Willamette Falls

As we continue the countdown to the launch of my new book, The Shifting Winds, today’s historical factoids focus on the developing settlement of Willamette Falls, soon to be named Oregon City, the first Euro-American settlement in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the destination for many American settlers who would cross the Oregon Trail.

Society208-Clackamas County Historical Society Photo, All Rights Reserved

The above lithograph was created in the 1840s by lithographer J. H. Richardson who traveled to Oregon City during the settlement’s early days, one of several artists sent out to record images of the West during that period. The picture shows the bluff and the heavy forest above, which will become familiar to readers of The Shifting Winds.

A dramatic horseshoe-shaped falls gave the place its first name. Long before the white men came, the remarkable cascade drew Native American tribes like the Clowewallas, one of several Chinookan tribes who found excellent fishing at the site, and it became a place for the tribes to gather for trade. Some said the salmon were so thick a person could walk across the river on the salmons’ backs. Men built scaffolds right in the plunging water and climbed up to use spears and dip nets to catch fish struggling to leap the falls for the great return to their spawning grounds upriver.

When British fur traders entered the region they quickly recognized the potential power of the falls, and in 1829 Dr. John McLoughlin, HBC Chief Factor at nearby Fort Vancouver, laid out a two-square-mile claim at the site. By the time the characters of my story arrive, he’s in the process of building a sawmill on an island there.

The construction work brought HBC employees to the place which they called Willamette Falls. Then Americans began to arrive, and contentions stirred at this focal point, as well as across the Oregon territory. When the story opens in 1842, the Oregon country has been jointly occupied by the British and Americans for almost twenty years, because the two nations still can’t agree on a boundary. The British have been entrenched for years with their fur trading operations, and only a few Americans have trickled in—some missionaries, a few mountain men escaping a dying beaver trade in Rockies, and a scattering of emigrants who’ve come by land and sea.

Protagonist Jennie Haviland isn’t happy her father tore her away from her prestigious academy in Utica, New York, to come to this wilderness, but her one hope is that she’ll find a place she can call home in Willamette Falls. As she and her family follow their Indian guides through the dense woods to an overlook of the mighty cascade, she hopes to get her first view of this town. Awed by the spectacle of the falls, she can’t help admiring the beauty, but she doesn’t see a town, only some shacks on the island and a couple of log cabins with a few outbuildings on the flat bench of land below. Homes of isolated settlers? She turns to her father.

“‘But where is the town? Where’s Willamette Falls?’ She wanted to find the town of proper houses.

“The young guide mumbled to Pa again, and Pa nodded. ‘So that’s it,’ Pa said. ‘That’s our settlement.’

“Jennie scanned the tree-cloaked hills. ‘Where?’

“‘Those cabins are it.’ He pointed to the flat bench of land. . . .

“Jennie darted a quick look at the cabins on the flat, then jerked her head back to stare at Pa. ‘What do you mean?’”

NEXT: Mountain Men