Table of Contents:

Group Size/Economics

Kalapuya and the Land: What Did the Willamette Valley Look like When the Indians Lived There?

The Willamette valley drainage basin consists of the following basins (from north to south and west to east): 1) Portland basin; 2) Clackamas; 3) Tualatin; 4) Yamhill; 5) Pudding; 6) Luckiamute; 7) Mary's; 8) Santiam; 9) Long Tom; 10) McKenzie; 11) Coast Fork; 12) Middle Fork. Of these, the Santiam basin is the largest and most complex. The Santiam basin also includes the Calapooia River, once lined with "mounds".

The drainage systems on the east side of the valley tend to be the largest while the western group (Tualatin, Yamhill, Luckiamute, Mary's, Long Tom and Coast Fork) are about half the size of the east-side sub-basins. Only the Yamhill approaches the size of the smallest east-side basins.

The Portland and Clackamas basins were occupied by Chinookan groups at contact. The Molalla occupied the uppermost areas of the east-side basins in the Cascades. The rest were Kalapuyan. The correlation between basins and language groupings strongly suggests that river basins were the basic social, economic and political units for Kalapuya speakers. Among the Kalapuya, the political groups specific to a named drainage are the Tualatin (Atfalati), Yamhill (Yam he lah), Pudding River (Ahantchuyuk), Luckiamute (Lakmayut), Mary's River (Chepenafa), Santiam, Long Tom (Chelamela) and Muddy Creek bands. The Calapooia (Tsankupi) are a sub-set of the Santiam drainage while the Mohawk and Chafan bands were in the McKenzie drainage. The Winefelly band was located in the Middle Fork and the Yoncalla (Ayankela) band along the Coast Fork spilling over into the Umpqua basin.

The earliest dated sites on the valley floor indicate that plant gathering has been an important aspect of human adaptation from the earliest solid physical evidence. Plants are relatively abundant, predictable, and sessile (they do not usually get up and walk away). They vary in nutritional benefits, taste, and costs to harvest in comparison to energy extracted. Throughout the Pacific NW, camas has been a major food source. In the Willamette Valley, three other plants (wapato, tarweed and acorns) are part of a bulb, seed, nut trilogy around which subsistence strategies were planned in association with hunting and fishing. In the lower valley including the Tualatin and Portland Basin, wapato replaced camas as the primary valued plant food. It is unknown at this time if wapato occurred in quantity at places like Lake Labish near Salem.

Gathering and hunting societies move to the wild resource, while agricultural societies move the resource to the group through manipulation of the environment, the plants, and animals (domestication). This fundamental difference is slightly blurred in the NW through the use of plant management techniques such as fire. Climax forests store most of their organics as woody material (cellulose). Fire burns the wood and the ash fertilizes the ground. Shrubs and grasses invade, with greater bio-diversity. In burning dry prairies, the Kalapuya were moving the prairies closer to themselves (expanding the size of local prairies).

Not only were the low areas being burned, but higher elevations as well. Burtchard and Keeler (1991) summarized the evidence for high altitude burning on the Mt Hood National Forest where the highest ratio of animal biomass to plant biomass is always found outside climax systems because there is more edible vegetation:

"Forest burning can maintain or expand grassland and parkland habitats thus improving its elk, deer and ultimately human carrying capacity. Given increasing population demands on available resources through time, we must assume that humans increasingly turned to enhancing resource potential through burning forest cover. The ability of humans to intentionally set fires coupled with the possibility of extensive (if infrequent) natural fires introduces a degree of chaos into the emerging pattern of low maturity and land-use in the maritime Forest. Even so, it is reasonable to expect intentional burning to be differentially directed to 1) those areas that were already productive habitat (rather than attempting to create new habitat out of mature forest), and 2) to drier areas that could be burned most effectively. If so, the basic low maturity pattern noted above should generally hold as outlined. The most dramatic effect of human induced burning should have been to enlarge the naturally occurring boundaries (Burtchard & Keeler 1991:42)."

The burning was even more extensive in the lowlands. As noted in previously, any of the three (physical, biotic, cultural) sub-environments can be changed. Change will happen primarily in the cultural, then the biotic and last in the physical, but all three are subject to technological manipulation. The smaller the society, the less the modification to the physical environment. Changes that do occur may be subtle, but there is always some change. As populations grew, the systematic burning of valleys and forests was done to manipulate the biotic environment to support increased populations. Less organics are tied up in cellulose, and more in valued plants... this in turn increase animal habitat and numbers. This is why I call burning "pyroculture", as it is a technology for increased economic production.

The gathering/hunting adaptation characteristic of Oregon emphasized plants as relatively predictable, abundant and sedentary resources and fish as relatively mobile, seasonally abundant and predictable. On the coasts, shellfish were exploited like plants. The only substantive plant and animal management system was burning as well as limited forms of private and joint ownership of productive plant patches. Emphasis was on seasonal scheduling and movement to exploit seasonal abundance of valued resources. Mobility was a positive factor in access to resources, but a negative factor in ownership of material goods and in child bearing. Spacing of children in gathering/hunting societies is the outgrowth of mobility. Populations grow slowly, but they do grow. The fact that burning began about 3,500 years ago in the Willamette Valley indicates population pressure had pushed the limits of naturally occurring plants and animals by that time. Thus burning was started to expand habitat for valued resources. It is known that groups like the Tualatin "owned" valued tarweed patches. It is now suspected that valued camas patches were "owned" as well, as groups of archaeologically derived campsite locations (reused in cycles) cluster around camas gathering grounds.

