Chapter 3 – Illahee and the Tribes

Chapter Four:

A profusion of Indians

To understand the impact that humans have had on our landscape it is essential to understand the complex web that dictated the Indians’ relations with nature and each other. It was the sheer abundance of resources, food and shelter that made the Pacific Northwest, and particularly the lower Columbia so unique. Life was relatively bountiful for the inhabitants of this region given the abundance of salmon, sturgeon, elk and deer. Add to that the profusion of edible berries, the vast flocks of migrating waterfowl, the myriad patches of edible camas lilies, the ponds and waterways lined with wapato and the open meadows filled with rye grass, tarweed, acorns and hazel nuts.

The Lower Columbia was dominated by several distinct Indian cultures, which were subdivided into linguistically distinct tribal groups, and geographically separated tribes or bands. At the broadest level the Indians could be grouped into the Coastal Indians residing along the coast, the Canoe or River Indians residing alongside the Columbia River and the Valley Indians like the Calapooyans and Klickitats whose territories were comprised mainly of forests and savannahs.

The Coastal Indians like the Tillamooks and Clatsops also had access to vast quantities of mollusks and crustaceans from the intertidal zones. The Chinook Indians along the river built intricate fishing traps, extensive weirs, and seined for fish from their canoes. The Valley Indians dug camas and pulled wapato, gathered and processed acorns, hunted deer and elk, and annually set fire to the Willamette, Umpqua, and Rogue River valleys. As bountiful as nature may have been it was still a laborious process to collect adequate supplies of firewood, repair their fishing traps, weirs, and nets, and engage in extensive plant and berry gathering – not to mention the time and effort needed to mount successful hunting sorties.

The Chinook:

It would be difficult to understand the busy lower Columbia in the pre-contact times without considering the enormous role that the Chinook Indians had on the local culture and commerce at that time. Originally these Salish speakers are said to have emigrated from the upper reaches of the Columbia, where the rest of the Salish speaking Indians still reside around Lake Pend Oreille in Northern Idaho. About 1000 years ago some of these Salish speaking Indians split off and literally drifted down the Columbia finally coming to rest on the north shore of the Lower Columbia River. They soon began to dominate all the trade occurring between the interior and the coast, which benefited them enormously, even before the arrival of the Europeans.

Those Chinooks that settled on the Coast, to the south of the Columbia River were known as the Clatsop Indians. Their territory, to the extent that a definite geographical area can assigned to their area of habitation, extended from Tongue Point in the North down to Neahkahnie Mountain in the South. Both the Chinooks and the Clatsops’ language were Salish in origin, but their dialects were recognizably distinct to native speakers. Over time their cultures diverged. Lewis and Clark’s decision in 1805 to quit the north shore in favor of establishing their winter base on the south shore was because the Chinook tribes could not be deterred from constantly pilfering the Corp’s camp. The Clatsop’s on the other hand exhibited a markedly less aggressive culture and left the Corp’s camp relatively undisturbed.

The Chinook culture and tribal power dominated the Lower Columbia River through a series of villages that lined the river from Willappa Bay on the coast, to Kathlapotle, a large prosperous village located near present day Vancouver, Washington. The Chinooks, also known as the “Canoe Indians”, were by far the most advanced cultural and economic force in this region. Modern anthropologists consider the Chinooks to be one of the few examples of an “advanced hunter-gatherer” society. The Chinooks were one of the rare examples of cultures that managed to develop specialized skills, but never engaged in agriculture. And that was likely due to the enormous natural bounty with which they were surrounded; they simply didn’t have to cultivate reliable food sources – it surrounded them.

The Lower Columbia Valley and the Willamette Valley were rich in ryegrass, tarweed plants, camas onions and aquatic wapato plants. Five different species of Salmon regularly migrated up the Columbia along with Steelhead, Cutthroat trout and Smelt.  The river was teeming with Sturgeon, Lampreys, Sea lions, Seals, and Waterfowl, along with a variety of shellfish at the coast.  Elk, Deer, Bear, Beaver, Grouse, Raccoon, Sea Otters, Mink, Martin, Muskrat and many other smaller mammals were abundant in the surrounding forests and tributaries. And the tribes bred an abundance of dogs…for eating.

Their veggies included Camas onions, Wapato plants, Ferns, Acorns, Crab Apples, and Hazelnuts. Other commonly used plants included Cow Parsnip, Silver Weed, Stream Bank Clover, shoots from the Salmonberry and Horsetails. That’s not counting all the plants used as teas, used for smoking or used in basket weaving, cordage, dyes, mats and clothing.

