The Columbia River and its People

In  May of 1792, American sea captain Robert Gray commandeered the Columbia Redivivia down the Columbia River and named the river after his boat.  A short while later in October of that year, a British naval officer by the name of Lieutenant Broughton sailed up the Columbia River as far as the Sandy River, just east of present day Portland, Oregon.

More ships came with British and American sailors ready to trade and just 13 years later in 1805, Lewis and Clark traveled overland and met the Chinook tribes who lived along the banks of the Columbia.   A Chinook tribe known as the Clatsop  took them in for the winter along the coast.  This was a turning point in history.  From these momentous meetings, the land and its people would never be the same.

In a short few decades the ancient indigenous civilization that grew around the wild massive Columbia River would be decimated by plagues, campaigns of extermination and war.  The steady quickening march of settlers would come to dramatically reshape the Northwest landscape.


The Chinook Peoples


The Columbia River is 1,243 miles long and stretches from the Pacific Ocean by the city of Astoria, all

Map of Lower Columbia/Chinook Tribes

the way to a lake in South East British Columbia.  The river is by far the largest Pacific NorthWest river and has been a hub for native peoples for more than 15,000 years.

As the Ice Age glacial sheets retreated starting around 16,000 years ago, the natural dams to the massive ancient Missoula Lake in present day Montana burst and allowed for enormous amounts of water to flood into present day Washington and Oregon.  These floods happened dozens of times, each time sent out colossal amounts of water into the Northwest and helped to carve out the channel that we now know as the Columbia River Gorge.

Around 15,000 years ago, indigenous asiatic peoples crossed the ice bridge in the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia.  These people went on to populate North and South America.   By the Columbia River, evidence of inhabitants dating back over 11,000 years was found in SouthWestern Washington at the Marmes Rockshelter.   Kennewick Man, a 9,000 year old prehistoric man was discovered

near Kennewick, Washington.  13,000 year old sandals made of sagebrush twine were discovered in the Fort Rock Cave just west of present day Bend, Oregon.

At the time of first contact with with Europeans and Americans,  the descendants of these ancientpeoples lived along the banks of the Columbia from present day Astoria all the way to the Dalles.  The Chinook people consists of numerous tribes such as the Clatsop, Wahkiakum, Willapa and Kathlamet.  Because of their proximity to the river, the Chinook were avid fishermen and their main caloric needs were met by the salmon and steelhead from the river, as well as deer and elk meat, wapato roots, elderberry, salmonberry and salal berries growing nearby.

Cathlapotle Plankouse in Ridgefield, Wa

Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) has played an enormous role in the lives of Chinook people.  Because it contains thujaplicin, an anti-fungal agent, this tree does not break down easily, making it a perfect medium for carving canoes, building longhouses, making clothing, hats, basketry, utensils, tools and rope.  Salmon and cedar can be seen as the two most important cultural keystone species to the Chinook.  Because of their proximity to the river, the Chinook peoples have long been master navigators of the Columbia and its tributaries.  With long carved cedar canoes as their main form of transportation, the Chinook traveled and traded along the great river.


Besides being expert fishermen and river navigators, the Chinook have long been known as traders and

Chief Concomly (Wiki)

the Columbia River was a main hub for trade not just locally but for the entire West.  Artifacts from the Great Plains, the Southwest and from present day Alaska have been found in Chinook settlements, showing how important this area was to native peoples for trading, even from a thousand miles away.

With First Contact, the Chinook Peoples engaged in business and trade with white settlers.  From early settlements at Astoria and present day Vancouver, settlers pursued beaver pelts for clothing and hats.  Perhaps the most important Chinook of that time was Chief Concomly.  Living just north of Astoria on the Washington side of the Columbia, Concomly dominated the fur trade with the Americans and British as they set up permanent settlements along the Columbia.