Robert Boyd's book, Indians, Fire and the Land in the Pacific Northwest (1999), contains a series of edited and updated papers written since 1957. There is data about cultivation of plants by the Kalapuya. David French did research on huckleberry burning derived from work on the Warm Springs Reservation. In his revised 1957 article he notes that:

"... the best data on tobacco come not from the coast itself, but from the explorations of the botanist David Douglas along the Columbia River, specifically from the area we have been discussing. Douglas not only reported seeing a plant (by implication cultivated) in the hands of an Indian at Celilo Falls, which was Sahaptin territory, but he also chanced upon a tobacco patch and collected specimens that are neither wild tobacco now growing in the area nor a species cultivated by Europeans (Nicotiana attenuata or N. bigelovii var.). The patch was located above Willamette Falls, in the territory of the Kalapuyan Indians, neighbors of Chinookan peoples (French 1999:33)."

Tobacco was planted in ashes provided by burning trees and the surrounding brush. Boyd revised his 1986 paper on Willamette Valley burning in this same book. He notes many examples from early explorers and early settlement for extensive and systematic burning in different seasons and for different reasons. The Kalapuya used fire in circle deer hunting, to harvest tarweed, grass burning to kill great numbers of grasshoppers, fire to remove duff in oak groves to make acorns more visible and remove brush, fire to improve deer and elk habitat, fire to improve hazelnut production, fire to improve and spread berry habitat, and fire to spread camas habitat.

"Astonishingly, some of the (Washington) prairies were composed almost wholly of camas lily, while others were nearly pure onion (Allium or Brodiaea), as if they were vegetable gardens. The implications are that the digging stick methods of harvest and use of fire were selectively capable of encouraging certain species to an abundance no one has seen since Leopold & Boyd (1999:146)."

"Nineteen plant species (within two general categories - berries and roots) were reported by indigenous peoples (British Columbia) to be enhances by periodic landscape burning (wild onion, camas, serviceberry, spring beauty, hazelnut, avalanche lily, strawberry, rice root, salal, tiger lily, gooseberry, raspberry, blackcap, soapberry, two types of blueberry, three types of huckleberry). Of the species mentioned, eleven are shrubby fruiting species, one is an herbaceous wild strawberry, and the remaining seven are herbaceous plants with edible underground parts. All of the species have the capacity to regenerate from underground rhizomes or buried storage organs (Turner 1999: 201)."

After 3,800 years ago "Some researchers postulate that during this period inland, up-river groups of indigenous peoples in southwestern Washington began using fire to maintain prairie and savanna habitats and subsequently increased their production and storage of important food resources" (Storm & Shebitz 2006:257).

Western Washington ecosystems that were indigenously maintained by frequent burning include open bunchgrass prairies, associated oak woodlands, oak/ash (Quercus garryana/Fraximus latifolia) riparian corridors, beargrass (Xerophyllum spp.) savannas, and low (600-800 ft., 183-244 m) to mid-elevation (1000-2500 ft., 305-762 m) patches of open grassland and berry grounds" (Storm & Shebitz 2006:257-258).

Storm and Shebitz test burned camas areas. They used control areas, and 1, 2, and 3 year burns to measure the spacing, time to flower and fruit. :The combination of these test results supports the hypothesis that frequent burning increases camas productivity by 1) increasing the overall number of mature camas plants available for harvest and 2) the season of harvest by extending the effective flowering-fruiting period" (Storm & Shebitz 2006:263).

The data suggests that populations were forced to modify the land in order to support themselves through "pyroculture". The archaeological record also supports multi-economic unit cooperation and sharing along the lines of the gathering/ hunting "fission/fusion/flux" model derived from !Kung Bushmen studies in Africa. In this model, people gather together, separate, and change in their groupings according to local resource availability and relative resource abundance. If the camas in "x"'s area is particularly productive, then go live with "x" with your family and take advantage of the "surplus" .... and one day "x" will come live with you when plants in your area are more abundant than his/hers (i.e. - store surplus as obligation rather than as thing that can rot). Groups fission into other groups, fuse into other groups and are in a constant state of flux, depending on demands and supports. But as populations rose and resources became more valuable, the access to, and control over, the resources would have become more elaborate and regulated. This tends to refine group identity and cohesion.

In the Willamette Valley, we need to look for evidence suggestive of growing sub-drainage basin differentiation over time as a reflection of such internal valley sharing and external valley competition. Language groupings tended to follow larger basins, suggestive of locally shared cultural environments in similar physical and biotic environments as opposed to other non-cooperating human groups. Each sub-basin seems to indicate that human groups cooperated more within the basin than across basins, and that this trend may be expressed in artifact styles over time... groups were fracturing into political sub-groups. The simple fact of language differentiation by basins is strong evidence for higher rates of internal interaction over external ones.

In the late period, the development of the "Chinook jargon" trade language suggests the need for increasing contacts across natural barriers for foot travel. Studies need to be done, but the big issue is sampling. Our sampling is so poor it is actually impossible at this time to say there is "evidence". I suspect that at some time in the future, we will find an increasing body of archaeological data that is suggestive of basin and even sub-basin differentiation.

