Seasonal Lifeways of the Tualatin

The Tualatin Plains

The Tualatin Plains was a vast oak savanna. From General Land Office survey field notes there was noted a large number of oaks and oak brush on the Tualatin plains. The whole of the area would have been in the model of an oak savanna with inclusions of other environments, similar to what is well known for much of California. The oak savanna “belt” extends from Southern California, through the interior valleys of Oregon (Rogue, Umpqua, Willamette), and into Washington State. The principal oak in Oregon is the Oregon white oak. The Oak savannas were managed landscapes by the Kalapuyans who would fire the prairies in the late summers which would maintain the grasslands and spur the oaks to greater production of acorns.

This lifeway, part of their seasonal round, would take place for hundreds of years in the same pattern, with annual visitations by one or more tribes to gather acorns and process them. During the encampment they would also hunt, gather other foods, gather weaving materials especially resources that were more prevalent around the oak grove. The acorn flour and other materials collected would be returned to their permanent winter villages for winter storage and the tribes would live on these and other stores through the cold winters. Additionally, excess resources may be taken to a trading center on the Columbia, and the Tualatin were known to visit the Multnomah tribe over a trade trail which navigates the Tualatin hills to the Columbia, as well likely visits to the Clackamas and Clowewalla villages near Willamette Falls. In these locations the Kalapuyans could trade for dried and smoked salmon, and other products from hundreds of tribes who trade their specializations into the Columbia River trade network.

Traditional Ecological Management and Territorial areas

Kalapuyan territories and resource rights is a unique model based on their environment and the available resources that the environment gave the tribes annually with very little management by the tribe itself. When I state “very little management” I mean intentional efforts to make the environment produce better and more resources as we see in agricultural societies, the Kalapuyans were not an agricultural society, their management, or stewardship of the environment may be considered closer to a horticultural model. They subsisted using the seasonal availability of resources, when the wild plants and animals in their area were ripe or appeared and were available for harvest.


Kalapuya Calendar Gatschet 1877

The Tualatin calendar, collected by Gatschet in 1877, shows that the Tualatin Kalapuyans followed closely the cycles of growth and ripeness of the Camas and Wapato plants, two of their primary food staples. There is only one mention on the calendar of hunting and no mentions of fishing. This suggests that their annual seasonal round was based the seasonal plant cycle and that hunting and fishing, which they clearly also participated in, were not as important to plan for as annual foods.

Scholar have been quick to apply this pattern to the whole of Kalapuya culture, but that is likely a mistake. The lifeway noted in this essay, fits the Tualatin, the other Kalapuya tribes were not so different but they had different neighbors and may have had vastly different access to staple foods. Indications from the southern valley suggest an even wetter environment with oaks mostly up on buttes, while the prairie floor was braided with rivers and streams, marshes, swamps, and swales. The wetlands in the south appear to be have been more robust than we see for the north.

The river and streams always had some fish, and salmon fishing was not as important to the Kalapuyans as it was to tribes like the Chinook who based their whole economy on the annual salmon runs. Deer and elk were always around and available year-round and so there was little need to plan for when to hunt the animals as they were always around and in good quantities. The elk population of the valley was significant enough that tribes like the Klamath and Klickitat in great numbers, came into the valley in the summers to camp and hunt elk.

It may be that the Kalapuya diet was some 75% plant based, based on their calendar model, because of the great quantities of plant bulbs that could be acquired in the spring, summer, and fall, and then mixed with meats and fish whenever they wanted to catch, trap, or trade for them. Salmon could more efficiently be traded for at the Willamette Falls, than easily fished for during their runs in the Willamette.

Additional horticultural stewardship activities could be replanting of seeds and bulbs in areas where the tribes wanted the plants to produce. There are some indications that camas and perhaps berries may have been well spread by the Kalapuyans into many environments.[1] Additionally, the actions of digging the camas and other root crops with digging sticks, would have loosened and aerated soils which would spur further growth.

Henry Zenk has raised some resource and territorial related issues as well, based on Albert Gatschet’s ethnographies of the Kalapuyans from the Grand Ronde Reservation in 1877,

(1) It is stated (1877a:92) that areas where tarweeds grew were “allotted” to each “band” (winter-village group), plots within these “allotments” being in turn individually owned, but that hunting districts were not “allotted” (i.e., being, I infer, available in common to the various local groups).

