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

Rev. Jason Lee
Oregon State Archives

Portion of Jesuit P.J. DeSmet map showing 'Tchinouks' ca. 1840's.
Published Brussels, 1873. Courtesy Montana Tech Library Special Collections.

Wreck of the Peacock, from 1841 Wilkes' U.S. Exploring Expedition
Henry Eld sketch.

Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Encampment at Bakers Bay after the wreck of the Peacock, mouth of the Columbia River.
Sketch by Henry Eld, 1841, officer on the Peacock with the Wilkes Expedition.
Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Read about the state of the various mid-to lower-Columbia tribes in the 1840s

Chinook maiden - Columbia River
Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Fort Clatsop > Culture > Fisheries, Missions, and Settlements

Many factors come together to reduce the influence of the Chinook and Clatsop people in their own homelands. Neighboring tribes establish direct relations with the trading companies, reducing the economic influence of the native people of the lower Columbia, and cycles of epidemic disease through the 1830s and ‘40s, reduce their physical presence to a small fraction of the numbers observed by Lewis and Clark.





Chinook salmon
Library of Congress

1830s – Trading companies and settlers are placing increasing emphasis on salmon fishing, employing Chinooks in the work. The Chinook bring their cargo of fish by canoe to Hudson Bay Company posts in exchange for tickets to be used for goods at the end of the fishing season. The fish are pickled and shipped to the Hawaiian Islands.
As the population grows, so do the number and size of canneries.

Captain Wyeth's failure



American Mission House in the Willamette, 1841
Oregon State Archives

In Clatsop Country

A Catholic missionary, Fr. Blanchet, lives among the Clatsop in 1839, leaving little mark.

In May, 1840, Methodist missionary Jason Lee, his nephew Daniel, and a number of families arrive on the Lausanne, ready to settle in the country of the Clatsop. Among them are six ministers, four women teachers, a physician, a cabinetmaker, farmers, and mechanics, with their children.
Also with them is Thomas Adams, the Kalapuya boy who had been a student of Lee’s at the mission school on the Willamette, but Stum-manu (Wm. Brooks), the Chinook orphan who had also traveled with Jason Lee, had died on their journey.


When the Lausanne arrived, Solomon Smith and Rev. David Lee

“went to Chenamas, the Chenook chief, and let him know that we wanted to go on board, as probably our people had come in the ship. The water being rough, he launched a large canoe with a crew of fifteen to twenty men, in which he and his wife also embarked, and we were all soon bounding delightfully over the proud waves, and in a short time we found ourselves alongside the good ship Lausanne, which we boarded, and were kindly received by the captain, and soon became acquainted with the welcome passengers, through the aid of repeated instructions, as they thronged around us” (Lee and Frost 1844:194).

An employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company…

”who was going up to Pillar Rock to the salmon fishing, with a boat, to take one of our canoes in tow…being favoured with a fine breeze, we soon found ourselves at the salmon fishery. Here we found old Skumaquea and his wife. This was a head man of a small band of Indians a few miles above. They took charge of one of our canoes; and encouraged us to hope that when we arrived at their place we would obtain a crew. So after replenishing our empty stomachs, we hoisted sail again, and with considerable difficulty reached the old man’s lodge; but, unfortunately, all the men had just gone about four miles up the river, to one of the Cathlamet Islands, to witness a great medical operation” (Lee & Frost 1844:234).

The conflict of cultures is about to begin; the feats of the medicine man were disapproved of by the missionary.

"Mr. Lee commenced reproving them for their folly; but a venerable old doctor informed him that it would be best for him to depart before he found himself in trouble. So taking the old man’s advice, we laid in a stock of fresh dried salmon, got our crew on board, and left the doctors to manage the remainder of the skokoms according to their ancient mode of practice" (Lee and Frost 1844:238).

Trouble began in the area before the missionaries got themselves settled, when Kenneth McKay and his young Indian helper at a fishery at Pillar Rock were murdered.

Read the details of the murders and how this crime was resolved.

Solomon and Celiast Smith (daughter of Comowol) are living on the Clatsop Plain at this time, at the site of an ancient fishery at the mouth of Neacoxie Creek, in a small cabin near a settlement of Clatsop Indians. Solomon brings substantial numbers of horses and cattle with him to the area.