The data, in my theoretical view, suggests that each drainage basin was a political unit containing many economic units where all of the resources or commodities needed for primary subsistence support of the groups living within them could be found. The accepted economic seasonal round model is based on winter village based gathering, fishing and hunting with warm season camps that followed the movement of ripening plants up the valleys. Lower elevations are warmer than higher ones earlier in the yearly cycle, so plants reach maturity at slightly different times as spring and summer move warm their way up the valleys. Gatherers are dependent on the wild plants, so as key species matured, they moved to exploit their seasonal availability.

Early explorers and Euro-American settlers described the valley as a mosaic of grassland prairies mixed with oak and fir savanna, oak covered hills and heavily timbered riverbanks and valley edges. Deer and elk were described as abundant. Most anadromous fish were blocked by Willamette Falls except for the spring Chinook run. The main stem of the river was lined with dense timber ranging from 1/4 to 3 miles wide and subjected to seasonal flooding where small lakes and marshes were abundant. This habitat was a major flyway for birds. The grasslands were opened and maintained by generations of Indians burning the land.

For the Willamette Valley the key plants were: bulbs (camas), rhizomes (wapato and cattail), seeds (tarweed and cattail), berries, and nuts (acorn, hazelnut). These plants provided a seasonally abundant and predictable food supply and all benefit from the fire regime, especially the fire resistant oak. About 3500 to 3000 years ago, the Kalapuya began setting fires in open areas, slowly extending their size. This reduced to amount of climax forest, and slowly opened up the valley into a grassland/oak forest mosaic between riverine gallery forests. Oak spread onto the hilltops and the grasslands opened up habitat for camas and tarweed. The wetter river gallery forests resisted burning and became sources for wood for camas ovens. The edge habitat of grassland/oak and gallery forest encourages berries as well and this was the perfect habitat for deer and elk. By burning, the Kalapuya were practicing a form of wild plant and animal management (pyroculture). Additional foods included "raspberries, blackberries, salmon-berries, strawberries, salal berries, wild honey and larvae, raccoon, squirrel, beaver, rabbit, ducks, geese, grouse, pigeon, trout, suckers, crawfish, freshwater mussels, caterpillars, grasshoppers and wood rats" (Bowden 1995:3).

Jerry Towle (1982) described the changing valley from records through the 1850's:

"There seems to be little doubt that the prairie-open woodland ecosystem which dominated much of the region was maintained through burning, Previous studies of nineteenth-century vegetation emphasizes this point. Observed incursions of woodland on prairie and the success of introduced trees effectively negates the idea that grassland is a natural climax. This historical record attests to the frequency of fires and that they were deliberately set. David Douglas commented on the extensive effects of burning in the lower Yamhill Valley, with only scattered spots near the hills escaping the flames. Breckenridge, in addition, to noting the effects in recent burning in the southern Valley, reported dense smoke from a huge prairie fire extending to the base of the Elk Mountains. Gustavus Hines found in mid-August that "The prairies had been all overrun with the fire a short time previous, and it was with difficulty that we could find sufficient feed for our horses" The report of the Wilkes expedition described the southern Valley as having "an inviting look form the fact that it had been lately overrun by fire, which had destroyed all the vegetation except the oak trees, which appeared not to be injured." (Towle 1982:71-72)."

"The Kalapuyah, then, through the agency of fire, exerted a very strong influence on the wild vegetation of the Valley. The dominance of oak and Douglas Fir may be explained by their resistance to fire. The oak possesses a thick cork layer which effectively insulates it against heat damage. Seedlings and new shoots may be destroyed, but trees no more than seven feet tall are able to survive annual burning of the rye-grass fields. Given a growth rate of four to six feet in four years, a site left unburned for several years could produce oaks large enough to withstand subsequent fires. An oak savannah, composed of scattered isolated trees developed as a result of fires destroying seedlings, thus prevented development of closed woodlands (Towle 1982:73-74)."

Camas grew on wet prairies, tarweed on dry prairies, wapato and cattail in swamps, hazel grew in dry semi-open or bushy areas and acorns came from the oak forests on low hills.

"The Indians are in the habit of burning the country yearly, in September, for the purpose of drying and procuring the seeds of the Sunflower (probably tarweed, Madia sp., although other species of the sunflower family may have been harvested in this manner), which they are thus enabled to gather with more ease, and which form a large portion of their food (Wilkes 1845 4:358)."

Spelling as in originals:

[back to top]


"The clover roots mentioned above are secured from "clover gardens" situated on low ground where a wild clover grows abundantly. There gardens are family property which cannot be sold or given away, but descend in the family by inheritance. The clover roots are dug in the fall after the leaves of the trees fall. Pebbles are removed and roots unsuitable for food are sometimes replanted, but otherwise the growth is unassisted by the owner" (Goddard 1924:77).

[back to top]

CAMAS (Cammasia quamash):

"The news from that quarter (Willamette Valley) is that beavers are numerous, but the natives, who are also very numerous, will not hunt them; their sole employment is digging roots, such as camass and waptoe, and stealing beavers from traps when opportunity offers (From Henry's journal of 1813 in Cous 1897: 777)."

