Traditionally, the Southwestern Coast Salish lived along the Pacific Coast from just south of the Hoh River delta to northern Willapa Bay, including the drainages of the Queets, Quinault, Lower Cowlitz, and Chehalis River systems, all in the state of Washington. Local environments included rain forest, mountains, open ocean, sheltered saltwater bays, forest, and prairies. Today, most of these Indians live on local reservations or in Northwest cities and towns. Around 1800, there were perhaps 2,500 Quinaults and Lower Chehalis and about 8,000 Kwaiailks and (mostly Lower) Cowlitzes. Southwest Salish, which includes the Quinault, Lower Chehalis, Upper Chehalis, and Mountain and Lower Cowlitz languages, is part of the Tsamosan (formerly Olympic) division of the Salishan language family. The Upper and Lewis River Cowlitzes spoke dialects of Sahaptian.
Southwestern Coast Salish religion centered around the relation of individuals, including slaves, to guardian spirits. Spirits lived either in the land of the dead or in animate and inanimate objects. They provided wealth, power, skill, and/or luck. Songs, dances, and paraphernalia were associated with particular spirits. Spirits not properly honored could be dangerous. Training (such as bathing, fasting in lonely places, and other physical tests) to acquire a spirit began as early as about age seven and culminated in a formal spirit quest at adolescence.
Shamans, who might be men or women, had especially powerful spirits. They diagnosed and cured disease. They could also cause illness or death and were occasionally hired for this purpose. Feasts involved only local people; potlatches were intertribal. The latter, held in winter, were given at life cycle events or at the perceived bequest of a spirit. Social status was closely related to potlatching activity.
Spirit song ceremonials were observed in winter, accompanied among some tribes by gift giving. Some coastal groups also had secret societies. Most groups celebrated first salmon rituals (the ritualistic preparation and consumption of the season's first catch) during which they burned the salmon's heart and distributed some of the fish to all villagers.
Politically independent villages were each composed of between one and ten households, each household consisting of several families. A nonpolitical "tribe" was recognized as several villages that shared a language and a territory. Village leaders tended to come from certain families, with the eldest son often inheriting the leadership position. Leaders were wealthy and often owned several slaves so that they would not have to work as hard as others did. Their power was limited to giving advice and settling disputes. In some villages (the Quinaults, for example), speakers announced the chief's decisions and negotiated with other villages. This office was obtained by merit. Some villages also had official jokers or buffoons.
Property rights, such as the control of subsistence areas and even the use of particular parts of a whale, were inheritable and carefully controlled. One's work and social activities depended on gender, talent, status, and the possession of an appropriate spirit power. Shamans had especially powerful spirit powers.
The basic social distinction was between slave and free, although some free people were wealthier and more influential than others. Houses were owned by the man who contributed the most labor and materials to its construction. He also directed certain subsistence activities such as weir building. Upon his death, the house would be torn down; it might be rebuilt nearby, or else the former members would each build a new house.
Cedar-planked, gabled houses were arrayed along a river. A door was set at one or both ends. From two to four families, or sometimes more, lived in a house. Partitions divided sections for menstruating women. Sleeping platforms with storage space underneath ran along the interior walls. Shorter benches in front of the houses were used for sitting and as a place for men to talk and work. Interior walls might be lined with mats. Temporary summer shelters were made of cedar-bark slabs or mat- or bough-covered pole frames. People also occasionally stayed in temporary bark or brush hunting shelters.
Fish, especially all types of salmon, was the food staple. Besides salmon, the people used sturgeon, trout, eulachon (smelt), halibut, herring, and cod. Fish were eaten fresh or smoke-dried. Eulachon was used mainly for its oil. Other important foods included shellfish; land mammals (especially in the Quinault highlands and among the Kwaiailks) such as deer, elk, and bear; waterfowl and birds; sea mammals; and plants, especially inland, such as camas, berries, crabapples, roots, and shoots. Inland people burned prairie land every two to three years.
Fishing equipment included nets (trawl, gill, drift, dip), weirs, clubs, traps, harpoons, hook and line, herring rakes, and gaffs. People hunted with bow and arrow, deadfalls, nooses, snares, and nets. Professional woodworkers made most houses and canoes as well as bent-corner and bent-bottom boxes, utensils, and tools. The basic woodworking tool was the adze. Women shredded bark and sewed and twined mats. They also made baskets, mostly of spruce root found along the coast.
