Summary Prehistory and Ethnography of Olympic National Park, Washington
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Table 4 lists the several native groups who either lived in the area now known as Olympic National Park, or who were reported to have regularly used its resources. Also shown are their linguistic affiliations and approximate "territories" (see also Figure 11). Subgroups who identified themselves separately, but about whom little is known specifically, are also listed.

Table 4
Native Groups of Olympic National Park

NameLinguistic AffiliationTerritory
MakahWakashan Cape Flattery (Hoko River to Ozette River)
     Ozette—Wakashan Cape Alava area

KlallamCoast Salish Southern Shore of Strait of Juan de Fuca (Hoko River to Discovery Bay)
     Elwha—Coast Salish Elwha River drainage

ChimacumChemakuanPort Townsend area

TwanaCoast SalishHood Canal drainage
     Skokomish—Coast Salish Skokomish River drainage

QuinaultCoast Salish Quinault River drainage

QueetsCoast SalishQueets River drainage

QuileuteChemakuanSoleduck and Bogachiel River drainages

HohChemakuanHoh River drainage

Figure 11. Native Groups of the Olympic Peninsula. (click on image for a PDF version)


The Makah were the only group on the Peninsula who spoke a Wakashan language, and they differed in several other ways from their Olympic Peninsula neighbors. Their cultural pattern was more nearly that of the Central Northwest Coast, which also included the Nootka and Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. Makah villages have been described as "quasi-autonomous" (Taylor 1974:7), and seem to have been politically capable of banding together in economic pursuits (such as whaling) and in warfare (Singh 1956:93). Important differences between the Makah and their Peninsula neighbors also can be found in such areas as art, ceremonialism and subsistence.

At the time of white contact, the Makah were living in five winter villages composed of shed-roof plank houses. Those villages were Baada, Neah, Tsuess, Waatch and Osett (or Ozette). White contact occurred in either 1790 (Reagan 1917:5) or 1792 (Densmore 1939), when Spanish explorers visited Neah Bay. The Spaniards, under the command of Salvador Hidalgo, established a short-lived military post at Neah Bay in 1792, which they named Port Nunez Gaona (Reagan 1917:7). By 1863, after a smallpox epidemic had forced the abandonment of Baada, the population was 663 individuals (Swan 1869:2).

While other western Olympic Peninsula groups adhered to a more "diffuse settlement pattern," the Makah used open water locales for their villages (Roll 1974:51). This was undoubtedly determined by the environment in which the Makah live, where the rivers were small, short, and comparatively shallow (Singh 1956:23). With the exception of the Ozette River, which drains Ozette Lake, salmon runs in Makah rivers were negligible. On the other hand, various sea mammals migrated close to shore in the Cape Flattery area, and highly productive shellfish beds and deep sea fishing banks were in the immediate vicinity. For these reasons, the Makah were more distinctly "maritime" in their subsistence orientation than were their neighbors. Economic mainstays were halibut, sling cod, shellfish, salmon and a variety of sea mammals (primarily grey whale, fur seal and hair seal). Wapato (wild potato) was gathered intensively (Densmore 1972:13). Land mammals were only a minor dietary constituent (Swan 1869; Singh 1956).

Whaling was a highly developed subsistence pursuit among the Makah, figuring importantly also in their social and ceremonial lives. Hunts were carefully planned by the whaler who, in addition, directed the efforts of the eight-man canoe crews and harpooned the great beast. Much ritual activity preceeded the hunt, including the invocation of the whaler's specialized spirit-power and the careful observation of sexual taboos. Crews were often out at sea for days and, obviously, whaling was a risky adventure which involved great skill, courage and luck. Consequently, successful whalers were highly acclaimed men who enjoyed much prestige.

After initially harpooning the whale and then successfully dispatching it, the crews towed the animal to shore. Because of taboo, menstruating women and adolescent girls were not allowed to view the killed whale on the beach, in the fear that future hunting would be jeopardized (Waterman 1920:40). The distribution of the butchered animal by the hunter was governed by prestige considerations similar to those seen in potlatching. The hump, which was the most desirable piece, was the property of the whaler, and he sold it or gave it away because he was prevented by taboo from eating the portion. The hunter retained for his own use the tail of the animal. If other canoe crews had helped the whaler and his crew bring in the animal, they received parts of the lower jaw and tongue. The remainder was divided up and distributed by the successful whaler, who carefully remembered who received what portion. Reciprocity was expected in the future (Waterman 1920:45). The blubber of the whale was considered to be the most desirable edible portion. The meat itself was generally eaten cold (Densmore 1972:13). Whaling was temporarily abandoned at about 1860, when fur sealing became very profitable. After fur seals were legally protected at the turn of the century, the Makah returned to whaling, but for only a short time (Waterman 1920:48).