"Camas was first harvested as soon as its shoots were about one finger high (sometime in March); however, it was not pit-roasted until farther along in the season. (Jacobs' Santiam notes [1928-36 #83: 135, 137], from Eustace Howard, state the early "fresh" camas, Di'p, was gotten in March or early April, often in gopher burrows where quantities of bulbs could sometimes be found; it was boiled at once and eaten, not pit-roasted.) Camas was considered fully ripe in June, when it was harvested in quantity, pit-oven roasted, dried for winter, and "pounded" into "a sort of bread" (pressed into cakes?). (Jacobs again has similar information from Howard, who indicates that the Santiam harvested the "large camas," mi.'s, in greatest quantity during June.) The camas harvest went throughout the summer. There is some evidence that Kalapuyans harvested well into the fall... (but this may be in error and refer to wapato) (Zenk 1976: 53-54)."

"The day proved to be very warm in the low valley. The Indians our neighbors were out early digging roots this operation is performed by sinking a strong hard stick in the ground near the roots to be dug then taking pry on the outer extremity of the stick a portion of earth containing from 2 to six roots is taken up the roots being the size of a small onion and much resembling the onion in appearance They are then washed and cleansed a hole of suitable size is dug into the earth filled with sticks and stones after the earth and stone become well heated is taken off and a Layer of grass laid over the hot stones the roots piled on the grass and a Layer of grass laid over the roots then a thin layer of earth over the whole and a fire outside of all which is kept up some 24 hours when it is allowed to cool down and the roots are ready for use of for drying and putting away for future use when dry they keep for months or years (Clyman 1960: 153 from his 1845 journal)."

"To maximize food and natural resources in an environment not as naturally abundant as the lower Columbia River and the coast, the Kalapuya followed a seasonal routine. Moving through a variety of task-specific sites and manipulating the environment through the use of fire to insure the availability of food and other resources necessary for their culture. In late summer, when a number of other Pacific Northwest tribes congregated at fishing sites to harvest salmon, the Kalapuya converged on the dry Willamette Valley meadows to set fire to its grasses in order to encourage the growth of camas (Cammasia spp.), the staple of their diet. Camas, a member of the lily family, requires open prairie habitat. Because geographical and climatological factors make lightning strikes in the Willamette rare, the valley would naturally have become overgrown with forests, and the camas would have become extinct. But the Kalapuya's intentional burning of the prairies at the end of each summer eliminated the camas's competition: shrubs and seedlings of climax species such as Douglas fir and bigleaf maple. Since the bulb of the camas lies hidden underground and dormant at the end of summer, fire cannot directly affect this vital portion of the plant. During the following spring, the bulb multiplies and sprouts, sending up tall green shoots with spikes of purple, blue, and sometimes white flowers. Grass buds, also underground and thus also protected from fire, sprout in fall and grow during the mild winter and spring, but provide no competition for the camas (Boag 1992: 12-13)."

[back to top]

TARWEED (Madia sp.):

"It was the custom of these Indians, late in the autumn, after the wild wheat, Lamoro sappolil (Chinook jargon) was fairly ripe, to burn off the whole country. The grass would burn away and leave the sappolil standing, with the pods well dried and bursting. Then the squaws (derogatory term), both young and old, would go with their baskets and bats and gather in the grain. The Lamoro sappolil we now know as tar-weed" (Applegate 1930: 178-179).

"This part of the Willamette Valley is a prolonged level, of miles in extent, circumscribed by woods, which have the appearance of being attended to and kept free from undergrowth. This is difficult to account for, except through the agency of fire destroying the seeds. The Indians are in the habit of burning the country yearly, in September, for the purpose drying and procuring the seeds of the Sunflower, which they are thus enabled to gather with more ease, and which form a large portion of their food. That this is the case appears more probable from the fact that since whites have possession of the country, the undergrowth is coming up rapidly in some places" (Wilkes 1845 Vol 4.: 358).

"As previously noted, each Tualatin winter-village group had its own tarweed-producing area within which individuals (at least, we would presume, wealthy individuals) owned their own sub-plots. These areas were set on fire about August. Women then went out with rawhide buckets and paddles; the seeds were beaten from the plants into the buckets. It is stated that each "lot" (individually owned plot) might produce 10-20 bushels of seeds" (Zenk 1976: 58).

"During the summer months the squaws gather various kinds of seeds of which the tar weed seed was the most prized. The tar weed was a plant about thirty inches high and was very abundant on the bench lands of the valley, and was a great nuisance at maturity. It would be covered by globules of clear tarry substance that would coat the head and legs of stock as if they had been coated with tar. When the seeds were ripe the country was burned off. This left the plant standing with the tar burned off and the seeds left in the pods. Immediately after the fire there would be an army of squaws armed with an implement made of twigs shaped like a tennis racket with their basket swung in front they would beat the seeds from the pods into the basket. This seed gathering would only last a few days and every squaw in the tribe seemed to be doing her level best to make all the noise she could, beating her racket against the top of her basket. All seeds were ground into meal with a mortar and pestle. The mortar was formed by forming a round hollow in the face of flat boulders, over which was placed a basket with a hole in the bottom to fit the depression in the rock, forming a kind of hopper to hold the seeds, then with a stone fashioned about two inches in diameter at lower end and tapering to the other end to a size easily grasped with the hand the operator would sit upon the ground with the mortar between her knees and would pound the seeds, using the pestle which was usually about ten inches long, and weighing five to six pounds" (Riddle 1920: 45-46).

