Ethnographic Molalla Homelands in Historic Scholarship

The Molalla (Latiwi) tribes and bands, were native peoples who lived in Western Oregon within the Willamette Valley, and within the Umpqua valley. Historic studies of the Molalla have assigned them a land claim of nearly the whole of the Cascade Range of Oregon, from Mt. Hood in the north to Mt. McLaughlin in the south. Normally they are portrayed in maps and descriptions to have lived in the Cascades along a continuous claim that engulfs the Cascade Range, however, ethnographic  evidence from the Molalla suggests that they did not live within the high Cascades but instead along the foothills of the western section of the range in at least three principal locations; the north-central Willamette Valley, the southern Willamette Valley, and the Umpqua valley.

The Molalla of the north Willamette Valley occupied Dickey Prairie, east of Molalla, as a principal village, with another village at Crooked Finger Prairie, and yet another on the Santiam between the north and south forks. They also claimed a large section of the Willamette Valley plains to include Silver Creek falls, Mt. Angel and the north-eastern bank of the Molalla River. Additional Molalla oral accounts suggest they had seasonal encampments for gathering, hunting, and fishing on the Willamette, at Lake Labish, and in the Cascades for hunting and berry picking. These three bands composed the whole of the northern tribe, and sometimes co-habitated with, and collaborated with one another. These bands are normally called the Northern Molalla, Crooked Finger Molalla, and Santiam Forks Band Molalla. These bands signed the Willamette Valley Treaty in 1855 and wholly moved to the Grand Ronde Reservation in 1856.

The second area for the Molalla was in the McKenzie to Coast Fork of the Willamette river areas with small encampments up the McKenzie. There was a band as well in the area above, east of, Pleasant Hill, called the Tufti family. Other sources state Lost Valley was their land. There is  very little information about this band in ethnographic accounts Palmer may have encountered a group from this band. The Tufti family themselves are the main source of information of the band, and there was much intermarriage with Kalapuyans, Umpquas, Klamaths, and Wascos in this area. The Tuftis, at least one family, moved to The Warm Springs Reservation, while the majority of relatives were removed onto the Grand Ronde reservation.

The Southern Molalla of the Umpqua Valley and south, are the least well known of all of the Molalla. They had their own treaty in December 1855 and  the majority moved to the first Umpqua Reservation at Coles Valley. In January 1856 they were removed to the Grand Ronde Reservation to arrive in February 1856. At least one band of the southern Molalla, perhaps a family, were moved onto the Klamath Reservation.

One source, Calder and Calder (2004), states three areas for the Molalla; the Mukanti Band being the northern tribe, the Chimbuiha Band being the Santiam area tribe, and the Chakankni band being the Umpqua valley tribe. But the essay does not reference the origin of these names.

A linguistic map, based on Benson 1973’s essay. suggests the tribe occupied the whole of the Cascades in Oregon and portions of the Deschutes basin. creating further subdivisions of the tribe. These are Molalla (N. Molalla), Upper Santiam, Blue River, Chucksney-Tufti Band, Deschutes Headwaters, Mace Mountain, Southern Molalla. There is evidence to suggest the Tufti band lived in the Upper Coast Fork of the Willamette, but of the bands named Blue River and Mace Mountain I have yet to see evidence of.

Linguistic Map Based on Benson 1973

The Molalla were great friends of the Klamath Indians. They were likely kindred spirits and intermarried extensively, as the Klamath would travel north in the summers to stay with the Molalla in the Willamette Valley. The Klamath Trail in fact empties out of the Coast Fork drainage into the Eugene area. But, the historic association of the Molalla homelands with the Cascade Range is a quandary. The Molalla ceded land-claim for the Willamette Valley does include parts of the northern Willamette Valley and east to the center of the western Cascade Range.

Livingston Ferrand in Hodge’s Handbook of Indians North of Mexico for 1907 addresses the Molalla  territory,

When first met they resided in the Cascade Range between Mts Hood and Scott and on the W. Slope in Washington and Oregon. the Cayuse have a tradition that the Molala formerly dwelt with them s. of the Columbia r. and became segregated and driven westward in their wars with hostile tribes… a band of these Indians drove out the original inhabitants (along a creek in the Willamette Valley) and occupied their land. (Ferrand, Livingston, 1907 “Molala,” in Fredrick Webb Hodge, Handbook of Indians North of Mexico. Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American ethnology. Bulletin 30, Page 930.)

