Ethnography of Oregon Indians 1841: Horatio Hale of the U.S. Exploring Expedition

Horatio Hale

Horatio Hale’s created what may be one of the earliest ethnographies of the tribes of the Pacific Coast. Remarkable as it is, Hale’s ethnography is both interesting and disappointing. Much of his analysis of the Native peoples of Oregon shows his western bias and he does not hide it at all in his analysis. A Boasian he is not, as he appears to have made up his mind about these Native people before collecting any true field notes. His “ethnography” of the Oregon Indians begins page 197 of Volume 6 of the Scientific books of the US Exploring Expedition, (Google Books link).

Of the many startling opinions Hale presents are these,

The people of this division are among the ugliest of their race. They are below the middle size, with squat, clumsy forms, very broad faces, low foreheads, lank black hair, wide mouths, and a coarse rough skin, of a tanned, or dingy copper complexion. (198)

The intellectual and moral characteristics of these natives are not more pleasing than the physical. They are of moderate intelligence, coarse and dirty in their habits, indolent, deceitful, and passionate. They are rather superstitious than religious, are greatly addicted to gambling and grossly libidinous [high sexual drive]. (198)

These wonderfully non-ethnographic personal opinions are sprinkled throughout the text.

The book does have some redeeming qualities, there is a lot of great information about the tribes from this very early years, 1838-1842, that does not appear in many later ethnographies. The expedition was in Oregon in 1841. As well, there is a very early set of word lists from about 20 different native languages from the region, including Tualatin Kalapuyan, which interests me a lot.

Oregon section US Exploring Expedition Map

Hale, a ethnographer scientist that was a part of the expedition, appears to have gotten much information from the Hudson’s Bay Fur Traders. Details of many tribes are a bit uneven, he appears to have learned a lot about a few subjects, and does not report a complete description of any one tribe. The text clearly presents a bias in many sections, but what is interesting is while he criticizes the tribes for their lack of “civilization” as he understands that to look like, he describes some fairly complex tribal cultural phenomenon. The Salish section description of the “Seasonal Round”  of the tribes moving to various encampments to gather vegetables, hunt and fish, is one of the best I have ever seen, and it is very early from his experiences in about 1841 in Oregon. The way he terms the practice, is very much like Traditional Ecological Knowledge today, TEK, and he never realized it.

As I have not seen this book referenced in many ethnographic texts, I assume that much of Hale’s description here remains unknown to many ethnographers, anthropologists and researchers. Perhaps they did not realize that the Wilkes expeditionary volumes extended past the five journals, of which we known quite a bit about, and are used quite commonly. What is well known from this volume is the Chinook Jargon vocabulary, which was lifted from this report to become the Hale Dictionary of Chinook Jargon, a famous early dictionary of the language.

Details from the text,

 Northwest division : Alaska and Queen Charlotte’s Sound

They are fair in complexion, sometimes with ruddy cheeks; and what is very unusual among the aborigines of America, they have thick beards, which appear early in life. (197)

They obtain copper from the mountains which border the coast, and make of it pipe-bowls, gun-charges, and other similar articles. of a very fine and hard slate they make cups, plates, pipes, little images, and various ornaments, wrought with surprising elegance and taste. (197)

North-Oregon Division

(at the mouth of the Columbia) the custom of compressing the head prevails to the greatest extent. The Chinooks are the most distinguished for their attachment to this singular usage, and from them it appears to have spread to every side, to the Chikailish on the north, the Wallawallas and Nez-perces on the east, and the Killamuks and Calapuyas on the south; the degree of diminishing as we recede from the centre. (198)

South-Oregon Division

Sahaptin family: They are cold taciturn, high tempered, warlike, fond of hunting and of all exercises requiring boldness and activity. To one ascending the Columbia, the contrast presented by the natives above and below the Great falls (The Chinooks and Wallawallas) is very striking. (199)

Californian division

Natives of this class are chiefly distinguished by their dark color… a shade browner than the Oregon Indians, while some tribes in the peninsula are said to be nearly black. (199)

The experiment, which was successfully tried, of collecting them, like a herd of cattle, into large enclosures called missions, and there setting them to work, would probably never have been undertaken with the Indians of Oregon, and, if undertaken, would assuredly have failed. (199)

