Submitted to : Oregon Department of Transportation

Chronological Periods and Historic Themes

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7.0 Chronological Periods and Historic Themes

7.1 Prehistory of the Oregon Coast (Prehistory-1856)

The prehistoric period within the US 101 corridor combines material evidence and ethnohistoric accounts to shape the current understanding of this area prior to the arrival of European and American explorers and settlers. North to south transportation during this period remained difficult due to the intervening terrain which in turn shaped the location of prehistoric communities and their various trade relationships.

Archaeological investigations along the Oregon coast have contributed to the present understanding of life during the region’s prehistoric period. Most of the archaeological testing has focused on shell midden sites along the Oregon coastline adjacent to onshore rocks, along riverine valleys, and near estuaries. These shell midden sites range in size from very small to extremely large mounds of shells. While erosion has destroyed many sites, road construction has had the greatest impact, with about 60 to 70 percent of the sites recorded during the 1950s destroyed by road construction.3435

From these investigations, three distinct cultural periods associated with the Oregon coast have emerged. First, the Pre-Marine period, began at an undetermined date and lasted until around 500 B.C. Second, the Early Marine Period ranged from 3000 B.C. to around 500 A.D. Third, the Late Marine period lasted from 500 A.D. to 1856 A.D. Overlapping occurs with the end of the Pre-Marine period and the Early Marine Period.36

The Pre-Marine period is characterized by human habitation along the coast line, river valleys, and western foothills. This period is defined by a reliance on upland resources and a lack of marine resource utilization. The period’s archaeological sites are generally open, without the soil-altering presence of shells, and invariably yield only lithic objects. These lithic objects include ground stone tools for processing vegetal resources, tools utilized in hunting and butchering, such as scrapers, blades, and knives, and a variety of projectile points made from cryptocrystalline silicate (CCS) and obsidian material. Limited information exists for the central and northern section of the coastline.37

The Early Marine period was well established by 1000 B.C. and is characterized by a reliance on riverine and marine resources, including fish, waterfowl, shellfish, rock fish, and sea mammals. The period also marks the beginning of bone tool manufacture and a significant decline in lithic tool manufacture and use.38 Bone artifacts include harpoons and stone tools consisted of lanceolate projectile points and scrapers.39

The Late Marine period is characterized by complete human adaptation to riverine and marine resources. Adaptation to these resources is evidenced by the proliferation of sites along the coastline and in estuaries with large shell middens. The proliferation reflects a population increase followed by a period of cultural stability until European-American contact. Tool manufacturing during this period is characterized by the variety of bone tools and an increased scarcity of lithic items. During the Late Marine period, the projectile point undergoes significant stylistic changes, which may be related to the introduction of bow and arrow around 500 A.D. The Pre-Marine period yielded a wider range of lithic tools and finished artifacts or debitage compared to Late Marine period sites.40

Ethnohistoric and Ethnographic Context

At the onset of European-American contact in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Oregon Coast was inhabited by a diverse grouping of Native American Tribes. The tribes resided in the culturally distinct area known as the Northwest Coast, stretching from the Alaskan to the Californian border. The territorial groupings include, from north to south, the Chinookans, Tillamook, Alseans, Siuslawans, Coosans and Athapaskans.41 These six territories had loose borders that generally denoted a particular dialect within a language family and where resources were procured and accessed. Geographically, villages, tribes and groups were separated by bays, inlets, and rivers; yet they often overlapped on land while hunting. Spoken language and dialects as recorded by ethnographers further defined these areas - the concept of fixed tribal borders and strictly defined territories is not consistent with traditional practice.

The six primary territorial groups generally resided in particular areas. The Chinookans, specifically the dialect speakers of Lower Chinookan, resided on the north and south banks of the Columbia and along the Pacific Coast from Willapa Bay in Washington to Tillamook Head in Oregon.42 The Tillamook, speakers of the southernmost language of the Salishan language family, resided from Tillamook Head to a point south of the Siletz River and included the grouping and dialect speakers of the Nestucca, Salmon River, and Siletz.43 The Alseans resided south of the Siletz River to a point south of the Yachats River and included the Yaquina and Alsea who each spoke a dialect of the Alsea language isolate.44 The Siuslawans and the Coosans resided from a point north of the Siuslaw River to Ten Mile Lake and from Ten Mile Lake to a point south of the Coquille River. These groups included the Siuslaw and Lower Umpqua dialects speakers of Siuslawan, and the dialects of the Hanis, the South Slough Miluk and the Lower Coquille Miluk dialect speakers of Coosan.45 The Athapaskans of Southwest Oregon resided in the territory from the Coquille River to the Smith River just south of the Californian border and spoke Tututni and the Chetco dialect of the Tolowa language. Speakers of Tututni were identified as Upper Coquille, Tututni which included six villages, and the Chasta Costa.46

