Before the Oregon Trail

Memaloose, Island of the Dead, from the Memaloose rest stop on Interstate-84.

Each June for the past decade I’ve driven the Columbia Gorge Highway, from Portland to Eastern Oregon, to attend a conference for my “day job.” (You know, the one that pays for most everything in my life.) The first few years I continued another hour east of Pendleton to La Grande until the venue changed. Although La Grande enticed me with my own junior high memories, including the historic Oregon Trail marker on the road just opposite our family’s driveway all those years ago, in today’s world I appreciate the shorter Pendleton drive. That final La Grande conference trip terrorized me as I drove home toward Deadman’s Pass and Cabbage Hill in an odd June snowstorm, fearfully avoiding semi trucks barreling too fast for my comfort. Spoiled as I was in the comfort of an automobile with heat, windshield wipers, and music.

But now, my 2019 June trip created a new memory as I stopped for the first time at the Memaloose Rest Stop. Although I’ve spent most of my lifetime in this state of ours, it still surprises me how much I continue to learn about life before us. Although I have often told others my great-great-great grandparents arrived prior to those coming by Oregon Trail, a small part of me always feels the need to fact-check, yet again. These two arrived by sailing ship with others representing the Jason Lee Missionaries – William Willson (carpenter) via the Diana in 1837, and Chloe Clarke (teacher) via the Lausanne in 1840. It is estimated that over 250,000 emigrants arrived via the Oregon Trail, its cutoffs and alternate trails, to move from the Missouri River westward between 1830 and 1870. And while we may applaud their courage, sense of adventure, and hope for a new life, we can’t ignore the losses experienced by Native Americans upon the arrival of increasing numbers of non-Native people: disease, land takeovers, discrimination, and environmental degradation.

“In 1840, before even the earliest of the Oregon Trail trekkers arrived, only a few hundred whites lived in the whole Oregon Territory. A letter sent by Dr. Jason Lee to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in 1839 reveals a population census most of us who now call this place home could scarcely imagine: 151 American—or white—bodies, including about forty-five men settling as farmers, many married to Indian women and some with children fully grown. This letter was an early request from the Oregon Territory to our U.S. government to support settlers who were trying to expand into the West. Meanwhile, England—and Dr. John—hoped to savor the Territory as a place where elk and beaver would continue to reign: to be hunted by the English. The Donation Land Claim Act was established not long after, although it seems so alien now. It allowed a settler to claim hundreds of acres of fertile land by agreeing to settle for four years. Come, people, come. But only whites need apply. As the battle for land heated up, many still believed England would be able to acquire the land north of the Columbia River.”

Chapter 5: The Falls, My Music Man

For good or bad, Chloe and William’s arrival by ship, around Cape Horn (the Southern-most tip of South America) in 1837 and 1840, is clearly depicted by the image below and posted at this rest stop, as prior to the arrival of Oregon’s First “Trailblazers.” (Incidentally, how many people today recognize that the name of Portland’s NBA Team was decided in a 1970 contest with over 10,000 entries and derived – of course – from our rugged land and the role of the Oregon Trail?)

Early overland emigration poster at Memaloose Rest Stop kiosk.

To me, the most compelling history illustrated at this I-84 Memaloose rest stop, is the story and view of Memaloose, Island of the Dead. For it was here, in times now gone, when the Chinook Native American Tribes of the Columbia Gorge would lay the bones of their dead on open pyres. Lewis and Clark identified Memaloose Island in 1805 as “Sepulchar Island”, joining several other islands containing burial vaults for the Columbia River tribes. The name is derived from “Memaloose Ilahee”, Chinook jargon for “land of the dead”. Indian peoples of the Columbia River wrapped bodies in robes or bulrush mats, settled them in canoes and placed them in the woods, rocky points and islands. (See Historical Marker Project.) Two holes would be placed in the canoe to let water drain, a practice that “killed” the vessel so that it would be transported to the afterlife where it could be made whole again. (Other tribes, such as the Kalapuya of the Willamette Valley followed a different burial method.) Some have reported these practices to include, when only bones and dried flesh remain, the skeleton to be removed from the canoe, cleaned and rewrapped for a secondary burial, near or under the canoe. (See Oregon Historical Society quarterly article.) A somewhat similar natural approach to death is being resurrected as Washington State recently legalized human composting, an eco-friendly process.

I appreciate the preservation and sharing of nuggets of history, shouting out at us at highway rest areas and saved online documents, willing us to pay attention to what came before. And while my brain strains to recognize the significance of my great-great-great grandparents’ arrival while at the same time lament the loss to those living here for so many years prior, I appreciate today’s conversations, intentions, and actions that attempt to rectify past errors of white peoples’ ways.

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