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

Early Observations

In late November, 1813, Alexander Henry (in Coues 1897 2:754) found the three villages on Chinook Point empty, or mostly so. Presumably these had been abandoned for the winter.

On December 14, 1813, three British traders traveled upriver to Fort Clatsop. “There we found two houses of Clatsops, busily employed making mats and straw hats” (Henry 1965:772)

In November of 1824 people were in their village on the Long Beach peninsula (Work, cited in Elliott 1912:201-202).

In early September of 1825, Scouler (1905:277) observed empty villages on Chinook Point. Had the people already moved to winter quarters, or might they have been away trading


Basket made by Josephine Smith Ketchum, daughter of Celiast and Solomon Smith.
Courtesy of Clatsop county Historical Society and Diana Jean Parks, descendent of Celiast.

Sample of contemporary baskets made by Millie Lagergren.
K. Lugthart photo.

Burke Museum page with images of Chinook baskets

Read Robert Stuart’s 1812 description of dwellings and entertainment.

“Indian mode of Rocking Cradle”,
engraving by A. T. Agate
(Wilkes: 1845)
Image courtesy University of Washington Libraries. Manuscripts, Special Collections, University Archives Division.
Outside of an Indian Lodge,
sketch by James G. Swan (Swan: 1857). Courtesy of The University of Montana Mansfield Library, K. Ross Toole Archives, Special Collections.
Inside of an Indian Lodge,
sketch by James G. Swan (Swan: 1857).
Courtesy of The University of Montana Mansfield Library, K. Ross Toole Archives, Special Collections.
Anthropologist Verne Ray learned from Mrs. Bertrand that dog meat was inconceivable as food. When asked why, she said, “Why, a dog is like a human being.” Imagine what the Chinook thought when they learned the Lewis and Clark party had developed an appetite for dog!

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Dick Basch interview: 2002
NOAA Photo Archives
White sturgeon of the Columbia River.
Image courtesy Don Larson.
courtesy BPA.

Fort Clatsop > Culture > Village Life

Villages Around the Mouth of the Columbia

Winter Village Life

Longhouse Tradition

James G. Swan's image, "Salmon Fishing at Chenook" captures a busy fishing
village in summer on the north bank of the Columbia. (Swan: 1857)

Courtesy of The University of Montana Mansfield Library, K. Ross Toole Archives, Special Collections.

Villages around the mouth of the Columbia


“All of the villages form so many independent sovereignties" (Franchere 1854:250). By the time Lewis and Clark arrived at the mouth of the Columbia, the native groups had already been exposed to devastating epidemics. Yvonne Hajda summarizes what is known about Clatsop and Chinook villages:

“Clatsop villages were probably more numerous at one time, but in 1805-1806 they were few and relatively scattered. Besides a mixed Clatsop-Tillamook village, only three were identified by Lewis and Clark.

“The Chinook winter villages are rather vague in number and location, but there seem to have been three on Gray’s Bay, two several miles away on Baker’s Bay, others, unlocated, on the Wallacut and Chinook Rivers emptying into Baker’s Bay, and still others were undoubtedly on and around Willapa Bay. Of these latter, only Killaxthokle, somewhere on Long Beach peninsula, is mentioned by Lewis and Clark" (Hajda: 1984).

Winter Village Life

In the days before the establishment of Fort George, people generally lived along the river during the summer season and in the interior, away from the river, during the winter. “It is the season for them to leave the sea coast and retire to the woods where they established their winter quarters near a small stream" (Franchere quoted in Lamb 1969:92).

The winter village was considered to be the permanent home for the various Chinookan groups of the lower Columbia. Villages were comprised of between one and thirty-five longhouses of various sizes (Hajda:1984). Some of these houses were large enough to accommodate 100 people, others much smaller.

Imagine hundreds of people, like a small town, living in close proximity throughout the cold and rainy winter. Stores of dried foods kept hunger away while people caught up with the work of repairing or replacing worn out tools and clothing. Winter was a time for playing games, singing, and listening to stories told by the elders. Even the dogs stayed in out of the rain.

