Houses of the Oregon Tribes

The question of what sorts of houses the Kalapuyans had has again surfaced. Over the years this question has been of prime importance. Many Americans, ignorant of the diversity and variability of Tribal cultures have assumed that tipis were the houses for all American Indians. This notion has informed generations of Americans and has been reinforced by media and Hollywoodian images of Native societies. In addition, the extreme focus on the Indian cultures of the American Great Plains by American society (wars, buffalo hunting, studies, religions) has caused the notion of the tipi to become somewhat larger than reality.

Plains Indian Tipis
Plains Indian Tipis, besides poles, these required bison skins.

The Oregon Territory is a bit more complex in tribal and environmental diversity than the Great Plains of North America. Oregon has a large variety of environments and a plethora of different materials to make houses from. Oregon has vast semi-arid lands to the east of the Cascade Range, which suggest a different culture and housing style than the region west of the Cascade Range which is a rainforest. In these vastly different environments, there are different needs for warmth and shelter from the weather. Eastern Oregon does not have the large cedar or redwood forests and instead has large wetlands which produce lots of plants used as weaving materials. Tule and cattail alone suffice to the large materials necessary to make woven mats. Eastern Oregon tribes, like the Umatilla peoples, would assemble their longhouses from large woven mats thrown over a frame, either a tipi frame or a lengthened frame. After layering the mats correctly there is assembled a large longhouse suitable for several families. A few eastern Oregon tribes did have the traditional tipis of sewn bison skins, like the Niimipu(Nez Perce), because they would travel seasonally to the Great Plains to hunt bison.

Mat lodge or longhouse, Umatilla, with overlapping mats

The tribes in this region would make their winter houses from different materials than their summer camps, like fishing, hunting, or root gathering camps. Tule and cattail suffice to make woven mats. Large woven mats would be thrown over a frame, either a tipi frame or a lengthened tipi structure to make a matt longhouse. These longhouses are layered with mats to make them water tight and wind resistant.

Tipi-like with overlapping mat construction

This style of mat house extends from Idaho to the Cascades, and included the Umatilla, Cayuse, and Wasco tribes as well as others. Presumedly any tribe that made mats could make such a house, but records beyond the Cascades of the use of the mat house are sparse. The Molallans of the western Cascades did use the mat houses as well. Presumedly their use fo the mat house relates to their position between the east and the west and their possible origins in the east. The Molallans may have been one of the few tribes to have both mat and plank construction.

Molalla mat houses, courtesy of the Molalla Area Historical Society.
Molalla mat houses, courtesy of the Molalla Area Historical Society.
dickie prairie plankhouse
Molalla Plankhouse, Dickie Prairie

In southern Oregon, mat houses of the Klamath had a rounded dome as a roof as they were constructed a bit different, perhaps always situated over a submerged underground house. This housing style is common in northern California and among the Paiute of the Great Basin.

Klamath Mat house

Temporary camps and fishing, hunting, gathering camps for the tribes generally were not extensively built up. Some accounts suggest that Native people simply slept out with no covering in many temporary encampments. For resource gathering, brush and bough coverings would be constructed, sometimes over a dug pit. Pits dug for permanent and temporary camps offered insulation and protection from cold and windchill in the winter and were cooler in the summer.

Tolowa Coastal town 19th century
Tolowa Coastal town 19th century

In much of western Oregon, the most common permanent winter house was a plank house. The houses were partially underground, with the upper structure of cedar planks and plank or bark roofs. Western red cedar was the preferred material, as the wood could be split easy and predictable lengths and widths and were rot and pest resistant. Long straight planks could be wedged from a cedar log with little effort. In southern Oregon and northern California redwood was also commonly used for the very same reasons. The plank houses were engineered to be tied together.

Umpqua Plank house, note direction of siding is assumed not correct for the region. This drawing came from a magazine. Further communications suggest that the siding is correct.

The plank house was common throughout the Pacific Northwest. many northern tribes constructed huge plank houses in a dramatic style with dramatic art that caught the attention of many early ethnographers. Some plank houses in Oregon were smaller with less dramatic art. The practice of constructing plank houses, as a winter residence, extends down to the San Francisco Bay region, with many tribes constructing their own styles of plank houses.

