Lt. William A. Slacum, United States Spy in the Oregon Territory, and ; Chief Slacum of the Clowewalla

Lt. William A. Slacum, a Navy purser, was sent by the President, through the Department of State, as a special investigator to the Oregon Territory to investigate the Britain operations and to take stock of the tribes and the resources in the territory. Slacum was alone, except for one servant, and was not sent with supplies or any obvious purpose for going to Oregon. In sending Slacum to Oregon, the President, Andrew Jackson, was reacting to the obvious dominance of the British in the Oregon Territory despite the Treaty of 1818 which provides for a joint occupation of the territory by the two world colonizing powers. The Treaty of 1818 was an agreement worked out, following the War of 1812, which saw ports of the United States attacked by British warships, including the takeover of Fort Astoria by the British in 1813, all over trade dominance. Jackson was a noted expansionist and looked to expand the U.S.’s interests on the west coast. Slacum’s  instructions from the president were,

obtain some specific and authentic information in regard to the inhabitants of the country in the neighborhood of Oregon, or Columbia River, and generally endeavor to obtain all such information, political, physical, statistical, and geographical, as may prove useful or interesting to this Government.

Slacum was suspected, immediately, of being an agent of the United States, a spy, by John McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver. The U.S. and Great Britain held joint occupancy claims to the Oregon Territory, and Slacum was seen as a agent working to increase the American claims. During his time in Oregon, Slacum built a mill (which never operated) at Willamette Falls, rallied the American settlers in French Prairie towards American dominance, and sought to subvert the trade dominance of the British through the Hudson’s Bay Company’s control of trade and supplies in the region by helping the American settlers invest in cattle from California. Slacum’s actions to help and rally Americans, and subsequent report, a memorial to Congress in 1837, would have some part to play in the negotiations with Great Britain over the boundary and occupancy issues in the Oregon Treaty (1846). Slacum dies in 1839, and his estate is not fully reimbursed for his expenses until well after his death. The delay in payment is because he hires his ship the Loriot at a cost of $700 a month, which was not part of the original federal agreement for reimbursement of his expenses.

Slacum arrives at Pt. Disappointment on December 22nd, 1835, and is immediately approached to come visit Dr. McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver (2 invitations, one by no less than James Douglas). It is noticed that he arrives with no trading supplies or cargo so the British are immediately suspicious of his arrival on the brig Loriot, a ship he chartered (purchased) in Hawaii.

Agate, 1841, Fort George

Slacum’s first encounter, is a rare meeting of an American political operative, in this decade, with the chief of the Clatsops. The U.S. Government’s interest in the region seems to have lapsed for a few years after the signing of the Treaty of 1818. Chief Chenamus and his wife immediately come in their canoes to the brig and bring ducks and geese. Chief Chenamus is the likely inheritor of the title of principal chief of the tribe from Chief Comcomly who died in about 1830. Chenamus displays a keen knowledge of politics when asking Slacum whether the ship was a King George or Boston ship (British were called “King George” men and Americans “Bostons” in Chinook Wawa). Slacum gives no hint which Chenamus prefers, but the political dynamics between the Americans and the British in this place and period likely affected the tribes in numerous ways.

The tribes would have been keen to identify with the British when they won superiority from the Americans in 1813. Then since Fort George (Astoria) did not fit the Hudson’s Bay Company’s designs for their fur trade forts, they moved inland to the Fort Vancouver site in 1824, opposite the Willamette River. The location has many benefits, the river is deep and wide enough to take ocean vessels, and the soils are good for growing crops and raising animals. Agriculture is difficult in the coastal zone and HBC knew they needed to feed hundreds of employees and for export. The Astorians of the Pacific Fur Traders struggled for two years to feed themselves at Astoria, and resorted to supplementing their food supplies of venison and elk hunted from Wallace House on the Willamette Plains.

On Wappato Island (Sauvie) HBC established a Dairy, and around the fort some 3,000 acres are plowed into agriculture. In addition was built a sawmill, gristmill, and other shops and housing for hundreds of fur trappers, laborers, mill workers, slaves, and their wives. Many of their wives were from local tribes, and there was established a small village outside of the fort, Kanaka village for the Native workers, and Hawaiians who were hired on from Hawaii. The HBC regular employees were keen to not allow the local tribes to enter the fort in such numbers that they may be overcome and raided by the local tribes. This had been a tactic in the past from the local tribes.  The fort is sited close to the Willamette Valley with its rich fur bearing animal resources, trade and travel benefits, and hunting and fishing.

