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The Columbia River: Its History, Its Myths, Its Scenery, Its Commerce/Part 1/Chapter 2

< The Columbia River: Its History, Its Myths, Its Scenery, Its Commerce


Tales of the First White Men along the Coast

Nekahni Mountain and Tallapus—Quootshoi and Toulux—Original Beauty of Clatsop Plains—The Story Told by Celiast and Cultee—Casting of the "Thing" upon the Beach—The Pop-corn—Burning of the Ship—Konapee, the Iron-worker—Franchère's Account of Soto—The Treasure Ship on the Beach at Nekahni Mountain—The Black Spook and Mysterious Chest—The Inscription Still Found on the Rock—The Beeswax Ship—Quiaculliby.

WE have told something of the mountains, rivers, and lakes which make up the framework of our Pacific North-west. We have also tried to see the land through the eyes of the native red men, and have called back a few of the grotesque, fantastic, sometimes heroic, sometimes pathetic legends which they associated with every phase of their country.

Now the very centre of Indian lore, the Parnassus, the Delphi, the Dodona, of the lower Columbia River Indians, is the stretch of mingled bluff, plain, lake, sand-dune, and mountain, marvellously diversified, from the south shore of the Columbia's mouth to the sacred Nekahni Mountain. It is a wonderously picturesque region. From it came Tallapus, the Hermes Trismegistus of the Oregon Indians. Its forests were haunted by the Skookums and Cheatcos. From the volcanic pinnacles of Swallallochast, now known as Saddle Mountain, the thunder bird went forth on its daily quest of a whale, while at the mountain's foot Quootshoi and Toulux produced the first men from the monstrous eggs of that same great bird. In short, that region was rich in legend, as it was, and still is, in scenic beauty.

It is said by the Indians that a hundred years or more ago it was much finer than now, for the entire breadth of Clatsop Plains was sodded with deep green grass and bright with flowers almost the whole year through. This bright-hued plain lay open to the sea, and across its southern end flowed three tide streams, having the aboriginal names of Nekanikum, Ohanna, and Neahcoxie.

It was a veritable paradise for the Indians. The forests were filled with elk (moosmoos) and deer (mowitch), while fish of almost every variety thronged the waters, from that king of all fish now known as the royal chinook of the Columbia down to such smaller fry as the smelt and the herring, which even now sometimes so throng the lesser streams that the receding tide leaves them by the thousands on the muddy flats. On the beach were infinite numbers of clams; and as an evidence of their abundance we can now see shell mounds by the acre, in such quantity, indeed, that some of the modern roads have been paved with shells.

This favoured region was the home of the Clatsops. There, too, according to the legends, the first white men landed. The story of the first appearance of the white men has reached our own times in various forms, but the most coherent account is through the word of Celiast, an Indian woman who died many years ago, but who became the wife of one of the earliest white settlers and the mother of Silas Smith, now dead, but known in his time as one of the best authorities on Indian history. Celiast was the daughter of Kobaiway, a chieftain whose sway extended over the land of the Clatsops in the time of the Astor Company a century ago. Celiast was in fact the best authority for many of the Indian legends. But she is not alone in the knowledge of this appearance of the white men, for a number of other Indians tell the substance of the same tale. Among others an old Indian of Bay Centre, Washington, by the name of Charlie Cultee, related the story to Dr. Franz Boas, whose work in the Smithsonian Institute is known as among the best on the native races. This is the story, a composite of that of Celiast and that of Cultee.

It appears that an old woman living near the ancient Indian village of Ne-Ahkstow, about two miles south of the mouth of the Great River (the Columbia) had lost her son. "She wailed for a whole year, and then she stopped." One day, after her usual custom, she went to the seaside, and walked along the shore towards Clatsop. While on the way she saw something very strange. At first it seemed like a whale, but, when the old woman came close, she saw that it had two trees standing upright in it. She said, "This is no whale; it is a monster." The outside was all covered over with something bright, which they afterwards found was copper. Ropes were tied all over the two trees, and the inside of the Thing was full of iron.

While the old woman gazed in silent wonder, a being that looked like a bear, but had a human face, though with long hair all over it, came out of the Thing that lay there. Then the old woman hastened home in great fear. She thought this bearlike creature must be the spirit of her son, and that the Thing was that about which they had heard in the Ekanum tales.

