“THE POPULATION ON THE BANKS of the Columbia River,” wrote Hudson’s Bay Company Governor George Simpson in the winter of 1824–1825, “is much greater than in any other part of North America that I have visited … it may be said that the shores are actually lined with Indian Lodges.” Simpson believed that the great salmon runs of the Columbia River, which afforded an “abundant provision at little trouble for a great part of the year,” accounted for the dense Indian population. Although other food sources were also important, there is much truth in Simpson’s conclusion about the relationship between the abundance of Indian lodges and the abundance of salmon in the Columbia River. Prior to the devastating epidemics of the 1830s, the Columbia River’s salmon runs sustained a large Native population, a fact often noted by early white observers and confirmed by modern scholars.
Perhaps the most important center of Native settlement and commerce in the Columbia River Basin was the eleven-mile stretch of river between the present city of The Dalles and the former location of Celilo Falls, an area known historically as The Dalles of the Columbia. Prior to white settlement, The Dalles–Celilo reach of the Columbia River sustained a permanent winter population of several thousand Native people, and thousands more came from around the region every summer to fish, trade, and socialize.
Historical written, photographic, and cartographic records provide an overview of the physical features of this important cultural site. The Dalles–Celilo reach was possibly the most productive inland fishery in Native North America, largely because of the structural complexity of the river’s channel in that portion of the Columbia River Gorge. The falls and rapids of the reach slowed and concentrated salmon runs returning to their spawning grounds in the Snake and upper Columbia river basins, making it relatively easy to catch enormous quantities of fish throughout most of the year. The semi-arid, windy conditions of the eastern Gorge also made it an ideal place to dry salmon, which facilitated both trade and long-term storage. American explorer Charles Wilkes called The Dalles–Celilo area the Billingsgate of the Oregon Country, comparing it to London’s famous fish market. It was a cultural crossroads where a wide range of trade items from across the North American West were exchanged. The area was also home to what was perhaps the largest Indian village in the Columbia River Basin, Nixlúidix (also known as Wishram). The Dalles–Celilo reach was radically simplified in 1957, when The Dalles Dam was completed and the river impounded, making field observations impossible. Many of the nuances of the landscape have been lost to memory, but the historical record — texts, photographs, and maps — can give us a general idea of what the channel morphology of the reach was like prior to white settlement and extensive water resource management activities.
BEGINNING UPRIVER, the first major feature of The Dalles–Celilo reach was Celilo Falls, known to local Sahaptin-speaking Indians as Wyam and to Lewis and Clark as the Falls of the Columbia. Here the great river intercepted basalt outcrops, creating a spectacular series of falls and rapids that could be heard from miles around. Poet and artist Elizabeth Woody (Navajo/Yakama-Warm Springs) has translated the Sahaptin place-name Wyam as “echo of falling water.” In early November 1843, American explorer John C. Frémont wrote that “the roar of the Falls of the Columbia is heard from the heights, where we halted a few moments to enjoy a fine view of the river below.”
Located several miles downstream from the mouth of the Deschutes River, Celilo Falls was a series of cascades separated by basalt islands. Methodist missionary Henry Perkins described the falls in the summer of 1843:
The fall of water here is generally about 20 feet, & the facilities for fishing are unsurpassed by any other in the country. The river, instead of rushing over in one unbroken sheet, as is usual, where there are falls, is split up into an immense number of little channels, & tumbles down in a variety of irregular, & beautiful cascades across the entire river; which is, at this place, at least half a mile in width. During the early part of the summer, however, the water rises to such a degree as to cover the obstructions of the river, & give it an unbroken passage. Perkins’s fellow missionary Gustavus Hines also observed that the falls were submerged by the annual freshet, during which they became rapids. He wrote, “in June, when the river is high, the water sets back from the Dalls so that there are no falls to be seen.”