[back to top]

WAPATO (Sagittaria latifolia)

"The Indians near Gaston, Oregon would build a fire on top of the ground as you build a bonfire today. Then, they would spread the ashes apart, put the Wapato in these ashes and cover them up with more ashes. Over the top of the fire, the natives spread a layer of dirt and cooked the tubers for 15 to 20 minutes. When done, the Wappato was mealy like a potato" (Dickson 1946: 38).

"The wapato was about the size of a pullet's egg and almost tasteless. It was baked in its jacket and wrinkled and dark on the outside. Mrs. Moses (informant - Modoc) said that she did not think they had dried or parched that batch enough. It takes steady drying for several weeks. In a typical Indian style they had piled a couple of bushels on the sunny side of the shed, and they would turn the tubers every few days with a pitch fork. The only trouble was when it rained a lot that year and those on the bottom did not dry out" (Smith 1982: 3).

"In this pond the natives inform us they collect great quantities of p(w)appato, which the women collect by getting into the water, sometimes to their necks holding by a small canoe and with their feet loosen the wappato bulb of the root from the bottom from the Fibers, and it immediately rises to the top of the water. they collect & throw them into the canoe, those deep roots are the largest and best roots" (Clark in Thwaites March 29, 1806: Vol. 4: 217).

[back to top]


"Burning the Willamette Valley also increased production of acorns, another important component of Kalapuya diet. Fire had little effect on mature western white and California black oak, whose corklike bark resists relatively cool ground fires fueled only by dead grass and low-growing shrubs.... Without competition from other trees, oaks not only produce more leaves but more acorns as well. And burning grass cover in late summer allowed natives to easily find ripe acorns that has fallen beneath the trees" (Boag 1992: 14).

[back to top]


"The point where two or more ecosystems--such as a prairie and a forest--intersect is a transitional zone ecologists call an edge or ecotone. Edges support the most diverse biological populations of the environment because plant and animal species native to both ecosystems and the transitional zone itself can be found there. At the edge between forest and prairie ecosystems, furthermore, waterflow from springs improves, and here too, grow a profusion of transition species of woody shrubs whose sprouts make up the primary food source for deer, which tend to be browsers rather than grazers. The Kalapuya consciously preserved edge both to support white-tailed and black-tailed deer populations and to encourage them in certain areas to make hunting easier. Douglas noted, "Some of the natives tell me it is done for the purpose of [indu]cing the deer to frequent certain parts to feed, which they leave unburned." Lewis Judson wrote, "These fir groves had been found necessary by the Indians to induce deer and other wild game to stay in the valley. The groves were undisturbed by fire... The Indians burned right up to imaginary lines, but never was the fire allowed to go past or to get out of hand. So some authority existed among then because the prairies were burned."" (Boag 1992:14).

"Shortly after the fires of late summer and early autumn, rains returned to the Willamette, encouraging grasses to green up in the burned-over areas. Elk, moving down from mountains at this time, and migrating geese, swans, ducks, and other fowl in both fall and spring concentrated to graze and feed among the fresh young grasses. This concentration made hunting easier" (Boag 1992: 15).

S. A. Clarke describes a deer hunt with fire based on information from Old Quinaby and Jo Hutchins. They stated that the eastern valley groups from the Grand Ronde to the Santiam and nearby Molalla cooperated on a great fall hunt. They moved out into a great square about the size of Marion county, with people stationed about a mile apart. On a given day they all stared fires to drive the game inwards. They walked and burned. When the circle was small enough to begin hunting, the best hunters went inside to kill selected animals (Clarke 1905: 89-91).

[back to top]


The diaries and letters of early explorers and settlers is full of descriptions of burning, and often the Indians gave differing explanations for the practice, but always it was to increase some valued plant or animal food (camas, tarweed, acorns, deer, honey, grasshoppers are some of the items mentioned).

"In summary, we may conclude that the annual burning of the prairies by Kalapuyans was a major factor both in the ecology of the pre-settlement Willamette Valley and in Kalapuyan subsistence. One way of indicating the significance of the use of fire might be to label it an adaptive complex: on the one hand, it formed an integral part of specific subsistence activities, especially in the gathering of tarweed seeds; additionally, it maintained the existence of large tracts of prairie and oak savanna and probably increased the extent of ecotonal areas in the valley, consequently likely of great significance to the whole pattern of Kalapuyan subsistence" (Zenk 1976: 24).

By burning, natural clearings spread until they connected up into larger valley-wide grasslands. This "pyroculture", a term I created, was a basic adaptation tool in the Kalapuya economy to expand and maintain their gathering and hunting lifestyle within a burgeoning population. The presence of "owned" tarweed patches has been expanded in recent studies to include the probability that camas patches were "owned" as well. Patchy resources lend themselves to separate ownership while heavily concentrated resources in specific habitats do not. For example, Zenk (1976: 17) notes that Wapato, concentrated at Wapato Lake in the Tualatin territory was used by all of the groups together.

In Kat Anderson's (2009) study of wet prairies near Ozette in Washinton, four cultural purposes for systematic burning were examined.

1) Improve game habitat: "It facilitated hunting by increasing visibility and access to animals; it lured the animals to the open areas to congregate by encouraging the growth of new lush vegetation; and it maximized the quality and quantity of food available to those animals" (Anderson 2009:47).

