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Indians of the Siuslaw Valley

Indians of the Siuslaw Valley
By Pat Edwards
It is uncertain exactly which tribes used the Siuslaw Valley as their "territory". By
the time that William Martin first arrived in the valley in 1850, the tribes in the area had
already been decimated by epidemics of white man's diseases which had spread like
wildfire throughout the Pacific Northwest tribes. Many of the smaller groups had already
intermarried with members of other tribes. It was known, also, that families occasionally
changed allegiances by moving into a neighboring village. Thus, there is little way of
pinpointing our local predecessors.
The nearest tribes in the area were the Chelamela, the Yoncalla Kalapuyas, the
Siuslaws, and the Lower Umpquas. All spoke Chinook jargon, made up of 500 words, which
evolved from the various tribes. Primarily, they had the same type of life-style. Their chief
food sources came from the abundant plant and animal life in the Siuslaw Valley. Their
main staples were acorns, hazelnuts, camas, fish, roots, game and berries. The local tribes
regularly practiced field burning to harvest dried wild wheat pods and to control the
growth of vegetation. They took advantage each fall of the plentiful supply of salmon
provided during the salmon runs in the Siuslaw and Smith Rivers and the connecting
streams. They traveled throughout their territory on foot or by dugout canoe, usually made
from a cedar log. Few horses were owned by the Indians in the coastal and inland valley
areas. Those that were owned were symbols of prestige.
In a thesis he wrote for a University of Oregon project, Ron Thomas, a former
Loranian, wrote, “It is believed that at least two villages were once located within the
radius of the Siuslaw Valley. It was considered Siuslaw tribal domain, although land
ownership was not recognized among the tribes. It was a tribal belief that all land belonged
to all people to share and to use equally. According to Dr. Dell Hymes, Professor of
Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, the tribal members were believed to be a
very peaceful and quiet people. Villages were family units with a head man. There was ‘no
concept of belonging to a large group or tribe with a supreme leader.’ The members chose
as their leader someone who had the necessary abilities and skills to make decisions for the
tribe. Theirs were usually democratic and community-oriented societies.”
The tribes lived in winter homes constructed of planks and bark. The average house
was approximately 40’x 80’ and housed several families related by blood or marriage. Each
family laid claim to a fireplace, sleeping quarters and storage benches within the house.
Occasionally, mats or wood partitions were put up for privacy between families. The house,
utensils and tools were all considered community property. A leader was chosen for each
Each spring, the members of the tribes would often leave for their favorite hunting
or gathering grounds, living in temporary shelters all throughout the spring and summer
months. There were no strict territorial boundaries between the tribes and most seemed to
agree that no man should own the land, and they respected the areas where their
neighbors dwelled.
Wherever the members of the tribes roamed, a sweatbath was an essential part of
their daily routine. It was considered absolutely critical to their hygiene requirements and
religious laws that they take time for their sweatbath each day. An enclosed area was built
and rocks were heated to a degree that when water was poured over them, they would fill
the room with steam. After sitting in the forerunner to today’s steamroom long enough to
do more than just “glisten,” the Indian would leave and immediately jump into a nearby
stream where he cooled off quickly. One of these sweatbaths was believed to have been on
the property once owned by the Gilbert family. Members of the family believe that there
was an Indian village located in the same area.
Ron Thomas’ thesis continued, “...Tribal religious leaders were called “shamans.” It
was their practice to go for days without food and water. Climbing to the highest elevation
possible, they built a fire. They would then enter a dream-like state while sitting before the
heat of the flames. The dreams that came to them were believed to contain prophecies and
were regarded as significant guides to the life of the tribe.
“Intermarriage among the tribes of the Siuslaw Valley was widely practiced and the
individual tribes soon began to meld. Intermarriage between the Lower Umpquas and the
Siuslaws was so common that they could be considered the same tribe. Bride prices were
placed on the women of the tribes and established the social ranking of the various
families. The higher the bride price, the higher the families were ranked socially.
