Kalapuya Village of Chemaway

Previous to the settlement of the Oregon Territory the Chemawa (Chemaway) village was located a few miles south of the Village of Champoeg. Little is known about this village. The area did not become a major settler community and as such did not get the attention of larger settlements like Champoeg or Chemeketa (Salem).  Its likely that the remaining Kalapuya people were subsumed by the Kalapuya villages at Champoeg or Chemeketa. It was common during this time, after the malarial epidemics (beginning 1829), which cause a dramatic population decline (90-97%),  for the Tribes to choose to confederate together at the larger villages. They would do this for companionship and safety from other tribes or encroaching settler populations.

Willamette Mission, Methodist Homestead and Indian Mission School, built with Indian labor, Indian students labored on the farm 1836-1840s
Willamette Mission, Methodist Homestead and Indian Mission School, built with Indian labor, Indian students labored on the farm 1836-1840s

Many of their children may have been taken by the Methodist Mission a few miles north, and their women may have married the French-Canadian fur traders that came to settle the valley. There were few or no conflicts between the settlers and the tribes in this area of the north Willamette Valley, so their demise by warfare is not a significant option. Most of the children taken in by the Methodist Mission died in a mysterious plague after the school was moved to Chemeketa (Salem).

Section of Gibbs-Starling map of 1851 showing location of the Kalapuya tribes of Chehalem, Chempoeg, Chemaway and Chemekitty.
Section of Gibbs-Starling map of 1851 showing location of the Kalapuya tribes of Chehalem, Chempoeg, Chemaway and Chemekitty.

Population estimates for all of the Kalapuyans at 1800 are normally 20,000-25,000. Most villages were autonomous and had their own chiefs, a high estimate for the number of people at Chemaway would be 200 individuals. By 1835 the Chemaway village would have had no more than 50 people. There was not a treaty negotiated with the Chemaway in 1851 so they were likely not a significant population. By 1856, the population of Kalapuyans moved to Grand Ronde  is 344 people, but no Chemaway people are noted. The final remaining Chemaway population may have been no more than one or two families, perhaps 10 people. They would have likely confederated with other tribes well before the 1850s

One of these Calapooia Bands is the Ahantchuyuk, First Grand Ronde Reservation census September 1856.
First Grand Ronde Reservation census  of the Calapooia (Kalapuya) Tribe September 1856.

Their major resources would have been the braided Willamette River and Lake Labish, especially the northern side.  This vast lake and marsh would have had quantities of wapato,  for food, and rushes for weaving. In addition, there were noted camas prairies near Lake Labish (Jacobs Field notebook). In the late 19th century Lake Labish was drained to make more farm land for industrious settlers. The rich soils of the lake bed are now some of the best in the world.

The residents of Chemawa were likely Ahantchuyuk Kalapuyans at their southern extremity. This village is also at the northern extremity of the Santiam Kalapuya region on the south. Lake Labish, which extends for several miles east to west, would have made a natural territorial boundary for tribes. Villages like this, at the junction of several tribal boundaries would have extensive intermarriage within the local tribes, including the Tualatin, Santiam, Clackamas and Molalla tribes. Intermarriage further afield was not uncommon as well.

GLO maps 6s 2w, 6s 1w, depicting lake labish and associated wetlands in relation to Miller DLC, 1852
GLO maps 6s 2w, 6s 1w, depicting Lake Labish and associated wetlands in 1852

One of the only information sources about the Chemawa village is in the historical and biographical writings about Joseph Gervais. Gervais is reported by many, especially Labonte (Lyman 1900) as being the first settler of any nationality in French Prairie, perhaps as early as 1828. in this year, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Chief Factor, John McLoughlin, was seeking for a way to direct the freemen, former fur traders that had completed their contracts,  to move away from the Columbia River, the central fur trade corridor, and away from possibly working with one of the HBC’s competitors in the fur trade. McLoughlin encouraged them to take up land in French Prairie, an attractive opportunity for them all. The area was already well known, seeing the first fur trading forts and camps established in 1812, when the Astorians established Wallace House a few miles south of the Chemaway village in what is now Keizer, Oregon. The fur traders at that time established trading relationships along the river and those relationships came with marriages to Indian women, cementing relationships for decades.

Joseph Gervais took up land about two to two and a half (2.5) miles past the present town of Fairfield (upriver) at a place that was noted as being the location of the Kalapuya village of Chemaway. Gervais did not settle at the site of the town of Gervais as suggested by some authors, but his name clearly inspired the town name. Gervais had two sons with DLCs in the same region, David and Theodore Gervais.

