Douglas Encounters Kalapuyans In Oregon

Macnee's 1829 portrait of David Douglas. Linnean Society, London
Macnee’s 1829 portrait of David Douglas. Linnean Society, London

Scottish Botanist David Douglas (25 June 1799 – 12 July 1834) did extensive work in Oregon. On David Douglas’ famous trips to Oregon he documented a collection of plant seeds and samples, but also a collection of animal samples, and material culture (hats and baby boards). He famously names the Douglas fir tree. Douglas shipped the collections in barrels to the Royal Horticultural Society from the port at Fort Vancouver.  His collections are now in the British Museum or in Anthropology  museums in Scotland.

The journals of David Douglas offer a glimpse of the environment of the Willamette Valley at a very early date, 1825-1826. During  his expedition Douglas, travels first south from Fort Vancouver to the Umpqua valley, and then returns north. These excerpts are vignettes along that route. Douglas meets and accompanies many of the key fur traders and explorers of the time. He eventually visits Hawaii, where he is caught in a large animal trap and killed.

Agate- Fording the Yamhill 1841

In late summer 1826 Douglas begin a trip south, through the Willamette Valley.

Grey Foxes in Oregon, image courtesy of Trobairitz blog (pending)

On the Multnomah [Willamette] 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. (155)

September 28th 1826- Camped on the south side of the Yamhill River, a small stream about twenty five yards wide; channel for a greater part mud and sand. Two hundred yards below where we forded are fine cascades 7 feet high. Country much the same as yesterday; fine rich soil; oaks more abundant, and pines scarcer and more diminutive in growth.  (214)

Saturday, September, 30th- Most parts of the country burned; only on little patches in the valleys and on the flats near the low hills that verdure is to be seen. Some of the natives tell me it is done for the purpose of urging the deer to frequent certain parts, to feed, which they leave unburned, and of course they are easily killed. Others say that it is done in order that they might the better find wild honey and grasshoppers, which both serve as articles of winter food. … soil deep rich black loam… Passed at noon some Indians digging the roots of Phalangium Quamash in one of the low plains. Bulbs much larger than any I have seen, except those on Lewis and Clarke’s River [Columbia].

… In the dusk I walked out with my gun. I had not gone more than a mile from the camp when I observed a very large wasp nest, which had been attached to a tree, lying on the plain where the ground was perfectly bare and the herbage burned, taken there by the bears. At the time John Kennedy, one of the hunters, was out after deer and saw a very large male grizzly bear enter a small hummock of low brushwood two hundred yards from me. Being too dark, we thought it prudent to leave him unmolested.

October 1st- country the same as yesterday, rich, but not yet a vestige of green herbage; all burned except in the deep ravines. …on the elevated grounds where the soil is a deep rich loam, 3 to 7 feet thick on a clay bottom, some of the oaks measure 18 to 24 feet in circumference, but rarely exceeding 30 feet of trunk in height.

Thursday 19th of October- (Umpqua area) six Indians of the Calapooie tribe [Yoncalla Kalapuyans]  assisted me to my camp, (226)

[this is assumed to be in the vicinity of Fort Umpqua]

November Sunday 12th- at two o’clock passed Longtabuff [Longtom] River, which falls into the Multnomah [Willamette]. (236)

Monday 13th- smoke from our fire attracted several Indians to our camp belonging to the Calapooia tribe, who had little food and had come to beg a little. I was glad to relieve them, and as none of us knew the way one of them undertook to guide us to a crossing-place and to procure for us a canoe at the same time. (237)

Tuesday 14th- Early this morning two Indians fortunately came to our camp and informed us that we could cross the river on a fallen tree and the horses could swim at an old traverse, a little below. This we found correct and they for a small compensation assisted us. (237)

Wednesday 15th- on arriving at Sandiam [sic] river, which falls in the Multnomah [Willamette], a stream of considerable magnitude, we found the village deserted and no canoes. The men chose to swim their horses, I alone. …proceeded on and found an Indian village only two miles further on, with plenty of canoes. (237)

Thursday the 16th- at Two o’clock were met by Tochty (or Pretty) one of the Calapooia chiefs, who directed us on the right way and said we should find canoes on the Multnomah [Willamette], a few miles above his house.

Friday 17th- went down on the high banks of the river to two Calapooia lodges where was kindly treated by the inmates. The only article in the way of animal food was a small piece of the rump of a Long-tailed deer, which the good woman on seeing I stood in need of food had without loss of time cooked for me. The greater part of it was only the bare vertebrae, which she pounded with two stones and placed it in a basket-work kettle among water and steamed it by throwing red hot stones in it and covering it over with a close mat until done. On this, with a few hard nuts and roots of Phalangium Quamash [camas], it made a good breakfast. After paying my expenses with a few balls and shots of powder, and a few beads, I resumed my walk towards the end of my journey, five miles distant.