Ferrand, who did not do original research in Oregon, and repeats other scholarship about the Molala, in fact repeating a theory of the Molalla migration west, which has only one source. This theory persists today. There is no mention of the southern tribe, and their association with Washington is inaccurate for the historic era. He suggests that they were living within the Cascades is inaccurate according to all known sources.

Still, without direct evidence of the Molalla living within the Cascades, the theory continues to be repeated in source after source. Howard Berman in 1996  repeats the theory as Powell presented it, and presents the opposing theory from Rigsby.

Molala was formerly spoken in the Cascade Mountains in west Central Oregon… Molala was once thought to be closely related to the poorly attested Cayuse language of northeastern Oregon and southwestern Washington, Powell (1891) placed them together in a family which he called Waiilatpuan and this was the accepted position among linguists for over seventy years. … Rigsby (1966; 1969) reexamined the Cayuse and Molala data and concluded there was not enough evidence to support the relationship. (Berman, Howard, the Position of Molala in Plateau Penutian, IJAL vol. 62 no. 1 1996 p.1)

Berman is corrective of the relationship between Molala and Cayuse languages suggesting instead that there is more relationship between Molala and Klamath, an assertion which makes sense owing to the ethnographic relationship people of the two tribes enjoyed. But his suggestion that they occupied the Cascades is debatable because of the evidence presented in this essay.

{Add Zenk & Berman from the Handbook}

Original Belden map from 1855 showing Northern Molalla ceded land claim. The claims for the Southern Molalla are not extensive, with an odd appearing dogleg of a claim. The treaty with the Molalla of 1855 was very late in the year, Joel Palmer was suddenly notified of the existence of this tribe in October, and he completed the treaty with them in one month. They then moved onto the first Umpqua Reservation in mid December 1855.

Belden map (1855) section above the Umpqua Valley showing a dogleg claim for the southern Molalla in the Cascades

Perhaps Joel Berreman (1937) found the definitive origin of how the Molalla are associated with the Cascades. He wrote.

The Handbook states that the Molalla drove some former inhabitants out of the valley of Molalla Creek to occupy their land, but when first known to the whites they occupied only the mountainous areas between Mount Hood and Mount Scott, and the west slopes of the Mountains. Hale, in 1841, mapped Molalla only in the high mountain slopes from Mount Hood to the Klamath Country. This is essentially the area assigned them by Powell, who had a number of early sources at his disposal. Boas has extended their territory west to Oregon City, but his map represents the distribution before 1800, and considerable westward movement had occurred before that date. Moreover had they occupied any of the lower Willamette Valley in 1805 we should expect some mention of the fact by Lewis and Clark, who obtained data concerning this region from native inhabitants along the Columbia. Accordingly it seems probable that their early habitat did not include more than the eastern mountain slopes prior to 1750, and that their chief occupation of the Willamette Valley area occurred only after that date…. accordingly it has been concluded that prior to 1750 the Molalla occupied the greater part of the Deschutes River region and the eastern mountain slopes.  (Berreman, J. , Tribal Distribution, 1937, 45-46)

Berreman here suggests that the earliest source, Horatio Hale of the Wilkes Expedition in 1841, assigned the Molalla to the Cascades. Wilkes expeditionary survey split into two groups, the northern group followed the Columbia River east, and the southern group traveled overland directly south and into California. The expedition groups in 1841 did not enter the Cascades nor meet many of the Molalla people. Much of the information Hale gathered is likely from French-Canadian Fur Traders at Fort Vancouver and Rev. Marcus Whitman at the Whitman mission. Powell appears to have adopted Hale’s information uncritically. Hale continued to consult with Wilkes after the expedition was complete and helped create the versions of the ethnographic maps. Berreman’s description of the lack of data from Lewis and Clark seems inaccurate at best, the 1805-1806 Exploring expedition did not enter the valley and only had population counts from the vicinity of the Columbia and would not at all have gotten data from southern Willamette Valley populations of tribes which were some 100 miles distant. Clark did get an estimate for Kalapuyans, “numerous,” but there seems no mention of Molallans at all. Berreman’s description of the Molalla in the Cascades was probably accurate, hunting and berry gathering camps of the summer months. Then it is very interesting that Berreman’s scholarly description suggests that the territory assigned to the Molalla is based on theoretical notions of prehistorical maps of their movements. So the Molalla-Cascades territory may include theories of how the Molalla are thought to have recently moved into the Cascades from the east, as recent as 1750, they occupied the Deschutes basin, in theory, and then moved westward into the Willamette, Umpqua and even Rogue river basins afterward. If this is true, the Molalla-Cascades territory is a relic of the early theories of Molalla migration, not an actual map of their actual territory in the 1900s. This is the nature of (some) early anthropology theory about the Molalla which truly needs a critical update as we parse out the details of why they are assigned the Cascades.