Beyond their economic emphasis on sea mammal hunting and deep sea fishing, the Makah were set apart from their neighbors by the social and ceremonial importance of art (primarily woodcarving) in their culture. Archeological evidence from late prehistoric and protohistoric Ozette houses shows that many wooden objects both utilitarian and ceremonial were skillfully carved. Makah carving is the southernmost representative of Nootkan art. Drucker, describing Nootkan art in general terms, states that "features of . . . style combine to give great strength and force. Its impressionistic simplicity gives it . . . great strength and vigor" (1955:174). Makah interior house posts were also carved, in contrast to the undecorated posts in the houses of their Olympic Peninsula neighbors.

The remains of the dead were generally put in decorated boxes or canoes, which were placed in small grave houses or trees, accompanied by grave goods. Belongings which wouldn't fit were ritually burned, although sometimes the survivors of a highly-ranked individual gave away all the family belongings at a potlatch. Memorial potlatches were sometimes held several years after the death (Densmore 1939:33-34). Unlike other Olympic Peninsula groups, it is reported that the Makah sometimes killed slaves to accompany their deceased master (Swan 1869:10; Singh 1956:176).

Because of their geographical position at the tip of Cape Flattery, which conveniently afforded them access both up and down the Pacific Coast and into the inland waterways of the Straits and Puget Sound, the Makah were well-situated for the exchange of goods and resources with other groups. They carried on a considerable trade, taking dried halibut, blubber and whale oil north to Vancouver Island in exchange for dried cedar bark, dried salmon, dentalium shell, slaves, and canoes. Traveling south, they traded canoes, slaves, whale oil, dried halibut, and dentalium to the Quinault, Quileute, and groups as far south as the Columbia, in exchange for camas, diatomaceous earth (used in the processing of dog wool), and sea otter pelts. They sold large 10-person canoes to the Snohomish and other Indians on Puget Sound. After white contact, the Makah traded fur seal and sea otter pelts to the whites in exchange for trade goods (Swan 1869:Haeberlin and Gunther 1930:34).

Besides being far-ranging traders, the Makah were feared warriors. The Ozette Makah were often at war with the Quileute, and may even have fought the other Makah villages from time to time (Densmore 1972:165-166). In historic times the Makah are known to have warred with the Klallam and Snohomish (Swan 1869; Haeberlin and Gunther 1930:12). They occasionally used arrows and whalebone warclubs which had been poisoned with fish gall, and sometimes wore elk hide cowls and body armor fitted with vertical hardwood slats (Densmore 1939:182).

At the present time, Neah Bay is the center of Makah population, the other villages having been abandoned in the late nineteenth century, except for Ozette, which wasn't vacated until the 1920's. Genealogies indicate that considerable intermarriage has gone on with nearby groups, especially the Nitinat of Vancouver Island, the Quileute, and Klallam (Gunther 1969).


At the time of white contact in the early nineteenth century, there were thirteen Klallam winter villages of various sizes. Those settlements were all scattered along the south shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, from the Hoko River to Discovery Bay, except for one located 20 miles inland on the Elwha River (Gunther 1927:177). The majority of villages were beach sites in sheltered coves on the salt water. Population figures for the Klallam are disparate; Gunther's estimate of fifteen hundred individuals seems reasonable (1927:180).

Houses in the winter villages were of the gable-roof type, with vertical arrangement of planks. House sizes ranged from small dwellings measuring 20 X 30 feet to large "potlatch houses" up to 200 feet in length (Gunther 1927:186). The interior house posts weren't carved, as they were in Makah winter dwellings. The inheritance of Klallam houses passed to the eldest surviving son, unless the building was jointly owned, as some of the larger houses were. The land on which a house stood was considered to belong to the house owner only as long as the structure stood (Gunther 1927:188). The older house types were in use until sawn lumber became readily available in the 1870's, according to Gunther (1927:186).

