Chilling Out in Northern California

Nudity certainly has its place. I honestly can't imagine showering in my clothes. But why anybody would want to walk around au natural in the middle of a densely populated city escapes me. Especially in cold weather, for crying out loud! And in San Francisco! What about the fog, clouds, and rain? Simply thinking about the possibility turns my fingers blue and sends shivers down my spine.

Painting by Louis Choris of Northern Valley Yokuts hunting near San Francisco Bay (1816).

For whatever reason, going without clothes seems to be a tradition that goes way back in San Francisco history. Look as closely as you dare at the image to your left. The year was 1816 and the place San Francisco Bay. A scientific expedition organized by the emperor of Russia had traveled around Cape Horn to the West Coast of North America in search of the Northwest Passage. One of its members was a Russian-German artist named Louis Choris (1795–1828), who had already gained prominence as a botanical illustrator. Choris kept a visual record of people, plants, and animals that the party encountered.

Choris and other members of the expedition spent the month of October 1816 anchored in San Francisco Bay. The paintings he made during that period offer some of the most valuable insights we have into Northern California's Native Americans, their rich and vibrant culture, and California's Catholic missions before settlers from the United States arrived during the 1840s. The image shown here depicts two Native American hunters from the area around San Francisco Bay. The Smithsonian Institution identifies them as Northern Valley Yukots, members of the Native American group that lived in and around San Joaquin County. As with today's nature lovers, both hunters seem unfazed by what must have been chilly weather as summer waned and autumn arrived.

Leaving San Francisco Bay, Choris and the expedition headed west to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), then north to the Pacific Northwest and the territory we currently know as Alaska. Then they sailed home to Russia. Afterward, Chorus carried his paintings to Paris, copied them as lithographs, and had them published as a book titled Voyage pittoresque autour du monde, avec des portraits de sauvages d'Amérique, d'Asie, d'Afrique, et des îles du Grand Océan (Paris: Didot, 1822).

Choris's book includes images of Miwok and Yokut people, some of which are destined to appear in the upgraded exhibit on Native Americans in San Joaquin County currently under development at the Museum. Stay tuned for details as the planning proceeds.

Additional information about Choris, the Russian expedition of 1816, and other scientific excursions along the West Coast of North America can be found at the Web sites of the California Academy of Sciences and the Oakland Museum of California History.

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