Lewis & Clark National Wildlife Refuge
Pacific Region

Cultural History

The islands and estuary of the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge have always been a meeting place of waters and people. The Chinook and Cathlamet Indians were famed traders encountered by early European explorers and traders. As Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery journeyed toward their goal of the Pacific Ocean, they traveled through the estuary of the Columbia River in November, 1805. Their notes and journals record our first scientific knowledge of the geography, plants, animals, and native peoples they encountered in the American Northwest. Lewis and Clark passed through the estuary and noted the weather, birds, and land. The refuge today looks much like it did when the Corps of Discovery traveled through.

The earliest archaeological evidence of human habitation in the Columbia River Basin dates to 10,000 B.P. [Before Present Time] The earliest groups lived by fishing, hunting large mammals, and gathering plant foods. One particular root vegetable, the wapato, grows along shallow ponds, swamps, slow moving streams, and was harvested in a abundance.

For 200 river miles (322 km), from the ocean to above The Dalles, Oregon, the Columbia River was home to peoples speaking several related Chinookan languages, beginning with the Chinook on the north bank and the Clatsop on the south side. The banks of the Columbia River were studded with villages of large rectangular longhouses constructed of huge cedar planks. The natural abundance of the region, including five types of salmon, wapato, camas, and other bulbs, berries, and many other plant and animal resources, sustained a complex culture, and made the lower Columbia one of the most heavily populated and richest areas north of Mexico.

Natural History of the Columbia River

The Columbia River and its tributaries form the dominant water system in the Pacific Northwest. The Columbia rises in Columbia Lake in British Columbia, Canada. After flowing a circuitous path for 1,270 miles (2044 km), the Columbia joins the Pacific Ocean near Astoria Oregon. The massive Columbia River basin was formed 12,000 to 19,000 years ago near the end of the last Ice Age. Immense ice dams half a mile wide held back melting ice creating a huge lake in northwest Montana called Lake Missoula. Each time the ice gave way (at least 40 times) massive walls of water as high as 400 feet (122 m) rushed seaward with great destructive force, ripping away silt, blasting through rock, creating a tormented landscape of coulees, dry falls, and barren channels. The great floods found their way to the Pacific by reaming out the Cascade canyon that the Columbia River had been slowly cutting for several million years. These floods generally followed the path of the present day Columbia River.

The Columbia River was named in 1792 by American Captain Robert Gray after his ship “Columbia.”

[Source: USGS http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/LivingWith/Historical/LewisClark/Maps/map_columbia_river_and_tributaries.html]


Last updated: December 1, 2011