Re-examining myths in the Middle Village

National Park Service archaeologist Doug Wilson discusses what artifacts can tell us about a past society at a Cannon Beach History Center and Museum lecture in July.

During the Corps of Discovery’s exploration of the west, Lewis and Clark described NeCus Village and campsites on the Columbia River. Written accounts are useful, but do not tell a complete story about Native American contact with European and American fur traders.

“What people say and what people do are sometimes very different things,” National Park Service archaeologist Dr. Doug Wilson said at a Cannon Beach History Center and Museum guest lecture in July. “The history that we know about is written by... the conquerors that often had a bias about the way the world was.”

Wilson and his team studied the Chinook Indian Middle Village, once located at the mouth of the Columbia River in an area on the Washington side of the Astoria-Megler Bridge.

Numerous valuable items found on the site indicate that the Chinook were successful early traders, contradicting myths about Native Americans being cheated or culturally exterminated by fur traders, Wilson said.

“In this case at the Middle Village, we see that nobody was getting ripped off,” he said, adding that the Chinook “struck hard bargains” with fur traders. “The trade elevated the Chinook.”

Objects like nails, pottery, clay tobacco pipes, glass bottles and animal or fish bones can inform archaeologists about a society’s architecture, household, smoking or drinking habits and meals.

“Those bits and pieces that represent the rubbish of past society can tell us a lot about those people,” Wilson said.

Gun flints, arrowheads, alcohol bottles re-used for other purposes, Chinese coins, silver tinkers, knives, daggers, copper objects, pottery and ceramics were among the items found at the Middle Village.

“What is really unique about the Middle Village is that traditional artifacts that you would normally find at a Chinook Indian village were very sparse,” Wilson said. “But the fur trade objects were abundant.”

One particularly valuable found object was a tea caddy, which in the early 19th century and late 18th century was for the wealthy.

Preserved plank structures found through archaeological testing suggest the existence of three to five former homes. The houses appeared to have been rebuilt several times, which was not found in more stable sites further up the river, Wilson said.

As for what the Chinook ate in the Middle Village, Portland State University professor Virginia Butler identified sturgeon and salmon bones, seeds, roots and wapato, an Indian potato.

When the Corps reached the site around 1805, the Middle Village was unoccupied by the Chinook. Clark created a detailed map of the surrounding area at the site, also referred to as Station Camp.

Wilson received the John L. Cotter Award for Excellence in National Park Service Archaeology for his work at the Middle Village.

“It contextualizes the Lewis and Clark expedition,” Wilson said about the findings. “It also shows what a Chinook Village might have looked like when Lewis and Clark came up the river.”

NeCus Village has parallels to the Middle Village, Wilson said. NeCus likely had contact with Europeans before Lewis and Clark arrived.

Wilson, along with other archaeologists, did recent fieldwork at NeCus Park.

“By exploring NeCus and comparing it to Middle Village and other village sites from the area, we can get a better handle of not only the region but also the Clatsop-Nehalem people,” Wilson said.



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