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Oregon - History of the Coast


Northwest Coast - Some Came by Sea - Tillamook County

Northwest Coast

The native peoples of the shoreline and western Oregon valleys, in general, shared lifeways common with Indians residing along the North Pacific from Cape Mendocino to southeast Alaska. From the Clatsop at the mouth of the Columbia to the Chetco at the California border and from the Clackamas near the falls of the Willamette to the Takelma and Shasta of the Rogue River Valley--these people shared a common setting: a wet, temperate region, heavily forested, connected by rivers running into the sea. Their environment provided the essentials of life: cedar to frame and cover their houses, materials for clothing and dugout canoes, salmon and other fish as primary subsistence, and a bounty of game, roots, and berries to supplement their diet.

For these Indians life was predictable and generally easy. They had to work hard to secure and maintain supplies of firewood, repair their fishing traps, weirs, and nets, and engage in extensive gathering activities, but for them, nature was generous. Shoreline residents harvested vast quantities of mollusks and crustaceans from the intertidal zones. Valley Indians dug camas and wapato, gathered and processed acorns, hunted deer and elk, and worked a bit harder to survive. Annually they set fire to the meadows, opening and shaping the landscapes of the Willamette, Umpqua, and Rogue River valleys. Burning stimulated nutritious browse for deer, assisted women in the harvest of tarweed seeds, stimulated the regeneration of berries, and maintained an open understory, which undoubtedly enhanced the security of settlements.

Oregon natives of the western part of the state possessed sufficient time and wealth to develop special arts. The Chinookans of the Columbia River carved handsome, high-prowed canoes with animal effigies on their bows and erected remarkable wooden spirit figures at vigil and grave sites. The Tututni and Chetco of the south coast bartered for raw materials and made massive obsidian wealth-display blades; wove intricately decorated basketry with geometric designs of beargrass, maidenhair fern, and wild hazel bark; and sent their young people off on spirit quests to sacred sites atop mountain peaks or promontories overlooking the sea. The Coquille, Coos, Lower Umpqua, Siuslaw, Alsea, and Tillamook occupied estuaries that carry their names. A dozen bands from the Tualatin to the Santiam and Yoncalla lived in the Willamette Valley and northern Umpqua Valley. South of them resided the Upper Umpqua, Cow Creeks, Shasta Costa, Takelma, and Shasta. Western Oregon Indians had connections of trade and commerce reaching into northern California and to coastal Washington and British Columbia. They were involved in the flow of dentalium shells, elk hide armor, slaves, and surplus foods. Their lifeways echoed the strong traditions of art, ceremony, social class distinction, emphasis on wealth that ran for hundreds of miles along the North Pacific Coast.

Courtesy of Oregon Blue Book

Some Came by Sea

The first moment of contact was not recorded. Possibly it occurred when a Manilla Galleon made a landfall somewhere along the Oregon Coast. How the viewers must have wondered when, looking out to sea, they saw a great ship, propelled by billowing sails, not paddles, scudding to the wind and laboring through the waves. The prospect for such an encounter unfolded in 1565 when the Spanish, after several years of probing for a route, finally found a means to send a vessel northeast from the Philippines to catch the great Japanese Current for a sweeping circular transit of the North Pacific. While normally the galleons--one per year for 250 years--did not make a landfall until south of Cape Mendocino in northern California, some did so farther north.

The San Francisco Xavier, one of 30 vessels that failed to arrive in Acapulco or any of the other destination ports along the west coast of New Spain (Mexico), likely wrecked in 1707 on the Nehalem sand spit near the base of Neahkahnie Mountain. Tillamook Indian tales of strangers in their midst, discoveries of large chunks of beeswax and a lidded silver vase, and legends of buried treasure hint that a wayward galleon may have crashed into the shore. A thousand-ton vessel, it was probably laden with silk, porcelain, altar pieces reworked in Asia from gold and silver shipped from Central America, pepper, cloves, and other luxury items--each stored in cargo space allotted to the merchants who controlled the monopoly of the galleon trade.

