The Charles Wilkes Exploring Expedition came to Oregon in August 1841. The expedition split into two parties with some of the expedition venturing up the Columbia, and a number of the scientists and naval men (The naval men were dispossessed from their duties due to the sinking of the Peacock.) traveling down the Willamette Valley and through the interior valleys into California. Wilkes’ journal is a summary of the journey but does not include all of the details from the journey as many of the officers and scientists kept their own journals.
I took note of details that address the character of the valley, the land, and the tribes. I avoided many details that may be sensitive to many, like the location of Indian grave-sites. What is revealed is the fact that the whole of the valley was subject to being burnt by the tribes. The expedition arrived in exactly the season of the burning and they ride through miles of burnt prairies to the point that their horses have no forage, it is quite dry and they are very thirsty for water. Some of the expeditionary members did not mind the burnt land or evidently thick smoky character of the air. The fires had also been quite recent, they missed them by a matter of days and it may have been that the southern valley was still burning when they were in the north because there are reports of smoke still rising. The character of the fires in their aftermath are also interesting. The fires burnt into the woodlands but it was clear that most of the trees survived quite well. Of trees, there are quite a few pines in the north, and after Champoeg it becomes more of a white oak savanna. As well, there are areas of swales or low flooded lands around a few rivers. The area around the Long Tom appears to have been riverine but with scattered connected swales and lakes as well. This character of the land, of low prairies with standing water in many areas is very interesting. These characterization are important to reconstructing a vision of what the land was like before colonizers severely changed the land and its water systems over the next century. Today’s Willamette Valley is a well drained and arid farmland, created by over a century of changes to make the water drain faster from level prairies. This means that the original indigenous lands were subject to being wet most times of the year with ankle deep or more water after rainfalls. Wetlands were everywhere, a situation I have only seen in a few locations in recent history. I think the wetland region today around the west Eugene wetlands speaks to this character, as well as prairies around Tualatin valley like the Camas field owned by METRO. Any notions of restoring areas of the valley need to take note of this important characteristic.
Native place names intrudes in a few accounts, the name Lumtumbuff is common in the journals, as the original name for the Long Tom River, but in Eld’s journal he mentions Mali or Male’ as well as the name for the river. Communicating this to Henry Zenk and he says this is new, previously unrecognized in scholarship are far as we know, and the name “La Mali certainly fits with the name lámalii (in alámalii for a people; čalámalii for the place) as recorded by Frachtenberg and Gatschet.” (personal communication 2/26/2022). Otherwise its Dana’s journal that has a few place-names from around Astoria, two names of hills/mountains (Swalalalas, Ualalax) and a river name (Chishuck or Chischuck).
Charles Wilkes- Expeditionary leader- Wilkes did not attend the second trip down the valley. In book 4 he relates a visit as far south as the site of the new Mission, called at this time the Mills, the site of the Kalapuyan Village of Chemeketa. The Mills are at Chemeketa Creek, which is later renamed Mill Creek. He visits Turner’s land and then journeys back north. From there he travels to the Tualatin valley and then north to Vancouver. Wilkes next journey is to the east on the Columbia. His recounting of the southern expedition is through the journals of some of his lieutenants, most principally Emmons who was in charge of the southern expedition to California.
These accounts are in book 5 of the expeditionary journals. Wilkes skips through many details in his narrative of the southern route. These details are then picked up again when reading through the journals I have of Emmons, Eld, Dana, and Colvocoresses. The other journals are not available at this time. Some additional accounts show up in the books of others of the Exploring Expedition, but they are all dependent on the first person accounts of the Emmons, etc. Therefore the Wilkes published set of journals are in part secondary accounts of many of the experiences in the valley based on Emmons journal.
Charles Wilkes Narrative of the US Exploring Expedition book 4-
Johnson… had settled himself down hear and taken an Indian girl for his wife, by whom he had several children… His Indian wife is extremely useful in making everything, besides taking care of the household and is rather pretty. Johnson’s estimation of her was that she was worth “half a dozen civilized wives.”430-431
wild ducks and geese are quite numerous in the spring and fall, covering the rivers, lakes and ponds. 431
(about Chemeketa) Upon inquiring, I was informed that they had a school of twenty pupils, some ten miles distant, at the mill; and that their intention and principal hope was to establish a colony, and by their example to induce the white settlers to locate near those over whom they trusted to exercise a moral and religious influence. 435
the mill, distant about nine miles, in the southeast direction. 436
The prairies are at least one-third greater in extent than the forest: they were again seen carpeted with the most luxuriant growth of flowers, of the richest tints of red, yellow and blue, extending in places a distance of fifteen to twenty miles. The timber we saw consisted of the live and white oak, cedar, pine and fir.
