The Archaeology of Cathlapotle

Cathlapotle Plankhouse Project

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(Much of the following information is excerpted from Ames et al. 1999)

The current effort to construct a Chinookan-style cedar plankhouse has evolved from the ongoing Cathlapotle Archaeolgical Project which began more than a decade ago. That project in turn is part of Portland State University's Wapato Valley Archaeological Project, initiated in 1987. The Wapato Valley, a term coined by Lewis and Clark, extends from the downstream end of the Columbia Gorge to the confluence of the Columbia River with the Cowlitz River at Kelso-Longview.

Cathlapotle, located on what is now the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), was one of nineteen Chinookan towns recorded by Lewis and Clark in the Wapato Valley. The term Chinookan refers to the speakers of several closely related languages who occupied the Columbia River from the upstream end of the river's gorge (near the present town of The Dalles, Oregon), to the river's mouth, and along adjacent portions of the present coasts of Washington and Oregon. Lower Chinook was spoken by peoples living on both sides of the river's mouth, and Upper Chinook spoken along both sides from the river's estuary upriver through the Gorge.

According to Hajda, whose Chinookan ethnohistory is presently considered the definitive study of Chinookan peoples at contact with Europeans, Cathlapotle was the third largest Chinookan settlement in the Wapato Valley at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

wapato Cathlapotle & Wapato Portage

Additional Information

wapato Cathlapotle Fact Sheet (pdf)

wapato Wapato Portage Fact Sheet (pdf)

wapato Select Bibliography for Cathlapotle and Meier Sites (pdf)


Cathlpotle and Wapato Portage

Lewis and Clark visited the Cathlapotle people on March 29, 1806. Lewis described their fourteen houses, among other things:

"....the floors of most of their houses are on level with the surface of the earth tho' some of them are sunk two or 3 feet beneath. the internal arrangement of their houses is the same as with those of the nations below. they are also fond of sculpture, various figures are carved and painted on the pieces which support the center of the roof, and the doors and beads [beds]...." (Moulton 1990[7]:26-29)

Lewis went on to describe the drying fish hanging from the rafters, and listed some of the items they traded, including a "small medal" which they gave to the "1st Cheif."

Click here for a fact sheet which provides an overview of the Cathlapotle site and the results of archaeological research conducted by Portland State University in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Chinook Tribe. Numerous theses and dissertations have resulted from this research, including studies of: subsistence economy through faunal and floral remains; household economy through obsidian analysis; utilization of wapato (Sagittaria latifolia); stone tool use-wear analysis; and ceramics and glass trade beads. Much of this research also incorporates data from another important Chinookan site, located across the river from Cathlapotle in Scappoose, Oregon. The Meier site is a single plankhouse, excavated by Portland State University archaeologists in the early 1990s. Numerous publications have also been prepared based on this large body of archaeological data. Click here for a select listing of work both completed and in progress.

After two hours among the Cathlapotle, the expedition moved about a mile upstream to camp for the night. The location they chose, also on the Refuge, just happened to be another Chinookan settlement site even older than Cathlapotle. Wapato Portage is so called today in reference to Clark's description from that spot of women collecting wapato in the lake and then portaging their small canoes a short distance to the river. Click here for a fact sheet on the Wapato Portage site.