The Tolowa were so called by their neighbors to the south, the YUROK, because they lived near Lake Earl, the translation of their name being “those people who live at the lake.” Tolowa, pronounced TAHL-oh-wah, originally referred to one of three bands, the others being the Hen-naggi and Tataten. All three groups were called Smith River Indians by non-Indian settlers because they had villages along the Smith River and its tributaries. Other villages were situated along the Pacific Ocean’s Crescent Bay. The territory of the Tolowa was situated in the northwestern corner of present-day California (extending slightly across the border into present-day southwestern Oregon), and they are classified in the California Culture Area, that is, as CALIFORNIA INDIANS. Like the HUPA living to the south of Yurok lands and the TAKELMA and UMPQUA living to the north in Oregon, the Tolowa were among those ATHAPASCANS who broke off from kin in present-day northwestern Canada and migrated southward. They referred to themselves in their Athapascan dialect as Hush or Huss, meaning “the people.”
Tolowa villages were politically autonomous, with ties among villages determined by kinship. Each village had its own headman and shaman or shamans. Women could attain the status of shaman—not the case with many tribes. Political influence was based largely on wealth in such possessions as obsidian tools, dentalium shell beads, redheaded-woodpecker scalps, basketwork, and seal and sea lion skins. The various tribes of the region engaged in regular trade of such items; strings of dentalia were especially used as a medium of exchange. Intertribal marriages sometimes took place, wives living in the husbands’ villages. The Tolowa depended on the sea for subsistence more than did other tribes and fished and hunted sea mammals offshore in dugout canoes made from redwood logs. They lived in their coastal villages, numbering as many as eight, for much of the year, moving upriver for part of the summer and autumn to fish for salmon, gather acorns, and hunt in the forests. Permanent semisubterranean houses were made from redwood planks; nearly square, they had round entrances and gabled roofs with low peaks and central smoke holes. The floor was sunken, except for ground-level ledges along the interior walls used for storage. At the center of each structure was a pit for keeping a fire for heating and cooking. Single men and adolescent boys slept in smaller sweathouses, which also served as clubhouses.
Tribal tradition maintains that disease carried to the Tolowa by explorers forced the abandonment of a village in the late 18th century. Their first recorded contact with non-Indians did not occur until 1828, however, when an expedition led by Jedediah Smith traveled through their homeland. The California gold rush starting in 1849 led to increased traffic to their lands. In 1852, non-Indians first settled what came to be Crescent City. Instances of violence between the Tolowa and newcomers resulted. In 1852—55, many Tolowa were forced to live on a military reservation on the Klamath River to the south of their territory. In 1860, many were relocated to reservations in Oregon. A separate reservation was created for the Tolowa on the Smith River in 1862, but it was terminated six years later. In 1872, some tribal members began participating in various religious revitalization movements, such as the Ghost Dance of 1870, founded by Wodziwob, a prophet among the PAIUTE.
In 1906—08, after an act of Congress established small reservations for a number of landless tribes, the Smith River and Elk Valley Rancherias were created. In 1927, some Tolowa began practicing the Indian Shaker Religion (Tschadam), founded by John Slocum of the SQUAXON in the 1880s. In 1958, the two rancherias were terminated by the Rancheria Termination Act, and federal funds were cut off. Tribally owned protected land status was restored in 1983. The Tolowa have since undergone a cultural resurgence, aided in part by funds available from the Lucky 7 and Elk Valley Casinos.