Surviving Indigenous Landscapes in the Willamette Valley: the Mid-Valley Buttes

In my short life, I have spent some 30 years traveling the Willamette Valley from north to south and east to west, and not really giving the buttes a second glance. I have imagined that many of these buttes appear to be people lying on their backs on the ground, cloud busting in the the middle of the prairie. And, many times when I drive past Brownsville, I have thought about finding some place in the valley where there are undisturbed lands, where the native and indigenous character of the land has survived 160 years of changes brought by settlers, all the while staring right at the buttes without realizing the answer may be right in front of me. In the past year, I have begun paying close attention to them, and even climbed one. Every time I drive near them now, I realize new possibilities that they may represent.

Ward Butte and Peterson Butte

Those buttes, as seen from I-5 are heavily disturbed by humans. Many have huge gravel mines on the side and have been severely eroded by gravel extraction. Many have settlements, houses encroaching up the side of the butte. There are roads now to the tops and sometimes houses, cabins or cell towers and other communications or radio towers at the tops. But those more internal to the valley, away from I-5 are less developed.

Pederson Butte

I also see a vestige of the original indigenous landscape holding on despite invasives. Oak groves are now in a fight to the death with Himalayan blackberry bushes and poison oak groves.

a small butte not sure the name, nearly all of the roads are called Gap Road, as in the Gaps between the buttes

Still the Oak groves, a portion of the original vast Oak savannas of the original Willamette Valley, survives, likely much as it was 200 years ago. This suggests some interesting possibilities.

a double butte, not sure the names

Its possible there remains signs of native peoples having used the buttes in some cultural manner. It also suggests that there may be surviving native plant and animal species on the buttes, where they hold on in a tenuous fashion to their final populations, the rest having been plowed under by early farmers establishing the all- encompassing agricultural landscape of the valley floor.

Oak Savanna on Pederson butte

However, I hardly know the butte names, and there is almost no information about the buttes anywhere. Speaking with local folks in Brownsville, I found everyone knows the names of the buttes, which are usually named after a settler family. The large butte with two tops which dominated the center of the valley and forms a perimeter of Lebanon is called Peterson Butte.

Ward Butte from top of Pederson Butte, another butte in background

A smaller Butte to the south of Peterson Butte is Ward Butte. This is the extend of the butte names I know, besides Knox Butte outside of Albany, which has a signpost on the highway. I think Knox Butte is a public park with a drive to the top.

west side of Pederson Butte

Most of the buttes are privately owned, so this is probably a factor of why there has been little research about them. They are mostly owned by old settler families and maintained by them.

Hawthorne on top of Pederson Butte

I have asked professionals about what research has been done. There appears to be nearly nothing known about them. No environmental studies, no archaeology, no geological studies. I cannot find one contemporary study of the buttes.

Interesting rock formation, likely Raptor roost on west side of Pederson Butte

We do know that geologists have thought that these buttes are volcanic cones, the result of hot spots under the North American plate. The plate is moving to the west and the Pacific plate is moving to the east under the north American plate, causing at their juncture, under the Cascade Range, a series of hot spots. The hot spots flare up every so many million years and create a butte. The Willamette Valley is actually created by a long period of very little volcanic activity, millions and billions of years between the formation of the Coast Range and the Cascade Range, which is largely a volcanic range full of active volcanoes.

An amazing vista from Pederson Butte

My experience climbing Pederson Butte, with a number of local people, inspired me to think of the possibilities of finding undisturbed environments on the buttes. They may be the last remaining indigenous landscapes, full of rare species, in the Willamette Valley. I have heard that there may be unique micro-environments in the foothills of the Cascades, and if so, there may also be some on the buttes. If we could study them what would we find out about their unique environments or the culture of the Kalapuyan peoples. The buttes are even high enough to have been refuge for people and animals during the Missoula floods, which are estimated to have risen to 400 ft in the valley. Most buttes are well over that height, Peterson is 1,439 ft, and Ward is 856 ft. The soils and perhaps landscape on the buttes, then, would predate the floods which happened some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago.


An Oak savanna in a draw, Pederson butte

This past fall a fire engulfed Ward Butte, but because there was no structures to damage, so the farmers just let it burn. I saw it burning from the top of Pederson Butte. In the next year, the vegetation which was burned, will recover and be reborn. Later, driving past the butte, I noted that the oaks survived just fine, because they are fire resistant, likely a trait bred into them, a result of the Kalapuyans setting fires to the valley prairies every year for thousands of years. Those oaks who survived carried on the fire survival traits.

Ward Butte one month after fires

There is now a unique opportunity to watch the rebirth or the Ward butte landscape, and as a nearly indigenous landscape, it would be like watching the rebirth of the Willamette Prairies after the Kalapuyans set them afire each fall.

Ward Butte east side, showing fire results, one month after

If I get the chance, I will try to get up onto Ward butte and record the rebirth of the land, just like my ancestors experienced it before they were invaded and removed to a reservation.

Buttes and Hills as possible Missoula flood refuge sites in the mid-valley, Peterson Butte 1,439 ft, and Ward 856 ft, Lone Pine 1,621 ft, Washburn 1,345 ft, Cedar 1,585 ft, Powell hills 499 ft, Saddle 617 ft, Bond 446 ft,  Knox 646 ft, Hungry Hill 686 ft, Franklin 889 ft,  Salem Hills-Prospect hill 1,129 ft& Ankeny Hill 778 ft, Waldo Hills 741 ft, Rodgers Mt. 1,447 ft, Ridgeway 1,198 ft, Bineger 1,017 ft,  Indian Head 1,230 ft, Diamond Hill 581 ft, West Point Hill 945 ft, Rock hill 833 ft, Centennial Butte 541 ft, Lenon Hill 614 ft, Coberg Ridge 2,096 ft, Spores point 1,194 ft, Spencer 2,041 ft, Skinner (Ya-po-ah) 673 ft, Mt. Pisgah (Springfield) 1,526 ft, Sellers 1,093 ft, Rattlesnake 1,266 ft, Short Mt 1.106 ft, Moon Mt. 1037 ft., Cantrell hill 689 ft., Fisher 443 ft, Richardson 873 ft, Cox 594 ft, Winkle 456 ft, Bald Hill (Philomath) 751 ft, Coffin 738 ft, Johnson Hill (Independence) 482 ft, Mt. Pisgah (Dallas) 840 ft, Eola Hills 823 ft.

One thought on “Surviving Indigenous Landscapes in the Willamette Valley: the Mid-Valley Buttes

  1. Thank you so much for the vivid observations. Praying to creator that always when we need it the most may we find ourselves surrounded by refuges that stand to speak of ancestral resilience — keeping it humble, looking to the ‘humus’, the soil, the rocks, the roots, the buttes.

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