Although much has changed, much continues as it has always been, such as the mode of transportation and the seasonal round. Two settlers from the Willamette visit the Smiths by crossing Youngs Bay in a canoe, then following the Skipanon River as far as they could (a few miles), then crossing the Clatsop Plain by walking to the beach at the southern end of the plain, where sat the Smith’s cabin. (Ruby &Brown 1976:206)
Rev. Frost visits Clatsop families near Youngs Bay in the spring, where they have gathered for salmon fishing and to hunt ducks and geese, as their ancestors have done since time immemorial.

In July, 1840, Solomon arranges for local people to help with the construction of the mission on Youngs Bay, and the Smith family relocates to be part of the effort.

“Kotata, the head man of the Clatsop clan, now made his appearance, in company with a number of his men. After we explained to him the object of our coming to settle among them, and the course we designed to pursue in all our transactions with them, he promised to use his influence with his people to prevent the commission of crime among them for the future, and expressed a desire to be instructed with reference to those things which pertained to their peace; and decided that it was good for us to build a house, and live among them.

"Six or eight of the men now went with us to the woods, and commenced carrying logs, while we continued to cut down the trees form six to ten inches in diameter, cutting them off at proper lengths; and before sunset we had all the logs cut for the body of the cabin, which we designed to be twenty feet long by eighteen wide.

"Being now fatigued, we returned to the tent, where we found a very inviting supper in readiness, consisting of brant, a species of the wild goose, and wild ducks, the roasting and broiling of which presented another evidence of the consummate skill of our excellent cook. The wild fowls were purchased from the Indians, who were exceedingly pleased at having a market so near at hand.

"After replenishing our stomachs with this welcome supply of fresh provisions, we attended family devotions outside of the tent, Mr. Smith praying in Indian, and interpreting a word of exhortation from us to our neighbours, to which they grunted assent; and then all hands lay down to rest,--we in our tent, and the Indians around the fire before the door” (Lee & Frost 1844:286).

"Although the Clatsops have traded with whites for many years, this is the first experiment in living as neighbors after the brief interlude with Lewis and Clark. The missionaries have only two white neighbours, “one on the Clatsop Plain, and the other at Astoria, across Young’s Bay; and during the storms, which are now almost incessant, this bay cannot be crossed in a canoe without endangering life” (Lee & Frost 1844:312).

Soon after establishing the mission, Rev. John Frost records in his diary about trouble among the Clatsops, resulting in the death of a number of them. Skirmishes with muskets were daily events. Life was chaos

Many of the customs of the Clatsops are judged as barbaric by the settlers. They have come at a time when tension is great for the Clatsops due to their great losses from disease, the introduction of alcohol into their lives, and the clashing of cultures right in their midst.

Reverend Frost describes what he learned about the abduction and value of slaves in the early 1840s:

“ Their slaves are such as are taken prisoners in time of war, or, perhaps, more properly, such as are stolen from other tribes. For instance, a band of Killemooks go into the south, and falling in with a weaker clan of their southern neighbours, they make no further ado, but fall upon them, gun and knife in hand; some they kill, the remainder they take prisoners, and convey them to the north, and sell them to their Clatsop, Chenook, or Checalish neighbours, when they become slaves for life, and their children after them. What they call a good man slave is worth as much as a horse, that is, from ten to twelve blankets, and so one, according to their size and qualifications. The female slaves are worth less, from the fact that they are not able to perform so much drudgery” (Lee & Frost 1844:102).

Relations between Indians and Whites are rapidly deteriorating. Indian homelands are overrun by aliens, many of whom were racist and cruel. Tensions grow between the Chinook and Clatsop, as well, and reach a peak in 1844 when Clatsop headman Kotata murders his young Chinook wife. The Oregon Mission is forced to close this same year and thereafter the two races, after a half century of trade and intermarriage, begin to live completely separate lives.

“The Chenooks who reside on the north side of the Columbia, in plain sight and hearing of the writer, while he resided on the south side of the river, during the summer of 1842, were at war among themselves, and they were not at peace when he left the country. During the summer referred to, you could hear the muskets and rifles firing, some days, from morning till night; and that clan will soon be in the condition of the Kilkenny cats, of whom it is reported that they continued to fight until they devoured each other all but the tails.

