Oregon History: An Inhabited Land

Obsidian flow at Paulina Lake
Volcanoes played a role in shaping Oregon's landscape. Shown above is a view of Paulina Lake from the top of the Big Obsidian Flow in the Newberry Crater National Volcanic Monument. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
Nature marked time. Spring followed winter, passed into summer, merged into fall and, inevitably, gave birth to another winter. The progression was endless and predictable. Water was a consistent ingredient. The steady rain and mist fed the coast and western valleys, nourishing lush forests and grasslands. Salmon surged up the streams, filling the water from bank to bank in a cycle of birth and dying. The fish, exhausted after their journey and spawning, were dragged back downstream by the current. Bears and eagles watched and feasted, while the smolts stirred from the gravel to slip unnoticed down the rivers to the sea and renew the endless process.
Beyond the Cascade Mountains in the vast, arid stretches of central and eastern Oregon, the rainfall was less but life was nevertheless abundant. Aromatic sagebrush, hardy juniper, the sunny faces of balsam root, and tufts of lomatium gave form and color to the landscape. In the fall countless birds passed across the sky winging their way south on their annual migration. Geese, ducks, pelicans, and sandhill cranes settled down to search for seeds, feed on brine shrimp in the alkaline lakes, or gain energy for their push to their winter rookeries. Nature constructed elaborate stage sets in the mountains, as tamarack, vine maple, big-leaf maple, and alder shed their chlorophyll and transformed from green to red, gold and brown. The turning of the leaves, like the migration of birds and of salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, and smelt, marked the change of seasons. Winter brought quiet. Life slowed and snow blanketed part of the land. Living things battened down and endured. And then, as always in nature, the process started over again.
The exceptions to these predictable events were dramatic and often inexplicable. From time to time the Cascade peaks shuddered and erupted with uncommon fury, releasing ash flows, watery floods of muddy debris, plumes of smoke, and slowly oozing lava. Occasionally a rupture appeared in the earth and, as in ancient times when the great basalt flows spread like taffy, layer upon layer, to form the Columbia Plateau, lavas poured out on the surface. They diverted rivers and formed a jumbled landscape, almost fortified in appearance, before ceasing their advance and cooling. Sometimes the earth simply shook and, with great drama, rose or fell. These massive quakes plunged forests surrounding wetlands into estuaries or the sea; they unleashed landslides that sometimes dammed rivers. The earthquakes, driven by the thrust of the Pacific Plate under the continent, changed the face of the land.
Humans witnessed these things.
For at least 10,000 years, and perhaps for another 5,000 to 10,000 years before that, they were in Oregon. Their names for themselves, their languages, and their lifeways are unknown, but they were here. Evidence of their presence is subtle but certain. In central and eastern Oregon, where discovery of prehistory is easier because the vegetation is sparse and artifacts are more likely to be preserved in dry rock shelters, archaeologists have found numerous traces. The record, while incomplete, is compelling.
Fort Rock in the high desert
University of Oregon Professor Luther Cressman worked in the Fort Rock area (shown above) to establish human occupation dating back more than 10,000 years. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
Humans hunted the megafauna of the Late Pleistocene. Massive creatures, far larger than any alive today, lived during the Wisconsin Ice Age, which began to end about 15,000 years ago. Mammoths, mastodons, horses and camels lived contemporaneously with Oregon's first human inhabitants. Scattered in the sands of the High Desert are a mix of camel bones and pieces of fluted projectile points. Big-game hunters using the atlatl--a spear-throwing device that gave them greater leverage and improved distance and velocity--killed the big-game animals in the land. Whether hunting hastened the animals' passing or whether environmental conditions drove them to extinction is not clear, but animals and humans were neighbors in Oregon ten or more millennia ago.
The story of prehistory in Oregon has unfolded steadily since the advent of archaeological investigations mounted in the 1870s by Paul Schumacher and A.W. Chase along the coast. While the early researchers were primarily relic collectors, Dr. Luther S. Cressman of the University of Oregon helped in the 1930s to develop the discipline of systematic scientific research verifying the deep time frame of an Indian presence in Oregon. Cressman's primary contributions unfolded at Fort Rock Cave, a deep rock shelter that, 10,000 years ago, was home to people living on an island in a vast inland lake in south-central Oregon. Cressman and his students investigated several sites, testing and excavating, but leaving portions of each location. How fortunate was that discipline, for following World War II and the development of radiocarbon dating, Cressman returned to Fort Rock to open new units of the site and established that more than 10,000 years ago the region had been occupied by humans.
Oregon's archaeological record grows fuller each year. It documents more than ten millennia of human habitation and successive adaptations to changing environmental conditions. At the end of the 18th century, Oregon possessed several distinctive lifeways. These, for the convenience of description, have been described in geographical terms as Coast, Plateau, and Great Basin. While this lumping violates some of the integrity of distinctive cultural practices, it helps clarify the complex human adaptations to distinctive biotic regions of the state.