First Newcomers: Soto on the Columbia

In an apparent twist of history, it was not the Americans who were first among the group of civilized Christian nations that settled in Oregon. In about 1725 a Spanish trading ship, perhaps a galleon, wrecked on the coast, in the vicinity of the Columbia River Estuary.

Spanish ships had been exploring the region for much of the 18th century, yet records of their travels were not well kept. There were likely several wrecks on the coast. The Spanish had begun a vigorous trade with the Asian mainland, and it was a Spanish wreck that likely deposited beeswax from China in the Tillamook area, on the Nehalem spit in either 1693 or 1705. Scattered legends of the 1725 wreck and its survivors have been passed down through the tribes of the region.

Nehalem Beeswax with shipping seal
Nehalem Beeswax with shipping seal, in the Pioneer Museum of Tillamook, found on the nearby beach in 1952.

One such story:

The First Ship Comes to Clatsop County
The Son of an old woman had died. She wailed for him for a whole year and then she stopped. Now one day she went to Seaside. There she used to stop, and she returned. She returned walking along the beach. She nearly reached Clatsop, now she saw something. She thought it was a whale.
When she came near it she saw two spruce trees standing upright on it. She thought, “Behold! This is no whale. It is a monster!” She reached the thing that lay there. Now she saw that its outer side was all covered with copper. Ropes were tied to those spruce trees, and it was full of iron. Then a bear came out of it. He stood on the thing that lay there. He looked just like a bear, but his face was that of a human being. Then she went home. She thought of her son, and cried, saying, “Oh my son is dead and the thing about which we have heard in tales is on the shore.”When she (had) nearly reached the town she continued to cry. (The people said), “Oh, a person comes crying. Perhaps somebody struck her.” The people made themselves ready. They took their arrows. An old man said, “Listen!” Then the old woman said again and again, “Oh my son is dead and the thing about which we have heard in tales is on the shore.” The people said, “What can it be?” They went running to meet her. They said, ‘what is it?” “Ah, something lies there and it is thus. There are two bears on it, or maybe they are people.”Then the people ran. They reached the thing that lay there. Now the bears, or whatever they might be, held two copper kettles in their hands. The people were arriving. Now the two persons took their hands to their mouths and gave the people the kettles. They had lids. The men pointed inland and asked for water. Then (the) two people ran inland. They hid themselves behind a log. They returned again and ran down to the beach.One man [of the people of the town] climbed up and entered the thing. He went down into the ship. He looked about in the interior; it was full of boxes.He found brass buttons in strings half a fathom long. He went out again to call his relatives, but they had already set fire to the ship. He jumped down. Those two persons had also gone down. It burned just like fat. Then the Clatsop gathered the iron, the copper, and the brass. Then all the people learned about it. The two persons were taken to the chief of the Clatsop. Then the chief of the one town said, ” I want to keep one of those men with me!” the people almost began to fight. Now one of them (sailors) was returned to one town, and the chief there was satisfied. Now the Quinault, the Chehalis, and the Willapa came.The people of all the towns came there. The Cascades, the Cowlitz, and the Klickitat came down to Clatsop. The Quinault, the Chehalis and the Willapa went. The people of all the towns went there. The Cascades, the Cowlitz and the Klickitat came down river…Strips of copper two fingers wide and going around the arms were exchanged for one slave each. A piece of iron as long as one-half the forearm was exchanged for one slave. A piece of brass two fingers wide was exchanged for one slave. A nail was sold for a good curried deerskin. Several nails were given for long dentalia. They bought all this and the Clatsop became rich.Then iron and brass were seen for the first time. Now they kept those two persons. One was kept by each [Clatsop] chief, one was at the Clatsop town at the cape.

(Annanberg Foundation, 2016 and Jarold Ramsey, comp. Coyote Was Going There: Indian Literature of the Old Oregon Country, 4th ed. (Seattle: Univ. Washington Press, 1980), 174-175.)

Spanish rigged ships and Galleon
Spanish rigged ships and Galleon


The 1725 wreck accounts mention at least four men surviving. The rest of the crew were killed and all of the metal of the ship would have been incredibly valuable to the tribes. The metals, brass and copper, was used in jewelry or to make knives or other tools. Elsewhere, studies of native coppers on the Columbia River, have revealed that all of their origins are not native to the region. Spiritually significant  copper ornaments were used by the tribes for ceremonial and wealth display purposes, and all of them came from off shipwrecks and from coastal trade.

