“The Native exchange system of the Lower Columbia was far more complicated and dynamic than first meets the eye, and archaeology, ethnohistory, and ethnography are only beginning to unravel its complexities.”

— Yvonne Hajda and Elizabeth A. Sobel, “Lower Columbia Trade and Exchange Systems,”in Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia, edited by Robert T. Boyd, Kenneth M. Ames, and Tony A. Johnson

This map traces the Chinookan obsidian trade from the Canadian Rocky Mountains in present-day British Columbia to the north, California to the south, central Wyoming to the east, and the coastal regions of present-day Oregon, Washington and Vancouver Island to the west. Map courtesy of Dr. Elizabeth Sobel

The Chinook have long been among the best known tribes of North America because of their widespread inter-regional and global connections. Archaeological excavations show that long before European contact, Chinook traders bartered far and wide for obsidian, dentalium shells, Chinese beads, and copper, among other things. Explorer and fur trade written accounts identify dried salmon, berries, elk hides, hats and baskets as Chinook exchange items, while a rich oral tradition reinforces the archaeological and documentary records.

During the fur trade era, Chinook peoples often prized blue beads above other trade items. This string of beads was handed down in tribal Chairman Ray Gardner’s family through the generations. Gardner is a descendant of treaty signer Huckswelt. Image by Donna Sinclair, 2011

With communities situated from Middle Village at the mouth of the Columbia River to The Dalles, Oregon in the Columbia Gorge, Chinookan peoples effectively controlled trade from the Puget Sound to the interior Columbia Plateau. Kinship ties created through marriage alliances helped the Lower Chinook to maintain power over this flow of trade. By the nineteenth century, Chinookan families acquired valuable prestige items that marked social status through similarly useful kinship ties with Euro-American fur traders.

This fragment of Chinese porcelain excavated from Middle Village at the mouth of the Columbia River is one among many. Its presence shows the wide reach of Chinookan trade and the integration of non-Chinookan items into household use. Image courtesy of Dr. Douglas Wilson

In the late twentieth century, archaeologists excavated numerous sites along the Columbia River, each of which revealed much about Chinookan daily life and trade. These sites, including Middle Village, Meier, Cathlapotle, Clahclellah, and Sunken Village each tell us more about distinct aspects of the historic Chinook. For example, Middle Village artifacts include copper, blankets, glass beads, coins, metal knives, musket balls, porcelain, and glass bottles, demonstrating an accumulation of riches and intense contact with Euro-American traders. High quantities of obsidian from Clahclellah near present day Bonneville Dam indicate a trade orientation toward tribes of the Plateau, Great Basin, and Plains whose use of horses carried Chinookan trade goods deep into the American interior.

Cathlapotle, located in the present day Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, seems to have straddled both coastal and plateau trade. Archaeologists have uncovered high quantities of obsidian, as well as clamons (elk-hide armor) and flaked stone scrapers used in the fur trade. According to archaeologists, clamons became a main trade staple at Cathlapotle because of the abundance of elk in the oak savannah.

Archaeologists at Cathlapotle also excavated metal Phoenix buttons from early nineteenth-century levels of the site. An image of a large phoenix bird appears on one side, around which are inscribed the French words: “Je renais des mes cendres,” meaning “I am reborn from my ashes.” Historians believe that the phoenix buttons were manufactured in London and destined for the uniforms of the Haitian army, which had recently been liberated from French rule to become the hemisphere’s first black republic. After the death of Haiti’s president, Henri Christophe in 1820, the buttons were likely made surplus and sold to maritime merchants. Similar buttons also appear at the trading fort on Sauvie Island, in California missions, and even in distant Alaska and Hawaii. The distribution of these unique “Phoenix buttons” reflects the extensive global trading connections enjoyed by the Chinookan peoples both before and after the European arrival.