In total, Slacum estimates upwards of 800 people are at the fort. All of these people need a lot of food and the fort was designed to produce a lot of food. There were rations of “eight gallons of potatoes and eight salt salmon per week, per man in winter,” with additional vegetables available in the summer, to feed the man’s whole family

Of the slaves, it appears that the white men (British and Metis- half French-half Indian) contractors, staff, laborers, mill workers, fur traders, etc., each had a local native woman and several native slaves to do their bidding. The slaves were bought from local tribes and are owned (or managed) by the women, who are also bought. (This may have been a form of bride purchase, which Metis men would know something about and appear to have participated in. This raises questions about how much the native culture surrounding the fort influenced changes in the culture of British, especially since many of the men were Christian or Catholic and I doubt bride purchase would be allowed in such religions. But then chattel African slavery was done by Christian white men all the time.) Slacum does not address why the women “own” the slaves, but it may be that they would be most likely able to communicate with the slaves in Chinook Wawa or other Native languages, and be respected by them.  The slaves supplemented the family’s food with hunting, fishing, and gathering.

Slacum’s report of the Fort Vancouver is revealing, outlining an extensive network of forts throughout the region. He notes the capitalistic structure of the HBC and how well organized everything is and he offers an opinion that “no individual enterprise can compete with this immense foreign monopoly established in our own waters.” This comment is interesting because technically the region is under a joint occupation agreement since 1818.

Slacum then spends some time with Jason Lee at the Willamette Mission. Lee’s mission school has some 23 Indian and part-Indian children. Lee makes the children pay their room and board through labor. The children learn lessons in American culture, and the older children must labor on the mission farm, plowing, reaping, and all of the farm work. The girls likely work in the mission helping to clean, cook, and tend to daily farm needs. Slacum’s meeting with Lee is conspiratorial, as Lee is well known to have similar patriotic feelings about the Oregon Territory, and in fact his later missions to the east, to have a series of talks to attract white settlement in Oregon, were for the purpose of increasing American settlement in Oregon. The strategy here was the assumption that the flood of American settlers, which the British could not match, would drown out the British claims in favor of American sole occupation. In fact, Lee’s message in the east, during is campaign to fundraise and attract more immigrants to the Willamette Valley, reached a number of key individuals who became pioneers to Oregon, including the Applegate and Waldo families.

One of major actions Slacum undertakes is to help the American pioneers with some trade and resource difficulties. Slacum meets with Jason Lee in 1836, where Lee outlines that they need relief in the supplies and cattle. At his meeting he comes to understand that the American settlers are in need of cattle, that HBC will not sell them any cattle and that the prices HBC charges for resources are exorbitant because of their trade monopoly. This sets off the beginnings of the Willamette Cattle Company.

Slacum offers to transport a party of men seeking cattle to Bodega on the California coast, on his ship the Loriot, free of charge.  Many of the settlers invested in and take part in the drive, including Slacum, who did not join the cattle troup, but invested $500 in it. This is perhaps the first such cattle drive in the history of the west.  The cattle drive was intended to break the British monopoly on cattle in the Willamette Valley. The drive was a great success in the end, supplying many of the first pioneer families with cattle. (A reproduction of this cattle drive was also attempted by a Umatilla area consortium of tribes a few years later, unsuccessfully.)

A key meeting for the organization of the cattle drive took place at Camp Maud du Sable. This location was likely 2 miles north or downriver from Champoeg and represents the start of the French Prairie settlement. The Camp Maud (or Campement?) was the landing spot for the HBC fur traders south of Willamette Falls. There was a sandy beach and trails to the east to the settlements. The meeting of the Cattle company, from Slacum’s account, seems to be more about finding a way to break the British monopoly on trade in that region, and finding markets for their products.

Perhaps there is a case to be made that this is the true beginning of the American governing influence in the Willamette Valley? This predicament is, after all, directly in the wheelhouse of the Monroe Doctrine, which suggests that the U.S. government will take a personal interest in areas where there is “the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States” by European countries. Since the HBC had complete control of the Oregon Territory and exhibited a complete monopoly of resources and trade, this was clearly a situation of an “unfriendly disposition,” in an area which was by treaty occupied jointly by the U.S. and the British.

