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Willamette Region

Table of Contents:

Willamette Housing:

Mount Hood
Hurd Site 35LA44
Sauvie Island
Meier 35CO5
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"In aboriginal times, the Kalapuya constructed a variety of shelters according to the season and their desired function. Sturdy winter house were built at the permanent village sites and were returned to annually. The winter lodge usually consisted of a semi-subterranean or earth-banked structure with a bark roof and a central fireplace. Such houses were rectangular, as large as 20 meters on a side, and often sheltered several families (Zenk 1976:140-1; Zenk n.d.:4-5). A description of an earth-banked winter lodge is provided by William Hartless, a Mary's River Kalapuya who was one of Frachtenburg's informants:"(Beckham, Toepel and Minor 1982:134)

"Winter houses: made of bark, grass and dirt. Forked sticks placed into ground. Cross-pieces tied on then twist grass. This serves as wall. Dirt reinforces the grass about 2 feet from ground. Roof made of bark inclined somewhat. Roof flat. Bark upheld by means of sticks. Just like a shed. Door consists of a mat or rushes. Could be raised from bottom or else shoved aside. Door rather small a man had to stoop to enter. Fireplace right in center. Not dug out. Floor sanded. Smoke-hole a hole in bark. Beds along wall. Mats of tule-grass. No stools. Houses some 60 feet long as many as ten families partitioned off. Door usually faced river. Meat, etc., kept in baskets, sacks tied to rafters (Mackey 1974:42)".

Melissa Darby (personal communication, 2008 email) stresses the thatch house made from the abundant grasslands in the Willamette Valley. She notes the most common grass was "tufted hairgrass Deschampsia caespitosa, which can grow four to five feet tall". The single family thatch house could be attached to others to form a larger winter row house with the family areas separated by a plank, bark or mat wall. "In 1843, Elisha Applegate described just one of the dwellings (then abandoned and moss-covered) at the mouth of the Clackamas River as 300 feet long (Hajda 1994). This was large enough to be partitioned into individual homes; a porch ran the whole length of the south side and there was a separate entrance for each family".

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"The winter dwellings of the people of the Wappato Valley were, like those elsewhere on the Lower Columbia, constructed of split cedar planks, rising on 4'-5' above the ground. A pit was often dug inside the walls, to a depth of 1'-3'+ below the surface. A cedar-bark, gabled roof was supported by posts inside the four walls and the whole structure was held together by cedar-bark cord. Dimensions of these houses varied from 12' by 20' to 40' by 100', though in at least one case house measured over 400' long. The number of these lodges, which were often divided inside by mat partitions to accommodate a number of families, ranged from 1 to 28 within one village, though all of these may not have represented permanent dwellings" (Hibbs & Ellis 1988:48).

Lower Columbia style plank house
Hibbs & Ellis 1988:49

Some of the historic information for villages from Lewis & Clark gives some data on relative numbers of people per house reflecting seasonal changes:

Village NameHouse #PopulationAverage
CathlahcommahtupThree houses70-170 people23-56 people/house
CathlahnahquiahSix houses150-400 people25-66 people/house
ClanninataFive houses100-200 people20-40 people/house
Clackstar28 houses350-1200 people13-43 people/house

Lewis & Clark described the village of Ne-cha-co-le, as consisting of a single "226 foot long plank long house divided into seven 30 foot square compartments. Near the building were the ruins of several other large, semi-subterranean buildings. Inhabitants attributed the demise of the once larger village to a smallpox epidemic about 30 years earlier" (Burtchard 1990:16).

In November 1805:

"We landed at a village of 25 houses: 24 of these we(re) thatched with Straw and covered with bark, the other House is built of boards in the form of those above, except that it is above ground and almost 50 feet length and covered with broad Split boards This village contains about 200 men of the Skil-loot nation I counted 52 canoes on the bank of this village maney of them verry large and raised in bow" (Moulton 1990:17).

In March 1806:

when we descended the river in November last there were 24 other lodges formed of Straw and covered with bark near this house; these lodges are now distroyed and the inhabitants as the Indians inform us have returned to the great rapids of this river which is their permanent residence; the house which remains is inhabited ... they informed us that their relations who were with them last fall usually visit then for the purpose of hunting deer and Elk and collecting wapatoe and that they are lately returned to the rapids I presume to prepare for the fishing season as the salmon will begin to run shortly" (Moulton 1991: 38).