Spanish voyages in the North Pacific were part of the nation's efforts to seek colonies, mission fields, and wealth. As early as 1543 Bartolome Ferrelo, a surviving captain of the ill-fated expedition under Juan Cabrillo, may have sailed as far north as the Oregon-California border. He and his shipmates sought the fabled Straits of Anian--a passage through the continent. Cape Ferrelo on the south coast bears his name. Some also believe that Francis Drake sojourned on the Golden Hind in 1579 in coastal Oregon. Having raided Spanish ports and stolen immense wealth in his voyage northward from Cape Horn, Drake was hiding out before crossing the Pacific and rounding the world to return to England. Although his anchorage is claimed at sites in California, heralded in a marker at Cape Arago, and said to have been at Whale Cove, no one has produced conclusive evidence of his visit to Oregon. Sebastian Vizcaino, sailing for Spain in 1603, possibly sighted and named Cape Sebastian north of the California border. The promontory marked his northernmost exploration along the Pacific shoreline.

Then came silence. As had been the case for thousands of years, Oregon was wholly an Indian land. The mid-1700s, however, unleashed forces that would forever change native dominion in the American West. The forces were in part intellectual. Europe had engaged in a renaissance, a rekindling of energies and rediscovery of classical learning. Emerging nation-states took pride in commerce, art, and education. The turning point, however, was the Enlightenment. By the early eighteenth century, several nations had philosophical societies whose members hungered for knowledge and who sought natural laws or evidence for what governed the universe. They became eager students of the world. Carl Linne, a Swede, developed systems to classify all living things as plants or animals, seeking to order the descriptions and terminologies. Luke Howard, an Englishman, developed a nomenclature for clouds. Isaac Newton provided mathematical evidence on the working of gravity and descriptions of optics. The quest for knowledge, developing collections of "curiosities," and, in time, exploring unknown lands took on national significance.

The reaching out of Russians to the Aleutians and into Alaska between 1728 and 1769 shocked the Spanish. Following the discoveries of Vitus Bering, Russian fur seekers swept into the region, destroying Aleut villages, enslaving the natives, and securing riches by shipping furs to the Asian and European markets. A cardinal principle of Spain, exercised since the 1520s, was to create protective borderlands to insulate her wealthiest colonies from foreign predators. By the 1760s, officials in New Spain were gravely worried that the Russians, somewhere to the north, might fall upon their outlying colonies in Baja California, Pimeria Alta (Arizona), or New Mexico. Viceroy Antonio de Bucareli in 1769 thus dispatched Gaspar de Portola by sea and Juan Batista de Anza by land with priests, soldiers, and families of workers to establish a new borderland--Alta California. Within two decades these Spanish colonists had a chain of missions, presidios, and pueblos extending from San Diego to San Francisco Bay.

When the Russians did not appear, the Spanish reached out again. In 1775 the viceroy ordered the first of a series of maritime expeditions to explore the coastline northward. The voyages of Juan Perez, Bruno Hezeta, and Bodega y Quadra gave more form to the European understanding of the coast. Working under wretched conditions, sailing against the current and suffering from ill health and spoiled water, the mariners nevertheless began an important era in exploration.

The British came next. In 1778 Captain James Cook, aboard H.M.S. Resolution, made a landfall on the central Oregon coast. He commemorated the day by naming the headland Cape Foulweather. A famed mariner who had twice before explored the Pacific, Cook was sent to find the Northwest Passage, a mythical sea route through the continent. He could not find what did not exist, but Cook sailed north to the Arctic Ocean and charted much of the outer coast. The Spanish responded immediately and dispatched Ignacio de Arteaga and Bodega y Quadra in 1779 to explore parts of coastal Alaska. In the 1780s the French expedition under Comte de Laperouse and the Spanish expedition under Alessandro Malaspina sailed the shore to chart, collect specimens of natural history and native culture, and assess the prospects of new colonies.

Significant in discerning the features of coastal Oregon were the labors of independent mariners, dispatched not by their governments but by investors who sought wealth through the fur trade. Cook's men discovered when they reached China in 1779 that a sea otter pelt purchased for a broken file or a few brass buttons brought a thousand-fold return when bartered to the merchants of the Pearl River delta. Captain John Meares of England and Captain Robert Gray of Boston both sailed the coast of Oregon in 1788-89 and traded with natives who paddled out to sea in their canoes or who, in Gray's trade at Tillamook Bay, dared to barter with the foreigners who sailed across the bar and dropped anchor near their villages.