Miwok Sierra Style house, overlapping bark
Miwok Sierra Style house, overlapping bark

Kalapuyans and their Winter Houses

Kalapuyan stories, as revealed in Zenk 1976, suggest that Kalapuyan winter houses were substantial permanent dwellings. Kalapuyan permanent villages are somewhat defined in the ethnography. Villages like Champoeg were permanent towns where the Kalapuyan inhabitants lived through the winter in their plank houses located by the Willamette. The Kalapuyans knew that the river would periodically flood and so they located their villages on the raised bluff about a half mile from the river.

All of the Kalapuyan tribes practiced the seasonal round. They would travel around their lands to resources areas for fishing, hunting, gathering and digging, to get their annual resources for food, tools, medicines, and weaving projects. In the spring family groups would travel to habitual areas where they knew that resources would be ready or available. Many families claimed ownership over camas prairies, or acorn groves and would return each year to their gathering place. It was less common to own hunting and fishing locations among the Kalapuyans. The encampments were brush camps,  and the resources gathered, much of them, would be returned to the winter village for storage. Most processing of the foods and weaving materials (drying, grinding, pounding, cooking) likely happened at the site of the encampments.

The winter village consisted of plank houses situated around a common area. The underground living quarters would be warm in the winter. Storage pits could be dug into the walls of the house pit.

The following story excerpt suggests three main types of houses for the Kalapuyans,

35. Winter houses and Sweathouses

  1. Long long ago people had a (type of ) house, a winter house. They had a large house. They dug down in the ground a short distance. And they placed fir bark on the top of it. And some threw dirt over their house. There in the center (of the roof) was a small hole, the smoke went out there. (2) And they had one door for it. They lived in it when it was wintertime. In the summertime they made their house of fir limbs. That was the sort of house they made in the summertime.
  2. now the people had their sweathouse. some of the boys and girls slept in the sweathouse. (Jacobs 1945, Kalapuya Texts vol. 1, pp 39-40)

These underground houses of the Kalapuyans suggest they use the earth to help insulate them from the weather.

Kalapuyan style Bark and Plank house, Zuker and Hogfoss

In accounts by David Douglas (1820s-1830s), Charles Wilkes (1841) and Albert Gatschet (1877), Kalapuyan houses and lodges were constantly referred to in this general way. The prevalence of the use of the words “houses” or “lodges” suggest that the villages could be easily seen. Here Douglas surveys two villages of the Santiam when traveling north through the Willamette Valley in the 1830s

Wednesday 15th- on arriving at Sandiam [Santiam] River, which falls in the Multnomah, 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)

Friday 17th- went down on the high banks of the river to two Calapooia lodges where was kindly treated by the inmates.

The houses or lodges had to be substantial structures, likely constructed well about the ground, with an underground living space, much like the style of plank houses for all of the tribes in the region.

One other description comes from one of Melville Jacobs’ notebooks on the Kalapuyans (MJFN 84, 9). This bit of information comes from Eustace Howard,

There were two kinds of sweathouses.

One kind was made lately, any small sticks are used, stretched in an arch; mats, blankets anything used to cover.

The fire for the rocks was outside; the hot rocks were thrust inside 4-5-6- men sweat together; very few women sweat much, E. thinks; 10-30 minute sweat; in summer, bathe in an adjacent stream; E. doesn’t know of their bathing thus in winter.

The other kind of dirt covered sweat house; E. does not know its shape; the frame was heavier because of the dirt cover, it was a permanent house.

Winter dwelling, Zuker and Hogfoss

The drawing above, is the upper portion of the plank house and does not account for the underground portion of house floor which could be as much as ten feet below the surface.

Comparing the description and drawings of the Kalapuyan bark and plank houses above, with those of some neighboring tribes and we can see how similar the plank houses were from Northern California to the Columbia.

