Rediscovering Clark County’s own Atlantis

By DEAN BAKER, Columbian staff writer

January 19, 2001

RIDGEFIELD — A mile northwest of Pacific Wood Treating’s abandoned post and piling plant, Lake River quietly cuts around a thicket of snarled cottonwoods and swirls into the Columbia.

There’s no sign whatsoever that this bucolic scene on the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge is historic.

Yet, it is. Identified by explorer Meriwether Lewis as Quathlapotle, an ancient village is buried here under 20 feet of river silt. Today called Cathlapotle, the village was for thousands of years the home of Chinook Indians, and 195 years ago Lewis and his partner, William Clark, met and traded with 900 Chinook here.

Centuries ago, as many as 40,000 Chinook lived up and down the river here around Vancouver and Portland, until their civilization was swept away by disease.

Now, there’s a push on before the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s expedition in 2005 to memorialize this ancient village site, honor the Chinook tribe and build a $6.5 million education center that would include new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices.

The center would be dedicated to the Chinook, recognized just this month by the federal government after a 20-year campaign by the tribe.

Cathlapotle today is listed by the Portland-based Lewis and Clark 2005 committee as one of 13 Lewis and Clark landing sites in Vancouver and Portland.

Planners of the bicentennial commemoration in this area generally regard Cathlapotle as a key location, if not the single most important Lewis and Clark site locally.

Facades are being designed for the center. It is to resemble two Chinook longhouses standing together a half-mile north of Ridgefield on North Main Street between two giant oak trees. From the site today, a trail leads over a high arching bridge across railroad tracks and into the wildlife refuge, where millions of birds feed and nest.

Clark County Atlantis
After 20 years of archaeological digs, Cathlapotle has been raised from centuries of obscurity.

The ancient Chinook town is Clark County’s own Atlantis, a long-lost and buried city, the center of a string of villages forming the last traces of a culture numbering in the tens of thousands at the time of Christopher Columbus, long before any Euro-Americans set foot in America.

The Chinooks thrived here until 1820. Diseases such as malaria, influenza, smallpox and tuberculosis killed most of them by 1840.

Surrounded today by stinging nettles and blackberries, the buried Cathlapotle site is a treasure trove of clues, invisible except to archaeologists, that lead back some 2,300 years.

So archaeologists, especially Ken Ames of Portland State University and Anan Raymond of Fish and Wildlife, have recovered thousands of pounds of relics and thousands of pages of data from Cathlapotle. An outline of the findings is in Ames’ 89-page research paper published by his agency in 1999.

Archaeologists initially had trouble finding the site because the rivers have moved from where they were 200 years ago. Today Cathlapotle lies 200 yards south of the mouth of Lake River across from Bachelor Island. In Lewis and Clark’s day, the village was at the mouth.

It’s the only American Indian village site in the Portland-Vancouver basin that hasn’t been built over, said Susan Saul, an outreach specialist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. That makes it extremely valuable.

“The rest have been diked or rip-rapped at the shoreline,” Saul said. “This is totally natural. And part of the reason is that the land stayed in one family’s ownership the Carty family, until Jim Carty (former Clark County prosecuting attorney) sold it to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1965.”

The good life
Living on abundant salmon, deer, elk and wapato, a potatolike plant growing on lake bottoms, the Chinook prospered.

“A lot of people think the natives here were primitive,” said Saul. “But the evidence is they were quite sophisticated, every bit as much as today, with engineering and land management.”

They burned timber to grow grass and fatten mammoth game, including elk twice the size seen today, Saul said. They built the finest canoes Lewis and Clark had ever seen.

And, said Oregon archaeologist Alex Bourdeau, they ingeniously built cedar houses to be dismantled quickly and floated, like houseboats, with canoes during high water.

“They’d just clean out their basement and put the houses back down,” Bourdeau said.

Thieves and geniuses
The Lewis and Clark expedition marveled at the Chinook, but also were exasperated by their skill as thieves.

They observed the natives closely.

Westbound, on Nov. 4, 1805, the 32 members of the Lewis and Clark expedition saw eight native towns accommodating 2,500 sharp-trading Chinook on Sauvie Island across the Columbia River from Cathlapotle. The explorers remarked on the natives’ canoeing skill.

“Seven canoes of Indians came out from this large village to view and trade with us, they appeared orderly and well disposed, and they accompanied us a fiew miles and returned back,” wrote Lewis, in his usual unique spelling.

Wrote Clark, also with original spelling:
“I counted 52 canoes on the bank of this village … they had scarlet & blue blankets, Salor Jackets, overalls, Shirts and hats independent of their usial dress; the most of them had either Muskets or pistols and tin flasks to hold their powder … dureing the time we were at dinner those fellows Stold my pipe Tomahawk which they were Smoking with, I imediately serched every man and canoes, but could find nothing of my Tomahawk, while Serching for the Tomahawk one of those Scoundrals Stole a cappoe (capote) of one of interpreters, which we found stuf under the root of a tree …”

On their return from the Pacific coast on March 29, 1806, Lewis and Clark met and bought dogs for food at Cathlapotle and then camped upstream where Bachelor Slough enters a curve of Lake River now called Wapato Portage.

“Here we exchanged our deer skins killed yesterday for dogs and purchased others to the number of 12 for provisions of the party,” wrote Clark.

The largest of the Chinook cedar longhouses was 240 feet long, 30 feet wide and divided into apartments, the explorers said.

The houses reminded Lewis of dwellings he had seen back East. They were sophisticated in construction, warm and dry.

Contemplation of the 1805-era Chinook houses now brings modern problems to mind for some observers, including modern Chinook tribal members.

“Imagine the roof repairs on those cedar houses,” quipped Honorary Chinook Chief Cliff Snider of Portland, who has been deeply involved in planning Cathlapotle’s future.

Snider said he’s especially intrigued with plans for a replica longhouse away from Cathlapotle where operating wapato ovens, authentic canoes and traditional methods of preparing food, trade goods and tools could be shown to schoolchildren.

Leading site
The $6.5 million for the center remains to be raised, but Saul and leaders in the bicentennial movement seem confident the money will be found, especially with the coming wave of interest in Lewis and Clark.

“We’re kind of out in front of everyone in this planning, ” Saul said, showing a 45-page book a group of students composed last summer, laying down a concept for the center, which is now being expanded into blueprints, financed by a $200,000 federal grant.

“Lewis and Clark is the hook,” said Saul, a major player in the drive to build the center. “The real focus is the natural site the Chinook, the birds, the rivers and lakes and trees.”

Many thousands of hikers a year already visit the refuge in search of egret, heron and eagles as well as hundreds of thousands of geese and ducks, she said, so the thought of increasing tourism doesn’t bother her too much.

“The Cathlapotle site itself is well protected,” said Saul. “People don’t much want to come in here.”

Officials want to protect Cathlapotle and Wapato Portage, allowing only a few guided tours, native celebrants and archaeologists to explore the site, she said.

The untrained eye sees little but brush at the site. Traces of the early people are buried deep, and most signs look like little more than rock fragments to most people.

So the site remains largely undisturbed, keeping its secrets.

In mid-January, the towering trees around it stand stripped of leaves, gray and cold between Bachelor Island and Carty Lake.

The trees drip and silence prevails except for the cries of geese and ducks, and the screams of the occasional crow or red-tailed hawk.

Those who come to Cathlapotle, said Saul, seldom come back.

“The nettles and blackberries are better shields than armed guards,” she said with a smile. “Mosquitoes in the summer, too. You don’t stay long when they are out.”

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