But none of these plants were cultivated in the traditional sense. Rather, these fruits were propagated, tended, harvested and processed where they first arose. This meant that family groups would spend much of the year following the harvest cycle through their “hereditary” camas patches and huckleberry thickets. On their rounds, they would camp in the vicinity of the harvest areas and tend them for several weeks. Sometimes they brought onions from more fruitful patches and at other times they would break the onions apart and replant them elsewhere. In the end each family had to harvest nearly 12 acres to produce a year’s supply of greens for a family of five. That could take months to accomplish. Large underground pit fires were used to reduce large amounts of Camas onions into an onion loaf. Wherever they went there were special plants to be gathered. It was a busy world out there on the lower Columbia River.

Fishing – the Chinook way

At other times of the year the Chinook would be wholly immersed in harvesting the seasonal fish runs. Every side canal and tributary was highly leveraged with a serial array of fish traps, and weirs. Seine nets were repaired, and harpoons were prepared for the hunt. Out in the middle of the river you might even spot the sturgeon fishermen, standing amid- stream in their canoes touching the bottom of the river with very long harpoons. Using them like probes, the fishermen would “walk” their way into the deepest channels where the sturgeon lurked as they moved stealthily upstream. The sturgeon fishermen would wait for the sturgeon to bump into the harpoon on their way upstream. Then they jabbed the huge fish and embedded a detachable point that was connect with a very long line. What ensued resembled the wild ride that whalers experience after harpooning a whale. Eventually the sturgeon tires and our two Chinook fisherman can haul their large catch home to the village.

The Columbia River and its tributaries provided a wealth of salmon for the indigenous populations, but the Chinook didn’t stop at that. Fishing was often a convivial activity amongst the Indians, and they frequently formed large boisterous parties that descended on the shallows left exposed by the receding tide. Not only would there be plentiful crabs to be found, but the shallow pools would hide the turbot and flounder that would hide in the sandy silt. At such times you might see the Chinook fishermen wading through the shallows carefully feeling the bottom with their feet. Once they felt the lurking fish with their feet they would firmly step on them holding them in place until they could quickly fling them up onto the flats.

They also hunted seals, which were an important source of oil. James Swan, in his fascinating account of his sojourn on present-day Willappa Bay provides a glimpse into the lost art of hunting seals. In his account he tells of how his Chinook neighbor would hunt the seals that frequented the bay. Armed with a twenty foot spear attached to a hand line about 180 feet long, his neighbor would paddle out to one of the sand islands exposed at low tide where the seals would congregate to bask in the sun. Anchoring his canoe, he would strip and slipping into the water would swim to the island. Being careful to expose only his mouth, nose and eyes, Swan describes how his Indian acquaintance slowly approached the basking seals slipping carefully into the shallows from the seaward side – all the time making sure that he remained almost fully submerged. Finally, at the point where the water became too shallow to hide him, the old Indian would leap from the water and rushing up the beach he’d plunge his spear into the nearest seal. Of course, the panicked seal would try to escape into the water, but the Indian holding the hand line, would plant a stout pole into the sandy beach. Attaching the hand line to the pole, the Indian would then brace the pole keeping the seal from escaping into the deeps. In most cases the beast would eventually tire, but occasionally the tug of war went the other direction and a triumphant albeit wounded seal would drag spear and line away with him.

The Chinooks had good reason to be called the Canoe Indians. Much of the land around the Lower Columbia was extremely dense and so difficult to penetrate that travelling by canoe was far more practical than overland travel. Besides, most of the overland trails were not designed to connect distant communities, but rather they formed a labyrinth of private paths leading to and from huckleberry patches, favorite fishing spots or spiritually important locations. If you wanted to get somewhere significant it was likely that it was much more easily accessed by canoe. This is why horses were not as common in the Lower Columbia River than they were in the open terrain to the east of the Cascades. It was among the relatively open ponderosa pine forests on the slopes of Mt. Adams that the Klickitats raised their colorful pintos and appaloosa’s and raced them in what came to be called, “Indian Heaven.” Instead the riverine Chinook developed several distinct types of canoes, not to mention the miniature canoes used to harvest wapato.

Chinook Plank Houses

The Chinook living on the Lower Columbia produced some of the largest stone carvings north of Mexico and their petroglyphs can be found throughout the region. But they didn’t carve totem poles. However, they often carved replicas of the spirit powers into the corner posts of their remarkable plank houses or on the prows of their canoes.

