Friday, February 10, 2012

Indian Population, Camas, and Prairie

During Charles Wilkes 1841 travels in what is now western Washington he made numerous observations regarding the Indians of the area. His observations and information related to him provide a key bit of information on how the Indians lived and what their circumstances were at the time of his visit.

He noted that one Indian village on the Chehalis River was being utilized by Nisqually Indians for fishing. He observed rows of eels drying in the sun and baskets of camas. Camas is a root plant that was a fundamental food source. Wilkes noted that the plant was plentiful throughout the southwest Washington prairies. On Wilkes return trip he met Indians who were travelling from Willamette Falls (south of present day Portland) with dried fish in order to trade for camas with Indians in the southwest prairies. This observation is very consistent with observations made by Lewis and Clark forty years earlier. They observed that wide spread trading was taking place between tribes and that camas was readily available.

Wilkes noted the general very low Indian population of the area. The few English, American and French Canadian settlers in the Chehalis area and Cowlitz River area that were familiar with the Indians noted that one nearby tribe had only three female Indians remaining when only 10 years previously there had been 30. At Fort Vancouver, Wilkes met an Indian chief that only 15 years before could summon 300 to 400 warriors. His entire tribe had died from disease. These observations were consistent with those of David Douglas who witnessed what he estimated as 90% mortality of Indians on the lower Columbia River during the winter of 1825.

The mortality that swept though the First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest is consistent with observations throughout the Americas regarding huge population declines due to the low resistance to European disease. In many cases the population decline took place even before European contact with tribes took place. Certainly some population decline may have taken place even before any European contact took place in the Pacific Northwest and in many areas of the Northwest and Washington State the first European arrivals came after the population had already declined. However, in the case of the lower Columbia River area and southwest Washington a catastrophic population decline due to disease was observed by members of Hudson Bay Company including David Douglas.

Wilkes seemed to assume that the Indians would completely disappear and accepted this type of population decline as to be expected based on what had been observed in many other American locales. Wilkes also noted an issue regarding Indian health that was of no small consequence. Medicine men often prescribed medicines and activities that furthered the harm to sick Indians. And failed treatments often led to the killing of the medicine man in retribution. The same punishment was brought to bare on Whites that treated Indians. Marcus Whitman and John Black likely were killed for this reason. As such medicine men both White and Indian were hesitant to treat any Indians that became ill with one of the new illnesses.

Wilkes was travelling through a landscape that had previously supported a great many more people. Instead of a few dozen Indians living in the southwest Washington prairies there had been thousands. Not only that, the population had specialized as documented by the trading of camas. The southwest Washington prairies provided a key source of carbohydrates for thousands of local people as well as thousands more via active trading. The prairies Charles Wilkes had traveled through had been depopulated. What he witnessed was more than just a decline in population but also a recently collapsed civilization.


seth harrell said...

wow; facinating reading. Love the blog. Can you recommend any sources for further reading regarding WIlkes adventures in the PNW? Have you seen any naturally occuring camas in the puget sound area? I've only seen it east of the cascades.

What year is it commonly considered that the West Coast natives started to decline in population? Am I correct to assume that population would've peaked around 1800?

Dan McShane said...

Seth: Thanks for the kind comment. As far as Wilkes adventures I only have seen hime referenced by more modern writers, hence I tracked down his original work.

I have seen camas on Whidbey Island and on some of the San Juans as well as on south Vancouver Island in a park of oak trees in Victoria.