We reached the Mill by noon, which consists of a small grist and saw mill on the borders of an extensive prairie. They are both under the same roof, and are worked by a horizontal wheel. The grist mill will not grind more than ten bushels a day, and during the whole summer both mills are idle, for want of water, the stream (Chemeketa Creek) on which they are situated being a very small one, emptying into the Willamette. We found here two good log houses, and about twenty lay members, mechanics, of the mission under Mr. Raymond, who is the principal at the mills. There are, besides, about twenty-five Indian boys, who, I was told, were not in a condition to be visited or inspected. Those whom I saw were nearly grown up, ragged, and half clothed, lounging about under the trees. Their appearance was a thing but pleasing and satisfactory” and I must own I was greatly disappointed, for I had been led to expect that order and neatness at least would have been found among them, considering the strong force of missionaries engaged here. From the number of persons about the premises, this little spot had the air and stir of a new secular settlement, and I understood that it is intended to be the permanent location of the mission, being considered more healthy than the bank of the Willamette. The missionaries, as they told me, have made individual selections of lands to the amount of one thousand acres each, in prospect of the whole country falling under our laws.
I am aware that the missionaries came out to this country to colonize, and with the Christian religion as their guide and law, to give the necessary instruction, and hold out inducements to the Indians to quit their wandering habits, settle and become cultivators of the soil.
The Indians are in the habit of burning the country yearly, in September, for the purpose of drying and procuring the seeds of the sunflower (tarweed), which they are thus enabled to gather with more ease, and which form a large portion of their food. That this is the case appears more probable from the fact that since the whites have had possession of the country, the undergrowth is coming up rapidly in places. 441
The ague and fever, though common on the low prairies, was not a dangerous types, and after the first attack, those of subsequent years were less violent, even if it did occur, which was rare. The climate, however, was very destructive to the Indians of whom at least one-fourth died off yearly. When an Indian is sick, and considered beyond moving, he is poisoned by the medicine-man; for which purpose a decoction of the wild cucumber (Bryonia) is given him. Some of the roots of this plant grow to a very large size. 445
the country now became exceedingly rough, overgrown with brushwood, and in places wet and miry. … I learned that the small prairies we occasionally passed were not capable of cultivation, owing to their being flooded after a few hours of rain. 446
Charles Wilkes, Narrative of the US Exploring Expedition Volume 5- (I skipped much from the published book five not wanting to repeat the experiences of the other journalists.)
Some wandering Callapuyas came into camp, who proved to be acquaintances of Warfield’s wife: They were very poorly provided with necessities. Mr. Agate took a characteristic drawing of one of the old men. These Indians were known to many of the hunters, who manifested much pleasure at meeting with their old acquaintances, each vying with the other in affording them and their wives entertainment by sharing part of their provisions with them. This hospitality showed them in a pleasing light, and proved that both parties felt the utmost good-will towards each other. The Indians were for the most part clothed in deer-skins, with fox-skin caps, or cast-off clothing of the whites; their arms, except in the case of three or four, who have rifles were bows and arrows, similar to those I have described as used at the north; their arrows were carried in a quiver made of seal-skin, which was suspended over the shoulders.” (vol. v p 223-224).
Pickering (“Races…”, 32): (I don’t have the original Pickering Journal, he has one of the scientific volumes with an abridged account of his travels.)
“On the 14th the party fell in with an old Kalapuya, whose portrait was sketched by Mr. Agate. He wore moccasins, an elk-skin dress, a cap of fox-skin with the ears remaining, and his quiver was of seal-skin. Mr. Agate remarked further, that the costume of the Kalapuya women is not unlike the Polynesian. For the last four days the prairies were found to be stripped of herbage by fires, some still burning, that had been kindled, it was said, to facilitate the gathering of sun-flower seed.”
Lieutenant George Foster Emmons (officer of the Peacock)- Journal kept while attached to the Exploring Expedition on board of the U.S. Peacock no 3- copy of original handwritten manuscript- He is commander of the southern expedition.