Camas going to seed, Bush Park  2015

The Kalapuya tribes lived in a land full of abundant resources. There were plenty of big game animals to hunt, a great variety of berries and fruits, and plenty of fish in the rivers and streams. Nearly any time of the year there was plants of resources to feed and the people. In addition, there were great Western Red cedar trees for building houses and making carvings. There were plentiful trading opportunities with neighboring tribes that had abundant resources of their own. In addition they employed methods of managing the incredibly lush vegetation of the valley by setting fires to control it. The Kalapuyas lived a very wealthy life with time to engage in other pursuits other than gathering, hunting or fishing.

Tualatin Kalapuya Calendar, Albert Gatschet 1877
Tualatin Kalapuya Calendar, Albert Gatschet 1877

One of the most significant of their resources was the Camas lily bulbs [Antip-Kalapuyan}. Camas lily bulbs (Camassia Esculenta or Quamash) were the main food of the Kalapuyas. Camas (Camassia quamash) is very strongly identified with the Kalapuya peoples throughout the valley. Ethnologist Albert Gatschet gathered a Kalapuya calendar from the Atfalati (Tualatin) Indians in 1877 that depicts the Kalapuyans following the camas seasonal cycle. Camas was very widespread in the valley, and the Kalapuyan tribes would manage fields of the blue lily for their own harvest. They had established a form of agriculture where the camas would be dug annually once flowering was finished, and the energy of the plant had gone back into the bulbs. They would harvest with ironwood digging sticks, and collect only the larger bulbs, throwing the small bulbs back into the holes to grow bigger for the next year. Kalapuyan families harvested so much camas, that they would cook the bulbs in large underground ovens.

Camas was a large crop for the tribes. Camas bulbs were harvested with digging sticks. These sticks were slightly curved, with a handle on one end, and sharpened digging end. There were made from “ironwood” of hardwoods that were fire hardened for strength. In the summer, women would travel to their customary camas fields, and dig the larger bulbs, letting the smaller bulbs fall back into the holes. In this way several large camas could be dug within the same area efficiently. Camas was then cooked overnight in underground rock-lined ovens. This was a major staple of the Kalapuyan diet, and was a major trade item.

Detail of the flower star with petal pointed downwards
Detail of the flower star with petal pointed downwards

The Kalapuyas had originally a six month calendar that organized the spring, summer and fall according to the camas growing cycle. The winter did not have any particular months as it was a long period where it was best that people stayed indoors because of the extensive rainfall. In the mid-19th century the Kalapuyas adopted a 12 month calendar along the lines of those shown to them by the newcomers. Albert Gatschet copied one such calendar down from a Tualatin informant in 1877.  The calendar also shows us that the Kalapuyas lived in a seasonal cycle of travel throughout their lands. From permanent

David Douglas describes the cooking method for camas:

“Phalangium Quamash; its roots form a great part of the natives’ food; they are prepared as follows: a hole is scraped in the ground, in which are placed a number of flat stones on which the fire is placed and kept burning until sufficiently warm, when it is taken away. The cakes, which are formed by cutting or bruising the roots and then compressing into small bricks, are placed on the stones and covered with leaves, moss, or dry grass, with a layer of earth on the outside, and left until baked or roasted, which takes generally a night. They are moist when newly taken off the stones, and are hung up to dry. Then they are placed on shelves or boxes for winter use. When warm they taste much like a baked pear…. Flowers large, blue: abundant in all low alluvial plains on the margin of woods and banks of river.”

The Kalapuya tribes practiced another method of managing the land in the valley, as described by Douglas on his journey,

Most parts of the country burned; only on little patches in the valleys and on the flats near the low hills that verdure is to be seen. Some of the natives tell me it is done for the purpose of urging the deer to frequent certain parts, to feed, which they leave unburned, and of course they are easily killed. Others say that it is done in order that they might the better find wild honey and grasshoppers, which both serve as articles of winter food.

Fire was used as an important technique, where the Kalapuyans would set fire to the valley,  in the late summer/early fall, annually to clear the valley of dense underbrush. Oregon enjoys plenty of rain, making the environment constantly rich in dense undergrowth. Without the annual fires, it would have been nearly impossible to walk across the valley.

Tarweed, native to Oregon, many folks have assumed its an introduced plant, but this is not so, many early farmers and sheep ranchers wanted it gone because the sticky sap of the plant would stick to the sheep fleeces. Very pungent odor, and grows in rare patches.

Secondary effects of the burning resulted in the control of insect populations, to make the vegetation rebound and restore itself and helped the Kalapuya hunt for deer on the cleared valley floor. After a burn Kalapuyans would harvest roasted tarweed (Madia sativa) seeds, and roasted grasshoppers. Some plants like wild hazel (Corylus americana), when burned, would grow branches back the following year perfectly straight. The straight hazel shoots are perfect materials for weaving basketry.

Western hazel nuts, the nuts were harvested and sun dried and then cracked open on a large flat rock.

Douglas’ success in documenting and collecting new species (new to Europeans) and the expeditions of Lewis and Clark, who also collected and documented many new peoples and cultures, sets the stage for the naturalist traditions of the later 19th century. Naturalists, most amateur and untrained, took to gathering “curios,” curiosities of interest to a European audience. This truly began the development of animal, plant, and cultural studies of peoples, that becomes ethnology and ethnography in anthropology, mythologies and oral histories in folklore studies, and new discoveries for biological and botanical studies.



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