Klamath Trail

compiled by Karen Bassett, Jim Renner, and Joyce White copyright 1998 ~ all rights reserved Oregon Trails Coordinating Council

The Oregon Trail is the predominant symbol of American westward expansion in the Nineteenth Century, a period of Manifest Destiny when the nation realized its dream of stretching from ocean to ocean. It demonstrated the feasibility of large-scale movement by wagon across great distances and over the Rocky Mountains, once perceived as an impassable barrier. The Oregon Trail was at the core of the largest and longest mass migration in United States history to that time and provided the means for strengthening American claims on the Pacific Northwest. Of the various western trails used by fur traders, missionaries, gold seekers and emigrants, the Oregon Trail became the most famous.

Historical context

Beginning in 1843, and for forty years thereafter, hundreds of thousands of Americans sold their Midwestern farms and homes and walked nearly 2,000 miles along the Oregon Trail — across open prairies and rugged mountain ranges toward the ideal called the West. The “Oregon Road” was, like our interstate highways, a main artery to the West. Many emigrants settled in today’s Oregon; many more traveled west along the Oregon Trail to trail junctions that led them to Utah and, especially after gold discoveries in 1848, to California (among those routes was the Applegate Trail).

The reasons for migrating were as varied as the persons who traveled the Trail. To some emigrants, the idea of ‘Oregon” meant personal or religious freedom; to others, it was patriotic action against the British (who were vying for control of the Oregon’s natural resources); to others, in meant free land; and still to others, a life away from the disease-ridden swamps of the Mississippi River valleys.

The land the emigrant trail crossed was home to Native Americans — the Sioux, the Pawnee, the Shoshone, the Nez Perce, the Cayuse, the Walla Walla, and the Umatilla. For decades, wagon trains crossed the land. The wagons’ rumble and dust clouds persisted during the summer months. During the winter, the emigrant flow stilled, beginning again as soon as the grasses greened and the ice moved off the creeks and rivers. Native Americans traded with the emigrants, and often guided them along the way. Without the help of those who were here first, many emigrants would have perished in the effort. Emigrants settling in the West affected native groups irreversibly, setting off the chain of events that led to the reservation system and Indian Wars of the 1850s and 1870s.

The Oregon Trail stretches 547 miles across Oregon. It was the final leg of a long and tiresome journey for those who crossed to the Oregon Country on the overland trails. Emigrants entered this portion of the Oregon Trail, and today’s state of Oregon, at the Snake River Crossing near Nyssa. They crossed the sagebrush steppe, the Blue Mountains, the desolate Columbia Plateau, and maneuvered wagons and oxen down the Columbia River or across the Barlow Road before reaching the Willamette Valley and the end of the Oregon Trail.

For many of the emigrants, the effort was worth the reward. Laying before them, as they crossed the Cascades’ summit, was the Willamette Valley — a land of crisp, clean air, sweet water, towering fir, and dark, rich soil. They found home.

The Klamath Trail (named for its use by the Klamath Indians), was used as a trade route between the Klamath Lakes area and the Great Trade Center located at The Dalles and Celilo Falls region of the Columbia River. The Klamath Trail is also sometimes referred to as the “slave trail” because of its use by the Klamaths to transport slaves captured from northern California tribes who were taken to The Dalles and traded for horses and other goods.

Every summer Indians from all over the Northwest would come to The Dalles bringing with them the specialties of their own region. Objects were often traded several times and might end up hundreds of miles away from their place of origin. Trade goods from The Dalles have been found as far away as Alaska, southern California, and Missouri. The Chinookan-speaking Indians of the Lower Columbia utilized their central position near The Dalles to become some of the most influential traders of the West Coast.

The two most significant trade resources were salmon and slaves. Indians with access to the fisheries of the Columbia River dried and traded tons of salmon each year. The Dalles was also the greatest slave market for trade between the peoples of the interior and those of the coast. Indian people preferred to own slaves from faraway places, since there was less chance that the slave would try to return home, Chinookans purchased slaves at The Dalles and traded them for canoes to the peoples of the North Pacific coast.

Before acquiring horses, distance and the natural isolation of the Klamath homelands probably limited Klamath trade with The Dalles except through intermediaries. Because the Klamaths were remote from the waterways which formed the major avenues of communication for fur traders and explorers, their contact with Europeans was gradual. In 1825, the Klamaths were visited by Finian McDonald, a trapper for the Hudson’s Bay Company In the following year, Peter Skene Ogden, chief of the Snake Expedition for the Hudson’s Bay Company, wrote the first description of the Klamaths, noting that they had but one horse. A few years later, another party of French-Canadian trappers visited the Klamaths and on their return trip to The Dalles took Klamath people with them and opened up for perhaps the first time direct contact with that region. From then on, Klamath travel to The Dalles increased.

In a short time, the Klamath Trail became a much-used avenue for trading at The Dalles and the Klamaths became the premier traders of interior Oregon. The adoption of horse culture, travel, and slave commerce caused a relatively short, but intense transformation of the Klamaths into a stratified society that would again be changed by the treaty of 1864 and the formation of the Klamath Indian Reservation.

