The women are fond of dark blue cut glass beads, which are highly prized. Light blue ones are only worn by the slaves. But the most valued ornament is the howqua or wampum. This is a species of small shell, of a cylindrical shape, pointed at one end, slightly curved, and resembling a nearly straight horn. It is a species of the Denticularium, and is found by the northern Indians somewhere north of Vancouver’s Island. It passes as money among them, and is called Siwash dollars.
— James Swan, 1857
Historically, local Indians lived at qiíq’ayaqilxam during the summer months, accessing resources from sturgeon and salmon to berries, camas, and wapato, while amassing great wealth through trade. As one of many Chinookan villages that stretched along the Lower Columbia, Middle Village drew Native people to the river’s shore since at least the 1790s.
Since then, disease and settlement have dramatically changed both land and people, with the river eroding the shore and colonization battering Chinookan culture. In 2004, Washington State began archaeological excavations at Middle Village to prepare an interpretive site that would honor the Chinook, commemorate a ten-day visit by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and evoke the cannery town of McGowan, all now ghosts on the landscape.
Common artifacts found at Middle Village include glass trade beads and traditional wealth items made of copper, from bracelet fragments, pendants, sheets, and tubes to trade rings, and even Chinese coins. Images courtesy of the National Park Service at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site
Large numbers of pottery shards also surprised archaeologists. English creamware, Chinese export porcelain, and stoneware vessels demonstrate how Chinook people incorporated new goods into their lives. The most intriguing find, according to Doug Wilson, is a tea caddy that “would have been very expensive on any European or American table, let alone in a Chinook longhouse 17,000 miles from its place of manufacture in England.”
Archaeologists view Middle Village as iconic of the rapid technological and social changes wrought by waves of visitors and migrants to the Pacific Northwest since the late eighteenth century. Archaeological excavations uncovered five houses occupied seasonally by the Chinook between approximately 1790 and 1820. The story told by the remains of these homes is one of unexpected riches that reflect both social gathering and significant commercial activity.
Most Chinookan archaeological sites include tens of thousands of pieces of stone tool remnants (lithic debitage). At Middle Village there were only 285. Instead, archaeologists found 34 fragment of rare artistically carved pipes, typically used for ritual purposes. Where there are usually hundreds of projectiles, at Middle Village archaeologists uncovered only 9 stone projectile points, 3 ferrous metal points, and a flaked glass projectile point, accompanied by an unusually large number of firearm related objects (11 gun flints and 75 pieces of lead shot).
This density of wealth items has led archaeologists to call Middle Village an elite, high-status Chinook trade village, one that marks a highly sophisticated level of Chinookan society during the fur trade era. Historical evidence and oral tradition support this archaeological interpretation.