Every year Peter and Pam celebrate the cold damp miserableness of Oregon’s winter. It’s the kind of sloppy coldness for which Oregonians hold an especially sodden place in their hearts. When I arrive at the rendezvous and park under the conifers lining the dirt road, I remind myself to pull my hat down over my head before stepping out of the car. The one time I neglected to give due deference to the snowy sculptures suspended overhead, a big melting parapet toppled neatly over my pate and ran down my neck with a cold rush of icy water.
It’s a rite of winter to join Peter and Pam as they celebrate the dumping of coho salmon carcasses into the little creek that runs along the back of their property. Invariably there are a gaggle of kids from Catlin Gable or elsewhere who’ve come to share the raw midwinter experience and eat some of Pam’s delicious chili.
Outside, ringed around the blazing fire, are people from all over. I know some of them, others I recognize but can’t associate with a name. Maybe they had kids at Catlin when my kids were there, or maybe I know them from my trail advocacy work, but in any event I am surprised to see them here at this special seasonal rite. I feel like going over and asking how they knew about this event, this secret forested cabal, where we sacrifice coho cadavers along the banks of Lousignont Creek.
One year, Neal Maine, one of the founders of the North Coast Conservancy, took us on an excursion into history. Starting near the barky edge of a big circular cross cut section of a big old spruce tree, he proceeded to recount the history of this area pointing out among the concentric circles the lean years and the fat ones. “Here’s where we first arrived in the Nehalem Valley”, he said picking out a ring that might have grown around the middle part of the 19th century. “Lewis and Clark must have passed by on the Columbia around here”, he said pointing to an indistinguishable ring”, a bit further in. “Here’s when Christopher Columbus arrived – albeit a long ways from here”. Tracing his progress back in time he pushed his finger deep into the countless concentric rings encircling the core of the ancient spruce. It was a seedling somewhere around the 13th century he surmised.
Locally, the 13th century was and remains an epoch clouded in mystery given how little we know about those early Tillamook Indians who explored the headwaters of the Nehalem River. Those were early days even here, and the Nehalem River was hard to find and harder to follow given its steep banks and thick vegetation. Maybe it was still a pristine forest; still untrodden ground in the 13th century. We may not know much about what went on locally in those ancient times, but it’s likely that these solitary hunters left no more than an occasional footprint among the fern-covered slopes.
But far away on the other side of the globe events were taking shape that would eventually end up affecting these remote forests in a way that would be wholly unforeseen. Far away from the damp environs of the Upper Nehalem River, wheels had already begun to turn that would ultimately connect this stream with an ancient tale of conquest, defeat and byzantine intrigue.
History has a curious way of knitting people and places together. Lousignont Creek is one of those unusual linkages, a wormhole that pierces through time like a beetle chewing his way to the core.
On the surface, Lousignont seems like an odd name in these parts. More typical names of streams are Darby Creek, Carlson Creek, or even nearby Wolf Creek. One might wonder whether Lousignont was part of the metis generation descended from the French voyageurs and their native wives. But no, the origins of this name go back as far as the 12th century, long before the Europeans even knew about the Americas.
The King of Jerusalem
During the latter half of the 12th century, the de Lusignan dynasty ruled Poitou, a small marshy fiefdom along the western coast of France. Poitou was fervently religious and supported the christian crusader kingdom based in Jerusalem. Upon the death of King Baldwin the 4th in Jerusalem, there was much competition among the crusaders for the hand of his widowed queen, Sibylla. After several byzantine maneuvers Sibylla chose Guy de Lusignan a handsome knight, ten years her junior, who had just arrived in Jerusalem.
Thus by good looks and timing Guy de Lusignan became the King of Jerusalem in 1186, reigning until 1192. Following his accession to the throne, there was increased fighting with the Ayyubids, who were loyal to Saladin. In 1187 Guy was captured by Saladin and imprisoned in Damascus. A year later he was released, but he was unable to regain his crown, despite strong support from King Richard the Lionheart. In compensation Guy was made the Lord of Cyprus, where he ruled until his death in 1194.
After that rapid rise and fall from power, we see occasional mentions of the de Lusignan family in the Middle East. In France the family had become Huguenots, or French Protestants. These french followers of John Calvin’s teachings soon ran afoul of both the church and state. Persecuted, three de Lusignan brothers fled, setting sail for the French possessions in the South Sea Islands. Despite the idyllic conditions, at least Guy tired of the Polynesian torpor and made his way to Canada.
From there we can track Guy de Lousignont to Ohio, where his son, John was born in 1818. During John’s youth he apparently moved to Joseph a rough frontier town in the newly minted state of Missouri. In those days “St. Joe”, as it was called, was the “jumping-off point” for those headed west. He stayed there long enough to marry Delilah Enyart, who gave birth to two girls that apparently did not survive. Perhaps it was this tragic loss that pushed John and Delilah westwards, because in 1843 they decamped into the great western wilderness.
Arriving on the eastern reaches of the Walla Walla Valley in 1843, they stopped at the Whitman Mission and tarried awhile with Marcus Whitman – before eventually moving on to Oregon. Records reveal that by that fall John and Delilah Lousignont had finally arrived on the Lower Columbia – as part of the first wagon train to penetrate Columbia County. Once there he acquired some property, but the promise of fertile land just beyond the Tualatin mountains soon drew him into the Nehalem valley, where he built his cabin in Washington County – about as far up the Nehalem River as a canoe can reach. According to federal records, John Lousignont spent most of his years in and near Washington County. His name appears on the voters register for Clackamas County, July 26th, 1845.
“de Lusignan” was the family’s original name but over time the prefix was dropped and the spelling was adapted to conform with contemporary French spelling. But the quirky spelling continued to plague the Lousignonts since we find a wide variety of spellings in the year following their arrival:
1849 census – John Lousignont
1850 census – John Loosenalt
1854 assessment records: J. Lousignot
1855 tax roll – John Losignont
But eventually the “Lousignont” variant stuck. Due, no doubt, to the proliferation of children that followed their arrival on the Nehalem River:
Frank, November 2, 1845, at Gervais
William, April 29, 1847, near Jacksonville
Peter, June 2, 1849, in Oregon City,
Joe, January 9, 1851, near Forest Grove
Jack, February 29th, 1852, near Forest Grove,
Miriam, July 4th , 1853, near Forest Grove,
Margot, February 20th, 1855, near Forest Grove,
Rebecca, October 10, 1857, near Forest Grove
Isaac, March 29th, 1859, near Forest Grove
Kathryn, March 29th, 1861, near Forest Grove
The creek is actually not named after John. It’s named after his son: Frank Lousignont. Along with his father, Frank Lousignont appears to have been one of the earliest settlers in the valley, hosting new neighbors as they hurried to complete their accommodations before the weather set in and snow made travel difficult. Frank established a claim near the mouth of the creek in 1869 and lived there until 1902. Using his mule to collect supplies in Westport led him to discover an old Indian trail that ran through the valley, along the Klaskanine River, up Fishhook Creek and over the top of the hills and down to the Columbia River. This eventually became the most used trail to access the Nehalem Valley before the days of cars.
Although their homestead on the confluence of Lousignont Creek and the Nehalem River no longer exists, the family has flourished with branches located in Vernonia, Klatskanie, Birkenfeld and Vesper.