Champoeg is a monument to early Oregon settlement by French- Canadians and Americans from the 1820s to the 1850s. Champoeg, situated on the edge of the French Prairie, the breadbasket of early pioneer Oregon territory, served as a center of community governance, as a cultural center and as a trade port where shipments of grains and other trade goods (fleece, wheat, timber, vegetables) would be sent downriver to Oregon City. There these products may be processed in mills and factories (powered by the Falls) into flour, lumber or woolens and be shipped to world markets. Champoeg was the community which made all of this work, a center-point of interaction between French-Canadians, Americans and Native peoples, for over three decades. Community and government meetings took place in this town and a vote for formation of the Provisional government occurred here. Negotiations between the United States Treaty Commission and the Kalapuyan and Molallan tribes to purchase the Willamette valley in a series of treaties, occurred here in 1851. In 1861 a massive flood washed away the town and most of the roles previously enjoyed by this community were adopted by the other towns and ports along the Willamette River. The town never returned and has remained undeveloped, except as a state park, ever since.
Because of this significant colonial history, the history of the Champoeg Kalapuya people is almost forgotten. There are only scattered stories and information in explorers’ and settlers’ accounts of the river. To date there is no attempt to bring these stories together to show the character of the Kalapuya people of Champoeg village.
Fur Trading on the Willamette
The Pacific Fur traders established Astoria on the Columbia River Estuary in 1811. Astoria or Fort Astoria, became the first permanent settlement in the Oregon Territory, and was financed by American John Jacob Astor. The Fur-traders at Astoria explored the Columbia, the coastline and the Willamette Valley in their search for animal furs. They established the first American building in the Willamette Valley in 1812, Wallace House in what is now North Salem-Keizer at the southern edge of what would become the French Prairie. The War of 1812 reached to the coat and the British brought a warship to Astoria in 1812 to claim the region. Following the sale of Astoria in 1814 by the British, Astoria was renamed Fort George, in honor of the King of England and for the next few decades it remained in British hands. The Hudson’s Bay Company received the charter for dominion over the Oregon territory and set up the base of operations, Fort Vancouver, well inland from the coast, with very good trade routes north, south and east. It was established on the north side of the Columbia, likely because of the feeling that the Columbia would eventually become the national boundary between Canada and the United States.
In the last 1820s, by at least 1828. many of the fur traders began retiring from their service and chose to remain in the Oregon territory. Experienced fur traders they likely already had good relationship with the regional tribes and knew about the potentials of the eventual French Prairie area for settlement. Many had already taken wives from among the local Kalapuyan and Chinookan tribes, and these women would become intermediaries in the Fur trade, being able to speak the Native languages and also likely related in some fashion to tribal leaders. Such relationship would have made the business of the fur trade much more lucrative and much more efficient than without those kinship relations. Many of the fur traders were Metis and thus already of mixed French and Indian (Iroquoian) heritage. So marrying an Indian woman would not be at all uncomfortable or irregular for them.
The North West Fur traders, a competitor to the Hudson’s Bay company, which was eventually consumed by HBC, established a camp on the lower Willamette, where the prairies to the south begins, that they called Campement du Sable, likely located downriver between a half mile and two miles distant (various descriptions suggest the possibility of several locations for this camp). The Hudson’s Bay Company began using this strategy for overland excursions into the west valley, the Coast and the Umpqua basin. The retiring fur traders were well aware of the virtues of the eastern Willamette Prairie. They likely also saw the decline of many of the tribes in this era from disease and some married into the families of the Kalapuyans. These relationship and knowledge led to them choosing the Kalapuya village of Champoeg for their final settlement.
In addition, the formation of the colonial community of Champoeg was made possible because of the already extant Native village of Champoeg. These Kalapuyans likely became the laborers to help the French-Canadian settlers build their houses, barns, fences, and help plant, tend to and harvest crops, as well as take care of vast herds of cattle, sheep, and horses. The Kalapuyans would work for low wages, they had rifles, a few, yet the French-Canadians were much better at hunting with them and could easily provide them meat, or other products they desired, beads, metal tools, clothing, and blankets. Then the Indians would not expect to be contracted workers but would work on an as needed basis. Many of the local Indians did became residents on the settler’s farms, and they would have their own living quarters. A few of the Indian wives would be from high born status and they came to live with their husbands with their own slaved who would then become the laborers on the farm.
The earliest of the Champoeg settlers were John Ball, Etienne Lucier, Jean Baptiste Desportes McKay and Louis Labonte Jr. and just to the south was settled Joseph Gervais at the village of Chemaway.
