A Botanist Documents Tribal Traditions: Martin W. Gorman, Oregon Botanist

Martin W. Gorman was a botanist in Oregon at the turn of the 20th century. He worked extensively in Alaska and British Columbia among many tribes in those areas, and was based in Portland Oregon. His work was financed by a Portland Bank and so he operated as an independent researcher for much of his career. He appears to have been funded for at least one expedition a year into Alaska for some 20 years beginning in the 1880s. When in Oregon he traveled along the Columbia River, around the Portland Metro basin, through the Tualatin Valley, along the Oregon coast and into southwestern Oregon documenting the many plant species he encountered. He also took extensive travels with the Obsidians group and into the Washington, Cascades and other locations in Washington.

Interestingly Gorman documented many tribal words for plants on his travels. He spoke with and worked with Native peoples, especially people at the Warm Springs Reservation, and documented how they used many of the most important plants for food or medicines. He also documented how many food were processed by the tribes.

Gorman’s collection is in the University of Oregon Special Collections and University Archives. Many of his journals are difficult to read for his use of pencil and his note-taking handwriting. A sampling of his notes on some of the major plants used by tribes in the region is transcribed below. Some of the Latin names are difficult to transcribe and thus are unreliable in this transcription. As well, I have discovered that some of the Latin names have since changed.

As tribes and tribal people begin engaging more frequently in Traditional Ecological Knowledge, to help restore traditional landscapes and practice culture in tribes, some of this information will be valuable. One of the areas of TEK that still needs development in practice and scholarship is how foods were used and processed for food. Gorman offered extensive observation of preparing foods and even notes on how to mix traditional foods together in recipes. Many tribes have such cultural practices in active use today in salmon, hunting, and root festivals or first foods festivals and ceremonies, and some of this information may then be used to reestablish traditions that may be forgotten today.

Camas page 1

Quamasia Quamash [Pursh] Cov. Camas

Family common in moist rich ground, open woods and fields, Sellwood, Milwaukee, Happy Hollow Road etc. In our limits the leaves are normally one fourth to half inch wide while in So. Oregon they are frequently found one inch wide, April, May, Dark to Lt. Blue


As the truncated bulbs, about 5/8 to 1 in. or more in diameter, of this plant formed the chief source of vegetable diet among the Indian tribes of the Northwest before the advent of the white man, a short description of the usual method of preparation as witnessed by pioneers in Yamhill Co. Or. and in Thurston Co. Wash. In the early fifties may not be out of place here.

In only August two or three days before the time set for the cooking, the Klooches and children were sent to the nearest glade or meadow in which the plants grew in abundance and a large pile of bulbs was collected. An experienced man of the tribe was selected as chef and in the early morning of the day, a trench 3 to 4 ft. wide by 6 to 10 ft. long and about 2 ½ ft deep was dug, a layer of small stones and pebbles 4 to 6 in. deep was placed in the bottom and a fire built thereon until the rocks were quite hot, the embers were then removed, while in the meantime, amid energetic commands of “Hyak”, “Hyak” from the chef, the klooches and children had quickly collected a pile of bracken and ferns which were placed upon the hot stones and pressed down evenly until a mat about 5 in. deep was formed. Upon this mat of bracken a layer of the bulbs 6 to 8 in deep was laid, a thin layer of bracken 3 to 4 in. thick placed


Above it, then a thin layer of hot stones from an adjacent fire was added and the process repeated until [usually] 3 layers of bulbs had been placed in the pit and covered with a heavy layer of bracken with a thin mat of broadleaves and the whole covered with a layer of earth 5 in. thick and left undisturbed for about 24 hours when the cooking was complete. The whole process was simply an aboriginal application of the “fireless cooker” and a very effective one for the purpose in view. The cooked bulbs which were white when placed in the pit, were then carefully exhumed and found to be a rich chocolate brown in color and quite palatable even to the neighboring whites who were frequently invited to the feast which was then held. The bulbs retained their shape fairly well during the cooking and such as were not immediately eaten, were prepared for future use in various ways. Some, being stripped of the outer coats were placed in a stone mortar, the kernels from roasted acorns of the Western White Oak, and frequently the kernels of the Western Hazel-nuts, were added and the contents of the mortar reduced to a paste which was usually eaten in that condition but occasionally made into small cakes.  This paste was highly nutritious but [the roasted acorns gave it a bitter flavor that was rather unpleasant] (tasted rather bitter) to the Caucasian palate. Another mode was to add to ripe blackberries instead of the roasted acorns and this made a much more palatable dish. The usual method of preparation


