In the Wapato Valley

Most posts here on AH focus on the period between 1890-1950 and are directly related to the development and early life of neighborhoods and their residential and commercial buildings. So much happened during those years to shape Portland’s eastside landscape. Much has happened since that time.

But our time here pales compared to the time before.

I’ve been on an exploration this winter to understand more fully and appreciate the deeper history of this landscape we think we know. And it’s changed the way I think about this place.

For thousands of years—since time immemorial—there were people here on these lands and nearby waters in extended communities and families, living within the seasonal round of the year: movements of fish, deer and elk; the growth and availability of plants for food and medicine; the season to put fire on the land to manage for future food sources.

The Columbia River near Warrior Point, February 2021. Doug Decker photo.

The Columbia River—which is probably out of mind on a day-to-day basis for most neighborhood residents today even though it flows less than two miles from our doors—was the source and backbone that made life possible for the families who lived all along its banks, from the mouth at the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, to far upriver.

Here in what is known as the Portland basin, the Chinookan people of the lower and upper Columbia met and traded with tribes arriving from the Willamette River and its tributaries, by land over the Coast Range, and from the tributaries to the north and east that drain today’s southwest Washington.

When the salmon were running, people were drawn upstream to the Cascades of the Columbia: impressive cataracts and fishing grounds in the vicinity of today’s Cascade Locks that disappeared with the advent of Bonneville Dam in 1938.

Salmon Fishing in the Cascades, Columbia River, 1867 by Carlton E. Watkins. Note man with dip net standing on scaffolding at river’s edge. Photo taken from the Washington side looking southeast toward current-day Cascade Locks. Courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society, OrgLot 93_B1_133r

After the fish runs and at different times of year, many of the people traveled downriver into the rich waters of the Portland basin. Food sources, family ties, language, traditions, and shared experience in known places made these people at home here at certain times of the year, and at home upriver at other times. This was their home for 10,000 years (our neighborhoods were platted 115 years ago).

Prior to contact with Europeans, the Portland basin likely held the greatest concentration of indigenous people in the region. Estimates suggest as many as 10,000 people lived in 29 villages stretching from the Sandy River Delta on the east to the confluence with the Lewis River on the west, a distance of about 34 river miles.

People were here because this stretch of the Columbia River that passes along our northern edge was unbelievably rich. The braided channels, ponds, islands and backwaters of what was referred to as the Columbia Bayou—today’s Columbia Slough—harbored and produced an amazing variety of plants, fish and wildlife. These were a canoe people, and these waters meant life. The Portland basin was principally a canoe place.

Fishing in the Columbia Slough, early 1900s.

When Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery passed downriver in early November 1805 and returned upriver in March 1806, they witnessed and reported on the diversity of indigenous people and languages here, and the richness of the river and upland environments. Of particular note to them was the potato-like aquatic tuber known as wapato, which was a staple food. Wapato grew in abundance in this 34-mile stretch and attracted people from across the region.

Because of its prominence in these waterways and in peoples’ lives, Lewis and Clark referred to this reach of river as the Wappato Valley.

The fur trade that boomed after Lewis and Clark’s early explorations brought disease. A malaria epidemic in the early 1830s devastated the people in these villages, killing 90 percent of the entire population. Waves of Euro-Americans began arriving from the east in the 1840s and the few remaining indigenous people were removed from the places they knew. Their lands were taken through a variety of means and distributed among the new arrivals, who set the landscape on a pathway into farming, resource removal and eventually development to house the rapidly growing population of newcomers.

Their lands became our neighborhoods. And their 10,000 years disappeared from view.

Which is why it’s so important for us to learn and to help remember.

The tragedy and rupture of how the indigenous way of life ended reverberates today. The descendants of these people remain and have dedicated themselves to remembering their ancestors, their language and ways of living they knew, and their lands and waters.

The more I’ve learned about this stretch of river, the more I’ve come to think differently about Portland’s northern edge, about Sauvie Island, the Multnomah Channel, the Columbia Slough, Broughton Beach and the stretch of shore near the airport and Blue Lake, and Cathlepotle, a bit farther downriver. These were busy places. Dramatically changed from their earlier forms, they persist nonetheless.