Neighbors regularly traded and intermarried. Dentalium shells served as currency for durable goods, and food and raw materials were usually exchanged for them. Canoes were widely exchanged. The Copalises provided many groups with razor clams. The local trading complex stretched from Vancouver Island to south of the Columbia River and east of the Cascades.
Most disputes between villages were usually settled by some form of economic arrangement such as formal compensation or marriage. In general, the Cowlitzes were on unfriendly terms with coastal groups, and the Queets fought the Quileutes and sometimes the Quinaults. The Chehalis killed many Queets and burned their villages around 1800; they also regularly attacked the Copalises. Queets, Quinaults, Hohs, and Quileutes occasionally confederated to oppose the Klallams, Makahs, Satsops, and others.
Fighting was more regulated in the south, and there no slaves were taken. Weapons included mussel shell knives, whalebone daggers, yew spears with shell or bone points, whale rib and stone clubs, and the bow and arrow. Elk hide shirts and helmets and cedar shields (Chehalis), as well as slatted wood breastplates, provided protection in war.
In 1775, Southwestern Coast Salish encountered and killed Spanish explorers and salvaged their ship for iron. By the late 1780s, Indians were used to trading with Europeans and had already experienced population loss from European diseases.
The Lower Chehalises were among the people who traded with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1805–1806. Contact with non-Natives was commonplace after Astoria was founded on the Columbia estuary in 1811. The Hudson's Bay Company founded local posts, such as Fort Vancouver (1825), Fort Nisqually (1833), and Cowlitz Farm (1839). Some Cowlitz groups became mixed with the Klickitats, an inland group, during the early nineteenth century. As access to European goods increased, Indians also skirmished among themselves for control of the inland trade.
A malaria epidemic devastated Indian populations in the 1830s and resulted in significant village abandonment and consolidation. For instance, the Chinookan and Lower Chehalis people combined in a bilingual tribe known as Shoalwater Bay Indians; the Salishan-Chinook language (as well as the tribe's later adoption of Lower Chehalis) eventually died out altogether. The Treaty of Washington (1846) and the Donation Land Act (1850) allowed non-Natives to appropriate Indian land. Many Indians, especially inlanders, were driven away, exterminated, and/or had their food resources destroyed or taken.
The Cowlitzes refused to sign the 1855 treaty because it did not provide a reservation in their homelands. Along with many other tribes, they fought the United States in the Rogue River War of 1855–1856. After inflicting severe dislocations, the government ordered them to remove to the Chehalis Reservation, but they refused, continuing to hold out for their own reservation. Many groups refused to sign treaties or accept goods from Indian agents, fearing that such action would be seen as evidence of forfeiture of land title.
The Quinault River Treaty in 1855 did provide that tribe with a reservation in exchange for vast areas of their traditional lands. In 1864, the Chehalis Reservation was created—without treaties or the formal Indian cession of land—for Chehalis, Cowlitzes, and some southern coastal people, but most remained near their homes. These people either became assimilated into the white population or joined the Chehalis Confederated Tribes or other tribes. Most Chehalis Reservation land was later reappropriated; the rest was homesteaded by thirty-six Indians and set aside for school purposes.
The Shoalwater Bay Tribe and Georgetown Reservation were created in 1866. The tribe was composed mainly of Chehalis and Chinook families living on Willapa (formerly Shoalwater) Bay. By 1879, these Indians all spoke the lower Chehalis dialect.
All reservation Indians experienced pressure to Christianize, take up farming, and give up their culture. Corrupt agents profited on their rations. Of necessity and desire, hunting, fishing, and gathering continued, although Indians increasingly became involved in the cash economy (logging, farming, and railroads).
The Quinaults remained relatively isolated until the late 1880s. During the early twentieth century, a legal ruling allowed members from various non-Quinault tribes to claim allotments on that reservation and to apply for (and receive) status as Quinaults. This process first resulted mostly in environmental degradation and a sharply decreased salmon run as a result of clear-cutting and then in the attendant relocation of people off the reservation.