August 7, 1841-The country becoming smoky from the annual fires of the Indians- who burn the prairies to dry and partially cook a sunflower seed (tarweed)- which abounds throughout this portion of the country & is afterwards collected by them in great quantities & kept for their winters stock of food. The forests are also frequently burnt to aid them in entrapping their game- these two burnings combined form the greatest obstacle that travelers encounter in their country- one blocking up the way and the other destroying the food of the animals.
Underway early-winding our way to the top of the Yam hills- which lay nearly W & S covering an extent of about 15 miles in length…Noticed many piles of stone- which probably mark a resting place of some of the former rulers of this valley. White oak scattered about in all directions.
Joe McLaughlin the son of Dr. McLaughlin, who has lately married the daughter of La Bonte & has a large farm under cultivation, with abundance of stock & Indian assistance. (Louis La Bonte was an early fur trader who settled in the valley.)
August 8th 1841- clouding over often now, all the country west of us apparently on fire from the dense volume of smoke continually rising -it is fortunate for the settlers that at this season these prairies are not subject to heavy winds- for if they were there would be no arresting the fires that are so often set by the Indians.
some Kal-a-pu-ya Indians visited camp- found some difficulty in restraining Newell’s dog from biting them- he being universally civil to white people. and now that it occurs to me I will add that upon crossing the Yamhill river I was met by the principal chief of this tribe with several of his followers who addressed to me a short speech- accompanied with considerable gesture. the amount of which agreeable to the interpretation of Mr. Rogers- was to inform me that he was of the Kalapuya tribe- & that all this portion of the country belonged to them. I gave him to understand through the same channel, that I had not come to contest his claims & hoped that he might live many happy years upon his soil.- when he retired apparently contented. Poor fellow like the rest of his race, he is doomed to vanish before the white man. Out of 10,000 who 10 years ago peopled this country- there scarcely now remains 6,000.
[The Kalapuya people had dogs, their own Indian dogs they used for hunting, and perhaps eating, which is why these people seemed unafraid of the dogs, they were not a strange thing to them.]
Whole tribes have been completely swept off and but a few years longer at this rate, & there will be none left. How melancholy the reflection. How little do we know of this once numerous people, & yet how much have we done to shorten their existence. By we, I of course mean the white men generally. They having introduced fatal diseases before unknown among them.
August 10th 1841-Rode to the top of the Yam Hills with Mr. Agate to make some observations & take a sketch of the surrounding country.
August 11, 1841- All of the Prairie to the west of us had been burnt- & contrasted strongly with the green patches of woods- and ? narrow belts bordering upon streams. Did not see a living soul nor any other signs of habitation than a small stream of smoke curling above a distant cluster of trees.
Made arrangements with Mr. Lee to furnish fresh beef occasionally for the camp… there being little or no dependence placed upon the Indians (naturally indolent) who take their own time & mode of working and seldom evince any consistency, unless interested by family connection as is not unfrequently the case with the Canadians and half-breeds. Nearly all of the American mountain men also have their Indian wives.
(to Chemeketa settlement)
Accepted an invitation from several gentlemen of the mission to accompany them to their mill about 8 miles up the Walamat on the east side…finally arrived at the mills which are plural only in the machinery- a portion of which is for sawing timber- an other for making shingles- & the remainder for grinding grain (one 10 or 12 inch stone only).- Located on a small stream that empties into the walamet & barely furnishing water enough to carry the saw mill (only one saw) during the dry season. Their present dam is so badly constructed that at present there is a great waste of water. There is a large frame house here which is the dwelling house of the man in charge of the mills& school house for native children (Numbering about 20 of both sexes) who have been placed under the care of the mission to bring up- instruct and C & C. and as the estimable object of this mission is in benefiting the Indian race generally in this country, the end is more likely attained in this way than any other- for several obvious reasons. But even then youths are so wild & untractable- that no great change for the better efficacy will ever be effected.
9/7/1841- house of the American by the name of Turner… Virginian by birth… stained by constant exposure to the sun that at a distance he might be taken for one of the Kalapuyah tribe, to which he is already allied in marriage… he has charge of the mission cattle … about 500 head. … he is one of the survivors of Smith’s party that were cut off near the coast about the year 1827 by the Rascally Indians. (170)
9/8/1841- a few straggling Kalapuyahs came around the camp & were bitten by our dogs before we could prevent it- I am sometimes surprised to see how soon these animals discriminate between the Indian & settler. When there is frequently not a shade difference in their color.
-a rolling prairie of indifferent soil, saw many wolves and killed one. The atmosphere filled with smoke from burning prairies. … 5 pm encamped upon Ignacias Creek- the country burnt all about.