Horatio Hale (1846) p 214. The sole description of the Molele territory which forms the basis of the Mapped territory of the Cascades. Hale was a member of the Wilkes Expedition and in 1841 was in Oregon. The southern expedition stuck to the Central valley routes and did not venture into the Cascades, while the northern group was on the Columbia.

The ceded lands of the Molalla, in two treaties, establish a legal claim for the Grand Ronde tribe to these sections of Oregon. These claims arranged by the federal Indian agents were intended to blanket the full extent of Oregon. The federal government did not want to leave any land not paid for and thus spawn potential land claims by tribes later. Many of the treaty descriptions of ceded lands were based on making sure that the land payments were fully paid to some tribe. Therefore, areas of overlapping cultural claims, many that are now called “Usual and accustomed places” went unidentified and without nuance in treaties because this would have been too complicated. As well, under American land laws there were no claims for large areas with numerous tribal owners, this would have been a nightmare for the land office, and so there always had to be a single owner.  The Indian agents were instructed to get not more than 10 cents an acre for payments to the tribes for their ceded lands. The Molalla did not get even this much for their lands.  The Willamette Valley sold for .024 cents an acre (about 2.4 cents an acre), while the southern Molalla received .0037 cents an acre (3 hundreds of a cent an acre.  It has yet proven that the Northern Molalla received any extra payments, like the $46,000 that was promised by Palmer, outside of the treaty, to get them to remove (see Molalla Oral histories). Palmer resigned before he could make good on these promises made in the last year.

The Molalla however did not live within the high Cascades above 2000 feet in elevation. That area of the high Cascades had no tribes living in villages for more than a few weeks for limited seasonal resource encampments. Instead, they lived in permanent villages in the foothills on the periphery of the Willamette and Umpqua valleys. The Cascades were a huge resource base for the Molalla and had Indian trails, trade routes to reach other tribes. In the Cascades could be found large amounts of berries, especially huckleberries, and good hunting for elk. There are some good forest clearings along forest trails, at 4000 feet in many locations, which have combinations of resources, elk, berries, roots, and weaving materials that would have attracted the Molalla in the summer months. Likely bands or families at a time would go out on the seasonal circuits to known established resource locations for their activities.

But there were no annual permanent villages of the Molalla in the Cascades. In fact, there are few such towns today due to the overwhelming ferocity of the harsh winter months where any people without modern heating and housing would be hard-pressed to survive the cold temperatures and deep snows. Instead, the Molalla occupied winter villages in the periphery of the valleys. The Crooked Finger band, named for Chief Crooked Finger, normally wintered at Mt. Angel, likely because even the Crooked Finger Prairie, a few hundred feet higher than the valley floor, was too cold in the winter months.

Regardless, the historic association of the Molalla of living annually throughout the Cascades still exists in ethnographic, historical, and linguistic maps.  The maps give this impression because the authorities do not address the nuances of the Molalla lifeways. The nuances of tribal lifeways in the whole region surrounding the Cascades suggests that all tribes used the mountain range as their common seasonal “supermarket”. There would not have been firm land claims ethnographically, as no one would be able to defend their territory in the Cascades. The area is too rugged and harsh to allow territorial defense. Tribes, in fact, would have acted more cooperatively, aiding others in getting through the Cascades, as travelers would have braved harsh conditions to bring exotic trade goods, north-south and east-west.

Some Molalla encampments in the Cascades are found in explorer’s accounts, but these camps are during the warmer seasons, would be temporary, and for hunting or berry picking, not permanent villages at all.

Despite this Linguistic maps show the Molalla as occupying the whole of the Cascades.


