Thursday, January 16, 2014

Geology and War: Battle of the Cascades

I am still plugging away at understanding the Yakama War. One of the bloodiest and nastiest events was a battle at the Cascades of the Columbia. 

Cascades of the Columbia
 (Benjamin Gifford, 1902 via History Museum of Hood River County)

The Cascades of the Columbia was a series of rapids on the Columbia just upstream of present day Bonneville Dam (AERIAL VIEW). The Cascades are a result of the Bridge of the Gods landslide which dammed the Columbia River in the Columbia River gorge. The headwall scarp can be seen in the image above as well as the eroded toe of the slide along the bank of the river. This slide was described by native people living in the gorge and it was obvious to Lewis and Clark that the slide was a recent feature. They observed submerged trees in the river just upstream of a the narrow and rapid filled reach of the river Lewis called the Great Rapids of the Columbia.

Map of great rapids (Lewis, 1805)

The slide is a complex of huge deep-seated landslides within basalt bedrock on the north side of the Columbia River Gorge. The local Indian stories that survived place this gigantic landslide as one of the earliest recorded historic events in Washington. Giant slides like this one likely had multiple failures, but recent work suggests a mid 1400s date for the slide. Pat Pringle provides a nice summary of the work that has been done bonneville_landslide_explorations.pdf.
The landslide and the resulting rapids played a significant role in local politics and history over the centuries following the slide. The narrow river and rapids on the lower part of the Columbia River created a very important fishing location for Indians over a large area.

Net fishing on the Columbia 1918
(Leroy Child via History Museum of Hood River)

Indians would congregate here to fish and trade. It is reasonable to assume that some power plays and struggles took place to control the fishery. And the very nature of the difficult water passage would have created some sort of governance regarding moving trade goods up and down what would have been a difficult river passage. Lewis and Clark had a large enough and strong enough force as well as guns and a small cannon and valuable trade goods such that they were able to proceed without difficulty. The Hudson Bay trappers and traders learned to both physically and financially negotiate their passage through the rapids.

With arrival of Americans, the challenge of the Cascades was recognized as a problem for transport that needed to be solved. And ultimately this led to the Battle of the Cascades. Steam boats were already using the Columbia in 1856 and work had already begun to assist the passage of ships and cargo through the Cascades. The presence of Americans had disrupted the former control and opportunities the rapids had provided the regional tribes and were emblematic of what the First Nations peoples were beginning to recognize as the taking away of their lands and way of life as well as livelihoods. The Yakamas, Klickitat and Cascades Indians briefly united and attacked the American settlements in a multi day battle and siege.

A US military force from down river (Sheridan) and another from upriver (Steptoe) routed the Indians. The Yakama and Klickitat fled back to the north leaving the Cascades Indians to the harsh judgment of Colonel Wright who had nine of the Cascade Indians tried and hung for treason (it should be noted that as non US citizens the charge of treason ought not to have applied).

Post Yakama War, a series of locks was completed along the south side of the river for navigation purposes. These were later replaced by locks at Bonneville Dam when the dam was completed and the Cascades of the Columbia became submerged.

Cascades of the Columbia at low water and construction of passage around rapids
(Watkins, 1876)

Remnant of old canal looking east from highway bridge at Bridge of the Gods

1 comment:

Dave Tucker said...

Nice post. I devote an entire chapter in my upcoming book (Geology Underfoot in Western Washington) to the geology of the 600 year old Bonneville landslide. The chapter includes a self-guided field trip to several geological sites associated with the 'Bridge of the Gods'.
Dave Tucker