Lower Chinook and Clatsop
Traditional Culture
  Since Time Immemorial
Who's Who
Village Life
Inter-Village Relations
Seasonal Round
"Celiast" and "Ilchee"
Intertribal Trade Network
Canoe People
References Cited

  Contemporary Culture
Environmental History
Cultural History
Recommended Websites

  Relationship with U.S.
  Early Coastal Exploration
Strangers Arrive
Maritime Fur Trade
Fort Clatsop Winter
Overland Fur Trade
Disease and Burial Customs
Fisheries, Missions, and Settlements
Shrinking Land Base
Making Treaties
Recognition and U.S. Relations
References Cited

Mouth of the
          Neacoxie “Mouth of the Neacoxie”
Courtesy of Dick Basch
Portion of 1841 Wilkes map of Columbia, showing Mt. Coffin.

Mount Coffin Fire, 1841

"In the evening of the next day, we reached Mount Coffin, at the mouth of the Cowlitz. This mount afforded a favourable point for astronomical observations, being seven hundred and ten feet high, and quite isolated. The canoes used by the Indians as coffins are seen upon it in every direction, in all stages of decay. They are supported between trees, at the height of four or five feet above the ground, and about them are hung the utensils that had belonged to the deceased, or that had been offered as tokens of respect.

"I remained the whole day on the top of this mount, and obtained a full set of observations; the weather being remarkably clear and beautiful. Here my boat's crew carelessly omitted to extinguish the fire they had used for cooking our dinner, and as we were pulling off to the brig, I regretted to see that the fire had spread, and was enveloping the whole area of the mount; but there was no help for it. The fire continued to rage throughout the night, until all was burnt. I took the earliest opportunity of explaining to the Indians who were in the neighbourhood, that the fire was accidental; and, after receiving a few small presents, they appeared satisfied that it was so. But a few years earlier, the consequence of such carelessness would have been a hostile attack, that might have involved us in difficulty of no ordinary kind. We had a minor punishment to undergo, for the smoke was so great that it enveloped all the signals toward the mouth of the river, and made it necessary for me to anchor within sight of Mount Coffin till the next morning" (Wilkes: 1845).

Method of Burial,
sketch by James g. Swan (Swan:1857).
Courtesy of The University of Montana, K. Ross Toole Archives, Special Collections

Fort Clatsop > Culture > Disease and Burial

“The climate throughout Oregon is thought to be salubrious for the white race; and was considered so by the Indians, prior to the year 1830, when the ague and fever, or any disease resembling it, was not known to exist. The Indians fully believe, to this day, that Captain Dominis introduced the disease in 1830. Since that time, it has committed frightful ravages among them; not so much, perhaps, from the violence of the disease itself, as the manner in which they treat it. It was not until quite lately that they were willing to be treated after our mode, and they still in many cases prefer the incantations and practices of the medicine-man.”

"I satisfied myself that the accounts given of the depopulation of this country are not exaggerated; for places were pointed out to me where dwelt whole tribes, that have been entirely swept off; and, during the time of the greatest mortality, the shores of the river were strewed with the dead and dying. This disease occurs, it is said, semi-annually, and in the case of foreigners, it is more mild at each succeeding attack" (Wilkes: 1845).

Another, more detailed, account of the introduction of the “Cold Sick” to the people is reported by Frost:

“The epidemic ague…which has swept away great numbers of the natives, and proved an annual scourge to the white man, commenced, according to the best authorities, in 1830. Before that time it had never been known in the country, not even a single case. The Indians account for the origin of this scourge in the following manner. The writer will state it just as he received it from one of them. At the time of its commencement there was an American vessel in the river, commended by Captain Domanis, for the purpose of trading for furs. This, of course, brought on a competition between Domanis and the Hudson’s Bay Company; and as the captain of the vessel paid a high price for furs, the Indians professed to bring him all the beaver &c. But as the captain gave more for small skins than the company, they brought him all the small ones, and took all the large ones to the company. But, say they, when Captain Domanis became acquainted with this fact, he was “hias silix,” that is, great angry; and that he might be revenged on them for deceiving him thus, he hung up some bad sail to a tree, and then opened, or uncorked, a small vial, and let out the ague and fever upon them, which has carried off thousands, and continues its ravages still” (Lee & Frost 1844:108).

Read Dunn’s description of the tragedy of the ague

Disease and conflict with settlers comes first to the Clatsops, where whites preferred to settle. Settlement promoter Hall Jackson Kelley, visiting the mouth of the Columbia in 1834, sees “…little but darkness and blackness and desolation; heard but little more than the sighs and cries of the misery in the perishing remanants of the Clotsop and Chenook tribes” (Peterson 1991:18) [Cited from Powell, Fred Wilbur, ed., Hall J. Kelley on Oregon (Princeton University Press, 1932:326)] Kelly believes that the “Cold Sick” is so devastating to the Clatsops that they virtually disappear, leaving their remnants to blend with neighboring bands. However, one small band led by Kotata, remains in a fortified village near Point Adams (Ruby & Brown 1976:196).