Columbia River Copper rolled Beads
Columbia River rolled  Copper  Beads

If the men from the 1725 wreck were divvied up among the tribes, they would have at first been enslaved as curiosities, as people having unique knowledge and information. From them may have originated the knowledge of how to work with the metal, how to warm or cold forge copper and other metals and how to shape and sharpen knives. There is no record of the tribes practicing mining or metal forging of any sort in Oregon or Washington.

These four men would have eventually earned the respect of the tribes and earned their places in the tribes. Their off-spring would also have been unique and possess unique knowledge that they were something different. The name of one of these first Spaniards was even passed down to a son, Soto. Soto and De Soto, are common enough Spanish surnames.

Shoto village on Lewis and Clark Map, 1805-1806, Section of digital maps available at the Beineke Library, Yale U.
Shoto village on Lewis and Clark Map, 1805-1806, Section of digital maps available at the Beineke Library, Yale U.

The following are accounts from the Lewis and Clark Journals of the recordation of the name Soto likely as “Shoto” in 1805.

Lewis and Clark 1805-

On coming opposite to the Clahnaquah village, we were shown another village about two miles from the river on the north east side, and behind a pond running parallel with it. Here they said a tribe called Shotos resided. (Hosmer 225)

Lower down the inlet towards the Columbia, is a tribe called Cathlacumup, in the sluice which connects the inlet with the Multnomah are the tribes Cathlanahquiah and Cathlanahquiah, and Cathlacomatup; and on Wappatoo island, the tribes Clannahminamun and Clahnaquah. Immediately opposite near the Towahnahiooks ate the Quathlapotles, and higher up on the side of the Columbia the Shotos. All these tribes, as well as the Cathlahaws, who live somewhat lower on the river and have an old village on Deer Island, may be considered as parts of the great Multnomah nation, which has its principal residence on Wappato Island near the mouth of the large river to which they give their name.  (239)

Shoto tribe reside on the north side of the Columbia, back of a pond, and nearly opposite the mouth of the Multnomah River, 8 houses, 460 souls. (503)

The Lewis and Clark journals place the Shoto’s as a significant village of 460 people, just about where Vancouver is today. By 1805, the Son of the Spaniard Soto may have become a chief in his own right and began a village of people separate and upriver from the site of the Spanish wreck. This band would have been politically aligned, like other autonomous villages with one of the main tribes of Chinookans, and the likely alignment would be with the Multnomah. Soto would be the Chief of his village and would be advanced in age, at least 50 years or more.

Larger section of Lewis and Clark Map, 1805-1806, showing location on North side of River near present day Vancouver WA. Digital collections, Beineke Library, Yale U.
Larger section of Lewis and Clark Map, 1805-1806, showing location on North side of River near present day Vancouver WA. Digital collections, Beineke Library, Yale U.

In 1812 Gabriel Franchere visits the Soto village and is told the story that connects Chief Soto with the Spanish wreck in 1725. Franchere gives the location of this Soto village as further upriver, opposite of Strawberry Island, at the edge of the main Cascade (Watlala) settlements.

Franchere- May 7th 1812 …passed Point Vancouver… the 8th, we did not proceed far before we encountered a very rapid current. Soon after, we saw a hut of Indians engaged in fishing, where we stopped to breakfast. We found here an old blind man, who gave us a cordial reception. Our guide said that he was a white man, and that his name was Soto. We learned from the mouth of the old man himself, that he was the son of a Spaniard who had been wrecked at the mouth of the river; that a part of the crew on this occasion got safe ashore, but were all massacred by the Clatsops, with the exception of four, who were spared and who married native women; that these four Spaniards of whom his father was one, disgusted with the savage life, attempted to reach a settlement of their own nation toward the south, but had never been heard of since; and that when his father with his companions left the country, he himself was quite young. These good people having regaled us with fresh salmon, we left them, and arrived very soon at a rapid, opposite an Island, named Strawberry Island by Captains Lewis and Clark in 1806. (112-113).

