13 Feb 2010, 11:33am
Cultural Landscapes Fire History Native Cultures
by admin

The Alseya Valley Prairie Complex, ca. 1850: Native Landscapes in Western GLO Surveys

Bob Zybach. 2001. The Alseya Valley Prairie Complex, ca. 1850: Native Landscapes in Western GLO Surveys. IN Changing Landscapes: Proceedings of the 5th and 6th Annual Coquille Cultural Preservation Conferences 2001 and 2002, Don Ivy and R. Scott Byram (eds.), Coquille Indian Tribe, North Bend, Oregon: 161-188.

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:

Editor’s note: Over the past several years researchers and land managers in numerous fields have begun to recognize what many Native people have been saying for a long time; the ecological landscape in western Oregon reflects the influence of the judicious use of fire and other plant management techniques. Despite this recognition, relatively little research has been done to explore the diversity of techniques Native people used to nurture the region’s ecological mosaic. Bob Zybach applies his broad knowledge of forest ecology and historical records in assessing the extent and variety of traditionally-tended plant communities in and around the Alsea Valley. He shows us that U.S. land survey records hold crucial, but largely untapped data for research on historic Native land use. — R. Scott Byram

TODAY there is a strong interest in rediscovering the nature and extent of historical Indian land use patterns in western Oregon. Knowledge of past environmental conditions and American Indian resource management actions can prove beneficial to developing wildfire control strategies (Boyd 1999c:293; Williams 2000:45-47), preservation of threatened and endangered species (Pendergrass 1996:227), recreation and maintenance of significant cultural landscape patterns (Winkler and Bailey 2002:2-3), and logging and reforestation planning (Wakefield 1988: personal communication).

Researchers and land managers have attempted to distinguish the effects of ecosystem management practices used by Native people historically, from the “natural variability” of ecological landscapes (e.g., Vale 2002). To what extent did historical landscapes reflect peoples’ influence as well as other ecological processes? This knowledge is seen as key to the successful management of natural resources in western Oregon, where Native communities interacted closely with a complex ecosystem that has undergone drastic changes since European-American (“White”) settlement began in the early 1800s. Knowledge of historical environmental conditions is needed as a baseline for this research (Schulte and Mladenoff 2001:5). Such conditions can be estimated or documented for the lands of western Oregon by a number of methods, depending on the time period, scale, and specific location in question (Zybach 1992).

The abrupt transformation of land management practices that occurred in western Oregon in the early and middle 1800s makes this a particularly critical period to understand. Over scarcely more than a generation, diverse Indian societies were largely replaced by a population of White immigrant farm families. The catastrophic loss of Indian lives, knowledge, and land use practices through introduced diseases in the late 1700s and early 1800s, coupled with a corresponding invasion of foreign cultures, plants, animals, people, philosophies, and technologies, resulted in a landscape that was forever altered (Boyd 1999a; Robbins 1997:23-49). General Land Office (GLO) surveys completed throughout western Oregon between 1850 and 1910 provide an exceptional source of information for documenting the transition of environmental conditions from traditional Indian land management practices to introduced European practices. Although these surveys were performed during the early 1850s and after, they can also be used to make reasonable estimates of environmental conditions at the time of contact (used here to mean the first documented contact between Indians and Whites for a given area), or even earlier.

This article considers the Alsea Valley and Alsea River headwaters of the central Oregon Coast Range (see Map 1) and examines information contained in early GLO surveys for that area (see Map 2). …

Alseya Valley

The name of the study area, Alseya Valley Prairie Complex (or “Alseya Valley”), was chosen for three reasons. First, Alseya (or “Alciyeh”) is an early historical-and possibly more correct (Zenk 1990b:570)-designation for the Alsi Indians (Fagan 1885:320-323; Frachtenberg 1920; Drucker 1965:81-101; Ruby and Brown 1986:4-5) that lived in the area at the time of White settlement (“Alsi” is a name favored by local residents today; see Alsea High School Students 1997). Next, the spelling of Alseyah Valley (vs. the modern spelling, “Alsea”) is that favored by the first GLO surveyors to work there in the 1850s and 1860s (Hathorn 1856a:151; Mercer 1865:159), and it connotes the cusp of time between Indian residence and White occupation that is the focus of this paper. Lastly, the term “Prairie Complex” describes the diverse pattern of oak prairies, scatterings, brakes, meadows, and grassy balds that characterize much of the Valley’s historical landscape. Therefore, the name describes the time, people, and environmental conditions of the study area as well as its location. …

