Follow us on Facebook
Site Map


Other Great Sites

Columbia Gorge History

History of the Columbia River Gorge
by Stuart of

The earliest inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest were representative of the Paleo-Indian stage in North American prehistory, which encompasses archaeological remains dating from the end of the Pleistocene more than 10,000 years ago. Paleo-Indian lifeways were apparently focused on the hunting of big game, including megafauna, mammoth, and large bison which are now extinct. The origins and broader cultural affiliations of the Paleo-Indian peoples are controversial, with the opinions of archaeologists being divided into two main school of thought.

It has long been assumed that the earliest cultures in the Pacific Northwest must have been associated with the Fluted Point Horizon. Characterized by Clovis and Folsom fluted projectile points, this tradition is widely represented in eastern North America where it has been radiocarbon dated to the period from 11,500 to 10,000 BC. West of the Rocky Mountains, however, fluted points are relatively scarce and for the most part have been discovered only as isolated surface finds. An alternative interpretation is that the earliest inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest are represented b the Stemmed Point Tradition, which is composed of various complexes of stemmed, shouldered, and indented base lanceolate projectile points. The localities in south-central Oregon, Fort Rock Cave and the Connley Caves, have produced evidence of lanceolate points in occupation levels bracketed by radiocarbon dates of 10,100 BC and 13,200 BC. These dated occurrences strongly support the idea that in the Pacific Northwest the Stemmed Point Tradition is at least contemporary, if not older, than the Fluted Point Tradition.

The Stemmed Point Tradition continued to be represented during the Early Archaic (10,000 – 7,500 BC) at a large number of archaeological sites in the Pacific Northwest. This period was marked by a trend toward the development of broader subsistence bases including the use of milling stones in the preparation of vegetal foods. Within the general vicinity of the upstream end of the Columbia Gorge, sites containing stemmed points include Lin Coulee in south-central Washington, and Indian Well, Fivemile Rapids, Goldendale, and Wildcat Canyon on the Middle Columbia River. Downstream from the Gorge evidence of Early Archaic occupation is sparse, but it appears to be represented by several poorly dated culture complexes found at the mouth of the Columbia River, in the Puget Lowlands, and on the western slope of the Cascade Range in the Willamette Valley.

During the following Middle Archaic (7500 – 2000 BC) the earlier stemmed projectile points are gradually replaced by broad-necked stemmed and notched points used with the atlatl and dart. Lifeways during the period became more fully characteristic of the Archaic Stage, a trend which is reflected in the appearance of small pithouse villages in the Columbia Plateau midway through this period. The first indications of a trend toward elaboration in material culture and art works appear toward the end of the Middle Archaic. Fivemile Rapids, the Congdon site, and Wildcat Canyon upstream from the Gorge were all occupied during at least portions of this period. Middle Archaic occupation is also represented, although sparsely, at a few sites in the Gorge and farther downstream in the Portland Basin.

The Late Archaic (2000 – 150 BC) represents the culmination of gradual cultural developments in the Pacific Northwest. Prehistoric cultures in the vicinity of the Columbia Gorge achieved their highest level of cultural complexity during this period. While the narrow-necked arrow point is the key chronological indicator for this period, Late Archaic sites often contain an immense array of artifacts, many of them “non-utilitarian ‘wealth’ items presumably reflecting the rise of social classes among the region’s inhabitants. Late Archaic occupations are best known from Wakemap Mound and Wildcat Canyon at the upstream end of the Gorge, and by the complex of sites around the Cascades of the Columbia downstream. Judging from the elaboration in wealth items, mortuary goods, and art, the level of cultural complexity in The Dalles-Deschutes area during the Late Archaic was among the highest in the entire Pacific Northwest. Although generally thought to have somehow been derived from contact with the Northwest Coast, archaeological evidence now suggests that the elaborate and complex culture in evidence at The Dalles during the Late Archaic was a more or less independent development.

The Upper Chinookans, who inhabited the bulk of the Columbia Gorge at the time of historic contact, shared a linguistic affiliation with several bands who resided from the vicinity of The Dalles to within a dozen miles of the mouth of the Columbia River. The village was the “tribe” among these people who acknowledged wealth and inheritance as the arbiters of distinction and leadership within the local community. Residing along one of the world’s most abundant fishing streams, they had access to vast quantities of salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, smelt, and eels. They occasionally hunted for land mammals, and as part of their seasonal round, picked berries in the mountains. The Wasco and Wishram, located in the more arid western Plateau, also made extensive use of root crops. The subsistence pattern of the neighboring Sahaptins, residing inland from the Upper Chinook as well as at the east end of The Dalles, followed a similar pattern.

Like other peoples of the Northwest Coast, the Indians through the western half of the Gorge utilized cedar plank lodges and dugout canoes. Their art included carved and painted sculptural pieces, especially in their house interiors and burial structures. The most easterly Upper Chinookans and Sahaptins utilized mat lodges and, in winter, largely subterranean pit houses. In some respects the Chinookans lifeways in the Gorge were transitional between that of the Coast to the west and the Plateau which surrounded them to the north, east, and south. The clothing of the Upper Chinookans varied from processed cedar bark at the Cascades to tanned leather garments at Celilo Falls.

The Gorge Indians were adept traders. The Chinook Jargon, based in part on the Chinookan language, served as the Pacific Northwest. The Upper Chinookans and Sahaptins believed that nature was filled with spirits and that young persons could secure special “spirit powers” by observing a vigil. The winter months were the occasion for the spirit dances and the sharing of traditional stories. The first-fruits ceremonies were an essential rite of the villages. The ritual treatment of the salmon kept the world in order and fish in abundance. These ceremonies are also the most important events in the ceremonial year of contemporary Upper Chinookans and Sahaptins, who still practice many of the Columbia Gorge traditions.