[there is just so much wrong with this opinion]

General Observations

It is doubtful if they have any idea of a supreme being. (199-200)

Their chief deity is called the wolf, and seems, from their descriptions, to be a sort of compound being, half beast and half deity. (200)

The superstition of the Indian is absurd and irrational (200)

The mode of life of the Oregon Indians, especially those of the interior, is so peculiar that it is difficult to determine how it should be characterized. They have no fixed habitations, and yet they are not, properly speaking, a wandering people. Nearly every month in the year they change their place of residence, but the same month of every year finds them regularly in the same place.

  1. the territory of Oregon abounds, beyond example, in esculent roots, of various kinds, which , without cultivation, grow in sufficient quantities to support a considerable population. More than twenty species, most of them palatable, and obtainable, generally, with little labor, are found in different parts of the territory. At certain seasons, the natives subsist almost entirely upon them. As the different species come to maturity at different times the people remove from one root-ground to another, according to the time when experience has taught them to look for a new crop.
  2. several kinds of fruits and berries are found, at certain seasons in great abundance, and offer another cause for temporary change of place.
  3. at a particular period of the year, the salmon ascend the river to deposit their spawn, and then the Indians assemble in great numbers on the banks of the streams, for the purpose of taking them. Two months afterwards, the fish appear again, floating in an exhausted condition down the current, and though by no means so agreeable for food, are yet taken in large quantities, principally for winter stores. These two seasons of fishing are the occasion of two removals.
  4. the tribes of the interior depend, in part, for their clothing in the buffalo skins which they obtain, either by barter or by hunting. And for both these purposes it is necessary for them to visit the region near the foot of the Rocky Mountains, frequented by that animal. This however, does not except with some of the Shoshonees, give rise to a general removal of the tribe, but merely an expedition of the principal men, their families being left, in the mean time, encamped in some place of safety.

The tribes near the coast remove less frequently then those of the interior. Some of them spend the summer on the sea-shore, and the winter in a sheltered nook on the banks of an inland stream. Others do not change their place of residence at all; but at the approach of summer, they take down the heavy planks of which their winter habitations are made, bury them in the ground, where they will be out of the way of injury, and having put up a temporary dwelling of bark, brushwood, and matting, feel no apprehensions at leaving it for two or three weeks at a time, to fish, hunt, collect roots, and gather fruit. (200-201)

Umkwa, or Umpquas

The Umkwa inhabit the upper part of the river of that name, having the Kalapuya on the north, the Lutuami (Clamets), on the east, and the Sainstkla [Siuslaw] between them and the sea. The are supposed to number, at present not more than four hundred, having been greatly reduced by disease, They live in houses of boards and mats, and derive their subsistence, in great part, from the river. Two, whom I saw, differed but little from the Kalapuya, except that they had not the head flattened. One of them had reached the Columbia through the Tlatskanie [Clatskanie] country, and it appeared that a connexion of some kind existed between the two tribes.  [an interesting observation, these may be upriver Umpqua who spoke an Athabaskan dialect like the Clatskanie.]