The largest of the falls in the Celilo area was a twenty-foot cascade known in the early 1900s as Horseshoe Falls. This was the center of the Indian fishery during the twentieth century, as well as the most photogenic, but the Long Narrows, a series of narrow channels several miles below Celilo Falls, was the most productive portion of the Indian fishery prior to white settlement and the development of industrial fishing on the Columbia. Fishing at Celilo Falls was most productive in the fall, which was also the best time for drying salmon because the fall run had the lowest fat content.
Immediately downstream from Celilo Falls were two large sand and gravel bars, which can be seen in a photograph taken around 1916 from the S.P. & S. (Spokane, Portland & Seattle) Railway bridge. The bar in the foreground is labeled “gravel bank” in an 1874 chart of The Dalles–Celilo reach produced by Robert Habersham, assistant engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Seufert Brothers Company, a local commercial fishing operation, called it Washington Seine Bar Two and named the bar in the background Oregon Seine Bar One. These bars were evidently quite stable, as the Washington bar is shown in William Clark’s 1805 map and was still present when The Dalles Dam became operational in 1957.
In a 1996 report, Return to the River, the Northwest Power Planning Council’s Independent Scientific Group noted that “pre-regulation photos of the mainstem river in the Columbia Gorge show large sand dunes along the river,” suggesting that before extensive water resource management activities, the substratum of the Columbia River as it flowed through the Gorge had a significant sand component. In 1867, Carleton Watkins photographed numerous sand dunes on the south shore in the vicinity of Celilo Falls. Geologist David Cordero suggests that the sand may have been brought to the Gorge during the Pleistocene megaflood events known as the Missoula floods. The annual freshets also undoubtedly transported large volumes of sand to the Gorge; as water levels dropped, the sand would have been deposited and redistributed by the strong winds in the area.
Descriptions of sand are also present in written accounts, many of which mention sand storms that were often stirred up by the powerful winds of the Gorge. Gustavus Hines, for example, wrote on May 5, 1843, that “sometimes, in the valley of the Columbia, the wind is so strong that the sand is driven about like snow, the air is full of it, and woe be to the eyes that are compelled to meet the beating storm.” More than forty years later, a writer for West Shore magazine described the eolian processes that shaped these dunes:
The winds that at times give themselves free rein along the stream sport with the fine particles of sand and blow them hither and thither like thistle-down, raising long ridges or scooping out deep hollows at will. Ever changing, like the drifting of the light, fleecy snow by a winter’s gale, these sand storms frequently bury the [railroad] track from sight in a few hours.
Habersham’s 1874 chart shows sand dunes extending for more than nine miles downstream from near Celilo Falls to what is now the city of The Dalles’s Riverfront Park. All of the dunes Habersham mapped are located on the south side of the river, though there were also some dunes on the north shore.
HEADING DOWNSTREAM from Celilo Falls, the next major feature of The Dalles–Celilo reach was a narrow, turbulent channel, which Lewis and Clark called the Short Narrows and was later known as Tenmile Rapids. This constricted point in the river was generally navigable, but it was not without dangers. In late October 1805, Clark estimated that the river channel was only forty-five yards wide at the head of the Short Narrows. The rapids continued for about a quarter-mile, after which the channel widened to about two hundred yards. He wrote that the “water was agitated in a most Shocking manner boils Swell & whorl pools, we passed with great risque.”
The Short Narrows were created by a basalt outcrop — later known as Rabbit Island or Brown’s Island — that forced the river to flow through a deep narrow channel to the south. During low water, the outcrop was connected to the north shore, but during the freshet, it became an island, cut off from the shore by a shallow confined channel to the north. Habersham noted on his 1874 chart that the high-water channel was only ten to twenty feet deep during average freshets.
About two miles below the Short Narrows was a riffle that Clark labeled “a bad rapid” on his map of The Dalles–Celilo reach. He described it in his journal as “a verry Bad place between 2 rocks one large & in the middle of the river.” This was likely what is known today as Memaloose Island, the top of which pokes above The Dalles Dam’s reservoir. Immediately below Clark’s “bad rapid” was a deep pool that extended for more than a mile. In August 1811, fur trader Alexander Ross noted that the river at this point resembled “a small still lake, with scarcely any current.” Because of the low velocity of the river current, there was likely a significant amount of sediment deposited in this part of The Dalles–Celilo reach, which may have had a sandy substrate.
