By Cory Peterman
The Lost Tribe of Sierra County
The geneticist Peter D. Cornmay can be credited with first documenting the remnants of what was known as the “Lost Tribe” of Sierra County back in 1969. However, his documentation didn’t receive much acknowledgement until quite recently, as protests regarding the Vietnam War at Cornmay’s campus of UC Berkeley resulted in the interruption of Cornmay’s presentation on his findings. Cornmay further withheld the presentation of his research due to the release of the movie Deliverance in 1972, as he felt viewers would assume the “Lost Tribe” of Sierra County were as ruthless as the mountain people portrayed in the film. Cornmay’s findings were finally released last year, but have rarely been talked about, as important events like the Covid-19 pandemic have been at the forefront of attention. So what did Cornmay exactly find in his research?
Cornmay determined that approximately 420 Sierra County residents at the time were descended from the Lost Tribe. He discovered that there once were two distinctive branches of the Lost Tribe – one branch in the rugged mountains of the west side of the county, and one branch at the east side in what is now known as the Sierra Valley. Unfortunately, the pure bloodline of the Lost Tribe was lost when the group intermixed with settlers during the Gold Rush, but many of the tribe’s characteristics remained with the mixed descendants of the two groups.
For example, descendants of the tribe had the tendency to drool from their mouths. However, there was a clear difference between the drooling patterns of those living on the west side of the county, and those on the east side of the county: those from the west side only drooled from one side of their mouths, and those from the east side drooled from both sides. Cornmay determined that on the west side, the drooling from one side of the mouth was due to that branch of the tribe living on sloped, mountainous territory, causing the head to tilt; however, since the tribe of the east side of the county lived on a flat valley, this caused the head to be level, allowing the drool to come out from both sides of the mouth.
Cornmay also noticed that tribe members on the west side of the county often had fewer fingers than normal human beings. He was not able to determine if this was genetic or accidental, as descendants of the west side tribe members typically worked in the gold mines and had a tendency to crush their fingers. Also, at the east side of the county, Cornmay noticed descendants of that tribe often suffered from tooth loss or mouth cancer. Again, Cornmay could not determine if this was genetic or not, as the east side members of the tribe had the tendency to chew tobacco, much like the ranchers and farmhands they integrated with.
A typical household of the Lost Tribe of Sierra County included two males (uncle-father and brother-son) and two females (aunt-mother and sister-daughter). Sometimes, there were variations in the household, like cousin-sister or uncle-grandfather.
Linguistic differences were also noted. For example, those on the west side preferred to “warsh” their fingerless hands, instead of “washing” them. Though west siders were able to pronounce the county seat of Downieville correctly, east siders had the tendency to say “Donny-ville”. Strong musical abilities with the banjo were also noted.
Speaking of “warshin’”, Cornmay claims the Lost Tribe can also be credited with the invention of the toothbrush, as he discovered an ancient Lost Tribe diary with two illustrations of a rugged form of a toothbrush, with the following inscriptions: “1: The toothbrush – ‘cuz we only gotta warsh one tooth – and 2: The teethbrush – for them city folk with more than one tooth”.
Several descendants of the Lost Tribe have even left the county, myself included, to go to college and to marry outside of the community. However, many have had trouble finding romantic relationships outside of the county and returned home. Therefore, a local tech-savvy tribe member founded the company that created one of the first dating websites – ancestry.com – though the company was later bought out and changed from a Sierra County dating website to a worldwide genealogy website.
The next time you visit Sierra County, you may run into what appears like a raggedy old hillbilly – but before you pass any judgment, please remember that this person may be a descendent of the Lost Tribe of Sierra County – please treat them with kindness and respect!
(April Fools! Though this article was written for comical purposes, I can attest to the following: it is said all things are relative, but in Sierra County, almost all people are relatives. Being a sixth-generation native of the county, I have found myself distantly related to the majority of the people I grew up with. In fact, I started a family tree on ancestry.com, currently with 1,300 people, primarily Sierra County residents. According to the tree, The Mountain Messenger editor, Carl Butz, is the “first cousin once removed of the wife of the nephew of the wife of the nephew of the wife of my first cousin four times removed”. No joke.)