First People of the Clackamas and Willamette

The rich life and culture of the first inhabitants

The land that is now known as Lents was originally part of the territory inhabited by a band of the Upper Chinookan speaking Indians called the Clackamas. They frequented the area to fish and forage along the creek now known as Johnson Creek but more broadly, they had vast settlements in the valleys of the Clackamas, Willamette, and Sandy Rivers. Other tribes that would have traversed this land include the Willamette (a band of Chinooks that lived on the west bank of the Willamette), the Wapato, the Kalapuya, and the Molallas.

The Clackamas Indians regularly camped and fished at a spot on the creek near present day 100th Ave and Foster and held ceremonial dances at a natural stone amphitheater toward the hill to the south east (now called Mt Scott). This spot was called Indian Rock by the colonizing settlers and the stone was later quarried and used for local roads and to line the creek bed.

Painting of four Clackamas indigenous people.
Four Clackamas Indians (painting by Paul Kane)
Dip-netters at Willamette Falls – Clackamas Chinook Indians

Foster Rd was built on what was originally a trail cut by the local tribes to travel to (what would become) Powell Valley Rd then directly west to the Willamette River and up to the Willamette Falls (at present day Oregon City) where they fished for salmon and steelhead. When the City of Portland was established in 1851, this was one of the prominent routes used by settlers entering Portland and was considered the end of the Oregon Trail.

The rivers were at the heart of the Upper Chinook’s way of life and their settlements were grouped primarily around the waterways. Typical of Upper Chinook settlements, the Clackamas villages were substantial and permanent. Each cedar plank lodge could house 20 to 30 people and a village population could be in the hundreds. If there were any of these structures on the section of land now known as Lents, at the time of colonization, it has not shown up on any documentation.

Interior of a Chinookan plankhouse
Dip net fishing at Willamette Falls

They carved canoes from cedar trees, 25-30 feet in length for transportation and traveled seasonally to hunt game and collect camas root, wapato, and berries. The Clowwewallas, a band of the Clackamas that lived at the Willamette Falls, built scaffolds using cedar planks that stretched out over the falls to harvest fish with dip nets and spears. Salmon at the Falls were plentiful enough to enrich the Clackamas beyond simple survival; other tribes came for trade fairs to purchase salmon or to pay tribute for the privilege of fishing in Clackamas territory.

As was the custom of many other tribes in the area, the Clackamas people practiced flattening of the head. The practice was carried out during infancy, the child secured into a bundle and the forehead pressed with a flat board at the angle of the nose. This was considered a sign of beauty and status, and only free men and women could have flattened heads. Slaves were usually from other tribes, but debt slavery also occurred.

Flathead woman with baby
Lewis and Clark at Cathlapotle – Painting by Chris Hopkins

When Lewis and Clark visited the area in 1806, the Clackamas tribe was estimated at about 1,800 people living in 11 villages, though by that time the populations had already been diminished by disease in the mid 1700s, possibly smallpox, carried from the coast by European and American explorers and traders. The population would be further decimated in 1829 when the first oceangoing vessel to sail up the Willamette carried many sick sailors, ailing from a fever (influenza or malaria). The illness spread from crew to shore rapidly and over the course of the winter of 1829-30 at least nine tenths of the Clackamas people perished, devastating the tribe.

Early relations with fur traders along the Willamette and Columbia rivers  were more or less congenial. The tribesmen appreciated the tobacco they bought from  European, American, and Hawaiian traders. Some fur traders from Fort Astoria  intermarried with local women and settled to farm in Willamette Valley. Less  ethical traders employed alcohol to bribe and manipulate. Relations began to worsen when traders sought to control Willamette Falls and when settlers began streaming into Oregon beginning in 1841.

Willamette Falls Oregon City – 1847 – painting by Paul Kane

In 1850 Congress passed the Donation Land Act to promote settlement in Oregon Territory. Land grants of 320 acres were available to white males, with an additional 320 acres available to married couples. This resulted in  a flood of immigration to the Northwest continuing until the DLCs ended in 1855. Half-blood Native people were also eligible to file DLCs. Epidemics of smallpox, malaria, and measles continued to reduce the population of the Clackamas to only 88 by 1851, and on January 10, 1855, the remaining 88 people, signed a treaty that ceded all of their lands in exchange for a ten-year annuity of $2,500. After the treaty was ratified March 3, 1855 the Clackamas were to relocate to the Grand Ronde Reservation while retaining some rights in their former homeland. In the midst of violence and starvation during the Yakima War in the summer of 1855, Clackamas County area Indians were suddenly rounded up and forced to the reservation. 

Most  of the promises made to Native Americans in these treaties were never fulfilled.  Once on the reservation, most people were landless and struggled to survive. The Clackamas, who numbered only 55 on the Reservation in 1871, blended into the general population of Grand Ronde by the 1920s.  In 1954, the federal government severed trust relations with the Tribes of Western Oregon, leaving the Grand Ronde people homeless until the decision was reversed in 1983. The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde continue to fight for survival and recognition in Oregon and nationally.