The people, when they had heard the strange story, hastened with bows and arrows to the spot. There, sure enough, lay the Thing upon the shore, just as the old woman had said. Only instead of one bear there were two standing on the Thing. These two creatures,—whether bears or people the Indians were not sure,—were just at the point of going down the Thing (which they now began to understand was an immense canoe with two trees driven into it) to the beach, with kettles in their hands.

As the bewildered people watched them they started a fire and put corn into the kettles. Very soon it began to pop and fly with great rapidity up and down in the kettles. The pop-corn (the nature of which the Clatsops did not then understand) struck them with more surprise than anything else,—and this is the one part of the story preserved in every version.

Then the corn-popping strangers made signs that they wanted water. The chief sent men to supply them with all their needs, and in the meantime he made a careful examination of the strangers. Finding that their hands were the same as his own, he became satisfied that they were indeed men. One of the Indians ran and climbed up and entered the Thing. Looking into the interior, he found it full of boxes. There were also many strings of buttons half a fathom long. He went out to call in his relatives, but, before he could return, the ship had been set on fire. Or, in the language of Charlie Cultee, "It burnt just like fat." As a result of the burning of the ship, the Clatsops got possession of the iron, copper, and brass.

Now the news of this strange event became noised abroad, and the Indians from all the region thronged to Clatsop to see and feel of these strange men with hands and feet just like ordinary men, yet with long beards and with such peculiar garb as to seem in no sense men. There arose great strife as to who should receive and care for the strange men. Each tribe or village was very anxious to have them, or at least one of them. The Quienaults, the Chehales, and the Willapas, from the beach on the north side, came to press their claims. From up the river came the Cowlitz, the Cascades, and even the Far-off Klickitat. The different tribes almost had a battle for possession, but, according to one account, it was finally settled that one of the strange visitors should stay with the Clatsop chief, and that one should go with the Willapas on the north side of the Great River. According to another, they both stayed at Clatsop.

From this first arrival of white men, the Indians called them all "Tlehonnipts," that is, "Of those who drift ashore." One of the men possessed the magical art of taking pieces of iron and making knives and hatchets. It was indeed to the poor Indians a marvellous gift of Tallapus, their god, that they should have a man among them that could perform that priceless labour, for the possession of iron knives and hatchets meant the indefinite multiplying of canoes, huts, bows and arrows, weapons, and implements of every sort. The iron-maker's name was Konapee. The Indians kept close watch of him for many days and made him work incessantly. But, as the tokens of his skill became numerous, his captors held him in great favour and allowed him more liberty. Being permitted to select a site for a house, he chose a spot on the Columbia which became known to the Indians, even down to the white occupancy of the region, as "Konapee."

Among other possessions, Konapee had a large number of pieces of money, which, from the description, must have been Chinese "cash." From this some have inferred that Konapee must have been a Chinaman, and the wrecked ship a Chinese or Japanese junk. This does not, however, follow. For the Spaniards had become entirely familiar with China, and any Spanish vessel returning from the Philippine Islands or from China would have been likely to have a supply of Chinese money on board.

There is an interesting bit of testimony which seems to belong to this same story of Konapee. It is found in the book by Gabriel Franchère in regard to the founding of Astoria, the book which was the chief authority of Irving in his fascinating narrative entitled Astoria. Franchère describes meeting an old man, eighty years old, in 1811, at the Cascades, whose name was Soto, and who said that his father was one of four Spaniards wrecked on Clatsop beach many years before. His father had tried to reach the land of the sunrise by going eastward, but having reached the Cascades was prevented from going farther and had there married an Indian woman, Soto's mother. It is thought likely that the father of Soto was Konapee. The two stories seem to fit quite well. If this be true, it is likely that Konapee's landing was as early as 1725. If all the details of Konapee's life could be known, what a romance might be made of it! There is no reason to suppose that he ever saw other white men or ever got away from the region where the fortune of shipwreck had cast him. Yet he was in possession of one of the greatest geographical secrets of that country, for the hope of the discovery of some great "River of the West," the elusive stream which many believed to be a pure fabrication of Aguilar and other old navigators, had enticed many a "marinere" from many a far "countree."

