“This rock is a great natural curiosity. It is a mighty column of basalt standing alone in the midst of the river, and though not more than fifteen or twenty feet in diameter at its base, it rises perpendicular on all sides to the height of more than one hundred feet.”
— Rev. Gustavus Hines, 1843
Pillar Rock, located 22 miles upstream from the mouth of the Columbia River has served as a significant historic landmark. The Wahkiakum band of Chinook named the rock Taluaptea and established Tčakwayalxam (or “Summer Town”) on the nearby shores as part of a larger network of Chinookan communities. Although they relocated every winter to the inland Tčaxlktilxam (“Winter Town”) and other, more sheltered, villages, Lower Chinookans returned to this place and its resources every summer.
The village at Pillar Rock, together with those at Altoona, Dahlia, and Brookfield, stretched along the northern shore of the Columbia River. Each village may have held a couple hundred people in several longhouses. Canoes provided the only means to reach the villages, which were connected via the water.
As in other parts of the Lower Columbia River area, Euro-American contact reshaped the Chinook community at Pillar Rock. Disease, economic hardship, and discrimination decimated the population. Still, the Chinook adapted to a changing world while retaining a culturally distinct identity. Chinook people lived continuously near Pillar Rock through the 19th and 20th centuries and continue into the 21st century. Like the Chinook, this monolith endures in physical form, through intergenerational memory, and in stories, pictures, and legends.
[Melissa Swank’s photo with following caption: In 1922, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blasted the top off Pillar Rock and installed a navigational marker. It now rises just 25 feet above water, just ¼ its former height. For some Chinook, the defacing of Pillar Rock symbolizes much of their post-contact history. Photo courtesy of Melissa Swank, 2010]
“In the midst of the Columbia,
Tried by wave and tempest shock,
Like a gallant knight in armor,
Grand and lone, stands Pillar Rock;
And the Indians have a legend,
Handed down from days of old,
And to you I tell the story,
As to me the tale was told.”
J. A. Buchanan’s “Pillar Rock (An Indian Legend),” in Appelo, Carlton. Pillar Rock, Wahkiakum County, Washington. Deep River Wash.: C. Appelo, 1969.