The advent of Euro-American contact radically changed the lives of the Upper Chinookans. Trade goods, new diseases, tensions with fur seekers, and encroachment by settlers disrupted their centuries-old lifeways. Ultimately the tensions and disappointments in the treaty negotiations and pace of pioneer settlement erupted in warfare in 1856. The U.S. Army defeated the Indians and supervised their removal to reservations where the Bureau of Indian Affairs promoted programs of “civilization.” Although their ratified treaties reserved specific rights, including fishing in the Columbia River as well as at on-reservation sites, the states of Oregon and Washington repeatedly sought to abrogate those agreements. Years of ignoring the treaties and dispute ensued. Ultimately the tribes won their cases and secured affirmation of their rights. Today they participate actively in the management of the fisheries of the Columbia River.

Most of the larger themes of the history of the American West surface in the Gorge of the Columbia. At the end of the eighteenth century Enlightenment Era, explorers sailed to the gateway of the Gorge in their search for the mythical Northwest Passage. In 1805-06 Lewis and Clark descended the Columbia in their investigations of the Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Northwest. They, and others who followed, recorded detailed maps, information about the land, and notes on the Indians. The maritime fur trade became a land-based enterprise in 1811 and for the next thirty years fur seekers passed back and forth through the Gorge with goods, bales of furs, and brigades which escalated changes among the region’s Indians.

In the 1830s missionaries descended the Columbia. The contingents of Protestants and one of Catholics passed through the Gorge to seek sites for their initial stations. In 1838 the Methodists founded a mission at The Dalles. The Catholics, working out of Fort Vancouver, baptized dozens of the Cascades band in the 1840s and in 1848 established the mission of St. Peter at The Dalles. Although the mission impacts were transitory, they contributed elements of change in Indian lifeways and generated a literature documenting these labors. Above all, the missionaries spread the word in the East about the resources and potentials of the Oregon country.

Overland emigration commenced in 1841 and mounted steadily for the next twenty years. The Gorge was the final challenge to the weary, undernourished travelers on the Oregon Trail. Townsite speculators and developers of transportations systems saw the potentials of the Gorge as a great highway through the Cascade Range. Inspired by the provisions of the Donation Land Act, pioneers settled between 1850 and 1855 along the margins of the Columbia and began developing service industries to assist travelers.

The Gorge drew portage railroad developers, steamboat captains, and finally the region’s first major monopoly, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. This firm consolidated the interests of the Bradfords and Ruckel at the Cascades, improved facilities, imported a locomotive, and soon expanded across the Plateau to develop a tight hold on transportation. The Oregon Railway and Navigation Company constructed a railroad through the Gorge in 1882 and set the stage for modern transportation. A second generation of investors built the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railroad along the Washington shore early in the twentieth century. Visionary developers promoted and secured construction of the Columbia River Highway, 1912-22. This paved route was designed to take advantage of the region’s scenery and use the latest design and engineering. In Washington, the Northbank Highway of 1907 was upgraded as the Evergreen Highway in the 1920s.

A number of towns and smaller communities developed along the banks of the Columbia. The Dalles and Hood River emerged as the most significant of these, but several others served as locations for goods and services to those who lived on the stream courses feeding into the Columbia River. The construction of railroads and highways stimulated growth in these communities and contributed to the flow of travelers.

The use of steam pressure cooking and invention of soldered tin cans made it possible by 1868 for cannery operators to ship Columbia River salmon to world markets. Fishwheels mechanized the process of catching the fish in the Gorge, while Chinese laborers worked long hours for low pay in the processing plants. Other elements of the economy included logging, lumbering, and the sale of cordwood for use on steamboats or by the locomotives. Much of the timber harvest served local markets, though rail and water connections made export possible.

Tourists found the Gorge a scenic wonderland. The vistas, hikes, and wildlife beckoned, as did the mineral and hot springs along the north shore of the river. In the 1890s specialized agriculture came to the Gorge. The volcanic soils and climate of the Hood River and Klickitat valleys yielded abundant crops of apples and cherries. Processing and shipping of fruit became an important local enterprise.

Throughout its history the Gorge has been the setting of major projects for the federal government. The Topographical Engineers and the General Land Office mounted early surveys. The Army constructed two forts and three blockhouses in the Gorge, engaged in battle with the Indians, and constructed a portage road at the Cascades. The Army Corps of Engineers launched major river projects in the 1870s. These resulted in the removal of rocks, reefs, and finally the construction of bypass canals and locks at Cascade Locks and Celilo. In the twentieth century the Corps constructed the massive Bonneville project: a dam, two powerhouses, fish ladders, two navigation locks, and, for a period, an administrative townsite. The Corps also built The Dalles Dam, while the Bonneville Power Administration installed the grid systems and substations for the transmission and marketing of electricity. These projects were of major consequence to the region’s economy.

Other federal agencies involved in the Gorge have included the General Land Office (and its successor the BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service. In 1914, the Forest Service opened its first campground in the country at Eagle Creek, a response to the new Columbia River Highway and the strong interest of tourists in the region. The Forest Service has managed forests in the Gorge, developed an extensive system of hiking trails, operated the Wind River Nursery, and interpreted the area’s diverse resources to millions of visitors.

The Columbia Gorge is both a passageway and a destination. It has served throughout the historic period as a conduit for travelers and commerce. It also has become a destination for thousands of residents of the region and millions more visitors. The Columbia Gorge’s history is a mirror to the development of the Pacific Northwest.


Beckham, Stephen Dow, Rick Minor, Kathryn Anne Toepel, and Jo Reese. Prehistory and History of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon and Washington. Eugene, OR. Heritage Research Associates, Inc. 1988.

Title Link

250 ad

I-84 Corridor

Title Link