Archeology at Champoeg

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.

  • Oregon’s early buildings were not only built of wood, but they also were built without any sort of substantial foundation—no brick or stone. The wooden buildings just sat on the ground. When they floated away, they left little behind. Even the streets, being unpaved, disappeared without a trace.
  • A considerable amount of material did not float away—mostly the trash people had thrown out their doors. (The lack of garbage collection in the 19th century would appall us today, but it is extremely useful to archeologists.) Unfortunately, most of this material lay within the top 18 inches of soil, an area known as the “plow zone.” When the town site was abandoned, it became farmland. Decades of plowing thoroughly broke up and mixed the pieces. Archeologists found and cataloged over 50,000 fragments of dishes, bottles, clay pipes, buttons, nails, and so forth, but studying them thoroughly is next to impossible.
  • Souvenir hunters had unrestricted access to the area until the 1970s. Many large or whole objects had been carted away before the studies even began.

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.

Key Concepts:

  • Archeology at the town site in the 1970s, and again in the 1990s, was useful but not dramatic. Years of plowing and other problems had destroyed much of the evidence.
  • The Robert Newell farmstead was protected from plowing by deep soil. It is one of only two preserved pioneer sites on French Prairie, where Oregon farming began.
  • The Newell site has shed new light on Champoeg history from the 1830s through 1861, and more is to be discovered.

Pay Dirt - A Preserved Pioneer Site!

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.

A Story Revealed

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.

Further Reading

  • At the Visitor Center you can watch videos about archeology at the town during the early 1990s, and about using radar in 1998 to find the Newell farmstead.
  • To learn more about the 1861 flood, read the handouts called “The End of the Town of Champoeg” and “A Personal Account of the 1861 Flood, as Experienced by Eightyear- old Mary Higley.”
  • To learn more about Indian wives during early Oregon settlement, ask for the handout called “Who is Kitty Newell.”
  • Champoeg: Place of Transition by John A. Hussey, printed by the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, 1967. This book is our primary source of historical information about Champoeg. Although out of print, it can be found in libraries and in used book stores such as Powell’s Books.
  • The Autobiography of John Ball is available from bookstores in both hardback and paperback versions. To read the part describing his trip west and his time at Champoeg, go to http://www.xmission.com/~drudy/mtman/html/jball.html.