Washington Indian Tribes

The State of Washington was occupied by a great number of Indian tribes formerly very populous, particularly those along the coast. There are few traditions regarding migrations and those which we have apply almost entirely to the interior people. After the Whites came it was unlikely that the Indians would move eastward in the face of the invasion and impossible for them to move westward; hence we do not have to trace various stages of long migrations due to displacement by the Whites and the overland retreat which followed, so marked in the history of the eastern Indians. Contrary to an older view, which held that Salishan tribes formerly extended to the lower Columbia and were driven north by Shahaptians, pushed forward in turn by Shoshonean peoples, it seems that the relative positions of Salishans and Shahaptians has been unchanged for an uncertain period of time and that, as a matter of fact, the Shoshoneans have been pushed southward although this movement was very recent. The Athapascan Kwalhioqua must represent a comparatively late invasion although that may not have been so recent as their anomalous position would lead one to suppose. There is also evidence of a much earlier movement when the Salishans came down upon the coast. The earliest European to meet any of the peoples of Washington was probably Juan de Fuca, a Greek navigator sailing under the Spanish flag, who, in 1592, visited the straits which now bear his name. Other Spanish explorers followed, and were later succeeded by English and Americans. The continual resort of trading vessels to Nootka on the west coast of Vancouver Island served to distribute European commodities and had a considerable influence among the tribes of Washington. In the latter part of the eighteenth century traders of the Hudson Bay and Northwest Companies made their appearance, but the Washington peoples first come squarely out upon the stage of history with the descent of the Columbia by Lewis and Clark in 1805-6. These pioneers gave the first general description of the region, enumerated the aboriginal peoples found in occupancy, and attempted estimates of their numbers. For some time afterward the territory was dominated by representatives of British companies and the land was claimed by England, while the only attempt to exploit it on the part of Americans, the settlement of Astoria, was soon abandoned. Following upon the acceptance of the 49th parallel of latitude as the International Boundary, however, and still more the discovery of gold in California and the opening up of the “Oregon trail,” settlers from the Eastern States began to pour in in numbers. It was thereafter inevitable that friction should develop between the newcomers and the aborigines. There were wars with the Nez Peru, Yakima, and other tribes, but the Indians suffered less in this way than from European diseases, particularly the smallpox, which began their ravages before Lewis and Clark appeared, from spirituous liquors, and from a general dislocation of their aboriginal adjustments. The destruction was greatest in the Columbia Valley, which as the main artery of travel and trade was peculiarly exposed to epidemics, and within a few years the greater part of the once teeming populations of the lower valley were practically wiped out of existence. Roman Catholic missions sprang up at an early date in the eastern part of the territory, and were soon followed by those of Protestant denominations, notable among which was that conducted among the Cayuse by Marcus Whitman (1838-47). As in other parts of the United States, the Indians gradually parted with their lands and were placed upon reservations, though in most cases they were not removed so far from their original homes as in the eastern parts of the Union.

The above sketch will show enough of the history of most of the tribes in this area, though some details have been added in certain cases (i. e., in connection with the Cayuse, Chilluckittequaw, Chimakum, Chinook, Klickitat, and Yakima. (See Ray, 1932, and Spier and Sapir, 1930.)

Swanton, John R. The Indian Tribes of North America. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 145. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office. 1953.

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