A Life on the Land-His Own and That of Others

Gregorio Omish is not on most lists of movers and shakers in San Diego County history. He was born in 1879 on the Rincon Reservation and grew up there, an Indian of Luiseño roots.

In the 1900 United States Census, he was living and working as a farm laborer on the ranch of Gustavus Merriam in what is today the Twin Oaks Valley section of San Marco. Gustavus Merriam is known to readers of this blog and others as the first European settler of that area and the man who gave Twin Oaks Valley its name. The nearby Merriam Mountains are also named in this honor.

Merriam prospered as a grower of grapes for wine and brandy and as a beekeeper. But part of the source of his prosperity was his farmhands. In addition to his wife and son, those farmhands also included two Native Americans, one of whom was Gregorio Omish.

In later censuses one can find Gregorio working on his family’s farm on the Rincon Reservation. But he moved around in his work, and in that respect was an example of the pattern followed by many Native Americans in those years.

“In the fifty years between 1850 and 1900 Indian people practiced agriculture when it was feasible but often found the economic rewards minimal,” according to a 1996 essay on Indian labor in San Diego County by archaeologists Richard Carrico and Florence Shipek.  “This is not to say that they did not attempt farming or stock raising but rather that wages paid for labor on other’s farms and ranches often exceeded the economic return of working reservation land.”

Carrico and Shipek cited Omish as an example of that trend, citing sources like the census, newspapers of the day, accounts of other settlers, and personal journals Omish kept. They noted, for example, that “from 1893 to 1910 [Omish] raised wheat and barley for sale, raised and sold livestock, picked grapes, cut and sold wood, hunted and sold quails, and worked as a laborer.”

“Ever the opportunist,” Carrico and Shipek wrote, like most Luiseños, Omish worked at these various tasks as the season or market dictated.”

Gregorio Omish managed to live out his life working the land, dying at the age of 70 in 1949. His obituary in The San Diego Union of May 21, datelined Rincon, was short, but included a sentence more fitting than the reporter may have realized: “He was a farmer and had resided here all his life.”

Sources for this post included historic San Diego County newspapers and the essay, “Indian Labor in San Diego County, 1850-1900,” published on the website, www.kumeyaay.com .

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