Cultural Landscape Pattern

Evidence indicates that in the 1850s, the time of initial White settlement in the area, the Alseya Valley existed as a series of prairies, brakes, balds, openings, patches and meadows connected by a network of foot trails, horse trails, and canoe routes, and bounded by stands of even-aged forest trees, burns, seedlings and saplings. This condition has been described as “yards, corridors, and mosaics” (Lewis and Ferguson 1999). Lewis and Ferguson initially used the phrase to describe a cultural landscape pattern maintained by Native people who lived in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, but determined that similar management patterns were also used by people in the conifer forests of the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, northwest California, western Washington, Australia, and Tasmania (Lewis and Ferguson 1999:164-178). These researchers found that in each instance, fire was the tool most commonly used to establish and maintain grasslands and other openings (“fire yards”), bounded by stands of trees and open transportation routes (“fire corridors”). Fire was also the agent that entered unmanaged forested areas, whether by human cause or lightning, and caused burns that regenerated to a shifting mosaic of evenaged stands of seedlings, saplings, and trees (Lewis and Ferguson 1999:164-165).

Alseya Valley, by happenstance of the selection process, appears to be one of the few large areas in the western Coast Range that hasn’t experienced a catastrophic forest fire during the past 250 years. …

Early Descriptions of Alseya Valley

On August 31, 1849, U.S. Army Lieutenant Theodore Talbot, on a reconnaissance mission from Fort Vancouver, Oregon Territory, arrived by horseback with a contingent of “a sergeant and nine men” at Alsea Bay (Haskin 1948:6). There he found two lodges of Alsi Indians, part of “about thirty of them, in all, living on this river and bay.”

In his October 5, 2023 report of the trip to General Persifor F. Smith at Fort Vancouver, Talbot reported:

There are no trails around the bay or up the river. I was informed by some Clicketat Indians that they had once attempted to cut a trail from the Willamette valley down the Alcea river, and had descended within about thirty miles of the ocean, when the country became so broken that they were obliged to abandon the attempt. There are some small fern-covered prairies on the upper part of the Alcea (Haskin 1948:7).

The decimated number of Alsi was not a surprise. Haswell had reported the presence of deadly smallpox (Boyd 1999a:21-60) in the vicinity in 1788, while traveling along the coast by ship (Elliott 1928:171), and in 1826 McLeod explored what had become a “thinly inhabited” area by canoe and horseback (Davies 1961:163). The claims of the Klickitats (Fagan 1885:319; Ruby and Brown 1986:95-97) were more intriguing. Within five years of Talbot’s report the bottomland prairies of the upper Alsea River were being farmed by White immigrants, the “small fern-covered prairies” were being grazed by horses and cattle, to be followed by pigs, sheep, and goats (Fagan 1885:498-499; Corvallis Gazette 1902:2; Krewson 1955:86, 95), and the established canoe routes, prairies, and foot trails used by these foreign people and animals were being systematically measured and mapped by government land surveyors to facilitate further White settlement. …

Indian Trail Network

There is a plain Indian trail leading from this township to tide water on the Alseya, which is said to be quite passable for horses. The Indians however generally travel it in their canoes from a point near the west line of the township [T. 14 S., R. 8 W.] and frequently from near the east line of the same. —Dennis Hathorn (1856b:278-279)

During the 1850s, at least three nations of Indians were known to regularly visit Alseya Valley: the Alsi, the Klickitats, and Kalapuyans from the Willamette Valley (Rycraft 1922). The Chepenafa band of Kalapuyans (Ruby and Brown 1986:18-19; Zenk 1990a:547-553) had ready access to the valley via an established foot trail to the south of Marys Peak (Figure 1), and the Chelamela Kalapuyans (Ruby and Brown 1986:17; Zenk 1990a:547-553) could reach the valley via a trail south of Green Peak (Map 3). Klickitats arrived by horseback, probably from the north by way of Klickitat Lake on the western foothills of Marys Peak, from the northwest by way of Klickitat Spring on Table Mountain, or from the southwest, by way of Klickitat Mountain, on the headwaters of Yachats River to the south of Alsea Bay.