They derive their subsistence from roots, fish, berries, game, and a kind of moss or lichen which they find in trees. At the opening of the year, as soon as the snow disappears, (in March and April), they begin to search for the pohpoh, a blbous root, shaped somewhat like a small onion, and of a particularly dry and spicy taste. This last them till May, when it is exchanged for the spatlam, or “bitter-root,” which is a slender, white root, not unlike vermicelli; when boiled, it dissolves like arrow-root, and forms a jelly of a bitter but not disagreeable flavor. Some time in June, the itwha or camass comes in season, and is found in certain well-known “grounds.” in great quantities. In shape it resembles the pohpoh, and when baked for a day or two in the ground, has a consistency and taste not unlike those of a boiled chestnut. It supplies them for two or three months, and while it is most abundant- in June and July- the salmon make their appearance, and are taken in great numbers, mostly in weirs. This, with these people, is the season when they are in the best condition, having a plentiful supply of their two prime articles of food. During this period, the men usually remain at the fishing-station, and the women at he camass-ground, but parties are continually passing from one to the other. August, during which the supplies from both these sources commonly fail, is the month for berries, of which they sometimes collect enough both for immediate subsistence, and to dry for winter. The service-berry and the choke-cherry are the principal fruits of this kind they seek. In September, the “exhausted salmon,” or those which, having deposited their roes, are now about to perish, are found in considerable numbers , and though greatly reduced both in fatness and flavor, are yet their chief dependence, when dried, for winter consumption. Should they be scarce, a famine would be likely to ensue. At this season, also, they obtain the mesaui, an inferior root, resembling somewhat, in appearance, a parsnip. When baked, it turns black, and has a peculiar taste, unlike that of any of our common roots. This lasts them through October, after which they must depend principally upon their stores of dried food, and the game (deer, bears, badgers, squirrels, and wild-fowl of various kinds,) which they may have the good fortune to take. Should both these sources fail, they have recourse to the moss before-mentioned, which, though abundant, contains barely sufficient nutriment to sustain life. Such is their want of forethought and prudence, both in laying up and consuming  their provisions, that here are very few who do not suffer severely from hunger before the opening of spring. Indeed like their horses, they regularly fatten up the season of plenty, and grow lean and weak before the expiration of winter.

As the different root-grounds are fishing stations are at some distance from one another, they are obliged to remove from one to the other in succession, carrying with them, on their horses, all their property. This is easily done, as their articles of furniture are few and light, and their houses consist merely of rush-mats and skins, stretched upon poles. In winter they seek out some sheltered spot, which will supply their horses with food, and they then make their dwellings more comfortable, by covering the mats with earth.

Intermarriages between these bands (Salish Bands) are frequent, and such cases the husband commonly joins the band to which his wife belongs. This proceeds, perhaps, from the circumstances that the woman does the most of the support of the family, and will be better able to perform her duties (of gathering roots, fruit, etc) in those places to which she is accustomed. In fact, although the women are required to do much hard labor, they are by no means treated as slaves, but, on the contrary, have much consideration and authority. The stores of food  which they collect are regarded as, in a manner, their own, and a husband will seldom take any of them without asking permission. The men, moreover, have to perform all the arduous labors of the fishery and the chase.

Klikatats (Txwkatat)

Their principal food is the salmon, which they take chiefly in the months of August and September. At this season they assemble in great numbers about the Falls of the Columbia, which form the most important fishing station of Oregon. .. They trade with the Chinooks, who visit the Falls for the same purpose.

Cailloux, or Cayuse

their country affords extensive pasturage, they are able to keep large droves of horses, one of their chiefs having as many as two thousand. They are much of the time on horseback….


The residence of the Molele is (or was) in the broken and wooded country about Mounts Hood and Vancouver. They were never very numerous, and have suffered much of late from various diseases, particularly the ague-fever. In 1841 they numbered but twenty individuals; several deaths took place while we were in the country, and the tribe is probably, at present, nearly or quite extinct. 

Watlala, or Upper Chinook

The name (Watxlala) properly belongs to the Indians of the Cascades, about one hundred and fifty miles from the mouth of the Columbia; but for want of a general appellation, it has been extended to all tribes speaking dialects of a common language, from Multnoma Island, to the Falls of the Columbia, including also those on the lower part of the Willammet. At the period of the visit of Lewis and Clark this was the most densely populated part of the whole Columbian region, and it so continued until the fatal year 1823, when the ague-fever, before unknown west of the Rocky Mountains, broke out, and carried off four-fifths of the population in a single summer. Whole vilages were swept away, leaving not a single inhabitant. The living could not bury the dead, alnd the traders were obliged to undertake this office, to prevent a new pestilence from completing the desolation of the country. The region below the Cascades, which is as far as the influence of the tide is felt, suffered most from this scourge. The population before was estimated at upwards of ten thousand, does not now exceed five hundred. Between the Cascades and the Dalles, the sickness was less destructive. These still remain five or six villages, with a population of seven or eight hundred. 

