Biography of Mrs. Helen Smith

MRS. HELEN SMITH. – There survives within the limits of the old Oregon no person whose life possesses more universal interest than the lady whose name appears above, and of whom we present an excellent portrait. The widow of a pioneer whose first operations upon this coast belong to the antique days of Wyeth and Kelly, her own memory extends to the remote times of the Astor expedition of 1811; and her infant life was contemporary with the explorations of Lewis and Clarke in 1805. The entire panorama of the occupation and settlement of our state has therefore passed before her eyes. She has been no careless observer of these great events; and her mind, still clear and active, retains a surprisingly vivid recollection of our early Oregon history. As thus pictured in her mind, this possesses a peculiar interest from the fact that it has been drawn exclusively from personal observation from the standpoint of the native owners of our state.

Celiast, whose christian name is Helen, is the daughter of Coboway (incorrectly written Commowool by Bancroft), and dates her birth in the year 1804. Her father was the chief of the Clatsops, a tribe whose boundaries extended from the mouth of the Columbia River southward to Ecahni Mountain (Carni), eastward thence to Swallalahost or Saddle Mountain, and thence by Young’s river back to the Columbia. The Clatsops were a quite and peaceable people, having the same language as the more numerous tribe of the Chinooks. They were possessed of many arts and accomplishments, which, although of a different order from our own, betrayed no less the inventive genius and predominance of the human mind. Their houses, often sixty feet in length, and made of split cedar planks sometimes twenty feet long and three feet wide, the canoes hollowed from cedar trees by means of chisels and mallets, and steamed and strained to a greater width by means of a fire kindled in the hollow after the process of chipping out was nearly completed; the salmon seines made of wild flax threaded and twisted into chords; and lastly the clothing made of the skins of wild animals and of frizzled cedar bark, with elaborate ornamentations of shells, pebbles, quills, feathers, and later of beads, – were all specimens of industry, and o f ingenuity which would tax the skill and patience of the European. For some years before the birth of Celiast, the Clatsop Indians had carried on a trade with the passing ships fro strap and scrap iron, of which they made their chisels and knives and for beads. The traders of Astoria still later supplied them with cloths, and to some extend with firearms.

Coboway, chief of this people, held his title as did the chiefs of the most of the native races, – by virtue of his intelligence and activity. He was a faithful and honest man, of much service to Lewis and Clarke, and was intrusted by them with the certificate announcing their arrival and wintering at the mouth of the Columbia; and this document, as by request the chief delivered to the captain of the first vessel entering the harbor. Among other duties of the Indian chief was the delivering of the stories, legends and beliefs of the tribe to his successors; and from her father the young Indian girl learned all the myths of Ecahni, Tallapus and Old Thunder with the faiths and maxims of the tribe delivered as they were in rhythmic language with vivid narratives. From the regular and clearly carved features, the lofty brow and large expressive eyes of this now venerable woman of more than eighty years, we may suppose that in her youth she was of unusual beauty. Soon after reaching womanhood, in accordance with the custom of the Hudson’s Bay Company, she was sought and married by one of the employés of the organization, a Frenchman by the name of Porier, the baker at Fort George or Astoria. She bore him three children, and in the removal to Vancouver in 1824 accompanied him thither.

