First residents were the Chetco

February 22, 2001 11:00 pm
Indian men wore deerhide costumes. ().
Indian men wore deerhide costumes. ().

The earliest known inhabitants of what today is the Brookings-Harbor area were members of the Chetco tribe of Indians, an Athapascan linguistic group who lived along the Chetco River and regions of the lower Winchuck River northward to Cape Ferrelo.

They called themselves "Cheti." Early white settlers spelled it "Chitco," or "Chetko" or "Chetco."

It was once thought that the Chetco Indians had been part of the prehistoric migration of peoples from Siberia to the Alaskan peninsula, via a now submerged land bridge, and thence south along the Pacific Coast during one of the ice ages some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. Most recent evidence indicates that prehistoric man did not reach this area until a much later period. Experts now believe that early migrants first moved southward through the ice-free routes in central North America more than 10,000 years ago, and that their descendants may first have come into western Oregon between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago.

When the first white explorers came into this region a century and a half ago, they found a number of small tribes scattered along the Oregon Coast, each grouped on either side of one of the rivers running into the Pacific Ocean. In his article Indian Tribes of Curry County, Vernon Nielson locates the Chetco people:

Chetcos: Whales head to an indefinite point nearly two-thirds of the way down the Chetco Valley; three villages, named by the Indians as the Chetco and still known as the Chetco; north side near present site of Brookings; south side on low flat; north side six miles up the river on a low flat known as the Floyd Puter ranch . . .

Chetco Most Numerous

In his 1884 History of Southern Oregon, Albert G. Walling states that the Chetco people were the most numerous of 12 coast tribes. Some 30 years earlier the Indian agent for this region, Isaiah L. Parrish, had enumerated members of the Chetco tribe: 117 men, 83 women, 22 boys, 19 girls.

Writing in 1898 Orvil Dodge says that:

In the mid-nineteenth century the Chetcos had numbered about 30 grown persons, of whom but a few had ever seen a white man. They were in their primitive condition and wore no clothing except a robe of deer skins dressed with the hair on. The women wore a mat of grass or bark split into threads and fastened around their hips and hanging down to their knees, while the children were almost naked. The natives seemed to be very intelligent, and made no complaints at the encroach-ments of the white men. Their only weapons were the bow and arrow, and large knives flattened out from bolts and strips of iron, taken from the drift of wrecked vessels.

Some of their axes and knives were made from stone and flint. Their cooking was done by roasting before the fire or in pots, made airtight with grass and heated with hot stones. Fish, acorns, elk and deer meat were their principal sources of subsistence.

The Indian town, at the mouth of the Chetco River, consisted of about 40 houses, located on both sides of the river. They were expert canoe men on both river and ocean .... They believed in a god and a destructive devil. Old men were prophets and doctors.

Local Research

No full research was done in our area until 1935 when Joel V. Berreman, a young anthropology student, made a trip along the Oregon Coast from Port Orford to the state line, looking for Indian dwelling sites. He found 57, varying from temporary camp sites to permanent settle-ments, but was especially attracted to the Lone Ranch area, a few miles north of Bookings. There he dis-covered a long-abandoned, yet well-preserved Indian shell mound. The following two summers he directed an excavation team at that place. His work, the first archaeological study of the Chetco Indians, was reported in a 1944 monograph titled Chetco Archeology.

From his excavations, and in the light of Phillip Drucker's findings about the Tolowa Indians just to the south in California, Berreman concludes that:

No differences are observable between the materials from this site and those from the tribes of Northern California which could not be explained as local variations of the same basic culture. It has also been shown that the cranial type in the Lone Ranch burials conforms closely enough to that of Northern California to be classed as a local variation of the California-type. Hence, the present evidence confirms the view that the Chetco were closely related culturally and racially to the tribes of Northern California with which they were lin-guistically related. So far as our evidence goes, no earlier inhabitants with any different culture preceded them, although the local specializations which appear suggest a considerable period of separation from their California kin.

