The Klickitat (Klikitat, Clickitat) tribal nation are for many people in Oregon, synonymous with “Oregon Indians.” In fact, Oregon still has stories of Klickitat trails, and a Klickitat Mountain in the Coast Range. Yet, the Klickitats are not originally from Oregon at all. Their habitations in the 19th century were the eastern flanks of the northern Cascades, that section of the range north of the Columbia River.
The Clickatats claim a district of country north of the Columbia, but they are a roving tribe and are scattered about in different parts of the territory. Their number is four hundred and ninety-two. (Anson Dart Letter of September 1851, RG75, M2, R11)
Scholars have theorized that the Klickitat, much like the Molallas, were driven west in the recent past to settle in the northern Cascades. There, they became renowned for elk hunting, and as mounted infantry. They were feared by area tribes and ranged in their travels into Oregon, as far south as the Rogue River Basin, and to Coos Bay (See Harrington’s notes), and westward, over to the Washington coast, sometimes trading, and sometimes raiding. They were extremely mobile and could take advantage of any environment, whether riverside, and salmon fishing, or valley, and camas gathering, or mountains, and elk hunting.
Their basketry is renowned and distinctive. They wove stout baskets for cooking and gathering, with overlay designs and intricate geometric designs that few other tribes in the area had, unless they had Klickitat relatives. (Many are in museums throughout the area.) They were known for their elk-skin armor, a rawhide product that is called clammels, worn as armor strong enough to stop arrows. When they traveled, their train would be upwards of 700 people, men, women and children (1850s reports in Oregon), and so they presented a fearsome presence to many tribes, who would only have a few dozen, to perhaps 250 people in a single village.
In this manner, due to their high mobility, during the mid-19th century, the Klickitat were taking advantage of the new fur trade operations in Oregon, and hiring on as warriors, scouts, and laborers at the area forts and with fur trade parties. During this same period, beginning in about 1829, malaria hit the local Indian population centers along the Columbia and in the valleys. By 1840, much of the original tribal territories of the Chinookans and Kalapuyans were depopulated with about 90% population declines (Boyd 1999). The Chinookan tribes owned and controlled both banks of the Columbia for several hundred miles, and the Kalapuyans owned and controlled much of the Willamette Valley. Many of the outlying villages were abandoned due to extreme population decline, as the tribal nations concentrated down to a few of the larger towns.
It is during this declination that tribes like the Klickitat, Cowlitz ,and also American settlers, noted that there was a lot of clear land for settlement in resource rich lands along rivers and in valleys. In 1844, there began the Oregon Trail, with tens of thousands of Americans settling in Oregon in the following years. During this period, some of the original village sites of the Chinookans are taken over by Klickitats and Cowlitz tribal peoples, who integrated with the remaining Chinookans.
Following the illnesses, when the Chinookans and Kalapuyans had to reduce the number of their villages to a handful of what they had previously, I have postulated that these tribes could no longer defend their territories from encroaching peoples, who began colonizing almost unimpeded. In this manner, the Klickitats tried to claim the Willamette Valley, stating they had conquered the Kalapuyans, and therefore they deserved a treaty and payment from the United States for these lands. Indeed, they had helped the Americans in many ways, General Joseph Lane even hired a band of them to help negotiate a treaty with the Rogue Rivers (1853). But, because the early American settlers knew better, knew the Kalapuyans really owned the land, they refused to allow the Klickitats to claim any rights in Oregon, and Joel Palmer (Oregon Indian Superintendent 1853-1856) had to force them back into Washington.
George Gibbs, an early ethnographer of the tribes in California, Oregon, and Washington, had a first person opinion of the Klickitats,
Of the river Indians, and generally of those with whom no treaties have been made…the Klickitat were treated as belonging to the eastern division of this territory, to which their original location and affinities attach them. As, however, they are here spoken of as connected with the western division, some explanation is necessary. After the depopulation of the Columbia tribes by congestive fever, which took place between 1820 and 1830, many of that tribe made their way down the Kathlaputl (Lewis River), and a part of them settled along the course of that river, while others crossed the Columbia and overran the Willamette Valley, more lately establishing themselves on the Umkwa [Umpqua]. Within the last year (1855), they have been ordered by the superintendent of Oregon to return to their former home, and are now chiefly in this part of the Territory. The present generation, for the most part, look upon the Kathlaputl as their proper country, more especially as they are intermarried with the remnant of the original proprietors. No correct census has at any time been made of the Klikitat, but they are estimated at from 300 to 400 [this is likely only one band] , exclusive of the Taitinapam. (Gibbs, 1853, Tribes of Western Washington and Northwestern Oregon)
In 1856, a band of the Klickitats took part in the Yakima War era attacks on the American settlements on the Columbia. The most famous of these coordinated attacks is that on Cascades, by Kamiakin a Yakima Chief. In the Cascades battle, over the course of several days, several Americans were killed as the Kamiakin led confederation tried to drive the Americans from the Columbia. They were driven back by the US military led by Lt. Sheridan, who used a cannon, borrowed from Fort Vancouver, to force the tribes to flee. The Cascade Indians were blamed for taking part in the attack and seven of their leaders were executed by the military in the field, without a trial.
The Klickitats, at least a few of the bands, eventually integrated with the Yakima and Cowlitz peoples (the Taitinapaum were an associated band of these people). There were several bands of the Klickitats, normally organized under a powerful chief. Some in fact did take part in the Middle Oregon treaty negotiations, but those who were seasonally coming into Oregon, missed their opportunity, as they were in the midst of settling, colonizing even, parts of northwestern Oregon. In 1857, many of the Klickitat who were still around The Dalles, and north in the Cascade Range, are settled onto the White Salmon Reservation, where they took up farming and salmon fishing. In 1859, the reservation is closed and they are removed to the Yakima Reservation (Fort Simcoe). There were many individual Klickitats, those who settled separately in Oregon and married Oregon Indian women (ex: Dick Johnson in the Umpqua Valley, Chief John near Portland, Peter McKye (McKay) in Dallas, OR). In the original population of Indian removals to Grand Ronde Reservation in 1856, there is a band of Klickitats caught up in the removal, some of them remained and integrated, and some left to join other tribes on other reservations. Those that split from the main bands, scattered throughout the Northwest, so that there now is Klickitat bloodlines in all or nearly all tribes in the region.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.