It was during her residence at the latter point that there occurred an event which must have been exceedingly distressing to her feelings. This was the bombardment of the Indian village at Tansy Point by a British schooner. The sanguinary affair was brought about as a result of the wreck of the bark William and Ann at the Columbia bar, and a difficulty in obtaining the wreckage. This was one of the few occasions upon which McLoughlin showed severity; and his course has been justified on the ground that the Indians had murdered the crews of the vessel. This charge has, however, ever been earnestly denied by the remnants of the Clatsop Indians; and it seems hardly just to let it stand without their protest and explanation. By their account, and indeed by all authentic records, the William and Ann, in company with the American schooner Convoy, Captain Thompson, sought to enter the river late in the day, in the month of February or early in March (the month of smelt). The schooner was in the lead, and passed safely into Baker’s Bay; but the bark missed the channel and struck on the middle sands, holding fast. A boat from the schooner, as appears from the accounts of a sailor of the Convoy, attempted to go to the relief of the unfortunate crew; but the wind rising brought them into peril, and compelled them to return without reaching the bark. During the night the William and Ann went to pieces; and, as the Indians said, the crew were drowned. The Convoy went up the river bearing the tidings; and in due time a boat party came from Vancouver to investigate the wreck. They found no trace of the crew; but much of the cargo was in possession of the Indians. among other effects of the ship was a boat with the oars, found in the hands of a sub-chief of the Clatsops. This Indian declared that he found it floating in Young Bay. He moreover incited the others, and confirmed them in their intention to retain the wreckage which they had gathered, all but one of the Indians refusing to give up any of the property. Upon pressure and threats from the English, the saucy chief produced a small, decrepit, bail dipper, and said that he would send it (with his respects) to the chief factor. This ultimatum carried back to Vancouver brought as a response an armed schooner, which shelled the village, and from which an assault was made; and the recalcitrant chief, with two of his men, was killed. The village was also ransacked for the lost goods, and generally pillaged. The bombardment, which occurred, not upon the loss of the crew, but two months later upon the refusal of the Indians to give up the plunder, seems to have had an adequate cause, not in the belief of the English that the crew had been murdered, but that it was dangerous to allow any Indians to hold their old view that they might call their own anything that they found or that came from the ocean; but that the property of the English was everywhere sacred, and must be given up on demand.

Some years after the removal of Celiast to Vancouver, it was discovered by McLoughlin that her husband, Porier, had another wife in Canada; and upon the chief factor’s advice she left the Frenchman, retaining only the youngest of her three children, which she also relinquished a few years later. She took up her residence with her sister, Mrs. Gervais, at French Prairie, but was frequently at the fort. There she was first seen by Solomon Smith, and sought by him as a wife. In the absence of any civil or ecclesiastical authority, ceremony was dispensed with; but in conscience they were bound, and a few years alter were formally joined by the missionary Jason Lee. They now spent some years at Chemawa, and later at the mouth of Chehalem creek; but in 1840 Celiast, or Helen, was rejoiced to guide the canoe of her husband, which also conveyed Daniel lee and a crew of Wasco Indians, to the scenes of her old home at the mouth of the Columbia river. This excursion was made in May. In August following a regular removal was effected thither; and after a short stop at the mouth of a romantic little stream, the Neacoxa, by the ocean beach, a permanent home was formed at the north end of Clatsop Plains, on a farm embracing some of the finest grass land of that region famous for herbage. There Mrs. Smith has lived for just under about half a century, conducting her household in an exemplary and capable manner. Since the death of her husband, she has kept a cottage of her own, apart from the other members of her family but upon the old homestead.

In the early years of the settlement on the plains, she rendered the Whites many important services. Once as the whole band of Clatsops, augmented by the Tillamooks, were on the way to massacre the family of a man at whom they were enraged, she met them while in full array, and by cogent arguments, directed both to their caution and to their nobility, turned them back from their bloody purpose. Her influence over them was remarkable; and it is probable that, if she had not used it at that very moment in the interest of the white settler, a local and perhaps a general Indian war would have ensued. At another time, she saved the life of that worthy gentleman, Mr. Frost, by seizing by the hair the Indian Katata, and wrenching from his hand the gun with which he was about to shoot the missionary. Once more she wrenched from the hand of her husband the gun-stock with which he was about to brain an Indian who was making upon him a murderous attack, but whose arm was already paralyzed by one blow of the weapon. Mr. Smith was ever glad to have been prevented from killing the fellow, as he proved after his punishment to be a faithful friend.

These incidents illustrate the courageous and noble nature of Mrs. Smith, and the careful study of her portrait impresses one with the benevolence and integrity of her character. Although now an octogenarian, she is still in good health; and her mind is not impaired by age. She must not be omitted from among the number of those who have made our state, since her services, whether as wife and mother in a new settlement, as a pioneer of one of the oldest of our counties, or in bidding a hundred excited Indians to leave the settlers unharmed, have been of the highest value.


History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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