Willamette; The Valley of an 8,000 Year Old Culture

At a reading I was at a while ago, the author asked the crowd if they knew the name of the people who lived here before civilization. More than a few people responded that “no one lived here,” and that, “Willamette (as in the Willamette river that runs through Portland) means ‘the valley of sickness and death.'” I don’t remember the first time I heard this myth, but I can tell you that I never questioned it. In fact, I’ve even helped spread it. I never seemed to think twice about it, it simply made sense; white people do stupid things like move into mosquito infested valleys. But when the author asked, and I saw so many people respond with this claim, I really began to wonder just where the heck it came from!

…So I did an internet search, “Willamette + ‘Valley of Sickness,'” and found a few sites of interest.

1) The first, a record label by the name Obscurica that released an album called “Valley of Sickness: Sounds of Irritation and Infection From the Willamette Basin.” At their website I found this quote:

There is a widespread belief in Oregon that Willamette means “Valley of Sickness” in some extinct Native American language. This is bolstered by the two seasons we endure: summer hay fever, and winter crud. (grass seed capitol of the world plus incredibly dank, moldy winters.. which last 8 months of the year.)

In my research, I’ve found no definitive evidence to support this theory about the indigenous meaning of Willamette, but it’s been part of the public consciousness for so long that it’s become a fact, whether or not it’s actually true.

Either way, we hope this sampler gives you some sense of the symptoms of the peoples of this region, and the noise they produce as a means of coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder, year round allergies, and a permanent head cold. Come to Oregon, pitch your tent under a power line, and breathe in the spores. Welcome to the Valley of Sickness, asshole!

2) The second site belongs to Global Harvest Ministries, where I found this quote:

Therefore much misleading information was published. In the fertile Willamette Valley, which Indians named “Valley of sickness,” smallpox, tuberculosis and other sicknesses brought infirmity and death. Much disease, depression, broken covenants and treaties were a severe problem. Indians were very mistreated and misunderstood. Principal battles were fought in the Klamath mountains, and in Eastern Oregon, with massacres such as the Cayuse War of 1848.

3) From Ancestry.com I found this one:

Nineteenth-century travelers on the Oregon Trail knew of the area’s richness and vast natural resources and chose it as a place to fulfill their dreams. Similarly, early Native Americans called the Willamette Valley the Valley of Sickness because it was a place of beauty where those with infirmities went to heal.

I like how each of the first three quotes above gives a completely different reason for the name; allergies, epidemic and rehabilitation. None site a source, all make the same claim. Still finding no sources I did a search for “Willamette Meaning” and I found this:

Wal-lamt was an Indian word. The meaning of Willamette is not known, but there are several theories, including Mackey who says “Wallamet” means “spillwater” and was applied to the river above the falls. Broughton discovered the River on October 29, 1792 and named it the River Mannings, possibly for Boatswain Mate Samuel Manning, a member of VanCouver’s expedition…Clark called the river, The Multnomah.

Oregon Geographic Names by Lewis L. McArthur, fifth edition, 1982

Then I did a search for “Wallamt” and found this link from the Willamette National Forest website.

The Willamette National Forest is named after the Willamette River, which begins on the Forest. (The “Wallamt” was the Indian name for a place on the river near Oregon City.)


I did further digging at the Library. In The Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 7 Northwest Coast, I found that the word Willamette comes from the Clackamas (a subsection of the lower Columbia Chinook) Indians. They called the dwelling/fishing site across from where the Clackamas River enters the Willamette River, near Willamette Falls, Wallamt. The meaning however, does not get mentioned in that book. Still, as the above historically documented quote sites the source and the best theory of the word Willamette, which has nothing to do with sickness, you’ve got to wonder how and why a meme like this one spreads.

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I want you to know that people did live here. The Chinook and Kalapuyan people lived here and for a long time–over 8,000 years according to archeological sites. People lived on the shores of the Willamette River, then by a different name. On those shores lived 200 foot tall, seven foot in diameter, Black Cotton wood trees (according to a plaque on the west side of the river), before civilization transformed their bodies into “Stumptown,” and later “Port-land.”

If Indians did indeed dub this the “Valley of Sickness,” I think if we went back in history we would find that civilization caused that sickness, not the pollen in the plants, not the cloudy winters, or “permanent head colds.”