2) Enhance productivity of below-ground food plants: "Bracken fern patches in the Ozette Prairies were burned and cultivated for edible rhizomes, as well as fiddle heads for food and medicines and fronds for cleaning and serving fish" In addition, bracken ferns deeply buried rhizomes sprout vigorously after fires. Fire favors this fern. (Anderson 2009:49).

3) Enhance productivity of above-ground food plants: "... being burned specifically to enhance production of both Indian tea and the many types of berries that grow there" (especially cranberry marsh areas) (Anderson 2009:50).

4)Keep the wetlands open: "As open habitats, wetlands served as corridors for easy travel, offered sites for temporary camps, and created landscape diversity in a land otherwise swathed in forest." (Anderson 2009:52).

What follows are a number of quotes from various sources on what I believe is the primary human adaptive system for the Willamette Valley, pyroculture, or the use of fire as a resource management tool to increase valued plant and animal production. I feel that is important to overstress this point with extensive quotations:

(From David Douglas journals) "Saturday 30th September 1825: Most parts of the country burned; only on little patches in the valleys and on the flats near the low hills that verdure is to be seen. Some of the natives tell me it is done for the purpose of urging the deer to frequent parts, to feed, which they leave unburned, and of course they are easily killed. Others say that it is done in order the better to find wild honey and grasshoppers, which both serve as articles of winter food (Davies 1980:94). Thursday October 5th: Camped on the side of a low woody stream in the center of a small plain --- which like the whole of the country I have passed through, is burned" (Davies 1980: 96).

"(July 2nd, 1834) The Indians set fire to the dry grass on the neighboring hill, but none of them came near us. The plain is also on fire on the opposite side of the Willamet" (Scott 1923: 264).

"This part of the Willamette Valley is a prolonged level, of miles in extent, circumscribed by the woods, which have the appearance of being attended to and kept free from undergrowth. This is difficult to account for, except through the agency of fire destroying the seeds. The Indians are in the habit of burning the country yearly, in September, for the purpose of drying and procuring the seeds of the Sunflower, which they are thus enabled to gather with more ease, and which form a large portion of their food. That this is the case appears more probable from the fact that since the whites have had possession of the country, the undergrowth is coming up rapidly in places" (Wilkes 1845: 4:358).

"On the west face of the Cascades the Molallas claimed dominion, and fire was their agency in improving the game range and berry crops" (Minto 1908: 153).

"Matthieu found the country of the french settlers even more beautifully diversified than at the present, the practice of the Indians, then but recently discontinued, of burning the prairies over, having brought the whole country for miles together to the condition of a park" (Lyman 1900: 88).

"(Feb 9th, 1852): Previous to the settling of the country by the white people the Indians were in the habit of burning off the grass every summer which prevented berries and such things from growing except about the streams and for that reason they are not very plenty in the new settlements" (Hargreaves 1928: 262).

"The Indians had kept the brush burned down, burning over and now in many places the grass has given away to moss and timber" (Goodall 1903: 70).

"Perhaps the most striking and attractive feature of the Willamette was the tall grassland of the valley bottoms and the oak parkland of the low interfluves. The grass, "as high as your saddle sometimes", was annually regenerated by Indian burning, which was intended to facilitate the hunting of deer (by restricting their grazing grounds and by encircling them with a decreasing ring of fire), the gathering of grasshoppers, wild honey, sunflower seeds, and "wild wheat" (tarweed), and the sighting of enemies. With the decimation of the native population by disease and warfare, the grassland reverted to woodland. But the earliest settlers found numerous and extensive prairies of good land with handsome islands of timber interspersed here & there" (Gibson 1985: 1280129).

"Prehistorically, the Willamette Valley's native peoples annually burned the valley floor to maintain a vegetative cover the provided food necessary for their diet. This burning created in the valley large meadows interspersed with oak woodlands. Dense forests developed only in the foothills and along streams and rivers, where cooler and moist conditions prevailed, limiting the effects of fire" (Boag 1992: 1).

"The natives' use of fire in the valley encouraged the vigorous growth of tall grasses ... The native peoples called these long grasses kalapuya. When Europeans came to the valley of the long grasses, they used this Native American word to refer to the Willamette's people, thus dubbing them the Kalapuya" (Boag 1992: 3).

There is no doubt that the use of fire was a deliberate plant and animal management resource management strategy. It was done to increase the productivity of targeted plants and animals. It was a form of intensification. It was the central aspect of Willamette Valley economies. It was the valley adaptive strategy to support growing population densities.

[back to top]


Zenk's 1976 study on the Tualatin (Atfalati) notes that they lived in hamlet groups of from 15-20 winter villages and that there were at least 17 and perhaps 21 such groupings in the Tualatin drainage within the knowledge of informants. The informants were giving data from an era of great disruption and chaos after Euro-American contact and waves of disease had hit the region.

"It is stated that areas where tarweeds grew were "allotted" to each "band" (winter-village group), plots within these "allotments" being in turn individually owned, but that hunting districts were not "allotted" "(Zenk 1976:17).

