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History on the Willamette

Updated: Jan 20

The Willamette River flows 187 miles north through the Willamette Valley and is fed by one of the purest lakes in the world. Approximately 160 miles from it’s source, the river forms a 42’ tall waterfall in Oregon City. After its great plunge at Willamette Falls, the river flows another 26 miles to where it becomes the largest affluent to the Columbia River.


For thousands of years, the Willamette River has provided sustainable and rich resources for the people who have called it home. Its confluence has given a route to the Pacific Ocean, its freshwater above the falls gives annual salmon runs, the winding and meandering river bends through the valley provide nutrient-rich soil and a diverse ecosystem within its wetlands, and tucked in the Cascade Mountains is its source, a crystal clear natural alpine lake called Waldo Lake, approximately 70 miles SE of Eugene.


The earliest known inhabitants of Waldo Lake and the Cascade Mountains are the Molala Native Americans. The Molala People were expert hunters of big game such as elk and deer and gathered food such as the native hazel nut and huckleberry. Throughout the 19th century, the Molala People explored the tributaries of the Willamette River using dugout canoes made of cedar logs. They were excellent fishermen with the use of harpoons, torches and spears, and baskets used to catch spawning salmon.


Further west, the Kalapuyan Tribal Nation thrived for thousands of years in the Willamette Valley into the late 1800’s. There were approximately 19 tribes a part of the Kalapuyan Nation spanning the entire 187 mile length of the Willamette River between the Cascades and Oregon Coast Range.


The Santiam Tribe occupied land between Albany, Corvallis, Lebanon, and Sweet Home. Lukamiuke lived near the towns of Monmouth and Independence. The Champinefu Tribe fished the currents of Mary’s River near Philomath. Further north, the Yamhill, Ahantchuyuk, Atfalati, and Clackamas Tribes occupied the Willamette River and its tributaries before flowing into the Columbia.


Tribes of the Kalapuyan Nation were great agriculturists of the Willamette Valley. They used the wetlands and rich soil to cultivate food such as wapato and camas. Their calendar followed the valley’s seasons for planting and gathering in the spring, fishing in the summer, harvesting in the fall, and hunting in the winter. The landscape of wetlands was maintained by controlled burns during the fall. The Kalapuyan Tribes referred to the river which provided the wetlands and estuaries as the Walamet, “the pouring water.”



In the 1800’s, following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark’s expedition, there were fur traders and missionaries settling along the banks of the river. With the success of fur trading posts and the discovery of a fertile valley, farmsteads and towns were quickly established.

In 1844, Oregon City became the first permanent settlement originally used as a fur trading post. In 1851, Salem was named the capitol of the Oregon Territory. By 1862, towns stretched the length of the river to include the incorporation of Eugene.


Transportation on the river proved invaluable for exporting grass, seed, and lumber. Passengers took voyage on the river aboard steamboats with large paddle wheels. To move lumber, chained up logs known as cable trees were tied together and pulled by tug boats. It wasn't long before Oregon became the largest timber producer in the United States. In 1873, the locks at Willamette Falls opened passage for boats to pass through the falls. Dredging of the river in Portland allowed large ships to port at its mouth and 13 dams were erected by the Army Corp of Engineers to control flow rates for transportation and reduce flooding in the valley. By the 1900’s, flood plains were reduced by over 80% as demand for agriculture and development along the river continued to grow.


Herman T. Bohlman Photograph Collection, circa 1890-1925



Today, the use of I-5 and the railroad system have greatly reduced the demand for river transportation. Still, farmers rely on the fertile soil created by the river and large cargo ships filled with products of the Willamette Valley depend on the river’s mouth for setting sail around the world.


There now is an awareness of a need to balance a valley where our community can thrive while the natural wetlands and riparians of the river may also flourish. With the decreased demand for river transportation and an increase in environmental protection, the Willamette River has seen a dramatic improvement in rehabilitating its natural landscape. Wildlife preservation efforts have brought back numerous native plant life, and fish and bird species. Also, many organizations, such as Willamette Riverkeepers, work to clean the river banks and reduce pollution.


If you set out for a voyage on the river today, you will discover the waterway continues to be the source of a diverse ecosystem for wildlife and plants native to the Willamette Valley. This unique habitat continues to be the catalyst for a healthy environment in the valley and, for all who venture out on it, a path to the outdoors.



Explore our work cited list for more information on the Willamette's history. You can even uncover the story of a town which once stood across the river from Corvallis at https://everything2.com/title/Orleans


Works Cited:


Applegate, Susan. “Willamette Wetlands of the Kalapuya.” Beyond Toxics, Beyond Toxics, Friendly Area Neighbors, Boys and Girls Club of Emerald Valley, 19 Jan. 2023, https://www.beyondtoxics.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/WillametteWetlands-of-the-KalapuyaTribes_Program_COMPLETE_FINAL_7-8-22.pdf.


Emmert, Irene. “Molala Kate: A Link to the Past.” Molala Life, Molalla Area Historical Society, https://dibblehouse.org/molala-life.html.


Five Oaks Museum. “This Is Kalapuyan Land: Tribes and Languages Map: Five Oaks Museum.” Five Oaks Museum | Five Oaks Museum, Five Oaks Museum, 19 Oct. 2020, https://fiveoaksmuseum.org/this-is-kalapuyan-land-tribes-and-languages-map/.


Lawrence, Nathan. “Wilsonville's Willamette River Historic Log Raft Cable Trees.” Good News Tree Service, Inc., 19 Sept. 2019, https://goodnewstree.com/2019/09/17/wilsonvilles-willamette-river-historic-log-raft-cable-trees/.


Lewis, David G. “LCC Research Guides: Kalapuya: Native Americans of the Willamette Valley, Oregon: Home.” Home - Kalapuya: Native Americans of the Willamette Valley, Oregon - LCC Research Guides at Lane Community College, LCC Library, 4 Oct. 2022, https://libraryguides.lanecc.edu/kalapuya.


Lewis, David G. “Kalapuyan Tribal History.” QUARTUX, 13 Aug. 2021, https://ndnhistoryresearch.com/tribal-regions/kalapuyan-ethnohistory/.


Oregon Historical Society. “Log Raft - OHS Digital Collections.” Welcome - OHS Digital Collections, https://digitalcollections.ohs.org/log-raft.


Pacific University. “Libguides: Indigenous History of Oregon: Nations, Tribes & Bands.” Nations, Tribes & Bands - Indigenous History of Oregon - LibGuides at Pacific University, Pacific University Libraries, https://pacificu.libguides.com/c.php?g=1050460&p=7636236.


Robbins, William G. “Willamette Valley.” The Oregon Encyclopedia, Oregon Historical Society, 20 Jan. 2021, https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/willamette_valley/#.Y8qjqXbMKUl.


Zenk, Henry. “Molalla Peoples.” The Oregon Encyclopedia, Oregon Historical Society, 15 Aug. 2022, https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/molalas/#.Y8qiqHbMKUl.












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