The interiors of the plank houses reflected a clearly stratified society. Each building was about 20 to 40 feet wide and from one hundred to two hundred feet long. Down the middle a series of vertical posts held up the central beam. The plank houses typically had one small entrance located at one end of the rectangular layout. The area below the central beam was dominated by a series of fire pits, each of which could accommodate several families. Along the sides were the living quarters, split into a lower compartment at the floor level, and an upper level.  Typically the slaves or lesser members of the tribe occupied the ground level cubicle, while the higher-ranking Chinook families occupied the elevated cubicles. All the alcoves were covered with mats made from cattails. The further one lived from the entrance, the higher their status in the building. The section at the far end of the structure, opposite the entrance, was reserved for the nobility and highest-ranking inhabitants.

The ceiling rafters were often filled with drying “eulachon” or smelt. This sardine-like fish was harvested in vast quantities during the early spring as it made its way up the Sandy River and other Columbia River tributaries. After drying it was processed into a salty paste accompanied nearly everything the Indians ate. Between the fire pits and the living alcoves two covered trenches served as a cellar in which rootstocks could be stored year round. Typically, the drying of salmon was relegated to a special outbuilding that protected the many drying racks from the elements.

The Pacific Coast Slave Trade

The Chinook were consummate traders. They monopolized the trade between the interior populations and the traders plying the Pacific coast. Not only did they act as the middlemen in these exchanges, they even defined the language of trade. Made up from a mixture of European and Chinook, “Chinook Wawa” was the accepted lexicon of commerce in the Pacific Northwest.

In the 1780’s and 1790’s European “coasters” began trading up and down the coast. This increased contacts between the Southern tribes concentrated near the Columbia River and the more bellicose tribes on Vancouver Island and beyond. Along with other trade goods purchased from the Chinooks these European “coasters” also began transporting slaves northwards to satisfy a growing demand for slaves. The flourishing of this slave market was itself a factor in accelerated slave raiding in the late 1700’s. Given the high demand and the convenience of transporting large groups of slaves on western vessels, the Tillamooks and other Lower Columbia River tribes soon picked up the pace of their raids. Traditionally, the Tillamooks had raided further south on the Oregon Coast, but now we hear of raids into Tualatin territory and Calapooyan areas. The Chehalis Indians and the Klickitats further east also responded with more incursions into Oregon. The Chinook themselves were not the most belligerent slave raiders. But as middlemen they benefited greatly as they resold the slaves to the northern and inland tribes.

The Chinook didn’t just handle others’ goods, they also specialized in their own assortment of trade goods including dried salmon, armored vests made from elk hide (clamons) and waterproof hats. The trade in clamons was very lucrative for the Chinooks. These especially hardened leather vestments could stop arrows, and even deflect musket balls. They were especially useful to both the raiders and the defenders during this period of increased warfare amongst the northern tribes. It is even reported that when Lewis first encountered Chief Concomly of the Lower Columbia Chinooks he was shaking a spent musket balls out of his clamons – a nice theatrical touch.

Chinook Women:

One of the unique traits of the Chinook Indians was the near equal status of their women. In 1852, James Swan wrote in his book, The Northwest Coast:

“Where the women can aid in procuring sustenance for the tribe, they are treated with more equality, and their importance is proportioned to the share which they take in that labor. Thus among the Clatsops and Chinook, who live chiefly upon fish and roots, which women are equally expert with the men in procuring, the former have a rank and influence very rarely found among the Indians. On many subjects their judgments and opinions are respected, and in matters of trade their advice is generally asked and pursued.”

Indeed, on the Lower Columbia it was not uncommon to find that the “headwoman”, or wife of the headman had considerable clout in the community. They often conducted intertribal diplomacy and conducted trade negotiations, much to the annoyance of the male European traders. The wives of the Chinook chieftain, Concomly, and the wife of the Clatsop chieftain, Coalpo were very active in influencing the diplomacy between the Europeans and the natives during the first two decades of the 19th century. Indeed it was common for chieftains to have marital ties to many regional tribes, thus giving them access and establishing the essential trust relationship upon which intertribal dealings could be built. In such an environment it was not uncommon for a chieftain to include the marriage of his daughters or relatives as part of the “deal”. This “marital component” entered into the trade relations between European and Indians at all levels of interaction – giving rise to a European complaint that the Chinooks were supporting prostitution as a means of securing trade advantages. In retrospect, this European perception may have inhibited their inability to negotiate effectively with the native women, and contributed to their misunderstanding about what was being offered and under what terms. Offering your trading partner a daughter to wed was far different in the Indians’ eyes than offering a female slave for unspecified services. But that nuance was often lost upon the European traders, most of whom were confused by the Chinook women’s forthright behavior, their tough negotiating tactics and their distracting bare breasted attire.