The lifestyle of the Klallam was quite typical of the generalized Southern Coast pattern described earlier in this review. Their primary economic orientation was salmon fishing, and since the Klallam lived along the Strait, virtually all species of Pacific salmon were available to them, either passing through the Strait or spawning in the local streams. Trolling, netting and spearing were particularly important fishing techniques in the Strait, while lattice-work weirs with single platforms were the most frequently used fish trap on the streams. Nighttime saw the most productive fishing at the weirs. The headman of a Klallam village owned the first and most productive weir on the local spawning stream (Gunther 1927:214). Steelhead, halibut, sling cod, and flounder were also taken, and because of the great variety of available species, fishing could be carried on throughout the year.

The Klallam living from Clallam Bay to Port Townsend traveled each year to Hood Canal for the salmon runs there, fishing alongside the Twana, with whom they had peaceful relations. When at their seasonal camps the Klallam dwelled in rectangular, gable-roofed rushmat summer houses.

Waterfowl were hunted extensively, being caught in large nets suspended from poles as they flew in to land on sand spits along the Strait. Ducks, swans and geese were also hunted at night from canoes, the hunter using a long-handled net. Other large birds, including eagles and seagulls, were also eaten (Gunther 1927:205).

Land mammals were of minor importance as a protein source for the Straits Klallam, although there was a great demand for hides, bone and antler. Consequently, each village had at least one individual who specialized in deer and elk hunting, and who was normally rather prosperous. Each village had another specialist who engaged in sea mammal hunting. Whales were not actively hunted, as among the Makah, but were pursued only when sighted by chance in the Strait (Gunther 1927:204).

The upper Elwha Klallam lived in a winter village a considerable distance up the Elwha River, at a site which is now under Lake Mills in Olympic National Park. Ethnographic evidence about the upper Elwha people is scanty, but since they lived in upland country, it is likely that their economic orientation differed from that of the Klallam living along the Strait. They undoubtedly hunted in the elk summer range in the Olympics and fished the river. Eells reports that the upper Elwha were feared by the Skokomish and other Twana groups, who believed that the Elwha collectively possessed a dangerous spirit power which they obtained at a small lake high in the mountains (1971:673). According to Gunther, the upper Elwha were often at war with the Quinault (1927:272). If this was indeed the case, such contact may have occurred in the Olympic Mountains.

Like the Makah living in the west, the Klallam were warlike people, and their name in fact is derived from a phrase in their language meaning "strong people." The people of Puget Sound and southern Vancouver Island regarded the Klallam as especially fierce warriors, and in every Klallam village, tall poles were erected for the display of enemy heads. Although most wars were fought for revenge, the Klallam occasionally conducted slave raids, their primary targets being the Puget Sound villages. The Klallam themselves were frequently raided by groups from the north, and several of their villages were stockaded for defense, according to Gunther (1927:184). At the time of white contact they were expanding their territory and were asserting claim to land formerly occupied by the Chimacum, a now-extinct group who lived on the Quimper Peninsula.


The Chimacum, a little-known group, spoke a Chemakuan language related to that of the Quileute and Hoh, who live on the Pacific Coast. Chimacum territory at the time of white contact was restricted to the Port Townsend area, and the number of winter villages they formerly inhabited is not known. The Chimacum may have suffered severe disease attrition in the early nineteenth century. By the middle of the century, their last known village site on the Olympic Peninsula was occupied by Klallam-speaking people (Gunther 1927:177) Klallam occupation of their territory probably occurred after the Chimacum were massacred by Suquamish Indians under the leadership of Chief Seattle in 1856 or 1857 (Powell 1981:5). Powell and Kinkade have presented linquistic evidence which suggests that at one time much of the northern Olympic Peninsula was occupied by Chemakuan-speaking people (1976).

Why the Chimacum seem to have experienced so much animosity from their neighbors is not clear, although the following quotation hints at possible explanations:

"the number of large scale attacks against the Chemakum suggest that they greatly provoked the other groups and also that they could not have been closely bound by kinship ties or by other social bonds to any of the other groups" (Collins 1949b:150).

