Champoeg History

Champoeg became a park not because it is beautiful and quiet, but because of the many important and interesting things that have happened here over the years. The following stories—slices of Champoeg life—will tell you about some of these things and some of the people who lived here. Although fictional details have been added, the names and events are real.

Key Concepts:

  • Champoeg was an important meeting place for the Kalapuya Indians, for trappers and traders, and then for the early settlers of Oregon.
  • Champoeg and its surrounding area had several Oregon “firsts”: the first farmers, the first gristmill, the vote to form the first government, and one of the first towns.
  • It has also had its share of disasters—for the Kalapuya, and for the town of Champoeg.

At the Kalapuya’s Front Door—c. 1600

A Clackamas Indian paddles his canoe up the Willamette River. He is going to do some trading with the Kalapuya, the Indian people who live in the Willamette Valley. He has flint for tools, shells and feathers for ornaments, and several furs, including seal and sea otter. All his goods came from other tribes, further inland or at the coast, and some are from hundreds of miles away.

For several miles he has paddled past dense forest. Suddenly, the trees give way to an open, grassy prairie that stretches far to the south into the Kalapuya heartland. He has reached Champoeg.

As he scrambles up the riverbank he hears laughter. Women and girls are prying up camas bulbs with their digging sticks, and then placing them in baskets on their backs. The day is pleasantly warm, and they gossip happily as their expert hands move rapidly. Suddenly aware of him, they freeze. But they can see he is alone, and they relax when he holds up his trade goods. Using a special trade language called “Chinuk Wawa”—for the Clackamas and Kalapuya do not speak the same language—he asks where he can find their camp.

  • Champoeg was the gateway between the Kalapuya’s Willamette Valley and the tribes to the north, and was a useful and well-known meeting place. There is no evidence of a Kalapuya village within the park, but early 19th-century documents tell us there was a village roughly across the river from the park.
  • The vast Willamette Valley prairies were created and maintained by the Kalapuya. To see how and why they did it, read the handout called “Prairies at Champoeg.”
  • For the meaning and pronunciation of Champoeg, read the handout called “Can You Say Champoeg?”

A new people—1825

Etienne Lucier, a French-Canadian trapper, paddles his canoe up the Willamette River. With him are Josephite, his Indian wife, and their young daughter, Felicité. He sees “La Butte,” a round hill standing by itself, and knows he is arriving at Champoeg. They will camp here and wait for the other trappers and their families, then head south across the prairies on horse—families and all. This Hudson’s Bay Company fur expedition will last a year and take them to California and Nevada.

  • Fur trappers and traders probably first saw the valley in 1811. They used Champoeg as the Indians did, as a meeting place and gateway to the valley and beyond. These men were mostly French Canadians, at first under the direction of an American fur company, and then under British management. By 1821, the entire Oregon Territory was controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company, a British monopoly.
  • Practically all trappers and traders had Indian wives. To find out why, read the handout called “Who was Kitty Newell?”

A tough year—1833

John Ball, hands on hips, surveys his small wheat field. Inspired by stories of the Oregon paradise, he is the first American to farm in the entire Pacific Northwest. Within a few miles live his seven French-Canadian neighbors— also growing wheat—including Etienne Lucier, who left trapping and started farming three years before.

But is this paradise? Hardly. Ball is living in a primitive cabin, malaria has kept him flat on his back much of the time, and he doubts he will ever see another American as a neighbor, no matter how long he stays. At the end of the season he will trade his crop for a ship passage back to the East.

  • The trappers looked longingly at the Indians’ prairies, knowing how easy it would be to start farming on the open land. By 1830 the fur trade had collapsed. A handful of trappers received permission from the Hudson’s Bay Company to begin farming, growing wheat to be sold back to the company. These farms were on a prairie that came to be called French Prairie. Champoeg, at its northern end, was the primary shipping point.
  • Our prairie restoration project is on John Ball’s field. Read the handout called “Prairie Restoration at Champoeg.” Also, there is strong evidence that archeologists have found the remains of Ball’s cabin. Read “Archeology at Champoeg.”

But John was wrong—1836

Outside, the water wheel splashes endlessly, while inside, gears and levers moan and rattle as the stones grind wheat into flour. Webley Hauxhurst—one of several Americans now in the valley—finished building his mill last November. It is the first grist mill in the Willamette Valley. Until now the farmers’ wives had to pound wheat with a mortar and pestle, or put it through a coffee grinder—good enough for mush, if you had to eat that disgusting stuff, but impossible to really bake with. Now they could all look forward to a decent biscuit or loaf of bread.

  • More and more trappers, including Americans, decided to leave the mountains and settle in the Willamette Valley, switching to a new life of farming or other business. Hauxhurst’s mill was on Champoeg Creek, probably upstream from the campground.

Wolves or government?—1843

A crowd of men—about half of the 200 or so white men who live in the valley—is gathering at the Hudson’s Bay granary and trade store. Some wear the rumpled browns and grays favored by Americans, or the black coats of Methodist missionaries, while others wear loud splashes of color—especially red—that mark them as French-Canadian.

