Fred W. Nason

Esselen elder Fred W. Nason at the roundhouse.

They said the Esselen people native to Monterey County were extinct—until Fred Nason proved them wrong.

The story is part of the rich legacy of Carmel Valley rancher Fredrick W. Nason Jr., an Esselen descendent and patriarch many called "Grandfather." He died at age 90 on Jan. 29.

As Fred's son, Tom Little Bear Nason, tells it:

In the mid-1990s, Monterey Peninsula Water Management District proposed to build a new dam on the Carmel River. After collecting evidence of ancient Esselen villages in the path of the proposed inundation, Little Bear, his brother Fred and their father, the elder Fred, traveled to Sacramento to protest the dam proposal on behalf of the Esselen Tribe.

Little Bear remembers State Water Resources Control Board staff responding along the lines of, “History books say there are no Esselens left. You’re extinct.”

The elder Fred stood up and dared them to prove it.

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A state-funded analysis connected an ancient skull dug up in Pebble Beach with his father's DNA, Little Bear says: “That’s how they found out the Esselen are still alive."

State officials couldn't immediately confirm the story—or deny it. Perhaps the records are too long faded. But the state Native American Heritage Commission now lists the Esselen among Monterey County tribes with living descendants. 

Fred W. Nason lived in deep Carmel Valley, down winding Tassajara Road at the entrance to the Los Padres National Forest. His family describes him as a cowboy and rancher with celebrated horsemanship skills. He was also a wilderness guide, leading customers on horseback through the Santa Lucia Mountains.

"Fred's passing is a great loss to not only the people of the valley who knew him, but also to the indigenous people of the valley," says Rudy Rosales of Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation. "Fred was one of the elders of our people and is respected and honored not only in this life, but also he will be well received in the spirit world where I know he will rest in peace with all our ancestors."

Fred and his wife, Roseann Marie Lambert (deceased, 2005), had four children: Fredrick Lambert Nason (deceased, 1993), Gail Lynn Nason, Marion Iverne Nason and Thomas Little Bear Nason. He also leaves behind nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A celebration of Fred W. Nason's life happens Saturday, Feb. 28, noon, at Carmel Valley Trail and Saddle Club, with Native American drumming and ceremony, speakers and cowboy music. Donations in his memory can be made to California Rangeland Trust.

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