Berreman also thinks that the Indian dependence upon game meat was probably minimal. Relatively few bones other than those of sea lions were found in the mounds he excavated. He doubts, too, that the people were expert canoe men on the ocean, because their boats were shallow, hollowed-out logs, awkward to manage and quite unseaworthy.

One of their boats is in the Chetco Valley Historical Museum in Harbor.

However, the Indians surely must have ventured out to sea if only as far as the off-shore rocks to gather mussels and to club sea lions on calm days. Berreman Interview Some years ago Brookings resident Marge Barrett interviewed Dr. Berreman about his work. Here are some excerpts from the published interview:

From archeological re-search one can piece together a partial picture of early Indian life on the coast here, but archeology can tell us little of the nonmaterial culture such as religion, family life and legends. For these things we can only infer what their culture was from their better known neighbors, the Tolowa. The Cheti (later called the Chetco by the settlers) appear to have been culturally similar to the Tolowa, who lived in the valley of Smith River to the south.

These Indian people shared some of the woodworking techniques so highly developed by the people of the northwest coast. Pieces of charred cedar buried in the shell mound at Lone Ranch showed the Chetco, like all northwest coast tribes, built substantial homes centuries before white settlers came to the coast. They lived in plank houses built of split and sometimes hand-hewn cedar planks made by splitting slabs from trees, probably standing trees with bone or elkhorn wedges driven with stone mauls.

These tools are the most plentiful of any we found in the mound and often show evidence of much wear. A stone adze was sometimes used to plane or smooth the rough planks. Houses were small, about 12 to 14 feet square with a fire pit near one side and sometimes a smoke hole under the wall. They were made of vertical planks, probably with gable roofs, and had well-packed clay floors.

These people made their homes right down at the mouth of rivers and streams. They had no horses, so they wanted to be close to their supply of food. Principal sources of food were fish and mussels, evidenced by the piles of shell and other debris found in the mounds.

The term tribe did not really apply to the Indians of this area. They had local groups or villages and fairly well defined hunting areas, but the notion of a chief is an imported idea. They had influential members of society, but did not recognize a chief as such. No one member had any political power; the villages belonged to all members.

Windchuck

According to Fred S. Moore, Curry County pioneer, county assessor and amateur historian, the Chetco people had two large villages at the mouth of the Chetco River, one on the bluff on the north side (site of the present-day Brookings), and the other on the low flats on the south side of the river, in what is now Harbor. Another village six miles up the river was located on the site now known as the Johnson-Gardiner place.

Moore believed that the Indian villages around the Winchuck River were those of the Hasonta tribe, an Indian name for the Winchuck River. He thought that the Winchuck River was named by early prospectors who experienced difficulty in crossing the stream in the small Indian canoes, due to the strong wind. They probably dubbed it "Windchuck," meaning wind river or windy river, "chuck" being the Indian word for water.

An article in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, March 1927, states that "The Chetoco or Chet-Coos had nine villages in the vicinity of the Chetco River."

Prehistoric Chetco Culture Not much is known about the culture of the prehistoric Chetco people.

Much Like Tolowa

The only ethnological study of this general area is that by Phillip Druckner of the University of California, on whose findings Berreman relied. In 1937 he wrote that:

By and large the culture of the Chetco Group differed only in a few particular from that of the Tolowa (their neighbors around Smith River).

The routine of the food quest and the elements of material culture seem to have been almost the same. Details of house construction were almost identical. Sweat houses, however, are said to have been smaller and so low that one could stand erect only under the peak of the roof . No other differences of moment were reported.

In the field of social organization we may assume virtual identity with the Tolowa. Accounts of intermarriages and blood settlements between members of the two groups indicate the same rules regulated social relation-ships within and without the basic paternal lineage on Chetco River as among their more southerly kindred.

As an example: Crainulus, a rich man, had five wives. His first wife was a woman from nal'tenetun in Oregon (Low Ranch). He paid about $200 in dentalia for her, because she was from so far away. (It made him look big to get a wife from so far.) He used to visit his brothers-in-law in Oregon now and then; when finished eating he would take a string of 'big money' from his purse and put it in his food basket as a present. The brothers-in-law would give him a return gift before he left.