In March 1806:

"I landed at a large double house of the Ne-er-cho-ki-oo tribe of the Shah-ha-la Nation. At this place we had seen 24 additional Straw Huts as we passed down last fall and whome as I have before mentioned reside at the Great rapids of the Columbia. On the bank at different places I observed Small canoes which the women make use of to gather Wappato & roots of the Slashes... I think 100 of those canoes were piled up and Scattered in different directions about the Woods in the vicinity of this house, the pilot informed me that those Canoes were the property of the inhabitants of the Grand rapids who used them ocasionally to gather roots. I entered one of the rooms of this house and offered Several articles to the natives in exchange for Wappato..." (Moulton 1991: 57-58).

Clark notes later that this house contained 8 families and roughly 40 people.

"Lewis and Clark (Thwaites 1969:6:116-117) recorded 17 villages in the "Wap-pa-too Valley," with populations ranging from 40 to 800 people. The permanent dwellings in the villages were constructed of a framework of posts and poles and walls and roofs of split cedar planks. A typical house measured about 11x15 m (35x50') and was the residence of 2-4 families. The house of a chief was much larger, up to 90 m (300') long, and might be the home of 80 individuals (the chief's family, a variety of close and distant relatives, "followers", and slaves). Each resident family had its own hearth and interior partitions (which) usually provided each family with its own "apartment." Within the village, houses were often arranged in a single line parallel with the river or stream along which the village was located. Shelters or brush camps (Ames et al. 1992; Hajda 1994; Moulton 1990: 218-219; Vaughan 1971:35)" (Ellis & Kent 1999: 5).

Reverend Summers quoted a conversation with Sulkia, a Yamhill, on houses:

"... 'of inner ash bark. In ancient times the walls of their lodges were made of the same material and the roof of the outer bark'. Poles were set in the ground for a frame and bound together and to a cross-pole at the top by cord twisted out of the fibers of cedar bark. The cambium mats, cut as large as possible, were tied to the frame through holes made at the points of contact and the thick roof covering came out some distance beyond the walls. They likes sheltered spots in the hills for winter abodes, but came into the open valleys, or down by the ocean, in summer" (Cawley 1994:40).

Bourdeau (1997) discussed the debate over Kalapuya house. He notes that Jacobs described Santiam Kalapuya as large, semi-subterranean of fir bark covered with earth. He also noted that Zenk reported gabled plank houses similar to Chinook types among the Tualatin ... but these house type have never been found south of the Portland Basin through archaeology. He noted that Zenk felt the ethnographic data was questionable. Bourdeau also noted that Zenk described Molala houses:

"Northern Molalas built rectangular, semi-excavated winter houses like those described for other interior western Oregon peoples. Plank-like slabs of hemlock and cedar bark, peeled at full thickness during the spring and then weighted down do dry flat, comprised the basic building material. A single log ridgepole, positioned in the nocks presented by two upright forked center posts, supported a gabled framework of poles, to which overlapping bark slabs were lashed vertically as wall and roof. Inside, mats and hides covered the walls and floor, and there was a central square pit holding several hearths. Smoke-holes with movable bark covers were located on either side of the roof peak. Dirt was banked around the walls outside. Doors were mat or bark; according to Frachtenberg, each house had two, leading into the moderately excavated interior via dirt ramps" (Zenk 1994: 162).

"If bark slabs were the 'basic building material', then Kalapuyan houses are not likely to leave substantial archaeological remains. These materials do not have the rigidity necessary to maintain deep, earth-covered walls. However, they are well-suited for more surficial structures" (Bourdeau 1997:9).

