It’s difficult to say who the earliest European was to spot our coastline from the deck of his sailing ship. Whoever that first European was, it is possible that there had already been significant changes our people had undergone, because of hemisphere-wide epidemics resulting from Columbus’ contact with native people on the east coast in 1492. Many foreign governments competed for several centuries to explore & map the surface of the earth, building vast empires by claiming “discovery rights” to all lands & resources they encountered which didn’t already have a strong, recognized European presence.
There is currently a debate going on about whether Sir Francis Drake’s vessels made it this far north in 1579. There is some pretty compelling evidence (Elizabethan coins found in this area, etc.) and there are also lots of first hand accounts & “pioneer folk tales” of fifteenth century English swords and other paraphernalia being found here locally. Whatever the earliest provable direct contact with our people was, it is clear that if the people weren’t already impacted by the influences (diseases) that contact on the East Coast had transmitted, our ancestors were very soon to experience the ravages of catastrophic deadly pandemics.
In an epidemic, there is a significant number of the population affected. In a pandemic, all or nearly all of the population is affected. Beginning by at least the 1770’s there were a good number of direct contacts made between our people on the coast and the trade & exploration ships. Smallpox was one of several diseases transmitted during these visits. Our people had no resistance to these diseases, we have all heard this, but I don’t know if any of us can really understand the physical, social, cultural & political devastation that was the effect. It is estimated that during each of the major pandemic episodes, from 75% to 90% of the population was killed. In some localized areas, whole large villages disappeared.
Although most of the trading contacts were in themselves peaceful, the Europeans, did not consider the fact that they were in a foreign land and subject to local laws and customs. Being very ethnocentric in their dealings with our people, and communicating entirely through signs and gestures, misunderstandings quickly arose and the result was sometimes bloodshed. The often rude manners of the visitors coupled with the fact that it probably did not take our ancestors long to recognize the source of the pandemics, probably quickly developed into a building and intense resentment among many of our people. There are also signs of many of our ancestors being fairly forgiving and endlessly friendly to the visitors, soon to be invaders. Trade along the coast continued and intensified at intervals.
The first overland journey into our country was the Lewis & Clark Expedition in 1805. They made many notes on the locations of major villages along the lower Columbia River, their populations and other information. They noted that there were villages that had been totally de-populated by disease. The houses were left standing, with the people’s bodies scattered about. No one was even left to bury the dead. It’s hard to relate to a disease carrying people off that quickly, but a tribal ancestor Hoxie Simmons made comments that were recorded that told the story. He said that the people would begin to feel ill, and would go into the sweathouse to try to break the fever. Then, as was the custom, they would go jump in the river to cool off. The disease moved so quickly, that he said many did not even make it back from the river.
Lewis and Clark recorded that many of the villages or groups of affiliated villages (even with all of the epidemics that had already occurred) had populations in the many hundreds if not two thousand or more people. They also noted that many of the adults had Smallpox scars, and when asked, said that they were from an epidemic 30 years before (1770’s).
Lewis and Clark’s journey to our lands sparked an increased interest in the occupation of our country by U.S. citizens. There was still a dispute between the United States and the British over who had rights to claim our lands, so for a period, there was a recognized joint occupation of our lands by those two nations. The occupation was primarily and almost exclusively for fur trade purposes (at least in the beginning) and that will be the subject of the next article.