Alfred Agate , Plankhouse at the Dalles, 1841
Alfred Agate , Plankhouses at the Dalles, Wasco?  1841
yurok dancehouse
Contemporary Yurok Dancehouse


Cowlitz Plank House, drawing by James Swan


De Girardin in 1840s at Willamette Falls, with Native Longhouse in foreground
Clackamas Chinook Plank house  at Willamette Falls,

For the western Oregon region, plank and bark houses would have been the standard for all of the tribes. Mat houses were almost strictly a style from eastern Oregon with the Molalla also making them. Mats were made and used by the Western Oregon tribes, for bedding, rugs, and interior divisions, but were likely not used for their winter houses. There was plenty of trees and stripping their bark could, in short order, be used to make a waterproof roof.  the abundance of bark and planks in western Oregon may have taken the place of the need for large woven mats. Then bark roofs and plank walls are much more water and rain resistant than mat building materials. Since western Oregon is a rainforest, its clear that wood products would be used extensively. Cedar bark is great for weaving all manner of waterproof clothing and hats, and this practice was quite common among the Chinookans.

Its unfortunate that they are not good descriptions of the Kalapuyan houses or period drawings or photos. The Kalapuyans were removed from their lands in 1856, and had to adapt to a new life on the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. There they were given a canvas military tent (Sibley tents) to live in until their built their own houses. No other materials were given the tribes. The death rate at the reservation for the first few years is likely related in large part to their exposure to the cold rainy elements in canvas tents.

Insecurity for the tribes continued for over 50 years as they were not given allotments until the 1870s (informal), and formally in the 1890s. Therefore for the first 40-50 years, the tribes did not fully settle down and every couple of decades had to move to a new piece of land. The changes to tribal culture during this period had to be extreme, with many people very unstable and stressed about their disposition as Indians in the United States, without the rights of Americans. Many tribal members gained citizenship when they took allotments, the remainder were granted citizenship in 1924 when the Indian Citizenship Act passed.   By this time the majority of the remaining tribal members, some 400 listed as living at the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation, lived on farms with farmhouses and barns.

Bill Langley's Farm, circa 1930s
Bill Langley’s Farm on the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation, circa 1930s

6 thoughts on “Houses of the Oregon Tribes

  1. Neat! The drawing of the Lower Umpqua house is at least accurate in that it shows the planks were horizontal. This seems to have been a thing with Coos Bay-Lower Umpqua-Siuslaw plank houses, whereas further south the planks for walls were typically vertical. Why the difference, I have no idea. Red cedar seems to have been preferred at CB, tho’ they may have used Port Orford Cedar. One Coos woman, Lottie Evanoff, who once owned a POC canoe said POC is heavier (making such a canoe a bit harder to dock) so while some people liked using it for canoes, I do wonder if they then preferred to use red cedar for house planks – at least the roof perhaps. About walls, I don’t know. Support posts, when material was mentioned at all, were douglas fir. Were Kalapuyans as big on tule mats? Apparently in CLUS households, tule mats were used for EVERYTHING – ‘rugs’, wall hangings, something nice and squishy to sit on, mattress material for bed platforms…I swear there is not much one can’t do with a tule mat.

  2. David, my grandmother, Ila Dowd, use to tell me that her dad, John aka: Mos, Hudson, (your great great grandfather, my great grandfather) use to leave to sweat in sweat house all the time. It is my understanding that he started doing this as a young boy (probably about 7 yrs.) This would of been in the 1870’s. He would listen to the elders tell there stories in the sweathouse. As you know, he later told these stories to Melville Jacobs. This would of been the last person in our family that was taught to do this because it was the Santiam Kalapuyan way. After that I think the Catholic Church just became to big of an influence on my grandmothers family.

  3. Hey David,

    I hope your Holidays were sweet. How are you? Did you ever hear back from my Tribe or any other Tribe on supporting your work? If not, I am so very sorry my efforts failed you! I just found something on the Umatilla website that sound right up your ally. Hope it is! Big Hugs, Dawn

    On Sat, Dec 31, 2016 at 2:38 PM, NDNHISTORYRESEARCH | Critical & Indigenous Anthropology wrote:

    > David G. Lewis’ Ethnohistory Research, LLC posted: “The question of what > sorts of houses the Kalapuyans had has again surfaced. Over the years this > question has been of prime importance. Many Americans, ignorant of the > diversity and variability of Tribal cultures have assumed that tipis were > the houses for” >

  4. I’ve been trying to find information about what kind of housing, the Umpqua tribe used, specifically those living on the North Umpqua. Any help is appreciated.

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