Culture was in place well before the rush to settle French Prairie

The last time we were together we looked at the story of the Willamette Post, located south of Newberg just across the river.

Let’s go south once again and examine the culture of a people who flourished through the first part of the 19th century in that part of the Willamette Valley we refer to as French Prairie.

This culture was primarily composed of French Canadian trappers, at one time employed by the Hudson’s Bay Com­pany at Fort Vancouver, and their Native Amer­ican wives. In­cluded were the offspring of these unions.

The French word Métis (pronounced “matee”) is often used to describe the culture. Before the American Civil War (1861-65), the word for mixed-race individuals was mestee.

Near Newberg, the Métis people generally lived in small cabins on home sites scattered throughout the present-day communities of Champoeg and St. Paul.

Elsewhere, other locations hosting these families included what we know today as Charbonneau, Gervais, St. Louis and everything to the city limits of Keizer.

By the late 1820s, the Métis had become the dominant population group in the area, surpassing many of the Native American tribes whose presence in the Willamette Valley had extended back for centuries.

Oregon historians generally believe the role of the Métis in the settlement and economic history of the Oregon Territory has never been fully appreciate.

This is particularly evident in the agricultural development of the Willamette Valley, often and mistakenly attributed to the first settlers who came here from the east via the Oregon Trail.

The truth is, between 1829 and 1843, successful Métis agricultural communities were already flourishing in the heart of the French Prairie.

Put another way, when the first wagon train arrived in Oregon City in 1843, it was not greeted by a virgin wilderness but a settled landscape whose population had already discovered the agricultural strategies needed to successfully farm the valley.

This helps explain why the Jason Lee Mission bypassed the richness of French Prairie to settle close to Salem (Willamette Mission State Park, north of Keizer). All the best land to the north had been taken.

What caused the Métis to be largely forgotten is a research topic that has been a source of fascination to archeologist David Brauner at Oregon State University in Corvallis for the past 30 years.

In an interview I did with him a few years ago, Brauner gave me his explanation for what finally happened to the Métis.

“They were illiterate,” he said, “so they didn’t chronicle their history, dreams, aspirations and goals for the future.”

“They spoke French, their own jargon, native languages, but not English. They were viewed by most Americans as being Indian. On the other hand, having worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, many Americans viewed them as British.

“Most of all, they were Catholic, a religion abhorred by the increasingly dominant Pro­testant population pouring into the Valley.”

The result of all this, he said, was that throughout the 1840s and 1850s, the French-Ca­na­dian/Métis land base began to diminish.

He concluded: “In the end, social and cultural incompatibility, exclusionary land claim laws and Indian removal policies were foremost in separating them from their highly coveted land.”

Today, the only perceived impact of the Métis population on Oregon history is with a few scattered place names, small communities that still dot the landscape.

Newberg resident George Edmonston Jr. is the retired editor of OSU’s alumni magazine, the Oregon Stater, and is a frequent contributor of history features to this newspaper. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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