John Day Fossil Beds
Historic Resources Study
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Chapter One:

For more than 10,000 years, humans have inhabited the land now known as Oregon. Anthropologists today consider north-central Oregon a part of the traditional culture area of the Columbia Plateau Indians. Within this region, native peoples spoke languages classified as Sahaptin. Sahaptin-speaking aboriginal groups included the Tenino, Umatilla, Molalo, Cayuse, and Nez Perce (Toepel 1979: 29-47). By the nineteenth century, however, native Plateau peoples shared portions of the upper John Day watershed with Northern Paiute Indians, in a sometimes tense and unfriendly association. The Northern Paiute were speakers of Shoshonean languages, and came from the Great Basin culture area to the south.

"Western Columbia River Sahaptins" are more commonly identified as the Tenino or Warm Springs, the Wyampam, and the John Day. The Columbia River, passing through the northern portion of their homeland, was an integrating force, not a boundary. Sahaptin distribution extended along both the Oregon and Washington shores of the Columbia from the vicinity of Alder Creek, Washington, and Willow Creek, Oregon, west to The Dalles. They occupied the watershed of the Deschutes downstream from its confluence with the Crooked and Metolius rivers, and they held most of the watershed of the John Day River. (Hunn and French 1998: 378-380).

The earliest episodes of contact with Euro-Americans confirm a pre contact dynamic which, for a time, altered the tribal distribution in the watersheds of the John Day and Deschutes rivers. Horses were the probable decisive factor. The acquisition of horses in the eighteenth century by the Northern Paiute, Bannock, Shoshone, gave them a remarkable mobility and advantage over the Sahaptins to the north who did not have horses or who, at best, had small herds. In 1805, the Lewis and Clark Expedition found most villages along the Oregon shore of the Columbia River west of the Snake confluence abandoned. The raids of warriors on horseback from the Great Basin had literally driven the Sahaptins onto the islands or to the more defensible villages on the north shore of the Columbia.

tribal distribution map
Fig. 2. Hypothetical tribal distribution in northeastern Oregon and adjacent regions, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Serrated line represents probable northern boundary of Northern Paiute in the eighteenth century and earlier (Ray et al. 1938: 386).

A revealing place name, "River Towarnahiooks," the "river of the enemies" which Lewis and Clark noted for the Deschutes, spoke to the tension and dislocation which had occurred in that era. William Clark wrote:

The probable reason of the Indians residing on the Stard. [i.e. north bank] of this as well as the waters of Lewis's [Snake] River is their fear of the Snake Indians who reside, as they nativs Say on a great river to the south, and are at war with those tribes . . . (Moulton 1983 — [5]: 318, 321-323, 326).

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Last Updated: 25-Apr-2002