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Station Camp and Clark’s Dismal Nitch

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Clark’s Dismal Nitch

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson dispatched Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead the Corps of Discovery on a mission to find a water route across North America and explore the natural resources of the uncharted American West.  Little did Lewis and Clark realize that the time they would spend on the shores of the lower Columbia River would be counted among the most discouraging, dangerous, and disagreeable experiences faced during their expedition.

Imagine this: it’s early 1805, the fresh food had run out. The clothes were literally rotting off the backs of the members of the Corps of Discovery. They were traveling as fast as they could down the Columbia River, hoping to meet one of the last trading ships of the season. If they made it, they’d send a set of journals and some collections home as requested by President Jefferson. But foremost was the chance to use an unlimited letter of credit from the president, a chance to “charge” all the goods the tired explorers needed [plus perhaps get a little rum] from the trade ship.

What the Corps didn’t realize, however, was that it was about to run into some of the journey’s most treacherous moments. A fierce winter storm forced the Corps off the river and pinned the group to a north shore cove consisting of little more than jagged rocks and steep hillside. On November 10th, as the party paddled past Grays Point, they saw that the steep, forested shoreline consisted of a series of coves, or “nitches”, each divided from the next by a small point of land.  They passed present-day Dismal Nitch (also known as Megler Cove), but as the weather again worsened, the party retreated to a sheltered cove upriver from the Dismal Nitch, [approximately 600 feet north / northeast of the eastern end of the present-day “Dismal Nitch Safety Rest Area”].

Rain soaked the expedition party that night, and it continued at intervals throughout the next day, November 11, 1805.  Conditions worsened on November 12th; on top of rain, wind and cold came thunder, lightning and hail.  Clark describes their move from the unnamed cove to the Dismal Nitch:

“As our situation became Seriously dangerous, we took the advantage of a low tide & moved our Camp around a point a Short distance to a Small wet bottom at the mouth of a Small Creek (Megler Creek), which we had observed when we first came to this cove…”

The rain continued on November 13 and 14.   For only the second time in the expedition, Clark said he was concerned for the safety of the Corps. “A feeling person would be distressed by our situation,” he wrote in wet misery, as the expedition became in danger of foundering just within a few miles of its destination – the Pacific Ocean.  Finally, the storm broke and allowed the group to move on. It missed the trading ship, but eventually achieved its exploration goals. On the morning of November 15 Clark awoke to calm weather for the first time in 10 days.  Clark describes the party’s escape from what became known as “the Dismal Nitch”:

“About 3 oClock the wind lulled and the river became calm, I had the canoes loaded in great haste and Set Out, from this dismal nitich where we have been confined for 6 days…”

Dismal Nitch

Although the Corps met “near disaster” at Dismal Nitch, they arrived “in full view of the ocian” at Station Camp. [It was at Station Camp that the famous vote was taken that included all members of the party and the party decided to move the south shore of the Columbia River where they would spend the winter before beginning their long journey home: more about this later.] However, both before and after Captains Lewis and Clark established Station Camp, the site was a vital and thriving Chinook Indian village.  The Corps spent just 10 days here, but used Station Camp as a departure point for an overland trek to their first view of the Pacific Ocean and an exploration of the area. Together with nearby Dismal Nitch, Station Camp helps greatly to tell the Lewis and Clark story in Washington – and the ultimate effect the Corps of Discovery had upon the indigenous First peoples of the Pacific Northwest.

For thousands of years, the Chinook people have lived along the Columbia River and their home near the river’s mouth was strategically located to provide abundant food, such as salmon and shellfish. In addition, the nearby forests were home to game animals and the grasslands and marshes provided ample materials for making shelter, clothing and trade and household goods. The river provided a way for Chinook traders to travel to the south shore and up and down the Columbia.

Generations before the White Explorers came, the Chinook had already developed a sophisticated, rich culture and enjoyed great success as traders. The waterway near Station Camp became a virtual trade “water highway.” During the 10 years before Lewis and Clark arrived overland at this spot, almost 90 trade ships from Europe and New England are documented to have crossed the Columbia River Bar to trade with Native Americans. These ships brought metal tools, blankets, clothing, beads, liquor and weapons to trade for beaver and sea otter pelts. By the time the Corps reached the site, the Chinook’s had moved to their winter village and this village was unoccupied. The explorers spent almost two weeks there.

Several significant events took place, including the decision to spend the winter across the river, in what is now Oregon. It was Nov. 24, 1805, and the explorers desperately needed to lead the Corps to a winter campsite, one rich with game and near friendly tribes who would trade for supplies. A majority of the Corps, including the Indian woman Sacagawea and the African American York decided to cross the Columbia River to look for such a place. Because of this poll and decision, some historians call Station Camp “the Independence Hall of the American West.” It would be more than fifty years before African Americans could vote, and more than 100 years before the right was extended to women.