Perhaps in recognition of the commercial ties that flowed from such local marriages, Duncan MacDougall, one of Astoria’s founders agreed to marry Concomly’s daughter and through this union enabled linkages needed to unleash a growing commercial relationship with the natives. Such marriages were called “custom-of-the-country” marriages and were supported by the fur trading companies as an effective way to acknowledge the needs of their male employees while simultaneously nurturing ties with the native communities. The combination of such “custom-of-the-country” marriages and the engaged role of Chinookan women soon gave rise to criticism that these “kilted ladies” of the Lower Columbia weren’t bargaining in good faith, but were resorting to prostitution to secure their aims. This charge has been repeated over the last two centuries to the point that it has become part of our oral tradition, but the accusation is off the mark and betrays the inability of the Europeans to comprehend how the Indians approach trade. The Chinook Indians saw commerce as a vehicle to reinforce familial ties as well as strengthening inter-community alliances. The European saw trade as an isolated transaction between two negotiators operating “at arms length”. In the European view trade was decided by price, quality and availability. The Chinook perspective left room for a wider array of influences to affect the outcome, including the marriage of women to reinforce ties, or negotiated access to hereditary fishing locations. At that time, the fur traders saw their commercial activities as part of a grander scheme that pitted formal nation-states against each other in a global competition. The traders saw trade through the eyes of the nation-state, but for the Indians it was about integrating the new arrivals so that they too would soon be enmeshed in the complex scheme of obligations and counter-obligations. And marriage was an effective way to anchor the new arrivals in the Chinooks’ political structure. Like ships passing in the night, these two value systems engaged in trade and commerce not fully comprehending the terms of the exchange. And if those early transactions occurred on a confused foundation, the subsequent discussions over sovereignty became even more lopsided.


The Chinook world was comprised of a network of kin-based villages. The Chinook Indian understanding of homeland, as expressed in their concept of Illahee was not predicated on a physical location, or even a finite amount of enclosed space. The individual was “centered” around a network of connections between individuals of varying degrees of intensity. This was similar to our conception of “family”. It was no more possible to put a boundary around this “homeland”, than it was to draw a boundary line between your 1st and 2nd cousins and exclude the latter from your family.

The Chinook Indians’ conception of his home was supported by a complex set of relationships that defined the usage of local resources. Their idea of “homeland” or “territory” was distinctly different than the European’s emphasis on spatial or geographic definitions. To the Chinook the “exclusive familiarity” that we feel for our home turf did not apply to a place. Instead it was understood through the intensity of familial connections, through close blood ties, marriages, and extended familial ties. Efforts by the European traders to infer a territorial definition of homeland were frustrated by this non-geographic approach to organizing tribal affiliation. And the dramatic die-off caused by the various waves of contagion that swept through the Indian community from the 1770’s onward only exacerbated the mixing of the Indian peoples into new configurations.

David Thompson, the British-Canadian explorer complains that the Chinook are “bungling blockheads” for not establishing a standardized trading system. Each different village priced goods according to their whim, making it more difficult for Thompson to engage in efficient negotiations. Seems like a reasonable complaint? Well, consider how reasonable it would be to call up your aunt or uncle and dictate to them what they should serve for dinner tonight. Even though there is kinship that binds you to your aunt and uncle, it doesn’t extend to standardizing any aspect of their lives. But that’s what the European traders wanted the Chinook leaders to do. In fact they were quick to encourage familial connections that could help organize this lucrative market. When they couldn’t establish marital links they supported the elevation of leaders that would speak for the entire tribe and enforce the mutually agreeable trade practices and terms.

The Calapooyans:

The predominant Indians in present-day Washington County and extending all the way down the Willamette Valley were the Calapooyan Indians. The local band were identified as the Tualatin or A-tfa’-lati Indians. Often they were referred to simply as the “Wapato Lake Indians.” Linguistically part of the Calapooyan group, this tribe hunted game and harvested wild plants in the Tualatin Valley to the west of the Tualatin Hills. Their main village, Cha-kepi, meaning “Place of Beaver” was located near modern Beaverton.

Originally the Tualatin’s territory extended from the Columbia in the north, to the Willamette River in the East, to the Coastal Range in the West and as far South as present day Wilsonville. Of all the tribes congregating around the confluence of the Willamette River and the Columbia River, the Calapooyans were the least sophisticated.

