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Message - The Kalapuya of the Upper Willamette Valley
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Posted by  Kevin Matthews on March 22, 2002 at 22:03:27:

The Kalapuya

by Margaret Robertson
posted with permission


The Upper Willamette Valley has been populated by a series of native peoples for thousands of years. The most recent native American inhabitants of the Upper Willamette Valley were collectively called Kalapuya. They spoke 3 closely related but mutually unintelligible languages of Kalapuya linguistic stock: Tualatin-Yamhill (north), Santiam (central), and Yonkalla (south). They lived throughout the valley in bands ranging from 20 to 500 inhabitants. The band in the Eugene area was the Calapuya Proper. Several villages were concentrated near Eugene. An increased concentration of major tributaries in the Eugene area was more productive for subsistence activities, and therefore this was a more populous habitation area.

The Kalapuya did a little trading with people outside valley, but evidence suggests trading was limited. Indian trails crossed what is now Lane County along both north-south and east-west routes. Major routes through the Coast and Cascade ranges followed ridgelines. There were trails along all major river corridors.

As people became adapted to the plants, animals, and flood cycles of the Willamette Valley over the millennia, the population grew. The pre-contact population in the Valley is estimated at 10,000 to 12,000 Kalapuya. By the late 1830s, following a plague introduced by settlers, the population was 600. The Kalapuya are now extinct.


- 9500-6000 B.C. Paleo Indian Period
One Clovis point found in surface gravels, Mohawk River.
- 6000-4000 B.C. Early Archaic Period
Earliest camas oven, ca. 5860 B.C., found at Hannavan Creek near Fern Ridge.
- 4000 B.C.-200 A.D. Middle Archaic Period
Now fully adapted to full range of valley resources. Camas widely used. Sites on valley floor and foothills. Great variety of tools.
- 200 A.D.-1750 A.D. Late Archaic Period
Best known Willamette Valley time period. Tools same as Mid Archaic.
Hunting weapons shifted from dart and atlatl to bow and arrow.
- 1750-1855 A.D. Historic Period
1782-83: Smallpox epidemic swept from Missouri to Northwest.
Kalapuya population probably reduced to 2000-4000.
1830-33: Plague (flu or malaria). Brought by a visiting ship sailing up Columbia River. Plague made its way up Willamette Valley and to Sacramento River area.
1851: U.S. negotiated treaties with Kalapuyans, which were never honored. Kalapuyans were willing to cede most of their lands, but were adamant that they would never leave the Willamette Valley.
- 1855-56: U.S. government inaugurated a removal policy. Remaining Kalapuyans were forcibly removed and relocated. Indians living on Willamette River watershed were moved to Grand Ronde reservation, effectively terminating Indian presence in Eugene area.


The Kalapuya were hunter-gatherers. The emphasis in Kalapuyan subsistence was on vegetal foods, supplemented by hunting large and small game, as well as fishing for non-anadromous species in rivers and streams. Ethnographic data and early historical accounts indicate that the bulk of their diet consisted of vegetal foods. An 1813 report said: "Deer are numerous, but roots of various kinds, which abound, constitute their principal food." (There was no mention of salmon.) Major staples included camas, berries, hazelnuts, tarweed seeds, acorns, elk, white- and black-tail deer, small mammals, waterfowl, and non-anadromous fish.

Camas was the primary food staple. Roots were dug, then cooked in large rock ovens in the ground. Camas was sometimes made into cakes weighing up to 10 pounds, which were stored and eaten in winter. The earliest camas oven found to date is from circa 5800 B.C. at the Hannavan Creek site, on the east side of Fern Ridge Reservoir.

Tarweed (Madia) was another staple. Tarweed is similar to sunflower. To harvest, an area was set afire; the grass would burn, leaving the tarweed standing, with the problematic sticky black tar burned off. Seeds were then beaten into conical buckets, cooked, and ground into flour. Tarweed flour was sometimes mixed with cooked camas and hazelnuts.

