Agent of Rebirth, Kalapuyan Culture in Linn County

The Kalapuyans, for their part, accepted the settlement of the whites at first, as they saw the great wealth in new things brought to them, metals, fabrics, weapons, and beads for jewelry were much sought after. But as always, there was settlement which brought came diseases, competition for food and land, and competing cultural worldviews. Tribal people would see the Whitemen, “Bostons,”  first as wealthy neighbors, where they could count on them in times of need, while the white settlers saw the tribes mostly as a nuisance, and would not share their property, food, or goodwill with the Indians. The settlement by the Americans was technically illegal to US land law because none of the lands had been purchased from the tribes until the treaties that were signed from 1853 to 1855 were ratified. The treaty of record for the Willamette Valley being the Kalapuya Etc. Treaty of 1855, also known at the Willamette Valley Treaty, sent to Washington, D.C. January 22, 1855, and ratified by Congress and the President by March 3, 1855.

Brownsville, area where many of these stories take place

During the intervening years, there were many levels of trust by the settlers paid to the tribes as both peoples sought to live together.  Some settlers formed good bonds of trust with tribes, respected them even, and got along well.  Some relations were very poor as tribal people challenged the patience of the Americans who refused to try to understand what the tribal nations were experiencing. Much of the abhorrent behavior of the tribes was likely based on the stress of several generations of loss, of land, of family, of culture, of pride, and of sovereignty and agency over the situation of their tribe. Diseases like malaria brought by fur traders to the valley by 1830 cost the tribes thousands of people, an estimated 95% of their population dying by 1835. The early estimates of Kalapuyan populations of 15-20,000 peoples saw a huge reduction in counts to about 1,000 by the mid-1840s. Additional diseases and illnesses would take a smaller toll, and as there were very few documented instances of conflict in the Kalapuyan territories, I wonder what was causing additional shrinkages to the population. The fewer Kalapuyans there were and the lessened ability of these remaining populations to occupy all of their lands and former villages. This left significant holes in the territory, making it appear like the land was not well occupied or well used by the tribes. American settlement then would come easy and be unopposed by the tribes.

Davis Farmstead Linn County

Clearly, influenza took a toll, but the third major change happening in the occupation of tribal lands, and the plowing of their prairies, which would have destroyed huge amounts of root crops and eliminated ecosystems which would sustain deer and other food sources. Elimination of their food would cause hardship and stress on their remaining populations, which could account for the continued declines. At the same time, Kalapuyans were culturally adjusting by learning the new American culture, some few were setting up their own farms and getting cattle and horses, and shopping in the American stores for supplies. But the change did not come fast enough and many Kalapuyans found racial barriers to becoming members of the settler class. Then, the Oregon Donation Land act did not provide a means of tribal peoples getting allotments, or perhaps better to think of this as keeping their lands. there was no legal avenue for gaining citizenship that was viable for the tribes at this point. One section of a federal bill (forget which) allowed for the tribal peoples to renounce their people and culture and then become Americans, but I really wonder if this was truly viable as few courts would allow native testimony, the system was completely against tribal people gaining any legal rights, and many Oregon laws were privileging whites over blacks or other minorities. There were outliers to this notion of mine, namely Tualatin Chief Kiakuts winning a court case in Tuality County over a land dispute against a prominent white man Donald McLoad, but the majority of cases in Oregon during this time disallowed native testimony in courts.

Kalapuyan traditional culture was mostly a mystery for the settlers. Even today most people have no idea why tribes do what they do. In the mid-19th century when tribes set fire to the Willamette Valley, it was seen as a problem for the settlers. Fire to settlers destroyed their crops, houses, property; while to tribes it was an agent of rebirthing the world. Fire does destroy but also is a vector for control and change. The tribes used pyroculture to spur new growth of foods and to clean up the land so they could effectively use it. Today’s forests are managed under an agricultural plan, where every tree is valued for the board feet of limber it had produce. However, by continuing to put out fires, we are creating a worse problem, but allowing fuels to build up. This was likely noticed by the tribes who, over a period of thousands of years adopted a cultural practice of setting annual fires. This burning of the previous season’s fuels eliminated the possibility of massive forest fires, and created better food sources.

The combination or combined effect of the loss of population loss, loss of land, loss of traditional food sources, and culture change to the new colonial society had to have effects on the environment of the Willamette Valley. If the Kalapuyans over thousand of years adapted to the Willamette valley based on the resources available, like the abundance of the Camas and deer, perhaps caused in part by the Missoula floods bringing nice fine soils to the valley. Then too, through Kalapuyan cultural traditions would cause adaptations to the environment. They perhaps caused camas and other root crops to become adapted to annual harvests, perhaps aided by aerating the soils through digging activities, or the taking of the larger camas aided the growth of younger camas allowing them to grow larger. and the annual fires clearly preserved crops adapted to survive, root crops underground would survive, hearty oaks with thick bark would survive, and species not as well adapted would not survive, pines, firs, cedars, and brushy plants.