Less than two miles from my house, along the braided waterways of the Columbia Bayou, was Ne-er-cho-ki-oo, A Chinook village and plankhouse home to generations of families living in that seasonal round of upriver fishing at the Cascades and wapato gathering here in the valley. The waters they knew have been altered beyond recognition. But learning the story of that place, being able to look back at historic maps of the Columbia Bayou and imagine that landscape, are all part of remembering.

Here’s a thought exercise for you the next time you travel north on any of the main thoroughfares that intersect where Portland meets the Columbia River. As you begin to descend toward Columbia Boulevard (or Sandy Boulevard east of I-205), recognize that you are transitioning out of what were wooded uplands into what was the swampy, marshy storehouse of life along the river. Water’s edge didn’t stay mostly in one place as we know it today, it ebbed and flowed with the river and the season. The Columbia Slough we know today was alive with people: women and their canoes gathering wapato; men hunting and gathering fish. Watch for those waters and think about that as you zip across a bridge.

Columbia Slough, 1905. By Lily E. White. Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society Org.Lot 662, Folder 1, Plate 4.

Next time you visit Sauvie Island, think of the many villages there—home to an estimated 2,000  people—that were important centers of trade. Following the malaria epidemics of the 1830s which killed the vast majority of those people, employees of the nearby Hudson Bay Company post at Fort Vancouver burned the remains of the emptied villages and turned the island into a dairy.

Consider a 30-minute drive north to Ridgefield to visit the Cathlapotle long house and the refuge trails which bring into focus how the river connected people with villages and resources on Sauvie Island just across the water, with tributaries and other villages all up and down the river and beyond.

These days whenever I’m out and about, I still “see” the old streetcars, the muddy roads, vacant lots and the builders we’ve met here on AH, busy building these neighborhoods in the early 1900s.

But there’s a much deeper landscape we can orient to that contains it all, defined by rivers and the generations of people who have come before.

A few recommended sources for learning:

Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia, edited by Robert Boyd, Kenneth Ames and Tony A. Johnson, University of Washington Press, 2013.

Cathlapotle and its Inhabitants, 1792-1860, by Robert Boyd, US Fish and Wildlife Service, 2011.

The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence, by Robert Boyd, University of Washington Press, 1999

The Confluence Project

The Chinook Indian Nation

A Chinook Timeline

4 responses

  1. Lewis and Clark remarked on the Pox marks on the Indians faces they encountered while in Oregon. Many Bands of Indians down the Willamette valley were decimated by Small Pox for which they had no immunity, caught by British seaman trading for furs up and down the west coast.

  2. Very interesting…my husband’s family owned property down on Columbia Blvd that had a huge lake behind it and they found lots of arrowheads on it. The group of Native Americans who lived along the banks was a different group than the Chinooks but I cannot find any history on them. I think they were called the Burrough Tribe but I have searced and cannot find anything about them..probably included in the 20+ groups that lived along the Columbia.

    Thanks for the continuing history of our area!

    Bev Renne

    On Mon, Mar 8, 2021 at 10:21 AM Alameda Old House History wrote:

    > Doug posted: ” Most posts here on AH focus on the period between 1890-1950 > and are directly related to the development and early life of neighborhoods > and their residential and commercial buildings. So much happened during > those years to shape Portland’s eastside lands” >

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful reminder and historical perspective.
    Beautiful piece. 

    On March 8, 2021, Alameda Old House History wrote:
    > Doug posted: ” Most posts here on AH focus on the period between
    > 1890-1950 and are directly related to the development and early life
    > of neighborhoods and their residential and commercial buildings. So
    > much happened during those years to shape Portland’s eastside lands”
    >
    >

    • As a child in the 1970s, I was thrilled to find an arrowhead along the banks of the Sandy river, my first-hand discovery and proof of native people living in this area. Fast forward to now, my own family has spent an average of one month per year in the last 15 years boating the lower Columbia river and exploring the shores and islands. It is easy to imagine native people peacefully living off the land when we see remains of large fish, deer bones scattered among tall grass, and wapato leaves in marshy waters. I was thrilled to see wapato for the first time, feeling the same sense of excitement when I found the arrowhead.
      Thank you for your careful research and thoughtful reminders about this land we call home.

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