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BLUE HERON BEGINNINGS: James Nicita's commentary on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project

When the Willamette Falls Legacy Project (WFLP) adopted the master plan for its Riverwalk in 2017, it released its draft "Cultural Landscape Report" authored by the consulting firm MIG, with Laurie Matthews as project lead.

For someone who has become convinced, over the course of writing this column since 2013, that Oregon City's history is not only nationally significant but also, to a great extent, still unknown and waiting to be discovered, issuance of the report was an important milestone. It provided new facts and stories about Oregon City's history. It appeared with concise text and graphics in a manner whereby its wide distribution could help our community become fluent in the history and culture of the Willamette Falls area. In addition, the report served up some potential new leads that might be pursued in more detail in future installments of this column.

SOURCE: NATIONAL PARK SERVICE - Artist Paul Kane's circa 1847 representation of Cayuse chiefs Telokite and Tomahas. Perhaps the most intriguing discussion for this writer related to the Cayuse Five: Clokomas, Kiamasumkin, Isiaasheluckas, Tomahas and Telokite. In 1850 they were tried and convicted of committing the so-called "Whitman Massacre" in 1847. They were hanged in Oregon City, in what is now the WFLP planning area, about where Mill C now stands. (See, "Mill's riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," Oregon City News, Aug. 5, 2014.)

A significant mystery has persisted since that time: namely, the precise site of the burial of the Cayuse Five; although the site has long been thought to be along Abernethy Creek. The Cultural Landscape Report states, in part:

"The arrests, trial and execution were seen as controversial even at the time and resolution on the question of guilt is unlikely on the basis of the contradictory historical record. However, the impacts of … the broader incident are still felt…

"[T]he Cayuse never had the opportunity to complete their traditional burial rites because the bodies were never returned to the tribe. This was the case despite the presence of tribal members at the trial and hangings. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are still attempting to locate the graves. The available sources describe the location of the burial in terms that are similar primarily for their vagueness.

"'According to one, "the bodies [...] were taken down and carted up Abernethy Road over there across the bridge a half mile or so.'

"Another provides almost an identical description, minus the specific distance from the bridge. Neither, however, identifies the bridge. A third source refers to only the north edge of Oregon City. A source from 1880 identifies the burial site as Moss Hill, but no current location in the area seems to match this name. Given the uncertainty and ambiguity of the descriptions, it is possible the burial sites will never be uncovered."

The Confederated Tribes of Umatilla's search

That search has become a high priority for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, which includes the Cayuse, the Umatilla, and the Walla Walla. In a November 2017 article in the online news publication MyNorthwest.com, the journalist Feliks Banel well-describes the significance of this quest. He quotes the Tribe's cultural anthropologist Jennifer Karson Engum in the article, and writes, "For the renewed search for the Cayuse Five, she credits something called the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, a public effort to build a 'Riverwalk' next to Willamette Falls in Oregon City."

He quotes Charles Sams III, communications director for the Tribe, who provides this perspective on the Whitman incident:

"'Some [of the Cayuse Five] are believed to be members who participated in the killing of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and several of their ranch hands and capturing of about 50 prisoners, but some of them are also believed to not have participated in the raid,' Sams said earlier this week. 'What happened is these five came together and decided that they would turn themselves in. Matter of fact, one of the quotes from, I believe, Tomahas was, "Much like your savior Jesus Christ gave himself up for you, we are giving ourselves up for our people in order to stop the Cayuse War," that had promulgated because of the death of the Whitmans.'

"Charles Sams says that the tribes' interpretation of what led to the violence at the Whitman Mission was that Marcus Whitman was responsible for the huge influx of settlers, and that he failed as a doctor to prevent the deaths of too many Cayuse.

"'He'd promised not to bring over settlers across the Oregon Trail and, in fact, he went and hired himself out to be a guide,' Sams said. Further, Sams says, failing to make an ill person well had dire consequences in tribal culture. 'Just like any malpractice that happens today, doctors at that time were punished,' Sams said, 'and under Indian law, your punishment if you had malpractice would include up to your life.'