“Slaves were taken and traded among the tribes of the Siuslaw Valley, but not
extensively. More frequently, the members of the local tribes were victims of the slave
trade. Other northwest tribes such as the Klickitat and Haida would invade their domain
and take members of their less aggressive neighbors as slaves. Physically, the Siuslaw
Valley tribe members were rather fair skinned. They also did not participate in the practice
of head flattening as other northwest tribes did. Their round-shaped heads were deemed a
sign of inferiority, and because of this they were considered “slave quality.” To try and
combat their desirability as slaves, Chief Halo (whose real name was Camafeema, meaning
‘ferns that grow from the ground), of the Komemma band of the Kalapuyas instituted the
practice of facial tatooing to make the women of his tribe unattractive to the raiding
Klickitats. Raids and kidnapping weren’t the only ways that tribal members found
themselves enslaved. Their love for (and failure at) gambling led many to a life of slavery.
Slavery among the tribes was inherited, as well. Children of slaves were also considered
“In the 1830s, before the arrival of the white settlers, a vast malaria outbreak
devastated the tribes of the Siuslaw Valley. Much of the population was wiped out.
“By the early 1850s, just after the first white settler arrived in the Siuslaw Valley, a
series of treaties was made between the United States government and the remaining
members of the tribes in the area. Following the treaty-signing period, the tribes were
ordered to one of four or five reservations set up for them in Oregon. In late 1856, twenty
local tribes of once strong and proud Indians were moved from their lands to the Siletz
Reservation on the Oregon coast. Reservations in California and the Northwest, first
established in the 1850s, became the models for nearly all other Indian reservations west
of the Mississippi.
“The roads in the Siuslaw Valley began as Indian trade routes. After the white man
appeared on the land, they were expanded into stagecoach routes, and eventually became
the roads that we know today. The route along what is presently called Territorial Road
was once known as the ‘Halo Trail’ (named after Chief Halo), or the ‘Oregon Trail of Tears.’
It was along this trail that the remaining tribes of Southern Oregon were moved to
reservations in the north. In the name of progress, sickness and death further decimated
the once proud members of the tribes on their trek to their new home.
“Many Indian artifacts have been found in the Lorane area. The area surrounding
the former Springhill Ranch (now part of King Estate Winery) at the top of Stoney Point, is
considered to have been one of the acorn gathering and processing centers for the nomadic
tribes. These activities would have made it an important social center for the various
tribes. Tribal intermarriages, trade, games, and gambling took place there. The Sanderson
family, who lived on the ranch for many years in the early1900’s, found some wellpreserved pieces there. One, a valued ceremonial pestle, was returned to representatives of
the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and the Siuslaw tribes by Luella
Sanderson Hazel in a special ceremony in 1994. In about 1905, Mrs. Hazel’s brother,
Charles Sanderson, took it away from the family dog who had dug it out of a gopher hole in
the lawn. The Sanderson family had always displayed it in the family home, but Mrs. Hazel
felt that it should be returned to its rightful owners. When former Loranian, Ron Thomas,
learned of the artifact while researching a paper for a college class, he facilitated its return.
In appreciation, the Confederated Tribes presented Mrs. Hazel with a polished wood
plaque in a special ceremony. The pestle, honed from a non-native brown-colored rock and
polished smooth was free of nicks and dings. Since it obviously had not been used for the
‘daily grind’ it is believed to be a special one used for ceremonies only. It has since found its
permanent home in the Bandon Historial Museum in Bandon, Oregon.”
Velma Wills Mitchell recounted a story that was passed down to her from her family
about the Indians in the area. The Wills family lived on their 160-acre ranch, named Bunker
Hill, that she and her husband, Jake Mitchell, still own. It is located approximately 5 miles
north of Lorane on Territorial Road, across from the entrance to the present MarlowJackson Road. If the old oak trees on the Bunker Hill Farm could talk, they would
undoubtedly spin some exciting yarns to explain discoveries of arrowheads, bits and pieces
of Indian pottery, and Indian remains wrapped in skins and hung high in the trees nearby.