Station Camp

History of “Dismal Nitch”

The Dismal Nitch area is located within the traditional territory of the lower Chinookan people.  Through common usage, the term Chinook has come to refer to all speakers of the Chinook language family who inhabited the territory from the mouth of the Columbia River upstream to The Dalles and along the lower Willamette River to present-day Oregon City.

Of the many Chinook villages along the north shore of the Columbia River, two known summer villages were located in the vicinity of the Dismal Nitch.  Approximately 1.25 miles southwest of the Dismal Nitch was Qaiitsiuk, later called Chinookville or Chenook, just west of present-day Point Ellice.  The Lower Chinook were known for their canoe-building prowess, and their vessels helped them establish their reputation as traders well before Europeans set eyes on the region.

The Lower Chinook were first described in writing by Captain Robert Gray, who sailed into the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792, and by Captain George Vancouver, who also sailed into the area that year.  By the time Lewis and Clark descended the river in the fall of 1805, the presence of Europeans on the lower Columbia River was not uncommon.

Today, the Chinook Indian Nation is made up of five separate tribes, including the Chinook, the Willapa, the Clatsop, The Kathlamets, and the Wahkiakum.  All five tribes are Chinookan speakers.

The State of Washington is developing a park at Middle Village – Station Camp, focusing on the Chinook history, as well as telling the story of the Corps’. In 2005, archeologists found abundant physical evidence to support the importance of the site as a Chinook trade village. More than 10,000 artifacts were uncovered, including trade beads, plates, cups, musket balls, arrowheads, Indian fish net weights and ceremonial items. The European artifacts are from both before and after the Corps’ visit in 1805, and attest to the vitality of the Chinook social and economic life at the site. Station Camp eventually will encompass about 280 acres and be operated by the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Station Camp http://www.nps.gov/lewi/planyourvisit/stationcamp.htm
History of "Dismal Nitch” http://www.nps.gov/lewi/planyourvisit/dismal.htm

Chinook Life Articles by Greg A. Robinson

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

Our people’s position at the mouth of the Columbia River and nearby Willapa Bay afforded us access to some of the richest arrays of resources on this continent. Waterways provided a network of trade routes that spread, like a spider web, hundreds of miles along the coast, and inland to Puget Sound, Hood Canal, the Chehalis River, and even onto the plains. The combination of these two factors culminated in a trading society unrivaled in the western half of the continent.

Semi-subterranean longhouses provided refuge fromChinookan Plankhouse circa 1850 the endless rain and wind of winter, some large enough to house over a hundred people. Larger villages contained twenty or more longhouses of varying sizes. Inside these comfortable houses, the winter dances, songs and stories were told as the fires cracked and cast their long shadows. Some longhouses were temporarily abandoned for the summer fishing camps; others were occupied year round.

Five types of salmon returned to the Columbia River and Willapa Bay in numbers unimaginable today. Indeed, they were the heaviest runs of salmon on earth. Smelt, sturgeon, suckers, several species of trout, whitefish, eels and other fish rounded out the wealth. The beaches offered an abundance of clams, mussels, oysters and the occasional stranded whale. Offshore were sea lions, harbor seals (olxayu), sea otters, and waterfowl by the millions. The forests were rich in elk, deer (Nawich), bear, beaver, river otter (nanANuks) and small game. Wapato (wapatu) abounded upriver, and the local plains turned purple with the flowering of the Camas (lakaNAs). Cattails, Rush, Sweet Grass Sedge, Nettle, Salmon Berry, Salal, Lilly bulbs and ferns were just a sprinkling of the plant resources. What was unavailable locally was obtained through our extensive trade network.

chinook-plankhouse-and-canoes-circa-1850_0We were highly acclaimed canoeists, skillfully navigating the treacherous Columbia River and bar to the amazement of the traders and explorers. We plied the coastal waters from California to Alaska in canoes (kaniN) twenty-one to forty-two feet long and larger, carved from a single Red Cedar log and propelled by our distinctly notched, crescent-shaped paddles (isik) of Oregon Ash. It was this skill of travel, which transformed us into a tribe of tremendous wealth and power.

Chinook life has always been dictated by a strict and complex system of taboos and ritual. Failure to follow ritual procedure might doom the individual, and/or the tribe, to bad luck, sickness or death. The rules and ritual formula could vary not only according to species, such as salmon, but might also vary according to location. For example, stranded whales (ikoli) are to be processed with extreme care, with strict accordance to guidelines, lest future whales drift away.