9/10/1841- …over rolling prairie, passed an Indian burying ground on the bank of a small stream, and saw upon the hill tops small mounds & heaps of stone which have evidently been the work of the Indians, for what purpose I am unable to say. I have been told it is the custom of the Indian girls of the country upon arriving at the age of puberty to stray into the fields & erect such mounds by excavating the surrounding earth. Places of this kind have been pointed out to me but I never saw the custom practiced. (174)
[perhaps what is called prayer seats]
Crossed Mouse Creek [Marys River] … deep in many places with high steep banks… Passed over a level prairie, perfectly barren having been burnt like most of the country- could not determine the extent owing to the smoke which confined our view within a space of about two miles round- Skirted the margin of a small lake of fresh water, the surface but about a foot below the surface of the prairie… the banks being steep and mirey. Soon after came upon the banks of a small river called Lum tun-buff [Long Tom]- which in many places assumed the appearance of small lakes with high abrupt banks- the first place that appeared accessible was soon accompanied by the pack animals, who having traveled all day over a burnt prairie without water were now eager to get some.
September 13th 1841- …about 2 miles & came upon an old encamping place on the headwaters of the Lumtumbuff where the Indians had once constructed a dam.
September 14th 1841- Several Indians also came into camp soon after we encamped. Being some of Mrs. Warfields acquaintances who were in the habit of visiting the H.B. Co. parties as they passed through. I allowed them to remain in camp all night & on the following morning observed among them a very pretty squaw. Their general appearance was much like their tribe about Walamat settlement- dirty- poorly clad- & armed with bows- with a few baskets which the females carried their Kamass roots seeds etc in.
September 15th 1841- Umpqua side of Calapooia range- two male Indians visited camp- one a very good looking boy, both on their way to Fort Umpqua to dispose of a few beaver skins. Both were armed with a neat bow & quiver of arms & had nothing for covering excepting a maro (?). I allowed them to remain in camp all night and gave them something to eat- our ignorance of each others language being reciprocal, no information was gained from them. Water froze during the night near the camp to about the thickness of a 1/2 dollar… the Indians… paid but little (attention) to it, leaving camp at early daylight quite naked…
At HBC Fort Umpqua: Alfred Agate sketches Indians
Four years in the Government Exploring Expedition by George M. Colvocoresses, Fairchild, NY, 1855.
(at Willamette Mission) 9/7/1841 The number of Indian children to whom they give instruction does not exceed twenty, and the adult Indians living about the settlement, are entirely neglected. (276)
9/8/1841- (south of Chemeketa) Mr. Turner… has an Indian woman to keep house for him, and seems perfectly contented.
9/9/1841- (near Luckamiute- they were on the west side of the valley) I took a stroll and fell in with an encampment of Calipoya Indians. There were altogether five families of them, and each had its own fire and tent. They were miserably clad, and their habitations were swarming with vermin. The surrounding country was perfectly level, and produced luxurious grasses and some trees.
9/10/1841- We crossed this day several streams, which are tributary to the Willamette. [likely very close to the Luckamiute a braided set of tributaries] The country continued level, but all the vegetation, except the trees, had been destroyed by fire, said to have been kindled by the Prairie Indians, for the purpose of procuring a certain species of root, which forms a principal part of their food.
9/13/1841- (one days travel south of Long Tom River) about dusk some Calipoya Indians paid us a visit; they proved to be acquaintances of the guide, and the meeting seemed to be one which afforded mutual pleasure to both parties. He represents them as being a perfectly harmless people, and there was nothing in their appearance to indicate the contrary. They were clothed in deer-skins, with fox-skin caps, or cast-off clothing of the whites. Their arms were bows and arrows; the latter were pointed with bone, and they carried then in a quiver made of seal-skin.
9/19/1841- (Umpqua Valley south of Fort Umpqua) During this day many friendly Indians were seen, who reported that the hostile tribes were preparing to dispute our passage. We passed one large party, composed of entirely of women, who were out gathering roots. They were all passe, and extremely ugly.
Henry Eld Journal-
September 9th 1841- (at the Willamette Mission settlement leaving Turner’s house)- Our route has been through what might be called a hilly prairie country. the grass mostly burnt off by recent fires, & the whole country sprinkled with oaks so regularly dispersed as to have the appearance of a continuous orchard of fruit trees. The streams were invariably lined with trees on both sides. About noon we halted a few moments at a little creek called Creole Creek (origin of placename Rickreal- originally La Creole Creek) where a party of Indians were encamped and eventually ? bivouacked, on a little stream named Inquos Creek.
