Commerce, Climate, and Community: A History of Portland and its People


First Peoples in the Portland Basin

The confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers and the surrounding lowlands form the Portland Basin. Humans first inhabited the region about 11,000 years ago—small, mobile groups who lived in winter villages and moved to seasonal camps to gather food. They fished for salmon, sturgeon, and smelt in the Columbia; hunted birds, deer, elk, and other game; and gathered nuts, berries, roots, and bulbs. From the earliest inhabitants came Chinookan-speaking peoples, including the Clackamas, Kathlamet, Multnomah, and Tualatin.

During their travels through the basin and the Wapato Valley in 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark described twenty-five villages. They reported encountering some 2,400 Multnomah on Sauvie Island, on the Willamette River about fifteen miles northwest of present-day Portland. Others who traveled in the region during the early nineteenth century described Chinookan villages with as many as twenty-eight houses.

Many villages, both winter and seasonal, were located along or near the Columbia River, with relatively easy access to centers of trade, such as Celilo Falls near present-day The Dalles. When British and American fur companies entered the basin beginning in the 1810s, they traded frequently with Chinookan villagers. The trappers, missionaries, and settlers who followed brought with them diseases like smallpox and measles, creating epidemics that decimated Native peoples in the Portland Basin, with most Chinookan villages losing between 50 and 90 percent of their population. By 1843, when Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove reportedly flipped a penny to give Portland its name, the number of Indians who lived in the basin had plummeted as a result of introduced diseases such as measles and smallpox.

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Columbia River from the Cascades to Wappato

This map, sketched by explorer Captain William Clark in early November 1805, shows the Columbia River between the Cascade Rapids and Sauvie Island — which Clark called “Wappato Island” for tubers that Natives cultivated there. On the map, Clark noted a number of Native American villages, rivers and creeks, and camping …

Lithograph, Valley of the Willamette River

This hand-colored lithograph print is based on a watercolor and pencil sketch by Henry J. Warre. It was one of a series of prints included in Warre’s Sketches in North America and the Oregon Territory, printed in London, England in 1848.

In early May 1845, Lieutenant Henry J. Warre …

Owl Sculpture, Sauvie Island

For thousands of years before Euro Americans arrived in the Pacific Northwest, the Multnomah Indians lived on Sauvie Island on the lower Columbia River. In 1805, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark estimated that 800 Multnomahs lived on the eastern portion of the island. By the mid-1830s, malaria and smallpox …

Themes for an Urban History

Cities are created through charters, and state legislatures designate names, geographic boundaries, governmental form and election procedures, and powers to make contracts and tax. But students of a city’s history usually start their inquiries elsewhere.


Portland as a Marketing Center

The West Coast developed rapidly in the late nineteenth century through capital and supplies funneled through its port cities. In the 1840s, the Pacific Northwest had two points for overseas trade: Fort Vancouver on the north bank of the Columbia River, the fur-trading center for Hudson’s Bay Company since the 1820s, and Oregon City, where the Willamette River went over a steep falls.


This entry was last updated on March 17, 2018