History Notes: Bald Peak and Native lore
Original Natives of our county were the Atfalati, a sub-set of the Kalapuyas who ranged up and down the Willamette River from Oregon's city of Eugene to Bybee Island near the Columbia River near today's Portland Oregon. They were a very small people and not a healthy group. But they were tough, living in reed-mat structures under cedar trees.
The Atfalati ranged the Tualatin River Valley and drainage area. By 1830, the numbers of most of the Yamils, Atfalitis, and Chehalems were in decline. A malaria epidemic in 1830 and 1833 did much damage to the population.
This summer, there was a wildfire near Bald Peak State Park which rolled down west of the ridge and encouraged spot fires from cinders on Mountain Top Road and elsewhere. This got me thinking about my childhood home: Chehalem Mountain.
A high ridged mountain chain looms between Sherwood and Newberg and is made up of a stair-step of hills that are interconnected. They are, from east to west, Parrett, Rex and Chehalem. They block the flow of the Willamette River, which is forced to turn to the east. The mountain ridges curve to the west and join the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range.
The word "Chehalem" is a corruption of the Atfaliti word "Chahelim," a name given the family band subset of the Atfaliti who lived on the largest mountain in 1877.
Chief Chehalem was a great Native leader of the Yamils. This group seasonally traveled the western end of Chehalem Mountain in the summer and the Yamhill River in the summer. They came to today's Bald Peak, a rocky outcropping point of the mountain. The elevation is 1,629 feet.
The Chief was sort of a local "St. Patrick" of this land. He thought the rattlesnakes on the craggy dry rocks were a danger, so he gathered and drove all the rattlesnakes into a rock cave on the mountain and held them prisoner. He would not let them out, and they all died.
How did he do it? It was done by a traditional Western Native procedure of what historians call today "pyroagriculture." The peak was torched. The underbrush and meadowland was burned. Then the Natives would go out and harvest camas bulbs to make their staple food for the winter: camas cakes.
They would also harvest the tarweed seeds that were similar to grain. It was the only way to do it, since the plant was covered by a sticky substance which would burn off in the flames, leaving the plant still standing.
The burning supported better grazing for deer and elk after a fall rain, and the animals were much more visible for hunting.
One of the favorite pyroagricultural burning sites in south Washington County was the high plateau of today's Middleton area.
June Reynolds is a member of the Sherwood Historical Society.
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