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Alex Bourdeau talking about Chinook plank houses from an archaeological perspective

Winter storms wash up cause for "rejoicing and fat living".

Winter Games
Games brought much pleasure during the long winter.

Favorite Men’s Game – “Hide the Disk"
Read description of men's game.
Gaming Pieces
Courtesy Maryhill Museum of Art, Maryhill Washington.

Favorite Women’s Game – “Roll the Dice"

"... game, which is usually played by the women, consists in a sort of dice made of beaver's teeth, with hieroglyphics on them. These are shaken in the hand, and thrown down, the game being according to the mark on the teeth, as the spots are counted on dice" (Swan: 1857:158).

Feasting and Gift-Giving
Inter-village feasts were held when the weather was good and traveling was possible.

"Four, five, or six messengers are sent to invite the guests, including one who has a guardian spirit. When people hear the latter singing they know they are to be invited. The messengers proceed from town to town, then return. Those invited from furthest away start first; those nearer wait for them, so that all may arrive at the same time. When they near the destination they put their canoes side by side and lay planks across. Upon these they dance. Their faces are painted red, their hair is strewn with down. Women wear dentalia, ear and hair ornaments, and necklaces. Men wear head ornaments and blacken their faces. Shamans carry batons. They sing, and finally land. They tell a woman she is to be head dancer; she replies that she dare not. A good dancer, man or woman, is made head dancer. Now they enter the house dancing. When a woman bends her head while dancing, another one raises it and is paid. A person out of rhythm must sit at the side. All those who have guardian spirits sing. The people of one town finish dancing; another town begins. Small towns dance together.

“If the host has too little food, two youths are sent to seek aid of relatives. They all come, bringing food and dancing on the canoes. When they bring dry salmon, five men hold it in their mouths while they enter dancing. When they bring roots, five men carry them on their backs as they enter dancing.

“After they dance five days they receive presents. One man is asked to stand near the host to name the people. First he names a chief of one town. When the host is liberal, he gives the man who calls out names a blanket or long dentalia. After one town is finished, another one receives presents. If a present is dragged the man is called back. Both men and women receive presents. Women receive each a fathom of short dentalia. Only men are given long dentalia. Common men receive short dentalia. If a chief has many dentalia, then every one receives two fathoms of short dentalia" (Boas in Ray 1938:93-94).

The last of these “great potlatches" was at Bay Center, about 1890 (Ray 1938:95).

Longhouse Tradition
"People lived in large numbers in the longhouses. For example, the village at Cathlapotl was noted by Lewis and Clark to have fourteen longhouses and over 900 people. That is about sixty-five people per house, and some houses were even much larger than that.

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Gary Johnson

John Dunn provides this historical description from his observations in the early 1840’s:

"Their houses are constructed of wood, and vary in length from twenty to seventy feet, and in breadth from fifteen to twenty-five feet. Two or more posts of split timber, according to the number of partitions, are sunk firmly into the ground, and rise upwards to the height of fifteen or eighteen feet. They are grooved at the top so as to receive the ends of a round beam or pole, stretching from one end to the other, and forming the upper point of the roof, from one end of the building to the other. On each side of this range is placed another row much lower, being about five feet high, which forms the eaves of the house.

“But as the building is often sunk to the depth of four or five feet in the ground, the eaves come very near the surface of the earth. Smaller pieces of timber are then extended, by pairs, in the form of rafters from the lower to the higher beam, and are fastened at both ends by cords of cedar bark. On these rafters two or three ranges of small poles are placed horizontally, and in the same way fastened with similar cords.

“The sides are then made, with a range of wide boards sunk a small distance into the ground, with the upper ends projecting above the poles of the eaves, to which they are secured by a beam passing outside, parallel with the eave poles, and tied by cords of cedar bark passing through the holes made in the boards at certain distances. The gable ends and partitions are formed in the same way; being fastened by beams on the outside, parallel with the rafters.

“The roof is then covered with a double range of thin boards, excepting a space of two or three feet in the center, which serves for a chimney. The entrance is by a hole cut through he boards, and just large enough to admit the body.