Champoeg became part of a series of settlements that were situated at or near Kalapuya tribal villages. George Gibbs and Edward Starling were engaged in the first treaty Commission in the Willamette Valley in 1851 and Gibbs was a translator as he knew Chinook Jargon. They subsequently drew up a map of the treaty region covered by the 1851 Kalapuya and Molalla treaties. The Gibbs Starling Map locates the four major settlements of the Kalapuyans in the upper Willamette River, Chemekitty, Chemaway, Chehalem and Chempoeg. The map is drawn from a navigational chart of the Willamette River that they borrowed from Len White, a steamboat captain who pioneered much of the steamboat river travel on the Willamette and Columbia. Len White quite likely stopped at all of these settlements and employed Natives as laborers on his steamboats.
Culture of the Champoeg Village
Champoeg, also called Champooing and Champooick, was originally a tribal village of the Ahanchuyuk Kalapuya Indians. They are also called Pudding River Indians and Calapooya Band of Calapooya Indians. The name is suggested to derive from the yampah plant called Po-wet-sie (Kalapuyan, Lyman 1900). Zenk (2006) notes the name Champuik was recorded by Gatschet (MS472a-b-c, 473, 474, 1877) as Tualatin Kalapuya and which was near a place of the Yampah root. Other sources suggest the Chehalem Plain was the Yampah Place. Americanization of the name to “Champui” today is incorrect, “Champooik” is likely the best pronunciation of the original Indian word. Gatschet’s 1877 source for Tualatin may have been a Tualatin informant, as most other sources stated that the village was Ahantchuyuk.
They occupied the eastern Willamette Valley from the Cascades foothills to the Willamette, and from Willamette falls to the northern shores of Lake Labish at North Salem. They may have also have villages that crossed the Willamette at key settlements, like that at Champoeg where it is likely they occupied both sides of the river. Of all the Kalapuya tribes, they may be the least well documented, mainly because of the very early exploitation and settlement of their homelands by the Fur Traders which caused multiple vectors of dissolution. They likely numbered about 250 peoples, and many died from the reported epidemics in the region the 1780s, but also by malaria from 1829 to the late 1840s.
Many of their women were married to Fur traders, and many of their children were likely the Kalapuyans taken from the French Prairie Plains by the Methodist missionaries and forced to live at the Willamette Mission and become “educated” and “civilized.” The children were given American names and were partially or wholly assimilated, while they had to work the Mission farm. Then many of these people became laborers on the farms and would then have assimilated into the Champoeg setter society.
The Kalapuya culture involved seasonal movements to resource locations. They would overwinter at their main villages, likely at high elevations in the valley, to account for the seasonal flooding. But their villages on the Willamette were the most prominent. There seasonal movements would take to camas prairies in early to mid-summer, to acorn gathering camps in late summer to fall. Near the Champoeg village they had yampah root. The character of the Willamette was a slower more meandering river in this time, and there would be patches of wapato and reeds used for basket making. Their travelling and camping would be in smaller family groups of upwards of a half dozen families. Families may own specific patches of camas or wapato or acorn gathering areas. Salmon would be gotten by fishing or by travelling to the Clackamas at the falls for trade. Normally they would acquire wind-dried salmon or eel which preserved and travelled well.
Their winter houses would feature plank-house construction, with cedar slab walls and bark roofs. The house would have looked crude as they did not mill lumber by had to harvest it from driftwood or fallen trees most of the time. Similarly, they would acquire canoes through trade or bride purchase. Canoes could be made from just about any wood that floated down river on account of winter storms. The Kalapuya walked quite a bit and poorer families were used to traveling about their lands on native trails without canoes if they needed to.
Parts of the culture are documented in only scattered accounts. Louis Labonte’s account (Lyman 1900) is the best extant. Labonte’s account addresses gameplay the tribe, marriage ceremony, and how they hunted.
A Camp-meeting Place
When the white men arrived, Champoeg was an Indian Village and the headquarters of the local chieftan. The Scattered tribesmen gathered here several times a year. They came there in the spring before setting off on expeditions to spear salmon at the Falls, in the summer before game hunts, and in the fall for the berry trek to the high mountains. (Chester Kaiser 1956:27 in Brauner et al. 1995: 25-26)
This was a common enough occurrence for some villages on major rivers. during their seasonal movements the populations may swell to many times the original population when is was necessary to gather, conduct trade and go out to fishing, hunting and gathering locations.
