Like other Indian people who were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and brutality of non-Native Californians in the 1850s, the Cahtos fought back for a brief period before being defeated. Their population declined by some 95 percent during the nineteenth century. The town of Cahto was founded in 1856, the same year reservations were created at Round Valley and Fort Bragg in Mendocino County. The town of Laytonville was established in 1880.
Cahtos prayed frequently, in part to two original beings: Nagaicho, or Great Traveler, and Tcenes, or Thunder. They also followed the Kuksu cult, which involved the acquisition of spiritual power through direct contact with supernatural beings. Tribal and intertribal ceremonies were held in winter (such as the Acorn Dance) and summer. A host who had enough food to share invited his neighbors. Then there was dancing for a week, the creation story was told, and the headman made speeches.
The Cahtos lived in approximately fifty villages. Although most were completely autonomous, six in Long Valley were united to the extent that they called themselves Grass Tribe. Each village was led by a headman or two. His authority was mainly advisory, and he was generally succeeded by his son.
Marriage was generally a matter between the couple involved, although girls were generally prepubescent when married. The Cahtos practiced polygyny as well as the taboo that prevented a man from addressing his mother-in-law directly. Divorce was easily obtained for nearly any reason. Unlike many California Indians, pregnant Cahto women observed no food taboos. Deformed children and twins were killed at birth.
The six-day girls' puberty ceremony included dietary taboos and then a quiet life for five subsequent months. Boys, at puberty, remained in the dance house all winter to receive admonitions regarding proper behavior; "ghosts" also sang and danced for this purpose. Corpses were buried with their valuables or cremated if away from home. Both men and women mourners cut their hair, and women put pitch on their bodies.
Adult games included shinny, the grass game, stone throwing, and races. Children's games included camping, skipping rope, and playing with acorn tops. Women enjoyed singing in chorus around an evening fire. The Cahtos danced solely for pleasure as well as for ceremonial reasons. Pets included birds, coyotes, and rabbits.
The Cahtos knew three types of shamans: sucking doctors, bear doctors, and singing and dancing doctors. Bear doctors were said to be strong enough to kill enemies of the Cahtos. Various ceremonies, including magic, were practiced before all important events, such as hunting, war, birth, and funerals. Men owned hunting and war items; women owned their clothing, baskets, and cooking rocks. Men generally hunted and fished. Women gathered all foods except acorns; gathering acorns was a communal activity.
Living houses, which were privately owned by up to three families, were built over two-foot-deep pits. Slabs, bark, or earth covered wood rafters, which in turn rested on four poles. Most houses were rebuilt after two years as a vermin-control measure. Larger villages contained similarly built but larger dance houses.
Acorns, salmon, and deer served as food staples. Other important foods included other fish; bear; mink, raccoon, and other small game; birds; and some insects. Meat was generally broiled over coals or on a spit. The Cahtos also ate a variety of seeds, tubers, and berries. They also used domesticated dogs to help them hunt.
Stone, bone, and shell were the primary tool materials. Baskets were usually twined but sometimes coiled. Hunting tools included traps, snares, bows, arrows, slings, nets, and harpoons. Fish were sometimes poisoned. Musical instruments included whistles, rattles, a foot drum, a musical bow, and a six-hole elderberry flute.
The Cahtos were particularly friendly with the northern Pomos. Some Cahtos even spoke Pomo in addition to their own language. In addition to regular trade with the northern Pomos, the Cahtos gathered shellfish and seaweed in Coast Yuki territory. They also supplied these people with hazelwood bows in exchange for items such as salt, mussels, seaweed, abalone, sea fish, clamshells, and dried kelp. They traded arrows, baskets, and clothing to the Wailakis in exchange for dentalia. They also supplied clam disk beads to the Lassiks and received salt from the northern Wintuns, as well as dogs from an unknown location to the north.
Men and women dressed in a similar fashion. They both wore tanned deerhide aprons. They also wore long hair and used iris nets. Both wore bracelets, nose and ear ornaments, and occasionally tattoos.
The Cahtos seldom engaged in large-scale warfare. There were, however, frequent conflicts with the Sinkyones, Yukis, northern Pomos, Wailakis, and Huchnoms, generally over murder or trespass. When fighting occurred, close fighting was avoided whenever possible. War dances were held before each battle. Weapons included the bow and arrow, deer hide sling, and spear. All casualties were indemnified following the fighting.