The cultural isolation of the Chimacum has also been noted in a recent report concerning a probable Chimacum burial from Indian Island, off the Quimper Peninsula:

"The indications thus far are that the Chemakuan speakers, as probably represented by this individual, were a separate population with cultural barriers sufficient to maintain a separate genetic identity..." (Onat and Haversat 1977:21).

Whatever the cause, the Chimacum presence on the Olympic Peninsula was negligible by the time of white contact. We must assume that their economic orientation was similar in broad outline to that of their immediate neighbors, the Klallam and Twana.


Twana-speaking people inhabited the entirety of the Hood Canal drainage, living in about thirteen winter villages during the early nineteenth century. Groups living in only one winter village each included the Dabop, Quilcene, Dosewallips, Duckabush, Tahuya, Duhlelop, Hoodsport, and Vance Creek Twana. The Skokomish Twana were the most populous group, residing in five or six villages along the navigable stretches of the Skokomish River (Elmendorf 1960:263). The other Twana villages were sited at the mouths of streams on Hood Canal, except for the Vance Creek community, which was an inland settlement on a tributary of the south fork of the Skokomish. Winter villages consisted of two to four gable-roofed plank houses and often included several smaller shed-roofed houses as well. The seven villages on the Canal and the Vance Creek settlement were all locally autonomous social units who identified themselves as distinct ethnic groups, while the Skokomish villages were semi-autonomous and have been referred to as an "extended village community" (Elmendorf 1960).

Within the Twana speech community there was considerable variation in terms of economic orientation, settlement patterning, and social structure. The groups living on the shores of Hood Canal were primarily oriented toward salmon fishing and the intensive gathering of shellfish. They were very similar in adaptation to the Klallam in that the hunting of land mammals played a relatively minor subsistence role (upper Elwha Klallam excluded). Nonetheless, there were some land mammal hunting specialists, as well as waterfowl and sea mammal hunters, each of whom were imbued with their own sets of spirit powers (Elmendorf 1960:86).

The Skokomish Twana were also primarily salmon fishermen, but land mammals were of importance in their diet. The Skokomish were capable of multi-village organization, and in the late summer or early fall banded together to hunt elk at the headwaters of the south fork of the Skokomish River in the Olympic Mountains. Communal elk hunts required close coordination, and in those instances, the headman of the most highly-ranked Skokomish village served as the overall hunt leader who exerted direct control over the other villagers (Elmendorf 1960:401). The headman was assisted at times by specialists whose spirit power enabled them to slow down or weaken the game. The elk meat taken in communal hunts was dried over low fires in the mountains and stored in raised cedar plank caches until it could be transported to the winter villages (Elmendorf 1960:120). The Dosewallips Twana may have conducted similar elk drives in the mountains also. Elk were important enough in Skokomish subsistence that a "First Elk" ceremony took place which was similar to the "First Salmon" ceremony.

The Vance Creek Twana lived in a winter village along a tributary of the south fork of the Skokomish and were wholly inland or riverine in their habitat, never venturing to the salt water for summertime fishing or gathering. Land mammal hunting was a major subsistence activity, and they acquired saltwater food products only by trade (Elmendorf 1969:256). The Vance Creek people migrated together to a single summer village site from which individual families hunted and foraged, a distinct variation of the standard pattern of winter village dispersal. They kept few slaves and were partially dependent on down-river Twana for certain manufactured items, according to Elmendorf (1960:257). Elmendorf doesn't specify what those items were.

In general, Twana attitudes about slavery seem to have been slightly more relaxed than those of other Olympic Peninsula groups. The Twana did not practice organized slave raiding, but rather, slaves were purchased from neighboring groups or were captured from enemy raiding parties (Elmendorf 1960:345). Furthermore, the secret societies so prominent in Makah and Quileute life were relatively unimportant in Twana culture (as was the case with the Klallam).

It is rather clear from the accounts of Elmendorf (1960) and Eells (1971) that the Twana had undergone some sort of internal cultural differentiation. That is to say, different adaptive patterns had emerged within the Twana speech community, apparently in response to differing habitats and food resources. One wonders what the underlying cause may have been. Certainly, the Twana had been in the Hood Canal area for some time, because their language was unintelligible even to other Salish-speaking people. Elmendorf contends that by necessity, virtually all adult Twana were bilingual, speaking their own tongue as well as another Salish language (1960:282).

