DIGGING DEEPER: More About Life on the Oregon Coast Before Westward Expansion

Growing up I saw photographs of the Oregon Coast in my geography books, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I was actually able to experience this unique and fascinating part of our country.  Although the entire coast is visually stunning, it is also rich in history, much of it obscured by our modern way of life.  Nonetheless, it is there for anyone willing to take the time to look.  Of course, there are tantalizing clues in place names such as Clatsop, Nehalem, Tillamook, Coos Bay, Yachats, Coquile, Neskowin, Siuslaw, Siletz, Yaquina, Neahkahnie, and many more – all of which are taken from Native American tribal names and languages.  The story of the Oregon Coast is more than what meets the eye; it just takes a little bit of effort to uncover it.  Each time I return to the region I learn something new.  Most of what came before has been “buried” under what came afterward – highways, hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, shops, and modern homes.  Today, tourists flock to the area for the beaches, the spectacular scenery, and the incredible seafood, mostly missing a rich and ancient history.


Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, North Oregon Coast.  Photograph by Jeff VanDyke.

 Long before Europeans reached the Pacific Northwest Native American peoples were living and thriving on the Oregon Coast.  The vast ocean to the west and the great forests to the east provided a veritable supermarket of natural resources.  The sea provided clams, mussels, crabs, sea urchins, seabirds and their eggs, a wide variety of fish, seaweed, seals, sea lions, and whales.  Rivers, too, offered sustenance in the form of salmon.  The land offered deer, elk, beaver, birds and their eggs, as well as berries, bulbs, roots, and seeds.  Animals were hunted for food, but also for their fur for clothing and their bones and antlers for tools.  Plants not only supplied food and medicines but also provided materials for fashioning containers and building homes.




Salal berries


Along the coast and inland, Native people picked berries and plants that afforded nourishment and others that were used for medicinal purposes.  They picked tasty thimbleberries, salmonberries, and salal berries as well as digging fern and lily roots.  Kinnikinnick leaves were made into a diuretic tea; the roots of the Oregon grape was a curative for stomach ailments; the leaves of the trillium plant, which were picked from the forest floor, were pounded into a paste and spread over small cuts to act as an antiseptic bandage.  The western red cedar was used to fashion canoes, house boards, mats, boxes, clothing, and utensils; the root of the Sitka spruce was woven into storage and cooking baskets and made into cradles.  In general, agriculture was not practiced by the tribes of the Oregon Coast simply because there was no need to do so.  Nature provided all that was needed in terms of food, clothing, and dwellings.


North Oregon Coast, Ecola State Park.  Photograph by Jeff VanDyke.

The Oregon Coast is a land of sun, rain, fog, and mist and it is rich in oral history.  Located on the Northern Oregon Coast, north of the modern town of Manzanita, Neahkahnie Mountain towers 1,600 feet above the beach below.  It is a place of myth and mystery.  Although for decades it was an obstacle for European arrivals who wanted to traverse the coast, for Native people it was sacred.  A Tillamook language word, Neahkahnie has been translated as meaning “the place of God.”  It was here that Acama dwelled.  Local tribes hunted on the mountain and would set fires to clear the underbrush so that new vegetation would sprout in the spring, which would draw deer and elk in search of tender shoots.

From earliest times, Neahkahnie Mountain was a place that inspired awe for the Native people who lived near it.  To them, the mountain was alive with signs of the spirit world.  From generation to generation, stories were passed down by word of mouth about the spirits who were seen as having individual personalities and distinct relationships to the tribes of Oregon’s coast.  Fog was believed to be a curtain put up to prevent humans from seeing into the spirit world and lightening was caused by the powerful glances of Thunder.   Ice, South Wind, and Thunder are important characters in a number of the Native tales about Neahkahnie Mountain.  In one, the mischievous Ice killed South Wind’s father.  Waiting until he was an adult, South Wind melted Ice by simply looking at him.

Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, Central Oregon.  Photograph by Jeff VanDyke.

The Central Oregon Coast is dominated by massive sand dunes that separate the region’s lush rain forests from the ocean.  Extending forty miles south from Florence, in places the dunes stretch 2.5 miles inland and some rise to 500 feet.  This unique landscape is not a barren desert, but contains lakes, forested areas and low-lying plains.  These topographic features provide habitats for a wide variety of mammals and birds including mice, voles, porcupines, minks, black bears, foxes, deer, elk, Canada geese, and the western snowy plover, a threatened species.  The dune environment includes plants such as the evergreen huckleberry, bog blueberry, shore pine, and Sitka spruce.

Face Rock, Bandon, Oregon.  Photograph by E. J. Guarino


Off the South Oregon Coast, near Bandon, lie Face Rock and Kitten Rocks whose existence is explained by the Coquille Tribe.  Ewauna and her father traveled from the mountains, which were the territory of their tribe, to a potlatch to be held on the coast by local tribes.  Ewauna was fascinated by the ocean, but she was warned about the evil Seatka who lived in the sea.  Ignoring the possible danger, Ewauna went for a moonlight swim, leaving her pet dog Komax and her kittens, which she carried in a basket, on the shore.  Seeing the beautiful young woman, Seatka rose up from the ocean, grasped her and tried to make her look at him.  Ewauna refused and steadfastly looked up at the moon.  Komax, with the basket of kittens in his mouth, swam out to save Ewauna and bit Seatka’s hand.  The evil being was so enraged that he kicked Komax back to the shore and threw the basket of kittens far into the ocean.  Still, Ewauna would not turn her gaze toward Seatka.

Ewauna Transforming into Face Rock by Jeffrey VanDyke, graphite and watercolor, 5.5” w x 7”h (2022).

The next morning when her father and the local tribes came to the shore to look for her they saw Ewauna lying on her back in the ocean, still looking upward.  Nearby were her kittens and on the shore was Komax.  Farther back was Seatka.  All had turned to stone.  To this day, some people say that they can hear Ewauna’s voice on the wind.  The story is a lesson to heed the warnings of Elders and to respect the forces of Nature.

Face Rock and Kitten Rocks at Bandon, South Oregon Coast.  Photograph by E. J. Guarino.


Of course, scientists give a more prosaic account of how Face Rock and Kitten Rocks came to be, crediting volcanic activity, movement of the continental plates, earthquakes, and erosion.

In 1700 the Oregon Coast was hit by a devastating earthquake followed by a massive tsunami.  Although it is not known how many people were killed, the coastline, estuaries, and other low-lying areas were dramatically changed.  Houses, food stores, nets, fish weirs, canoes, tools and utensils were washed away, and natural resources destroyed.  The area was changed forever.

Starfish, sea urchins, and mussels in an Oregon Coast tidal pool.  Photograph by Jeff VanDyke.


Nonetheless, there is still much to see and learn on the Oregon Coast.  The many tide pools offer a mini-education for anyone willing to look.  Long before the arrival of Europeans, the Native people harvested mussels, sea urchins, and other seafood from the tidal pools.

The spectacular Oregon Coast   Photograph by Jeff VanDyke.


Beyond the spectacular scenery and great seafood, the Oregon Coast offers a rich historical and cultural bounty for anyone willing to take the time to look for it.  Although the trappings of contemporary life hide much of the history of Oregon’s coast, with a little effort one can discover more about the first people who inhabited the region.  In addition to visitor centers and museums, texts containing information about the history of the Oregon Coast are strategically placed at viewpoints and state parks.  All that the inquiring visitor has to do is read them.  It is well worth the effort.

Note: See also “Just Below the Surface: Life on the Oregon Coast Before Westward Expansion,” June 1, 1919.