Among the most important Native trading centers of western North America was a place called The Dalles, situated about 80 miles (129 kilometers) east of Portland, Oregon, within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and just east of the present city of The Dalles. A series of narrows and rapids on the Columbia River, The Dalles was for millennia a major gathering place for many Indian groups and is recognized as one of the oldest inhabited places on the continent. The name "dalles" (Canadian French for "trough, flume") originates with French Canadian voyagers who ventured along the river in the early nineteenth century.
Archaeological research at The Dalles has determined this area to be one of the longest continuously occupied sites in the American West. The earliest radiocarbon date for human activity is about 7850 BCE (9800 BP). Excavations near The Dalles disclose huge quantities of salmon bones by 7700 BP, suggesting that a major fishing complex characteristic of Chinookan culture had developed by this time (Cressman, 1977; Pettigrew, 1998).
The Wascos, Wishrams, and Teninos were among tribal groups that controlled this section of the river and its bounty of fish. The Wascos on the Oregon side of the Columbia and the closely related Wishrams on the Washington side were the easternmost people of the Upper Chinook speakers. The Shahaptian-speaking Teninos lived immediately upstream. They all lived in permanent villages along the stretch of the Columbia River from the foot of the Long Narrows east to Celilo Falls, known as Wyam by the Wishram and called the Great Falls of the Columbia by the early white explorers (Woody, 1999).
Virtually unlimited fish was the key to the trading role of The Dalles. The river between The Dalles and Celilo was the greatest fishery on the entire Columbia, offering chinook and coho salmon, steel-head, sturgeon, and eels. Salmon were caught in dip nets and by gaffing or spearing from wooden platforms erected from the perpendicular rocks along the channel. From April through mid-October, salmon made their upstream journey toward their spawning grounds, providing the main food source of Native peoples in the area and visitors who came to trade. Pounded salmon flesh (salmon pemmican) was often stored away for winter use; the surplus also formed an important article of trade with neighboring and distant tribes. Perhaps the most advantageous site for salmon fishing was at Celilo Falls, a drop of twenty feet across the Columbia twelve miles upstream from the City of The Dalles. Several thousand people congregated at The Dalles and Celilo during the peak times of salmon and steel-head migration.
An extensive economic network centered on The Dalles (Stern, 1998, 641–652). The Wascos and Wishrams were intermediate between the Northwest Coast and Plateau cultural groups with whom they maintained trading partnerships. From the coast peoples they obtained European fabrics, firearms, beads, metal goods, sea otter pelts, wapato (Indian potatoes), and a wide variety of marine foods and products including whale blubber, sea salt, and dentalium shells. Products from a great distance were funneled into the Chinook territory of the lower Columbia. From the interior tribes they received animal skins, buffalo robes and meat, horses, Plains-style clothing, pipestone, roots and seeds, and native tobacco. The Nez Percé were the main outlet from The Dalles to the northern Plains via their associations with the Crow and the Flathead. Horses spread northward from Mexico and reached The Dalles area around 1730 through trade with the Cayuse. The Paiutes of the high plateau country south of the Columbia River brought game and plant foods, horses, and obsidian to The Dalles. There was also an important trade route from The Dalles north to the Nlakapamux and Secwepemc in British Columbia.
Acting as middlemen, trading goods between the coast and interior tribes, the Wishrams and Wascos also provided their visitors with dried salmon. The chief location for barter was a Wishram village along The Dalles (at Fivemile Rapids) called Nixluidix, meaning "coming-together place" (French and French, 1998, 362). When Lewis and Clark arrived at Nixluidix in October 1805, they discovered twenty large wooden houses, each home to three families. Their expedition had arrived near the end of the busy trading period and fishing season that had started in mid-April; in his journal, Clark recorded seeing a total of 107 stacks of salmon and estimated their total weight at over 10,000 pounds (Lewis and Clark, 1953, 265). The trade fairs were also a venue for intertribal socializing, gambling, and exchange of information. According to Alexander Ross of the North West Company, "The Long Narrows, therefore, is the great emporium or mart of the Columbia, and the general theatre of gambling and roguery" (Ross, 1969, 128).
During the height of The Dalles as a trade entrepôt, a major slave market developed in the early decades of the nineteenth century among the WascoWishram people. Women and children were obtained from the Klamath of southern Oregon, who in turn raided them from northern California (Ruby and Brown, 1986, 91). The Klamath Trail, along the Cascade foothills, was an important trade route to The Dalles and Celilo Falls (Hunn, 1990, 225–227).