"If the Kalapuyans built only temporary, surficial winter dwellings, distinguishing then from outside activity areas could be difficult. Both Chinook-style plankhouses and Plateau-style pithouses are easily recognized features. Typically, both of these styles were semi- or fully subterranean. Under these conditions, refuse would tend to accumulate in the depressions and be contained by the surrounding matrix after the structure was abandoned. Even in cases where a plankhouse was dismantled, the materials that accumulated during use would be contained within its former dimension. In fully surficial houses, materials would be initially contained by the walls of the structure, making their archaeological expression more-or-less discrete. However, on the case of a surficial mat or bark-covered lodge, possibly the Kalapuyan winter dwelling of choice, the insubstantial nature of the walls and their more temporary occupation would tend to smear the house deposits with those from activities surrounding the structure. In fact, if Kalapuyan dwellings were primarily sleeping quarters, houses may actually appear as areas of lower artifact density, but higher diversity"(Bourdeau 1997:9).

Bourdeau suggests that the climate of the valley allowed less substantial structures, but nearby Chinook areas with a similar climate built large cedar plank houses. "This conundrum may be partially explained by the Chinook's proximity to large, slow water estuaries and rivers. Transportation of large planks and/or logs was expedited by these large bodies of water. In fact, most plankhouses recorded in the Portland Basin and the Columbia Gorge are or were within a stone's throw of a major river, lake, or slough .... Additionally, the Chinook reliance on substantial canoes made moving large quantities of food and other materials from collection sites to their villages relatively easy. Moving large timbers, raw or processed food-stuffs or any other bulky resources to suitable locations was more challenging for the Kalapuyans who were not as river-oriented as the Chinook. Connolly demonstrated that most large Kalapuyan sites in the upper Willamette Valley are located on the Winkle geomorphic surface, somewhat removed from the current course of the Willamette" (Bourdeau 1997:10).

Although to the north, the following is applies to some of Oregon's housing. While visiting "Kwakiutl" houses Edward S. Curtis (from previously unpublished material dated c. 1910-1914) says the following:

"Their homes were large. A representative house was about forty by eighty feet. The posts and supporting timbers were massive logs. The sides and roof were built of adzed planks. In some cases the planks were eight feet wide. The homes of the noble caste had supporting posts elaborately carved depicting grotesque heraldic figures. Often the two supporting posts at the rear of the building were surmounted by mythic birds with great outstretched wings" (Gidley 2003:102).

"These large structures housed an entire family including relatives and slaves. Cooking was done over a row of fires extending through the center of the building and the smoke exit was through holes in the roof. Consequently, the walls of the houses were thoroughly blackened. Greasy lampblack in gobs and tendrils hung from the roof boards and supporting timbers" (Gidley 2003:103).

"Dishes for food and cooking utensils were carved from wood. Spoons were either horn or wood and beautifully carved. The wooded dishes were often quite large. A grease trough holding fifty gallons was not unusual. At grease feasts participants dipped into this through with quart sized spoons and drank the contents with much gusto. It required a sturdy man to drink two or three gallons of rancid seal oil or oulachon grease" (Gidley 2003:103).

And as a side note, Curtis (reflecting the cultural bias of the times), goes on to say:"

"The most striking features of the house is the smell. There is a solid basic odor emanating from congested, unwashed, fish eating people; fish fresh, dried and decayed. Added is the aroma of seal blubber and rancid seal oil. Include also a fifty gallon community urinal near the door, which is added to, and taken from, but never emptied. In addition, to this conglomeration of smells was one which had the kick of a Missouri mule. It is the world's worse stench, oulachon grease. With the Kwakiutl, as well as with a majority of tribes in the North pacific Coast, it is an appetizer, relish, or salad oil. From the Caucasian viewpoint it is just a very bad smell. If there is any other item of food used by humans which is equally offensively odoriferous, I have yet to contact it" (Gidley 2003:103).


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Mt Hood

In a 1980 CRM survey on the Mt. Hood National Forest, Bill Carr recorded a village site with six depressions measuring about three meters in diameter. Some of the depressions had concentrations of charcoal and rock near their centers (Carr, 1980).

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Hurd Site 35LA44

In the excavations at the Hurd site (35LA44) in 1969-70, a large shallow semi-elliptical pit feature was interpreted to be a house pit. Two large areas of disturbance interrupted the rim of the feature. The northern rim was dug about 35 cm deep and the southern rim was just detectable as a slight rise, producing a level floor on the sloping ground. The northern rim segment was 8.2 meters long and the southern one 2.2 meters long giving a maximum north-south feature diameter 7.5 meters by 5.4 meters from east to west. near the center was a cobble circle around a shallow saucer shaped pit about 22 cm deep and 69 cm across. Charcoal from this hearth gave a date of 2800±110 years (Gak-2660) (White 1975:148-150).

