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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.
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.
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.
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.
Unfortunately for the Tillamook, the situation went from bad to worse. The dozen or so families that had survived the smallpox epidemics and arrival of Oregon settlers were rounded up and placed in the Siletz Reservation in 1856. The Siletz Reservation was the location that John Gaines, the governor of the newly created Oregon Territory, set aside for the natives who the white people wanted removed from the land. This was a result of American policies at the time to encourage growth of the far-Western region that promised more than a hundred acres for those willing to brave the Oregon Trail. The Tillamook were in no position to negotiate and were forced to accept Gaines' demands. The Tillamook, however, were one of the first tribes to successfully sue the United States government for damages and compensation for their land. However, the settlement they were awarded in 1907 amounted to less than $25,000, far less than what their land was actually worth, even at the time.
After the Tillamook were sent to Siletz Reservation, no one could count the population, since individual tribes were not enumerated on reservations. The population could not have been more than a half dozen elderly individuals by the time they were awarded their settlement in 1907, and by the 1920s, continuing through to today, they officially had a population of zero.
The Tillamook Native Americans were a tribe that settled down in Northwest Oregon sometime during the 1400s. They subsisted on salmon, other fish, and foraged foods without resorting to a nomadic lifestyle. The Tillamook were known for their excellent weaving and boat-making skills that allowed them to thrive in the region. They were culturally distinct from their neighbors, and the most important part of Tillamook spiritual life was the rite of passage to find one's spirit guardian. These guardians remained with their finders for their lifetime and brought good luck and special skills to the tribe.
In 1788, the Tillamook first encountered European-American sailors. A trading vessel briefly visited the tribe and possibly brought with it smallpox, a terrible disease that could easily cripple native populations, who had no immunity. Although it seems that the disease was not rampant immediately after this visit, European-Americans again visited when Lewis and Clark's expedition traded with the Tillamook for their whale blubber. This time, the smallpox the settlers brought was fatal. Within a few decades, the population declined by over 90%. This horrific epidemic, coupled with European-American policies that took their land, forced the now-helpless tribe onto the Siletz Reservation. It was there that the tribe lost its final members, ceasing to exist after the 1920s.
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Back To CourseHigh School US History: Help and Review
25 chapters | 298 lessons