First People of Gresham

Posted by Gresham Historical Society & Museum on Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Gresham Historical Society_plank house 1

Suburban Gresham does not immediately present itself as an area of rich natural resources.  Many who live here today know very little of the area’s history prior to the arrival of European American settlers.  Before the subdivisions, cultivation, and logging, however, the rolling hills and rushing creeks of this area provided a home for Native Americans for over 10,000 years. 

An upper branch of the Clackamas Chinook lived in villages along the Columbia River.  Their villages were small, the structure family-based; like the Kalapuya and other indigenous peoples of the Willamette Valley, they lived in separate family-based bands that were politically autonomous.  Local headmen organized hunting parties and mediated disputes between villages but did not rule over them in the sense many would associate with a chief.  They shared a common language and coexisted peacefully with other villages, trading and intermarrying extensively.  They spoke a Multnomah Chinookan dialect that was related to the Lower Chinook spoken by coastal tribes but was distinct enough that neither group would have understood the other’s language. 

Villages consisted of up to twenty cedar plank houses, each containing multiple families.  During the warmer months, some villages traveled inland, living in temporary camps that moved depending on which natural resources were in season.  The East Multnomah County archaeological record shows that hunting parties sought mainly small game, including birds and small mammals, in this region.  Many modern Greshamites have found small projectile points (arrowheads) in their gardens, a testament to the abundance of wild game that lived here.

Lewis and Clark visited a village on Blue Lake with a name they recorded as Nechacolee (Nechacokee, ničáqʷli, ‘stand of pines’).  The village consisted of seven square houses in a row, all separated by narrow passageways but under one roof, in and around which 100-120 people lived.  They subsisted seasonally on wapato root, fish, game, nuts, and berries.  They traded with nearby villages and with more distant tribes to the east, evident in the obsidian they used to make arrowheads. 

Gresham Historical Society_plank house 2

Most of what we know about the indigenous people of the Portland Basin mainly comes from oral tradition, recorded over the past century and a half, and from the writings of European and Euro-American explorers and traders.  These sources can be flawed, not least because those writing them generally came from Western cultures and carried preconceptions of an inherent hierarchy of races and cultures.  Also, it is thought that up to a third of Western Oregon’s indigenous population died in a smallpox epidemic before first contact with European explorers in 1792.  Between this and the introduction of horses around the same time, Native people in this region lived very differently in the early 1800s than they had a century before.

A malaria outbreak, brought by sailors from the tropics in the early 1830s, killed an additional 90% of the Native population here.  This made it relatively easy for Euro-American settlers to displace the remaining indigenous people.  By 1860, all Native tribes and bands in Oregon had moved or been driven onto reservations, irreversibly jumbling and disrupting the remnants of their pre-colonization social structures.  The U.S. Government further confused the written record by overclassifying the diverse indigenous societies into groups and structures that often did not apply to them.  This has led to modern contention over many aspects of Native history prior to European American settlement.  Tribal members have spent the past century and a half fighting to regain the rights and recognition that the government denied them.

The majority of the Upper Clackamas Chinook were sent to the Grand Ronde and Siletz Reservations. Today, those reservations offer interpretive centers where visitors can learn all about the varied histories of the many tribes that comprise the reservations.

Gresham’s Native history is far from over.  Around 1500 of Greshamites today identify as Native. They can trace their heritage to tribes all over North and South America. 

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Categories: Gresham History

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