Slacum later spends time at the Willamette Falls, appears to have bought land from the tribe at the falls, and even had constructed a log structure, which was still standing when Paul Kane encountered it in 1851, calling it a mill. This mill appears to have never operated and was an abandoned structure. Comparing Slacum’s other actions in support of American occupation and claims to sovereignty, we can assume that the mill was constructed to give the United States a claim of an early permanent structure at Willamette Falls.

William Slacum wrote:

“Willhamett or Multonomah Tribes live in the valley formed by the range of mountains…The first tribe are the Kallamooks (Clackamas), on the left bank, on a small stream of the same name, 30 miles from its mouth: 2d are Keowewallahs  (Clowewallas), alias Tummewatas (Tumwaters) or Willhametts” (Willamettes). 

In 1841, Henry Eld, of the United States Exploring Expedition is aware of the Slacum log house and claim at the falls and when encountering the falls writes in his journal,

These falls by good right belong to the late Purser, Slacum (USN) relating to having first built a log house on the prairies and consequently from that time legally belonging to him- but since then the Hon. Fur Company (HBC) have claimed it as also the methodist mission so that in all possibility the heirs of Purser Slacum mill never derive any benefit from the right unless it is immediately attended to.” (WA MSS Box 1 Folder 1, Eld’s Journals of land expeditions… Beineke Library, Yale University, p 22-23 my copy)

The Slacum “claim” then was known in the federal government and like all such claims in this time, ignored the aboriginal claims of the tribes who have lived there, in their own plank houses, for at least 10,000 years.

Lt. Slacum’s ethnographic report of the Indian tribes reveals some interesting statistics. Slacum states 800 people for the Clatsops and Chenooks. Of Principal Chief Comcomley (Rum Rumley) Slacum states that he is no more, and that there are no more of his family left because of intemperance (drunkenness?). In this he is wrong, as Comcomley’s daughter married Kiesno, and other family lines remain extant today. Slacum states that Chenamus (Chenook) claims authority over the people from Baker’s Bay to the Cowlitz (Cowlity) but that another chief Squamaqui disputes this authority. Slacum states that Kiesno (Kassenow) claims authority from the the Cowlitz to the Falls of the Columbia (Cascades?). And that there has already been a disease outbreak claiming some 2000 people of Kiesno’s tribe. Slacum calls Kiesno’s tribe “Rea Ratacks” which we can only assume is Clackamas. Slacum addresses the seasonal food supplies of the Clackamas,

“only good hunters on the river below the falls, as well as those how frequent the waters of the Columbia during the season of the salmon and sturgeon, subsist chiefly on fish and wild fowl; and the ease with which they procure food, fish, and fowl and the delicious vegetable the Wapatoo (Wapsepitoo) and Camas (Kamass) engenders the most indolent habits among the people.”

Slacum’s intelligence suggests that in 1836 that the Clackamas territory was much larger than it is in the 1850’s, extending into the Columbia and perhaps encompassing the Cascades and Multnomah and Wakanassisi areas. Kiesno’s main village at St. Helens, or thereabouts, is normally associated with the Multnomah, which had villages on the north and south banks, including Wapato Island. But its quite possible that this early epidemic and the fur trade led to changes in tribal territories such that by the 1850’s when there is more information about the tribes due to more journals and ethnographic information, the Clackamas tribe is reduced to the Clackamas and Willamette rivers. The final impact on the culture, before treaties and forced removal, would be the 2nd epidemic cycle in the 1830’s from malaria (Boyd 1999) which reduced the tribal populations  further and which the tribes may have been in the midst of during his short visit. In addition, Slacum has a parting remark about their foods creating an indolent population, and indeed the plentiful foods, quantity and quality, available to the Clackamas may have allowed them to not have to work as hard for their daily foods, suggesting they appeared indolent. For Protestants this would be a sin, as they valued their work ethic. Tribal cultural values had the chiefs and wealthy men not working as hard as the slaves, poor, and women, which suggests that the leadership class would appear and perhaps become lazy, or indolent.

“Portland Area” tribal villages on the Columbia River 1805-1806, [lower center] note the name of the Willamette is the “Multnomah”  Lewis and Clark maps, Bieneke Digital collections
Slacum also offers a rare 1830’s ethnographic sketch of the peoples in the Willamette Valley who he calls the Willhamett or Multnomah tribes. (The “or” is because at this time the Willamette river was also called the Multnomah, its the first name for the river written in any ethnographic text, most importantly the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition (1805-1806) and their map (1810). It is in the 1830’s when the name for the river appears to be changing to Willamette.)