Benson 1973 original

Some other contemporary maps show this same footprint for the Molalla

Zucker and Hogfoss map

Yes, this is a literal perspective as I do not believe linguists believe that languages had exclusive territories. But when these linguistic territory maps are seen by students and used in other documents, without a statement of the meaning of the map, they can mis-educate people.

The reality is that the whole of the Cascades is cris-crossed with Indian trails and there would have been dozens of languages spoken in the range. The most prominent language may have in fact been Chinuk wawa, a language which all tribal traders knew,  at least in part. Where did the idea for the Molalla occupying the whole of the Cascades originate? This is a clear theme in the majority of the ethnographic and historic maps of the territory. In fact many of the maps suggest the Molalla lived in the Plateau east of the Cascades, with only small claims in the Willamette Valley. These territories to the East seem to encroach on Deschutes, Klamath and Paiute claims.

1841 Wilkes


1848 Oregon (based on Wilkes 1841)


1853 Oregon counties

Still a few maps and scholars have attempted to correct the mis-association of the Molalla with the entire Cascades.

1852 Oregon- with western Willamette Valley being the claim of the Molalla

Clearly created before the Umpqua Molallas were discovered. Jesse Applegate’s Boyhood story, is actually is one of the best sources on the Umpqua Valley tribes. Palmer wrote that he did not hear about this southern tribe until late in 1855, but there is an earlier letter from him about the tribe.


Contemporary Language map, perhaps based on Rigsby 1965 with two small Molalla areas.

The encroachment of other tribal claims into the Cascades is really a problem of the person making the map who appears to need to fill the spaces and has disregarded the treaties. However, the Molalla area is much closer to accurate. The Yahuskin assignment is strange. Research suggests that the Yahuskin were not really a tribe, but a band of Paiutes who traveled throughout Paiute Country, and raided both native and non-native settlements, and were assigned to Klamath by the army and Indian Agents. They may be the remnants of Chief Paulina’s band.


Rigsby 1965 showing two small areas for the Molalla- #9

Rigsby in 1965 seems to have gotten the claim for the Molallas correct, according to my own research. But then he assigns the Cascades to other tribes, Tenino-Sahaptin, and Yahuskin-Paiute. But is this really the territory of these other tribes? Why does there have to be complete coverage without gaps in the map for tribal land claims?

Part of the problem with the products of the early Non-native scholars is that many appear to have a problem associating land with ideas of co-use and co-habitation activities of many tribes. Perhaps this notion did not occur to scholars? Activities like elk hunting, berry gathering, weaving materials gathering, and trade obsidian mining, were likely co-habitation activities of many tribes in the Cascades. Many scholars are or were entrenched in their scholarship so far that they do not try to incorporate other concepts that come from other studies. Certainly, for the first 100 years of anthropology, few native people were asked what they thought of the early theories.  Linguists rarely accessed historic accounts or even cultural anthropological ethnographic accounts. Similarly for archaeologists, who rarely accessed linguistic or cultural documents. There has been a change in scholarship but many of the descriptions and maps produced only present a limited scholarly vision of any one tribe. Linguists many-times did not understand tribal culture very well as they tried to decipher the languages. Contemporaneously this has changed and many scholars draw from multiple disciplines. But notions like the Molalla ethnographic territorial claims, which have been uncritically adopted by numerous contemporary texts, are a relic of early anthropological, and linguistic notions of tribal territory. What this short study suggests is that there needs to be more critical analysis applied to older notions of tribes, territorial claims and cultural characteristics. Contemporary scholars need to devote their attention to a nuanced perspective of tribes such that we have greater understandings based on actual evidence, not simply rehashed anthropological mythologies and outdated theories.

The state of my scholarship on the Molalla has revealed much in local historical accounts of their history and character. Much has yet to be discovered as new archives are accessed nearly every month. Evidence may come to light which alters this image of the Molalla. But we will be hard-pressed to find a culture in Oregon which occupied the high Cascades in permanent villages year-round. There was not any peoples in Oregon who would live within such an environment when they had the choice to move into the temperate valleys for the winter months where it was warmer and there was more food available. As such, previous notions about the Molalla and the Cascades must change.

Nothing in this essay should be interpreted to impinge on any treaty claims, as this is not a legal discussion, only a cultural discussion.

2 thoughts on “Ethnographic Molalla Homelands in Historic Scholarship

Leave a Reply

The Quartux Journal