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Catalog No. —
CN 022256
Date —
Era —
1846-1880 (Treaties, Civil War, and Immigration)
Themes —
Environment and Natural Resources, Exploration and Explorers, Native Americans
Credits —
Oregon Historical Society
Regions —
Author —
Harper's Monthly

Whale Butchering at Coos Bay

The sketch shown here was published in the June 1856 issue of Harper’s Monthly. It depicts a group of Coos Indians butchering a whale on the shore of Coos Bay in the fall of 1855. The author of the article which accompanied the illustration noted that the whale, probably a humpback, had been on the beach for some time and that “all the air was a putrid stench.” Nevertheless, dozens of Indian men and women were eagerly butchering the animal. The author’s description of a child with a distended abdomen suggests that they were seriously malnourished at the time.

The Coos were a group of related people whose territory centered around Coos Bay. Like other Native peoples of the Northwest Coast, the Coos relied heavily on salmon for their subsistence, though they also utilized a wide variety of other resources, including herring, smelt, shellfish, roots, berries, deer, elk, and, as this sketch shows, whales.

William Clark and Meriwether Lewis were the first to describe the use of whales by Native peoples in what would later become the states of Oregon and Washington. Clark noted that the “Whale is Sometimes pursued harpooned and taken by the Indians of this Coast,” but it is unclear which groups he was referring to. While the Native peoples of Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula hunted whales at sea, there is little evidence to suggest that any Native groups south of those areas hunted the marine mammals.

The beaching of the whale at Coos Bay in the fall of 1855 was a fortunate event for the Coos, whose society had been seriously disrupted by waves of epidemic disease and the arrival of white gold miners. Earlier that year the Coos had agreed to sell their lands to the federal government, but the U.S. Senate never ratified their treaty. In 1860, most of the Coos were forcibly relocated to the Alsea Reservation, although many returned to their homeland when that reservation was closed in 1875. Today their descendents are organized into the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians.

Further Reading:
Wells, William V. “Wild Life in Oregon.” Harper’s Monthly (June 1856): 588-608.

Zenk, Henry B. “Siuslawans and Coosans.” In Handbook of North American Indians. Volume 7: Northwest Coast, edited by Wayne Suttles. Washington, D.C., 1990.

Written by Cain Allen, © Oregon Historical Society, 2003.