It may be that population pressure was necessitating the establishment of upriver villages on the Skokomish. Elmendorf notes that the Skokomish were the most populous Twana group, and had the most upper class lineages. There was a tendency among high-ranking Twana to construct permanent houses at their seasonal fishing sites. Elmendorf goes on to suggest that certain upper class families may have "fissioned-off" from their old winter villages, establishing new villages at favored and already established seasonal sites (1960:317). In a similar vein, the Vance Creek people perhaps branched off from their Skokomish relatives and became further differentiated. Similar pressures may have been at work among other Peninsula native people, as we shall see in the following sections.


The Quinault people resided in a number of autonomous communities along the Quinault River during the early historic period. They had over forty settlements, five of which were large winter villages located near the mouth of the river. Several of the upriver settlements were located within the present-day boundaries of Olympic National Park. Houses in the winter villages were oriented east to west on their long axis and had gabled roofs. The population at the time of white contact numbered between 750-1000 individuals (Wessen 1978a:32).

Their territory was well defined by the extent of the Quinault River watershed Olson states that the Quinault identified themselves as a distinct ethnic group because of that clear territorial delineation and the differences between the Salish dialect they spoke and the languages of their neighbors, the Quileute to the north and the Copalis to the south (Olson 1936). The Quinault were a fortunate group who inhabited an area rich in a wide variety of food resources. Several species of Pacific salmon spawned in abundance up the river, and Lake Quinault supported a large sockeye run. Such abundance in part accounted for their relatively large population and numerous settlements.

In several respects the Quinault typified the Salish Southern Coast pattern. They relied heavily on salmon for subsistence and maintained a large number of weirs and traps on the river. Like several other Salish groups (and the Makah), they raised a breed of small, woolly dog whose hair was spun and woven into fabric. However, they shared several important cultural features with their neighbors to the north and south which set their culture apart from the Southern Coast pattern. For instance, because their environment included a substantial amount of prairie land suitable for grazing, they were "the most northerly coastal tribe possessing horses in pre-European days" (Olson 1936:12). In his study of Olympic Peninsula native economies, Singh noted that Quinault nuclear families had "occupancy rights" to specific portions of the large prairies, akin to ownership. Families burned-off their portions of the prairies in the springtime to enhance the growth of camas (1956:43). Camas bulbs were dug in the early summer.

A large variety of land and sea mammals and birds were available and were important dietary constituents. Whales were actively pursued in the Pacific, although not to the extent that the Quileute and Makah hunted them, since whale migration routes were further offshore in the Quinault area. As did their northern neighbors, the Quinault whalers followed rituals involving the use of human bones, in the belief that the dead had power over the great beasts (Olson 1936:46). In aboriginal times the Quinault were the southernmost whalers in the New World.

Deer and elk were hunted throughout Quinault territory, but elk were most profitably pursued in the high elevation country above Lake Quinault. In the late summer, hunting and gathering groups consisting of nuclear families moved to the mountains, where they lived in pole and brush shelters. Women gathered grass for basket making and picked berries while the men hunted (Olson 1936:41). Special spirit power was a prerequisite to high elevation elk hunting, because of the inherent hazards and difficult travel conditions in the mountains (Singh 1956:75; Olson 1936:24). Quinault hunters occasionally came into contact with their Twana counterparts (Elmendorf 1960:286).

Some of the upriver Quinault settlements apparently supported small populations of one or two families each who wintered there. The residents of those communities were regarded with some disdain by the more prosperous people downriver. Olson's elderly informants referred to the upriver people as "outlaws" who were "always seeking trouble" (Olson 1936:19). By the time salmon runs reached the upriver settlements, they were depleted in numbers. However, salmon caught upriver had excellent preservation properties, because of their low fat content (Singh 1956:24). Although living conditions upriver were difficult, small human populations could be supported through the winter months with surpluses of elk meat and long-lasting salmon.