Concomly had a number of daughters and several of them married settlers.  One of the most famous marriages was between Concomly’s daughter Ilchee (also known as Moon Woman) and  DuncanMcdougall, Chief Factor of the Pacific Fur Company of Astoria, Oregon.  After the British pulled out of Astoria and turned it over to the Americans, Mcdougall left his wife and moved back to Europe.  Ilchee went on to marry another famous Chinook named Chief Keasno.  You can see an image of Ilchee if you travel to Vancouver, Washington.  A bronze cast of her sits along the banks.   She was known for her strong will, powerful presence and her healing abilities as a medicine woman.

Ilchee- Moon Woman

From the 1790’s to the 1830’s, plagues in the form of malaria, small pox and other epidemics ravaged the Chinook people, wiping out up to 90 percent of the inhabitants of the settlements along the river.  Chief Concomly himself died from disease in 1830.  At this point Chief Keasno became the most powerful chief in the area.  As settlers traveled overland in increasing numbers, they often stole the land from the Chinookan people.  Skirmishes erupted along the Columbia for the next couple decades and a larger conflict known as the Rogue River War exploded in Southern Oregon as natives fought against the massive incursion of Gold Rush pioneers who spilled over from California in search of wealth.  Leading citizens of the time called for the full scale extermination of native peoples in Oregon.

In that climate the Federal government stepped in to try and broker agreements with the Chinook peoples to remove them from their lands and to move them to reservations east of the Cascades.  The Chinook fought against being forced off their land.  The superintendent of Indian Affairs at the time, Anson Dart, met with Chinook leaders at Tansey Point on the South side of the Columbia near the coast in August of 1851.  He negotiated treaties that promised hunting, fishing, farming, gathering and land rights.


“It will be impossible to remove the Indians of the Willamette and Lower Columbia valleys, without a resort to force, nor do we think it very desirable to do so. As before stated they are friendly and well disposed, they live almost entirely by fishing, and the wages they receive from the whites for their labor…To remove them from their fisheries and means of procuring labor from the whites would in our opinion insure their annihilation in a short time either by want or from the hands of their more warlike neighbors.” – Anson Dart.


During this time, the Chinook had been decimated by plagues, disease, skirmishes and wars, and many of those left were forced into reservations.   Children were forced to assimilate by attending Christian schools, their languages and spiritual customs were suppressed and many were left struggling and destitute.  Many of the Chinook were forced to move to various newly formed reservations such as Grande Ronde, Siletz, Quinault and Yakima.

Since the 1950’s, the Chinookan peoples have fought for federal recognition.  Briefly at the end of Clinton’s term in the 1990’s they were granted federal recognition but that was rescinded in the early Bush years of 2001.

Today many of the Chinookan peoples engage in strengthening their ties to their cultural heritage.  A

The Chinook Flag

plankhouse in the style of traditional Chinook long houses was built by 100 volunteers in Ridgefield, Washington in 2005 on the site of a traditional native village known as Cathlapotle.  There the Chinook people gather to celebrate, do rituals, drum, sing and honor their ancient traditions.  To learn more, please read this article here.   Like many Northwest native groups, they also take part in the Canoe Journeys, intertribal gatherings centered around paddling the waterways of the Northwest with traditional cedar dug canoes.

To understand more about the ongoing battle to achieve federal tribal recognition and their corresponding rights, please take a look at the Chinook Tribal Council webpage here.


Timber- The Great Cut 


By the 1840’s, the beaver trade had fallen out of favor.  Declining numbers of beaver due to overhunting, and decreasing interest in the fashion of beaver hats and clothes caused the collapse of that industry.  Soon settlers found another way to attain wealth- timber.   Imagine living by the Columbia river in the 1800’s.  Massive ancient cedar, douglas fir and hemlock dominated the landscape.  Some trees soared to 300 feet in height and upwards of ten feet in diameter.