Of the tribe's search for the gravesite of the Cayuse Five in Oregon City, Banel quotes Sams as saying:

"'We have oral histories that tell us of one of our elders, the late Lucy Minthorn, as a small girl, going to the actual gravesites in the early 1900s'... 'And we know through oral history and some writings in the 1950s [that] there was an effort to refind the burial sites to try and get the bodies moved here, and then it didn't pick up steam again until the 1990s.'

"Sams says that for now, the search is mostly about chasing a paper trail.

'Sometime after the 1900s, the exact location of the burial site seems to be lost. We know that the records must exist somewhere, because there [is] anecdotal evidence that people have seen it, and know these burial sites [are] demarcated somewhere on a plat map,' Sams said. 'And so we're hoping that by working with local governments, we'll actually be able to locate the site.'"

Banel writes further:

"Karson Engum says that the public agencies involved — Oregon City, Clackamas County and Tri-County Metro — are cooperating with the tribe to pore through old records and maps, and even use ground-penetrating radar, to try and locate where the Cayuse Five are buried. If and when a potential site is located, the search would likely require a full-scale anthropological investigation and archaeological excavation."

Banel also reports, "The National Park Service is in the midst of a decades-long transformation of the entire interpretation — the publications, the signage, the film at the visitor center — of the complex history symbolized by the Whitman Mission site." He quotes NPS Park Ranger Stephanie Martin of the Whitman Mission Historical Site regarding why "the timing is somehow right" to address the area's complex history:

"It's just like with Holocaust survivors. They always talk about how the first and second generations don't talk about it. The third generation realizes there's something bad that's happened. And it takes the fourth and fifth generations to learn about it and to heal from it," Martin said. "That's where the Native people in this region are at. They're finally at those generations where they're looking at what happened here and saying it's time for us to admit what happened, forgive what happened, and start to heal for our next generation. It's not right to carry this burden on."

In a similar vein, Banel quotes Sams in regards to the subject of healing:

"'What we would like to see is to have the Cayuse Five returned back home, back to the plateau region, back to their homelands so that they can be buried and laid to rest in full peace and recognize the sacrifices that they attempted to make in order to bring a sense of closure to that incident…'

"Sams also sees the tribe's effort to find the Cayuse Five as a key step toward the men's ultimate exoneration, since he says (and other legal scholars agree) that Oregon Territory had no legal jurisdiction over what had happened at Whitman Mission. The attack took place in November 1847, and Oregon Territory wasn't created by the federal government until June 1848.

"'By having them returned home and buried here, that at least rights a partial wrong that was done to the Cayuse Five and to the Cayuse people themselves,' Sams said. 'And my hope is one day that the governor of the state of Oregon will exonerate the Cayuse Five in recognition that the state had no jurisdiction over the incident that happened at the settlement.'

"For Charles Sams, the work of the tribe and the other groups with a stake in the area's history has value far beyond the Cayuse Five, beyond those who died at Whitman Mission and even beyond the Walla Walla corridor.

"'Getting both sides of what happened and having that clearly stated I think allows people a broader perspective of history,' Sams said, 'and they can learn empathy, and they can learn from the mistakes of their past so they don't repeat them in the future.'

Pursuing a lead: Moss Hill

Most of the speculation in the last three paragraphs of the Cultural Landscape Report quoted above can be found in various history books. The Moss Hill reference, however, was something new and different; an irresistible lead for this writer to pursue.

The Moss Hill reference had a footnote, no. 317. That footnote gave this source: "O.D. Robbins, 'Executed Indians Buried by the Roadside,' Enterprise Courier, Nov. 6, 1929."

