BSWCD Annual Meeting Includes Thought-Provoking Talk about the History of Native People Here

2013 Annual Meeting
Convening at the Kings Valley Community Center after a restoration tour at Cliff and Gay Hall’s property.

The Benton Soil and Water Conservation District (BSWCD) held its annual meeting at the Kings Valley Community Center on October 7, 2013. Before the meeting, some participants enjoyed a tour of habitat restoration sites on the property of Dr. Cliff Hall, who is the current chair of the BSWCD. The beautiful fall weather provided an ideal opportunity for a good look at the restoration work that has been accomplished on the property, including the planting of many thousands of young trees and the placement of large woody debris in Maxfield Creek to provide better fish habitat.  After the tour, a tasty Southwestern-themed buffet was provided, and participants enjoyed a period of eating and socializing before a most interesting evening of talks.

Dr. Hall spoke about the history of Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs). SWCDs were first formed in response to the Dust Bowl crisis in the 1930’s, though the BSWCD wasn’t created until 1956. They are technically part of state governments, but functionally they act as independent local units, promoting cleaner water, improved cropland, pastures and forests on private lands by providing landowners with optional assistance for meeting conservation goals.

Kristen Larson, Coordinator of the Luckiamute Watershed Council (LWC), spoke about some aspects of the Luckiamute River’s history as well as about the Council’s work. Apparently there was a particularly high concentration of splash dams on the Luckiamute; estimates range from eighty to one hundred dams. Splash dams were temporary wooden dams used to raise the water level in order to float large numbers of logs downstream to sawmills. By impounding water and allowing it to be released on the log drive’s schedule, these dams allowed many more logs to be brought to market than the natural flow of the creek allowed. Water releases from multiple splash dams on tributaries were also often combined to maximize the number of logs floated throughout a given watershed. All this release of water and logs tended to scour out gravel beds that are used as spawning grounds by native salmon. Ms. Larson also gave a report on the current state of the knotweed removal project. Knotweed that is removed is replaced with native plant species. She shared the encouraging news that Coho salmon were seen further up Maxfield Creek than they have been seen for many, many years.

Dr. David Brauner, OSU professor of anthropology, spoke about the history of native peoples in this area. He told us that between twelve and thirteen thousand years ago, this area was all tundra and northern boreal forest. About three to four thousand years ago, the climate stabilized into something approximating what we know today. Because of an amenable climate and abundant resources, the Pacific Northwest was one of the places in North America with the highest concentration of Native American tribes. The Luckiamute band was one of about thirteen different Kalapuya groups who lived in the general area of the Willamette Valley. Unfortunately, not much is known about the Kalapuya because they were some of the most decimated by disease of any native North American population.

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In the late 1700s, the fur trade along the coast created shipboard contact between the Kalapuya and Europeans. By the 1790s, exposure to smallpox, measles, and even the common cold had started to result in extremely large numbers of deaths. By the time the settlers arrived here in the 1840s, the Kalapuyan culture was no longer functioning because there were simply not enough survivors to keep it intact. Archaeological evidence shows that the Kalapuya maintained an oak savannah ecosystem in this general area for thousands of years, burning the valleys periodically in a regular cycle. One member of each band was in charge of the fires. The open meadows created by the burning provided ideal habitat for game and also for some of the plant staples gathered by the people for food and materials.

The Kalapuya most certainly enjoyed abundant food sources. It is thought that abundance of food led to complex political and social organization of local bands, as it did to most other native tribes in the Pacific Northwest. Camas bulbs were their most abundant and important staple. Blue camas is a beautiful blue-flowered plant in the lily family which is still found in our area, although white-flowered camas, also called death camas, is deadly poison. The onion-shaped bulbs of blue camas were dug by Kalapuya women and roasted in pit ovens. Roasted camas was sometimes pressed into cakes which were dried for later use or to trade. Trappers who came to Oregon in the early 1800s wrote that they felt as though they were riding their horses through the ocean; vast stretches of blue camas made a beautiful sea of undulating blue flowers. Wild game was abundant. There were so many wild geese that that trade ships left the Washington and Oregon coasts with entire cargos just of goosedown.

The number of Kalapuya before European settlement is unknown. Estimates generally state there were at least 15,000. In 1833 it is estimated that there were about 8,000 Kalapuya. Due to particularly bad disease outbreaks that winter, about 80% of them perished. By the time Nahum and Serepta King and their clan came to Kings Valley in 1845, very few Kalapuya were left. In 1849, Governor Joseph Lane estimated the number in the Luckiamute band to be fifteen. Landowners in Kings Valley would usually let the few remaining Luckiamutes camp on their property and gather food. Members of the Klickitat tribe to the north would come down this way and sometimes the Kalapuya would lease land use rights to the Klickitat in trade for food.

Many thanks to Dr. Brauner for such an interesting and enlightening lecture as well as to the others who spoke, and to those who organized the BSWCD’s annual meeting held at the Kings Valley Community Center.

This article was reprinted with Andrea Davis’ permission from the December 2013 issue of the newsletter.