Bowden (1995) notes that dried camas cakes (Um Punga) was a trade item, even deep into winter, suggesting surpluses were available in the valley. He found citations for camas digging in March, April, May, June, July, August, September and early October. In Idaho and Montana, Thoms (1989) estimated that perhaps 50% of the winter and 10% of summer foods came from camas. He goes on to suggest that winter villages occur in clusters near camas patches. Roulette (1993: 10-12) has indicated that the mound sites on the Calapooia probably represent intensification of camas exploitation and were home bases and that population growth promoted kin-based ownership of camas patches along the line for Tualatin tarweed patches. He notes that Suttles (1987) found that Coastal Salish groups owned camas grounds privately.

"I believe that by approximately 3000 B.P., the inhabitants of the upper Willamette Valley relied so heavily on camas that its distribution and their gathering and processing of the resource largely determined where settlements would be and how long they would be occupied."

"Archaeology along the Long Tom River, Little Muddy Creek, and the Calapooia River .... suggests that clusters of midden/mounds are often located within a few miles of one another. Using comparative information for the Tualatin Kalapuya, it may be reasonable to suggest that each of these clusters represents the domain of a family-based group. At least 17 Tualatin families were identified individually by their winter village locations around the Wappato Lake area.... Using Gatschet's field notes, Zenk (1975: 17) noted that the areas in which tarweed grew had family-based territorial boundaries whereas hunting grounds did not. Family ownership of territories would have served to prevent over-exploitation of camas grounds as well as tarweed locations" (Bowden 1995:27-28).

Descriptions of camas processing have been published over and over, but there is a new source (Cawley 1994: 32-33):

"At a little farm amid the forests lives one of the oldest of the Indians, known as Yamhill Ilkin, But his aged squaw pronounced it "Che-ahm-ill Il-kill"....Yesterday, in a large bowl-like excavation on the hillside previously lined by her with flat stones, she lighted a large fire, keeping it well fed with bark and brush till the stones and surrounding soil were thoroughly heated. In the after part of the day, this being accomplished, she removed the brands, swept the oven clean and filled it with the bulbs. The plant is Camassia esculenta, bearing an "onion" about an inch in diameter and found in abundance all over the low grounds of Willamette Valley. Two or three inches of stem are left on the root in the gathering, and a bushel or two is cooked at one time. In this instance more than the average went into the cavity, for Ikill's family are industrious camas diggers. The camas being properly heaped, leaves were piles on top in a thick layer and mingled coals and ashes spread over the whole, deep enough to keep hot for some days. The pile in its finished state is now several feet in diameter and a cloud of smoke ascends from its mound-like surface. In two days, she says, it will be cooked. After that, she will reheat the oven and fill it again."

"Ikill and his family are very fond of this food in winter and she always gets "many sacks" and kegs full of it. When taken out of the oven it is black, a little shrunken in size, sweet and palatable, and it will keep any length of time. Two younger women belonging to the household are out gathering more now. The digging is performed "with any pointed stick, so long" (about three feet) "with the point of a buck's horn fixed upon the top to take hold of." This "root-digger" tool is not confined to camas, but does duty for the many other roots that find place in the native larder. Only women and girls used these, the younger men looking on admiringly while each female strove to excel, for to be a good camas-digger was an accomplishment" (Cawley 1994: 32-33).

"This morning, at old Ikill's, we saw another preparation of camas. On a table near the baking-mound was a layer of the fresh roots, while an Indian, a stranger to us, stood gently pounding it. He was using a short, polished, stone pestle, with one end abruptly enlarged and this knob flattened so that the pestle would stand erect. It was held upright and the flattened end was the pounding surface. As the bulbs were pulverized, they were heaped on one end of the table and other took their place. "This I pound, pound, pound," said the worker, whom Ikill addressed as To-yu-sah, ... "until very fine. Then squaw takes a basket, hugged against herself with her left arm, and holds a stick in the right hand in this way" -- an excellent pantomime accompanying his words about how she scraped off the pulverized camas into the basket. "The basket is shallow and not more than half full. Now burn the root, not black, but brown, like coffee, by shaking over the fire. Lay it away then wait for winter. In the cold months, when needed, take it out of the sack, put in a stone mortar and grind into flour with long stone pestle; and make into a cake, sometimes mixed with dry grasshoppers. Cook like bread. Then eat it!" "(Cawley 1994: 38-39).

Darby (1996) has explored the possible intensification of wapato (Sagittaria latifolia) use because it was cost effective to harvest, it was very abundant, but it leaves no physical traces in its processing (unlike camas). Wapato did not require grinding, mashing, cutting or trimming nor earth ovens to bake it for days with heated rocks... a simple hearth would do as they cook in about 10 minutes. It was sufficiently productive, predictable and abundant to serve as a staple food. It dries easily and will keep dried for long periods. Wapato was so important that Lewis and Clark called the future Portland Basin Wap-pa-too Valley, and Sauvie Island was named Wapato Island. The Chewaucan River in the Lake Abert Basin in southwest Oregon means Wapato River (1996:47).

The Katzie on the Lower Frazier River owned wapato patches as family groups. Informants named nine patches that belonged to one family as well as a large public patch that families could seasonally claim by clearing the shore for collection (Darby 1996: 48-49).

Darby did some experiments in harvesting wapato:

"The high estimate of available wapato on Sauvie island in a typical year is 4,656 metric tons. The low estimate, based on what percentage of tubers float, is 2,313 metric tons. If .633 metric tons of wapato would feed a family of five, the highest annual wapato harvest would feed 36,777 people. If we use the low estimate of 2,313 metric tons, this production would feed 18,270 people. Lewis and Clark's highest estimate for the Island is 1,810. I have already noted that the highest estimate for the region in 1805-6 was 27,000 (excluding Tualatin)(Lewis and Clark in Hajda 1984). Estimated wapato production on Sauvie Island could have supported a significantly higher population than had been reported for the Island" (Darby 1996: 94).

