Crater Lake
Historic Resource Study
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I. Formation of the Crater Lake Environment (continued)

A. Northern Plateau Area of Southern Oregon

The geology, altitude, and climate of the northern plateau area of southern Oregon forced specialized ecological adjustments on the part of the early aboriginal inhabitants. The physical feature most responsible for the specialization necessary for survival was the Cascade Mountain Range, a rugged continuance of the Sierra Nevadas north through California, Oregon, Washington, and sections of British Columbia. This chain originated perhaps forty million years ago from a weak north-south-trending seam in the earth's crust. Through this fissure molten magma was ejected from the interior up through the inland sea that covered the region. After successive eons, this volcanic uplifting created a ponderous mountain chain rearing to an impressive height. During the next few million years, the creation of this mountain mass was followed by the formation of a series of huge, broad, shield volcanoes. These were ultimately replaced by the now familiar steep-sided volcanic cones stretching southward from Mount Garibaldi near Vancouver, British Columbia, and including Mounts Baker, Rainier, Adams, and St. Helens in Washington; Mounts Hood, Jefferson, Three Sisters, Mazama, and McLoughlin in Oregon; and California's Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak.

The most significant effect of the Cascade Range and of its numerous high peaks was the creation of two distinct climatic zones in the present state of Oregon in which vegetation and animal life began taking on the singular characteristics unique to each one's particular environment. As the Cascades deflected the moisture-laden winds rushing inland, lowering their temperatures and causing them to deposit their condensation on the lands adjacent to the ocean, it resulted in a lack of moisture in that sunny dry area immediately east of the mountains that is commonly referred to as a "rain shadow." Of more consequence environmentally was the lack of rain in the very dry area of vast plains and desert flora on Oregon's eastern plateau.

B. Prehistoric Indian Occupation of the Crater Lake Vicinity

Man's initial entry into the now arid basins stretching from south-central Oregon to southeast California began about 10,000 years ago, after the end of the volcanic activity characterizing the last Ice Age (Pleistocene glacial epoch), when, although deep snowfields and glaciers blanketed the lands northward toward Canada, here in the Plateau area a more benign climate, inland lakes, and dense forests offered a relatively comfortable existence for groups of nomadic hunters. Natural shelters at the bases of high cliffs and small caves found today high above present water levels have yielded evidence of human occupation in the form of stone and bone tools and weapons and grinding stones dating from at least 13,000 years ago. [1] The first inhabitants of the Klamath-Tule Lake basins, arriving between 7,500 and 10,000 years ago, showed a more specialized lifestyle and culture; the greatest mass of evidence of human presence in this area dates from this time period. Abundant springs provided water, and cultural remains indicate a simple hunting and seed- and root-gathering existence.

The eruption of Mount Mazama 6,600 years ago probably only hastened an abandonment of the cliffs that had already begun with the advent of warmer temperatures in 11,000 B.C. The eruption was undoubtedly witnessed by humans, a never-to-be-forgotten occurrence immortalized by detailed and descriptive legends. That man was nearby at the time is attested to by archeological investigations at Fort Rock Cave about fifty-five miles northeast of Mount Mazama in 1938 that uncovered one hundred woven-sagebrush sandals covered, baked, and charred by the mud flow and ashes from Mazama's eruption. [2] For miles around plants would have been buried and burned and lakes and marshes clogged, suffocating the fish population and depriving upland game birds and waterfowl of sanctuary.

With living conditions so difficult, human activity here probably ended for several centuries. The climate continued to change; annual rainfall lessened, evaporation from lake surfaces increased, and water levels consequently began to recede. Plant life thrived, however, and grass became more prevalent, indicating an ecological environment somewhere between the moist, cool forest and the drier desert extreme. As the grassland spread and lakes and marshes dwindled to only scattered springs and seeps, making dependable water sources scarce, the ancestors of the historic Klamath and Modoc peoples, who drifted back into southern Oregon and northern California focused on the lakes, streams, and marshes for their homesites. To replace the earlier cave dwellings, small permanent winter hamlets were constructed on high ground near the water. As the climate and the land continued to change, lifestyles of necessity became more diversified and ultimately specialized. The large numbers of fishhooks and manos, metates, and mortars for pounding, grinding, and milling seeds and roots found by archeologists confirm a growing dependency on the water and plant foods for nourishment. Increased population shifts, facilitated by a friendlier climate, inevitably resulted in an exchange of techniques relative to both technological processes and food acquisition. By 4,500 years ago, environmental conditions were fairly stable and the customs and living patterns developed that were present when whites arrived.

