Oregonian, November 3, 1946




Free Lance Writer

MANY PORTLANDERS have gone picnicking at Blue lake, a summer resort located a few miles east of the city on the Columbia river highway, but few know that the area around the lake once was a favorite camping ground of the Nechacokee Indians. Little remains today of this once powerful and numerous tribe, only their stone implements have withstood the deterioration of time. Beautifully worked arrowheads, stone axes, bowls and other stone tools are found in profuse number at this sit, as silent reminders of their once extensive population. Contact with the white man and the ensuing epidemics wiped them out, along with thousands of other Columbia river Indians, until the tribe became extinct during the first half of the 19th century.



Mention of them can be found in the entry dated April 3, 1806 in the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition which relates that "Captain Clark directed his course along the south side of the river (the Columbia), where...he passed a village of the Nechacokee tribe, belonging to the Eloot nation. The village itself is small, and being situated behind Diamond island (now Government island), was concealed from our view as we passed... along the northern shore." At the time of the expedition the tribe was estimated to be only a hundred strong. However, the number of Indian artifacts found in and about this site indicates that at one time many people inhabited this place.

It may have been the ravages of smallpox which decimated them, because Captain Clark estimated the disease to have prevailed in this region 30 years previous to the expedition. Evidently the pestilence was introduced about the time of Captain Cook's visit at the mouth of the Columbia in 1778. Many European vessels were reported stopping there to trade with the Indians. Some of these ships came by way of the Orient, which might account for the virulence of the epidemic that spread its fury over all the tribes living in the Columbia watershed.



Another great plague swept through the Indian encampments along the Columbia in the year 1832, wiping out so many that one early missionary estimated that 90 per cent of the native population was swept away. Many died daily, and the cries of the mourning relatives were heard in every village throughout the region. It was the death chant of a dying nation. This disease was known as the "cold-sick," and was also labeled "fever and ague." It was generally described as a fever starting in the head, followed by soreness and stiffening in the limbs, and ending with violent cold shakes. A coma soon followed, and almost always death.

Although many died from the disease itself, some attribute the high death rate to their methods of medication. In hopes of relieving the fever, they would place themselves in a steam hut, and then run out dripping with moisture, and plunge into the river. Rarely did any survive the cold stage which followed. So many died that the survivors were unable to bury them. The shores of the rivers were strewn with corpses in many large villages were dogs and fleas. Other camps, where the dead lay where they fell, were burned to the ground by those who were left.



Several of the farmers, now living at Blue lake, remember the tales of their grandparents, who told of finding a great number of skeletons when they were clearing their land. One resident claims that his grandfather spent a week carrying the bones off his fields and burning them. The corpses, instead of being buried in the ground, were placed in a canoe, as this was the common practice among all the Columbian tribes. Whether the death canoe was placed on a platform or in the fork of a tree is a matter of conjecture. The main burial ground was situated on the ridge separating Blue lake from Fairview lake, which is located a short distance to the south. Unfortunately, the earth here has been tilled for many years, and all surface artifacts and human debris, which might have given us the answer to the tribe's extinction have either been destroyed or carried away.

Because of the lack of appreciation by many people of the historical value of such relics, much of our knowledge of the race that inhabited this and other sites along the Columbia remains sketchy. What information we do have is based on the journals of the early explorers, and on the tales of the first pioneers. From these scattered sources and the little archaeological work that has been done, we have managed to form a hazy picture of what their life must have been like before the coming of the white man.



Since little information can be gained from a study of their cemetery, I have investigated the other occupied sites. One site is located on the lowland near the west end of the lake, and other places formerly inhabited can be found in the areas back of the lake and around Fairview lake. In fact, Indian artifacts have been found in great numbers in this section all the way to U.S. highway 30, which is located a mile to the south. Although no organized research has been done on the Blue lake site, I make certain deductions as to the culture of this tribe from the types of stone implements that have been found here.

The great number of fish net sinkers and anchor stones for canoes show us their dependency on fishing as one of their main sources of diet. One of the methods of preparing fish was to expose them to the sun on scaffolds. When they were sufficiently dried, they were pulverized by pounding between two stones, and then placed in baskets made of grasses or rushes and lined with the skins of dried salmon. The early frontiersmen assure us that fish were kept well preserved for several years by this method. Quite a few stone pestles used for this purpose have been found here. A few mortars, or stone bowls, have also been uncovered, but they are generally in fragments.

Another common food described by the early explorers was the bulb of the arrow-head lily, which the Indians named wappatoo. Fish and wappatoos were not only their main articles of food, but also the staple items used in trading by all the tribes along the Columbia.

The Blue lake area was well supplied with both of these two very necessary sustenances. Salmon, smelt, sturgeon, and other fish were plentiful in the Columbia, while wappatoos could be gathered along the shores of the two lakes. Other foods included in their diet were: Domesticated dogs, wild ducks, cranes, rabbits, squirrels, and other small game, as the numerous small arrowheads found here indicate. A few large size projectile points have been picked up in the fields, that might possibly have been used for war arrows or for big game. The preponderance of small points, however, indicates that big game was not one of their primary foods.



It is common knowledge that all the tribes of the Lower Columbia region were expert woodworkers. Their canoes, often from 30 to 35 feet long, were cut out of a single tree. They also constructed lodges from wood, which were either sunk in the ground or on a level with the surface. Split timbers smoothed by small axes or by burning were generally used. The roofs consisted of double rows of cedar bark laid over rafters. That the Nechacokee tribe also practiced woodworking can be shown by the number of stone wedges, mauls, hafted hammerheads, gravers, and other tools that have been picked up here.

The most interesting aspect of archaeology is that it combines the fascination of detective work with the thrill of finding buried treasure. An example of this was my finding of a number of hammerstones and fragmentary worked flakes, which indicated that the site on the west end of the lake was formerly a work shop. The earth here is black from the great abundance of carbon in the soil, caused by the ashes of the native camp fires. As the ground here has been cultivated, many of the stone implements have become scattered from their former resting places. One unusual find, however at this site consisted of two hammers and a large agate boulder with a number of flakes lying in the earth around it. By careful reconstruction, I was able to replace most of them on the parent stone. Allowing our imagination free play, we can almost visualize the dusky arrow maker sitting here and laboriously shaping the tools that were necessary to his existence. But why were they abandoned? What happened those long years ago to cause the tool maker to leave his work, never to return again? Was it the sudden invasion of another savage tribe, or was he suddenly struck down while at work by a dreadful disease? Whatever it was, we can only guess at the true cause. It is questions such as these which make the Blue lake sites so intriguing.

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