These cultural traditions were noted by early Linn county settlers in rare accounts.

“in the fall the Indians would set fire to the grass and to the trees in the mountains and the whole country would be covered with a pall of smoke. The worst that I remember was one autumn when it was very dry. We were harvesting wheat with a four horse team but we had to stop because the smoke was so thick that we could not even see our leaders” (James Worth Morgan- Muddy Creek Halsey)

The point below is exactly correct, clearing the land of excess undergrowth does make hunting for deer easier.

(1852) “deer was plenty then and they could get meat merely by going out and killing it. In those days, all the country was one open range where cattle could run at large. There was not so much brush in the country then as now, because the Indians came through in little bands and set fire to the range, thus keeping it burned down. The open country free from brush and undergrowth made hunting and cattle herding a much easier task that it is now.” (A.T. “Bud” Morris, Sweet Home)

The following relates a rare window into the time of diseases in which the Kalapuyans are still practicing their seasonal rounds of moving from camp to camp seeking seasonally ready food sources. A route they likely took every year of their lives.

“That old Territorial Road was used by all travelers going north or south through the valley. It was the course… used by the Indians moving from camping place to camping place. I have heard members of the Parrish family relate of the weird and awesome sounds made by mourning tribes passing in the night. It was their custom to move from any camp where a death had occurred. Therefore when an Indian died there was an immediate exodus of all, whether it was day or night. As they moved to their new camp they would wail out their death songs, a hideous sound for a child to hear in the midnight darkness.” (Emma M. Bates Parrish, Minnie B. Bates Nichols, between Lebanon and Brownsville.)

“The white people brought civilized diseases with, which were very deadly to the Indians. The measles were especially deadly. When the measles broke out among the Indians near the Morgan claim they treated the disease within their traditional manner, by sweat-houses and plunge into the cold water of the creek. That of course was fatal. My people tried desperately to persuade them to do differently but it was no use. Their customs were too strong for a white man’s argument to nullify. As a result a great percentage of the village died.” (Clara C. Morgan Thompson, Saddle Butte, Shedd)

“The Indians about Albany were always very friendly and never gave any serious trouble. The last of them to remain about were the well known characters Old Lucy and Old Pete. They were husband and wife and lived over on the Island, that is, what is now called Bryant’s Park. Old Lucy washed for mother every Monday for years and years. All of the Indians made their camps over on the island. Every spring they would come out on the flats about our place to dig camas.” (Emma Sneed, Albany)

The famous Kalapuya mounds are those that were along the Calapooia river and tributaries from Corvallis to Sweet Home. In this area over 140 mounds were identified.  Settlers in Linn county encountered the mounds as they worked their lands and plowed the mounds into the landscape. Few mounds escaped the plow to the point that now perhaps a dozen remain extant, preserved by considerate landowners.

Statements by Linn County settlers:

“there are a number of Indian mounds along the Calapooia on , or near Kendall’s claim. The Kendall house originally stood directly on an Indian mound. When the road was improved near that place an Indian skull was dug up by the workmen. It rolled about that neighborhood for years. I do not know what finally became of it. There are a number of small mounds hereabout. One on the Brock place is now being washed away by the Calapooia river. There are two or three mounds on the Poland place. Perhaps some on the Trautman place.” (Thomas Bird Sprenger- Shedd)

“There were a great many Indian mounds along Calapooia river. One of them was close by the Morgan Cabin. Many Mortars, Pestles and arrow heads are still plowed up there.” (Clara C. Morgan Thompson, Saddle Butte, Shedd)

all records gathered from the Linn County Historical Museum in Brownsville.


4 thoughts on “Agent of Rebirth, Kalapuyan Culture in Linn County

  1. Hello…thank you for all the research work you have published. I am Frank Summers mother and a grand ronde tribal elder (86 yrs on 4-28-2020). Can you find Tchinouk in your studies? It was the published name of the tribal people who were “discovered” by Captain Gray when he “discovered” and named the Columbia River May 7, 1792.. This was information contained in his handwritten journals of the voyage which were translated and printed by
    Some of the oldest documented records for the Tchinouk people are in the early Catholic Church records published in the Vancouver Stellamaris Mission accounts from the Catholic church records of the Northwest. The Mantle of Elias book also has published names information. I believe the Catholic church records from St. Paul and the Roseburg area have similar information…. Thank you for sharing your research. Claudette Parazoo

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