Semi-nomadic and living under the most basic conditions the Calapooyans were vulnerable to the incursions of the more advanced Chinooks who ventured into the Willamette Valley to tend their camas plants. From the north the Klickitats, a Sahaptin-speaking tribe whose mounted forays went deep into the Willamette Valley, harried them. And in the early 1800’s the hunting parties that supplied meat to Fort Astoria were putting pressure on the wildlife in present-day Washington County making it more difficult to hunt deer with bows and arrows. Through family ties and marriage links the Tualatin’s had some connections with the Clackamas Indians that controlled the access to the Willamette falls, and they were allowed some limited access to eel fishing there. They even negotiated the right to hunt seals in the Lower Columbia River in the territory of the Cathlamet Indians – near present-day Cathlamet Island. But perhaps the most interesting anecdotes relate to incidents where the Calapooyans penetrated through the nearly impassable coast range only to tumble out of the woods in the midst of the bemused Tillamooks. The Tillamooks evidently showed them how to harvest the razor clams, and after they’d had their fill of those they disappeared back into the forests again, presumably to return home after their brief stint of seaside tourism.

The Tualatin’s were part of the greater Calapooyan linguistic group that occupied most of the Willamette Valley. These were the poor cousins to the wealthy and influential Chinooks, and occasionally the victims of the fierce Tillamooks, and the sport of the raiding Klickitats. Unlike their neighboring Canoe Indians on the Lower Columbia, they were not in the path of the lucrative trade flows, nor did they benefit much from the regional plethora of salmon since many of the rivers, like the Tualatin River were too warm to sustain salmon runs. Unlike their riverine brethren who built solid habitations of wood, the Calapooyans crafted rude hovels from branches overlaid with blankets and hides. Duncan MacDougall, the chief factor in Fort Astoria described them as “ a set of poverty-strickened beings, totally ignorant of hunting furs and scarce capable of procuring their own subsistence.”

Early explorers found that the elevated classes of the many of the Indian tribes, including the Calapooyans, purposely flattened the foreheads of their children. This practice of binding a slanted board over the soft skull of the infants in their papoose produced an elongated skull with a long flat forehead. If that wasn’t enough to startle you, the fact that they wore scant to no clothing in the summer might give you pause if you encountered a warrior while ascending the Logie Trail. The women did favor aprons made of hide or plaited grass. Red feathers for decoration were much in vogue and shells and beads hung elegantly from pierced noses and ears. In winter leather leggings, moccasins and fur cloaks provided warmth for the Tualatin braves.

Despite their relatively humble status in the Indian hierarchy along the lower Columbia, it was the Calapooyans’ that left us with the most noticeable legacy. It was principally the Calapooyans that were responsible for the regular burning of the Willamette Valley. In late August and September they would set fire to the grasses that stretched across the valley. There were multiple benefits that accrued from this regular burning.

  • It was used to trap deer and elk so that they could be more easily killed.
  • It exposed the roasted acorns from the white oaks spread across the valley.
  • It exposed the tarweed seeds to ease collection.
  • It often produced a bounty of roasted grasshoppers.
  • It exposed caterpillars that were a delicacy.
  • It cleared out undesirable underbrush.
  • It helped grow lush grasses for the horses being grazed.
  • It kept the paths up and down the valley open and accessible.

The beautiful wide-open savannahs to be seen in the Willamette Valley are a direct result of the annual burning managed over the eons by the Calapooyan Indians.

The Clatsops:

The Indians that inhabited the 1100 square miles of coastal plain and river valleys that lie north of Neakahnie Mountain all the way to the mouth of the Columbia were known as the Clatsop Indians. The Clatsops, like their neighbors the Chinooks who inhabited the north bank of the Columbia, were “Canoe Indians” who buried their dead in canoes together with personal effects to tide them over upon their arrival in the next life. Like their neighbors the Chinooks, the Clatsops were non-nomadic and built permanent low-roofed, partitioned lodges of cedar planks.  Their canoes were also made of cedar logs, hollowed out by fire, then carved and finished with stone or bone tools. Food bowls and utility vessels were made from stone, wood, bone and shell. Mats and baskets for gathering and storage were woven of hide, vine, grass, roots and bark.

Their territory was a narrow plain of coastal plain interspersed with marshes, tidal lakes and long stretches of spectacular Pacific beaches. At the eastern edge where the land climbed into the Coast Range a dense tangle of Douglas Fir trees, Western cedar, Sitka spruce, Big Leaf maples and Red alders provided habitat for a profusion of game and streams full of salmon.