(2) One of Gatschet’s texts (1877a:l51; also in Jacobs 1945:187- 188) indicates the general extent of Tualatin territory by reference to some specifically Tualatin hunting areas; this general territory is treated as a whole, especially in reference to the neighboring Yamhill and Clatskanie groups.

(3) A wapato harvest place on the north end of Wapato Lake is indicated to have been used by all of the Tualatin, “the whole tribe,” a short text being added at this point which translates: “all of the Tualatin came together (assembled) 1-there_/ in the fall of the year ••• 1-to gather wapato_/” (1877a:93).[2]

Zenk’s assessment confirms that the tribes set differential values and ownership rights over different areas of their territory based on the available food resources. High production area, like wetlands and lakes would be higher valued by the Kalapuyans than other areas. Tarweed fields were owned by bands or families, similarly the same could be with wapato, and camas and acorn gathering areas as well. The Wapato ownership as stated by Zenk suggests that anyone in the Tualatin tribe could harvest wapato from the lake, but that right likely did not apply to other tribes, even other Kalapuyan tribes. There may have also been some rights through family groups, but that’s not addressed here. The open prairies were closer to “commons” or common use areas where anyone could hunt without restrictions. The importance placed on the plant harvesting areas supports the notion of a plant-based annual seasonal round being important to the Kalapuyans.

Fire Management

It is clear from numerous sources of early exploration in the Willamette Valley that the tribes intentionally set cultural fires. Kalapuyans stewardship applied to their prairies and hills were mainly cultural fire regimes. Cultural fires were set by the Kalapuyans in late August to September. The Wilkes expedition accounts marks the fire regime in late August in 1841. The fires would normally be set by women who wanted to clear out the dead prairie grasses and stimulate growth of plants that make food. The Oregon white oaks would make more acorns a year or two after fire, and other plants like roots would be protected underground by the earth. The principal root crops of the tribe, including camas, wapato, and other edible roots would be protected in this manner. The fires would roast wild grains and allow them to be easily gathered. The fire would also control pests, like grasshoppers and aphids that affected plants. In several newspaper accounts from the valley, grasshoppers grew to overabundance, and destroyed crops, in the period following the removal of tribes, and their fire regimes. With fire the dead organic matter would be atomized and serve as nutrients to the soils of the prairies.

There was much positive stewardship in fire management. One factor not normally taken into account is the level of moisture present on the land. In many prairies, there were wetlands and they would fill up seasonally after a rain cycle, and remain for days or weeks before draining and drying up. Many settlers sought arid soil and dug drain fields and ditches to move water off their land. The history of this region includes many wetlands, the majority of which have been drained, removed, or radically altered, suggesting that if fire is to be returned then water too must also be allowed to remain, and efforts made to reverse the effects of ditching and draining.

The earliest recorded comment about the fires was by David Douglas a Scottish Botanist and explorer in 1826.[3]

“. . . the custom of burning the soil is highly unfavorable to botanizing. This plan prevails everywhere, though the natives vary in their accounts of the reason for which it is done, some saying that it is in order to compel the deer to feed in the unburnt spots, where they are easily detected and killed … that the object is, to enable them to find wild honey… probably, wasp larvae, honey bees not being native… and grasshoppers, both of which serve for their winter food” (Douglas 1904-05 Pt. 3:78-79).

Then, again, the 1841 US Exploring Corps Expedition encountered the fire effects as they traveled down the west side of the valley from Fort Vancouver.

“This part of the Willamette Valley is a prolonged level, of miles in extent, circumscribed by the woods, which have the appearance of being attended to and kept free from undergrowth. This is difficult to account for, except through the agency of fire destroying the seeds. 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?[4]), although other species of the sunflower family may have been harvested in like manner, 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.” (Wilkes 1845 Vol. 4:358).

Jesse Applegate, an early settler, also encountered the cultural fire regime which he recorded in his memoirs from around 1844-45 when he and his family began living in the Salt Creek area outside of Rickreall and Dallas.[5]

“It was a custom of these Indians, late in the autumn, after the wild wheat, was fairly ripe, to burn off the whole country. The grass would burn away and leave the sappolil (tar weed) standing, with the pods well dried and bursting. Then the squaws, both young and old, would go with their baskets and bats and gather in the grain.” (Applegate 1930:178-179).