for winter use however, was to add the various berries such as blackberries, service-berries, (use) berries, salal berries and huckleberries, and occasionally a little dried salmon or dried venison was added, the whole reduced to a paste and moulded into oblong cakes 4 by 5 or 6 i.n or larger and about ¾ in. thick. These cakes were occasionally made into fanciful shapes or stamped with ornamental figures and designs and often perforated, and strung on hard arrowwood ???,  for convenience in carrying on horseback. They were then fine-dried and being placed in coarse baskets 2 ½ ft high by about 18 in. square, were covered with leaves and put away for future use.

In addition to the above mentioned method of preparation; when a girl in the tribe had attained 17 years of age, it was customary for her to collect a sufficient quantity of the bulbs, dig a small pit about 3 ft. square, fill it with 2 or 3 layers of bulbs and the necessary layers of ferns and hot stones and cook them as above and then invite several young men of her acquaintance to partake of the feast. This was her “coming out” and it is safe to say that the most fashionable debutants in any class of modern society was now more successful in attaining the object in view, for old maids and grass widows alike, were unknown social factors in Indian life.


Quamasia Leichtlini [Baker] Cov. Leichtlini Camas

Infrequent about margin of woods, Gladstone. This plant bloomed about the time the flowers of Q. quamash are disappearing, May, June, Dark Blue.

Indian Cherry

Osmararia Cerasi Formes Gressia, Indian Cherry

Very common in open woods, Macleay Park, Cornell Road, St Helens Road, Sandy Boulevard, South Portland etc. The Flowers and young leaves especially when bruised emit a rank, balsamic and somewhat currant-like odor that is rather unpleasant.


Although the amount of pulp on the Indian cherry is rather limited it was yet a great favorite with the northwest Indians who not only added it to several of the native dishes such as the Camas Cakes, stewed berries of various kinds etc. on account of the cherry-like flavor it imparted to them, but they also made it up into pure cakes by itself. The fruit was gathered as soon as ripe- July of early August [as it rapidly becomes dry after maturing) it was then pressed upward through a native wooden colander to detach the pulp, the pits were thrown away and the pulp was collected and made into a sort of paste or butter which was then cut into small cakes about ¼ in. thick. These cakes were usually made about 2 ½ in. square, or occasionally round and perforated in the centre to render them suitable for stringing and convenience in carrying either on horseback or otherwise. They were then fire-dried and put away for winter use.

The pulp of fruit grown in shade places tasted slightly bitter and astringent, but when grown in open, sunny situations it was vastly improved in flavor and was relished and eaten by the whites in pioneer days. Feb.-Apl. White

  1. Vaccinium Ovatum, Pursh. Coast Huckleberries shot Olillies

Open woods near Oswego. This is the only patch of this shrub I have ever known to occur at any distance from the coast. Its occurrence here must certainly be regarded as sporadic.