In any event it is probable that the Columbia River Indians had got a general knowledge of the whites and their arts from Konapee long before the authentic discovery of the river was made. Especially it seems that from him they got a knowledge of iron and implements fashioned from it. Captain Cook mentions that when he visited the coast in 1780 the Indians manifested no surprise at the weapons or implements of iron. In fact even all whites who supposed themselves to be the first to visit this coast found the Indians ready to trade and especially eager to get iron. A new era of trade and business seems to have been inaugurated among these Clatsops and Chinooks dating from about the supposed time of Konapee. But he was by no means the only one of his race to be cast upon the Oregon shore. There is a story of a treasure ship cast upon the beach near Nekahni Mountain. This mountain, the original home of Tallapus, while on its summit the great chief god Nekahni himself dwelt, is one of the noblest pieces of Nature's art all along the shore. Fronting the ocean with a precipitous rampart of rock five hundred feet high and thence rising in a wide sweeping park clad in thick turf, and dotted here and there with beautiful spruce and fir trees, to an elevation of twenty-five hundred feet, the sacred Nekahni presents as fine a combination of the beautiful and sublime as can be seen upon a whole thousand miles of coast. It was a favourite spot with the natives. For lying upon its open and turfy slopes they could gaze upon many miles of sea, and could no doubt light up their signal fires which might be seen over a wide expanse of beach. Very likely there, too, they celebrated the mysterious rites of Nekahni and Tallapus.

One pleasant afternoon in early summer, a large group of natives assembled upon the lower part of Nekahni, almost upon the edge of the precipitous cliff with which it fronts the sea. Gazing into the offing they saw a great object like a huge bird drawing near from the outer sea. It approached the shore, and then from it a small boat with a number of men and a large black box put out to land. Coming to the beach the men took out the box and also a black man whom the Indians supposed to be a spook or evil demon. Going a little way up the beach the men dug a hole into which they lowered the box, and then having struck down the black man they threw him on top of the box and, covering it up, they returned to the ship, which soon disappeared from sight. On account of the black man buried with the box, the superstitious Indians dared not undertake to exhume the contents of the grave. But the story was handed from one generation to another, and it came to constitute the story of the “treasure ship.”

In recent times the idea that here some chest, with gold and jewels in the most approved style of buried fortunes, might be found has caused much searching. The ground has been dug over for the sight of the regulation rusty handle which is to lead to the great iron-bound chest with its doubloons of gold and crucifixes of pearls. Parties have come from the Eastern States to join the search. One party even secured the guidance of spirits who professed to locate the treasure. But though the spirit-led enthusiasts turned over every stone and dug up the sand for many feet along the beach, they found never an iron-bound chest, and never a sign of the treasure. There is, however, in plain sight now, on a rock at the foot of Nekahni Mountain, a character cut in the rock bearing a rude resemblance to a cross. Some think it looks more like the letters, I.H.S., the sacred emblem of the Catholic Church. There is also what seems to be quite a distinct arrow pointing in a certain direction. But the treasure remains unfound.

The next legend of the prehistoric white man is that of the "Beeswax Ship." This, too, has a real confirmation in the presence of large quantities of beeswax at a point also near Nekahni Mountain, just north of the mouth of the Nehalem River. Some naturalists claimed at one time that this substance was simply the natural paraffine produced from the products of coal or petroleum. But more recently cakes of the substance stamped with the sacred letters, "I.H.S.," together with tapers, and even one piece with a bee plainly visible within, may be considered incontestable proof that this is indeed beeswax, while the letters, "I.H.S." denote plainly enough the origin of the substance in some Spanish colony. An interesting point in connection with this is the historical fact that on June 16, 1769, the ship San José left La Paz, Lower California, for San Diego, and was never heard from again. Some have conjectured that the San José was the "Beeswax Ship," driven far north by some storm or mutiny. As to the peculiar fact that a ship should have been entirely loaded with beeswax it has been conjectured that some of the good padres of the Spanish Missions meant to provide a new station with a large amount of wax for the sake of providing tapers for their service, the lighted candles proving then, as they do now, a matter of marvel and wonder to the natives, and, with other features of ceremonial worship, having a great effect to bring them into subjection to the Church.

The Indian legend runs on to the effect that several white men were saved from the wreck of the "Beeswax Ship," and that they lived with them. But having infringed upon the family rights of the natives, they became obnoxious, and were all cut off by an attack from them. One story, however, asserts that there was one man left, a blue-eyed, golden-haired man, that he took a Nehalem woman, and that from him was descended a fair-complexioned progeny, of which a certain chieftain who lived at a beautiful little lake on Clatsop plains, now known as Culliby Lake, was our Quiaculliby.

Such in brief survey, are some of the stories which preserve the record of the space betwixt the Indian age of myth and the period of authentic discovery.