The History of Native Americans in the Northwest

In the Pacific Northwest, Native American tribes encountered rival groups from different directions: American, Spanish, British, and Russian.

Jun 22, 2022By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
pacific northwest chilkat dancers
An image of Chilkat tribe Native Americans in Washington state, via the University of Washington, Seattle


In the Pacific Northwest, Native American tribes enjoyed a wet and mild climate that allowed for ample agriculture and fishing. Many tribes inhabited the modern-day states of Oregon and Washington, as well as northern California. Along the coast, tribes relied heavily on the Pacific salmon for food. Of all the regions in the United States, the Pacific Northwest was the last to be explored by Europeans. The Spanish did not push north from Mexico and southern California until the mid-1770s, around the same time that Russian explorers were pushing south from present-day Alaska. Sadly, as with other Native American populations, the tribes of the Pacific Northwest were also devastated by smallpox that arrived with European explorers.


Native Americans Migrate South From Alaska

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An image showing the migration of people to North America beginning 23,000 years ago, via the University of Kansas, Lawrence


Approximately 8,000 years ago, the first Native American tribes settled in the Pacific Northwest after migrating south through modern-day Alaska and Canada. They quickly adapted to the more temperate coastal climate and used large canoes to travel swiftly along rivers and coastlines. Famed for its enormous trees, the Pacific Northwest had plenty of wood for tribes to use as resources. Tall cedars could make canoes up to 70 feet long! Canoe travel was popular due to the difficulty of overland travel through thick forests.


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A Coast Salish tribal canoe, via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)


In addition to allowing the creation of large and elaborate canoes, the tall trees of the Pacific Northwest had fibrous roots and inner bark that could be woven into baskets. Board could be harvested from living trees, and bark could be used for its medicinal properties. Thanks to the abundance of high-quality wood, which was very long-lasting due to natural insecticide (repelling insects) qualities, Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest became renowned for their wood carving abilities, including the creation of totem poles in the northern regions.


pacific northwest totem pole
An ornate totem pole made by the Haisla people of the Pacific Northwest, via the University of British Columbia, Vancouver


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The First Nations tribes of the Pacific Northwest made large and ornate totem poles to tell stories and commemorate important events. Like the length of canoes, totem poles could reach over sixty feet tall. The tallest poles tended to be memorials. Totem pole creation peaked in the early 1800s with the arrival of Europeans and tools that allowed for more elaborate carvings. Carving a totem pole was a very serious task, and until the modern era, only men were allowed to carve them.


Arrival of the Spanish

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A map of the expedition of Spanish explorer Juan Perez in 1774, via the National Archives


Spurred by news of Russians beginning to explore Alaska, as rumored by the British, the Spanish were prompted to increase their exploration of North America. At the time, the Spanish were primarily based in Mexico and had little settlement in what is currently the present-day American Southwest. In December 1773, Juan Perez received orders from Spain to explore northward along the west coast of North America. On August 6, 1774, Perez landed at Vancouver Island and met with Native Americans, commencing in brief trade. Although the British would later argue that they had claim to settle the area, a pair of silver spoons that changed hands during Perez’s visit to Vancouver Island proved that Spain had visited the region first.


Russian Exploration of the Pacific Northwest

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The restored historic Fort Ross, a Russian settlement in northern California, via the California Department of Parks and Recreation


Although Juan Perez did not discover any Russian explorers or fur-traders as anticipated, the Russians were indeed active in the region. Having already built settlements in present-day Alaska, Russia began looking to expand its fur trade in the Pacific Northwest starting in the 1760s. In 1778, the British expedition under Captain James Cook to search for the Northwest Passage between the northern Pacific and the northern Atlantic, sailing through the Arctic, encountered the Russians near Alaska.


Russian exploration and settlement of the Pacific Northwest did not advance the way the Spanish and British feared. The fur trade declined in the 1780s and 1790s, forcing the consolidation of competing Russian fur companies. The new Russian-American Company received a trade monopoly in the area of present-day Alaska. Dwindling otter catches around 1800 led the company to explore southward along the coast of California. After a series of explorations in northern California to discover a new site for settlement, the Russians built Fort Ross in 1812.


British Exploration of the Pacific Northwest

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A drawing of British exploration south of Mount Rainier, Washington, via the Center for the Study of Pacific Northwest, University of Washington, Seattle


The British first explored the Pacific Northwest while seeking the Northwest Passage. In the 1780s, the British sent a flurry of vessels to the region, many more than the Spanish. While the Spanish looked for settlement and missionary opportunities, the British were far more interested in trade. In 1789, the Spanish captured several British ships in the region to defend their claims, prompting the 1790 Nootka Sound Resolution. In 1792, a British expedition under George Vancouver, after whom Vancouver Island is named, explored the Pacific Northwest coast.


American Explorers Arrive in the Pacific Northwest

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A painting of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Ocean, via the Thomas B. Fordham Institute


After the victorious Revolutionary War, the new United States of America expanded westward.  Many leaders adhered to the belief in Manifest Destiny, which stated that the United States should expand to cover the continent from coast to coast. President Thomas Jefferson wanted to send an expedition from America’s current boundaries, in the modern-day state of Ohio, west to the Pacific Ocean. The famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, was launched in 1804.


