Cathlapotle Plankhouse

History - Cathlapotle Town Site

Courtesy USFW

Chinookan-speaking peoples have made the Columbia River their home for thousands of years. The Great River provided sustenance through its bounty. From its depths they gathered salmon, sturgeon, and other fish. It was a liquid highway over which their canoes, laden with trade goods, moved from the coast to the interior. Its wetlands and floodplains teemed with wildlife which furnished everything they needed from food, to shelter, to clothing, to the tools they used every day.

Today, on a river greatly altered by dams and development, a remnant of that rich wetland habitat still remains at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. And there, amidst the thousands of geese, ducks, cranes, eagles, and other migratory birds who pass through the Refuge each year, an ancient town site pays silent tribute to the generations of people who called it home

Cathlapotle is actually a misnomer. The archaeological site on Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge is not "the town of Cathlapotle," but more accurately, "a town of the Cathlapotle People." Lewis and Clark, on their historic voyage down the Columbia River in 1805, identified it as a large village of the "Quathlapotle Nation." While there is evidence that its inhabitants themselves called it Nahpooitle, over the years the true name has been obscured in an historical haze and the site has come to be called simply "Cathlapotle." Lewis and Clark described their first encounter with the Cathlapotle People as they passed the town on November 5, 1805: observed on the Chanel which passes on the Star’d Side of this Island a short distance above its lower point is Situated a large village, the front of which occupies nearly 1/4 mile fronting the Chanel, and closely connected, I counted 14 houses (Quathlapotle nation) in front here the river widens to about 1-1/2 miles. Seven canoes of Indians came out from this large village to view and trade with us, they appeared orderly and well disposed, they accompanied us a fiew miles and returned back."

This "large village" was in fact one of largest on the River, with an estimated 900 inhabitants as recorded by Lewis and Clark when they returned to trade and visit on March 29, 1806. Clark went on to describe the particulars of their trading:

"at 3 oClock P.M. we arrived at the Quathlapotle village of 14 Houses on main Shore to the N.E. side of a large island. those people in their habits manners and customs differ but little from those of the Clatsops and others below. here we exchanged our deer skins killed yesterday for dogs and purchased others to the number of 12 for provisions for the party, as the deer flesh is too poore for the men to subsist on and work as hard as is necessary. i also purchased a sea otter robe. we purchased wappatoe and some pashaquar roots. gave a Medal of the small size to the principal chief"
The Expedition camped that night at a "butifull grassy place" about a mile upstream from Cathlapotle, a site on the Refuge known today as Wapato Portage. Like Cathlapotle, Wapato Portage was occupied for many generations before Euro-Americans arrived in the Pacific Northwest. But for the people of the Columbia River, the arrival of the "Suyapee" or upside-down face, as the bearded foreigners were called, signaled the end of a way of life as epidemics swept down the river and decimated the native population. By the 1830s, the Salish-speaking Cowlitz and Sahaptin-speaking Klickitat migrated into the area from the interior, occupying abandoned houses on the Columbia River. At Cathlapotle, historic records suggest that the houses were permanently abandoned in the mid-1850s.

Today, descendants of Chinookan-speaking people can be found in many Northwest Tribes, from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Grand Ronde in Oregon to the Yakama, Cowlitz, Quinault, and Chinook Tribes in Washington. The site of Cathlapotle offers important clues about how their ancestors lived, and ate, and worked.

Studying the Past. The ongoing archaeological study of Cathlapotle is the result of a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Chinook Tribe, and Portland State University (PSU) which was initiated in 1991. Research has focused on gathering data about sedentary complex hunter-gatherer culture through archaeological evidence of social organization, complex technology, environmental manipulation, and intensive practices of food production. In plain English this means that archaeologists have excavated the site to learn more about how the Chinookan people who lived there interacted with their environment and how they found sustenance in the plant and animal resources around them. During three summers of excavation, visitors to the site watched as PSU field school students uncovered the foundations of cedar plankhouses and the activity areas associated with daily life. The largest of the house depressions at Cathlapotle is some 200 feet by 45 feet while the smallest is 60 feet by 30 feet. At least four are divided into compartments, as Lewis and Clark described in their notes. Laboratory analysis of the data collected in the field is ongoing. The deep deposits contain a rich record of life on the river before Euro-American contact and illustrate the effects of contact on technology. As glass trade beads appeared, for example, metals became common and bone tools began to disappear. Food remains in the form of bones and plant fossils suggest a broad and intense subsistence economy which utilized both wetland and upland resources.

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