With the arrival to the area of European goods in the late eighteenth century and the first explorers and fur traders in the early nineteenth century, trade at The Dalles reached its apex. European goods actually stimulated trading activities at The Dalles, and dried salmon found its way to the coast decades before any Europeans arrived in the area (French and French, 1998, 369). Following Lewis and Clark's expedition, the Pacific Fur Company (the Astorians), established a post near the mouth of the Columbia and explored and traded upstream. Portages around the falls and rapids were necessary to safeguard their trade goods, batteaux, and canoes. The Dalles, especially a section called the Long Narrows (later called Fivemile Rapids), was one of the most formidable barriers along the Columbia. The early years of the fur trade between 1812 and 1814 saw several skirmishes between the Indians and whites who attempted to obtain passage around the rocky channels.
An important aspect of the trade was the development of the Chinook Jargon, a trade language based originally on Chinook words. Later incorporating an increasing vocabulary of French and English origin, Chinook Jargon became an important lingua franca between the fur traders and Native groups in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The jargon was especially useful at The Dalles, at the boundary between the Chinook and Shahaptian language groups.
By the midnineteenth century, The Dalles trading center declined as Native populations were drastically reduced by disease and warfare. A trading post and Methodist mission were established in 1838, and, during a period of Indian uprisings in the 1840s and 1850s, Fort Lee and Fort Dalles were built to protect immigrants along the Oregon Trail and to gain control of the Columbia River and its abundant salmon. The construction of a pioneer road over the Cascade Range in 1846 and the Donation Land Act of 1850 brought increased settlement to the area. Dalles City, seat of Wasco County since 1854, was incorporated in 1857. About fifty miles (eighty kilometers) south of The Dalles is the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, established in 1855, where the Wasco, Walla Walla, and Paiute peoples were removed, now comprising the more than 3,500 members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
The construction of dams on the middle Columbia River directly affected the historic fisheries of the Confederated Tribes. The Dalles Dam three miles east of the city, built in 1957 and expanded in 1973, inundated many significant fishing areas, including Celilo Falls, the tribes' most sacred place. Although the U.S. government provided "replacement sites" in lieu of lost fishing stations when the earlier Bonneville Dam was built farther downstream, as well as $4 million compensation in economic development when The Dalles Dam was built, the dams not only destroyed ancient Native cultures but destroyed an ecosystem that supported their traditional livelihoods of fishing and trading (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, 1994).
The persistence of the Confederated Tribes in their efforts to conserve salmon in the Columbia and its tributaries has seen impressive results. Spring chinook returned in record numbers in 2000 and 2001. The Department of the Interior recognized the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs with an Environmental Achievement Award in 2002 for exceptional achievements in environmental stewardship (Ikenson, 2003).
First Peoples still come together each year at Celilo for religious observances such as the first salmon ceremony each spring. The traditional role of the river, however, and the original landscape that provided sustenance, economic barter, and spiritual meaning at The Dalles and Celilo Falls are forever gone. The Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Wasco County Historical Museum, located in City of The Dalles, highlight the long trading history of the region. As well, the present-day Native community of Celilo Village reveals the power of culture in this ancient place.
Kenneth C. Favrholdt
Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. 1994. "A Study of the Impacts to Significant Resources of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and Opportunities Lost as a Consequence of the Construction of the Bonneville Dam and The Dalles Dam." Available at: http://www.ccrh.org/comm/camas/primary%20docs/report.htm. Accessed February 3, 2006.; Cressman, L. S. 1977. Prehistory of the Far West: Homes of Vanished Peoples. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.; French, D., and K. French. 1998. "Wasco, Wishram, and Cascades." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 12: Plateau. Edited by Deward W. Walker, Jr., 360–377. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.; Hunn, Eugene S. 1990. Nch'i-Wana, "the Big River": Mid-Columbia Indians and Their Land. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.; Ikenson, Ben. 2003. Environmental News Network, "Tribes Work to Restore Traditional Fisheries." April 4. Available at: http://www.bluefish.org/tribewor.htm. Accessed February 3, 2006.; Lewis, Meriwether, and William Clark. 1953. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Edited by Bernard DeVoto. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.; Pettigrew, Richard M. 1998. "Lower Columbia River Valley Sequence." In Archaeology of Prehistoric Native America: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Guy Gibbon, 474–476. New York and London: Garland Publishing.; Ronda, James P. 1999. In Great River of the West: Essays on the Columbia River. Edited by William L. Lang and Robert C. Carriker, 76–88. Seattle: : University of Washington Press.; Ross, Alexander.  1969. Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River. New York: Citadel Press.; Ruby, Robert H., and John A. Brown. 1986. A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press.; Stern, Theodore. 1998. "Columbia River Trade Network." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 12: Plateau. Edited by Deward W. Walker, Jr., 641–652. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.; Woody, Elizabeth. 1999. "Recalling Celilo." In Salmon Nation: People and Fish at the Edge. Edited by Edward C. Wolf Edward and S. Zukerman, 9–15. Portland, OR: Ecotrust.