At the southern end of the coastal territory, the Necanicum River’s 85 square mile watershed was an important source of food and nurtured groves of giant firs, spruces and pines. These forests were extremely dense with waist-high salal, kinnikinnik, rhododendrons, vinemaple and Oregon grape.  Nearer the ocean, the occasional meadows harbored camas lilies and the fresh water ponds grew the much appreciated wapato plants. Everywhere there was an abundance of game, berries and edible roots. Its fresh and salty waters, including the Columbia, the coastal streams and the ocean tidelands all teemed with life including salmon, trout, steelhead and many varieties of shellfish.

Early accounts of the native settlements in this region point to a large village located on the lower Necanicum. Given the volumes of salmon ascending this lively stream this location would be well situated, permitting the Clatsop Indians to literally fish for their dinner right off their doorstep. This was not the only settlement; we know there were at least fourteen Clatsop villages located along this northernmost strip of the Oregon coast. One of the villages, Quatat, was situated at the mouth of the Necanicum; two other villages, Ne-ah-coxie and Ne-co-tat, were nearby.

The Japanese Current that still causes Asian detritus to wash up on our shores has done so for millennia, so it is not surprising that occasional artifacts surfaced amongst the Indians that were clearly of Asian origin. An early wreck of an Asian vessel near the mouth of the Nehalem River is said to have deposited huge amounts of beeswax that in the sandy spit. But with the beginning of European travel and trade on the Pacific in the 1500’s, unlucky mariners would occasionally wreck their vessels on the rocky “leeward shore” along the Pacific Northwest. One of the earliest known incidents of this kind occurred when a Spanish galleon wrecked on the Clatsop plain, near the Indian village of Ne-akstow. An old woman from the village, about two mile south of Clatsop Spit, came upon a “whale or an immense canoe with trees growing out of it”. She was surprised to see bear-like beings emerge from the monster that lay floundering in the surf. Alarmed she fled back to her village.

Her Clatsop neighbors soon swarmed the scene where they did indeed find two very hirsute survivors cooking popcorn on the beach. The Indians quickly examined the “monster” which was found to contain vast quantities of metal. Not surprisingly it soon caught fire and the Clatsops quickly gathered up all the precious metals. By now all the neighboring tribes had descended upon the salvage operation and demanded some portion of the spoils. Arguments about the fate of the two survivors raged, but eventually they were split up, with one going to reside on Willappa bay with the Salish Indians that lived on the north bank of the Columbia River.

The other survivor, known as Konapee, turned out to be an accomplished iron worker who produced knives and hatchets for his tribesmen. Eventually, Konapee and his associate were released from their indentured servitude and they were allowed to travel inland, but according to oral records they got no further than the Cascades where they intermarried with the local tribes.

The Tillamooks:

The Tillamooks inhabited a coastal territory extending north to the Nehalem River, south to the Salmon River and as far into the almost impenetrable Coastal Range as they felt necessary. They were divided into three distinct bands: those living in the upper reaches of the Nehalem, those living in Tillamook Bay, and the southern branch living at the mouth of the Nestucca River.

Linguistically, they were a Salish people, related to the Indians on Willappa Bay, and in Gray’s Harbor. But beyond these nearby linguistic neighbors, the Tillamooks were far removed from the main body of Salish Indians (aka Flathead Indians) who resided in Northern Idaho, Montana and Alberta. So it is not surprising that the Tillamook tribe was significantly different from their Salish neighbors, probably due to their trading links with Salish tribes of northern California.

Physically, the Tillamooks were short in stature with broad fat feet, thick ankles and bandy legs. Their upper classes flattened foreheads much like the Chinooks that lived on the north bank of the Columbia. Moreover, the Tillamooks were enthusiastic slavers raiding non-Salish Indian communities and carrying away captives for additional labor or to trade elsewhere. Like most coastal Indians they had commercial connections all along the Pacific Northwest Coast. Braving the rough conditions in the North Pacific, the Tillamooks were known to carry trade goods of dentalium shells, clamon (elk hide armor), slaves, and surplus foods all along coastal Washington and British Columbia.

The Tillamooks lived in relative harmony with the Clatsops who occupied the Clatsop Plains. Near the mouth of the Necanicum both tribes lived together in a village that straddled the territorial divide. However, their relations with many of their Southern neighbors were not so cordial. Slaving was a major part of the Tillamook culture, as it was for many of the coastal tribes all the way up to Alaska. Slaves were especially prized in the Puget Sound and further north. For the Tillamook Indians the Southern Oregon Coast and as far south as the Cape of Mendocino was “happy hunting grounds” from whence they could wrest able bodied captives. Blood feuds, and tit for tat raids were contributing factors to the constant rounds of revenge wars. Canoe-born aggression raged between rival tribes with each causality requiring the death of an equally ranked opponent, or several lower caste members to balance the blood debt. Amongst the Chinookans along the Columbia River and the South Coast Salish, which included the Tillamooks these conflicts often ended with losers offering reparations in goods or even  submitting to enslavement.