The annual fires were why the Willamette Valley, and the Tualatin Plains were well-cleared of non-fire-resistant trees, and existing forest stands were of fire-resistant varieties, like oaks, before settlers arrived.  After hundreds and thousands of years of cultural fire stewardship, the prairies were well supplied with deep nutrient-laden soils that lasted for decades of settler agriculture.

Seasonal Subsistence of the Tualatin

Zenk has a long discussion in his Contributions to Tualatin Ethnography, of the possibilities of activities like hunting and gathering among the Tualatin peoples. His discussion suggests that there perhaps was less camas available to the Tualatin bands than the central and southern Kalapuyans who had better soils and wetter environments than those of the Tualatin Plains. Certain areas, south of the Tualatin River, around Wapato Lake, Newberg, and into the Yamhill areas likely had plenty of camas, but the Tualatin Plains appears to have been more of an Oak savanna- acorn gathering area. The southeastern hills of the valley are different, GLO maps recording vast amount of wetlands as water drained from the hills.

Mockup of information from the GLO maps from 1852 with highlights showing vast wetlands from the south eastern hills and Coast range.

Wapato Lake was the major wapato gathering area for the Tualatin. Zenk suggests that the seasonal round of the Tualatin was different than that of the more southern and eastern Kalapuyans. This is likely the case as each area of the valley had its own particular set of resources available which would influence the culture and activities of each band.

One other piece of information is from the Kalapuya Calendar of the Tualatin. The calendar sets the stage for two major crops for the Tualatin, camas and wapato which the tribal members follow closely in their cycles. But with Zenk’s comments it may have been the case that the villages nearest Lake Wapato were primarily wapato gatherers, while other tribes further away were more hunters and camas gatherers with rights to visit Wapato Lake when they wanted to for harvesting the bulbs. Therefore, the tribes at Forest Grove and Hillsboro may have been more dependent on locally available resources like acorns and hunting than other Tualatin tribes.[6]

An additional description of the valley vegetation and soils in the 1834 is from John Work, a fur trader who travelled through the valley just north of the Tualatin River which appears to be in the vicinity of Forest Grove, Cornelius, and Hillsboro which are all just north of the river.

“The soil is a rich blackish mould covered (but not with a close thick sward) with grass & other plants, among which are considerable quantities of strawberry plants, now well furnished with fine fruit. Not a stone & scarcely a shrub to interrupt the progress of the plough which might be employed in many places with little more difficulty than in a stubble field. The country here though termed Plain from being clear of wood, is not a dead flat but composed of portions of level land with gently rising grounds. Portions of the flat lands are springey. Here the soil inclines to be clayey. The vegetation is no~ rank, yet it yields a great deal of pasture. This first plain may be about three times the size of the clear ground about Fort Vancouver, and about 170 horses have been feeding upon it for the two last months, and there would still be grass enough for them for the rest of the summer. This Plain is never overflowed; the most Northern fork of the Faldin [Tualatin] is a little distance further on to the Southward.” (Work 1923:241-242)[7]



[1] I have noted that there are camas fields at 4000 ft in the Cascades and it is conceivable that Kalapuyans could carry the bulbs and seeds into the Cascades to have a second crop in the late summer in the areas where they are also gathering berries or hunting elk.

[2] Zenk 1976, p. 17.

[3] See Also Zenk 1976 pp 19-25.

[4] Note that some botanical organizations are of the opinion that Tar weed is an invasive plant, but these accounts suggest it is native to Oregon.

[5] Applegate does not publish this story until the 1870s when he and his family are living in Yoncalla, OR.

[6] Zenk 1976 pp 25-45.

[7] Zenk 1976, p 28-29.

2 thoughts on “Seasonal Lifeways of the Tualatin

  1. Great post! It’s fascinating to learn about the Tualatin Plains and the management practices of the Kalapuyan tribes. I’m curious about the role of trading centers and the extent of their interactions with other tribes. Can you provide more details about the trading center on the Columbia and the different tribes they would visit? What was the significance of these trading centers in the overall economy and cultural exchange of the Kalapuyans?

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