Slavery in the Pacific Northwest was a well established practice before contact with European explorers and traders, but intensified in practice with the introduction of foreign trade goods made available through the fur trade. When the Klamath Indians acquired horses in the early to mid-19th Century, their new method of transportation made it easier to raid and capture Shasta and Pit River Indians for slave trade, and then travel the long distance to The Dalles via the Klamath Trail.

While one branch of the Klamath Trail led northward to The Dalles, western branches of the Klamath Trail crossed over the Cascades and into the territory of the Molala Indians who occupied the western Cascades from the upper Rogue River in the south to the upper Clackamas River in the north. Three sub-groups of Molalas have been recognized: 1) the Southern Molala, occupying areas west of Crater Lake, 2) the Santiam Band, living in the upper regions of the North and Middle Santiam rivers, and 3) the Northern Molala, who were focused in the drainage of the Molalla River. The Molala and the Klamath traded, intermarried, hunted together, and were allies in war.

A primary branch of the Klamath Trail over the Cascades was located in the region of the Santiam Pass and crossed into the slopes drained by the North Santiam River. Here the Indian trail system merged with the Molala Trail, a major north-south route that skirted the foothills of the eastern Willamette Valley from Oregon City to the distant region of the Southern Molala. From the North Santiam River, the Molala Trail went north through the Waldo Hills, on to the villages of the northern Molala, and then to the Willamette Falls trading mart.

Documented use of the Klamath and Molala Trails come together in the incidents surrounding the Molala War, also known as the Battle of the Abiqua. In 1847, following the Cayuse attack on the Whitman Mission, it is believed the Northern Molala leader Crooked Finger visited the Klamaths and other tribes seeking recruits for an uprising against the white settlements in the Willamette Valley. That winter, about 150 Indians, including men, women, and children (over half of whom were Klamath) made camp at Abiqua Creek near Silverton. White settlers with land claims located along the Molala Trail felt threatened by the combined presence of the Klamaths and the absence of local militia who had gone to fight in the Cayuse War. In early March 1848, two Cayuse scouts were captured by settlers near the Abiqua camp. Suspicious of the scouts’ motives, the settlers went to the Molala chief Coosta and demanded that the Klamaths leave the valley, but Coosta asserted the right of the Klamaths to remain, saying they were his kinsmen and under his protection. On March 4, fifty Molala and Klamath went to the cabin of one of the settlers with the accusation that the two Cayuse had been killed. The accusation was denied and the Indians turned away, but the settlers were now thoroughly alarmed. On March 5, a company of militia approached the Molala village on Butte Creek and a battle ensued, sending Indians into retreat. The following day, the Klamath camp on Abiqua Creek was attacked and routed. The surviving Klamaths were given three days to leave and departed on the Klamath Trail, bearing their dead with them.

A historic account says the defeated Klamaths left on their way to Jefferson Pass and that the ancient path taken to the mountains was the Abiqua Trail. Recent archeological studies indicate that there were probably countless Indian trails through the Cascade Mountains and many crossings. Archaeologists suggest that the Molala made use of their position in the western Cascades to develop and exploit trade routes. Tested archeological sites on ridges or saddles suggest these sites were seasonally occupied and located on travel routes.

The Moose-Molala One site in the Willamette National Forest is located within the area attributed to the Santiam Band of the Molala. Like a number of other archeological sites in the area, it is located on a known historic trail which in turn may be an aboriginal route and connects with other ridgeline trails. Materials from the site show a strong preference for obsidian, which not only traveled with the people who moved through the landscape, but may have also played a role in trade.

A major cache of obsidian discovered approximately ten miles east of the Moose-Molala site precipitated a Forest Service study of obsidian procurement and transport. The biface cache was sourced to Obsidian Cliffs located on the west slope of North Sister Peak, some 30 miles to the southeast. An array of known historic trails, the likely remnants of aboriginal trails, link Obsidian Cliffs with the biface cache and the Moose-Molala One site.

Obsidian Cliffs is the most common identified source of obsidian found at archeological sites located further north. The Short Saddle site, fifty miles to the north of the Obsidian Cliffs, is located on a small saddle along a north-south trending ridge, just south of the major east-west trending ridge system between the Clackamas and North Santiam river drainages in the western Cascades. It is within the territory of the Northern Molala and is located on the Scorpion Ridge trail, a part of the Cascade trail network that was likely used prehistorically. Obsidian found at Short Saddle and other nearby archeological sites are predominantly sourced to Obsidian Cliffs. All of the sites are on ridges that are presumably associated with prehistoric travel routes and thus tied into a larger trail network.

The Table Rock Trail is considered to be part of a larger cross-Cascades trail system. Located in the Table Rock Wilderness near the upper reaches of the Molalla River, Table Rock Trail is a prehistoric trail that remains in use to this day. Evidence of the trail’s Indian origins is provided by archeological sites found along the trail including Image Rock, a petroglyph boulder. This trail is within the range of the Northern Molala Indians who camped and wintered at lower elevations nearby and who used the uplands for hunting and gathering. Because the Molala maintained contact with tribes east of the Cascades and crossed the mountains regularly, it is speculated that the Table Rock Trail was perhaps one of the routes regularly used for crossing the Cascades for the purposes of trade, raiding, warfare, social interaction and contact, gathering, and maintaining kin relationships. Indians from the Warm Springs Reservation continued to pick huckleberries along the Table Rock Trail into the 1930s.