“This dispute and consequent war arose among them in precisely the same way that the most irreconcilable disputes and exterminating wars have arisen in other hereditary monarchies among their Christian neighbours. Chenamus, their chief, was called upon by death to abdicate the ancient throne upon which Comcomly once sat in dignity and pomp when his white son-in-law bore rule to Astoria: and now, as it generally goes, his son, the “heir apparent,” would needs ascend this sear of ancient honour; but in this he found a rival, for another salmon-eater, who perhaps felt a drop of “royal blood” running through his veins, would be chief also, which was, of course, a sufficient cause of war" (Lee and Frost 1844:97-98).

Clatsops number no more than 200 in 1840-41. By 1850, they are under 100 individuals. (Peterson 1991:18)

In Chinook Country

In 1853, James Swan reports on the efforts of a French priest living west of Chinook Village. Father Le Pretre, a French priest “had resided at Chenook for several years, devoting his time to the conversion of the Indians, but with indifferent success, the whole known fruits of his labors consisting in the various names he had baptized them with. This fact he afterward acknowledged in a letter written by him, on his return to France, to the postmaster of Chenook” (Swan 1969:102).

“The present state of the Indian population [1853] in Oregon and Washington does not reflect much credit on their Christian acquirements; and although, in times of peace, they are willing to flock round the missions, and receive spiritual as well as temporal food, yet no sooner does an opportunity occur when they can raise the war-whoop, than we find these Christian converts among the most ruthless of the savages in their horrid deed of blood.

“The Indians can see but little or no difference between their system of Tománawos and our own views as taught them. For instance, the talipus, or fox, is their emblem of the creative power; the smispee, or duck, that of wisdom. And they say that the Boston people, or Americans, have for their Tománawos the wheark, or eagle, and that the King George, or English people, have a lion for their Tománawos” (Swan 1969:196).

Before Le Pretre, the two French Catholic missionaries who had established the mission in 1847 abandoned Chinook Village in 1852, saying, “At this moment our savages are few in number and several of them who remain are now traveling so that there are only small numbers to whom I teach the catechism” (Lionnet cited in Ruby and Brown 1976:219). “All of them [the natives] had a general idea of the Christian religion, but not one believed it” (Swan 1969:192-3).

In assessing the state of things for the Chinook, Lionnet concludes that “...their greatest obstacle that we hold against this nation is their drinks which they get in abundance from the Americans” (Lionnet cited in Ruby and Brown 1976:218).


Expanding Settlement


Portion of Clatsop County map
Library of Congress

By mid-century, white settlers are concentrated on both sides of the Columbia, extending many miles above the mouth, exploiting natural resources for the international market, and particularly for the growing San Francisco market due to the California gold rush. Away from this hub of activity, local Indian people continue their lives as well as they can. By the time James Swan arrives in 1852, the impacts of white settlement are obvious. Farms, canneries, and mills can be found along the river where once only Indian villages could be seen.

At Shoalwater [Willapa] Bay, in 1852, James Swan finds “a few settlers… who were located there…for the purpose of procuring oysters for the market of San Francisco,” an activity that had started the previous year (Swan 1969:25). Nearby, along the banks of one stream, Swan notes loggers at work to send timber to San Francisco.

Whereas the native residents of this bay have enjoyed its bounty for their own use since time immemorial, they now work for the “oystermen”. Mr. Russell’s house serves also as a trading post and a local hub where Chinooks from the south and Chehalis and Quinaults from the north, “camped around the house in little tents made of mats or their canoe-sails” (Swan 1969:34).

Read Swan’s description of old Chief Toke

James Swan travels from Willapa Bay to the Columbia and back in early June of 1853, experiencing the life of the Chinook homeland. Wherever he encounters Indian people, he is treated with kindness and hospitality. He provides a detailed account of this journey and his arrival at Chinook Village…

“…The head-quarters of the once powerful tribe of Chenook Indians is bustling with the traditional activity of salmon fishing, except now there are more whites than Indians. The “village proper” consists of “some twelve or fourteen houses, occupied by whites, and nearly the same number of Indian lodges… From a large and powerful tribe in the days of Comcomly, the one-eyed chief,” … “the scourges to the human race, measles and small-pox, have swept them off in such numbers that at present they number but little over a hundred persons,… men, women, and children” (Swan 1969:102, 110).


