The VERY early history of Inner Southeast - before the settlers arrived
This essay each month focuses on aspects of the history of Inner Southeast Portland – sometimes the quite early history of this place we call home. This time, I would like to go much further back than that – Inner Southeast before settlers from the east began moving in! I would like to share a bit of the early Southeast Portland history of Native Americans – specifically, those who at one time graced the shores of the Willamette River where we now live.
Long before the first white settlers arrived, and before the town of Sellwood was created and the Westmoreland community was established, Native Americans inhabited the area. Where we shop, work, and live today was all blanketed with a forest of Douglas fir, cedar, hemlock, savanna oak, and big leaf maple trees, and thickets of currant and salmonberry bushes.
Because of the abundance of trees, plants, and wildlife, native people often passed through this region, stopping to fish from the creeks, scour the countryside for berries, nuts and other edible foods, or search of better hunting grounds. And life was good.
The Upper Willamette River was a favorite spot for a rendezvous by tribes of the Kalapuyas, Upper Molallas, the Clackamas, and Clowewallas – a band closely related to the Indians of the Upper Chinook. Camped along both sides of the river, it was here that they traded with other tribes, celebrated the abundance of sacred foods, and sang, danced, and practiced their religion each year. While many different tribes and bands from other parts of the country came to fish, hunt, and trade the goods they brought from their region, these Native Americans of the Upper Willamette resided year-round at The Falls near Oregon City.
Called the "Hyas Tyee Tumwater" or "Great Chief Waterfall" by most Europeans and Americans, Willamette Falls was a churning flow of water that supplied trout, steelhead, and salmon to the people who arrived every summer. Some Native Americans traveled hundreds of miles for the chance to fish and feast from the delicacies which the river and falls provided.
From platforms built from the cedar trees nearby, native fishermen used dip nets and spears to catch the salmon that were abundant in the river, and were a part of their daily diet. Fishing at the falls provided the bulk of the food for the people of the Clackamas tribe who controlled the trade of the river. Other Native Americans who arrived from outside the valley had to ask permission to fish the Falls and its river banks.
The Lamprey, a fish-like eel, was a special delicacy among the local tribes; and a celebration of the first-caught salmon of the season was an annual tradition. Hundreds of Native People gathered at The Falls when the salmon season started, and life was good!
Roaming like nomads across the open county of the Northwest, many different families and members of the Kalapuyas Tribe could be found all along the Willamette Valley from Willamette Falls to as far south as the Umpqua River.
Henry Zenk, author of "the Kalapuya People" at the Oregonian Encyclopedia website reports there were close to "sixteen named villages of the Tualatin Kalapuyas found in modern day Washington and Yamhill counties" alone. Other writers, and those who study Native Americans of the West Coast, have stated that a band of the Kalapuya also camped on the upper portion of the Willamette Falls. Limited in their fishing The Falls by the Clackamas Natives who controlled this section of the river, the Kalapuya turned to hunting wild game like geese, fox, bear, deer, and elk to supply their diet.
In September, when the fields were full of Tarweed, the men of the village set the grass on fire and the women with their baskets came to collect the pods which were used as a food supply.
In the spring, the women and children would go out to dig and collect the shoots of the Camas root, which were baked into cakes and breads. Many of the Kalapuyas of the Willamette Valley laid claim to various harvesting sites of the Camas, and used it in trade with other tribes. The small potato-sized Wapato plant was collected in swampy areas, and roasted under an open fire – very tasty with smoked fish and meat.
When spring changed to summer, berries and nuts were abundant around the area. The food they collected from shrubs was delicious, and during this time, life was good.
During the cold winter months, for those who stayed, longhouses were built for shelter. It was a time when game was sparse, and hunters spent their idle time crafting spears, clubs, bows and arrows, and other hunting equipment, around the fire. Women sewed baskets that would later be used for collecting fish and berries when the warm season arrived, and made woven mats that kept families warm from the frozen ground.
It was an unhurried, slow-paced lifestyle that remained unchanged until the white settlers began to arrive.
In the 1790's, fur traders passed through the Willamette Valley seeking the pelts of beaver, otter, and other animals prized for their fur. At first, the Native Americans were excited and eager to trade with the white trappers. The fish they caught and dried could be exchanged for glass beads, tobacco, wool blankets, buttons, rings, and strong weapons and tools made of steel. The Clackamas and Upper Molallas were persuaded to hunt for many pelts and skins to trade with the fur seekers.
But, to many tribes, the culture of the white hunters and trappers was strange. Native Americans hunted and fished for things that their families would need to last them through the cold months. In this fashion, once spring arrived, there would be plenty of fish in the rivers and the forest would be alive with wildlife for hunting parties. But, these white traders hunted and gathered more fur-bearing animals and fish than they could ever use! The natives of the Northwest quickly learned that the presence of these hunters made the wildlife became harder to find, and life as it once was started to change.
In 1825, a wood structure was built by the men of the Hudson's Bay Company, where the Columbia River meets the Willamette, and it was called Fort Vancouver – and even more white people arrived in a land that was once only filled with the groups and families of Native Americans. Illnesses these travelers brought sickness to the Native Americans, too.