C. Historic Indian Occupation of the Crater Lake Vicinity

South-central Oregon was occupied primarily by divisions of at least two linguistic families. The Klamath and Modoc tribes constituted the Lutuamian division of the Shapwailutan linguistic group. The Klamaths were found on Upper Klamath Lake, around Klamath Marsh, and also frequented the Williamson and Sprague river shores, while the Modocs were based at Little Klamath Lake, Modoc Lake, Tule Lake, in the Lost River Valley, and at Clear Lake, although they often extended as far east as Goose Lake. [3] The peoples of the Northern Plateau were wanderers, leading a somewhat impoverished lifestyle. Hunting and fishing were continual pursuits, but secondary to gathering. The quasi-nomadic tendencies of these groups resulted in a lack of cultural complexity, so that they have been studied mainly in terms of their relationship to their natural surroundings. [4]

1. The Klamaths

The ancestors of the modern Klamath Indians who ultimately inhabited the area east of Crater Lake and south along the shores of Klamath Lake were probably contemporaries of the early Fort Rock inhabitants. The Klamaths had originally relied mainly on hunting, but the presence nearby of bodies of water teeming with fish, fowl, and plant life encouraged advances in tool technology and food preparation techniques that enabled them to become more diversified wild food gatherers. Ultimately the Klamaths became dependent for their sustenance primarily upon the marshes and the chain of lakes forming the headwaters of the Klamath River. They settled in semi-subterranean earth lodges in small hamlets on the lake shores in the winter months, but during the summer pursued a more migratory course, utilizing mat-covered lodges for shelter and participating in root-, seed-, and berry-gathering activities, fishing, and the hunting of small game.

The environment had much to offer. Marshes teemed with geese and ducks shot with cane arrows or captured by large nets that either engulfed diving birds or were thrown over ones that flew or swam within reach. Mussels lined stream bottoms, while salmon, trout, and whitefish swarmed in the rivers and lakes. Freshwater fishing became a year-round activity; early white explorers and settlers often noted fish being dried on scaffolds and pine saplings. Wokas, or camas lily plants, were probably the most important aspect of their diet, and their gathering became a formalized process. After these wild water-lily plants withered, leaving only a pod with small, shiny, dark seeds, the starchy bulbs were harvested. Great mounds were amassed and stored for winter use, either dried and cooked whole or pounded, and molded into small cakes that were then baked before storage. A full season's labor was spent in picking pods, drying them, and grinding them into mush. [5]

The gradual acquisition of horses by trading with Plains tribes to the east produced sudden and dramatic changes in the social and political structure of Klamath culture. By the 1840s the Klamaths had so many horses that they were considered notable adversaries in war. In addition to the taking of booty from neighboring peoples, emphasis was laid on the capture of slaves, and several of the Plateau groups found themselves middlemen in a profitable slave-horse trading business. [6] By the time whites began settling in southern Oregon, the Klamaths possessed a well-established lifeway emphasizing a hunting and gathering economy; the local autonomy of isolated hamlets, or villages; a basic material culture with unelaborate ceremonial activities; and a religion centering on Shamanism and mythology. [7]

2. The Modocs

Although the Klamaths and Modocs were once closely associated, they separated into more distinct tribal entities sometime around the late 1770s. By the time of white intrusion into the Tule Lake area, the Modocs were clearly an individual group, calling themselves the "Lake People." Possessing a stone-age technology prior to 1800, within the next forty years, following the introduction of horses, they widened their horizons considerably. They not only acquired a reputation among their neighbors (especially the Pit River Indians, Shastas, Paiutes, and Upland Takelmas) as fearsome raiders, but they also became astute businessmen who traded captives for horses and white men's trade goods.

The region dominated by the Modoc tribe comprised a small strip of land east of the Cascade Range and straddling both sides of the present-day Oregon-California line. These tribesmen had at least twenty semi-permanent winter villages situated alongside lakes and streams in peaceful valleys. The one farthest north was located on the present site of Klamath Falls, while another stood at Hot (Willow) Creek, four more along Lower Klamath Lake, four on Lost River, seven on the shores of Tule Lake, and three farther east. An abundance of foodstuffs was at hand. Numerous ducks, geese, swans, pelicans, loons, and gulls could be found on the waterways, and salmon and other fish were smoked and stored for the winter. Turtle flesh provided sustenance and their shells were fashioned into bowls and utensils. Nearby plains and ridges provided a variety of large and small game, including deer, antelope, mountain sheep, elk, bears, rabbits, squirrels, and prairie chickens, while water lilies in the bottomlands and marshes could be supplemented by other tuberous roots, such as wild turnips, and by wild plant seeds. Tules, or rushes, found along the lake shores were woven into mats, baskets, and mocassins, and were also used as thatch for Modoc houses.

Headquartered in the Tule Lake basin, the Modocs frequented the east and south shores of Klamath Lake, roamed throughout the Butte Creek country farther south, and ventured as far north as Lost River. Despite their wanderings, they were always assured of a defensive stronghold in the twisted passages, caves, and trenches of the formidable Lava Beds area of present northern California. A small but hardy group, skilled in warfare and in eking out an existence in an often harsh environment, the Modocs were to prove a formidable adversary for white men after contact brought these two dissimilar cultures into conflict. [8]

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Last Updated: 14-Feb-2002