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Tillamook Indian Tribe: History & Overview

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  • 0:00 Origins and Culture
  • 0:53 Craftsmanship
  • 1:47 Spiritual Life
  • 2:28 Contact with Westerners
  • 4:59 From Bad to Worse
  • 6:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Reid
Who are the Tillamook? In this lesson, we will see the origins of this small tribe in Northwest Oregon and examine the impacts of their encounters with American traders, explorers, and governors.

Origins and Culture

Little is known about the origins of the Tillamook Native Americans. Archaeological evidence is scarce, and what few legends and stories about their origins have survived are either contradictory or of spurious authenticity. What we do know is that the Tillamook eventually settled down in what is today Northwest Oregon along the sea and riverbanks sometime during the 1400s. Unlike other native tribes throughout the continent, the Tillamook were neither farmers nor nomadic hunter-gatherers. Instead, they subsisted largely on fish, berries, and other wild plants native to the area. Their main source of food came from salmon, which during the spring and summer literally jumped out of the river on their way to spawning grounds into the eager hands of the Tillamook. In order to keep food supplies consistent year-round, the Tillamook ground the salmon into a fine powder that would keep for up to six months without spoiling.

Craftsmanship

The Tillamook people had a sophisticated tradition of craftsmanship that enabled them to thrive for centuries. Their two most important handicrafts were weaving and boat-making. Women usually weaved during the winter when hunting and fishing was less profitable. In the spring and summer, they used those baskets to transport food and trade goods within their villages and to trade with other local native groups, and later, American settlers.

Canoes were dug out of tree trunks and usually could seat anywhere from four to eight people. These canoes were hardy enough to transport the Tillamook both on the many rivers that crisscross Northwest Oregon and out to sea. Eventually, the Tillamook learned how to hunt whales during the winter and harvest their blubber from these canoes, providing a source of high-calorie food and oil. Importantly, the Tillamook never developed a tribal government or writing system to continue these traditions, but instead they were passed along orally.

Spiritual Life

The most important part of Tillamook life was when young boys and girls went on rites of passage to find their spirit guardians. Spirit guardians were spirits of animals, plants, or various aspects of life that stayed with every grown Tillamook person until his or her death. While they did not worship gods and deities in a structured way, these guardians protected the village and were an integral part of their belief system. For the rite of passage, young boys reaching maturity spent three days alone in the woods until they found their spirit. Young girls were accompanied by an adult into the woods for 24 hours. This tradition allowed for a continuity of culture over successive generations and formed a key aspect of their religious worldview.

Contact with Westerners

The Tillamook lived in relative harmony with their neighbors and thrived to a population of around 2,000 people by the 1700s. The Native Americans of the Northwest coast, due to their sedentary lifestyles, remained relatively isolated from other native tribes and completely isolated from American explorers for most of their history. That changed in 1788 when the second mate of an American exploration ship, Robert Haswell, encountered the Tillamook. Haswell was part of a trade mission that hoped to take pelts and furs from the natives and trade them directly to China.

Although the sources suggest their encounter was brief, Haswell may have inadvertently brought more than just the desire for trade with him to the Tillamook. The next time that Westerners saw the Tillamook, they noted that some of the natives had smallpox scars. Smallpox was a disease that Native American populations had no born immunity to, and since many Europeans were unknowingly carriers of the disease, they brought the disease with them. This often led to horrific fatalities that decimated local populations and expedited Western colonization efforts wherever the disease took root.

The expedition that noted the smallpox scars on some of the Tillamook was the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. Different from Haswell's trip, Lewis and Clark were on a mission to chart and explore the wild Western frontier. Their travels led them to Northwest Oregon and the Tillamook in early winter of 1805. Lewis and Clark had heard rumors of a people who used whales' blubber for long periods of time for both food and fuel and were shocked to find that the Tillamook could scrap all of the fat off of a whale's carcass in less than two days. Lewis and Clark estimated that the population of Tillamook was around 2,200, and because this number is about what Haswell saw a few decades earlier, it seems that smallpox had not yet decimated the population.

Less than two decades after Lewis and Clark left the Tillamook, a pair of smallpox epidemics ran through the tribe. These epidemics took a severe toll on the population and were almost certainly a result of Lewis and Clark's earlier visit. To make matters worse for the Tillamook, settlers from the Oregon Trail started to pour into their lands by the early 1840s, and conflicts frequently favored the healthy and well-equipped American frontiersmen and women. Population estimates in 1845 put the total population of Tillamook at 400 individuals, while an estimate in 1849 shrunk that number to only 200 persons. It is almost impossible to imagine how it must have felt to experience the horror of seeing more than 90% of your friends, family, and tribes-members die within four decades.

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