In an interview conducted by Ron Thomas with Dr. C. Melvin Aikens, a professor of
anthropology at the University of Oregon, Dr. Aikens explained that “platform burials are
common in this country (in the Northwest). It wouldn’t be surprising to find this in this
area as well, but I’ve never heard of a secondary burial, of someone being put in a bag. It
does seem, however, like a variant of a platform burial.”
Allen Jacobs, a former game warden and deputy sheriff in the area, found evidence
that the field at the crossing of Siuslaw River Road and south Territorial had once been an
Indian battlefield. He found many pieces of tribal weaponry and war arrowheads there. Of
course, the actual story has been lost to all but a vivid imagination.
The Indians described by the early white settlers of the Siuslaw Valley were a vastly
changed people from those who lived on the land before the formation of the reservations.
The few who left the reservation to return to the valley were quickly introduced to the
white man’s liquor and earned the labels of “lazy” and “worthless” because they had no
roots, their former way of life having become non-existent. They were at a loss to live in a
white man’s world. Thus, many drank the “fire-water” and became the drunken pests that
our ancestors describe.
Harry Crowe was a frequent writer of letters to the editor of the Eugene RegisterGuard. In 1953, he wrote, “...Few people know that the Indians made most of the rails for
the `Pioneer Worm Fences’. Skookum John, (known as the Indian Rail Maker of Lane
County), and his band of Indians made the rails for the McCallisters, Daniel Lucas, A.J.
Barlow, my grandfather John Crow, Wm. Coleman, Daniel Norris, John Delametier, Mike
Crow, Dick Crow, Tom Crow, the Wingards, Ozments, Landriths, and many other pioneer
settlers of the late 1840’s and early 1850’s.
“After the death of my grandfather in 1868, Skookum John and his wife, Mary,
moved to the Gibson ranch ten or fifteen miles west of Eugene. They set up quarters for
him and he worked for the Gibsons many years. There is a story that when very old, Mary
would beg Skookum John to kill her and get her out of her misery. Old Skookum John would
pet her and cheer her the best he knew. So it went for several years.
“Someone at the Gibson ranch killed a wild hog, skinned it and put the green hide in
a smoke house. Mary discovered this and knowing where Skookum John was working, and
also knowing that he always took a gun with him, she put on this wild boar skin and went
on hands and knees through the timothy on the other side of the fence from Skookum. She
grunted like a hog and Skookum John grabbed his gun, poked it through the fence and shot
his wife, Mary, at the ‘butt of the ear,’ killing her instantly.
“Court investigations were made, but Skookum John was released without
The December 12, 1994 issue of The Lorane Historian, contained copies of several
other similar articles and letters to editors, written by Loranians, Harry Crowe and Frank
Damewood, that were published in local papers. For instance, there was quite a
controversy on who was, indeed, the “last Kalapuyan,” and many of the letters tell of Aunt
Eliza who lived in the Brownsville area. Aunt Eliza was a member of the Kalapuya (or
Calapooya) tribe which is one of the tribes known to have roamed our valley before
William Martin arrived. When reading these articles and letters, however, we must
remember the ancestors of Aunt Eliza, Skookum John, Sam Fern, Enoch Spores, Mary,
Fisherman Bristow, and all of the others who the articles and letters mention; remember
the circumstances which brought them to their particular notoriety; but, more importantly,
remember the love and respect that their ancestors had for the land that we now call home.
They found that through respectful use of the land and its products they were able to live
and prosper for generations. There must be a lesson in there somewhere.
Excerpt from From Sawdust and Cider to Wine; The History of Lorane, Oregon and the
Siuslaw Valley by Pat Edwards (2006)