I never went into the house of an Indian in my life, in any part of the country, without being most cordially received and welcomed.

John Kirk Townsend, 1839

C.J.W. Russell’s house and Indian Lodge, Shoalwater Bay, by James Swan, 1857. Courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections

Most Chinook lived in two main settlement sites, winter and summer plankhouses and temporary hunting and fishing camps occupied intermittently through the year. The Chinook built summer plankhouses near well-populated salmon runs, along the mouth of the Columbia River and other streams. These homes, typically occupied from spring to fall, were smaller than winter homes and sometimes built without excavating additional storage space. Flat or shed roofed temporary housing near fishing, hunting, and root-gathering sites often used cattail mats over a light framework, with a cedar bark roof.

Interior of a plankhouse. Drawing by Charles Wilkes, ca. 1851 Many important details are seen here, including the use of a plank floor, a large, central hearth, sleeping and storage bunks, and the drying/smoking rack above the fire. You also see a dog, and a musket propped in the rear left corner. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

During the winter, families escaped the winds and rains at the mouth of the Columbia River by relocating inland. Winter homes provided protection from the weather and were sited to access fall fish runs like the dog salmon, which spawns in rivers and streams draining into Willapa Bay. The Chinook also gathered oysters and other shellfish from the bay. They often remained there from December through March, depending on weather conditions and the timing of fish runs.

At the end of winter, a family or group dismantled the planks, storing them or using them for summer housing and leaving only the framework of their winter home. To preserve the cedar and kill vermin, the Chinook sometimes stored planks under water in swamps or ponds.

Chinookan people made use of their wide trade networks and the environment around them to shape homes that served them well throughout the year.

See what a contemporary plankhouse is like.