Officially they are here for a “wolf meeting” to discuss what to do about predators; wolves, grizzlies and mountain lions still live in the valley. Their real purpose, which the Americans want to hide from the Hudson’s Bay Company, is to discuss the formation of a government. There are too many men to fit inside the store, so the meeting moves outside.

The Hudson’s Bay Company—the great English trading monopoly—built the store and granary just the year before in hopes of controlling Oregon’s important wheat economy. But today the Company is the unwitting host to a meeting that will help end their Oregon empire. In a close vote the men decide to form the Provisional Government—the first government in the Pacific Northwest.

  • Champoeg’s monument, in the Riverside Area, marks the site of the vote. The granary was where the Pioneer Memorial Building now stands. Read the handout called “All for Organization” for more about the vote and the years-long struggle to form a government.
  • Months after the vote, in late 1843, the first large wagon train arrived over the Oregon Trail. Just 10 years after the lonely John Ball had departed, Oregon and its new government were dominated by Americans.

The end of all we knew—1851

The commissioners look splendid and powerful in their uniforms and expensive coats and tall hats. The Indians—chiefs and representatives from the Willamette Valley tribes and bands—sit before them. They, too, are wearing their best, but their clothes are worn and shabby. They and their people have been wracked by disease, starvation and poverty. Now gathered at Champoeg, they are being told they must give up their land. The valley is filling with farms and towns. There is no room for the hunting of deer or the gathering of camas, even if there were enough deer or camas left.

Alquema, chief of the Santiam band of the Kalapuya, can stand no more. “We have been willing to throw away the rest of our country, and reserve the land lying between the forks of the Santiam! You thought that was too much . . . . Then we agreed to take this small piece between the Creek and North Branch. You want us to take still less. We can’t do it, it is too small, it is tying us up in too small a space .…We would rather be shot on it than to remove.”

In 1855 the few remaining Kalapuya, along with members of seven other tribes, will be forced onto a reservation at Grand Ronde.

  • Introduced diseases, such as measles, tuberculosis, and the malaria that bothered John Ball, were lethal for the Kalapuya and the other tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Their whole social structure collapsed as more died every year, leaving them unable to resist the changes that were being forced upon them.

Soaring hopes and dreams—1859

Robert “Doc” Newell hurries down a wooden sidewalk on Napoleon Street in the town of Champoeg in the State of Oregon. Boisterous French singing beckons from the open doorway of a saloon. A shot of whiskey would taste good about now, but he doesn’t have time. A steamboat has tied up at the dock, and this time he wants to make sure it refuels with his wood.

Champoeg is Newell’s town. Half of it is on his land, he has a hand in several of its businesses, and he talks it up wherever he goes. He’s built a fine, new house up on the bluff—he can sit on his back porch and admire his town—and if all goes to plan, Champoeg will become an important city. Maybe another San Francisco.

But life goes on—1862

Mrs. Manson gazes across the kitchen garden at the new barn, nearly finished. “New” is a family joke. After last December’s flood washed away their farmstead— along with the entire town of Champoeg—her husband Donald was able to salvage a building that had caught in the trees downstream. This new barn, safe on high ground, is made from an old building.

Since she first paddled up the Willamette with her parents, Felicité Lucier Manson has seen incredible change: canoes replaced by steamboats, prairies replaced by farms, towns, and roads, an entire people replaced by . . . other people. Able to skin a beaver, feed a family in the wild, or ride a horse bareback, she is now a respectable middle-class woman, directing servants and seeing to the education of her children. Her neighbors carefully ignore the fact that she is half Indian—at least, in her presence.

  • To learn about the 1861 flood and its aftermath, read the handout called “The End of the Town of Champoeg.” Also see “River Rivals: Champoeg and Butteville” and “Archeology at Champoeg.”
  • For more information about the Mansons’ barn, read the handout called “The Manson Barn: The Oldest Building in Oregon?”
  • Kitchen gardens, including the one in the park, are described in the handout called “An 1860s Kitchen Garden.”
  • Mrs. Manson fared better than most who were Indian or part Indian. To learn more, read “Who was Kitty Newell?”

Time to celebrate—1901

The great crowd cheers thunderously as Francis Xavier Matthieu pulls away the flag that had been draped over the new monument. “Now face toward the camera, everyone,” calls out the photographer, “and gentlemen, hats off please.” The monument stands where the vote had taken place 58 years before. Matthieu—originally French-Canadian, but now an American citizen—is the only voter still living. The tiny square of land on which the monument is standing will eventually be expanded and become a state park: Champoeg State Heritage Area.

  • For the history of the park from 1901 to the present, read “Log Cabins, Pageants, and Giant Sequoias: The History of Champoeg Park.”

Further Reading

  • 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.
  • Into the Eye of the Setting Sun, by Charlotte Matheny Kirkwood. Available in the Visitor Center, or search on the web. Charlotte Matheny came over the Oregon Trail in 1843, when she was five years old. This reminiscence covers her childhood until marriage. Writing when she was an old woman, she had a phenomenal memory, and her writing style is excellent. Although the book has only been published by the family, it is a must-read for anyone interested in the details of Willamette Valley life in the 1840s and ’50s.