Unlike the Chinook that lived along the Columbia River, and whose exposure to outside cultures was delayed by the difficulties encountered by Europeans entering into the Columbia River, both the Tillamooks and the Clatsops experienced random encounters with both Asian and European cultures much earlier than the river Indians.

Around 1780 a ship was wrecked near Tillamook and a single freckled and red-haired survivor was recovered. To prevent his massacre at the hands of the often-temperamental Tillamooks he was moved to Seaside where he resided amongst the Clatsops. Eventually, he married and had sons. When small pox hit he took his family into seclusion, but left them to nurse the sick. He died after contracting the disease, but left two sons: Jack and George Ramsay. George, known among the Indians by his Indian name, “Lamasy” was an interpreter on several ships and also served as pilot on the Columbia. Later he was the sole survivor of the Tonquin massacre.

Around the same time, the Tillamooks found a boy pinned under a massive timber that had fallen across his back and pinned him on a large piece of flotsam that floated into Tillamook Bay. The chief’s brother had planned to kill the Tlehonnipts (the Indian name for “those that drift ashore”), but Ona, a Tillamook maiden, took pity on the survivor and nursed him back to health. After recovering, the castaway managed to further aggravate the chief’s brother when he rescued him from drowning during a fishing mishap.

Realizing that this situation was untenable, the girl’s father decided to move the family north to live with the Clatsops. The young castaway insisted on joining them as Ona’s husband. The father agreed and they soon departed taking a considerable cache of firearms and ammunition, presumably recovered from the wreck, with them. The party was on full alert considering the animosity of the chief’s brother and while they were camp overnight at the base of Tillamook Head, the malevolent brother of the chief appeared to attack the castaway. But armed with firearms he was able to dispatch the attacker. The Clatsops received the refugees, but posted guards to warn of any revenge attacks that might arise because the Tillamook Chief’s brother had been killed. But word arrived later that the brother had been warned by his tribe not to pursue the refugees and thus his death was not deemed sufficient cause to engender a blood feud.

Just before 1800, a passing vessel deposited two diseased crewmembers on the Clatsop sands and a subsequent contagion began to kill off the local Indians. Alarmed, the castaway took his family deep into the woods and settled them near the Lewis and Clark River to avoid catching the smallpox. But he himself when back to aid the villagers at Quatat and it was there that he became infected and died while still far away from his family. Eventually, his wife and son returned to their home on what is now known as Cullaby Lake. During his lifetime, the castaway had taught his tribe how to use firearms and was their gunsmith. He also passed on these skills to his son, who in turn trained his grandson Cullaby – after whom the lake was subsequently named.

By reputation, the Tillamooks were a tough crowd. When Captain Gray first entered Tillamook Bay in 1792 “friendly” natives greeted them and offered them food and berries. Given that Gray saw little potential for violence he launched a foraging party to gather fresh vegetable materials with which to combat the scurvy afflicting several crewmembers. However, during the foraging activities a Tillamook snatched a cutlass from Marcus Lopius, a black crewmember, and in the ensuing mayhem he was slain and the rest of the party barely escaped into the waiting boats – with the Tillamooks in swift pursuit. But no sooner had the crew reached the safety of the ship than the Indians vanished so quickly that the shipboard guns fired ineffectually across the now empty bay.

The next encounter with Europeans in January 1806 was almost as disastrous. Hearing that a whale had been found beached in the territory of the Tillamooks, Lewis and Clark decided to make the arduous trip over Neahkanie Mountain. Surprisingly they even brought Sacajawea who had until then been sequestered in Fort Clatsop and had not yet seen the Pacific Ocean.

At first the Tillamooks cordially welcomed them, but then the temptation to profit from the apparent wealth of the visitors proved too much. One of the visitors was soon invited into a plank house, where one of the Tillamooks prepared to attack him and then rob him of his weapons and garments. Quickly other Tillamook Indians sounded the alarm and the attempt on his life was averted with the perpetrator fleeing into the woods. However, it did awaken the Corps to the imminent peril in which they found themselves isolated, deep in the territory of the unpredictable Tillamooks. Quickly they retreated from the village and fearful of attack they rapidly scaled Neahkanie to make good their escape into the territory of the Clatsops, north of the Necanicum River.