The deep, still pool was formed by water being impounded behind what Lewis and Clark called the Long Narrows, later renamed the Dalles by Canadian voyageurs and Fivemile Rapids by American settlers. It was the center of the Indian fishery prior to white settlement and was particularly productive during spring and summer, when high water levels made it relatively easy to fish with dipnets. The largest village in the area, a Wishxam settlement called Nixlúidix, also sat at the head of the Long Narrows. A detail from a map based on field data gathered in 1879–1880 shows some of the unique features of this stretch of the river. The Long Narrows was the most dangerous point in the river for early navigators, most of whom chose to portage around it. Nineteenth-century records are filled with incidents of both Indians and whites losing their lives there. For more than a mile and a half, the river flowed through a series of constricted channels carved through the basalt bedrock; the largest channel was only fifty to one hundred yards wide. Clark wrote that the river swelled and boiled “with a most Tremendeous manner” at the head of the Long Narrows, though that did not stop the Corps of Discovery from canoeing down that stretch of the river while local Indians watched from shore.
Catholic missionary Pierre Jean De Smet wrote an eloquent description of the Long Narrows, which he passed during the spring of 1842:
Here the river is divided into several channels separated from one another by masses of rocks, which rise abruptly above its surface. Some of these channels are navigable at certain seasons of the year, although with very great risk, even to the most experienced pilot. But when, after the melting of the snow, the river rises above its usual level, the waters in most of these channels make but one body, and the whole mass of these united streams descends with irresistible fury. At this season the most courageous dare not encounter such dangers, and all navigation is discontinued. In this state the river flows with an imposing grandeur and majesty, which no language can describe. It seems at one moment to stay its progress; then leaps forward with resistless impetuosity, and then rebounds against the rock-girt islands of which I have already spoken, but which present only vain obstructions to its headlong course. If arrested for a moment, its accumulated waters proudly swell and mount as though instinct with life, and the next moment dash triumphantly on, enveloping the half smothered waves that preceded them as if impatient of their sluggish course, and wild to speed them on their way.
The river was confined to narrow channels during low water, but during the annual freshet, the water could rise more than ninety feet, creating a single broad channel marked by violent swells and whirlpools. Frémont wrote that this section of the river was “entirely impassable at high water.” While traveling by the Long Narrows in November 1843, he noted that the rapids and whirlpools were strangely quiet, a silence that belied their danger. He also described the rock surrounding the active channel, which “was worn over a large portion of its surface into circular holes and well-like cavities, by the abrasion of the river, which, at the season of high waters, is spread out over the adjoining bottoms.”
Many early observers speculated about the geological origins of this remarkable landscape. Missionary Samuel Parker, for example, was baffled by the Long Narrows, remarking in October 1835 that “the geological formation along this distance is singular.” He wondered to himself:
Has this channel worn this solid rock formation? If so, at what time? There is no appearance of the channel having worn perceptibly deeper, since these rocks, from their melted state, spread out into their present condition, which must have taken place centuries and centuries ago. As I have no confidence in theories founded upon conjecture, nor in Indian traditions, I leave the subject for others to tell us how these things took place. Former visiters, among whom I name Doct. Gardner, a learned English naturalist whom I saw at Oahu, Sand. Islands, expressed his entire inability satisfactorily to account for this peculiar phenomenon. Nor does the Indian tradition, that the Great Wolf made this, together with all the scenery that delighted my eye as I passed down the river, relieve the mind of its irrepressible curiosity.
Even today, the processes that created the channel of The Dalles–Celilo reach are not completely understood. In a 1924 paper, geologist J Harlen Bretz coined the term “Dalles type” to refer to an anastomising river channel carved through flat-topped, steep-walled rock islands. He identified three conditions for such channels to form: large volume, high gradient, and close, vertical jointing of the rock. All of these conditions were present in The Dalles–Celilo reach when Bretz studied it in the early 1920s, suggesting that Holocene processes may have shaped the active channel. Bretz also found many abandoned Dalles-type river channels scattered throughout the Columbia Plateau, which he attributed to ancient streams, “prodigious affairs … [that] carried all the drainage of the Cordilleran ice sheet west of the Rocky Mountain continental divide.”
