The origin of Pillar Rock has long struck the human imagination. Over the past two centuries, Pillar Rock stories and legends have occurred as narrative form and through poetry transmitted from Chinookan people to non-Natives in the 19th century.
In 1841, the Wahkiakum treaty signer, Sku-mah-queah, recounted the legend of Pillar Rock to Horatio Hale, ethnographer and philologist for the United State Exploring Expedition. Hale learned that “Pillar Rock is called by the Indians Taluaptea, after the name of a chief, who in bygone days lived at the falls of the Columbia, and who, having incurred the displeasure of their spirit, called Talapos, was turned into a rock, and placed where he would be washed by the waters of the great river.”
Stories about the origins of Pillar Rock continued through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but morphed into tales that both connected the Wahkiakum leader, Skamokawa, to the rock’s beginnings and romanticized the Wahkiakum. In 1890, the Morning Oregonian announced:
“THE MIGHTY SKAMOKAWA. In a Fit of Anger He Creates Pillar Rock.”
In this rendition, “old Chief Skamokawa” was a “mighty chieftain” and “magician with wonderful powers.” One day, his son wandered away, despite his parent’s commands, to a Nehalem village where a young maiden had caught his eye. Greatly displeased, Old Skamokawa fumed about his son’s association with Nehalem commoners. Unaware of his father’s wrath, the young man wed the Nehalem princess and the pair journeyed back to Skamokawa’s village. When Skamokawa saw the newlyweds approach the shore, “in his great anger he called upon his magician’s skill and seizing the cliff on which he stood, tore from it a huge shaft and buried it upon the canoe and its two occupants, impaling the young man and his bride beneath the mass, where to this day, it is supposed they still lie buried. Pillar Rock is believed to have been thus created.”
This version of the tale has persisted through the generations as a moral explanation of intertribal rifts on the Lower Columbia River. To read the full article click here. [link this to the transcription of the article.] (The Morning Oregonian,Friday, September 19, 1890.)
Other Pillar Rock stories rivaled the tale of Skamokawa. In 1900, F. H. Saylor wrote another morality tale. Taylor depicted the stone as an ancient animal god at Celilo, who selfishly prevented the salmon from freely passing the falls to hoard them for himself. Finally, Coyote ended the god’s depraved actions by turning him to stone near the mouth of the great Columbia River. There, “the salmon should sport and play around him when seeking the upper waters of the river, and he should not be able to prevent their progress.” The moral: Selfishness is destructive to others and self.
Variants of Pillar Rock’s origin stories include young warriors turned to stone for disobeying or rudeness, battles between groups, and the defiance of other star-crossed lovers. Such tales continue to provide moral and historical guidance in the the 21st century.
- A. Buchanan, “Pillar Rock (An Indian Legend),” in Appelo, Carlton. Pillar Rock, Wahkiakum County, Washington. Deep River Wash.: C. Appelo, 1969.
John Donovan, “Legend of Pillar Rock,” Cowlitz County Historical Quarterly, 3, no. 4 (Feb. 1962): 17.
Max McClay, “Pillar Rock,” Oregon Teacher’s Monthly, 7:5 (1903): 21-22.
- H. Saylor, “Legendary Lore of the Indians” in The Oregon Native Son (Native Son Publishing Co., 1900): 316-317.
William Strong, “Judge William Strong’s Narratives and Comments,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, 62 (1961): 82.
Charles Wilkes, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition: During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. In 5 Vol., with 13 Maps., vol. 5 (London: Wylie and Putnam, 1845): 120.