People Above The Falls: Canemah Village

Canemah is now a neighborhood of Oregon City, but in the 1850s Canemah was a tribal village situated above the Willamette Falls on the eastern bank. The neighborhood today is steeped in history with a number of streets named for the native families who lived at the village, like ‘Apperson’. There native people would help portage canoes and supplies down the side of the falls  to Oregon City. The location has an important shipbuilding history, of constructing sternwheelers, that by 1856 would ply the upper Willamette River as far as Eugene. Canemah may have been the furthest south for any permanent village of the Chinookan peoples.

Oregon City, with Canemah to the southeast, from four GLO maps, circa 1856.
Oregon City, with Canemah to the southwest, from four GLO maps, circa 1856.

Clackamas People refers to the original Chinookan (group of Native American) tribes of this area, which included bands known as Tumwaters, Clowwewallas, William’s Band, John’s Band and others.  These people built canoes and great plankhouses, out of cedar wood.  The name Canemah came from kanim, which is the word for canoe in the Clackamas People’s  language of trade and interaction, Chinook Jargon (now called Chinook Wawa– the dialect that developed between 1856 and 1956 at the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation).  They likely chose the area above the falls for their village because of its location high on the bluffs where they could oversee Willamette Falls.

Willamette Falls circa 1920
Willamette Falls circa 1920

For thousands of years, Willamette Falls has been a significant fishing and trading place for Native Americans.  The river was filled with salmon, Pacific lamprey and other fish, and the banks of the steep falls provided an excellent place to catch fish as they attempted to climb the falls. Because of this unique topographic and natural resource condition, other Native American tribes traveled sometimes from hundreds of miles away to fish and trade in the area.  As part of the settlement, trade, and social traditions practiced by early Native Americans, the Clackamas People held resource rights  to Willamette Falls and the Lower Willamette and Lower Clackamas Rivers and their tributaries These rights enabled them to collect a fee, known as a tribute, from visiting tribes for use of the area.

Lamprey at the falls 1913

In the 1830s-40s European fur trade brought early pioneers to the area, and canoe travel along the Willamette River increased. Canemah was the location of portage around Willamette Falls. The Clackamas People helped early pioneers navigate the steep terrain around the falls and served as guides for travel south into the Willamette Valley.

Warre circa 1850, Oregon City, facing to the east.
Oregon City, facing to the east, Warre circa 1850.

Such close contact with early pioneers spread unfamiliar diseases to the Native people and by 1851, approximately 97% of the Native people in the Willamette Valley had died from smallpox and other foreign diseases. By the time the first land treaties were negotiated, only a very small number of Clackamas People remained. In 1856, the Clackamas tribe ceded its lands to the United States government and its people were relocated to the Grand Ronde Reservation where their descendants reside today. Their descendants, members of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, still speak Chinuk Wawa, build canoes and plankhouses, and come to fish at Willamette Falls to this day.

James Swan circa 1840s, Plankhouse on the Cowlitz, representative of Plankhouses and Canoes in the Region.

Willamette Falls was the main fishing area for the tribes. Salmon and lamprey eels were caught as they worked to climb or leap over the falls. The Clackamas People constructed fishing platforms and fished with dip nets for the salmon. Eels were caught by people walking or swimming into the falls with baskets.

Fishing off platform at the Falls, Section of Joseph Drayton drawing, Wilkes Expedition 1841
Fishing off platform at the Falls, Section of Joseph Drayton drawing, Wilkes Expedition 1841

The salmon and eels were dried and used as trade items with other tribes. Atfalati (Tualatin) Kalapuyas, the neighboring tribe to the southwest of the falls, traded camas and wapato bulbs for dried salmon and eel. Other resources associated with the rivers were sturgeon, steelhead, freshwater mussels, crawdads, and native trout.

Salmon steaks being traditionally cooked on cedar stakes around a fire.
Salmon steaks being traditionally cooked on cedar stakes around a fire.
Until the 1870s Canemah received all of the grain and timber resources being shipped out of the Willamette Valley. Once received the resources would be portaged to Oregon City, to the lumber mills, woolen mill, and other industrial plants. Oregon City served as the location to process many of the raw resources, to then be sent on schooners to world markets. Millraces and paddle wheels at the falls powered the industry at Oregon City. In the mid 1870s the canal was built to raise and lower ships at the falls. Canemah then became another neighborhood at Oregon City. Today much of the history is preserved in the Historic Canemah District street signs and at Canemah Bluffs Park which preserves the original landscape of the bluffs.

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