Members of the Nez Perce Tribe, local historians oppose latest proposal in city's development plan

STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Nez Perce elders Charles Axtell and Silas Whitman performed a ceremony around the believed burial site Wednesday, Sep. 5.Standing along Northeast Starr Boulevard on Wednesday, Sept. 5, two members of the Nez Perce tribe began to sing.

They stood in a circle with a few dozen local people, leading prayers, playing instruments and reciting sacred words. Silas Whitman and Charles Axtell, elders of the Nez Perce Tribe of Native Americans, made the trek from Idaho to honor the memory of members of their tribe.

Somewhere in this large field, some believe, lie the bodies of five Nez Perce children.

For generations, stories about a possible burial site on the land have been handed down from people who have had connections to the area. Stories say the cemetery was attached to a Methodist meeting house built in the 1840s, a log cabin that served as a worship space and the county's seat of government in 1846, but precisely where the structure was remains unclear.

It's unknown how many bodies were buried in the cemetery, but it is generally believed that the interred include five children of Joseph L. Meek, a pioneer who settled in the Tualatin Valley in 1840 and resided in what would later become Hillsboro. His wife, Virginia Meek, was a member of the Nez Perce Tribe.

Whitman said Wednesday's ceremony was important, as the children might not have formally received proper burial rights when they died in the mid-1850's, years before Oregon became a state in 1859.

"It's important that we bring the prayer and the song and the word to them to give them comfort as they are on the other side, something that was probably missing when they left, and so we restore that," Whitman said. "We have been here before statehood and these people came here before statehood, and they are buried, we presume, without the honors necessary for them."

Wednesday's burial ceremony was also seen as a protest, of sorts, against elements of the city of Hillsboro's planned North Hillsboro Industrial Renewal Area. The largely undeveloped land near Brookwood Parkway is expected to be converted into industrial and high-tech businesses over the next several years. The land is one of the few in the Portland area capable of housing large industrial sites, according to the city.

The possible Methodist meeting house site was recently purchased by a California developer who plan to build an 800,000-square-foot building on the site.

A handful of local historians are working to stop that development, saying the property hasn't been properly identified to display its historical significance.

Not a new issue

The site is believed to have played a significant role in the history of Hillsboro, said Dirk Knudsen, a Hillsboro resident and chairman of the Five Oaks Discovery Coalition, who coordinated Wednesday's ceremony, though it has never been formally recognized. The site is identified by the city as a cultural resource site.

"These sites are, by law, very important and alteration of the site is a major concern," Knudsen said. "This is not just a few neighbors and historians making an issue where there is not one. The bar to develop this site is very, very high."

Meek, a territorial sheriff in the 1840s and the first U.S. Marshal of the Oregon Territory, played a major role in Oregon's history, said John Platt, of Helvetia, who met Whitman and Axtell during his 36 years working at the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.

"Why those graves weren't (marked) and why the Methodist meeting house wasn't protected for a period of time, we aren't really sure," Platt said.

A small log structure built in the 1840s, the building was demolished and its lumber used to build the Methodist Church in Hillsboro in 1865.

Local historians and Meek's own descendants have long pointed to the site as a likely location for the meeting house and burial site, but little evidence has been uncovered to support those claims.

The topic isn't a new point of discussion for the city. The issue has flared up for years as the city has slowly prepared the area for development.

In 2013, archaeologists investigated part of the area for possible remains after city officials planned to expand roads in the area. No evidence was found of the house or burial site.

The city focused its search along a narrow strip of land — now part of the widened road. Knudsen said that same level of care should be given to the rest of the one-acre site before any plans for development are approved by city officials.

"The facts are that there has been no meaningful archaeological work on the actual land where we believe the site is," Knudsen said.

'More work needs to be done'

The city and area historians struck a deal more than a decade ago, rezoning the area for industrial use, while agreeing an acre of the land would be kept undeveloped for a memorial.

Then-Hillsboro Mayor Tom Hughes signed a letter in 2004 stating that future developers of the lot would be required to leave the land so that it could be formally recognized as the official site of the Methodist meeting house and burial grounds, complete with a monument identifying the land's historic significance.

Developers of the site are required to build the monument on the site and are not allowed to build any buildings on the one-acre plot.

Developers have proposed leaving a space vacant for the monument, Knudsen said, but the proposal shows it will not be the acre archaeologists and local historians believe was the home of the burial site. Instead, the preserved space would be a grass strip along Huffman Street.

Knudsen argues the strip, which would not be in easy view of the public, does little to preserve the area's history. A drainage pond would be built where the believed burial site is, according to the developer's proposal.

"More work needs to be done," Knudsen said. "...That land (needs) to be looked at closer."STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Charles Axtell and Silas Whitman traveled from Idaho to perform parts of a traditional Nez Perce burial ceremony.

Whitman agreed the site should be preserved.

"The thing that we would try to do is to protect the integrity of the cemetery," he said. "You don't trod on the sacred grounds (of a) cemetery."

Development plans for the site have yet to go before city officials for approval. Hillsboro's Planning Director Colin Cooper said policies are in place to ensure that development doesn't dishonor the tribal and pioneer settlements.

"The city is committed to balancing the long-term development of industrial land while memorializing the historically significant site for the benefit of our entire community," he said.

Over the years, archaeologist David Ellis has spent time searching the area for anything that could be evidence of the meeting house or the buried bodies, including the land where Genentech now resides.

"Having worked in this area for about 40 years, the meeting house remains probably one of the top enigmas of my career," Ellis said. "If it wasn't there in that area, it should show up somewhere else, and it doesn't."

Ellis said acidic soil and 100 years of farming could play a factor in why there has been no hard evidence for the church or burial site up to this point.

A lack of solid evidence isn't enough to say the historical tellings are false however, Ellis said.

"I think it's a classic case of absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," he said. "I don't think the fact that there is no archaeological evidence or trace of either the meeting house or the burials (should) diminish the significance of the property. It's very important in the history of the early settlement in Washington County."

Reporting from Doug Burhardt and Kathy Fuller contributed to this article.

By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
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