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 timeâ€“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)
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.