During the 1850s, Champoeg was a significant pioneer town of perhaps 200 people. In 1861, the flooding Willamette River floated the town away. After several years, new immigrants arrived who didn’t know about Champoeg’s flood history, and they began to rebuild. But their effort was ended, once and for all, by another flood in 1890.
Visitors often ask why we don’t recreate the town. First, since the town area still floods about every 30 years, a recreated town would probably meet the same fate as the original. Second, we don’t have enough information—enough “historical documentation”— to know what the town actually looked like. We have no detailed drawings or descriptions. The two existing photographs show only the town’s children clustered about the door of the school.
Archeologists studied Champoeg’s downtown area during the 1970s, and then again in the early ’90s. Although they learned a great deal, they didn’t make the dramatic discoveries that visitors might hope for.
The trash patterns allowed archeologists to confirm that the street layout matched the way the town had been platted. They found that at least eight square blocks had been well-developed. They also found evidence that appears to confirm the location of a few key buildings that were known from historical records. But for now, because of the difficulties, archeologists have no plans to return to the town area.
Robert Newell was the chief promoter of the town of Champoeg, and the eastern half of the town had been developed on his land. It was known that Newell had a farmstead just east of the town, but until recently the exact location was uncertain.
New technology solved this problem. In 1998, archeologists used ground-penetrating radar and a magnetometer to scan the large pasture where the farmstead should have been. They found the site. What is more, they found the only preserved pioneer site on French Prairie, besides the Willamette Mission.
What does “preserved” mean? In this case, it means that the site is safely below the plow zone. When the river floods, it pushes soil around. In some parts of the town, the 1861 flood removed soil (and artifacts), creating depressions. At the Newell farmstead the water deposited soil, piling it deep enough that plows could not reach and destroy what was left when the wooden house or cabin floated away.
A team from Oregon State University excavated for six weeks in the summer of 2002. They found bricks, fragments of plates, bottles, and cups, and other durable items that could help them tell when the site was occupied and how it was used. To their surprise, they also found organic items that don’t usually survive in Oregon’s damp soils: wood fragments, bits of fabric, animal bones, a piece of a shoe, and a hairbrush with its bristles lying close by.
Just before the end of the dig, they also discovered the edge of what appeared to be an intact brick foundation. The rest of this structure was still under the ground, in an area that had not been excavated. The discovery was so exciting that funding could be found for another dig the next summer, something that had not been originally planned.
In 2003 the team uncovered…not a foundation, but an entire brick hearth, complete with ashes where the fireplace had been. Although the hearth is level and smooth, it is made entirely from broken bricks. (We can only guess that this was a way of saving money.) The team also discovered artifacts that pushed the occupation of the site back to the 1830s, a decade before Robert Newell came to Champoeg.
The clues archeologists find are usually incomplete, and their meaning is often unclear. Yet as evidence accumulates, conclusions become possible. By combining the archeological evidence with historical documents, we can now tell the following story. Some parts are more certain than others:
In 1833, John Ball became the first American to farm in the Pacific Northwest, and the eighth farmer in what is now Oregon (the first seven were French Canadians). We have known for many years that his farm was in the park, somewhere near the river.
The oldest artifacts at the archeological site tell us it was occupied at about the same time Ball was here. Among these artifacts are inkwells. Unlike his neighbors, Ball was literate—in fact, he was a Dartmouth graduate. This is strong evidence that this was John Ball’s cabin, the one he describes in his autobiography.
Ball left Oregon at the end of one growing season, and we know that a string of other men farmed in this same area. Since Ball’s cabin, fencing, and fields were there for the taking, and since the artifacts appear to show continuous occupancy, the later farmers probably lived in this same cabin.
In 1843, Robert Newell moved in, along with his wife Kitty and their young sons. (By this time the farm had been surveyed, which is why we are confident that this cabin was Newell’s.) Kitty was a Nez Perce Indian, and among the artifacts was a “tinkler,” a noise-making metal ornament popular with the Nez Perce. It appears that Newell left the hearth as it was, but built a wooden floor over the original clay floor. When he did this, he covered over a ginger jar and a case bottle, both of them broken, which are two of the more spectacular artifacts from the earlier occupancy.
The Newells (Robert and his new wife Rebecca; Kitty died in 1845) moved out of the cabin in about 1854, when they completed their new house—now the Robert Newell House Museum. With the exception of one bottle (described later), no artifacts can be dated from after that time, so it appears that the cabin was abandoned when they left it. Donald Manson bought Newell’s farm and moved to Champoeg in 1858. Although he continued the farming operation, the evidence confirms that he never moved his family into the cabin. Instead, they probably lived in a house near today’s Visitor Center, above the reach of flooding.
When the great flood came in 1861, the cabin floated away, along with the barn and outbuildings which are presumed to have been there. Mud covered and protected the hearth, but its brick chimney and oven were still standing and were now in the way. Manson had workers shove the chimney and oven into a pit they dug beside the hearth. Besides finding these bricks, archeologists found the iron oven door, as well the one bottle (Catawba wine bitters) that someone tossed into the pit before they covered it over. That bottle was the most recent artifact found at the site. The remains of the farmstead then disappeared from view for the next 140 years.
There is still much to be learned. The size of the cabin is uncertain, and it would be valuable to find the sites of the outbuildings. When more evidence is uncovered, the story will undoubtedly change again. As of this writing (2008), the next dig is expected in 2009.