External Relationships and Trade

Neighboring tribes along the Oregon Coast commonly interacted through trade, intermarriage and sharing technology. Later, the tribes also engaged in trade with European-Americans. Lewis and Clark described a lively trade network across the whole region generated from large, centrally located areas.47 Navigating the land and ocean between the Coast Range and the Pacific Ocean required the use of canoes and foot trails. Canoe routes accompanied rivers, bays and inlets, and the Pacific Ocean. Navigation by land followed trails along beaches, rivers, and ridges, and at times coincided with animal trails.

Canoes were vital to all coastal tribes as a means of travel and for river and coastal fishing. The Chinookans, whose territory encompassed the Pacific Coast and Columbia River mouth and banks, used canoes as their primary mode of transportation. Each of their six canoes types had a specialized function. The “Chinook” canoe could accommodate up to 12 people and was utilized by both the Chinookans and the Tillamook to the south. The Chinookans also utilized a larger, seafaring vessel that held between 20-30 people and may have been acquired from the Tillamook. For hunting, small canoes were used, and for marsh land, where the wapato plant was grown, yet another type of canoe was utilized.48 The Chinookans gained direct access to European-American traders and trappers with the opening of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1825. The company was located at Fort Vancouver on the north side of the Columbia River, opposite the mouth of the Willamette River.49

Siuslawan and Coosan canoes were mostly made of cedar. Of the three principal types described for the area, the most common was typically 15 to 20 feet long with a flat bottom. The second type was commonly obtained through trade with the Alseans to the north. This larger canoe, also with a flat bottom, was favored for ocean fishing. The third type of canoe was mainly used for river and bay travel and came in all sizes.50

Compared to other coastal groups, the Alseans are not as well-described; however, they resemble other coastal people in cultural type and are associated most closely with the Tillamooks to the north and the Siuslawans to the south. Along with the Tillamook and Chinookans, the Alseans participated in the economic network and sociopolitical relationships that centered on the lower Columbia River and travelled as far north as the mouth of the Columbia River.51 The Tillamook travelled east across the Coast Range to Sauvie Island in the Columbia River to acquire wapato roots.52 The Athapaskans of Southern Oregon also engaged in the extensive trade network that brought marine products from the coast and camas and hides from the interior.53 Important wealth items acquired through trade included dentalia from Vancouver Island and projectile points from the south.


Although fauna and flora varied between the areas, coastal tribes practiced seasonal hunting and fishing, and also gathered roots, shoots, and berries. They obtained a variety of resources for immediate consumption, winter storage, and trade. For Chinookans, subsistence resources included fish, sea mammals and land mammals, water fowl, edible flora, and berries.54

The Tillamook named the seasons for the fish, roots or berries that were procured at a particular time of year. Spring was a time to harvest Salmonberry. Summer was for harvesting camas, lamprey, salalberry, huckleberry, and strawberry, and for the chinook runs. Fall was the season for coho and chum salmon runs and hunting elk. Winter was a time for collecting lily root, fern, yicqa, and kinnickinnick, and for the steel head runs.55

For the Siuslawans and Coosans, the most important subsistence resource was salmon, which they fished in numerous ways with a canoe in deep water. The salmon were captured with dip nets, harpooned, clubbed, trapped in upriver weirs, or fished out of rapids and slow waters. The Siuslawans and Coosans also utilized other aquatic resources, land mammals, roots, shoots, and berries for subsistence.56

For the Athapaskans of Southern Oregon, slight variations arose within each tribe depending upon their locality. The Upper Umpqua ate grasshoppers, while the Tututni ate sugar pine nuts, octopus, seaweed, cabbage flowers and laurel berries. The Upper Coquille gathered roots such as wild carrots and camas, as well as weaving material, strawberries, salmonberry, and raspberry. The tribes hunted elk and deer in the mountains and established fishing camps where they harvested salmon. They engaged in resource trade and travel as a means of leveling and sharing procured resources. They also traded dogs obtained from the Tillamook and used by the Upper Coquille to hunt elk in the mountains.57