Bretz’s observations of these Dalles-type channels and other scabland features in the Columbia Plateau led him to hypothesize that a massive flood had swept through the Columbia Basin during the late Pleistocene. Since Bretz’s seminal research, much work has been conducted on the Missoula floods, as they are known today. Researchers have found evidence of dozens of megafloods between sixteen and twelve thousand years ago. In later papers, Bretz did not attribute the active channel of The Dalles–Celilo reach to the Missoula floods, but he did suggest that the scabland on the north shore across from the present-day city of The Dalles was the result of a late Pleistocene megaflood. He argued in a 1925 paper that this “barren waste of black rock knobs and buttes, rock basins, gravel bars, and active dunes” must have been formed when the streamflow of the Columbia was substantially greater, as the “puny stream” that he studied in the early 1920s would not have enough energy “with which to sweep this flat.” Later studies have confirmed Bretz’s hypothesis that the scabland topography of the area was created by Pleistocene megafloods, but the origin of the pre-development active channel in The Dalles–Celilo reach is still uncertain. Geologist Gerardo Benito suggests that inner channels like those found at The Dalles could only be formed by catastrophic flooding, but geologists James O’Connor and Richard Waitt argue that it is not clear “whether the channel-bottom topography here is largely a relict of the Missoula floods or whether Holocene flows sculpted the present channels as suggested by Bretz.”
AT THE OUTLET of the Long Narrows was a large eddy, appropriately named Big Eddy by white settlers. This may be the site the Wishxam called Soon-me. An-nee-Shiat told Lucullus McWhorter in 1918 that Coyote made a fishery at the “big-eddies” below the Long Narrows, where “the fish could be seined only.” Clark described the place as a “deep bason to the Stard Side,” and later soundings revealed the maximum depth to be more than 150 feet below low-water level. Bretz argued that eddies “are of great importance in the production of the Dalles type of river channel,” noting that “every deflection against the channel wall constitutes a maximum exposure to plucking.” The eventual result of this plucking — an erosional process in which water pries out sections of bedrock — is a loss of columns and an enlargement of the channel until an eddy is created.
One mile below Big Eddy, Clark noted that the river narrowed and was “divided by a rock.” This was the last of the rapids in The Dalles–Celilo reach, later known as Threemile Rapids. Bretz described Threemile Rapids as a “narrow, crooked channel” a little more than a quarter of a mile long. Threemile Rapids marked the end of the series of Dalles-type river channels in The Dalles–Celilo reach. Today, only a small remnant of the rapids can be seen at the base of and just below The Dalles Dam. Most features of the reach were either inundated by the dam or blasted out to improve navigation.
THE CENTRALITY OF The Dalles–Celilo area to the Native peoples of the region was a result of the structural complexity of the Columbia River’s channel, which enabled the efficient harvest of large quantities of salmon for more than half of the year. The Dalles Dam reduced this complexity to a simple pool, eliminating the natural features to which Native peoples had adapted their technology and social structures over the course of thousands of years. This long, intimate relationship between people and place explains Indians’ resistance to The Dalles Dam as well as their continued attachment to The Dalles–Celilo reach, which remains an important cultural and economic site for River Indians despite the radical changes in the biophysical landscape over the last two hundred years.
1. Frederick Merk, ed., Fur Trade and Empire: George Simpson’s Journal (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931), 94.
2. Anthropologist Eugene Hunn argues that the focus on salmon has obscured the importance of other types of food in the diet of Columbia River Indians, particularly plants. See Hunn, with James Salam and family, Nch’i-Wána, ‘The Big River’: Mid-Columbia Indians and Their Land (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990), 148.
3. See, for example, Douglas Ubelaker “North American Indian Population Size,” in Disease and Demography in the Americas, ed. John W. Verano and Douglas H. Ubelaker (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), Table 2.
