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History of Native American involvement at Willamette Falls should be recognized

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With the closure of the Blue Heron paper mill at Willamette Falls, a wonderful opportunity has opened up. For the first time in over 150 years the falls will be visible and accessible to Oregonians. Oregon City was built below the falls in the 1840s, and a great deal of the state’s early history centered there.

But before Oregon City, Willamette Falls was Native land, the location of a major salmon fishery and a center of Native settlement in the Portland Basin. There was an important dip-net fishery at the falls, one of two in the Portland area (the other was at Cascades Rapids).

When the May-June freshet raised water levels, the late spring run of chinook salmon jumped the Falls to ascend to their spawning grounds in the cold eastern tributaries of the Willamette. After the first salmon ceremony had been held, falls villagers built scaffolds over the torrent from which they dipped their nets; relatives from distant villages came to fish too, and other peoples came to trade. People also took lamprey eels at the falls, and there were other salmon runs in Abernethy Creek and the Clackamas River. During fishing season the Native population around the falls doubled.

In the early 19th century, there were at least three Native villages near the falls: the main Clackamas (gilaq’imas) village, at Gladstone; Cush-hooks (k’asxeks), probably at the mouth of Abernethy Creek; and Clowewalla (walamt in the native Upper Chinook language) at West Linn. There were least 30 other Native villages in the Portland Basin in the early 1800s — the others were clustered around the Cascades Rapids and Sauvie Island/Lake River.

Lewis and Clark heard of but did not visit the villages at the falls. After fur traders established a post in the Willamette Valley in 1811, however, there was a steady flow of whites past the falls villages, with Natives helping in the portage, and a confrontation 1816.

In 1829 an American trading ship came aground at Clackamas Rapids and was sacked by locals — Dr. John McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver sent men to settle the affair. Then in summer of 1830, an epidemic, called “fever and ague” by the Americans, swept through all the Portland Basin villages, decimating them and allowing settlement by whites.

The large village at Cushhooks was apparently hit hardest. Native Clackamas informant Victoria Wishikin Howard recalled a century later what her grandmother told her: “Only a few did not die.”  The Cushhooks plank house survived until the mid-1800s — 1843 immigrant Elisha Applegate said it was 300 feet long, divided into 14-foot compartments, each with a door, and 100 years old — until it disappeared, either in the 1861 flood or fallen prey to looters (the very large Stevens collection of artifacts at the Clackamas County Historical Society’s museum came from Abernethy Creek). The site is now under the I-205 bridge.  

At West Linn, the land was dubiously deeded by Chief Wanaxha to an American in 1840, and the plank house there was burnt by white arsonists in 1848, but not before it was depicted in a panoramic painting of the falls settlements by John Mix Stanley. 

The Gladstone village survived long enough to serve as a holding place for all the falls people in 1856, before they were removed from their homelands to the new reservation at Grand Ronde. In subsequent years, many moved back, and there is a sizable contingent of Willamette Falls/Clackamas descendants enrolled at Grand Ronde today.

Now, in 2016, there are plans to recapture the beauty of Willamette Falls, but nothing has gelled concerning a memorial to its original Native owners. The West Linn plank house was rebuilt and survived until the late 1800s, and near Ridgefield, Wash., there is the spectacular Cathlapotle replica plank house. But there is nothing like it on the Oregon side. 

There is an incredible, deep and rich Native history at Willamette Falls and in the Portland Basin. Now is the time to think big and do something to recognize and recapture it.

Robert Boyd is affiliated research faculty in the Anthropology Department at Portland State University. He is co-editor of “Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia,” and, under contract to the University of Washington Press, is completing “Before Portland: the Native Americans’ ‘Wappato Valley.’”