He describes a method of hunting the deer (jargon, Mowitch; Calapooya, Ahawa-ia) which, perhaps, has never been placed in print. The deer were very abundant in primitive times, and during the breeding season the buck were pugnacious. In order to come near to them the Indians would take the head of a deer, including also the hide of the neck, properly prepared, which was placed over the head of the hunter; and he then, stooping over so as to keep the mouth of the deer off the ground, as if grazing, would creep up on the lee side of the herd. He would also, so as to more closely imitate the actions of the deer, occasionally jerk the head from side to side, as if nabbing flies. Presently a buck from the herd, observing the suspicious stranger, would begin to stamp and snuff, and bridle with anger; or. Possibly, shaking with excitement, would edge nearer, challenging the supposed intruder for a fight, browsing and approaching, or maneuvering into position. The Hunter in the meantime, would keep up his own maneuvers until the victim was near, and then let fly the fatal arrow; …The Indian himself, if he chanced to miss his mark, was sometimes so viciously attacked by the deer as to be gored or trampled, or possibly killed. (172)
A similar description appears in Alexander Henry’s account of 1814. In this account, the North West Fur trading party is out of Astoria and had just visited the Cascades where they had dealt with a conflict there. They were visiting a trading Post on the Pudding River (Molalla River) about 300 yards or so from the Willamette. The Kalapuyans are the Ahantchuyuk or Pudding River Indians.
Jan. 24th 1814- Their method of hunting deer is to wear a deer’s head with horns complete, which they occasionally rub with a stick they carry, in imitation of the animal’s motions, while they keep their bodies concealed, thus decoy the game (817).
Games of Chance and Gathering Place
The tribes would regularly get together seasonally to trade resources, arrange marriages, and re-ignite former relationships and trade information. Generally, gatherings or camp-meetings would occur at the solstice and feature intertribal meetings, spiritual ceremonies, and storytelling. Southern tribes like the southern Oregon Athabaskans (Tututni, Tolowa) would practice world renewal and line or feather dancing. These community dances would literally renew the world. All tribes also had forms of first fish or root gathering ceremonies. These ceremonies were intended to renew the resources, assure a good season of hunting, fishing or gathering. The tribe would gather the various smaller bands as proscribed locations, like perhaps Champoeg, or other Council Grounds, and hold ceremonies annually. There would be ceremonies like this in the spring and summer and mid-winter. Additional gatherings can occur due to the need to trade with other tribes. By the mid-summer the Kalapuyans would have vast amounts of camas gathered and processed, and they would walk or canoe downriver to the Clackamas to get dried salmon or eel. There, at the Clowewalla and Clackamas villages, they could find an assortment of trade goods from throughout the Columbia River network.
Champoeg… was originally a camping and council ground of the Indians. It was near the north boundary of the Calapooyas, and here various tribes came to trade, to play games of chance and skill, and not infrequently intermarry. One great sport was diving. The water of the Willamette River off the bluff was very deep, and it became a great contest for the young men to see who could dive deepest and remain under water longest. Some of the bolder ones even not rising until the blood began to burst from their noses or mouths. (175)
Wedding ceremonies… that were often celebrated here between contracting parties of different tribes. It was quite an intricate ceremony. The tribe of the groom would assemble on one side and that of the bride on the other. The groom, placed in the forefront of his people, was dressed in his best, and seated upon the ground. He was then approached by members of his own tribe, who began removing his outer garments, article by article. After this was done, members of the bride’s tribe came and reclothed him with different garments, and placed him in readiness to receive his wife. The bride, in the meantime, was placed in the forefront of her people, but was covered entirely, face and all, with a blanket. When ready to be presented, she was carried by women of her tribe, and brought within a short distance of the groom, but here her bearers halted to rest. Then probably indicating the desire of both peoples that the ceremony should proceed, and that all were friendly, a shout or hallo was raised by all parties, which is given as follows: “A watch-a-he-lay-ee. A watch-a-he-lay-ee.” After which she was taken the rest of the way and presented, while the same cry of applause and approbation was again raised.
A bride was purchased, and the presents were numerous and valuable. In case that the groom and bride were descendants of chiefs, presents were made between the whole tribes. These presents were of all sorts, and consisted of horses (cuiton), blankets (passissie), guns (mosket), slaves (elietie), haiqua shells, or, as the small haiqua shells were called, cope-cope, which is a kind of turritella, kettles (moos-moos), Tobacco (ekainoos), powder (poolallie), bullets (kah-lai-ton), knives (eop-taths), or other articles.
Kalapuyans and the Fur Trade
It was extremely common for area Native chiefs to seek favorable economic relationships with the trading partners and they would seek to marry their women and sisters to other tribal chiefs or to chief traders in the fur trading companies. Chief Concomley of the Clatsops practiced this extensively, and later Chief Keasno did the same, marrying to the Clatsop tribe (Concomley’s daughter) and having secure familial relationships with the Tualatin Kalapuya, Santiam Kalapuya, Clowewalla, and Cascades.