4. The section of the river between Celilo Falls and the present-day city of The Dalles could be classified as a segment rather than a reach, though stream classification systems have tended to focus on smaller, lower order streams than the Columbia River. I have chosen to use the term “reach” in order to emphasize the integrated nature of this portion of the river, both physical and cultural. For more on stream classification systems, see Christopher A. Frissell et al., “A Hierarchical Framework for Stream Habitat Classification,” Environmental Management 10 (1986): 199–214; Robert J. Naiman, “Biotic Stream Classification,” in River Ecology and Management: Lessons from the Pacific Coastal Ecoregion, ed. Robert J. Naiman and Robert E. Bilby (New York: Springer, 1998). On pre- and early contact Indian populations in the Pacific Northwest, see Robert Boyd, “The Introduction of Infectious Diseases among the Indians of the Pacific Northwest, 1774–1874” (Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 1985); Boyd, The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence: Introduced Infectious Diseases and Population Decline among Northwest Coast Indians, 1774–1874 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999); and Boyd, People of The Dalles: The Indians of Wascopam Mission (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996). On The Dalles–Celilo area as the center of the region’s indigenous trade network, see Theodore Stern, “Columbia River Trade Network,” in Handbook of North American Indian, vol. 12, Plateau, ed. Deward E. Walker, Jr. (Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution, 1998); and Edward Curtis, “The Chinookan Tribes,” in The North American Indian, vol. 8 (Seattle: E.S. Curtis, 1911), 93–94.
5. Gordon Hewes, “Fishing,” in Handbook of North American Indian, 12:623.
6. Charles Wilkes, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (Philadelphia: C. Sherman, 1844), 4:409.
7. Seventy-four-year-old Martin Spedis, a Wishxam who had lived all his life along the river, told a Bureau of Indian Affairs interviewer in 1942 that “the Indians name for this place is Nixluidix [footnote says ‘Phonetically and as pronounced by deponent, it is ‘Nick-a-lowd-icks”], although it is sometimes referred to as Wishram, which is not correct.” U.S. Department of Interior, Office of Indian Affairs, Report on Source, Nature, & Extent of the Fishing, Hunting, & Misc. Related Rights of Certain Indian Tribes in Washington & Oregon. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1942), 173. For more on Nixlúidix and its location, see Henry J. Biddle, “Wishram,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 27:1 (March 1926): 113–30.
8. Elizabeth Woody, “Recalling Celilo,” in Salmon Nation: People & Fish at the Edge (Portland: Ecotrust, 1999); Isaac McKinley, vice-chairman of the Tribal Council of the Warm Springs, stated around 1945 that Wyam means “river going over, that is falls.” Portland District Office, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Summary of Evidence Relating to the Nez Perce Fishery at Celilo Falls, Oregon (August 15, 1955), 146.
9. Samuel Smucker, The Life of Col. John Charles Fremont, and His Narrative of Explorations and Adventure (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1856), 321.
10. Boyd, People of The Dalles, 272.
11. Gustavus Hines, Life on the Plains of the Pacific. Oregon: Its History, Condition and Prospects (Buffalo: Geo. H. Derby and Co., 1852), 160.
12. See George W. Aguilar, Sr., When the River Ran Wild!: Indian Traditions on the Mid-Columbia and the Warm Springs Reservation (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 2005), ch. 6.
13. Francis Seufert, Wheels of Fortune (Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1980), xvii, 207.
14. Part of this bar can be seen in a panorama of the Celilo Falls area taken by a USGS photographer in 1956, reprinted in Gerardo Benito, “Energy Expenditure and Geomorphic Work of the Cataclysmic Missoula Flooding in the Columbia River Gorge,” Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 22 (1997),
15. Independent Scientific Group, Return to the River: Restoration of Salmonid Fishes in the Columbia River Ecosystem (Portland, Ore.: Northwest Power Planning Council, 1996), 130.
