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Horatio Hale’s Description of Oregon Tribes

Horatio Hale has been the subject of much attention by me in recent months, in particular his Ethnology and Philology volume 6, United States Exploring Expedition, 1846. His description of the Molala peoples is noted by many scholars as to the original source of the territorial and pre-historic descriptions of the Molala tribe. I have noted previously that Hale spend no time in his research with natives identified as “Molala” and received most of his information from fur traders at Hudson’s Bay Company and from missionary Dr. Whitman. Further research continues to confirm this as well as Hale’s reliance on some early scholars of “Indian languages,” namely Albert Gallatin, who wrote one of the earliest survey-type descriptions of the tribes of the United States, “A Synopsis of the Indian tribes Within the United States East of the Rocky Mountains, and in the British and Russian Possessions in North America, 1836.”

Gallatin, it turns out, of the western tribes, only had information reported by Lewis and Clark’s expedition which were mainly a few names and population counts for tribes away from the Columbia. He may have had as well some information from Spanish explorers of California. Gallatin, epitomizing the role of “armchair anthropologist” when writing definitively about the tribes of North America, whom he had never seen or talked with. He had to settle on this description,

With the exception of a few words collected in the Straits of Fuca, and of some of the Chinook language at the mouth of the river Columbia, we have not a single one along the coast, till we come to the Ellenes and the Ruslenes of the Spanish Missions of New California” (134). [I am unsure which tribes these are in CA.]

Gallatin was an early linguist and was attempting to map the various native languages and their relationships to other Indian languages, and therefore secure his theories and discoveries in his book, like many naturalists of his time were doing. He had a harsh statement for the “Late Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton” (Died 1814) who had received copious vocabularies from President Jefferson, of tribal languages gathered by the Corps of Discovery, for “publication and organization” but that these vocabularies “could not be found after his death.” It does not surprise me that there were such vocabulary lists because Lewis and Clark were consummate collectors of native culture- and their methods, collections, and journals inspired the Naturalist collector movement of the next one hundred or more years. Some research on Barton has not yet revealed if these vocabularies were ever found, but they would be priceless cultural records of the tribes along the route of the Corps of Discovery.

Hale for his part took much of his guidance, in appearance, from Gallatin. He wrote authoritatively about the tribes of Oregon yet only visited areas along the Columbia River. Much of his information in his volume and maps must then have comes from others, likely the southern expedition of the survey, who traveled due south from Fort Vancouver and traversed the Willamette Valley and eventually the whole of western Oregon and California to San Francisco. Therefore Hale must have gotten the southern expeditionary journals and maps and perhaps had tea with them seeking more information about the tribes he never met.  Yet his volume Philology and Ethnology is influential for the next 150 years and even to the present in scholarship about the tribes of Oregon. It is past time that anthropologists looked closely at Hale for his research methodology, and findings, and determine how authoritative he actually was.

Hale wrote of the region,

2. The North-Oregon division. All tribes north of the Columbia, except those of the first section, and some of the Wallawallas, belong to this division, as well as three or four to the south of that river. It includes the Tahkali-Umkwa family (The Carriers, Qualioguas, Tlatskanies, and Umguas), the Taihaili-Selish family(Shoushwaps, Flatheads, Chikoilish, Cowelits and Killamuks), with the Chinooks, the Yakones (or south Killamooks) and, in part, the Calapuyas. The Nootkas, and other tribes of Vancouver’s Island, also belong to it.” (198)

Hale is clearly concerned with developing the language families and their relationships across the continent. He is not aware of the totality of the tribal diversity in 1841 and of so would have withdrawn all remarks about the relatedness of these tribal languages. Yet for all his early work on the language, and we cannot expect him to be completely accurate here but he is clearly trying to find connections, he still has some very odd characterizations of native peoples, more closely related to social evolutionists and white supremacist scholars who wrote of Native American peoples as savages and barbarians,

