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Location: Central California just north of San Francisco Bay (Napa County & eastern Sonoma County)

Language: Yukian family

1770 estimate:
1910 Census: 73

The Wappo are one of the four groups included in the Yukian language family.  The dialect spoken by the Wappo differed from that of the Yuki, Huchnom, and Coast Yuki so that these groups would not have been able to understand each other easily.  The Wappo were separated from others in their language family by about 40 miles of Pomo territory. 

The Wappo were probably a group of Yuki who left the area where most of the Yuki lived and moved south.  Over time their language changed somewhat.  The Wappo were surrounded by people who spoke other languages, but they were friends with their neighbors most of the time.

The Wappo were known as kind people, who were not greedy.  They felt that for a person to own something was rude to others in the group, and so they shared everything.


Wappo villages were located in river and creek valleys just north of San Francisco Bay, and inland from the ocean.  The Napa River ran through Wappo land.  Some villages were on a stretch of the Russian River and on Elk Creek, which runs into the Russian River.  These river valleys were surrounded by low mountains.  A small group of Wappo lived, at one time, at the southern end of Clear Lake, quite far from the rest of the Wappo villages.

Each Wappo village had a headman who might be elected, appointed, or chosen because of some job he was doing at the time.  At times there was more than one headman in a village, and sometimes a woman served as headman.  The headman was in charge of dances and ceremonies, contacts with other villages, and passing on news and information.

The name Wappo was given to this group of early Californians by later settlers.  It is a form of the Spanish term guapo meaning brave, harsh, or severe.  The California town of Sonoma got its name from the Wappo ending -noma, meaning town, which the Wappo attached to the names of their villages. 


Wappo houses were oval in shape.  They were made with a framework of willow poles, each bent in toward the center of the oval, forming a shape that looked like an upside-down basket.  Over the poles, layers of grass were tied, making a thatched covering.  Inside, the floor was dug down about two feet below ground level.   This kept the floor area from getting cold drafts of air from outside.

It was common for several families to live in a single house.  Each family had its own doorway and its own fireplace inside, with a smokehole over the fireplace.  Each village also had one or two sweathouses, smaller than the family homes but made in the same way.  The men spent a lot of time in the sweathouse, sleeping there when the weather was cold. 

Because of the annual flooding of the rivers in this area, the Wappo built their homes on higher ground, sometimes as much as a mile away from the river.  In the summer, they moved to camps closer to the river, living in temporary shelters while the weather was warm.


Game that was available in Wappo territory included deer, rabbits, ducks, geese, and quail.  Acorns formed a main part of the diet of the Wappo, as they did for most early Californians.  They also ate buckeye nuts, several kinds of roots, and clover.  They collected wild honey.  Salt came from a saltlick at a nearby lake. 

Some of the Wappo made trips each summer to get food, going west to the ocean to gather sea food, and north to Clear Lake for freshwater fish.  The trip to the ocean would take several days, passing through Pomo land.  From the ocean, the Wappo took abalone, clams, mussels, and crabs, as well as eels and turtles.  They also fished for salmon and other saltwater fish.  Before starting the trip back to their villages, they dried much of the fish so that it would not spoil.  Dried seaweed was used as seasoning.


Both deerskins and tule rushes were used by the women to make their apron-like skirts.  A narrow piece was worn in the front, with a wider piece covering the hips in the back.  In warm weather, the men often did not wear clothing, or else wore a piece of deerskin wrapped around the hips.   Robes and blankets made of rabbit skins were worn by both men and women in cold weather. 

Most of the time, men and women did not wear anything on their head or feet.  For very cold weather, they made moccasins by sewing up a seam in a piece of deerskin. 


Stones, sticks, and shells were used by the Wappo as tools to make the things they needed in order to gather and prepare their food.  Mussel shells made good spoons and containers for small amounts of food.  Stone was chipped and shaped to make mauls (hammers) and axes.  A maul was used with a wedge to split logs for firewood.  Pieces of shell and deer antler were used to scrape both skins and wood. Small animals and deer were often trapped in nooses made of plant fibers, tied firmly together.  Sometimes a slingshot was used, with rocks serving as the shot, when hunting ducks or geese.   

Baskets had many uses among early California people.  Of all the things the Wappo made, they spent the most time on the baskets.  Wappo baskets were made like Pomo baskets, which are said to be the most beautiful in the country.  Both twined and coiled baskets were made, with willow branches being the favored material for both kinds.  The baskets were carefully formed and decorated. 

Basketmaking was usually the work of the women in early California.  However, the Wappo men did some basket work as well, making fish traps and eel baskets.


Clamshell beads served as money for the Wappo.  The pieces of clamshell were shaped and polished, and strung on strings in groups of ten.  Sometimes beads made of magnesite (a stone found in the area) were added to the clamshell disks.  The Wappo wore the strings of beads as decoration.

The Wappo carried on very little trade.  At one time they got bows and yellowhammer headbands from people living further north.  They also got magnesite beads from their northern neighbors, and seashells and sea food from the people living along the ocean.


The Wappo loved to dance.  They often visited their neighbors for celebrations on feast days, which always included dancing.  Musical instruments used with the dancing were the same as those that the Pomo used.  They had cocoon rattles (several cocoons filled with pebbles and hung from a stick), split-stick clappers, and whistles and flutes made from elderberry wood.

The Wappo did not have special ceremonies for boys as they grew into men, as some of their neighbors did.  They had a small ceremony when a girl became a woman.   Events like marriage, divorce, and death were treated without a great deal of ceremony by the Wappo.  No price was paid for a wife, but the two families exchanged equal gifts.

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