Actually, the Enterprise Courier did not exist until the 1950s, after the merger of the Enterprise with the Banner Courier. However, the Enterprise of that date does indeed contain the referenced article. The 1880 source turns out to be the pioneer Mark Hattan. In his article, Robbins provides this rather remarkable narrative:

"My mother saw those Indians hanged but she did not know where they were buried until the place was pointed out to father, mother and myself in the early [18]80s by Mark Hattan, who was a neighbor of William Bird, my mother's father, in Illinois. Mark Hattan came to Oregon in 1846 and the Bird family in 1847. In 1880 I was living with father's family on Arthur's Prairie and our main road to Oregon City crossed Clear Creek without a bridge, passed the Hattan and Holcomb places and down Moss Hill where it does now and thence along the Abernethy to Oregon City. On one of our trips to Oregon City Mr. Hattan was with us and when we were going down Moss Hill he pointed out to us the place were the five Indians were buried, and they must have been placed in one grave or side by side. The place was in a depression near some trees, a few rods from the left side of the road as you go from the hill toward the creek in the peach orchard that is there now… I have talked with Mrs. Alice Patterson, who is a granddaughter of A. Holcomb, who was a juror in the case; with A.M. Kirchem and L.H. Kirchem and Frank Hattan, and we were agreed about the place and that we could come pretty close to the exact location. I am sure that other members of these pioneer families and perhaps many others who passed the spot for years on their way to and from Oregon City will testify to the same."

Robbins had made a similar assertion in 1903. In an article in the Courier, he stated that the Cayuse Five were "buried at the foot of Moss Hill, on the Abernethy."

There is, in fact, a Moss Hill in Clackamas County, one well associated with Pioneer history. The historian Stephen Dow Beckham, in his study of the Barlow Road, described the latter's "Moss Hill segment," and even identified a pioneer grave along the trail just as it passes immediately to the south of Moss Hill.

This Moss Hill rises just east of Bradley Road, well outside of Oregon City. It is part of a north-south running ridge, beyond which the topography drops sharply down to Clear Creek. Beyond Clear Creek lie the Donation Land Claims of such pioneer families as the Kirchems and the Hattans; Clear Creek in fact bisects the Mark Hattan DLC.

The Moss Hill referenced by Professor Beckham, in many ways, corresponds with the one described in Robbins' article. If, say, the road Robbins references was a remnant of the Barlow Road, he and his family could in fact cross Clear Creek, pass the west half of the Hattan DLC, and then continue down past Moss Hill into Oregon City.

A question arises, however, as to the relationship between this Moss Hill and Abernethy Creek. At the foot of Moss Hill, Potter Creek runs south and then east into Holcomb Creek, which in turn runs into Abernethy Creek. If, back in Robbins' day, the locals considered today's Potter's Creek as simply an unnamed tributary of Abernethy Creek, then conceivably Robbins' description of the Cayuse Five as buried along the Abernethy at the foot of Moss Hill might make sense. Needless to say, such an identification would prove a radical reconception of the generally-understood historical placement of the burial site.

On the other hand, though, one particular element in Robbins' description presents a significant problem regarding whether the Moss Hill referenced by Professor Beckham might be the location of the Cayuse Five gravesite: namely, the location of the "Holcomb place." Beckham's Moss Hill rises east of the home and DLC of the pioneer Almond Holcomb. But, if Robbins and his family "passed the Hattan and Holcomb places and down Moss Hill" in sequence, then Robbins' Moss Hill would have to be west of the Holcomb house and DLC, and much closer to Oregon City.

Could there have been two different hills that, at various points in history, Clackamas County residents referred to respectively as Moss Hill?

As it turns out, there were.

Information on the "other" Moss Hill emerges from deep within historical road surveys of the Clackamas County Surveyor's Office. The county identifies the road we know today as Holcomb Road as Road no. 354. When established in 1891, the road had the name "Moss Hill & Harding's Mill Road" or, as a variant, "Harding's Mill – Moss Hill Road." (See below.)

SOURCE: CLACKAMAS COUNTY SURVEYORS OFFICE - Index card for Moss Hill and Hardings Mill Road.

As was common with early Clackamas County road nomenclature, the names described the two endpoints of the road. In this case, the eastern terminus of the road was Harding's Mill, built in the 1850s by Alwin M. Harding, who also constructed the Imperial Mills and the Pioneer Paper Mill in Oregon City. (See, "The mythic machine of W.W. Buck," Oregon City News, July 19, 2017.) The Kirchems later purchased the Harding Mill; O.D. Robbins married Lydia Kirchem in 1883. The Kirchems, in turn, sold the mill to the Fischer family, who still own the historic mill. It sits on the grounds of the Fischer Mill Supply company on Clear Creek, off the corner of Fischer's Mill Road and S. Ridge Road.