Settlers and businessmen saw these trees as an opportunity.  In the 1830s and 40s, the first
saw mills in Oregon were started and loggers cut and slid trees to the Columbia to transport them downstream.  By the 1870’s, steam engine technology and railroads allowed for logging into previously inaccessible forests.  By the 1890’s into the 1920’s, the logging industry began to truly transform the landscape.  In 1910, Portland milled 700 million board feet of lumber.  Soon the vast majority of old growth was cut down to provide the timber to build railroads, houses and buildings throughout the U.S.   The Great Cut is still felt all around us when we walk through nearby forests.  You can see the remnants of the clearcut logging in the enormous stumps that dot the landscape and you can see the forces of nature and regeneration as young douglas fir, cedar and hemlock sprout from atop these stumps.  Even after such tremendous trauma. life returns.




Today we are at an inflection point.  In the past two hundred years settlers have radically transformed the landscape of the Columbia River.  Plagues and campaigns of genocide deeply damaged the indigenous Chinook peoples who have lived along the banks for over 10,000 years.  Settlers have clearcut much of the ancient forests until they are a remnant of their previous glory, and dammed the Columbia as a way to tame it for hydroelectric power.

The rapacious destruction of the land and its peoples has led to multiple societal and ecological catastrophes.  Salmon and fish runs are imperiled.  Wildlife and botanical diversity has been radically reduced.  Clearcuts crisscross the landscape to be replaced by corporate douglas fir monoculture farms.

The issues facing the Columbia and nearby lands is a microcosm of the issues facing us throughout the world.  At the core, we have viewed the natural world as a set of commodities- bushels of corn, acres or wheat, board feet of lumber, cords of wood.  In essence we have seen the natural world as something to take for our pleasure, wealth and gain.  And that mentality has led us to the brink of a precipice.  To step back from that ledge requires a deep change of course.   From a model based in rapaciously taking, we need to shift towards a model of reciprocation, listening deeply, honoring and restoration.   From the Chinook peoples comes this prayer:

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the earth, our planet home, with its beautiful depths and soaring heights, its vitality and abundance of life, and together we ask that it… Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the mountains, the Cascades and the Olympics, the high green valleys and meadows filled with wild flowers, the snows that never melt, the summits of intense silence, and we ask that they… Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the waters that rim the earth, horizon to horizon, that flow in our rivers and streams, that fall upon our gardens and fields and we ask that they… Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the land which grows our food, the nurturing soil, the fertile fields, the abundant gardens and orchards, and we ask that they… Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the forests, the great trees reaching strongly to the sky and the earth in their roots and the heavens in their branches, the fir and the pine and the cedar, and we ask them to… Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the creatures of the fields and forests and the seas, our brothers and sisters the wolves and deer, the eagle and dove, the great whales and dolphin, the beautiful Orca and salmon who share our Northwest home, and we ask them to… Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon all those who have lived on this earth, our ancestors and our friends, who dreamed the best for our future generations, and upon whose lives our lives our built, and with thanksgiving, we call upon them to… Teach us, and show us the Way.

Donate to the Chinook Peoples in their struggle for Federal Recognition of their Treaty Rights



This article written by Jon Keyes, Licensed Professional Counselor and  herbalist.  For more articles like this, please go to


You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health.






Additional Reading: 

Comcomly, Chinook Chief   

Chief Kiesno

Ilchee, A Powerful Chinook Woman

Chinook Tribal Council

Chinook Tribe

Chinook Peoples of the Lower Columbia

The People of Cascadia – Pacific Northwest Native American History

Columbia River : Description, Creation and Discovery

Robert Gray’s Columbia River expedition

William Robert Broughton

History of the Columbia River Gorge

Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition:  The Clatsop Winter

Geological History of the Columbia River Gorge

Columbia River Gorge Geology Tour

Dart’s Instructions of Colonization and Assimilation in 1850

Broken Treaties:  An Oral History Tracing Oregons Native Population

Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Placing Washington’s Forests in Historical Context

Timber Industry

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