This year's "Ocian in View" historical symposium focuses on who visited or lived at the mouth of the Columbia River before Lewis and Clark's visit.
“The Clatsops, Chinooks, and Killamucks, etc. are very loquacious and inquisitive.
They possess good memories and have repeated to us the names, capacities of the vessels, etc., of many traders and others who have visited the mouth of this river.”
— Capt. Meriwether Lewis
When Lewis and Clark and their group reached the mouth of the Columbia River in the fall of 1805 after their long, arduous journey over land, their arrival was hardly a shock to the local tribes. The indigenous people who lived along the Lower Columbia had long controlled a sophisticated regional trade network, and had traded with the crews of European and American sailing ships since the 1700s.
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Those visitors who beat Lewis and Clark to the West Coast are part of the focus of this year’s “Ocian in View” program, a celebration of Northwest history that grew from the 2005 Lewis and Clark bicentennial and has become an annual meeting of history-oriented minds around Ilwaco and the Long Beach Peninsula.
The symposium of lectures, events and field trips is named after William Clark’s excited journal entry — with his own peculiar spelling — upon first sighting the mouth of the Columbia River. This year’s “Ocian in View,” a partnership of community nonprofit groups, is Nov. 7-9.
Along with people who lived in or visited this region before Lewis and Clark’s brief blip of a visit, native animals and plants will also be featured.
An extensive trading system
Participants can take a “Land in View” bus tour that looks at the area from the perspective of the Euro-American sailors who explored and traded at the mouth of the Columbia. Beginning at Cape Disappointment — the most prominent local landmark for sailors — the tour continues upriver, making four stops along the shoreline.
“Probably around 100 trade vessels had been in the area before the arrival of Lewis and Clark,” said Jim Sayce, a volunteer guide with the Washington State Historical Society, who leads the bus tour. “The English and the Americans were both vying for the region at the time, and this area was an interesting nexus of adventuring and trade. There were English traders, American ships from Boston, and possibly some Spanish and Portuguese.”
Roy Gardner, chairman of the Chinook Indian Tribe, will give a talk about the history of the local tribes, and will discuss the role that canoes played in the community both in the past and in the present. According to Gardner, the average trade canoe was 50 feet long, with 20 pullers. Today, the canoes are used for canoe journeys and for ceremonies.
“The Chinookan people controlled the trade along the lower Columbia River. Without them, no trade happened,” said Gardner. “They also traded up into southern Alaska and down to Northern California. We have a lot of designs and artifacts in common with the Haida, which shows our trade connection.”
During the early part of the 20th century, tribal canoes were not made for about 50 years. Luckily, men were still alive who remembered how to make them, and the art was brought back.
“All tribal canoes have a heart,” said Gardner. “It’s where the bow comes down, about two feet down. When a canoe is being brought to life, a series of blessings are said for the tree that is giving up its life. Those who work on the canoe must have pure thoughts, not negative thoughts, because those would be transferred into the canoe itself. Once the canoe is finished, it is cleansed, and then blessed. Then the canoe receives its name and is a member of the tribe.”
One of the specimens collected by Lewis and Clark was a California condor, whose range once extended north of the Columbia. A representative from the Oregon Zoo in Portland will describe the zoo’s condor recovery program of captive breeding of this nearly extinct bird, and a bronze statue of a condor will be dedicated at the Port of Ilwaco.
Also on the program: Northwest author and naturalist Jack Nisbet will discuss the 1825-33 visits of David Douglas, a botanist with the London Horticultural Society, who collected native plants and gathered information from local tribes about specific plants and animals. (The Douglas fir is named for him.)
Sayce, the bus-tour leader, is an ecologist and land-use planner, and likes to describe in his tours how the landscape of the Lower Columbia looked in the early 1800s. Obviously, the region hadn’t been logged yet, and “the environment that existed then is different now. The rivers ran wild, so there was a lot of woody debris packed along the shores as floating masses of logs.”
This area at the mouth of the Columbia River has a fascinating natural and human history, and “Ocian in View” offers a unique chance to learn details that aren’t obvious with a casual visit to the beach or a quick stop at a roadside historical marker.
Freelance writer Cathy McDonald of Renton writes the Walkabout column for NWWeekend.