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America's History in the Making

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Chinookan Account

The First Ship Comes to Clatsop County
The Son of an old woman had died. She wailed for him for a whole year and then she stopped. Now one day she went to Seaside. There she used to stop, and she returned. She returned walking along the beach. She nearly reached Clatsop, now she saw something. She thought it was a whale.

When she came near it she saw two spruce trees standing upright on it. She thought, "Behold! This is no whale. It is a monster!" She reached the thing that lay there. Now she saw that its outer side was all covered with copper. Ropes were tied to those spruce trees, and it was full of iron. Then a bear came out of it. He stood on the thing that lay there. He looked just like a bear, but his face was that of a human being. Then she went home. She thought of her son, and cried, saying, "Oh my son is dead and the thing about which we have heard in tales is on the shore."

When she (had) nearly reached the town she continued to cry. (The people said), "Oh, a person comes crying. Perhaps somebody struck her." The people made themselves ready. They took their arrows. An old man said, "Listen!" Then the old woman said again and again, "Oh my son is dead and the thing about which we have heard in tales is on the shore." The people said, "What can it be?" They went running to meet her. They said, 'what is it?" "Ah, something lies there and it is thus. There are two bears on it, or maybe they are people."

Then the people ran. They reached the thing that lay there. Now the bears, or whatever they might be, held two copper kettles in their hands. The people were arriving. Now the two persons took their hands to their mouths and gave the people the kettles. They had lids. The men pointed inland and asked for water. Then (the) two people ran inland. They hid themselves behind a log. They returned again and ran down to the beach.

One man [of the people of the town] climbed up and entered the thing. He went down into the ship. He looked about in the interior; it was full of boxes.

He found brass buttons in strings half a fathom long. He went out again to call his relatives, but they had already set fire to the ship. He jumped down. Those two persons had also gone down. It burned just like fat. Then the Clatsop gathered the iron, the copper, and the brass. Then all the people learned about it. The two persons were taken to the chief of the Clatsop. Then the chief of the one town said, " I want to keep one of those men with me!" the people almost began to fight. Now one of them (sailors) was returned to one town, and the chief there was satisfied. Now the Quinault, the Chehalis, and the Willapa came.

The people of all the towns came there. The Cascades, the Cowlitz, and the Klickitat came down to Clatsop. The Quinault, the Chehalis and the Willapa went. The people of all the towns went there. The Cascades, the Cowlitz and the Klickitat came down river...

Strips of copper two fingers wide and going around the arms were exchanged for one slave each. A piece of iron as long as one-half the forearm was exchanged for one slave. A piece of brass two fingers wide was exchanged for one slave. A nail was sold for a good curried deerskin. Several nails were given for long dentalia. They bought all this and the Clatsop became rich.

Then iron and brass were seen for the first time. Now they kept those two persons. One was kept by each [Clatsop] chief, one was at the Clatsop town at the cape.

Jarold Ramsey, comp. Coyote Was Going There: Indian Literature of the Old Oregon Country, 4th ed. (Seattle: Univ. Washington Press, 1980), 174-175.

Creator Unknown, but passed on by Charles Cultee
Context The Chinook recorded their history through oral tradition, and anthropologist Franz Boaz recorded some of them.
Audience Fellow Chinookans (and eventually the anthropologist Boaz)
Purpose To relate history and myth

Historical Significance

The Chinookan peoples lived along the Lower Columbia River, where bountiful salmon runs allowed them to create large, trade-oriented villages. Captain Robert Gray, an American fur trader, captained the first ship to enter the Columbia River in 1792. But Spanish explorers had sailed along the North Pacific coast long before then.
The ship described in this Chinookan account may have been from an eighteenth-century Spanish expedition—though historians have discovered no documentation of this event in Spanish archives.
Chinookan Charles Cultee provided the oral testimony reproduced below to pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas in the early 1890s, long after the Clatsop and other Chinookan peoples around the Columbia River's mouth had been devastated by European disease and colonization. Boaz included the account in Chinookan Texts, published in 1894. Native American stories or histories were usually more concerned with conveying some sort of spiritual truth, with making sense of the world, than with relating concrete historical facts, so the content of a story or history could change over time, as a culture's circumstances and requirements shifted. It is therefore difficult to know when or if the event described below took place or what purpose the account served for the generations of Chinook who listed to it.

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