Section of GLO map, note spelling of Gervais name as “Jarry”.
david joseph gervais lands
Note names spellings as Jarvy, for both David and Joseph, apparent the surveyor never met Joseph or got his name

The 1852 GLO maps show that the Gervais family land claims are noted as “Jarry” in two locations, and “D. Jarry” in one. A search on the Oregon State Archives database turned up no Jarry’s as early settlers. But in the surveyor notes for sections 12 and 35 of GLO map 5s3w the names are written as Jarvys, a transliteration error. The Jarry (Gervais) notation in the center of the map, closer to the river would have been the location of the Chemaway village. The village was likely on a slight rise in the land where they would survive the smaller seasonal floods. They may have also had a winter camp inland at higher ground, like most of the tribes in the region did.

One other settlement noted for Chemaway, is that of the Willamette Mission.  The Mission, about two (2) miles upriver was the first home of the Jason Lee Methodist Mission (from 1834- 1841) when the regular seasonal floods caused the missionaries to move to Chemeketa and establish the Indian Industrial School there in about 1843.  The mission took in Indian children and began assimilated them into American culture. The identification of the Gervais property and the Mission with Chemawa (Chemaway) suggests that the village was somewhere between the two properties.

Section of GLO map, note spelling of Gervais name as "Jarry".
Section of GLO map, note spelling of Gervais name as “Jarry”.
theodore gervais fieldnotes
Note name spelling, apparently the V was interpreted as an R, Its clear the transliteration from the notes was not accurate.


The Chemaway (Chemawa) village of the Kalapuya was located on the Gervais property and is the origin of the Chemawa name now used for the BIA Indian school established in North Salem in 1880. Another suggestion that the name Chemawa is a derivation of the Kalapuya placename designation “Che-” and “wawa” a Chinook Jargon word for “talking,”  conceptually meaning “Place of Talking,” perhaps the theory of the Chinuk Wawa word for “school,” are likely incorrect. The Kalapuyan place-name identifier Che-, Tsa-, or Cha- was the rule for most Kalapuyan place-names in the valley.

Jesse Applegate and Chemaway, 1843

The Applegate family arrived in 1843, and immediate family members drowned in the Columbia River from rafting through some of the rapids. They spend time in Oregon City and over-wintered at the Willamette Mission that year. They first settled in Salt Creek, west of Rickreall. Later they move on to the Yoncalla Valley and become friends of the Yoncalla Kalapuya Indians. Jesse Applegate wrote about his experiences in several books published in the 1870s and later. Much of his boyhood account is a memory of that time.

Near the Willamette Mission, Jesse Applegate encounters the Kalapuyans at Chemaway (Chemawa) in 1843 (This was previously thought by me to be Champoeg, but after a bit of research, its more likely this village is Chemawa because of its location near the Willamette Mission). He describes a time when the Kalapuya had largely died off from the diseases which ravaged the tribes in the region. The Kalapuyans as a group is estimated to have had a 97% decline in population strictly from diseases that were introduced by Euro-American explorers, fur trappers, and later settlers.  The Kalapuya were known to make cedar plank houses and it is probable that the extreme decimation of the population by diseases caused a decline in the ability of the Kalapuyans to manage their society.

We found a tribe of Kalapooyas living along the river at this place (Chemawa). They were not numerous. There were a few families of them living in miserable hovels near us, and down the river, less than a quarter of a mile, was a small village. There were a few huts at other places, but little skill was made manifest in the design or construction of their houses. These Indians were poor in every sense of the word. A few miserable ponies were all the livestock they had- except for vermin and fleas. They were spiritless and sickly yet appeared satisfied with a miserable existence. Many died that winter, and the hideous wail of the mourners, as they conducted the funeral services, was heard almost daily. If any effort had been made to civilize or Christianize this tribe, there was no evidence of it. That they could hardly have been more wretchedly housed, poorer in poverty, more degraded morally or more afflicted mentally with the demonology, was plainly to be seen. (Recollections of a Boyhood, 127)

Chemawa Chief Annual Yearbook
Chemawa Chief Annual Yearbook, Entrance to Chemawa Indian school

Unfortunately, at this time not much is known about the Chemawa people. They would have the same culture as the neighboring Kalapuyan peoples at Champoeg and Chemeketa and would have participated in the Willamette River Trade system.

Leave a Reply

The Quartux Journal