Slacum then follows the path of the Willamette and mentions the tribes. he begins with the “Kallamooks.” This may be a conflation of Kallapuya and Killamook or Tillamook. Then he mentions the “Keowewallahs alias Tummewatas or Willhametts,” clearly a reference to the Clowewalla tribe, also regularly called the Tumwaters at Willamette Falls. Of the tribe he states that, “This tribe now nearly extinct, was formerly numerous, and live at the falls of the river, 32 miles from the mouth, on the right bank. They claim the right of fishing at the falls, and exact a tribute from other tribes who come hither in the salmon season (from May to October). Slacum’s comments suggest a fishing right of ownership at the falls for the Clowewalla. The resident tribe of any region would own their territory and its resources and other tribes had to ask permission to fish at the falls. The payment or lease for such a gift would be a portion of the catch, or some other gift. As well Slacum suggests that even he is seeing a reduced population, likely the results of the first epidemic. Early ethnographic reports suggest that there was a likely smallpox epidemic in the 1780s, because pock-marked natives were encountered on the Columbia. (Consult Boyd’s The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence 1999 for more.)

Then third on his list are the “Kallapooyahs”  and fourth the Fallatrahs, likely the Tualatins, on a small stream of the same name on the west bank, (ie: the Tualatin River). Then fifth Champoicho on the west bank. Some ethnographic accounts suggest Champoeg being on the east bank, likely on the bluff above the river flood level, perhaps about 1/2 mile back from the river. This account suggests a west bank village, likely right on the river and easily seen when floating the river. This may be the same village location occupied for a few months of the winter by the Applegate family in 1843-44 (see Jesse Applegate’s Boyhood book). Sixth he notes the Yamstills on the west bank; these are the Yamels or Yamhills, mentioned previously in his report. Seventh he mentions Leelahs which could be Chehalems; eighth he mentions Hanchoicks, the Ahantchuyuk or Pudding River peoples. Of the tribes he states a population of 1200, which seems high for this post-malaria population, suggesting another period of disease after Slacum quits Oregon. Of the diseases Slacum writes; “The ague and fever [Malaria], which commenced on the Columbia in 1829, likewise appeared on this river at the same time. It is supposed that it has been more fatal in its effects, it has swept off not less than 5,000 to 6,000 souls… I am happy to add, however that this scourge to these poor Indians is disappearing.” Slacum ends this portion of his report suggesting this is all of the tribes of the Willamette, but he appears to have not ventured to the Santiam area, unless the Leelahs were the Santiam, or perhaps Chemeketas a subgroup of the Santiams. The Santiam name would have been Halpam or Chehalpam. Nor does he venture as far as the McKenzie River and all of the tribes in the Eugene-Springfield area.

Slacum then launches into a report of the natural resources and potential of the land to hold agriculture and timber resources. He also notes the resources held by the Hudson’s Bay Company. “I consider the Willhamett as the finest grazing country in the world. Here there are no droughts… whilst the lands abound with richer grasses both in winter and summer.” (Memorial of Slacum) Slacum briefly notes the Umpqua, the Rogue valley, the Cowlitz, Cape Flattery, and Puget’s Sounds as containing good resources. Of the Rogue River area he mentions Smith River as having the finest timber wets of the Rockies. This may be in reference to the redwoods of northern California, which were not well known in the 1830’s. Slacum did not visit any of these other valleys or places and his knowledge is from the fur trappers at Fort Vancouver.

Slacum states that, “I am now more convinced than ever of the importance of the Columbia River , even as a place where, for eight months of the year our whalers from the coast of Japan might resort for supplies… a custom house established at the mouth of the Columbia would effectually protect the American trader from the monopoly which Hudson’s Bay Company Enjoy at this time, and a single military post would be sufficient to give effect to the laws of the United States, and protect our citizens in their lawful avocations.” 

Of the benefits of the Cattle drive, and in defense of his chartering of the Loriot at $700 a month, Slacum writes; “American settlers from the Wilhamett, whom I conveyed from that river to Bodega, were taken aboard the Loriot free of expense, as the agreement of the settlers, now on file in the Department of State, shows; and the benefit that will result in the United States from that measure alone, will be, nay is, at this moment, more than ten times equivalent to all the expenses incurred in my journey.” 

