Champoeg State Heritage Area is a popular destination for its peaceful setting that also affords visitors a chance to explore hiking and biking trails, campsites and birds, such as bluebirds, ospreys and meadowlarks, and other wildlife.
But this verdant floodplain actually has been a vibrant gathering place for native and European cultures and peoples for centuries thanks to its location along the Willamette River which spurred its development as a hub of early water and land transportation networks.
The native Kalapuya people called Champoeg home hundreds of years before Lewis and Clark explored the Columbia River. The Kalapuya are one of 27 Native American tribes of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, and their present day reservation is in Yamhill and Polk counties. The Kalapuya tribe’s traditional homeland is in western Oregon from the Columbia River to the Calapooya Mountains at the Umpqua River.
The Champoeg area was a traditional gathering place for the Kalapuya who fished in the Willamette River and conducted controlled burns on the prairie. Burning away weeds, shrubs and small trees helped to enrich the prairie soil and promote the growth of grasses that deer and elk eat. The Kalapuya hunted the grazing animals that fed on the prairie grasses.
Kalapuya also came to Champoeg for the camas lily bulbs, an important food staple that still grows there in abundance in the moist meadow soil of Champoeg. The Kalapuya harvested the camas bulbs, roasted them in an earthen pit and formed them into bricks that tasted like a sweet potato. The bulbs could be used as a flour and helped sustain the tribes during the winter. Many Native American groups ate camas lily bulbs and the Kalapuya traded them for goods at Champoeg.
By the early 1800s, French-Canadian fur trappers, associated with the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver, roamed the region in search of the then-popular beaver fur. By the 1830s, fur trade declined and beaver had been trapped to near extinction. Many French Canadian fur trappers turned to wheat farming at Champoeg as a second career and the surrounding area became known as the French Prairie. The rich loamy soil of the floodplain and centuries of controlled burning by the Kalapuya made the prairie a ripe place for farming.
Word spread East about the rich Oregon farmland and the growing popularity of Manifest Destiny brought European settlers over the Oregon Trail in the early 1840s. The town’s location on the river facilitated transportation of its wheat to market. Champoeg had several steamboat landings that brought passengers and goods to town and carried area farm products to Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver which had begun selling the Oregon wheat to Russia.
Champoeg eventually grew to about 200 settlers. It also became the cradle of early territorial government with the historic 1843 vote – the first democratic vote in the West – which established Oregon’s allegiance to the United States and created the first provisional government in the Northwest.A powerful flood in 1861 destroyed Champoeg and erased most evidence of the bustling town that once existed here. Today The Friends of Historic Champoeg and Oregon State Parks work together to preserve, restore and interpret the region’s rich heritage. Learn more about Champoeg's history by visiting its extended reading page.