“The people of this division are among the ugliest of their race. They are below the middle size, with squat, clumsy forms, very broad rough skin, of a tanned, or dingy copper complexion. This description applies more particularly to the tribes of the coast. Those of the interior (The Carriers, Shoushwaps, and Selish,) are of a better cast, being generally of the middle height, with features of a less exaggerated harshness. In the coast-tribes, the opening of the eye has very frequently the oblique direction proper to the Mongol physiognomy; but in the others this peculiarity is less common.” (198)

And, Hale goes further describing characteristics he clearly has no knowledge of as he did not meet most of these people, nor did he have time enough to really study the “intellectual and moral characteristics,” of them. His description is much closer to what Christian missionaries would have written about the tribe, deriding and degrading their philosophies and lifeways in order to “save” them from their own debauchery,

“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. All these disagreeable qualities are most conspicuous in the tribes near the mouth of the Columbia, and become less marked as we advance into the interior, and towards the north. It is also at the same point (the mouth of the Columbia) that the custom of compressing the head prevails to the greatest extent. The Chinooks are 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 Wallaswallas and Nez perces in the east, and the Killamooks and Calapuyas on the south; The degree of distortion diminishing as we receded from the centre.”

Then Hale attempts to describe the character of the tribal speaking styles. He clearly is struggling here, lacking the tools in contemporary linguistics, not yet developed in Hale’s time, to convey his meanings.

“It is not a little singular that all the tribes of this division (except the Calapuyas, who seem to hold a middle position,) speak languages which though of distinct families, are still remarkable for the extreme harshness of their pronunciation, while those of the division which follows, are, on the contrary, unusually soft and harmonious.”

Hale then moves on to the Plateau and Great Basin people, whom he appears to admire a little. He would have met some of these people on his travels on the Columbia so the description here is much more detailed, congenial, and appreciative of these peoples than of others he never contacted personally. This is a more proper way of conducting research even if some of the characteristics are somewhat stereotypical in his final result.

“3. The South-Oregon Division. To this belong the Sahaptin family Nez perces and Wallawallas), the Waiilatpu (Cayuse and Molele) the Shoshoni (Snakes, Bonnaks, etc), the Lutuami, the Shasties, the Palaiks, and probably other tribes towards the South and east. They approach, both in appearance and in character, the Indians east of the Rocky Mountains, though still inferior to them in many respects. They are of the middle height, slender, with long faces and bold features, thin lips, wide cheek-bones, smooth skins, and the usual tawny complexion of the American tribes, 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 striking. No two nations of Europe differ more widely in looks and character than do these neighboring subdivisions of the American race.” (198-199)

Hale’s section on general observations shows a bit of the culture, philosophy and spirituality of the tribes. He clearly does not understand how they cannot have a word for god and struggles through several tribes to find it, finds they do worship/respect the Wolf and this to him is an inferior philosophy. He decides this about them when he is only among each tribe for mere hours, perhaps a few days at the most. His analysis reminds me of the problems when researchers work by seeming to make determinations about the tribal culture before they do their research, which is a biased approach. This account suggests he was having a hard time thinking outside of his Christian belief system.

“The Indians west of the Rocky Mountains seem to be, on the whole, inferior to those east of that chain. In stature, strength, and activity, they are much below them. Their social organization is more imperfect. The two classes of chiefs, those who reside in time of peace, and those who direct the operations of war. -the ceremony of initiation for the young men, – The distinction of clans or totems,- and the various important festivals which exist among the eastern tribes, are unknown to those of Oregon. Their conceptions on religious subjects are of a lower cast. It is doubtful if they have any idea of a supreme being. The word for god was one of those originally selected for the vocabulary, but it was found impossible, with the assistance of the missionaries, and of interpreters well skilled in the principal languages, to obtain a proper synonym for this term in a single dialect of Oregon. Their chief divinity is called the wolf, and seems, from their descriptions, to be a sort of compound being, half beast and half deity.” (199-200)