Hurd site house
White 1975:149
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Sauvie Island

Work in the Portland Basin have recorded depressions. 35CO7 on Sauvie Island had two possible house depressions. The Oregon Archaeological Society dug one house, with measurements of 15 by 6 meters and just over 1 meter deep. The second housepit could not be defined. A circular depression was also recorded at site 35CO33. Pettigrew tested 35CO7 and hit the corner of a straight-walled pit he believed to be the house wall. The house pit was about 32 cm deep (Pettigrew 1981: 88-89).

Pettigrew also dug a test pit through the edge of house pits at 35MU6: "Complicating the situation was the discovery of the remnants of what appear of what to be two separate, overlapping house pits in Unit B. House 2, with straight vertical walls and a flat floor, was excavated into the filled pit of House 1, of which the only indication was the dark horizontal laminae representing the house floor. Unit B was placed at the northwest corner of House 2, so that a cross-section of the west and north walls was obtained. After the abandonment of House 2, the pit was partially filled in by refuse which consists of a large, sloping lens of shell mixed with bone, and finally filled entirely by flood silts" (Pettigrew 1981:82).

Woodward noted in 35MU46: "A soil concentration pattern at the base of the cultural stratum in Pit 4 is interpreted as a plank house wall line. Adjacent to this is a very compact surface consistent with a house floor. A carbonized limb or pole radiocarbon dated to AD 1560±50 (Beta 38885) may be associated with this feature" (1990:27).

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Meier Site 35CO5

In CAHO Vol 15, No 2, Kenneth Ames gave a progress report on work on the Meier Site (35CO5). "The Meier structure was a gable roofed plank house. The maximum extent of the Meier structure is 14m x 35m or 46ft x 115ft. Hajda (n.d.) documents considerable variability in house form along the Lower Columbia around the basic theme of a plank house. She presents data for the existence in the Wappato Valley of extremely large houses. The Meier structure is at the extreme end of the range for typical houses given by Ray (1938:124). The structures described by Hajda were much larger, but she had little data on how they were built. The ethnographic model divides the interior space into five areas: front, rear, benches, central zone and corridors. The rear of these structures was set aside for the highest ranking family in the house, and in some cases was marked by a screen and carved and painted figures of wood and stone" (Ames 1990:9).

"The archaeological features include: the surface below the bench, pits, hearths, heart boxes, plank molds of varying sizes, 'post' molds also of varying sizes. surfaces associated with these features, and the floor zone. The floor zone is the area where the plank or earthen floor would have been relative to the hearths" (Ames 1990:9).

"In 1990 we exposed the southwest corner of the house and about four meters of the west wall. We have also recovered plank molds and post molds in positions indicating they held the timbers supporting the ridge beams, rafters and bench supports. We have also encountered multiple post molds ranging in size from 30 cm to 3 cm in diameter. These latter are probably the products of cedar pegs used widely in native construction on the coast" (Ames 1990:9).

"The house may have been significantly rebuilt two or three times, each with multiple episodes of reconstruction and repair. Our best evidence for the building sequence are tow sets of plank molds for the ridge beam support in the center of the house which were capped by a massive hearth complex, and by the sequence of hearths in the complex itself. The tow sets of plank molds can be separated by their orientation. In one, the beam they supported was oriented directly on grid n-s (magnetic north) (house 1A), while the second was oriented 10° east orientation (house 1B). Shifts in longitudinal orientation in the history of a single structure if this kind is also documented at 45SA11 (Minor et al. 1989). We are probably not seeing two, completely separate episodes of repair and rebuilding. The house 1A ridge beam support post was reset five to eight times; the house 1B post seven to ten times, and there are ten hearth bowls within a 2 x 4.15 meter area. Samuels (1983) notes plank repair at Ozette, and the resetting of one wall, but describes nothing like this" (Ames 1990:10).

