The Cultural Landscape of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site: Indian Country, pre-1824

Painting of a thatched structure in foreground. River and mountain are in the background.
1845 painting by Paul Kane, "A Chinook Traveling Lodge, with a view of Mt. Hood."

Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas

Excerpted from Vancouver National Historic Reserve Cultural Landscape Report. For more information on this report, email us.

Native Americans interacted with the Columbia River landscape occupied by the current Vancouver National Historic Reserve for thousands of years prior to 1824 when Governor George Simpson chose Jolie Prairie as the location for a new Hudson's Bay Company post. Archaeological evidence combined with ethnohistorical and ethnobiological information describes aboriginal settlement, subsistence, and land use patterns in the Vancouver region. The highest density of Pacific Northwest indigenous populations occurred in the Columbia Basin, and huge villages were located at the mouth of the Columbia River and nearby Vancouver Lake. Although current archaeological information has not yet unearthed evidence of a permanent Indian settlement on the Reserve site prior to the HBC era, oral tradition indicates that a Chinook village site named Ske-chew-twa was located on the nearby Kaiser Shipyards site.

Indigenous peoples used the area now occupied by the Vancouver National Historic Reserve to access the Columbia River for fishing, gathering food, and transportation; as a temporary residence; and as a trading post. Lower Columbia tribes' traditional lifeways, economic practices, and social customs were directly tied to the Columbia River landscape. The Chinook along the Columbia River lived in permanent villages structured around common family ties and language. They were skilled traders and traveled east and west along the Columbia River corridor to gather resources and exchange goods through a sophisticated trade network. In addition to hunting game and fishing, the tribes harvested plant materials for medicine, food, baskets, tools, and other cultural purposes. Salmon occupied a primary role in tribal economy, practices, and rituals.

Like the Chinook tribes, the Klikitat Indians and other interior peoples accessed the Columbia River, but in contrast to the lower Columbia River tribes' shoreline orientation, the Klikitat traveled north and south along the tributaries between the south-central Cascades and the Columbia River. The Klikitats' subsistence strategy was "prairie-oriented," moving with the seasons to take advantage of plant resources ripening at different elevations. The Klickitat Trail, an overland route from Fort Vancouver to The Dalles and Yakima, was a network of trails and prairies that connected the Klikitats' subsistence areas, and enabled the tribes to take advantage of trans-Cascade trade. Klikitat traded slaves, deer meat and skins, hazelnuts, huckleberries, camas, and cedar root baskets with the Chinook Indians. The Klickitat Trail ended approximately in the vicinity of the current Vancouver National Historic Reserve, although the exact terminus is unknown.

Pacific Railroad surveyors George McClellan (1853) and James G. Cooper (1853, 1855) examined the Klickitat Trail, and documented the prairies dotted along the route. Cooper classified the prairies as "wet" or "dry" and observed the Indians' practice of setting fires to maintain the dry prairies. Pacific Northwest tribes selectively burned areas to encourage root crop production such as camas and wapato; berry production; and acorn production from Oregon oak and hazelnut. Controlled burns also created grasslands favored by deer, elk, and waterfowl, and cleared underbrush to improve sight distance for hunting. Cooper recorded 148 prairie plant species; two-thirds of these prairie species are noted in the literature for their value to Native Americans for food, medicine, or artifacts.

The lower Klickitat Trail prairies mapped by McClellan and Cooper were called Alaek-ae ("turtle place"), Wahwaikee ("acorn"), Pahpoopahpoo ("burrowing owls"), Heowheow, Kolsas, and Simsik by the Indians according the J.F. Minter's records. Hudson's Bay Company settlers re-named these prairies "Fort Plain," "First Plain," "Second Plain," "Third Plain," "Fourth Plain," and "Fifth Plain," respectively. Cooper noted that First Plain through Fifth Plain were covered with good grass for horses, and eight edible berry species; he asserted that "berries form the chief food of the natives at this season (late summer)." Most of the plant species that Cooper identified in these prairies were early succession species favored by browsing animals such as deer and elk. Cooper and others observed that the prairies were circular or oval in shape, with "sharply defined borders," suggesting a controlled burn pattern of lighting vegetation from field periphery to center to avoid setting fire to adjacent woodlands.

Native American land practices, especially prescribed burning, set the stage for subsequent Euro-American use. Juxtaposed to dense, coniferous forests, open prairies were highly valued as settlement sites and grazing lands. Preferential use of these sites for agriculture and settlement (and fire suppression) has unfortunately obliterated nearly all evidence of these sites. In 1814 Alexander Henry described the plain that would become the site of Fort Vancouver ten years later.

February 6, Point Vancouver. The Land adjoining the river is low and must be overflown at high water; it is a meadow extending about 3 miles in length and at the widest part about 3/4 mile in breadth to the foot of a beautiful range of high Prairie ground rising about 30 feet. On the top of this Hill is a most delightful situation for a Fort on a Prairie of about 2 Miles long, and 2 miles broad, good Soil and excellent Pine in abundance in the rear...Bich (black-tail deer) are apparently very numerou sheer and Chevreuil (white-tail deer) also...The fire seems to have passed through the lower Prairie last Fall, and the green grass is already sprouted up about four inches in height.

When Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery passed through today's Portland/Vancouver area in 1805 and 1806, they encountered one of the largest populations of American Indians north of Mexico. The resident population of 4,000 to 5,000 Chinook people likely doubled to nearly 10,000 during spring salmon runs (Boyd and Hayda 1987). The salmon and rich river resources attracted both riverine and inland peoples, including Chinook, Cowlitz, Klikitat, Taidnapam, Shahala, Kalapuya, and Molala, who congregated in the area each spring (Doug Wilson, personal communication).

The journals of Lewis and Clark suggest that the intrepid explorers stopped at or near the vicinity of Fort Vancouver National Historic Reserve in November 1805 en route to the Pacific Ocean and again in March 1806 during their return trip. Lewis and Clark named the Portland/Vancouver area "Wapato Valley," after the wapato or arrowhead (Sagitaria latifolia). Wapato was a key root crop for many indigenous groups. William Clark described their first taste of wapato on November 4, 1805, at Neerchokioo, a large village on the Columbia River's south bank, stating that wapato had an "...agreeable taste and answers verry [sic] well in place of bread" (Moulton 2002: 17).

Lewis and Clark also described the complex mosaic of riverine, prairie, and forest systems that exemplified the pre-settlement, mid-Columbia Basin landscape, and historic conditions at present-day Vancouver National Historic Reserve. After stopping on the shore across from Vancouver Lake on November 4, 1805, Clark noted:

Here I landed and walked on Shore, about 3 miles a fine open Prarie for about 1 mile, back of which the countrey rises gradually and woodland comencies Such as white oake, pine of different kids, wild crabs with the taste and flavour of the common crab and Several Species of undergroth...a few Cottonwood trees & Ash of this countrey grow Scattered on the riverbank (Moulton 2002:17).

Ethnographic documentation coupled with early explorer accounts indicate that Columbia Basin natives deliberately cultivated the mixed forest and prairie mosaic occurring on the Vancouver site. The site's unique landscape composition and its advantageous river location were key factors in Governor George Simpson's decision to establish the new Hudson's Bay Company post at that particular location. It is critical to recognize that the cultural landscape history of the Vancouver National Historic Reserve includes this early human influence on the landscape, and that this first layer forms the basis for subsequent cultural landscape activities.

Map showing the area of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site as it appeared before 1824; with locations of prairies marked.
The area of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Reserve, as it appeared before 1824.

NPS Photo

Part of a series of articles titled The Cultural Landscape of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site