The coastal tribes lived in permanent winter villages and resided in temporary seasonal camps. At times “permanent villages were situated so that local groups could control access to certain resources – primarily fish – and could control the traffic along a waterway.”58 For the Chinookan, the number of village dwellings varied from a single dwelling to between 15 and 20 houses. Each house sheltered three or four families, totaling about 20 or more people living communally.5960 Temporary summer villages, especially those at fishing, hunting, and root-gathering camps, were constructed with cattail mat sides and presumably a cedar bark roof over a light wood frame.61

The Tillamook’s structures consisted of several permanent dwelling houses. Village sizes were generally proportional to the mouth of the river or stream adjacent to the tribe’s location. The tribes built rectangular-shaped houses consisting of horizontal cedar boards tied together by peeled spruce roots. They built houses in two styles, above ground and semi-subterranean.62

The Alseans were skilled woodworkers, known particularly for their canoes. Like the Tillamook and Coosans, the Alseans built rectangular-shaped, multifamily cedar-plank winter houses. These houses had gabled roofs and floors excavated three to six feet below ground. The dwelling interior’s contained platform beds, mats and a separate hearth for each family.63

The Siuslawan and Coosan tribal organization consisted of like-speaking villages located within a common territory and sharing some resource access rights.64 Their village houses were also semi-subterranean and sometimes comprised of two or more connected houses. They entered and exited the house by ladder.65 Seasonal camps consisted of gabled or shed roof shelters that were generally thatched with grass and had an unexcavated floor. These village shelters served specific functions, such providing work areas or adolescent sleeping quarters.66

For the Athapaskans, shelter consisted of winter plank houses, sweathouses, temporary brush shelters, windbreaks on beaches, and shed roof structures. For the Tututni, the sweathouse provided sleeping quarters for the men, while the women and children slept in houses.67

Demise and Reservations

The demise of the coastal tribes resulted directly from epidemic diseases transmitted during contact with European-Americans. These epidemics decimated the native populations. Those who survived had their land seized and were forced onto reservations. Early settlers and missionaries arrived in the region between 1830 and 1855 and, by this time, the Chinookans had suffered huge population declines due to smallpox, measles, malaria, and other diseases. Those populations that remained coalesced as their native lands dwindled.68 In the 1850s, the U.S. government initiated several rounds of treaty negotiations with the few remaining Chinookan groups. Congress did not ratify the 1851 treaty, and the 1854–1855 treaties excluded Chinookan groups. In the decade following the treaties, the U.S. government forced the Chinookans to relocate to the Siletz and Grand Ronde Reservations and moved the upriver Chinookans to the Warm Springs Reservation.6970

The Tillamook’s population decline also commenced in the 1830s, with epidemic diseases such as malaria. Further decline resulted from conflicts with European-Americans stemming from the Oregon Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 and the seizing of their land through unratified treaties.71 The Alsean population declined during the small pox epidemic. The survivors lost their land after the U.S. government establishment the Coast Reservation in 1856, encompassing the ancestral homelands of the Alseas and Yaquina. With the division of the Coast Reservation ten years later, the Alseas became residents of the Alsea Reservation, and were subsequently removed to Siletz Reservation.72

The establishment of the Coast Reservation also had a direct impact on the Siuslawans and Coosans as their homeland lay within the southern portion of the reservation.73 For signing the treaty in 1855, the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw received compensation for their land with food, clothing, employment, education, and health benefits; however, the federal government ignored the treaty and did not ratify it.74 Shortly afterwards, the U.S. army marched the Siuslaws and the Coos away from their homeland northward to the Yachats River. There, in 1861, the U.S. government established the Alsea Subagency.75 While on the reservation, many natives died within a short period of time from hunger, exposure, mistreatment, and exhaustion.76 In 1865, a central piece of land was removed from the reservation boundaries, including the Yaquina Bay and Yaquina River. The land was opened to European-American settlers. The northern strip became the Siletz Reservation and the southern the Alsea Reservation. The Siuslaws, along with the Kuitshes and Coos, continued to reside on the Alsea Reservation with the Alseas.

For the Athapaskans and neighboring tribes, the local gold rush and the Rogue River War of 1855-1856 proved devastating. The Upper Coquille and other neutral tribes and survivors were relocated north up the coast before eventually settling on the reservations of the Grand Ronde and Siletz (Miller and Seaburg 1990:586).

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