The western terminus of the road, therefore, was Moss Hill. A mid-20th-century Clackamas County road map shows Road No. 354, "Harding Mill – Moss Hill Rd.," terminating precisely where Holcomb Road terminates today: at Redland Road, or Road No. 20, known then as "Market Road" The "other" Moss Hill, then, is the hill where Holcomb Road ascends behind Pioneer Pizza and the Shears to You hair salon.

If the Cayuse Five were, as Robbins wrote, "buried at the foot of Moss Hill, on the Abernethy," their graves would be along the Abernethy somewhere close to the intersection of Holcomb and Redland roads. That general area has long been suspected as a potential site of the graves, and so Moss Hill ultimately does not provide a novel, new lead into the location of the graves of the Cayuse Five.

SOURCE: CLACKAMAS COUNTY SURVEYOR'S OFFICE - Mid-20th-century road map showing Road No. 354, Hardings Mill - Moss Hill Road, today's Holcomb Road, intersecting with Redland Road (then called Market Road, or Road No. 20).

A 'peach orchard'

But, Robbins' article unexpectedly contains another lead that might in fact suggest a more precise location — a specific lot, in fact — of the Cayuse Five gravesite.

The new clue: peaches.

Or, more precisely, a peach orchard. A 1929 peach orchard.

Returning to Robbins' 1929 article: "The place was in a depression near some trees, a few rods from the left side of the road as you go from the hill toward the creek in the peach orchard that is there now."

According to the Early Oregonians database, Oren Decatur Robbins was born on Dec. 5, 1858. He died on Nov. 15, 1932, just shy of his 74th birthday, and about three years after he published his 1929 Enterprise article. His life roughly spanned the era from the Cayuse Five trial and execution — an event his mother and Mark Hattan could relate to him based on first-hand experience — to modern times.

One innovation of modern times is aerial photography. And astoundingly, there are aerial photographs of Clackamas County from 1929, exactly the same year Robbins wrote his article in the Enterprise.

The city of Oregon City's website has a very interesting geographic information systems (GIS) feature: the "Photo Comparison Tool." It allows one to view, side by side, two aerial photographs, from different years, at once. Moving a vertical bar between the two aerial photos allows one to see a particular property, building, or object during each year; or alternatively, to see what has been replaced over time.

The photos accompanying this article show the area of Abernethy Creek near the intersection of Holcomb Road and Redland Road. The photo on top is the 1929 aerial, the one on the bottom is the corresponding view from 2017.

SOURCE: OREGON CITY GIS - 1929 aerial photograph showing an orchard in the location described by O.D. Robbins as containing the gravesite of the Cayuse Five.

SOURCE: OREGON CITY GIS - 2017 aerial photograph showing the site of the former orchard - today the east end of the Clackamas County shops complex.

Amazingly, the 1929 aerial photo shows, precisely where Robbins described it, an orchard. By Robbins' account, this would be a peach orchard, and the location of the gravesite of the Cayuse Five.

The 2017 aerial photo suggests that the orchard site is now the far eastern end of the "County Shops" property. The address is 1102 Abernethy Road, taxlot 800. The parcel includes the nondescript building housing Clackamas County's Vector Control District. The county also uses this parcel for, among other things, dirt and gravel storage; the structure known generally as the "sand shed" rises behind the vector-control offices. A tall fence topped with barbed wire secures the site, and a sign warns passersby that the site is under constant video surveillance.

Finding closure

The foregoing is merely a theory, one among countless others that have been advanced over the years. One hopes that the collective search for clues and leads will, someday, ultimately result in the discovery, repatriation, proper rites and reburial of the Cayuse Five, and closure to one of the Pacific Northwest's great tragedies. The healing might stretch from the Columbia River Plateau to Willamette Falls, and beyond.

Historian James Nicita lives in Oregon City. The author would like to thank Tara Thoreson and Doug Cutshall of the Clackamas County Surveyor's Office for their assistance with research for this article.


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