Signs of Burning over the Columbia Bayou

The area of the south bank of the Columbia between the Sandy and Willamette Rivers is of particular interest to the tribes who once lived there, villages of families and bands of the Cascades Watlala. Historically, there is not too much known of the region beyond the records of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805-1806. In 1806, the expedition stopped at and recorded several villages of people, one quite large with 25 houses noted on their map. The journals of the expedition record that these villages were the winter villages of the Cascades Watlala peoples. they would arrive in October to escape the severe winter cold of the gorge, and to harvest the nutritious wapato which grew in the area in vast quantities. They then remained in the area until about April then moved back, houses and all, to Cascade Rapids to fish for spring salmon.

The villages along this “Wapato valley” were year round settlements with some people remaining behind to maintain them while their brethren went fishing. The Nichaqwali village at Blue Lake was one of these, as well as the Neerchokioo downriver. The peoples of these villages seemed to disappear sometime in the 1850s. It turns out they were removed to an Indian Encampment at the Switzler’s Ferry by Lot Whitcomb in 1855 and then removed to the Grand Ronde Reservation in March and April 1856.

Following the removal of the tribes from this area changes would come to the area from two reasons. First the removal of Tribes and their cultural practices would cause changes. They no longer were harvesting wapato, fishing, gathering berries, hunting or setting fires in their area. Then the settlers were took the land brought additional changes, likely beginning in the 1840s. The settlers began plants crops, logging the land and imposing a mono-cropping system, as well as filling in marshes and bayous and changing creeks and rivers to help run mills.

There were additional changes too, changes that the settlers would not see for years. The loss of environments through agriculture, the gradual pollution of the environment, and the water changes would take years to manifest. The removal of fire as a management tool was significant. It is clear that some farmers would set their fields afire as a management tool, this is apparent into the late 20th century. But without regular fire on the landscape, in the unfarmed acres, there would be buildups of undergrowth creating briars. This is the case today if farmers do not tend to their fence-lines for years, a huge buildup of brambles and briars which they take care of with manual labor and brush-wackers who grind up the woody briars.

I wonder when the Native-set fires ended? There seems no record of a law of when settler suppression of fire had an effect. Perhaps when many of the tribes people began farming themselves, they saw the wisdom of not setting fires because this would threaten their permanent homes. Native fire-setting was normally in September, after the first rains came and when the land was still dry so the fire could burn dead vegetation and any excess buildups. Did the native continue setting these fires after they began to adapt to the new American society?

We may never answer this question fully but we do have some records of the area of the south bank of the Columbia and inland. The General Land Office survey records recorded some of the instances of fire on the land in 1851. The area in question is not a vast prairie as we see in the Willamette Valley, with vast fields of grasses to burn. The area is also not a dense forest like the Cascades. Instead the Wapato Valley, which  is essentially east Portland today was a vast area of braided creeks, sloughs, lakes and ponds. The Chinookans who lived in this site had a different focus of this culture, that the Kalapuyans of the Willamette Valley and so they reasons for fire setting  may be different.

The notes below suggest that a massive fire went through the land and left significant signs in burnt, dead, and dying timber. The estimates state about a third is dead and notes some trees have fallen. In addition, the description of the bayous suggest these were a common feature in the area, it was a marshy, swampy, water-logged land subject to regular tidal action. Then there are descriptions of significant briars and brambles suggesting that the land was overgrown and ready to burn again.

P 6, all of the land on the last six miles except the bottoms has been burnt over, and about one third of the timber killed, considerable of it is fallen. Size of timber 1 to 6 & 7 feet diameter and 100 to 200 feet high. It is straight and knotty.

Pp 14-15, Township 1 north range 1 east. Land bottoms & overflowing in high water, timber, willow… The two lakes crossed on the last 2 miles are connected on the north forming one lake it is apparently shoal on the south part.

The dry land noticed in this township is good 2nd rate clay loam, some gravelly sec 25 & 36 are lightly timbered & gently rolling surface, in Sec 13 & 24 there is a fine thrifty growth of fir; but has been killed by fire in some places & the land has a gradual descent to the north, the Columbia Bottoms, which occupy the northern part of the township, are all overflowed by the river, in high water, except a narrow piece along the margin of the river, & some of the principal bayous. They are very much cut up by bayous, small ponds & lakes, several lakes were noticed large enough to meander

GLO map of the area described

The description following is an area closer to the Sandy River.

P 89, all of the south boundary of township one north range & east has been burnt over & much of the timber is fallen & has a thick under growth which makes it difficult to get through. There is no water on it except a little on the south side of section 31 ( all hands went one day without water & consequently could not eat much.

P 92, soil first rate clay loam timber fir alder hemlock maple etc, half burnt & fallen. Thick under gr. Of V. maple hazel, willow weeds briars etc. (some beautiful black raspberry just getting ripe.)

P 94, land on west half gentle descent east. East half mostly level, Soil 2nd rate clay loam & stoney. Timber fir cedar & maple burnt, mostly dead & half fallen. Undergrowth vine maple briars peas & other weeds.

P 96, all of the land on the south boundary of range 3 east has been burnt over in the last few years & most of the timber is destroyed & lots of it strewed over the ground and covered over by brush briars and weeds so that horse cannot be taken through without great expense.

Pp141-142, Land slight descent north soil good 2nd rate clay loam Timber fir, cedar, hemlock, maple, etc. All of the land on the last six miles except the bottoms has been burnt over and about one third of the timber killed. Considerable of it is fallen. Size of timber 1 to 6 & 7 feet diameter and 100 to 200 feet high it is straight & noty.

Then back to the Columbia Bayou area.

Pp 245, Columbia Bayou, The banks on the north side are from 8 to 10 feet high & steep’ on the southern side, the bottoms rise gradually back; there is no timber except near the Bayou; around it is mostly open meadow land.

P 246: This part of the lake is shallow & is dry in places, at low stages of water & low tides, as the tide rises in the lake from 2 to 3 feet bottoms low & rise gradually back.

These descriptions and others continue to build the evidence for significant changes occurring to the land in the mid 1850s, and a need to well document these changes so we may understand them fully. The Chinookan peoples in this area had a significantly different lifeway than the Kalapuyans or other tribes. The great amount of water, bayous, shallow lakes and ponds, creeks etc, would lend a different profile of resources. We know that there were significant wapato in the area, so were these lake and ponds full of the plants, and did they have sturgeon as well? There had to be lots of reeds, cattails, perhaps tule, and if so was mat making a significant weaving activity for the peoples who lived here? These and other questions may guide researchers to to look into the history of this place and discover the truth of the tribes.



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