Before Portland: The Native Americans’  ‘Wappato Valley,’ 1792-1856

by Robert T. Boyd (author)

Book prospectus:

When does history start? For most citizens of the United States, it begins with initial settlement of the land by Europeans. In the Portland area, recorded history starts in 1843 (first land claim) or 1851 (municipal incorporation). But people lived in the Portland Basin (Multnomah, Clark, Columbia, and Clackamas counties) for 10,000 years before that. And for a 63-year period before Portland’s indigenous inhabitants were removed by their successors to reservations, their history was written down, by white observers and in their own recollections.

Portland history began long before the mid-1800s, and that is what this book intends to address.

Present Portland residents, coming from diverse backgrounds, need to understand that the city’s history did not begin with white men. The descendants of the Portland Basin’s indigenous inhabitants deserve to reclaim their history. And all residents of the area need a better appreciation of place, and how it has influenced its inhabitants, not just in the past 160 years; but for millennia prior.

This book proposal will build on an already-completed 200 page manuscript, “Cathlapotle and its Inhabitants, 1792-1860,” prepared for the Fish & Wildlife Service’s Portland Area office as a background study of the Cathlapotle archaeological site and plankhouse on the Ridgefield National Wildlife Preserve. Cathlapotle was one of the two largest contact era Portland Basin Indian villages, as well as being the best preserved archaeological site in the area.

The “Cathlapotle Report” deals with the contact history of the “Cathlapotle Reach,” that portion of the Columbia between Longview and Vancouver, roughly approximating the northwestern third of the Portland Basin ”triangle.” Indian villages in this area were concentrated’ along the Multnomah Channel and Columbia River banks of Sauvie Island and downriver to Cathlapotle at the mouth of the Lewis River. Other Indian villages in the Portland Basin were located at the northeast and southern apexes of the Basin ”triangle,” at the Cascades Rapids (Bonneville Cascade Locks area) and Willamette Falls (Oregon City-West Linn), both sites of prominent salmon fisheries.

The book proposal intends to expand historical coverage beyond the northwest (Cathlapotle) corner of the Basin triangle to include The Cascades and Willamette Falls villages.  A prominent theme of the Cathlapotle Report, on ethnic identity, is irrelevant to the present project and will be excised.  Otherwise, the basic sources will be the same historical documents that were used for the Cathlapotle Report, but with the addition of a body of ethnographic records as well.  The contact era Portland Basin historical record, though written for purposes of exploration, trade, and settlement, invariably includes information, frequently lengthy and in depth, on the Native inhabitants.  Primary sources used in “Cathlapotle” that have information relevant to The Cascades and Willamette Falls include: Vancouver, Lewis & Clark, the Astorians (“Annals of Astoria,” Franchere, Ross 1, Thompson, and Stuart), Nor’westers (Henry, Ross 2), Hudson’s Bay Company records (Simpson 1 & 2, McLoughlin, various HBC Archives documents, Douglas, Scouler, Ogden, Tolmie), Dominis, Townsend, Wyeth, Wilkes Expedition records (“Narrative’ & “Diary,” unpublished journals including second in command Hudson, and surveyor DeHaven and his maps), missionary records (Catholic missions in all three areas: Methodists at Willamette Falls and The Cascades), the unpublished journals of Henry Warre, Paul Kane’s “Wanderings” and paintings, Pacific Railroad records (Stevens, Gibbs, McClellan) and the treaty correspondence and records of Stevens, Palmer, and their associated agents.

All these documents present a picture of rapid change in just over sixty years—smallpox, first encounters, fairly full descriptions of early contact cultures, trade effects (interactions and enrichment), the rise of influential chiefs like Kiesno, local wars, the “fever and ague” epidemic and depopulation, entry of Plateau Sahaptins, remnant groups, missionization, intermarriage with fur traders, an eruption of Mt. St Helens, descriptions by government agents, treaties, internment in temporary local camps, skirmishes with settlers, and final removal to reservations outside the region.  For The Cascades settlements, the records of the Astorian and Nor’west fur traders are especially strong; for the Willamette Falls villages, missionary records and early Oregon City documents are prominent.  From Willamette Falls, we also have oral texts—mythological, ethnographic, and historical, collected by anthropologists Philip Drucker and Melville Jacobs from native Clackamas informants John Wacheno and Victoria Howard, which can be extended to the other Kiksht-speaking villagers of the Basin.  Other documentary sources include records (historic and ethnographic) from the Sahaptin-speaking peoples of interior Clark county; archaeological reports—particularly from Cathlapotle but also from Clahclellah at The Cascades; the Sunken village, St. Johns and Meier sites around Sauvie Island; and other campsites and trails scattered throughout the Portland Basin, for context, ethnographic detail, and occasionally insights on historic trade; General land Office survey maps from the 1850s; and environmental observations from all the above, but particularly from the historic sources.

