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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.