The myths and stories are steeped in the regiment of rules, and quintic references. The number five (qwinfN) is integral to Chinuk culture and appears repeatedly in the old stories and legends (ikanuN). From the five cold wind brothers, to the five salmon brothers, qwinfN is undoubtedly the most important Chinook number. The origins of its significance are obscure, although theories exist. One theory refers to the five directions. My personal, and totally unsubstantiated, theory is that it relates to the five salmon (qwAnat) species that run on the Columbia. Regardless of its origin, its power continues today. If you wish something to happen, repeat it five times. If you don’t want something to happen, well, repeating it five times would be a bad idea.

Trade goods were diverse, with slaves (ilaytix) and Dentalium (alIkHochick) being two of the most important items. Though most slaves were acquired through other tribes, the Chinook occasionally conducted slave raids of their own. Dentalium was the hard, claw-shaped shell harvested off the shores of Vancouver Island, usually by the Nootkan people. Dentalium was the money of its day, and many items were valued in comparison to fathom length strings (iLana) of the valuable shell. Other important trade items included powdered salmon from upriver, canoes, the double elk-skin clamons (armor), cakes of dried Salal berries, Mountain Goat horn and even dried Buffalo (duyha) from the plains. Obviously, with the exposure to such a diverse pool of skill and materials, the Chinook people were able to capitalize on a tremendous amount of knowledge and expertise.

