“[The village had ] five houses—some of the houses had five fires—sometimes three… Each fire is a fire for a family.”

Catherine George, when asked about the village at Gray’s Bay, 1902

The Chinook lived in three types of houses, depending on season, family size, and their wealth. A mat lodge or plank-like structure often sheltered families during the summer as they moved from place to place to harvest the region’s rich resources. During the winter, a family might stay in a pit house or earthen lodge, but families typically wintered in a post and beam plankhouse, the largest kind of dwelling on the North American West coast. Chinook built these large, multi-family dwellings of split cedar planks, supported by cedar timbers.

Plankhouses were grouped, in villages that could range from dozens of people to more than a thousand. Several (usually related) families lived in the same house, each with their own fire, and sometimes sharing walls like modern day townhouses. A clear hierarchy structured life in a plankhouse. The head family lived toward the rear of the house, while commoners and slaves lived near the front.

Drawing of Chinook Plankhouse, by Chinook Tribal Councilman (name illegible). Courtesy of Chinook Indian Nation

Archaeologists believe the typical plankhouse would have been about 30 by 50 feet, with some much smaller. House size varied by location. Buildings near the coast might measure a hundred feet long, while closer to the Wapato Valley segmented houses with shared walls might be twice that length. In 1987, archaeologists found a very large Chinookan plankhouse (45 by 114 feet) near the confluence of the Columbia River and the Multnomah Channel of the Willamette River. Archaeologists estimate that from the 14th through the 18th centuries, between eight and eleven families lived at the “Meier site” plankhouse. Compartments below the plankhouse’s main floor allowed preservation of food and supplies for winter, with one storage space holding up to 20 tons worth of provisions.