The Meier Site (35CO5) report in the Journal of Field Archaeology in 1992. It summarized five field seasons by Portland State University in a 14 by 35 meter 14th through 18th century longhouse in the Sauvie Island area in the Portland Basin. The excavations revealed a large house with many post holes and storage pits. In addition, plank molds in three size ranges were recorded: small (3 cm wide by 5-10 cm long); medium (2-6 cm wide by 30-100 cm long); and large (10-20 cm wide by 30-100 cm long) (Ames, Raetz, Hamilton & McAfee 1992: 279).

Meier house
Ames, Raetz, Hamilton & McAfee 1992:278

At the time of the report, the field school had dug 160 m2 of the site. The western half of the house was exposed including the SW corner and linked the house to the exterior midden and yard.

Each large corner post contained boulders weighing over 100 pounds. These stone were in the bottom of each hole and were probably platforms to reduce soil contact and to delay decay of the buried western red cedar support posts.

A bench was found along the wall. In the last phase of reconstruction of this house, a 2-2.5 meter wide bench was prepared that was covered with planks. "The top surface of the earthen bench slopes down into the massive pit features flanking the central hearths. The sloping walls have linear concentrations of multiple postholes with diameters ranging from 3 to 30 cm. The surface of the earthen bench has relatively few artifacts or ecofacts" (Ames, Raetz, Hamilton & McAfee 1992: 281-282).

"The corridor, the space between the bench and the central zone, has floor laminae and large pits as archaeological features.... The corridor pits, the most spectacular and distinctive features associated with the house, contain the great bulk of recovered faunal and floral remains as well as large artifacts. These pits were consistent in shape: straight walled, flat bottomed, about 1 m in depth and with a mean diameter of 86 cm. The pits extend to a depth of 1.5 m in places. Typically, they were dug 20 to 50 cm into the underlying sterile silt-clays... These features in the past, were excavated and re-excavated many times. In one 2m x 2m unit we discerned the rims and sides of 17 overlapping pits" (Ames, Raetz, Hamilton & McAfee 1992: 282).

"The central zone contains floor deposits, the hearth boxes, ridge support timbers, and associated surfaces. It appears archaeologically as an earthen platform between flanking rows of deep corridor pits. This platform was originally created when the pits were dug beside it, but it was maintained as a platform by filling and packing older surfaces and features with reworked fill" (Ames, Raetz, Hamilton & McAfee 1992: 283).

"The H1A ridge-beam support post, by conservative estimate, was reset 5 to 8 times; and the H1B post 7 to 10 times. These estimates hold for the other identified frame members as well...There was a continual reshaping of the earthen surfaces under and around the structure, as well as the refilling and re-excavation of the corridor pits. Pits, postholes, and surfaces were filled, covered, and reshaped by applying a mix of earth and fire-cracked rock ... We have encountered very few surfaces or features directly associated with the dwellings that are not extensively reworked and shaped to fit the needs of the residents" (Ames, Raetz, Hamilton & McAfee 1992: 285).

"We calculate the 1B house to have been 14 m x 35 m, with side walls 2.4 meters high, and to have had a 6.1 m-high ridge beam and a single 2 m-wide sleeping platform along each side wall, plus the ridge beam itself, six ridge support planks, and the eave supports. The estimate does not attempt to include the posts supporting the sleeping platform, and any of the other wood in the house. Therefore, it errs on the conservative side... Without a planked floor, the Meir 1B house, including roof, would have required ca. 40,000 board feet of lumber, with a planked floor, ca. 55,000 board feet. For comparison, a modern, three bedroom American house uses some 10,000 to 12,000 board feet.... The roof required ca. 15,000 to 17,000 board feet of lumber for a single course of planks; some Northwest Coast houses had double courses.... there are 1150 board feet in a log 36 in in diameter and 20 ft long (approximately 1 m x 6 m). Using this figure, the Meier house represents 38 to 52 such logs" (Ames, Raetz, Hamilton & McAfee 1992: 286).

"Frame members had to be replaced several times over the life of the house; conservatively, a minimum of 5-11 times per feature cluster; and the H1B frame could have existed for perhaps 400 years. Given the life span of red cedar, we might estimate almost total replacement of frame members every 20 years or so, or 20 times over that period" (Ames, Raetz, Hamilton & McAfee 1992: 287).

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