By 1805, the expedition had crossed into previously unexplored territory. Meeting with Native Americans, Lewis and Clark discovered the importance of salmon as a primary food source. The expedition found that there was already considerable trade in the region, with Native American tribes inland having traded dried and pounded fish for European goods possessed by coastal tribes. Although no hostility erupted, relations between the American explorers and Native Americans in the new Oregon Territory were rather tense.


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A “plank house” similar to those experienced by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, via the National Park Service


The cross-land journey by Lewis and Clark marked some of the first thorough explorations of the Oregon Territory, as Europeans tended to stay along the coastline via ship. Very positive relations were developed between the Nez Perce tribe and the explorers, with the Native Americans providing crucial aid and support and the explorers later reciprocating with medical supplies. However, relations with tribes further west in Oregon Territory were strained, as they were less open to trade.


The Oregon Trail & Native Americans

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An image of Fort Laramie, Wyoming, along the Oregon Trail, via the Oregon Historical Society Research Library


Beginning in the 1840s, American settlers began heading for the Oregon Territory. Between 1840 and 1860, up to 400,000 settlers used the Oregon Trail to settle in Utah, northern California, and Oregon. Famous today for being featured in the popular computer game of the same name, the Oregon Trail saw families of settlers brave rough conditions in wagon trains to reach the natural bounty of the Pacific Northwest.


Settlement of the Oregon Territory was encouraged by the US government as early as the 1820s due to fears that the British would occupy it from nearby Canada. In 1841, the first wagon train traveled the Oregon Trail and saw some settlers head to northern California while others diverted to Oregon. By 1850, thousands of settlers traveled the trail each year, with many heading to northern California thanks to the 1849 gold rush. The Oregon Donation Land Law of 1850, arguably the most generous land act in US history, allowed settlers to claim up to 640-acre tracts.


The US Secures Oregon Territory

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A map showing the Oregon Treaty boundaries between the U.S. and British Canada, via Glynn County Schools, Georgia


In 1846, the United States made a deal with Britain to secure the boundaries of Oregon Territory. The British agreed to today’s modern-day borders between Washington state and Canada in exchange for unchallenged control of Vancouver Island. With hostilities looming in the new state of Texas between the US and Mexico, securing the Pacific Northwest from potential British incursion was a political victory. This meant that Native American tribes in the region would have to deal solely with the United States government.


In 1850, the US began seeking formalized settlement of the Oregon Territory. As in the American Northeast and South, the government encouraged tribes to adopt an agrarian way of life. Initial attempts to convince tribes to move east, out of desired settlement territory near the coast, were resisted. In a rarity, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Oregon Territory, unlike his counterparts in the rest of the nation, was forced to allow the tribes to remain in their homeland in 1851. However, the US Senate refused to ratify these treaties, and settlers demanded that the Native Americans be removed.


Conflicts In Oregon Territory: The Rogue River War

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An image of the Willamette Valley, Oregon, via the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde


In 1853, conflicts arose between gold miners and the Rogue River tribes. Again, the tribes refused to move east. Angry settlers attacked Native Americans living in the Rogue Valley in October 1855. Politicians in the area and nearby northern California proposed exterminating all Native Americans who refused to live on reservations. While anti-Native rhetoric was increasing, a drought that had limited the success of gold prospectors in the territory likely added an incentive to join volunteer militias. Out-of-work prospectors could receive food and pay for joining volunteer militias targeting Native Americans.


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A map of Oregon Territory in 1850, shortly before the Battle of Hungry Hill, via the Oregon Historical Quarterly


In late October, the US Army joined the skirmishes. The settlers and Army pursued a group of Native Americans who had left the Table Rock Reservation. On the morning of October 31, the battle commenced. The Army forces were disorganized and repelled from the Takelma Native Americans’ defensive positions. The Battle of Hungry Hill was a rare defeat for the US Army during the Indian War era. However, reinforcements were quickly brought in, and the Army returned to the offensive.


By June 1856, Native American resistance in the Willamette Valley region ended. However, after the coastal reservation opened in 1857, most tribes remained in the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. A twenty-year treaty guaranteed the provision of some infrastructure, including a school, on the reservation. By the beginning of the US Civil War in 1861, the Pacific Northwest region was largely pacified from Native American resistance.


Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest Today

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Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest today, via the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC


After the brief Rogue River War in late 1855, the Pacific Northwest was largely pacified in terms of violence between Native Americans and settlers. Today, there are 29 federally-recognized tribes in Washington state and several unrecognized tribes. Oregon has nine federally-recognized tribes, several of which are coalitions of smaller tribes. After the Boldt decision in the 1970s, federally-recognized tribes in the Pacific Northwest regained commercial and self-governing rights that they had initially been promised in the 1800s.


Today, Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest are economically engaged in tourism, casinos and gaming, and commercial fishing and agriculture. While conflicts between Native Americans and European Americans in the region did not rise to the level of violence seen in the West during the Indian Wars era, many treaties were broken, and Native Americans were forced onto reservations much smaller than initially proposed. Fortunately, legislation and court decisions in the last fifty years have helped reverse some inequities.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.