Of this point, Slacum may be exactly correct, because while this seems like a handout and a disallowed expense, the cattle reinforcement may have saved the Willamette Settlements and spurred them to increased political actions to attract more Americans to the Willamette Valley, and overflow into surrounding valleys. This was the deciding factor in the Oregon Treaty on behalf of American claims below the 49th parallel. Slacum’s hastily made blueprint for colonization of the Oregon Territory worked.


Slacum Chief of tribe at Falls of Willamette, Upper Chinooks,  May 1851, by George Gibbs,


Chief Slacum

This chief of the Clowewalla band of Tumwater Indians lived near the falls and was the headman of the village at the falls, the intermediary for trade with the American explorers and fur traders leading into the Willamette Valley. It is unknown what his original tribal name was but in the late 1830’s he likely received his name from Lt. William A. Slacum who visited Oregon and the Falls in 1836-1837. In fact he might have been the Chief to work the land deal at the falls which allowed Lt. Slacum to have the mill built. To tribal peoples at that time, it was an honor for one of the powerful Bostons (Americans) to gift their name to an Indian. This practice is recorded numerous times throughout the region. In 1837, William Slacum reported that all of the traditional chiefs had passed due to the epidemics that began in 1829, depopulating the rivers of Chinookan and Kalapuyan peoples.

Assuming that Chief Slacum got his name from a gift by Lt. Slacum, and lived long enough to become chief, he was still living in 1853 in a rare note about him.

“Slacum” an Indian whom you know and who lives near here, lies quite low with some sort of disease or other, and wants help. I would suggest the propriety of seeing him at least, even if you can give him no relief. He thinks, and his friends think, that he has been poisoned by a certain “medicine man” staying near the Clackamas. The propriety of looking into this you can determine on making the proper inquiry. I hope at least you will make it a point to see “Slacum”without delay. (Letter to Joel Palmer from man at Linn City May 7th 1853, RG 75 M234 correspondence.)

It was common for spiritual people to be able to poison others. Certain people gained the power to heal, speak to animals, call for salmon runs and/or poison if this was their spirit power. It is during the 1840’s-1850’s when Native people begin looking for healers for the new ailments brought by the white settlers and fur traders, among the white religious leaders, assuming that they had the same powers as the Native shaman. The Whitman Massacre is talked about among the tribes, as the result of the Reverend Whitman being unable to heal the Indian people, and in fact arriving at a time when the epidemics were getting worse, suggesting he may have been to blame. It was very common to kill shaman if they could not perform the power they stated they could perform. Whitman would have told the tribes that they had to have faith for a cure. But this clearly did not work. It was also part of the pioneer philosophy that the tribes were getting sick because of their faithless ways. The settlers would have pushed the idea onto tribal people that they had to have faith to be saved, and if they died, then they had a lack of faith. This was all perpetrated as a way to missionize among the tribes and gain converts. In this period, there were medicines, cures for many of the ailments. There was quinine for helping cure malaria, but Native people did not rate the cure.

1856 Grand Ronde Census, note 85 Clackamas, 26 of John’s Band, 31 of William’s band, and 87 of Thomas’ band

The last remaining Clowewalla tribes were living on the west bank (Linn City) of the river at the time of the treaty negotiations in 1851 and 1855. Slacum’s name does not appear with either the Linn City or Clowewalla tribes on either treaty. The Linn City people lived in a plankhouse on a small reserve by the Oregon City Ferry. This was a temporary reserve established in 1855 by Joel Palmer, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon. They lived in this place for 14 months, from March 1855 to about May 1856, when they were removed to Grand Ronde. Their last plankhouse is assumed to have been depicted by John Mix Stanley in his painting of Oregon City. This plankhouse was burned by settlers in about 1854.

Section of John Mix Stanley painting of Oregon City about 1841, Left is a salmon drying scaffold, far right is likely a Plankhouse (ceder plankhouses turn grey over time and normally have only one entry), and some of the small buildings are likely tribal huts


Memorial of Lt. William A. Slacum

5 thoughts on “Lt. William A. Slacum, United States Spy in the Oregon Territory, and ; Chief Slacum of the Clowewalla

  1. John McLoughlin — David Douglas — that drawing looks like Sohon and the date looks like 1857 —when he did mamy other drawings . . . .just wondering???

    Nice detailed article. Do you have a copy of the Willamette Cattle Company document, if not do you want it?



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