The Kalapuyan chiefs sought to increase their wealth and standing, and sought to form deep relationships with the Hudson’s Bay and other trading companies. The Tualatins traveled to the fur trading post at Astoria to form trading relationships with this early American post in 1813. They proved not as forward thinking as the Chinookans, and had stolen lightly-guarded property, and Chief Keasno, who was a respected relative, was forced to order them to adopt a more peaceful attitude toward the fur traders.
27th Saturday (1813)- During their absence the natives near at hand, in considerable numbers (whom he denoted Calapoyas) visited the place and finding only those two to guard it, rob’d and took away all the principal goods, as blankets, cloths, etc., etc., without offering any violence to the S. Islanders, who probably being overpowered in numbers made no resistance. On the return of Wallace and party he, with most of his number repaired immediately to the lodges of Indians in order to secure the goods, who, instead of offering to return them, were all assembled with bows and arrows ready for an assault. On discovering this movement, the whites proceeded instantly amongst them, seizing some and broke their bows or cut their strings, which brought a general scuffle. Wallace’s party it appeared had taken the precaution to load their muskets with powder only, and on perceiving the extremity to which they were reduced fired among the Indians which instantly frightened and dispersed them, and greater part of the goods were obtained. Ka-es-no, chief of the Cathlakamps, hearing of what had taken place repaired immediately to the Calapoya, harangued them, pointed out the great impropriety of such conduct and the consequences that would follow, told them in what manner himself and other chiefs on the river treated with the whites and the goods effects arising from it, and exhorted them without delay to return the remaining articles stolen. After hearing him, they followed his counsel, the things were all brought, and him (Keasno) charged the mediator to return them and make up the beach. (Annals of Astoria, The Headquarters log of the Pacific Fur Company on the Columbia River, 1811-1815, Robert F. Jones)
For the pioneer Americans, their primary diet was meats, likely more than 70%. For the tribes their primary diet, likely as much as 70% was vegetables. So in the winters, there was much less availability of meats, while Native people would have food year round and occasionally supplement their diet with meats. The American dietary choice caused much of the problems with starvation. The Astoria account (Annals of Astoria, The Headquarters log of the Pacific Fur Company on the Columbia River, 1811-1815, Robert F. Jones) addresses how many men at Astoria had scurvy, mainly because they would not eat the local fruits and vegetables which would have contained Vitamin C. As well, many Natives would eat lots of fish through the winters, the greasier the better, and fish oils are known to store Vitamin C. The Americans did not enjoy the Native foods, many would not eat salmon, nor sample the greasy native foods, choosing dogs or horse instead.
Encounters with Champoeg
David Douglas encounters the Ahantchuyuk, 1825
On the Multnomah there is a most singular species of fox… brown at the base, white in the middle, and black at the points… it differs from most of the genus in its propensity for climbing trees, which he mounts with as much facility as a squirrel. The first that came under my notice were two skins forming a robe for an Indian child, belonging to the Calapooie tribe, inhabitants of the higher reaches of the Multnomah. In August 1825, I was desirous of purchasing some for the purpose of showing at the establishment, but too great value was put on them. (Douglas Journals, p 155)
Melville Jacobs collected information about the Kalapuya langauges in the 1920s and 1930s. His information suggests that the Ahantchuyuk were the tribe at Champoeg. As well one short notation suggest eel (lamprey) fishing in the lower Willamette at night. (Jacobs Notebook 46)
-Ha’ntcayuk, tribe around near Woodburn and Champoeg.(6)
-Long ago they caught eels in the night; this was done in all the Willamette tributaries south of Oregon City Falls. (169)
In 1851 the remnants of the Ahantchuyuk joined the other Kalapuyan tribes at Champoeg to sign treaties with the United States. These treaties were never ratified. Then in January 1855, Joel Palmer had the Kalapuyans come to his DLC in Dayton and they signed one single treaty which confederated all of the Willamette valley tribes together. By March the Kalapuyans were placed on temporary farm-hosted reservations in the Willamette Valley. The Ahantchuyuk reserve was likely that directly to the east of Lake Labish, on the Miller Homestead. The 1855 Kalapuya etc. treaty was ratified by Congress and in January 1856, Joel Palmer brought all of the Kalapuya leaders to the reservation to see the land, so he could convince them to remove willingly. They would carry good news back to their tribes on the nine temporary reservations and by February 1856 they were being removed to what would become the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.