The Wintu (also Northern Wintun) are Native Americans who live in what is now Northern California. They are part of a loose association of peoples known collectively as the Wintun (or Wintuan). Others are the Nomlaki and the Patwin. The Wintu language is part of the Penutian language family.
Historically, the Wintu lived primarily on the western side of the northern part of the Sacramento Valley, from the Sacramento River to the Coast Range. The range of the Wintu also included the southern portions of the Upper Sacramento River (south of the Salt Creek drainage), the southern portion of the McCloud River, and the upper Trinity River. They also lived in the vicinity of present-day Chico, on the west side of the river extending to the Coast Ranges.
The predominant theory regarding the settlement of the Americas date the original migrations from Asia to around 20,000 years ago across the Bering Strait land bridge, but one anthropologist claims that the Wintu and some other northern California tribes descend from Siberians who arrived in California by sea around 3,000 years ago.
The first recorded encounter between Wintu and Euro-Americans dates from the 1826 expedition of Jedediah Smith, followed by an 1827 expedition led by Peter Skene Ogden. Between 1830 and 1833, many Wintu died from malaria: an epidemic that killed an estimated 75% of the indigenous population in the upper and central Sacramento Valley.
In following years the weakened Wintu fell victim to competition for resources by incoming European-American settlers. Their sheep and cattle herds destroyed the Wintu food supply and Gold miners' processing activities caused pollution of rivers. The Wintu were also forced to work as laborers in gold mining operations. In 1846 John C. Frémont and Kit Carson killed 175 Wintu and Yana.
Settlers tried to control Wintu land and relocate the people west of Clear Creek. In a "friendship feast" in 1850, whites served poisoned food to local Indians, from which 100 Nomsuu and 45 Wenemem Wintu died. More deaths and destruction of Wintu land followed in 1851 and 1852, in incidents such as the Bridge Gulch Massacre.
The religious stories and legends of the Trinity River Wintu were told by Grant Towendolly to Marcelle Masson, who published them in A Bag of Bones (1966).
Scholars have disagreed about the historic population of the tribes before European-American contact. Alfred L. Kroeber estimated the combined 1770 population of the Wintu, Nomlaki, and Patwin as 12,000. Sherburne F. Cook initially put the population of the Wintu proper as 2,950, but later he nearly doubled his estimate to 5,300. Frank R. LaPena estimated a total of 14,250 in his work of the 1970s.
Kroeber estimated the population of the Wintu, Nomlaki, and Patwin in 1910 as about 1,000. Today the population has recovered somewhat and there are about 2,500 Wintun, many of whom live on the Round Valley Reservation, and on the Colusa, Cortina, Grindstone Creek, Redding, and Rumsey rancherias.
The Wintun Indian people have three divisions: the Wintu (northern), Nomlaki (central), and Patwin (southern). Their traditional territories are located in the greater Sacramento Valley, with the Sacramento River a major feature of all the regions. Their lands vary from the Wintu mountain rivers in the north, through the Nomlaki plains, to the marshes, valleys, and hills of the Patwin. Their languages are of the Penutian family. Their diet came from the semiannual runs of king salmon up major rivers, to acorns and other vegetable foods, to game. In the early 1800s, there were approximately 12,000-15,000 members of the Wintun Tribe. Spanish settlers arrived in Wintun territory by 1808, and the Hudson Bay Company trappers arrived sometime before 1832. Tribal unity was destroyed by the taking of land and the destruction of traditional food and material-gathering areas. Along with the introduction of cattle, hogs, and sheep, the construction of dams, and the Copper processing plants in the 1880s and early 1900s, the Wintun suffered a heavy toll on their health and survival. Today there are over 2,500 people of Wintun descent. Many live on the Round Valley Reservation, and on the Colusa, Cortina, Grindstone Creek, Redding, and Rumsey rancherias.
Some of the California Indian tribes that are descended from Russian Siberians, Von Sadovszky said, are the Wintuan, of the Sacramento Valley, the Miwokan, of the area north of San Francisco, and the Costanoan, of the area south of San Francisco.