Tillamook Head was a critical dividing line in many ways. First, it thrust boldly up, like a fist of impenetrable vegetation and cliffs marking the end of one world and the slide into another reality. Though linguistically related to their Salish neighbors to the north, the Tillamooks had their own dialect and they had a fearsome reputation for being hot-blooded and violent. Though the Salish and the Tillamook traded, the climb over the mountain, whether going into Tillamook country or returning from it, was regarded as especially perilous. With the Tillamooks it was never entirely clear whether the transaction one had just concluded was final, or whether the Tillamook partner would lay in wait to change the final odds to their own liking. And on those steep slippery slopes of low slung bushes it was all too easy to fall headlong,  to be dashed on the rocks and the pounding surf below.

Descending down into Tillamook country, near present day Canon Beach, a traveler would have sensed the apprehension as one began to traverse Tillamook country. The Tillamook, were very different than their Salish neighbors to the North. It appears that they traded extensively with their relatives in California and share many of their cultural traits, such as being excellent basket weavers. Their oral tradition was also derivative of the Northern California Tribes.

The Tillamook, like other Indian cultures, had a well-developed construct for understanding how they came to “know” their surroundings. According to their view, time was divided into three distinct phases: the Age of Myth, followed by the Age of Transformation, during which time the “South Wind” remade the land. The most recent age was considered the “period of true happenings”. Events in this last category were often based on actual events that had occurred in recent history. Unlike the western tendency to assume that knowledge of more recent events was more realistic, the Tillamook believed that contemporary accounts (the third age) were considered just as mythical as those from the first or second ages. There was no assumption that knowledge of recent events was somehow imbued with more objectivity and therefore more accurate.

So how should we understand this Indian perspective and reconcile it with our “science-based reality”? Take for example the Tillamook myth of the Thunderbird and the Whale, in which a “monster” fish eats all the whales leaving the Tillamooks starving. The Thunderbird, a gigantic mythical bird, taking pity upon the villagers attacks the monster causing the ocean recede and then overflow. Clutching it in gigantic claws the Thunderbird (itself a mythical remnant of the giant prehistoric bird, Aiornis) then carries off the monster and drops it on the land where its fall shakes the ground repeatedly causing massive damage. Today anthropologists say that this myth is derived from the calamitous events that surrounded the last great subduction earthquake that occurred in 1700.

Now ask yourself, how a description of the complex physical phenomena that accompanied that earthquake could be related to wide audiences and still be remembered through the succeeding generations without losing coherence and immediacy? By contrast imagine a modern newscaster explaining the physics of the earthquake to a group of dazed Tillamook Indians, whose canoes still hung in the trees alongside the bodies of their less lucky neighbors. Reality and science would utterly miss the point, and would still leave unanswered the essential question every human asks in this situation, “Why us”? How do I factor into this tableau?

This mythological rendition of the occurrence makes the lesson personal: it was the Thunderbird that heard our cries as we lay starving and he saved us with his actions. Is this not a case where the power of mythology utterly trumps our current reliance on a science-based narrative? Is that not reason enough to grant the stories inherited from the Great Age of Myth with as much veracity as tonight’s evening news?




One Response to Chapter 3 – Illahee and the Tribes

  1. Bob says:

    Thank you for some great info. I’m a native 50yr old guy here in Cedar Mill. For most of the 80’s my Brother and I fished the Necanicum River in a home made plastic food barrel drift boat. Near the Seaside golf course we found dozens of strange earthen mounds. Next trip I brought my camp shovel and dug 3 mounds. They were Indian trash mounds! Wale, elk and other bones and shells. I have a cabin near Elsie on the Nehalem. We have found some large spear points and one mortar grind rock. I also found gold in some of the quartz veins. This Summer I will try a dredge because getting the gold out of the quartz sucks. One very old local Elsie gezzer found a nugget and wares it on a neck chain.
    Can you tell me where in Beaverton was the Cha-kepi camp of the Tualatin tribe? I also want to walk Wapato creek off Hwy 47. Wapato lake must of been very shallow or a farmer drained it. I work in Canby and look for freshly plowed fields along the Pudding river. There must of been several large villages there. Because it floods easily points can be found in the fields not along the river.
    Oh how I wish for a time machine. To see a wild Columbia river and the verity of tribes. I had no idea there were so many and their strange tribal boundary areas. The tsunami must have been massive for the myth of the Thunderbird and the Whale. Think of those first hard core Asian-euro seamen landing or washing up along our coast. A new world!
    Thanks again 🙂

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