It is likely that members of the Yakona nation (Ruby and Brown 1986:275-276; Zenk 1990b:568-571) also visited the valley from time to time via an established trail over Grass Mountain (Sharp 1897:438; Bagley 1915). Similarly, Siuslaw people (Ruby and Brown 1986:206-207; Zenk 1990c:572-579) likely arrived via trails to the east and west of Prairie Peak (Map 3). These trails connected canoe routes and foot trails used by the Alsi throughout the river basin (e.g., see Map 4) to Klickitat horse trails that extended from eastern Washington to the Umpqua River (and therefore into California by way of Hudson’s Bay Company trails established in the late 1820s), to foot trails and canoe routes used by Kalapuyans throughout the Willamette Valley, and to ocean trade with sea-going Tillamooks (Ruby and Brown 1986:240-243; Seaburg and Miller 1990:560-567) from the north (Davies 1961:165).

By one or more of these methods, Alsi were able to trade with Chinookan nations along the Columbia River to the north and with Siuslaw, Coos, Lower Umpqua, and various Athapaskan-speaking nations to the south (Miller and Seaburg 1990:580-588; Ruby and Brown 1986:11-12, 30-32, 64-81, 130-142, 208, 254-256; Silverstein 1990:533-546; Zenk 1990c:572-579). In summary, the Alseya Valley trail network combined well-established foot and horse trails with canoe traffic that directly connected the valley’s occupants and resources to an international community of western Oregon, Columbia River and Pacific Ocean tribes and nations. …

Native Food Plants and Environments

They had dried salmon, and likewise (dried) fern-roots, which they ate during the winter. They ate fern-roots (mostly). Thus the people did during the winter… Such was the food of the people belonging to the past. —Louisa Smith, 1911 (Frachtenberg 1914:81-83)

In addition to persistent trail patterns, GLO surveys also noted large prairies that could have only been created and maintained by Indian fires (Boyd 1999b). Edible plant species were often noted in the same locations. …

Table 2 is a list of plants noted by GLO surveyors that were used for food by local Indians and White settlers. No attempt is made to identify other products (such as medicines, dyes, firewood, boards, basketry materials, twine, bows, arrow shafts, etc.) that may have been obtained from these plants or other plants noted by the surveyors. The reasoning for this focus is that most food plants were dominant (at least while in season) in their location, and usually constituted identifiable groupings (e.g., “clusters,” “patches,” “meadows”) that form visible landscape patterns and can be mapped, and were generally burned, harvested and/or processed at specific times of the year. Frachtenberg (1920:204), for example, gives the Alsi word for May as “the month for picking salmonberries” and the word for July as “the month for picking salal-berries.” These factors also influenced the time and volume of trail use and the structure of adjacent forested areas. Dozens or hundreds of people moving into bracken fern prairies, filbert groves, or salmonberry fields to camp, burn, or pick crops, whether daily or on a seasonal basis, must have contributed to the lasting definition of local trails. The daily use of firewood in these locations would have resulted in annual clearings of forest debris resulting from wind, ice, fire, or other forms of tree and limb mortality. Lower limbs would have been removed from many trees adjacent to trails and campsites, and certain trees, such as willow, chittam, yew and redcedar, would have borne the marks of peeling, carving, and the removal of
bow staves. …


This study demonstrates the usefulness of GLO survey records for measuring and describing baseline historical landscape patterns in western Oregon. It is very likely they can be used with confidence for similar purposes throughout the remainder of the Pacific Northwest. Early European American developments and settlement patterns are clearly located and identified in both space and time, providing significant information of value to historians, archaeologists, cultural resource managers, and others with an interest in this time period. …

The detailed mapping of Indian canoe routes, foot and horse trail networks, homesites, and campsites in relation to managed fruit and nut orchards, berry patches, and extensive fields of root and grain crops cannot be duplicated by any other source of information. The location and timing of daily, seasonal, and annual practices of burning, tilling, and harvesting that took place in pre-contact times can be easily and reasonably inferred from these records. The precise location of individual trees and possible elk-fall pits provides exacting details of how and where people hunted, where they shaded themselves from the sun, and when they met to gather nuts or firewood. The great diversity and ready access of managed environments, including grassy prairies, oak groves, meadows, brakes, balds and berry patches provide strong insights into lifeways that no longer exist. This combination of detailed records and reasoned insights is just as significant for considering pre-contact wildlife populations, their habitats, their food sources—and their interdependence with local human populations.

Finally, it is clear that through the careful examination and consideration of General Land Office survey records, the richness and even the beauty of a given place, previously hidden by time and circumstance, can be revealed. With the help of these records, traces of the early plants, animals, and people of Alseya Valley can still be found, if we look close enough in the right places. The same will likely hold true for most other places the first GLO surveyors went to measure and describe the
features of the land.

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