Since wapato can be collected for at least 250 days of the year, storage of the nearly metric ton for a family of five is not the issue it may have been for foods like camas. There are historical notations of fairly large scale wapato storage in baskets under bed platforms and in large storage cellars under the floors of houses (Zenk 1976).

Zenk goes on to note that:

"The Kalapuyan subsistence base seems to have been diverse, requiring access to a variety of riverine and upland and lowland habitats. Thus, winter-village groups were perhaps relatively small, with each necessarily having access to a comparatively large territory. Therefore, the loose organization of Kalapuyan local groups into larger dialectic-ethnic units (the specific organizational structure of which is, or course, unknown) could have had an adaptation significance: such a form of organization would have provided a territory large and diverse enough to offer each local group sufficient access to an adequate range of subsistence resources, but at the same time it would have kept population suitably dispersed by preserving the separate existence of small local groups. The treaty territories indicated for the Kalapuyans seem to bear out the possibility that this was an aboriginal pattern: each "tribe" or "band" elsewhere documents to have probably been a dialectical-ethnic entity seems to occupy its own valley or basin formed by one of the larger tributaries of the Willamette River; each such major valley offered a range of riverine, lowland, and upland types of habitat" (Zenk 1976:17-18).

Connolly (1983)suggested that a single subsistence-settlement model did not account for the variability between the Mohawk, Lower Coast Fork and McKenzie-Willamette confluence regions. It may be interesting to look for regional variations between the Calapooya, Pudding and Yamhill areas. Unfortunately, the Pudding is among the least well known areas, and little work has been done on the Yamhill in recent years. "Although the Kalapuya ethnographic data are limited, it seems clear that each named Kalapuya group was comprised of an autonomous village or villages which held in common certain resources within a defined territory" (Connolly 1983: 30).

Connolly tested White's model in Lane county for 240 sites covering 1,500 square miles. He found that "no Riparian sites, the principle Kalapuya base camp according to White, occur in the area... That no base camps really occurred here is simply ludicrous given the fact that at least four Kalapuya groups resided wholly or primarily within the study area" (1983: 30). Connolly's findings, if the samples are good, clearly demonstrates that there is no pan-valley settlement pattern model. The patterns he found appeared to be regional and applicable more to sub-basins than the valley as a whole.

According to Zenk, and as presented in Minor (et al. 1980: 59) the following seasonal activities took place in the Tualatin region (Spring: Mar-May; Summer: June-Aug; Fall: Sept-Nov; Winter: Dec-Feb):

March-Decembercamas harvestingmoist habitat
April-JulyFishing: spring chinookWillamette Falls
June-SeptemberBerry pickinglowland and upland
July-AugustHazelnut pickingdry bushy hills
July-AugustCaterpillar collectingBottom land ash trees
July-DecemberFishing: silver, chum, fall chinookTrask River
September-Novembertarweed harvest, grasshoppersdry prairie burning
August-Decemberwapato harvesting*shallow lakes
Octoberacorn collectingoak woodlands
October-Februaryelk herd hunting*open valley bottoms
November-Maydeer herd hunting*dense brush in hills
January-Aprilfishing: winter steelheadTualatin, Yamhill
year roundwaterfowl, rabbit, squirrel, trout, sucker marshes, mixed open,brush, streams

*Key season but available almost year-round.

The picture of the Willamette Valley you should come away with is a carefully managed ecosystem designed and controlled by fire and harvesting practices. The valley evolved from a heavily forested climax regime into small dry meadows opened up by burning. Over time, these meadows grew like strings of pearls along travel routes, ridge lines, and up sub-basins. These merged into super-meadows resulting in the large mosaic of grassland-oak and riverine forest found by the early Euro-American explorers and settlers.

The prairies were probably dominated by specific plant species managed by harvesting and fire. Prairies looked like farm fields growing mono-crops. Ash was the fertilizer. Burning reduced disease and insect problems. Camas harvesting with digging sticks tilled the soil. This, mixed with fire, produced a more abundant crop and apparently increased bulb size.

Pre-burning of the grass-Tarweed fields allowed systematic harvesting of the seed and would help missed seeds to be broadcast, producing greater abundance (mono-cropping). Burning of oak forest duff to make acorns more visible produced a park-like tree culture. Burning reduced tree disease and insect damage as well. Burning of hazelnut trees helped in the harvest and spread trees to new habitat.

Members of Kalapuyan society probably held religious powers associated with burning as noted among the Spokan:

"These individuals (burners: /?ur'sict/) apparently were afforded complete control over deciding the frequency and strategy of burning economically significant resource areas. "Burners" also were responsible for directing the clearing of trails of unmanageable debris or blow down, and the clearing of important springs and game water seeps within a group's territory" (Ross 1999: 285).

The concept that the Indians did not manage or own the land is simply wrong! The Indians had sophisticated knowledge of plant ecologies. Their knowledge of plants was broader than just those of immediate economic benefit. The settlers were moving into the carefully designed and engineered fields that were the product of over 3000 years of systematic ecological management and evolution.