Since this book project will concentrate on PLACE, the nature of the pre-white environment and how it related to Indian life-styles will be a major emphasis.  The “Cathlapotle Report” has already established that the pre-white environment was much different from that of today, especially concerning changes in the hydrology of the Columbia River.  Pre-dam, there was marked seasonal variation in river flow, heights, and flooding/low water periods.  Much of the river margins and islands were seasonally flooded, effecting Native settlement patterns and fishing places and techniques.  Before invasive species, wapato tubers, Columbia white-tail deer, and backwater small fishes were important food sources,  In the interior of Clark and Multnomah counties managed prairie and prairie-margin foods (camas, berries, bracken) were utilized by Natives.  Indian settlements were concentrated at major resource loci (Sauvie: wapato and sturgeon; Cascades and Willamette Falls: salmon).  But not at the site of Portland itself, which was merely a crossroads.

Standard works on the history of Portland (e.g. Scott 1890, Gaston 1911, Snyder 1970, O’Donnell 1984, Lansing 2003, Abbott 2011) all deal with white history and have little or nothing to say about Native American predecessors.  The only printed work dealing with Portland area Native Americans that goes beyond pure archaeology is Roy Jones’s 1972 “Wappato Indians.”  A model for the present volume is Coll Thrush’s 2007 “Native Seattle: histories from the crossing-over place.”  Like “Before Portland,” it is a Native history, utilizing both early accounts and ethnographies; but unlike the present project, it carries Indian history into the urban present, and is less concerned with reconstructing pre-settlement history and culture.  A second model is Eric Sanderson’s 2009 “Mannahatta”, which attempts to recreate, using historic documents and ecological modeling, the landscape and ecology of the Lenape Indians’ Manhattan Island on the eve of its 1609 “discovery” by Henry Hudson.

Interested parties for this book project should include the city of Portland, particularly its bureaus of Planning and Sustainability and Environmental Services; other Portland Basin cities (Vancouver, Gresham, Oregon City/West Linn, Lake Oswego, Camas/Washougal, St Helens), counties (Multnomah, Clark, Clackamas, Columbia); local historical societies (OHS, WSHS, Clackamas, Clark and Columbia counties); Portland Basin tribes (Grand Ronde and Cowlitz), as well as neighboring peoples who intermarried and visited (Warm Springs, Yakama, and Chinook); PSU Urban Studies, and of course the reading public of the greater Portland metropolitan area.


Draft chapters written through May 2019

Chapter title, number of (double-spaced) pages

1) Before Chronology, 30 pages

2) 1781-1800: Explorers and Traders up the Columbia, 25 pages

3) Down the Columbia in 1805: Lewis and Clark’s Initial Transit of the “Wappato Valley”, 30 pages

4) Lewis and Clark return to the Wappato Valley, spring 1806, 35 pages

5) 1811: Fur Traders from Astoria visit the Wappato Valley, 27 pages

6) The Astorians’ second year on the Columbia and the rise of Chief Kiesno, 22 pages

7) Shakeout: Villagers, Traders, and  Battles for Influence During the North West Company era, 1814-1824,  27 pages

8) A White Trading Post in an Indian Land: the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Wappato Valley, 1824-1830, 41 pages

9) Plague, 29 pages

10) Visitors to a Widowed Land, 1833-1835, 34 pages

11) Protestant Missionaries in the Wappato Valley: much motivation, few converts, 48 pages

12) Catholic Missionaries, 1838-1842: action and results, 53 pages

13) A Second Scientific Expedition in the Wappato Valley: the 1841 U.S. Exploring (“Wilkes”) Expedition, 63 pages

14) Ethnic Replacement in the Wappato Valley: the American Invasion, 1841-1846, 41 pages

15) Eyes on the Past: the 1846-48 Wappato Valley Native Paintings of Paul Kane and John Mix Stanley, 50 pages

16) The Whitman Incident and repercussions in the Portland Basin, mid-1847 to mid-1850, 37 pages

17) “Settler Colonialism:” the Oregon Donation Land Act and the First Round of Treaty-Making, mid 1850 to mid-1851, 56 pages

18) Treaties, Round Two: Anson Dart, 32 pages

19) Joel Palmer as Indian Superintendent 1: mid-1853 to late 1854, 50 pages

20) The Willamette Valley Treaty and the Natives of the Portland Basin, 42 pages

Written pages subtotal: 772


Left to write (tentative chapter topics/titles):

History chapter:

1856 Temporary Reserves, Removals, and First Months at the Grand Ronde Reservation

Integrative chapters:

Cultural geography before removal (landscape, resource species, and subsistence patterns)

Traditional Native culture and society (perhaps two draft chapters)

Contemporary heritage (descendants, arch. sites, resource species, cultural heritage, etc.)

The “Draft chapters” written list includes more chapters than originally envisioned, because the amount of materials to be covered has turned out to be so large.  When the draft manuscript is complete, it will be twice the size it should be for a manageable book length, so I’ll abridge it by about half (not as difficult as it sounds—I’ve done it before with People of The Dalles).  I’ll abridge by shortening long discussions, summarizing or eliminating less important or duplicative points, paraphrasing quotations, and so on.

Through December 2014, the book project was supported by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, for whose help I am extremely grateful.  As of December 2020 the project is approximately four-fifths complete.

On March first 2016 I signed an advance contract with the University of Washington Press for “Before Portland,” with an open-ended due date.