September 11, 1841 starting the morning an Indian came running down from the adjoining wood apparently much out of breath calling out “Mackook Mowich” “Buy a Deer” this he had that moment killed … with the Sargent I went to the spot where we found another Indian flaying the poor animal literally alive, for the flesh was still quivering as the knife went into it, for six charges of powder I purchased the hind quarters which was all we wanted… [“Makok Mawich” is the present spelling in Chinuk Wawa]
I think its a mistaken idea generally about Indians being good shots, this is seldom the case, with those I have come across, & I have seen them try their skill often: in shooting game it is generally by stratagem, & slyly sneaking up to their prey, they are often a decoy which is the real head of the deer, with the horns standing, this they either attach to their own head in some way or slip it over the head and crawl on their hands & knees going through sundry antics, bobbing the head up & down etc such as the deer would be supposed to do, in this manner the unsuspecting animal, becomes an easy prey. If they have not a decoy they steal upon him behind the trees until he is within a few yards and is easily killed. In this instance I have spoken of above, the Indian showed us the tree he had stood behind, when he shot the deer, and it could not have exceeded 20 to 25 yards at the most.
…about 3 pm in the afternoon passed what is called Lake La Mali 80 ft in width & 3/4 of a mile in length, continuing along the margin of this to the southward, struck Lumdumbuff or La Mali river and eventually encamped…
Lumtumbuff river or creek apparently deep & turbid stream – in many places much like a lake, in others narrow and favorable bank about 15 ft high with a 2nd rise on the prairie at different distances from then banks, the latter covered with brush & trees- shallow places generally- and the deep places quite muddy.
They are called Calapuya, we being seen yesterday in the Calapuya Nation, we were visited this morning by an old man of this nation with no covering but a part of a deer skin over his shoulders a kind of cap made of the same, with his bow and quiver of arrows in the whole skin of a hair seal, his whole appearance was totally pitiful though trusting and quite a remarkable looking character. Mr. Agate got a drawing of him as he stood which as soon as he understood remained as motionless as a statue.
Dana Journal- this journal was challenging to read as it was in light pencil and a difficult penmanship. He writes in a notation style and is most concerned with rocks and soil types as the expedition geologist. He did note a few native place names from the Clatsop area
37- prairie nearly 3 sq miles -just burnt over by Indians- fires extending into adjoining forests and enlarging the prairie land
38- opposite Fort Vancouver- low flats flooded at high water of spring freshets interconnected by numerous canals & swales cut it up into small inlets monthly too low for cultivation.
41 (French Prairie) ride 15 miles over large prairie- occasionally intersected by lines of pine forest in lower lands & along small streams
42 (Mr Hines at mission) says that near the sawmill 9 miles up the Wallamet the high prairie borders the river
44 September 7 1841- large part of the prairie lately burnt over and the blackened … appears like … the burnt region… burning prairies…The more distant part of the … obscured by the smoky …arriving from the burning of the country. Now is the season for such conflagration in the Indian territory.
45- September 9 1841- dry grassy- mostly burnt over scattered oaks… by prairie fires
47- came upon an Indian burying ground- … small spot 20 yards square many of the graves recent- a pole or a piece of board erected over each with a … pan or wooden vessel stuck on the pole- probably died of fever and ague- the disease that has depopulated the country.
47- September 11 1841- hilly country … atmosphere so thick & smoky that view confined to a few miles around
49- country blackened by fires dreary beyond description
The expedition’s encounter with recently fired prairies is the one takeaway I have from reading their personal journals. Wilkes somewhat glosses the burnt character of the whole valley in his summary of the southern expedition. Everywhere seemed to be burnt and dry and a desolate landscape. This may be why the expedition found it difficult to find deer or elk, as they would have ran from the fires and would be hiding in the hills, and why their horses constantly were wandering away from camp. I did not include these details in my quotations, but the expedition was very much delayed looking for horses nearly every day, because the horses are wandering away in search of grazing grasses. These factors are important to understanding what the valley and the Kalapuyans were like before all of their lands were taken by the settlers.
Titian Peale’s diary begins in the Umpqua divide and so there is very little of use. There was another journal by him of the Willamette Valley but it was lost. I am still in search of other expeditionary journals. The remainder of the expeditionary journals are difficult to find and many remain in family collections.