In 1813, Alexander Henry visited the Soto village. This was a safe haven for the trappers, from the Cascades peoples further upriver, which are at this time very hostile and defensive toward the fur traders. Henry and his party are travelling with Chief Kiesno, a Chinook diplomat, at this time. The village location here is also further upriver from the Lewis and Clark account. It was not uncommon for villages to move periodically for various resource gathering activities (fishing camps, root digging camps, hunting camps), for seasonal living (winter village, summer village), and for access to better resources. The Cascades tribe, just above the Soto village mentioned by Henry and Franchere, would annually move to a village on an island across from Fort Vancouver, likely Hayden Island, as their winter village.

Alexander Henry- Jan 14th 1813- at ten we came abreast of the Soto village, where we saw the natives running into a low point of wood at the upper end of their village. They seemed to be in a great hurry and confusion, and we soon perceived they all wore large white war garments. Directly opposite the village we crossed over to a stony beach about 150 yards from the woods, in which some natives were posted behind trees in a posture if defense, armed with bows and arrows, clubs and axes- bows bent and arrows across them, ready to let fly; all was still as death. … a long parlay was held… While here we saw two horsemen set off at full speed for the village above, as we presumed to carry news of our arrival…. after a long parlay we crossed the river to Strawberry Island.

Jan. 15th- At 2p.m. we went up to the Cathlayackty village by land

Jan 21st- We therefore dropped down to the Soto village with the prisoner, accompanied by a canoe… nobody was stirring; smoke came from only two houses, the others being abandoned and barricaded with logs. (799-809)

Soto in 1813 must have been at very least in his 60s, a very old and respected chief. Further accounts of Soto are as yet unknown.

The Soto village, like that of many Chinookan villages, went through the malaria epidemics of the mid-19th century, (1829-1840’s). The remainder of the Soto people were likely taken in by the larger Cascades and Clackamas tribes in the vicinity.

…Pending is the addition of information about the Shoto clays and their relation to this history.



6 thoughts on “First Newcomers: Soto on the Columbia

  1. David,

    I was just posting about the “lore” on FB. on Oregon Archieves page and on Old Tillamook Times. There are so many interesting tales.

    Here’s another question — I have a few of the books on Shoto Clay —there seems to have been some sort of firing pit perhaps in Suavie Island. It seems that most of the clay club heads, figurines, etc are in private collections???? Do you think they could have come from your story? They might have had the technology on firing clay and shared with the natives? I do not know of any pottery other than Shoto Clay made in our area.

    Your stories are wonderful. I’ll add them to mine.

    That could be another talk for you. All the early explorers and the stories etc. I would love to hear that!

    Ginny Mapes 25185 NW Svea Drive Hillsboro, OR 97124



    1. Katharine Jones Harrison has a very good book on her tribal contribution(s), and I wish I knew more of the altar that now resides in the Smithsonian. The story of the use and it’s make-up and origin.
      This story is not done yet !

      1. The descendants of Chief Tumulth, of the Watlala Cascade Chinook Tribe believe that Tumulth, who signed the treaty of the Willamette Valley, and who was hung in 1856, was a grandson of Soto. Tumulth was 6’4″ tall and had long red hair, down to his waist. Many other natives living along the Columbia River had red hair as well.

  2. It’s my understanding the “sh” sound (Shoto) is not common to the Chinookan language, but is with other Pacific Northwest languages also spoken on the Columbia at that time (I’ll defer to my betters on this). My quick take is the baked clays are a local invention and made by “people of the river” who had strong ties with families extending to the lower cascades and Suavie Island – also include their Shahaptian-speaking neighbors (variously group as SW Klickitat). I was never successful finding a strong connection between the baked clays and Spanish influences; or even with other groups who reside in far distant lands beyond the Pacific Northwest. I have some ideas on purpose, but lack a mature understanding to detail here. I enjoy reading Mr. Lewis’ research and following his public outreach efforts. I look forward to reading his guidance on the “Shoto Clay” subject and hope the information shared proved helpful? Someday I’d like to pass along “there was a guy” type story where a Shoto Indian claimed rights/privileges with a form of HBC validation (no facts and more like local legend/tradition stuff).

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