Kalapuyan populations suffered catastrophic declines during early historical times, the most dramatic single decrease probably occurring during 1830 to 1833, when malaria swept the Willamette and lower Columbia areas. There is no reliable data on how large Kalapuyan populations were before this disatrous event. (Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7, pg. 551)


The settlers, missionaries, and explorers of the period 1830-1855 give an account of the Chinookans that reflects the population decline experienced by these people from smallpox, measles, malaria, and other diseases. Most of the earlier sites were abandoned, or with reduced consolidated populations, particularly Multnomah and Clackamas Chinookians, who were thoroughly ravaged… (Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7, pg. 535)

The word Wallamt died with the particular language of that place (it does not stem from Chinook Jargon, the trade language later established). It did not mean “Valley of Sickness,” however civilization later turned this valley into one. Perhaps this excerpt may shed some light on why we have no memory of these peoples:

Efforts to negotiate treaties, begining in 1851 revealed opposition on the part of the surviving Kalapuyans toward government intentions to remove western Oregon Native people to the eat side of the Cascade Range. Treaties embracing all the Kalapuyans were ratified in 1855. In 1856, the few remaining Kalapuyans were taken to Grand Ronde Reservation, Oregon, where they were consolidated with survivors from interior western Oregon groups (Clackamas, Molala, Upper Umpqua, Takelma, and Shasta). The fate of Kalapuyan tribal identities in this heterogeneous yet closely knit reservation community parallels the fate of the Kalapuyan languages there. Chinook Jargon, the lingua franca of the early community, became the symbolic as well as functional community “indian language.” As such, it continued in daily use into the time of widespread English competency and well beyond the effective demise of all the communities tribal languages. (Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7, pg. 551)

And further:

In 1956 both Grand Ronde Reservation and the tribes resident were terminated by the federal government. In 1974 the Grand Ronde tribes reorganized as The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde; the following year they incorporated as a nonprofit organization, and they were restored to federal status in 1983. Total tribal membership was estimated at 1,044 in 1987. (Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7, pg. 551)

In remembrance of the Kalapuyan and Clackamas (lower Columbia Chinook) indians who lived and died here, and in honor of those who still live here; please stop saying “no one lived here.” Please stop saying that Willamette means “the valley of sickness and death.” Please know that if the natives later referred to this valley as one of “sickness and death,” it came from the biological genocide inflicted on the natives by this civilization. Please go to the library, or better yet find a living native, and learn the real history of this place.

******* UPDATE ********


I wrote this article many years ago now (2007). Since then, I have learned and become a fluent speaker of Chinuk Wawa, the heritage language of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. At the language classes there I have learned that my research was more or less correct. Willamette is a Clackamas Chinook word. “Mette” is the french spelling that was changed in the 1800’s from “met” which was a poor way of spelling the Chinookan word “maɬ.” Maɬ is the chinookan word for water or river. The barred L which sits at the end of the word is not a letter in the English alphabet and so it was never recorded as such, except by linguists. You can see it tagged onto the end of many river names: Clackamas, Multnomah, Willamette, Klamath, and others. Willamette was a Clackamas place-name site for Oregon City Falls.

24 Comments on “Willamette; The Valley of an 8,000 Year Old Culture”

  1. I never got that either, I look around today and don’t see it as a land of death. I mean, go south of Portland, it’s gorgeous.

    I do feel sorry for people relocated to eastern Oregon, I lived in The Dalles and it depressed me.

  2. This one inspired me to look into the indigenous history of South Louisiana. Thanks Scout!!

  3. Growing up in Portland (born there) I didn’t suffer the crud that others endured. My older brother took shots at home ( I watched the needle boil.. to sanitize) for allergies. I went to live in So Cal for 9 years and when I came back to Oregon to live in McMinnville, I started suffering what I thought were very long colds.. flu sorts of things, before I learned it was allergies…
    Then one day it all made sense when I was told the meaning of the name of Willamete…. valley of sickness and death… hmmm. I have for years been taging this “tale” on when I would be Doc to many people as I revealed the probable source of their symptoms as allergies… of course being they live in a valley that even the Natives recognized for it’s ill (ness) bodings…
    Today ( as my eyes burn and my body is overwhelmed with the allergy sleepies) I decided to follow this “sickness and death” to its roots…

    Thanks Peter… I have corrected my misrepresentation of this wonderful (sort of) place we live… (I did have it right on the prior long standing inhabitants).

    Here is some additional info for this post thread.

    Statesman Journal Sunday, May 6, 2007

    Willamette River
    Name: Comes from the Native American word
    “Wallamt,” probably meaning green river. Others say Willamette comes from the Indian name for “river without sides”

    For allergy victims you might want to get some info from http://www.pollen.com

  4. years ago I spent a week in the PSU library trying to figure this out.
    I recall that the word’s Willama and Multnomah were actually the same and that they come from a root meaning “it spills” referring not to the waterfalls, but to the fact that, before daming of the rivers, the willammette used to black-flow in the winter as the columbia was a bit higher…

    early settlers discovered this the hard way when their sewage would flow back on to the shore.

  5. Someone told me the rumor last night. I had to look it up today and came upon your reports. Thanks for doing the hard work. I was so curious if it’s true. It feels true. I feel the death and sickness of this region cling to me. It’s time to get back to Maui!!!!! I’m a Portland native who’s adopted a lighter region…. yeehaw!

