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An Early Account of Native People Near Falls City

Each archive I enter I find new information about the native peoples of that county. Generally, the stories are of early encounters with a few native people, experiences seeing native people around town, and other adventures. A few stories, really journal accounts, suggest aspects of tribal culture. This is one of those accounts.

Locations of the towns mentioned

I collected this account some 10 years ago when visiting the Polk County Museum in Rickreall. I had seen the museum from the street numerous times at its location next to a fairground. Rickreall is kind of a valley crossroads with a population of mainly farmers. Highway 99w runs through town north-south and there is only one true stoplight in the town. The town historically was a candidate for the State capitol back in the 1850s. A good many influential men, politicians had lived there.

When I stopped into the museum, it was not busy at all. I was the only visitor and the museum appeared to have collections of items from a mishmash of households in the areas past. there were a few displays, but many times these historical societies do not have the expertise to curate larger regular displays and so their exhibits can stand for decades really unchanged. The records in these archives were very well organized, and they had a few files of Native American stories. I copied a few documents that I considered new and interesting that I had not seen elsewhere. The archives deserve a good research project to find another narrative of native peoples that might be buried in their holdings. Without much in the way of finding aids, research in these collections can be laborious and the archivists maintain their collections through their personal recollections of the contents.

There were a few good accounts that were particular to this area of Polk county. I copied them and now have returned to transcribe and analyze them for cultural and historical importance.

The first paragraph opens well with come cultural information which appears accurate fo the Kalapuyans. Camas and berries and hunting deer were large parts of the seasonal activities of the tribes in this valley. The Kalapuyans here are not identified, but the local tribe would have been the Luckiamute peoples mainly with a good possibility of encountering Yamel (Yamhill) Kalapuyans as well. The notation about the “111” tattoo on her chin is quite interesting. There are no known users of the “111” tattoo tradition among the Kalapuyans. The tradition was southern Oregon Athabaskan, northern Californian, and their neighboring tribes. The woman could have been Takelman or Tututni, or a similar tribe, likely one of the Rogue River peoples, which could be any of these tribes. The Rogue Rivers were kept at Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations along with some 26 to 35 other tribes. Therefore this is likely a reservation era story, from 1856 to 1880 probably What she was doing was a common enough activity, visiting the local town and selling her baskets. This was a cottage industry that was quite common in the area.


Pioneering Steps of Falls City

By Ila Estelle

During the first part of the 1800s, Indian tribes frequented the Falls City area. Timber was old and dense and hunting was good. The native streams were stocked with fish. Camas grew well at this altitude and climate, and as they wandered about, they pulled the camas bulbs for their flour and the deer and bear gave dried and fresh meat and skins for their clothes and moccasins. The berries were not only used for food, but dried and used for coloring in their natural craft work. The Chinooks and Calapooias were two of the larger and stronger tribes, soon the Grand Ronde and Siletz tribes became stationary and with government protection, agencies were established. One of my earliest recollections of seeing a large group of Indians came at about the age of four or five years. The seemingly very old squaws were seated on the ground braiding and weaving baskets of all sizes, paying no attention to the folk who were enchanted at their dexterity in creating such beautiful patterns from the long fibers. These baskets were woven so tightly that they would hold water and with reasonable care would last for years. Some of these now-rare objects are still kept and treasured with great sentimental value, I may say. They took great pride in teaching these skills to each new generation. One elderly squaw must have been one of the oldest ones present, and I remember she smiled easily, and spoke broken English. She had the number “111” tattooed on her chin. The history of that number is a story in itself.

This connection to Falls City is very interesting. Mostly we hear about the coastal relations of the tribes, for them to go inland is different. Perhaps they are head to get agricultural work, which would be a legitimate reason. tribal peoples were not allowed to leave the reservation, and so these peoples likely had agent signed passes to travel. They are also clearly selling their basketry and appear to have exhibited some dancing too.

The Falls City area was a day’s walk from the Agency, so the Siletz Indians made camps here when they traveled through the mountains out to the Willamette Valley. After the first settlers cleared some of the ground of dense wood, the Indians would find a clearing near the stream and build a fire at night, dance, show the baskets they were carrying for trading, and in time, become well-received and respected. When the white settlers went into their reservation from Falls City, they too were received as friends.

The next paragraph is very important. the author thinks this is a site of war, but from the description it appears to be a permanent village complex. At a permanent village, which would be occupied for hundreds of years layers of refuge will be deposited each year which would match the description given. Animals would also be processed which would account for the bone. The estates is now a subdivision right outside of town, suggesting that the development may have fully or partially destroyed this village complex. I wonder if there was archaeological testing previous to development or the local farmers have coffee cans full of arrowheads, which is quite common in small agriculture towns.

On land which is now Bridlewood Estates as we enter Dalles from the south was an old camp grounds, and at some period in history, or perhaps more than once, a war of some kind took place. Countless arrow heads of all kinds as well as bones were found in the deep earth there as the ground was worked over in later years.

Mayor John Thorpe and his large family came to this locale about 1844. He came from Kentucky where he was commissioned in the army and was a fighter in Indian wars. No doubt he had heard stories by the scouts of this beautiful virgin land.

Thorpe was a robust, ambitious man and not only acquired land himself, but interested others in coming west to take claims and learn by experience that this was a land of promise. A few years later, these folks wrote such glowing letters back to their families and friends, that there was quite a movement to Polk County. This soil freshly cleared made excellent pasture, gardens, and orchards. Some tents were replaced with cabins and hastily built shacks on sections of land and portions thereof. It was a spartan existence.

Grist and sawmills would attract people to their areas, because it would be easier to get building materials and process your grains into higher-value products.

In early 1850 Thorpe built a grist mill at the falls where he harnessed power to grind grain into flour and feed for the settlement. Oxen were used for much of the early clearing and logging, and such other primitive work as was necessary. This mill was very successful and by 1865, as the settlers were making inroads into Polk County, Thorpe moved his grist mill to Rickreall. Soon it was necessary to have help, so he took in a partner by the name of Dempsey, truly a name and family much respected and loved by all.


The account ended, and it offers a window into some aspects of native culture. The native peoples’ interactions with white society in the earliest days suggest much of how these peoples worked together in many ways to build a life, but that the tribes were always seen as lesser yet very skilled and interesting partners in this project.

Categories: General History Grand Ronde Reservation Kalapuya Oregon indians Willamette Valley

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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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