Following the discovery of the Columbia River in 1792 by Robert Gray, the contact between the local Indians and those arriving by land and sea increased steadily. Most of the new visitors were American merchantmen who were intent on doing business, while the big powers were distracted elsewhere – these were the so called “coasters”. They included ships like the “Eleanor”, a 190 Ton merchantman out of New York and captained by Thomas Metcalfe, and the 90 ton sloop called the “Lady Washington”, the sister ship to the “Columbia Rediviva”. Almost all of these early visitors were from Boston and hence the Americans were known in the trade jargon, as “Boston man”, as opposed to the British “George man”.
Soon after Gray showed that it could be done many of these trading vessels learned to enter the river. In 1793 the American ship Sea Otter, under command of Capt. Samuel Hill, entered the Columbia River. Hill reported nine other ships on the coast. This was the beginning of the ongoing relationship between the Chinooks and a variety of traders beginning to penetrate the Northwest Coast. Throughout the 1790′s and the early years of the 19th century many ships wanted to cash in on opportunities offered by the Northwest Coast. These included British, Spanish, and Russian fur-traders/explorers, New England whalers, Boston traders, some French expeditions, and even a few Japanese junks.
Now that the bar had been breached there followed a period of time when various sorties up the river by smaller boats would begin to lay the frame work for the evolving trade relations between the Chinook and the mainly British and American traders.
The first communities that these traders encountered were the tribes living along the River. The two most important tribes that the traders had to contend with were the Clatsop’s that lived on the southern shore and the Chinooks that lived on the north shore. Somewhat further up the river they encountered the Wakaihkum that lived on Cathlamet Island. At the time Cathlamet Island was a regional trading center on the Lower Columbia that was touched by most of the trade occurring along the river. Even as late as 1846, a retired Hudson Bay Company trader took up residence on Cathlamet Island in recognition that there was significant trading activity occurring on the lower river.
Unique reminiscences by the children of the retired trader that settled on Cathlamet in 1846 were collected in wonderful book called Cathlamet on the Columbia, by Thomas Nielson Strong. In it he gives us a vivid picture of what the Indian lifestyle was during those early years of intermingling between the European and the Indians.
Coming up river, the island of Cathlamet would have been hard to spot as it hugged the north shore of the Columbia River. Wreathed in mist and surrounded by a verdant jungle of vegetation, the large lodges located off the side channel would not have been visible until we were almost upon them.
There stood two Indian lodges, cedar houses, thirty to forty feet long and fifteen to twenty feet wide. These massive wooden structures were made with hand split cedar planks two to three feet wide. Using elk-horn tools and beaver teeth the Indians fashioned a well-built wooden structure with an opening along the ridge pole to let the smoke out, and a small oval door at one end. Since these big slabs of cedar were nearly indestructible, these lodges could stand for ages. One lodge in the Kathlapotle village complex across the river from St. Helens was documented to have been continuously inhabited for over 400 years.
According to one of the contemporaneous observers, when “fully inhabited by Indian men, worn, children and dogs, lighted up by the smoky fires, the lodge interior looked like a witches cave.” * Men and women lay sprawled about in various degrees of undress. Dilapidated furs were scattered around the tiered bunks that lined the walls of the lodge half concealing innumerable children and coyote-like dogs in the smoky shadows.
* Cathlamet on the Columbia, Thomas Nielson Strong, Binsford & Mort, Portland Oregon – pg 9 & 10
From the rafters hung dried salmon, smelt and strings of dried clams and roots. Smoke circled everywhere so that the chamber looked larger as the shadowy alcoves receded into the mirk. But what impressed many of the early visitors, was the stench that permeated the lodges which is why we seldom here of Lewis and Clark bedding down inside one of the lodges they encountered along the way. “No sane white man, except under the stress of dire necessity, ever slept in a fully populated Indian Lodge that had been used continuously by them for any length of time. “*
* Cathlamet on the Columbia, Thomas Nielson Strong, Binsford & Mort, Portland Oregon – - page 10-11
All along the sloughs and rivers between the Elokomon and SkamoKawa rivers on the Lower Columbia there were a multitude of burial canoes placed high up in the Cottonwoods and Poplar trees. Perched aloft, the deceased Indians sat facing the west from whence the uninterrupted growl of the Columbia Bar could be heard. With utmost dignity and patience they sat, wrapped in their cloaks, with all their worldly possessions at their feet, and their paddles poised to launch them on their final journey. High above the Columbia River, they hovered catching the last rays of the descending sun as they awaited their final ride on the flood of life that would come from the sunset ocean to carry them into eternity.
The Saddle and the Canoe – Theodore Winthrop.
The Northwest Coast – James Swan.
By the end of the 1860’s all the Indians along the Columbia had disappeared. No Chinook, no Clackamas, no Kickitat, no Clatsop, no Calapooyans, no Shahala, no Skiloot, no Cathlamet, no Clatskanie or Multnomahs remained.
In 1970, Walter Carl recalled those days,
“ The old-timers in Clatskanie can remember when the government men herded the Indians from up and down the Columbia to Clatskanie. There were 600 Indians at the time- men, women and children. They herded them over the trail into the Nehalem Valley, then over into the Tualatin Valley and down to the Grand Ronde reservation on the Yamhill River near Sheridan”.
And then it seems there were none.