Rubus Laciniatus. Willd. Evergreen Blackberry

Common in fence corners, vacant lots, waste places near roadsides about Portland. The petals in ours are white usually with a faint pink tinge, and are three-lobed at the apex. Cor. Stout & Yamhill sts. Virta Ave. near Washington st. S.E. Cor Union Ave. and E. Monier St. Etc. Contrary to local opinion the fruit is quite edible and of good flavor when not allowed to become too ripe/ Generally believed to be native of Eur. Possibly w. form of R. Frutiacious [a species much given to variation] but introduced about Portland, Oregon City and Vancouver from the Sandwich Ilds. In the ‘40s

Cornaceae link. Dogwood Family

Cornus Nuttallin Aud. Western Dogwood

Common on hillsides and in open coniferous woods, City Park Macleay Park, L & C Farigrounds (Lewis and Clark), Portland Heights, Mt. Tabor, etc. a handsome ornamental tree, frequently planted in private grounds about the city.**Trees and saplings of this species, harrow, no matter how young, have proved very difficult to transplant successfully. Nevertheless it is a prolific seeder and it is safe to say that the tree has quadrupled in numbers in this section in the past 30 years owing to the clearing away of the coniferous forest which has taken place within that period.  It is very noticeable in early spring when the brilliant white bracts of its vernal flowers make it a conspicuous object in our woods, and in autumn it is again showy when the bright red fruit, deep brownish red or mottled leaves and large white bracts of its autumnal flowers can frequently be seen on one and the same tree. The autumnal flowers appear from mid-August to November. The fruit is eagerly sought by robins, flickers and other small birds, Apl.-Oct. flrs greenish, bracts of involvers? White.

Carasias Dormissa, Nutt. Western Choke Cherry

Rare in open woods, Canon Road. Apl. May. White

Anthoxmthum Odoratum, Sweet Vernal grass

A perennial infrequent in lawns and waste places. Nat. from Env. Very fragrant in drying . May-July


Sagittaria Latifolia, Wild. , Wapato

In ponds, Mock’s bottom and near Oak Grove.

This species formerly grew sparingly in the sloughs on E. Morrison and E. Stark Sts. But disappeared there when the present fills began to be made, July-Sept. white


This plant grew abundantly in shallow lakes, ponds, sloughs and low-lying river shores from Brit. Columbia to Cal. and prior to the advent of the white man its tubers constituted a source of vegetable food for the Northwest Indians, second only to the Camas. The tubers were gathered by the Klooches frequently in April but usually in October and unlike the Camas could be kept in the raw state for two or three months or more. They were cooked in three or four different ways. 1. Steaming. Where the tribe lived close to the ocean, a platform of stones was heated by fire and covered by a mat of damp seaweed on which a layer of the tubers was placed and being overlaid by more seaweed and hot stones was allowed to steam for about 2 hours. The tubers were then ready to be eaten. 2. Boiling. A second method was to put the tubers into a waterproof basket, cover until the tubers were boiled. This process required 2 hours or more. 3. Pit cooking. In the third method the tubers being collected, a small square, or more usually oblong pit about 3 ft. wide by 5 or 6 ft. long and 2 ft. deep was made in the ground, a layer of hot stones placed in the bottom and covered with a mat of bracken and ferns on which a layer of the tubers was laid, and the process repeated until two layers of tubers had thus been covered. The pit was left undisturbed for about 48 hours until the cooking was complete. The tubers were then exhumed and the outer coat being


removed were ready to be eaten. 4. Baking. The usual method in use by the Indians however, was to bake the plant in hot ashes. The tubers were placed in very hot ashes and allowed to remain for about 1 hour, they were then raked out of the ashes and the tough outer coast being removed were eaten while hot. This method had many advantages; a. Only a sufficient quantity for the immediate meal used be cooked; b. they were eaten hot and the flavor was much improved when they were cooked in this way, in fact it was the only mode of cooking that rendered them really palatable to the white man; and c. the time required to cook and prepare the meal was considerably less than by many of the other methods, a factor hat accounted for much at the end of a long day’s journey or a arduous hunt.

When it was desired to put up the plant for future use pit cooking was the method adopted and the tubers after removal from the pit and husking the outer coat, were reduced to a sort of dough or paste and made into small roundish cakes about 3 in. in diameter and 1 ½ to 2 in. thick, and were then fire-dried and put away for winter use.