  6. Derrick rocks he’s doing END CIV with Frank Lopez from http://www.submedia.tv I stumbled on your site researching the same thing.. Funny. I live in the South Hills of Eugene and there is definitely no sickness up here.

  7. I heard that story long ago, it’s one of those things that “everyone knows” in Eugene, but I always sensed it was full of crap.
    One version I heard even claimed that the Indians cursed the valley in revenge for the white man displacing them from it.
    I think just for fun maybe I will embellish the myth with legends, and actual hero and villain characters, and see if anyone actually believes it. I bet they will.

  8. After living in Portland for going on 30 years, I was writing a little travelogue for the people of whence I came, and wanted to find an easy, translation for this most often mispronounced region, only to find the several interpretations above. I can see where they all have some justification in their meaning. I just wish there were some of the native inhabitants still around to sit by the fire listen to the tales, and myths about this valley, it’s people and the shadow of impending doom pushing them continually back and out of site and mind.
    So sad the cause.

  9. I too have heard ths tale forever. But last I heard, the reason it got the name was a curse put on the future white inhabitants because when this was a marsh, this is where the massacred Native American’s bodies wee dumped.

  10. I am a native of the land called O Wai Hi. It translates to Of waters that gush. Or the english hearing ear Land of gushing waters because if you see the Islands from the ocean you can see the waters gushing out of the se cliffs.The world cals this land Hawaii. I am not surprised that the names of this regieon have lost their meaning as well as their “mana”. And maybe that is a good thing. If a person has no appriciation for the wealth of a thing or a place, then maybe it is best that they not be able to have it. I just visited this land and I was cptivated by its bounty and wealth. The spings and ponds of Oswego are still garded by water spirits we call Mo’o. And the presence of Io reveals himself in the clouds. Aloha

  11. Thanks, Urban Scout, for shedding some light on this myth. I’m glad you finally told it like it is, especially in the last paragraph. Clearcutting forests, eliminating watersheds, and creating false ecosystems not to mention greenhouse gases, will always contribute to sickness and death; add to that the intentional importation of disease, and the only logical conclusion is that the European “settlers” brought the sickness and death to the Willamette Valley. The Chinooks, Clackamas and Kalapuyas lived 8000 years or more in a valley with a beauty we can only imagine!

  12. Portland and it’s silly myths. So many factoids and myths about the city have turned out to be false. They make for fun bar stories and can be revealing to the city’s current character but let’s not loose sight of history. There is so much we don’t know. I mean we live in a state where no one knows the origin of the name. Tell me what Oregon comes from and means?

  13. The fact of the matter is that there were many tribes that lived in the Willamette Valley and they all moved around seasonally prior to being forced onto reservations.

    During the winters the native peoples left the valley for good reason, the particularly stagnant, damp cold affecting much of the valley.

  14. Actually, the “fact” of the matter is that this area was inhabited year-round. People go up and harvest in the mountains during the summer and hunker down in the valley in the winter.

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  16. What about volcanic flows? Missoula foods? Thats what comes to my mind when I hear the old story.

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  18. I first heard about “sickness and death” while filing newspaper clippings from Oregon’s 1959 Centennial celebration year. I remember my father growing out his beard, pioneer-style, that year (I was 12). Those clippings were also where I learned that, when white men first rode into the lower valley, what they called “buffalo grass” was growing taller than the horses’ backs. And that there were practically no trees visible, unlike today, because the Indians regularly burned the valley off. NObody really seems to know why, there’s lots of speculation about managing food ecologies, like fall hunting drives. So I guess I’ll stop passing that one along, 😎

    PS All the Cascade volcanoes I can think of are on the east side of the crest, so would mostly flow east, not west into the valley. OK, info on-line from OSU says there was volcanic flow into the Valley from the Grande Ronde supervolcano — 13 million years ago

    And the Missoula floods — I have just learned from the wiki that the Missoula floods did backwash into the Willamette Valley for about 2000 years, depositing ca. 200 feet of sediment, but the most recent of those is dated about 11,000 BC (13,000 years ago). Indian occupation of the Valley seems to be dated as starting around 8000 BC (10,000 years ago).

  19. Maybe the term is meant to describe the local music scene of Portland Oregon, because Portland’s music scene most certainly IS a ;

  20. Chimene, Indians in NW California watersheds burned (and still burn) for a lot of reasons: to facilitate pastureland (for elk & deer), aid seeding and create basketry shoots, to name a few. Hazel & beargrass are two basketry materials that require periodic burning.

  21. My dad constantly bitched about Portland when we lived there, it was really annoying. But he told me about this, and, it is something I actually do agree with. There are a lot of disgusting sick things there. And if it isn’t a physical sickness, it’s mental.

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