And then some classic romanticist thought,

“The Indian is proud and reserved” (200)

While deriding their culture with a simple arrogant statement of superiority,

“the superstition of the Indian is absurd and irrational” (200)

Hale’s description of the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of the tribes is quite surprising. He describes foods and cultural practices which we are only just now being uncovered in academia in the burgeoning TEK movement. It seems Hale knew that the tribes were more sedentary and had complex food systems, even describes a seasonal round culture in some detail, while for over 150 years following his observations, many environmentalists and anthropologists appeared to have ignored the presence and value of tribal TEK. See Hale’s descriptions are below, and yes they do seem to be well ahead of the time,

“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.” (200)

and,

“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 this 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.” (200)

Hale’s remarkable turn toward accurate cultural characterizations near the end of his description of the tribes of the region suggests that perhaps his previous characterizations were unduly influenced by others he had interviewed.  The traditional ecological knowledge he describes here is where he truly shines as an observer of tribal culture. Hale’s next notable statement suggests that he did indeed interview fur traders from Hudson’s Bay Company.

“Shoushaps- Our information with respect to this people is derived from a gentleman connected with the Hudson’s Bay Company, who resided several years among them in charge of the fort.” (202)

Hale’s note on page 202 also confirms where he got his information, from Hudsons Bay Company employees, missionaries, and other employees, and a few natives. He gathers some of this information on his Tribal Territory map, really the first of its type for the region

“for the exact territories occupied  by the different tribes, the reader is referred to the accompanying Ethnographical map, which has been constructed, with much care and labor, from information derived, in most cases, from the natives themselves, and confirmed by missionaries, hunters, officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and others who had good opportunities for acquiring knowledge on this subject, The Boundaries are usually determined by the physical conformation of the country, and are well understood among the natives, a circumstance which has enabled us to lay them down, for the most part, with minuteness and precision.” (202n)

Tribal territory map from Horatio Hale

Finally, Hale’s description of the Molala is brief because he really does not know the tribe at all. He assumes much of them, even that they are extinct when this is not the case at all. This statement definitively shows us that he appears to not have met a member of the tribe. The illness he wrote about is likely malaria identified by Robert Boyd as the prime culprit (The coming of the spirit of pestilence 1999).

P. Molele, 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.” (214)

Hale completes his volume with some vocabulary from the region. His Chinook Jargon vocabulary is famous, republished by itself in numerous printings as the Oregon Trade Language Chinook Jargon book.

Hale also collected languages in eastern Oregon and has a Molala word list as well form a “Native” that apparently spoke Molele. Why he is not identified as a Molele native is a question. There were people who learned to speak many languages due to the needs of trade and intertribal marriage in the region. Many individuals spoke 10 languages or more, so this “native” could be Molele (Molala) or could be a descendant, or a well-traveled individual with knowledge of Molele language.

“The Waiilatpu family (O. Waiilatpu, P. Molele)- The first of these vocabularies was taken under the supervision of Dr. Whitman, and is undoubtedly correct; the second was obtained from a native during a single interview, and possibly contains some errors.” (561)

Hale then presents a table for some 59 pages of 176 words from many languages. The table of words is based on the Gallatin lists of native words.

The next questions to be explored are whether his “native” informant was a Molele Native. This could be determined through some archival work at the American Philosophical Society. Letter sets could be helpful is Hale wrong about his experiences. Then to follow up on his contemporaries about how influential Hale was. It’s probable that George Gibbs knew him and perhaps wrote him, and Gibbs was a well-known researcher of tribal languages in his many years, some five decades in the region. Alexander Anderson too could have been influenced. Then I need to continue to follow the tribal territory map and its influence over successive maps.


Hale, Horatio, Ethnography and Philology. United States Exploring Expedition During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. Under the Command of Charles Wilkes, U.S.N., Vol. VI., C. Sherman Philadelphia, 1846. Google Books

Categories: Anthropology General History Oregon indians

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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.

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