[I consider cultural education to be of the utmost importance. Share what you learn with your children and relations. Learn the stories and songs, pass the legacy on, and the circle will continue. The rumors of our extinction have been greatly exaggerated. Hayu masi, “many thanks.”]

~~~ Greg Robinson, Volume I, 1st Edition
http://www.chinooknation.org

Ranald MacDonald’s World – Chief Com’comly and the Tsinuk of the Lower Columbia

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

To help us appreciate the First Peoples of the Columbia River Basin …

(Chinook, from Tsinúk, their Chehalis name).  The best-known ‘tribe’ of the Chinookan family claimed the territory on the north side of the Columbia River from its mouth to Grays Bay, a distance of about 15 miles, and north along the seacoast as far as the north part of Shoal-water bay, where they were met by the Chehalis, a Salish tribe. The Chinook were first described by Lewis and Clark, who visited them in 1805, though they had been known to traders for at least 12 years previously(1) ~

“… This Chin nook Nation is about 400 Souls inhabid the Countrey on  the Small rivrs which run into the bay below us and on the Ponds to the N W of us, live principally on fish and roots, they are well armed with fusees and Sometimes kill Elk Deer and fowl. our hunters killed to day 3 Deer, 4 brant and 2 Ducks, and inform me they Saw Some Elk Sign. I directed all the men who wished to See more of the main Ocian to prepare themselves to Set out with me early on tomorrow morning. The principal Chief of the Chinnooks & his familey came up to See us this evening …” [Clark, November 17, 1805]  “… found maney of the Chin nooks with Capt. Lewis of whome there was 2 Cheifs Com com mo ly & Chil-lar-la-wil to whome we gave Medals and to one a flag. …” [ Wm. Clark, November 20, 1805 ]

Ft. Columbia History

Com’comly, grandfather of Ranald and the principle Chinook Chief of the time, received the Lewis and Clark expedition hospitably when it emerged at the mouth of Columbia River in 1805, and when, in 1810, the J.J. Astor Expedition arrived to take possession of the region for the United States, Com’comly cultivated a close friendship with the pioneers, even giving his daughter [Ilchee] as wife to Duncan McDougal, a Canadian fur trader who was at their head and who took part in the founding of Ft. Astoria in 1811.

Yet Com’comly may have been an accomplice in a plot to massacre the garrison and seize the stores. When a British ship arrived in 1812 to capture the fort at Astoria, Com’comly, with 800 warriors at his back, offered to fight the’ enemy’. The American agents, however, had already made a peaceful transfer by bargain and sale, and gifts and promises from the new owners [the North West Company] immediately made Com’comly their friend.(2)  Writing in Aug., 1844, Father De Smet(3) states that in the days of his glory Com’comly, on his visits to Vancouver, would be preceded by 300 slaves, “and he used to carpet the ground that he had to traverse, from the main entrance of the fort to the governor’s door – several hundred feet – with beaver and otter skins.”(4)

The Chinookan nation was one of the most powerful native groups in Oregon. It included those tribes formerly living on the Columbia River, from The Dalles to its mouth (except a small strip occupied by the Athapascan Tlstskanai), and on the lower Willamette as far as the present site of Oregon City, Oregon. The family also extended a short distance along the coast on each side of the mouth of the Columbia, from Shoalwater bay on the North. to Tillamook Head on the South.

Trade Map of the Pacific Northwest

The region occupied by Chinookan tribes seems to have been well populated in early times. Lewis and Clark estimated the total number at somewhat more than 16,000. In 1829, however, there occurred an epidemic of unknown nature, which, in a single summer, destroyed four-fifths of the entire native population. Whole villages disappeared, and others were so reduced that they were, in some cases, absorbed into other villages.  It can be assumed that it was the result of contact with a “white man’s” disease for which they had no immunity.  The epidemic was most disastrous below the Cascades. In 1846 Hale estimated the number below the Cascades at 500, and between the Cascades and The Dalles at 800. By 1854 Gibbs gave the population of the former region as 120 and of the latter as 236. They were scattered along the river in several bands, all more or less mixed with neighboring stocks.  In 1885 Powell estimated the total number at from 500-600, for the most part living on Warm Springs, Yakima, and Grande Ronde reservations in Oregon.

Most of the original Chinookan bands had no special tribal names, being designated simply as “those living at (place name)” This fact, especially after the epidemic of 1829, made it impossible to identify all the tribes and villages mentioned by early writers.  Their language served as the basis for the Chinook Jargon which became the principal means of communication for the Indians from California to the Yukon, as well as trappers, traders and the majority of other individuals living and surviving in the territory.(5)

[1] Chinook Indian Tribe Online Records http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/tribes/chinook/index.htm [2] Bancroft, N. W. Coast; Irving, Astoria[3] Chittenden and Richardson, De Sinet, i1, 443, 1905 [4] Chinook Indian Chiefs and Leaders  http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/tribes/chinook/chinookchiefs.htm [5] Northwest Indian Tribes http://www.oregonpioneers.com/tribe.htm

FOM Annual Membership Meeting May 2011

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

The annual membership luncheon of the Friends of MacDonald, chaired by Mas Yatabe, was held on May 14, 2011 at the Baked Alaska Restaurant in Astoria, OR.  Notable people among the attendees were Consul General of Japan Takamichi Okabe and his wife, Kozue, Dr. Stephen Kohl, author and retired professor of East Asian Languages & Literatures at the University of Oregon and his wife, Katie, and representing the Chinook Nation, Councilman Charles Funk and his wife, Mary.  Also in attendance were McAndrew “Mac” burns, Executive Director of Clatsop County Historical Society and his daughter.

The agenda included a State of the Organization and financial report presented by Chairman Mas Yatabe. Also discussed was a plan to distribute Unsung Hero, written by Atsumi McCauley and illustrated by Mariko King.  Unsung Hero, a bilingual children’s book about the young adventurer, Ranald MacDonald, is written in both Japanese and English text with full-page, color illustrations.  It is the intention of Friends of MacDonald to present gift copies to local Astoria elementary schools as well as to selected elementary schools in the greater Portland/Clark County area.  Councilman Charlie Funk brought news that the Chinook Indian Nation, the State of Washington, and the National Park Service are working together to develop a new national park unit. This unit, named “Chinook Middle Village – Station Camp”, and authorized by Congress in 2004, will focus on the first 30 years of the relationship between the Chinook and the United States, a period of time that encompassed the Lewis and Clark Expedition as well as the founding of Astoria, and will most certainly focus on the life and times of Concomly, the principal chief of the Chinook Confederacy and grandfather of Ranald MacDonald.

This new national park unit will be directly adjacent to Fort Columbia State Park and is hoped to be open in 2011.

Alice Yatabe, who developed the website for Friends of MacDonald, discussed the organization’s original mission, reading from a letter written in April 1991 by Donald Sterling, FOM Charter Member, long-time journalist and past-President of the Oregon Historical Society.  Yatabe quoted Sterling as calling Ranald MacDonald “the personification of the early contacts between the West and Japan in the mid-19th Century”, and encouraged the Friends to continue to assemble and disseminate information about a wide range of related subjects rather than concentrate only on MacDonald’s own life and adventures.  Yatabe pointed out that FOM was currently doing this by re-connecting with the Chinook Nation as well as with  Clan McDonald, both in the USA and Scotland – and by FOM’s on-going close relationship with Friends of MacDonald Japan.

As the informal luncheon came to a close those in attendance were treated to a beautiful solo rendition of Chidori No Kyoku performed by Mrs. Kozue Okabe on koto before everyone moved to the MacDonald Birthplace Monument on the corner of 15th and Exchange Streets, the site of the original Ft. Astoria, for a group photo.

2011-05-14-fom-group-photo-cropped