Their situation, on the line of communication between the Interior and the coast, gave them great facilities for trafficking with the natives of each for the products peculiar to the other, and pretty much on their own terms. Hence it happened that they superadded to the turbulence and ferocity natural to their race, the cupidity and trickiness of a nation of traders. They levied tribute, by force or fraud, on all who passed through their country, and travellers were generally glad to be quit of them for a few thefts.  The great reduction of their numbers by the epidemic has somewhat tamed their evil propensities, and the labors of the missionaries have not been without good effect. 

Lower Chinook

Twenty years ago there were, below the Multnoma Island, some five or six thousand people, speaking the same, or nearly the same language. The principal tribes of bands were the Wakaikum (known as the Wahkyekum), the Katlamat (Cathlamet), the Tshinuk (Chinook), and the Tlatsap (Clatsop). They are now reduced to a tenth of their former numbers, and the remnant will probably soon disappear. 

The conical cap which they wear, similar to that of the Chinese, and which they have probably adopted as a defense against the frequent rains.

It is among these people, also that the compression of the skull is carried out tot he greatest extent. The child, soon after birth, is laid upon an oblong piece of wood, sometimes a little hollowed like a trough, which serves for a cradle. A small pad or cushion, stuffed with moss, is then placed upon its forehead, and fastened tightly, at each side, to the board, so that the infant is unable to move its head, in this way, partly by actual compression, and partly  by preventing the growth of the skull except towards the sides, the desired deformity of the head is produced. A profile which presents a straight line from the crown of the head to the top of the nose is considered by them the acme of beauty. The appearance of the child when just released from this confinement is truly hideous. The transverse diameter of the head above the ears, is then nearly twice as great as the longitudinal, from the forehead to the occiput. The eyes, which are naturally deep-set, become protruding, and appear as if squeezed partially out of the head. In after years the skull, as it increases, returns in some degree, to its natural shape, and the deformity, though always sufficiently remarkable, is less shocking than at first. The children of slaves are not considered of sufficient importance to undergo this operation, and their heads, therefore, retain their natural form…. the slaves, who are mostly descendants of prisoners taken in war, are of a tamer and less quarrelsome disposition then their masters… (216)

The Chinooks….make houses of wide and thick planks, which they chip with much labor from the large pines with which their country abounds. A single trunk makes one or, at most, two planks. The houses are of an oblong shape, with two rows of bunks or sleeping-places on each side, one above the other like berths in a ship. Their canoes, which are made of hollowed trees, are sometimes of great size. They are of elegant shape, long, narrow, and sharp, and are light enough to live in a rough sea, where a boat would be swamped; but they require constant watchfulness, to guard against their upsetting. (217)

Kalapuya (Callapooyahs)

Possess the valley of the Willamet above the Falls, -the most fertile district of Oregon…. the natives were formerly numerous but have been reduced by sickness to about five hundred…. they shift their quarters at certain times of the year for the purpose of procuring food….the progress of disease, however, and the influx of foreign population will soon supercede the necessity of any further labors for their benefit. (218)

Oregon Trade Jargon

The book contains an extensive dictionary of the Trade Jargon, now called Chinuk Wawa. There is also a long essay about the use of the language, how it was developed, etc. The Hale Dictionary of Chinook Jargon was then published as an off-print book, which is widely available. The essay portion of Hale however is not in the dictionary, as far as I can remember.

A portion of the statements most interesting from this section:

the place at which the Jargon is most in use is at Fort Vancouver. At this establishment five languages are spoken by about five hundred persons, namely, the English, The Canadian French, the Tsinuk, the Cree of Knisteneau, and the Hawaiian… The Cree is the language spoke in the families of many officers and men belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company, who have married half-breed wives at the posts east of the Rocky mountains.  The Hawaiian is in use among the hundred natives of the Sandwich Islands who are employed as laborers about the fort. Besides these five languages, there are many others, -the Tsihailish, Walawala, Kalapuya, Naskwale, etc.- which are daily heard from natives who visit the fort for the purpose of trading… the general communication is therefore, maintained chiefly by means of the Jargon, which may be said to be the prevailing idiom.There are Canadians and half-breeds married to Chinook women, who can only converse with their wives in this speech… many young children are growing up to whom this factitious language is really the mother tongue… (644)


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