"The largest houses are divided by partition; and three or four families may be found residing in a one-roomed house. In the center of each room is a space, six or eight feet square, sunk to the depth of twelve inches below the rest of the floor, and enclosed by four pieces of square timber; here they make the fire, which is of wood and pine bark. The partitions in the houses are intended to separate different families.

“Around the fireplace mats are spread, and serve as seats by day, and frequently as beds at night: there is, however, a more permanent bed made, by fixing in two, or sometimes three, sides of a room, posts reaching from the roof to the floor, and at the distance of four feet from the wall. From these posts to the wall one or two ranges of boards are placed, so a to form shelves, on which they either sleep or stow their various articles of merchandise. In short, they are like berths in a ship.

“The uncured fish is hung in the smoke of their fires; as is also the flesh of the elk when they are fortunate enough to procure any" (Dunn: 1846).

Villages had a headman (or woman), and his relatives, in addition to a number of slaves. The people traded beads and furs for slaves, according to the early fur traders, or they were captured in raids of distant and unrelated tribes. A wealthy family might have as many as six slaves (S. Smith 1901:255-56). They were treated well, but did the drudgery work of the family. Each village also had healers. Ross noted two kinds of “doctors", Shamans and another group especially skilled with roots and herbs:

“… there is another class called Keelalles, or doctors, and it is usual for women, as well as men, to assume the character of a Keelalle, whose office it is to administer medicine and cure disease" (Ross 1904:110).

Summer Village Life

“Village Mural at Seaside, Oregon” courtesy of Dick Basch

Summer camps were transitory, unlike the permanent winter villages. Houses were temporary structures of bark or mats which were dismantled when people left for the season. Families assembled with other families for fishing activities at summer camps.

The move from winter villages to summer camps did not occur at a set time. They didn’t follow a set day on a calendar, but rather adapted to the situation. People moved according to the seasonal availability of food. If they were low on stores and needed food, they might relocate from the winter village in order to replenish their food supply.

In early January of 1814, Chinooks were already moving back to the river from their inland winter village and continued this shift in residence until mid-February.

“The great smoke which rises from the three Chinook villages denotes the return of the people, as usual at this period; they will increase in numbers daily, as smelt-fishing is approaching fast; sturgeon-fishing follows, and then salmon-fishing as spring draws near. The natives from the N. will also bend their course here" (Henry in Coues, V.2, 1897:789).

In May of 1824 Scouler (1905:175) observed populous villages all along the river, with the focus on fishing of salmon and sturgeon.

Summer Games
Young boys and girls had a lot of freedom. They, swam and played games and raced around the village. They even had laughing games.

“In one of these each side stood behind two piles of sand spaced about a hundred feet. One side was made up of girls, the other of boys. Sticks were erected in the sand piles and each side dared the other to come and take the marker. As one side started out the other jeered and laughed, trying to make those approaching laugh. If they succeeded the losers had to retire behind their sand pile and the others came forward" (Ray 1938:97).

“The boys were fond of making canoes either from flags, which were twisted so as to form a sort of boat, or from chips, on which they would hoist a leaf for a sail, and start them off on voyages down the creek. Sometimes a lad with more ingenuity than the rest would carve out a pretty model of a canoe from a cedar stick; and I have seen boys, with little canoes which they had made, scarce three feet long, fearlessly paddle about the water in these little cockles, which seemed ready at any moment to sink.

“Sometimes the boys would catch a lot of minnows, and then the girls would join them, and, having made a little fire and a miniature rack for smoking fish, would imitate the manner of curing salmon, which, when done, were served up as a repast. The girls were very fond of making rag babies and dressing up clam-shells like children" (Swan 1857:198).

Some games were played between villages.
“Shinny" was played with a ball and sticks made of a knot of yew wood.

Read Charles Wilkes description of a
stickgame,with music set down in 1841!

Many traditional games are still enjoyed today.

Background: Portion of James G. Swan sketch “Inside of an Indian Lodge" (Swan: 1857)
Courtesy of The University of Montana Mansfield Library, K. Ross Toole Archives, Special Collections.