The Salish-speaking Queets people had fifteen settlements along the Queets River, the first major drainage north of the Quinault River. Probably only one or two of those settlements could be properly termed winter villages. There is little ethnographic data on the Queets, and they are usually discussed in the literature as a subgroup of the Quinault. Theirs was a mixed economy, like that of the Quinault, and the hunting of land and sea mammals was an important adjunct to salmon fishing and shellfish gathering. Surf smelt runs were important sources of protein in the Queets' area (Singh 1956:30). During the winter months, when the smelt were running, simple huts were assembled from driftwood on the beach for shelter. The Queets produced and traded high quality spruce root baskets, and there were important basket grass resources in their territory. Large numbers of black bear were hunted in the vicinity of the upper Queets settlements. Surplus bear meat was traded to the downriver people for salmon (Singh 1956:99). Several of the former Queets settlements were located within the present day boundaries of Olympic National Park.

Quileute and Hoh

The Quileute and the Hoh were Chemakuan speaking people who lived and worked in forty settlements of various sizes on the ocean coast and along the Soleduck, Calawah, Bogachiel, Dickey, and Hoh River drainages. According to Powell, at the time of white contact there were three large Quileute winter villages, one located at present-day La Push, while the other two were sited at the mouths of the Hoh River and Jackson Creek. There were several smaller winter settlements upriver as well (Powell 1981:5). The Hoh and Jackson Creek people are sometimes classified as distinct ethnic groups (Pettitt 1950:1; Olson 1936:12; Singh 1956). There is little specified ethnographic data on those two groups. Linguistic evidence suggests that the lower Hoh people may originally have been Quinault speakers who by late prehistoric times had become Chemakuan speakers (Powell 1981:5). At the time of contact, the Quileute and the Hoh probably numbered 500-600 individuals (Wessen 1978a:32).

The Quileute had a more diversified economy than either the Makah or the Quinault. Salmon were a mainstay in their diet, but they also hunted whales and other sea mammals, land mammals, and birds (Singh 1956:195). Large clearings were maintained so as to enhance bracken fern growth (Stallard and Denman 1955:84). Singh notes that steelhead were of particular importance to the Quileute because those fish could be caught in the winter (1956:28). Elk hunting was a very important economic pursuit and was sometimes done on an organized, cooperative basis. Hunting party leaders were empowered to designate a field butcher once an elk was killed. After the elk was dismembered, the leader was given the animal's back, and the butcher took as his share the fat from inside the carcass. The remaining meat was distributed equally among the other hunters in the party (Singh 1956:97).

Secret societies conducted important winter ceremonies. The largest society was the wolf ritual (or Blackface) society, whose members had warrior spirit power. The second largest society conducted fishing rituals, and fishermen as well as seal hunters were members. The smallest secret society was for the highly prestigious whale hunters. The weathermen society sang their ritual song in Quinault language, and the Quileute believed that the society could predict or change the weather and could cause whales to drift ashore and predict the location. Only the elk hunters' society is believed to have been an indigenous Quileute institution (Powell 1981:9). Membership in the societies could be purchased from other members or dictated by a spirit power (Pettitt 1950:15).

Deceased upper class Quileute were placed in canoes which were set in trees, along with ritually destroyed possessions (Russell 1971:25). The Quileute customarily buried the bones of a highly-ranked relative on the first or second anniversary of the death (Singh 1956:176).

The Quileute were warlike people and were reported to have fought with each coastal tribe between Cape Flattery and the Columbia River, although their most frequent enemies were the Ozette Makah. The Quileute frequently raided other groups for slaves or booty (Taylor 1974), and James Island (off La Push) may have been a defensive position during times of war (Stallard and Denman 1955:34). The Quileute decapitated their slain enemies and displayed the heads on poles as symbols of warrior prowess.

The Quileute were yet another group who seem to have been undergoing some sort of internal cultural differentiation. Their residential settlement pattern was expanding to include areas which had perhaps been used only seasonally before. According to Singh:

"The Quileute, after white contact, were moving and settling more and more towards the upper parts of the Bogachiel, Calawah and Soleduck Rivers, and they were coming to depend more on hunting than fishing." (1956:201)

Not only was the economic orientation of the upriver people changing, but their language and perhaps even their ethnic identity may have been undergoing change. An informant stated to Stallard and Denman that "some of the upriver groups had lived inland for so long that their use of the language differed slightly from that of the coast" (1955:63). According to Pettitt, the upriver groups had become so isolated from the coastal Quileute that "their relationship to the tribe was questioned. . . ." (1950:3).

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Last Updated: 03-Nov-2009