Cultural Continuity


With the passing of Comcomly in 1835, Chenamus, becomes chief. He and his wife live at the village of Qwatsamuts on Bakers Bay, and they continue their family’s leading role in the trade. This Chinook leader meets Dr. Richard B. Hinds, from the British ship, the Sulphur, in 1839. Hinds is invited to go to the village of Qwatsamuts with the chief’s wife “Sally”, (Aillapust), where he is shown great hospitality. He is impressed by the split-wood, twenty-family longhouse where the chief often sits on a platform at the rear, “backdropped by a board painted in high relief of colored rings, and behind this, a gigantic red and black figure against which he customarily sat to cast off evil spells” (Hinds in Ruby & Brown 1976:198-199). Within a few more years this traditional men’s craft of painted carving is no longer done.

Their population is greatly reduced, but those remaining live their lives according to the availability of seasonal foods, much as they always have. Swan observes the Chinook women curing the salmon in the old way, some for winter consumption and some for trading. “When perfectly cured, it is packed in baskets for winter’s use or for trading, and stored in a dry place. For trading with the interior Indians, the salmon is frequently pounded up fine, and firmly pressed into baskets of ten or twelve pounds each” (Swan 1969:112).

“ ...These people live principally upon roots, Salmon and clams the latter they get at Shoalwater Bay. Of salmon they catch vast quantities, and of a quality unsurpassed by any in the world. They are taken in small seines, and preserved for winter use by drying and smoking, also by pounding in stone mortars quite fine and pressing into small baskets, this is eaten in winter with the oil of the fish which is generally preserved in the stomach of a seal” (Tappan cited in Beckham 1987:21).

The Chinook people, by mid-century, have learned to live in both worlds.

Read Swan’s account of ‘personal decoration’ practices.

“The women are expert with the needle, and fashion and make their dresses with great rapidity, imitating as near as they can the dresses of the white women they may have seen. They prefer calicoes with small figures on them; and a blue ground, with little white dots or sprigs, seems to be the most in demand. White blankets are usually preferred, but some will wear blue or green, and a few buy red ones; but white, with a very narrow black stripe across the ends, is the favorite.

“Before the introduction of blankets and calicoes among them, they used the dressed skins of the deer, bear, and sea-otter. The women wore a sort of skirt or tunic, made from the inner bark of the young cedar, prepared by beating till it was soft, and then spun into a yarn-like thread, which was woven thickly on a string that passed around the body, the ends hanging down like a thick fringe reaching to the knees. This garment is still used by old women, and by all the females when they are at work in the water, and is called by them their siwash coat, or Indian gown” (Swan 1969:154-5).

“They are very eager to get the camphor-wood trunks that come from China, covered with bright red or green paint, and studded with brass nails. Into these they will stow every thing they can get” (Swan 1969:159-160).

When Governor Stevens arrives at Chinook Village in the season of the Chinook Salmon in 1854, “The Chinooks still occupy the lands at the mouth of the Columbia, the stronghold of their fathers” (Tappan cited in Beckham: 1987). A member of the expedition brings into focus the changes that have occurred along the Columbia:

“… but six or eight houses containing one hundred and twenty six souls now mark the place where a few years ago lived a great and Happy tribe. The ruins of their houses are still visible for miles along the shore. As nearly as can be ascertained this tribe has been reduced within the last two years from three times its present population Small Pox swept off many of them, though many die annually from fever and ague... This tribe has no head or recognizable chief...” (Tappan cited in Beckham 1987:21-22)

In addition to the Chinooks at Chinook Village, Tappan notes another nine or ten families of Chinooks residing on Willapa Bay, part of a total population of 151 - which excluded 35 slaves. Chinook women married to whites are not counted in his figures (Beckham 1987:23).

Background: Map of Clatsop County, Library of Congress