Perhaps 15 years ago, in the midst of classes at UO, we studied the hunter-gatherers of the Northwest Coast, also called Complex Hunter-gatherers. Some of the theories did not sit well with me. many of the theories are loosely structured around the notion that these peoples, really tribes of different peoples, did not possess much structure, were not agriculturalists, and sort of wandered about the landscape in a seemly haphazard fashion. Well, since I did not accept these theories, I confront them whenever possible, whenever I encounter something which tells me that things were not as simple as the theories intimated.
This is why when hearing that David Douglas in the 1830s collected tobacco seeds from plantations at Willamette Falls, I immediately took notice. Tonight OHS in Portland is showing a new film, Finding David Douglas, and I will be heading that direction shortly. But more importantly, “tobacco plantations!” that implies much more organization and sophistication than anthropology has previously allowed. In fact in his journals, Douglas describes how the native people propagate the plant,by planting the seeds in a burned out tree, near their plankhouses. This means to me that it is very apparent that they know that Tobacco would do better in a burned out tree, and knew that transporting seed and replanting them would create a new plant. This sounds like agriculture to me. For those interested, there are well recorded cultural practices in Northern California of tobacco plantations, and so the practice was known in the region.
The trouble today is we are having a difficult time finding the plant in the wild, the exact variety of nicotiana for the Willamette Valley. In numerous conversations over the past few years I have yet to come up with anyone knowing where the native plant still exists. Douglas collected seeds, illegally, during his visit. and there are reports of some seeds from the Royal Horticultural Society making it to perhaps Canada and Berkeley, but we have yet to find a source for the seeds. There are regional varieties that would work, rustica and its cousins, but not the multivaris variety. So we are thinking that the multivaris from the Willamette Valley may have been somewhat domesticated. If this is the case, it would throw theories of when agriculture came into the region into a tailspin. Work needs to proceed on camas, wapato, huckleberries and tobacco to determine how dependent they are on humans so that we understand better the native cultures of the peoples of the region.