Disease takes Comcomly and many members of his family, and impacts most of the Chinooks who have contact with traders. From an estimate of 720 Chinooks in the mid 1820s, by 1840, after a decade of disease, only 280, including slaves, remain (Ruby & Brown 1976:194). By 1853, the number has dropped to around 100 individuals (Swan 1969: , Tappan, cited in Beckham…) Many Chinooks died around Willapa Bay, leaving villages open for settlement by Chehalis bands.

Dr. Meredith Gairdner robs Comcomly’s grave and steals his head and other body parts “for scientific reasons”. The Chinook are not surprised when the doctor soon thereafter dies of tuberculosis. They believe the spirit world has evened the score. (Trafzer 1990:78) The British finally return the skull to the Chinook people for reburial, in 1972.

For decades the Chinook and Clatsop people are under a siege of disease. In January of 1853, Swan recounts that “a party of Indians from Chenook arrived, consisting of old Carcumcum (sister of the celebrated Comcomly), and her son Ellewa, the present chief of the Chenooks, with his wife and two or three slaves. They made a camp on the beach near the house, where they lived under a little old tent” (Swan 1969:55). They stayed several days. Swan reports on what transpires:

“As it commenced to rain, they were very miserable, and Ellewa requested Russell to allow the squaw [his wife, Winchestoh], to lie down by the fire in the house, which he did, and the same day Ellewa, with old Carcumcum, returned to Chenook. At supper-time I gave the squaw some tea and toast, and remarked that her face and neck were covered with little spots like flea-bites”, and by that night she was dead (Swan 1969:55).

Smallpox had already been reported among the Clatsops and now it spread among the Chinooks, as well. When old chief, Que-a-quim (who had been living on the Palix) died, his brother brought Swan his belongings to be buried with him. In contrast to the great material wealth of the chiefs of just a few decades before, this leader is buried with “a few shirts, a blanket or two, and some few trinkets” (Swan 1969:58).

Burial Customs

Paul Kane sketch of "Burial place on the Cowlitz River" (Kane: 1925)

Paul Kane, Canadian artist, arrived in Fort Vancouver December 8, 1846, and remained in the region until the 25th of March, 1847. He wrote this to accompany the above sketch:

March 29th [1847]
"We came to another Indian burial ground, which seemed to be highly decorated. I wished my Indians to put ashore, but they would not do so. I was obliged therefore, to put them out of the canoe on the opposite side of the river, and paddle the canoe over by myself. I have no doubt that they would have opposed my doing so had it not been for the name which I had already acquired amongst the Indians, of being a great medicine-man, on account of the likenesses which I had taken.

My power of pourtraying the feature of individuals was attributed entirely to supernatural agency, and I found that, in looking at my pictures, they always covered their eyes with their hands and looked through the fingers; this being also the invariable custom when looking at a dead person.

On arriving at the place I found it lavishly decorated with numerous articles, of supposed utility and ornament, for the convenience of the defunct in the journey to the world of spirits. These articles consisted of blankets, tin cups, pots, pans, kettles, plates, baskets, horn bowls, and spoons, with shreds of cloth of various colours. One canoe, which was decorated more highly than the rest, I examined particularly. All the articles appended to it were rendered useless for this world by either tearing, breaking, or boring holes in them, the Indians believing that they would be made whole again by the Great Spirit.

On examining the interior of a canoe I found a great number of ioquas and other shells, together with beads and rings: even the mouth of the deceased was filled with these articles. The body itself was carefully enveloped in numerous folds of matting made of rushes. At the bottom of the canoe lay a bow and arrow, a paddle, a spear, and a kind of pick, made of horn, for digging the camas roots; the top of the canoe immediately over the body, had a covering of bark, and holes were bored in the bottom to allow the water to run out. These canoes are always placed on wooden supports, suspended in branches of trees, or placed upon isolated rocks in the river, to keep them beyond the reach of ravenous animals.

"During my stay the Indians watched me closely from the opposite bank, and, on my return, they examined me as minutely as they well could with their eyes to see that I had not brought anything away with me. Had I been so imprudent as to have done so I should probably have answered for the sacrilege with my life, death being the certain penalty to the most trifling violation of the sanctity of the coffin canoe. I endeavoured to discover who was buried in the richly decorated canoe, but the only information I could get from them was that the deceased was the daughter of a Chinook chief.

The Indians here have a superstitious dread of mentioning the name of any person after death, nor will they tell you their own names, which can only be found out from a third party. One of the men asked me if my desire to know his name proceeded from a wish to steal it. It is not an uncommon thing for a chief, when he wishes to pay you a very high compliment, to give and call you by his own name, and adopt some other for himself" (Kane: 1925).

John Dunn wrote this account during the period when Fort George served as the Hudson's Bay trading post with the Chinooks (1820-1848)

Dunn also wrote about the burial and disturbance of Chief Concomly

Edward Belcher's engraving of a Chinook burial canoe, 1839
University of Washington Libraries. Manuscripts, Special Collections, University Archives Division. NA3888

Dick Basch discusses the burials of Clatsop-Nehalem people at the estuary on the Neacoxie.

Background from Paul Kane sketch (Kane: 1925).