John McLoughlin was chosen as the regional manager, or chief factor, at the fort and he kept the British and French fur traders who gathered in the area under control. Dr. McLoughlin, as he was addressed, was strict but fair in his dealings with the Indians, yet the way of life for the Native Americans began to drastically change.
With Fort Vancouver only fifteen miles by canoe or on foot from the fishing grounds of the Clackamas Tribe, interruption to their lifestyle was at first minimal. But the Chief Factor McLoughlin came and looked over the Willamette Falls, and asked for permission to set up a sawmill on its waters. And when the religious leaders, farmers, and other Euro-American settlers came and did not leave, problems began to arise.
These new settlers and Hudson Bay employees often clashed over Indian lands and hunting rights. Dr. McLoughlin loaned supplies, and provided small amounts of food and water to the white settlers, but directed them to seek land and establish their farms away from the property claimed by England, preferably south of the Columbia River along the upper Willamette River.
White settlers began staking tents and building homes where the lodges and camps of the Native Americans once were. And while they were anxious to trade with the bands of the Molallas, Clackamas, and the Kalapuyas for fish caught along the river, the Native People were told not to trespass on the property which the settlers claimed to own. What was once a land of natural beauty was replaced by crops of wheat and vegetables. And even more native people began to get sick, and disappear from the only land they ever knew.
Between 1811 and 1840, it was estimated over 97 percent of the Native American population was decimated by diseases such as smallpox and malaria, contracted from the white people.
During the 1840s, both Great Britain and the United States laid claim to the Pacific Northwest, and in 1846 a treaty was negotiated establishing a boundary at the 49th parallel, which exists today as the border with Canada. The American Natives who had lived in the Northwest Territory for thousands of years were never consulted in the treaty. Under the agreement, the U.S. was entitled to all lands in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana (the "Oregon Territory"). The British abandoned all of the forts set up in what is now the American Northwest, and moved the Hudson Bay Company north into Canada. The Indians were left to fend for themselves.
White Settlers and their families arrived in wagons pulled by cattle and horses, staking out lots and building houses on property that the Native Indians had shared with everyone. The town of Oregon City was started at Willamette Falls, and another encampment started up the river was named Milwaukie. The City of Portland was established near what was at one time known as The Clearing, and the people who lived here for generations were no longer welcomed. But fishing at The Falls was the way of life for the Native Americans, and they continued with their tradition.
One day, in 1851 a Mr. Anson Dart was sent by the leaders in Washington D.C. to negotiate a treaty with many of the Native Americans who still hunted and fished and camped along the river. He convinced the Clackamas, the Clowewallas, the Molallas, and Kalapuyas that it was not safe for them to live here anymore. White people outnumbered these original Americans, and if they didn't agree to leave, they would be forced to go somewhere else.
If they agreed to give up their land, in exchange, the government would give them plenty of supplies, food, many blankets, coats, tools to farm with, and money. Mr. Dart obtained 13 treaties from around the Oregon Territory covering over 6,000,000 acres, at a cost of three cents an acre. In return, the various tribes were assigned to a reservation. The Grand Ronde (Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde) had to walk over 100 miles, over rough terrain, during a harsh winter to reach their assigned land.
Historians estimate that between 80,000 to 120,000 Native Americans had once inhabited the Oregon Country, but by 1900, their numbers had dwindled to a mere 400, who lived on the Grand Ronde Agency. The treaties were never ratified by Congress, and many of the promises to the Native People were never fulfilled. Life was not good.
While many of the trees and berries and wild animals and fish that were once a part of Native People life have disappeared, the Native Americans have continued. During the next decades the "American Indian" has made an astounding recovery, though it was a long and hard struggle; and by the year 2000, the tribe's population has grown to over 5,500 people, thanks to the dedication of its leaders.
Recently the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde purchased the property at Willamette Falls, and hopes to restore fishing rights to their people. Tribe members have already starting fishing for the Lamprey in the cool waters of the rapids. But there is still so much more to do.
This year, the Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 664, requiring all public schools in Oregon provide instruction about the Holocaust and genocide. Starting on July 1, 2020, this new law will be implemented, and Woodstock resident Governor Kate Brown – who supported the bill – hopes it will promote more understanding and acceptance among people.
But why stop there? There is much more history to learn. Although America's early practice of slavery in some colonies, and segregation following the Emancipation Proclamation, are often discussed, teaching it is not mandated.
Then there was the decision to intern Japanese Americans during World War II – which is not a secret, but usually not made a point of, in our schools. Of course it turned out that Japanese Americans were as loyal to this country as our other citizens, and the loss of rights, property, and freedom that they suffered was completely unjustified.
And then there's the treatment of those who were living in Inner Southeast Portland before the great migration westward of the new Americans in the Nineteenth Century. Not only is the history of Native Americans in this country not mandated, but it is often misrepresented in TV shows and movies.
Shouldn't their story and plight be included in classrooms today, along with the other stories of other Native Americans across the land?
With a new generation of children attending our schools, isn't it time to include not just the Holocaust victims, but also the slavery of the African-Americans, the detention of Asians during World War II, and the plight of the Native Americans who, as the First Americans, have a history that spans thousands of years? This article is just a small glimpse into the local history of Native Americans in Southeast Portland. I encourage everyone to sign up for a class at your local college to learn more about those who came first – the Native Americans.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.