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Wasco Indian Tribe

The Wasco Indian Tribe
by Stuart of

The Wascos occupied the south bank of the Columbia River from The Dalles downstream to Hood River. The word Wasco stems from that tribe’s own word which means “cup” or “small horn bowl”. This is in reference to a cup-shaped rock near The Dalles, Oregon. The Wascos were called the Cathlascos by the Astorian Robert Stuart, which is a variation of Calascos. Alexander Ross, another fur man, called them the Wisscopams. They have also been called Dalles Wascos. A county and a town in north-central Oregon bear their name.

About seven years before the 1822 outbreak of intermittent fever, the number of Wascos was about 900. An 1853 US military census placed their numbers at 300. There were 252 known Wascos in 1855 most likely due to the smallpox plague of 1853. Although they were the strongest of the Upper Chinookan peoples, they like others of their linguistic family, declined in numbers and power due to pressure from whites and their diseases.

It was their geographical location along a key stretch of the Columbia River which gave the Wascos the power that they had. They had become the foremost traders among the Upper Chinookan peoples. Winquatt was their primary village and it was a gathering place for many tribes. Although the Wascos did trade horses and slaves, their main trade item was several species of salmon that they caught and preserved in baskets that could hold up to a hundred pounds. This was done between May and October. Some of the fish were consumed locally, not only by the Wascos but also by tribesmen who came to gather from hundreds of miles around. Of all locations of trade, the Wasco country was probably the most important in the entire Pacific Northwest interior. Individually controlled fishing locations were allotted first to family members, then to neighboring villages, and lastly to any friendly visitors from farther away.

At the end of the fishing season in October, the Wascos would travel downstream to the mouth of the Willamette River to dig for wappato roots. In the valley of the White Salmon River they would dig for camas roots.

When white travelers were en route to the Willamette Valley, the Wascos would often exchange goods and services with them. One service they offered was portage around Celilo Falls for which they demanded “dollars.”

Wascos lived in plank houses, similar to the Northwest Coast peoples. They were not heavily influenced by the peoples of the Columbia Plateau in the interior like the Wishrams were although they did have contact with them. In fact, the Wascos warred frequently with the Northern Paiutes of the interior on the south. The Paiutes, on one occasion in 1811, attacked some Wascos in their canoes on the Columbia River. The Paiutes wished to improve their own means of subsistence and the barrenness of the Paiute lands aggravated the conflict between them and the Wascos. Sometimes during a conflict, the Wascos captured Paiute women and children and then sold them in the village marts.

In 1838, the Wascopam Mission began by Methodist missionaries was established at The Dalles. They later sold out to the Roman Catholics who began Saint Peter’s Mission there in 1848. On November 29, 1847, the Whitman massacre took place near Walla Walla by the Cayuse Indians and The Dalles became a center of American military operations against the Indians in the war that broke out in 1855. The Cayuse threatened some Wascos into joining them in the war with the Oregon provisional government but most Wascos refused to engage in hostilities.

The war was precipitated by dissatisfaction with the June 25, 1855, treaty with the United States which was signed by the Wascos and other Upper Chinookan tribes. Under the treaty, these people relinquished about ten million acres for the Warm Springs Reservation, which was 464,000 acres before boundary adjustments in the Indians’ favor. The Indians’ were unhappy to have been removed from their homes to the soil-poor Warm Springs and this rankled them for years to come. It was fortunate for them that Congress did not ratify a treaty signed on November 15, 1865, for this would rescinded their rights to fish in their traditional places along the Columbia River which was guaranteed by the 1855 treaty. On February 9, 1929, about seven acres were set aside for a village at the old tribal fishing campsite near Celilo Falls on the Columbia River. This was for a small band of Indians who had been assigned to the Warm Springs Reservation. The treaty was very vague about the northern and western boundaries of the reservation and this also rankled the Wascos and other tribes for years to come.

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