16. David Irving Cordero, “Early to Middle Pleistocene Catastrophic Flood Deposits, The Dalles, Oregon” (M.A. thesis, Portland State University, 1997), 25. The Pleistocene epoch began about 1.8 million years ago.
17. Hines, Life on the Plains of the Pacific, 160.
18. “Along the Columbia,” The West Shore, July 1884, 204.
19. Lewis A. McArthur and Lewis L. McArthur, Oregon Geographic Names 7th ed. (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 2003), 943–44.
20. Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Definitive Journals of Lewis and Clark: Through the Rockies to the Cascades, vol. 5 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), 328–29, 331.
21. The earliest source for the name of this island I have found is a General Land Office plat, drawn in 1861, which labels it Rabbit Island. For more on this island, see Joseph C. Dupris, Kathleen S. Hill, and William H. Rodgers Jr., The Si’lailo Way: Indians, Salmon, and Law on the Columbia River (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2006), ch.11.
22. Moulton, Journals, 5:329, 332.
23. Alexander Ross, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810–1813 (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2000), 130.
24. Independent Scientific Group, Return to the River, 130.
25. McArthur and McArthur, Oregon Geographic Names, 358, 945–46.
26. Moulton, Journals, 5:329, 336–37.
27. Pierre-Jean De Smet, Life, Letters and Travels of Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, vol. 1 (New York: Francis P. Harper, 1905), 385.
28. J Harlen Bretz, “The Dalles Type of River Channel,” Journal of Geology 32 (1924), 141.
29. Smucker, The Life of Col. John Charles Fremont, 322.
30. Samuel Parker, Journal of an Exploring Tour beyond the Rocky Mountains (Ithaca, N.Y.: Mack, Andrus, & Woodruff, 1842).
31. Bretz, “The Dalles Type of River Channel,” 139–49.
32. Ibid., 149.
33. Gerardo Benito and James E. O’Connor, “Number and Size of Last-Glacial Missoula Floods in the Columbia River Valley between the Pasco Basin, Washington, and Portland, Oregon,” Geological Society of America Bulletin 115 (2003): 624–38; and Victor R. Baker and Russell C. Bunker, “Cataclysmic Late Pleistocene Flooding from Glacial Lake Missoula: A Review,” Quaternary Science Reviews 4 (1985): 1–41.
34. J Harlen Bretz, “The Spokane Flood Beyond the Channeled Scablands,” Journal of Geology 33 (1925), 246–47.
35. Benito, “Energy Expenditure and Geomorphic Work,” 457–72.
36. Ibid., 467; and James E. O’Connor and Richard B. Waitt, “Beyond the Channeled Scabland: A Field Trip to Missoula Flood Features in the Columbia, Yakima, and Walla Walla Valleys of Washington and Oregon—Part 2: Field Trip, Day One,” Oregon Geology 57 (July 1995), 77.
37. Big Eddy was most likely named after 1860. See McArthur and McArthur, Oregon Geographic Names, 80.
38. Donald M. Hines, ed., Where the River Roared: The Wishom Tales (Issaquah, Wash.: Great Eagle Publishing, 1998), 52.
39. Moulton, Journals, 5:338; and Bretz, “The Dalles Type of River Channel,” 143.
40. Bretz, “The Dalles Type of River Channel,” 143, 145.
41. Moulton, Journals, 5:338.
42. Bretz, “The Dalles Type of River Channel,” 139.
43. See L.S. Cressman et al., “Cultural Sequences at the Dalles, Oregon: A Contribution to Pacific Northwest Prehistory,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 50 (1960): 1–108; and Virginia L. Butler, “Natural Versus Cultural Salmonid Remains: Origin of The Dalles Roadcut Bones, Columbia River, Oregon, U.S.A.,” Journal of Archaeological Science 20 (1993): 1–24. On Indian resistance to The Dalles Dam, see Cain Allen, “‘They Called It Progress’: Indians, Salmon, and the Industrialization of the Columbia River” (M.A. thesis, Portland State University, 2000); and Katrine Barber, Death of Celilo Falls (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005).
By: CAIN ALLEN