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Umatilla > Culture > Life at Walla Walla
From John Mix Stanley’s “Old Fort Walla Walla"

Dr. Meredith Gairdner, a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, in the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company, went to Ft. Vancouver in 1832 to help Dr. McLaughlin. In 1835, in order to ease his own health problems he traveled to Fort Walla-Walla. During that summer he recorded some important details about life around the fort, twenty years after the establishment of the fur trade in this area.

"The Indians here are a quiet, sedate race compared with the Chenooks and Sehalataks, and have a more noble and manly aspect. They are generally powerful men, at least 6 feet high. None of the women come about the fort.

"I have endeavoured to obtain from the interpreter some explanation of the appellations given to the different nations on the Columbia, such as Nez-perces, Flat-heads, Black-feet, &c; but no one knows the origin of these terms, as their own names, Silish, Shahaptenish, have no significance of the kind. The Nez-perces are divided into two classes, the Nez-perces proper, who inhabit the mountains, and the Polonches, who inhabit the plain country about the mouth of Snake River. The nations of the plain on the other side of the Rocky Mountains are celebrated for their warlike incursions on the Black-feet, Big-bellies, Ciries, and Piegans or Blood Indians on this side. Of these Indians, the last are the most numerous.

"The Rayouse Indians, of whom I have now seen several, are quite a different race of men from the Walla-wallas; they are stouter, and more athletic, being generally 6 feet high. They have a dignity in their gait and a gravity in their demeanour, not possessed by the latter. They also consider it as a degradation to marry the Walla-walla women, although the Walla-walla men make frequent marriages with the Rayouse women. The Rayouse do not muster more than 78 men; the Walla-wallas, including women and children, about 200.

"May, 1835.-Two Snake Indians arrived at the Fort. They have not the tall stature and noble air of the Rayouse. The Snake tribe, who come to the Grande Ronde for trade, muster 1000 to 1200 strong, and are not now as formerly, merely armed with bows, but have obtained by theft and trade with the Americans, an abundant supply of arms and ammunition. Though there are about 50 Indians round the Fort, with everything open to them, and nobody in but Pambroon, H.B.C.'s clerk, the interpreter, one or two boys and myself, all is quiet. In the evening the Indians say their prayers under one of the bastions, and have the same religious ceremonies as the Walla-wallas.

"I attended the religious services of the Walla walla Ind.s. The whole tribe, who are here at present, men, women and children, to the number of about 200, were assembled in their craal, squatted on their hams; the chief and chief men at the head arranged in a circle: these last officiated: towards this circle the rest of the assembly were turned, arranged in regular ranks, very similar to a European congregation. The service began by the chiefs making a short address, in a low tone, which was repeated by a man on his left hand, in short sentences, as they were uttered by the chief. This was followed by a prayer pronounced by the chief standing, the rest kneeling. At certain intervals there was a pause, when all present gave a simultaneous groan.

"After the prayer there were fifteen hymns, in which the whole congregation joined: these hymns were begun by five or six of the men in the circle, who acted as leaders of the choir: during this hymn, all were kneeling, and kept moving their arms up and down, as if to aid in keeping time. The airs were simple, resembling the monotonous Indian song which I have heard them sing while paddling their canoes. Each was somewhat different from the other. All kept good time, and there were no discordant voices. The hymns were succeeded by a prayer, as at first, and then the service ended.

"My ignorance of the language prevented me from observing much of this service; but I was struck with the earnestness and reverence of the whole assembly. All eyes were cast down to the ground; and I did not see one turned towards us, who must have been objects of curiosity, as white chiefs and strangers. It is about five years since these things found their way among the Indians of the Upper Columbia. All were dressed in their best clothes, and they had hoisted a union-jack outside the lodge. The whole lasted about three-quarters of an hour" (Gairdner: 1841:256-257).

Background: Big sage, photo courtesy Bob Ottersberg