakers of which had mostly vanished, Waterman went to Oroville to meet the Indian. After unsuccessfully hazarding words from several dialects, Waterman tried a few words from the language of the Yana Indians. Some were intelligible to Ishi, and the two men were able to engage in a crude dialogue. The following month, Waterman took Ishi to live at the Berkeley University museum, where their ability to communicate gradually improved.

Waterman eventually learned that Ishi was a Yahi Indian, an isolated branch of the northern California Yana tribe. He was approximately 50 years old and was apparently the last of his people. Ishi said he had wandered the mountains of northern California for some time with a small remnant of the Yahi people. Gradually, accident or disease had killed his companions. A white man murdered his final male companion, and Ishi wandered alone until he reached Oroville.

For five years, Ishi lived at the Berkeley Museum. He and Waterman became close friends, and he spent his days describing his tribal customs and demonstrating his wilderness skills in archery, woodcraft, and other traditional techniques. He learned to understand and survive in the white world, and enjoyed wandering the Bay area communities and riding on the trolley cars. Eventually, though, Ishi contracted tuberculosis. He died on March 25, 1916, at an estimated age of 56. His body was cremated according to the customs of his people.

Fact Check We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!

What Happened on Your Birthday?

Pick a Date

Shop HISTORY

  • America The Story of Us

    America The Story of Us

    From the rigors of linking the continent by wagon trails to the transcontinental railway, the engineering of steel-structured buildings, through to landing on the moon, this epic 12-part series is a grand cinematic vision of how the USA was built.

  • American Pickers: The Complete Season 1 DVD Set

    American Pickers: The Complete Season 1 DVD Set

    Own the first season of the highest-rated HISTORY series!

  • How the States Got Their Shapes: Season 1 DVD SET

    How the States Got Their Shapes: Season 1 DVD SET

    HOW THE STATES GOT THEIR SHAPES explores how our borders evolved--and continue to change--in response to religion, transportation, communication, politics, culture clashes and even Mother Nature.