Fishing played a minor role in Kalapuyan subsistence and primarily involved resident fish and lampreys since the Boring Formation at Willamette Falls on the lower Willamette River limited upstream migration of anadromous fish. The tendency for sites to occur all across the valley floor, away from the Willamette River, reflects a generalized hunting/gathering subsistence pattern with an emphasis on camas processing; it gives no evidence of dependence on anadromous fishing. David Douglas found that Indians he identified as the "calapooie tribe" fished exclusively with spears and appeared to have no knowledge of nets.

Unlike Chinookan Indians of the Northwest Coast and Columbia River area, salmon were relatively unimportant to the Kalapuya. Salmon were sometimes obtained in barter with Chinooks.

Lloyd Collins collected a list of characters in Kalapuya myths recorded in Melville Jacobs' Kalapuya Texts. Of the 57 animal characters, only one is a fish (Mudfish); there are no salmon in the mythology.

Fire Management

The Kalapuya significantly altered the surrounding natural landscape by setting fire to the prairie in the fall. Land adjacent to the Willamette River and other streams did not burn, allowing for maturation of trees and plants.

A party exploring the Willamette Valley in 1811 reported green, flower-covered prairies, riverbanks lined with oak and poplar, and hills in the distance. In 1826, David Douglas reported burning throughout much of the upper Willamette Valley. In the 1840s, immigrant settlers forced an end to the practice of large-scale burning. Palynological studies indicate the Willamette Valley has been dominated by oak savanna for more than 6000 years. Without fire management, the oak savanna would have given way to climax forests.

Burning was an important tool in both the collection and management of most species of plant food, e.g., camas, acorns, hazelnuts, tarweed, and grass seeds. It improved seed production, reduced brush undergrowth, and would have provided good habitat for tarweed, camas, hazelnuts, and acorns. The burning pattern produced an environmental mosaic, with an unusual abundance of edges—optimum habitat for edge species, including white- and black-tailed deer., who were driven into areas of limited size where they could be killed.

Fire was used in the circle hunt of deer and made hunting more productive. The burning restricted feeding areas where animals congregated, thus making them more easily killed. Game was frequently stalked by a single hunter, disguised in a partial hide of the animal, including a head with antlers.

Burning of prairies also provided good opportunity for collecting roasted grasshoppers, which were a delicacy.

Relationship to the River

Groups stayed within a limited geographic area, such as the watershed of a major tributary of the Willamette River. Each band occupied its own valley or basin formed by one of the larger tributaries of Willamette River, and shared its own dialect and culture. Each major river valley offered a range of riparian, lowland, and upland habitat types.

Kalapuyans were denied access to the salmon "harvest." Chinooks to the north were more permanent and more structured socially because they could depend on fishing. Kalapuyans, too, were riverine oriented, but for different reasons. Kalapuyan life followed the cycles of the river. The Kalapuya were a people who were greatly influenced by and lived within the rhythms of nature and the seasons. What they ate and where they lived depended on the level of the river at any given time.

When the valley began to flood, people came together in winter villages, located on higher ground at the edge of the valley. As soon as floodwaters receded, they dispersed into smaller groups and moved to warm-season streamside camping areas. Deer, bear, raccoon, rabbit, beaver, muskrat, turtle, and squirrel were found at streamside sites. Rich floodplain soil produced abundant plant food, particularly the moisture-loving camas. Seasonal flooding may have contributed to maintaining the open nature of low-lying areas.

Sweat houses were often built near streams or rivers, and were used for purification purposes, to bring good luck, and to promote spiritual feelings.

The Kalapuya traveled on foot or by canoe made of cedar, fir or cottonwood. A whole tree was used for a canoe, which was 14-30 feet long. Canoes held from 4-30 people. Canoes were propelled with 3- to 4-foot cedar paddles; 10-foot long, 1_-inch diameter hardwood poles were used in riffles.