On a second voyage to the coast in 1792, Gray decided to risk a perilous crossing, the unknown bar of the Columbia River. Although the river had been discerned by Hezeta and tentatively designated Rio San Roque, no mariner had entered it. Gray did. He and his men sailed through the breakers and over the shoals, passing the base of Cape Disappointment, named in frustration by Meares on a previous voyage, and dropped anchor in the broad estuary of the great river. Gray named it Columbia in honor of his ship, the Columbia Rediviva. A few weeks later Gray encountered the exploring party headed by Captain George Vancouver, another British expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. Gray told Vancouver of his "discovery" of the Columbia, a watershed known and occupied by thousands of people for at least 10,000 years. Vancouver could not resist. He brought the Chatham and the Discovery into the Columbia and dispatched Lieutenant William Broughton to chart its course. Broughton sailed as far east as the entrance to the Columbia Gorge, noting depths of the channel and Indian villages along the shore, persuaded, at last, that the river did not pass through the continent.

By the end of the 18th century an estimated 300 vessels from a dozen different countries had sailed to the Northwest Coast. Some of these had passed along the shores of Oregon. The logs of James Cook, John Meares, Robert Gray, John Boit, and Robert Haswell, as well as eight diaries of George Vancouver's shipmates recorded first impressions of the land and its people. "They were of a middling size with mild pleasing features & nowise sullen or distrustful in their behaviour," wrote Dr. Archibald Menzies in 1792 when describing the Quah-to-mah Indians near Cape Blanco.

The mariners named headlands, charted offshore rocks, explored some of the estuaries, notably the Columbia and Puget Sound, and obtained useful knowledge. The narratives of Cook and Vancouver were published shortly after their journeys. They whetted the appetite of others who wanted to know more about these lands. The collections of bows, arrows, baskets, and plants secured by Vancouver's expedition went into the holdings of the British Museum. What had been unknown was now better understood. The currents of the Enlightenment had swept halfway round the world and touched the Oregon country.

Courtesy of Oregon Blue Book

Tillamook County

Tillamook County, the twelfth county in Oregon to be organized, was established on December 15, 1853, when the Territorial Legislature approved an act to create the new county out of an area previously included in Clatsop, Yamhill and Polk Counties. The county was named after the Tillamook Indians who occupied the areas around the Tillamook and Nehalem Bays.

Tillamook County is located in the northwestern portion of the state and is bordered by Clatsop County on the north, Washington and Yamhill Counties on the east, Polk and Lincoln Counties on the south, and by the Pacific Ocean on the west. Boundary changes were enacted with Clatsop County (1855, 1870, and 1893), Lincoln County (1893), Washington County (1893, 1898), and Yamhill County (1887). The area of Tillamook County is 1,125 square miles. The 2000 population of 24,262 represented an increase of 12.48% since 1990.

During the first ten years following the organization of the county, the county court met at the homes of its members. From 1865 to 1875 court sessions were held in various schoolhouses in the district, the exact place being determined by the incumbent county judge. In 1866 the town of Lincoln was renamed Tillamook in order to stay consistent with the post office's name of Tillamook. An election in 1873 chose Tillamook as the county seat. In 1875 an office in the general store was rented by the county to house county offices. In 1889 a courthouse was built but was destroyed by fire in 1903. Only the county clerk's vault and its stored records were saved. A new courthouse was built at the same site in 1905 and replaced again in 1933.

County government offices that were already in place upon statehood were the three county commissioners (including the county judge), a probate judge, sheriff, clerk, treasurer, assessor, school superintendent, and coroner. Subsequent officers and/or boards were established as follows: surveyor (1860); stock inspector (1895); school district boundary board (1899); veterinarian (1910); health officer (1912); fair board (1913); agricultural agent (1915); dairy herd inspector (1917); dog control districts (1919); and an engineer (1925).

Tillamook County belongs to the Clatsop-Tillamook Intergovernmental Council.

The major physical features of Tillamook County consist of the rocky and irregular coastline that forms the county's western boundary, stretches of coastal lowlands, and heavily timbered interior parts, which comprise the main span and several spurs of the Coast Range. Principal industries are agriculture, lumber, fishing, and recreation. Dairy farms dominate the county's fertile valleys providing milk for the well-known Tillamook cheese. Logging and lumbering are becoming a significant economic force due to the reforestation of most of the "Tillamook Burn" area. With seventy-five miles of coastline, four bays, and nine rivers, recreational and tourist facilities are numerous. The Tillamook airbase for blimps was commissioned on December 1, 1942, with the name U.S. Naval Air Station. It was closed after World War II.

Courtesy of Oregon State Archives

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