The Chinese in Or. and Cal. relish the Wapato and to this day use it for food wherever it can be obtained in sufficient quantities to justify gathering it. The introduction of carp into the lower Columbia and its tributaries, however, has resulted in the plant being almost exterminated in this section, while the drawing of shallow lakes such as Lake Labish, Marion Co., Wapato Lake, Yamhill co., for farming purposes, has been equally destructive to the species in other localities.


The following quotation from the Oregonian of April 14, 1865 observes how the Chinese in Portland appreciated the tubers of this plant 50 years ago.

“Wapatos- the Klooochmen and Siwashes in this vicinity are just now in their element. The season having arrived for digging wapatos which they barter to the Celestial citizens for a fair price.  The trade is said to have been carried on very extensively between them and the aborigignal population during the past week.”

Large and Small Yampa

Carmin Oreganum, Wats Large Yampa

Moist Ground, Souvies Isld. Etc.

The roots of this and the preceding Op. [c. ???] are highly edible and form a staple of food among the N.W. Indians. In pioneer days they were highly relished by the early settlers- particularly the children.

Carmin Grindmere?, ray, Small Yampa

Moist slopes, Oswego, Mt Tabor, Mt. Scott, etc. blooms almost a month earlier than C. Oreganum, July-Sept. White

Quercus Garryanas, Dougl. Western White Oak

Open glades and open fir woods, L & C. fairgrounds, So. Portland, Fulton, Oregon City Road, etc. Apl.May

  1. The acorns were staple article of diet among the Indians before the advent of the White men. They were gathered in autumn and sometimes roasted and eaten while fresh, but the usual method was to bury them in sand for a time in order to free them from bitterness. When exhumed they were roasted and found to be quite palatable even to the Caucasian taste. On digging in the old fire places of the ancient Indian village below St. Johns, small quantities of these roasted acorns are still occasionally to be found in the ashes where presumably the faithful Klooch with her numerous other duties to attend to, had forgotten them.

Arbutus Menziesii, Pursh, Madrona

Hillsides and open woods, Albina, Oswego, Oak Grove, Etc. A Very handsome evergreen tree with thick, leathery dark green, glossy leaves, large clusters of white urn-shaped flowers in spring, and bright orange-red berries in autumn. Planted to some extent as an ornamental tree in private grounds about Portland and occasionally used for Christmas decorations. The many-sided berries are a favorite with robins flickers and other birds. A fine specimen 22 1.2 in in diameter can be seen in the grounds of 624 Salmon. Apl-June White


Arctostaphylus Uva-Ursi<L.> Spreng. Kinnikinnick

Open woods, foot of Oswego Lake. This interesting little shrub is quite uncommon except in open woods at alpine and subalpine elevations and in open glades near the coast. Its presence in the above locality may possibly be due to the fact that this spot was in olden days the site of an Indian camping and fishing ground. Apl-June, White

Ganltharia Shallow, Pursh, Salal

Common in open coniferous woods, McCleay Park, Mt Tabor, Mt Scott, Cornell Road, Canon Road, etc. This beautiful evergreen has within the last decade to some extent taken the place of the Oregon Grape for decoration. This is certainly justifiable as its spreading stems are graceful, its thick, firm leaves are slightly spicy-aromatic and do not wither nearly as rapidly as those of the Oregon Grape and its pretty pinkish white urn-shaped flowers are much less fugacious than those of the latter. The black, berry-like fruit is a great favorite with the Indians. Apl.-June Light Pink to Pinkish-white.


The sample of transcriptions above will be added to as time allows. Hayu Masi


Martin W. Gorman (1853-1926): Papers Coll. 169, UO Special Collection and University Archives.

One thought on “A Botanist Documents Tribal Traditions: Martin W. Gorman, Oregon Botanist

  1. Wow..Gordon had really nice, readable handwriting! Thank you for copying so much of what he wrote! Can you imagine a child waiting 24 hours to eat? They must have had other foods available while this long cooking process took place. And how interesting that the Chinese traded with Natives for their foodstuffs and he documented that. Which proves my point – Native people have always been great at trade negotiation!

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