The Willamette River was called Multnomah below the Clackamas River. Above the Clackamas it was known as Wallama, which meant to "spill or pour water." Joseph Gale, a settler entering the Willamette Valley in 1838 who conversed with Kalapuyans in their language, reported that every group pronounced it the same: Walama, accent on the last syllable, dwell slightly on the final letter. He indicated that "et" and "ette" were added by the French, who were the first Europeans to have contact. According to Gale, "This word is used by them to discribt [sic] the River, and not as a noun merely to name it."

Skinner’s Butte was known by the Kalapuya as Ya-Po-Ah, or "high place." These place names—Ya-Po-Ah, Willamette—pay small tribute to their long occupation of this territory.

Village Pattern

Archaeologists find three site types: low wet prairie (flood plain base camps), valley edge (hunting), and dry prairie (food processing; most subject to burning). The resources of each micro-environment—prairie, marsh, deciduous forest, evergreen-deciduous woodland—were within easy daily reach of inhabitants. The territory now known as Alton Baker Park was part of the range area. Its proximity to the river was ideal for fishing and food gathering.

Kalapuyans were seminomadic. Groups generally remained within a specific sub basin of the valley, moving on a seasonal round between winter villages and summer base camps.
People congregated in large winter villages as soon as the flood waters began to rise, staying from mid-October to mid-March. Houses were pole structures with bark roofs surrounded by earthen banks; each held from four to ten families. During the remainder of the year, people divided into smaller bands to harvest food and hunt on the rich floodplains of the Willamette River. They did not build summer homes, but occasionally constructed windbreaks of fir boughs. Summer base camps were used for harvesting tasks and were frequently revisited over the centuries. From these locations—winter villages or summer base camps—smaller groups went to task-specific sites to exploit upland or lowland resources.

Stone tools were made of obsidian, CCS, basalt. (Rounded obsidian pieces and basalt could be found in the river.) Tools included points, knives, drills, scrapers, gravers, reamers, spokeshaves, hammerstones, choppers, anvils, scraper planes (used in woodworking), pestles, mortars, abraded stones, and small stone balls. Unusual tools included a crescent, edge ground cobble, notched stones. A wide variety of other tools and components were made of wood and sinew.

Winter was a time for story telling. Stories conveyed morals, beliefs, and world view to younger members of the band. Animals played a crucial role in Kalapuya life and mythology.

Kalapuyan sociopolitical structure was not at the tribe level; bands were not united under a single chief. Each village was autonomous with its own headman. The Kalapuya were a peaceful, non-warlike culture.


Aikens, C. Melvin., ed. Archaeological Studies in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. University of Oregon Anthropological Papers, No. 8, 1975.

Boyd, Robert, ed. Indians, Fire and the Land in the Pacific Northwest. Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 1999.

Beckham, Stephen Dow, Rick Minor, Kathryn Anne Toepel. Prehistory And History Of BLM Lands In West-Central Oregon : A Cultural Resource Overview.
Eugene, Oregon : Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon, 1981.

Carter, Elizabeth, Michelle Dennis. Eugene Area Historic Context Statement. Eugene, Or.: The City, 1996.

Cheatham, Richard D. The Fern Ridge Lake Archaeological Project, Lane County, Oregon, 1982-1984. Report to the Portland District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Eugene, Oregon: Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon, 1984.

Cheatham, Richard D. Late Archaic Settlement Pattern in the Long Tom Sub-Basin, Upper Willamette Valley, Oregon. Eugene, Oregon: Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon, 1988.

Forester, Thomas B., ed., et al. The Cultural and Historic Landscapes of Lane County, Oregon : Summary Report of the 1986 Cultural and Historic Landscape Resource Survey. Eugene, Or. : The Survey, 1986

Mackey, Harold. The Kalapuyans. Salem, Oregon: Mission Mill Museum Association, 1974.

Walling, A.G. Illustrated History of Lane County. Portland, Oregon: A. G. Walling, 1884.

White, John Robert. Prehistoric Sites of the Upper Willamette Valley: A Proposed Typology. Doctoral dissertation, University of Oregon, 1974.


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