Settlement and the South Willamette Valley Wetlands

The settlement of Eugene and the whole southern valley settlement centers was guided by advice from the Kalapuyans and the presence of seasonal wetlands on the plains. Two of the first noted settlers Eugene Skinner (Eugene) and Elijah Bristow (Pleasant Hill) both made important decisions based on the environmental factors they saw in the prairies when they first saw the territory.

Elijah Bristow’s claim, GLO map 1853

The whole of downtown Eugene was likely a vast seasonal wetland. Skinner was warned away from establishing his cabin on the lowlands by the Kalapuyans, which caused him to decide to build up on the side of “Skinner’s” butte. Similarly, Elijah Bristow and other early settlers moved their claims uphill into the Coast Fork drainage, in areas that did not flood seasonally. The environmental factors, and tribal knowledge of the land then created the settlement pattern for the whole of Eugene and Pleasant Hill areas. The fact that the area was a vast series of wetlands, that expanded after summer rains (freshets), brings new understandings of the valley environments. The tribes in the area, the Kalapuyans, knew the wetland environments and knew how to live in the location despite the regular annual seasonal flooding in the area. They would access the lowland prairies for camas gathering and other root crops and their oak woodlands on the plain but many were on the buttes and mountain foothills off the plain. Narrative descriptions of the Eugene “plain” are scarce and so we must rely on only a few accounts.

Eugene Skinner’s land, next to Ya-po-Ah Butte, GLO map 1852

Springfield area settlers were a little more verbose in describing their township. There were a number of floods which affected the town over the last century and a half suggesting that Springfield’s footprint was similar to that of Eugene. They are very close towns, sharing the same rivers, and so their environmental characteristics will be similar.

Even trail systems were influenced by the wetlands of the valley. The old Native trails did not go across the prairie floor, like our roadways do, but instead were sited up about the valley floor. The location of these routes seems inconvenient to us today, but when we considered the problems of mud, then their location begins to make sense. Numerous records of western Oregon note the problem with mud in the winters, causing delays and impassibility in many areas of the country. The whole of the Coast Range is noted to have been a vast miry mess, trails nearly impassible in the winter causing delays in supplies from the valley. I is understandable then to have the native trails up on the side of a butte, in an upland area which would be well drained most times of the year.

[All narratives are from the Lane County Historical Museum]

Hallie Huntington and Phoebe Kinsey letter 1992

“HHH: Ya-Po-Ah is an old Indian ceremonial ground at the top of the butte…. That is where the Indians gathered to get close to their God. They worshipped the sun, the moon and the good earth. And the first Indian to realize the white men were coming name was Yacoma, In Indian language that means Tall Tree. That meant he was a stalwart warrior of the tribe., and the old chief was Chief Running Bear. It’s a very interesting story how the Indians reacted to the white man coming.

Yacoma got the message through smoke signals. Now many of us may not realize that it would be possible for an itinerant people like the Indians to have a language of their own. But they were able to read these signals and transmit them to their people. So after Yacoma read this message which was very startling, he rushed to their Indian encampment and they had a council of war. And the old chief of the tribe used a talking stick. Now we use a gavel. But as long as anyone held the talking stick they were able to speak in the council. And he held the talking stick and this is the instruction he gave to his people. He said if the white man come in peace we will be peaceful. If the white man some in war, we will be ready. But they were peaceful. And the four white men came in to Eugene. Now they didn’t come into Eugene as we do now. They followed the Territorial road and camped over at Indian Springs. And the Indians watched them all that night to see if they were getting ready to make war. And the four horsemen who were composed of Skinner, and oh, well the four of them, … went up and founded Pleasant Hill.

HHH… But they were always telling Skinner that he should build higher on the hill because the big, big water would come and get him sure. But he was… all he lost was all his livestock, his cattle… he saw all of his livestock, they were swimming desperately down the river…”[1]

Hallie Hills Huntington, Ethan Newman, 1982

“EN: the Calypooia Indians lived here and those of you who used to gaze up before the forests were denuded, up toward the old Winberry, there used to be a white patch of cleared land up there. They called that Saddle Blanket”[2]

West Point by R. B. Willoughby

“The low lands were wet and muddy and could not be traveled over in winter, and so the pioneer’s minds turned toward the hills, not only for a roadway, but as a place to live. They were afraid of the low-lands, as they had received the impression some way that they might at any time be flooded. Also they were from the East were in many places there was a shortage of water and the springs in the hills appealed to them, since they felt they would always afford a bountiful supply of water. Not only did such a location, then, promise water, but the hills covered with an endless supply of timber assured them of wood. How much it meant to them to have plenty of wood, we can hardly imagine. Then the next thing was to pick a good place for a road, and then came about the improvement of the Indian trail which later came to be known as the “Old Territorial Road”. It was made along the foothills, high enough to be passable in winter and on as level a place as the side of the hills could furnish. Of course where lots of rocks in some places, and these had to be removed. The only road making tool used was a crow bar, with which the rocks were pried loose and rolled out of the road. …

At an early time the Indians traveled this road a great deal. They used to burn the brush on account of their hunting. The native grass naturally grew to be very high at that time. Most of the Indians were from the Calapooya tribe. Just as it had been in the case of the early settlers, the Indians felt attracted to this country. They made a circle on the side of the hill, (West Point), by riding around on the same track. This circle was where they held their annual celebrations and Indian ceremonies. They also had a buring (burying) ground East of the old Willoughby House. They were friendly, and caused no trouble, outside of stealing. This they did whenever they had a chance. So the settlers had to be on the lookout for them. … We shall ever be grateful to the Indians and the Indian trail which led our fathers to this – the end of our covered wagon journey. May this trail which later was known as the Eastern Branch of the Old Territorial Road, never be forgotten.”[3]

Hallie Huntington and Phoebe Kinsey letter 1992,

(1861 flood) “but that not the one the Indians talked about. They called it the big, big water. And it had happened in the early days before that time. Now the Indians couldn’t tell you when it had happened because they ran out of moons and couldn’t count. … when they had the big, big water, the two streams, the McKenzie and the Willamette came together over in Springfield and they were … the water was all the way across several feet deep. So when it went down, eventually, there were big trees with full roots on that were lying across the place there. And that was the Indians… now that was their idea there…. Now we talk about the biblical high water. Well that was their biblical high water.”[4]

Cornelius Hills Crosses the Plains

[1847] “At the present site of Springfield not even a shack was to be seen, though huge trees, with their roots intact were well scattered, as though carefully dropped by a giant’s hand. On the wide valley floor they looked like match sticks… The river bank was rocky and steep and when he gained the level of the prairie, there was no sign of habitation…[after visiting the Skinners] he started back to camp , but a thunder shower came up with the driving rain…. It was a wet and thoroughly miserable winter… for want of better food he lived through the winter on boiled wheat and wild meat without salt…The Bristows who had arrived a year earlier at Pleasant Hill, had been able to sell him the wheat which had been cut with a hand flail… The nearest supplies were at Oregon City and during the winter months the rivers were much too high and dangerous for him to attempt the many fords…”[5]

[1] Hollie Huntington Oral History, re: Phoebe Skinner letter, LCHM

[2] Hallie Hills Huntington and Ethan Newman, LCHM

[3]R. B. Willoughby in D.A.R. Collection. LCHM

[4]Hollie Huntington Oral History, re: Phoebe Skinner letter, LCHM

[5] Huntington, Hallie H. in LCP vol VII no. 3, 1962.

Leave a Reply

The Quartux Journal