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The Rowdy River

Chapter IV in Keith McCoy's feature on the White Salmon River.

Chapter IV


The Indians revered Mount Adams and called it Pahto -- "standing high." It figured prominently in their worship and legends.

The Klickitat's range included the canyons of the Klickitat, White Salmon and Lewis Rivers that drain Mount Adams glaciers. These canyons and tributaries such as Rattlesnake Creek provided winter shelter for those who did not live along Columbia shores. A closely related band called the White Salmon people lived along the shore between the White Salmon and Klickitat Rivers.

When Lewis and Clark came through the Columbia River Gorge in October of 1805 and again the next April, Captain Lewis took special note of the 20 or more habitations seen on the fertile bottom lands just upstream from the White Salmon River that they called Canoe Creek. He wrote, "I observed several habitations entirely underground; they were sunk about 8 feet deep and covered with strong timbers and several feet of earth in a conic form. They are about 16 feet in diameter, nearly circular, and are entered through a hole in the top which appears to answer the double purpose of a chimney and a door."

Captain Lewis was observing the winter quarters of the White Salmon band of the Klickitats. Here, for the first time, Lewis and Clark encountered natives that had cedar that could be split with even their rudimentary tools. Not only was their housing better, but they had a plenitude of food and furs.

The Klickitats were a strong, aggressive tribe, known as raiders and traders. Having horses early, they ranged far and wide raiding and conquering other tribes as far afield as the Umpquas in southern Oregon. They were prominent in the trade marts at the narrows at The Dalles. While the mouth of the White Salmon River was one of their principal fishing spots, they commanded many prime fishing locations both up and down the Columbia. Families passed their rights from father to son.

The Klickitats largely lost their tribal identify after the Walla Walla Treaty of 1855. The Klickitat were just one of the 14 bands that would make up the ultimate Yakama Nation. Their chief, Tow-e-loks, was old and seemingly indifferent. It was natural for many of his people to listen to wealthier and more warlike chiefs such as Kamiakin of the Yakamas.

The same favorable site that was occupied by the White Salmon band appealed to the E.R. Joslyns when they came up the Columbia. Their pre-emption land claim there in 1853 was the first white settlement on the north shore of the Columbia between the Cascades and the far-off confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers. This and general Indian dissatisfaction over the Treaty of 1855 stirred the Yakamas and a few of the Klickitats to raid the Joslyns in 1856 and go on to the Cascades to destroy that which the white man had built there.

Many of the Klickitats were friendly to the white man and became known as the Friendlies. After the massacre and looting at the Cascades, the U.S. Army created the White Salmon Indian Reservation and for three years fed and protected the Friendlies from their hostile tribesmen. This temporary reservation headquartered in a blockhouse and barns built at Lookout Point, near the present Bingen Marina. In 1859 this activity was transferred to the new Fort Simcoe on the Toppenish Plains. Then, and only then, could the Joslyns return to rebuild their farm.

When the McClellan Expedition came across Mount Adams foothills in 1853, their focus was on finding a viable rail route between Vancouver and Yakima country. Lt. George Gibbs, military ethnographer, provided us with a keen report of the Klickitats and the use they made of the country at the that time. Much of his report is quoted in Selma Neils' book The Klickitat Indians, published in 1985. There was much about their far-ranging nomadic life that was admirable. It was noted that the white man's diseases, particularly small pox, had already taken its heavy toll.

The Indians were almost unchallenged in their mountain range until the decade of the 1880s when the Trout Lake Valley drew its first white settlers.

In 1878, a curious report of Indian activity resulted when Francis Marion Streamer, an eccentric eastern journalist, accompanied a group of Indians from The Dalles on their annual trek to the Mount Adams huckleberry fields. His reports, recorded in the Lonely Pedestrian by Ann Briley (Ye Galleon Press, 1986) show that the native way of life was yet undistributed in the mountains.

Although a few Euro-Americans had come into Camas Prairie, the pristine Trout Lake Valley was yet to have its first white settler. Streamer's 30 day encampment was exciting.

Early in their encampment, Streamer reported that there were at least 1,000 horses and 200 hundred Indians of various tribes -- with many more yet to come. Their party alone came out of the hills with "nearly a half ton" of berries, some fresh, some dried while in camp. He was a keen observer of Indian life -- but smart enough not to join in their gambling games.

If you have occasion to look at property maps you will notice that they are dotted with tracts labeled Indian Land. This results from the government's Land Allotment Act of 1887, designed to give Indians an alternative to reservation life. Much like the homestead act, it had certain requirements of residency and performance. It was an attempt to encourage Indians to cultivate the land and raise crops for their own sustenance. It was largely a failure and all the tools and seeds and encouragement offered just didn't fit the Indian mode. After a designated period, many of these tracts were sold to whites, many reverted to the Indian nation in which the owner was enrolled, and a few are still occupied.

We can still see the Indians, a few Klickitats among them, harvesting and processing their salmon at the mouth of the White Salmon River. Their methods closely follow those observed by Lewis and Clark almost 200 years ago. It is now a so-called in-lieu site reserved for Native Americans. It is one of the few originally promised when Bonneville Dam was built. Many more are now in construction. It is little compensation for the resource and the way of life so long ago lost.

The Klickitats didn't think of it as we do. To them it wasn't Canoe Creek or the White Salmon or Rowdy River. It was simply "skookum chuck" -- strong water!


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