Esselen Tribe

The Esselen Tribe is a small group of Indigenous Hokan speaking people who have inhabited the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Big Sur coast for over 6,000 years. The Esselen were known as the smallest and least known tribe in California.


The Esselen Tribe is from the upper Carmel Valley in the Santa Lucia Mountains and along the coast of Big Sur, most of their territory is in the Ventana Wilderness area of the Los Padres National Forest.



  • 1602- Spanish explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino, visits Monterey.
  • ~1752- Spanish missionary, Junipero Sera, travels up the coast with the goal of converting the Esselen to Catholicism.
  • 1797- The first mission was built and soon after the Esselen and nearby tribes were brought to three missions: Mission Carmel, San Antonio Mission, and the Soledad Mission.
  • *During the Mission era it is estimated that the Indigenous population of the Monterey area declined by 90% due to a variety of issues: introduced diseases, heavy labor, torture, inadequate living conditions, and diet.
Indigenous Land Territories, Esselen Tribe, Big Sur State Park

Esselen Life

The Esselen People were known for their ability to navigate the rugged and steep terrain of the Santa Lucia Mountains along with the steep cliffs over the water. This distinguished the Esselen Tribe from other tribes in California in terms of traveling and linguistics. The Esselen ate seafood, mashed acorns, and gathered plants from the inland forests.The peak called Pico Blanco is where the creation story for the Esselen Tribe takes place.


Esselen People Today

Today, approximately 460 individuals have identified themselves as descendants of the original Esselen people and banded together to form a tribe.

The Esselen Tribe of Monterey County with the help of the Western Rivers Conservancy gained back a 1,199 acres parcel of land along the Little Sur River. This is an important step for the Esselen people who have not owned land on their ancestral grounds since they were moved to missions ~250 years ago. Regaining some of this land is vital for the Esselen culture as well as the ecosystem’s that make up this beautiful terrain.