Comcomly, Chinook Chief

The river known to the Chinook Indians as Hyas Cooley Chuck collides with the Pacific Ocean to create the worst wave conditions on the planet. While Native people crossed the Bar in their large ocean-going canoes, the rough water stopped many of the early European explorers who were looking for the mythical River of the West. In May 1792, the American fur trader Captain Robert Gray waited out nine days of adverse conditions on the Bar before finally crossing into the river. He named the river for his ship, the Columbia Rediviva.  

The ship’s young fifth mate kept a journal in which he recorded:

“The Indians are very numerous, and appear’d very civil (not even offering to steal).”

He described the Indians:

“The Men, at Columbia’s River, are strait limb’d, fine looking fellows, and the Women are very pretty. They are all in a state of Nature, except the females, who wear a leaf Apron.”

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A replica of a Chinook longhouse is shown above.

Among the Chinook men who met with the American fur traders was a young man known as Comcomly, who would later become a major chief.

In 1795, the British trading ship Jane under Captain John Myers sailed into the Columbia River. The ship carried a cargo of axes, chisels, hammers, copper sheets, small bells, paints, clothing, china beads, buckets, firearms, and ammunition to trade with the Chinook.

Soon after Jane, the British ship Ruby under Captain Charles Bishop sailed into the Columbia. The ship traded for furs for eleven days. When the Chinook ran out of furs, the British traded for clamons, a kind of body armor made by the Chinook. These were in high demand by the Indian nations farther up the Pacific coast. The captain noted in his journal:

“The Sea Otter skins procured here, are of an Excellent Quality and large size, but they are not in abundance and the Natives themselves set great value on them.”

Captain Bishop invited Chief Comcomly to spend the night aboard the ship and provided him with a fine coat and trousers. Comcomly then led a Chinook expedition 300 miles upriver to obtain more clamons. Some of these were obtained by less than peaceful trading.

Over the next two decades, Comcomly solidified his leadership among the Chinook bands using a combination of trading skills, diplomacy, and marriage. Some writers report that he had a wife from nearly every tribe in the confederation as well as some outside of the confederacy. With regard to his physical appearance, Comcomly is generally described as being short and blind in one eye.

In 1805, the American Corps of Discovery under the leadership of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark reached the mouth of the Columbia River and established their winter camp, Fort Clatsop, on Chinook land. Thanks to the cooperation of the Chinook and the Clatsop, the Americans were provided with the food that enabled them to survive the winter.

While Comcomly did not greet the Americans when they first arrived, he did sit in council with them at his village later. The Americans provided him with a medal and an American flag. Both Clark and Lewis admired Comcomly’s sea-otter robe and tried to bargain for it. Comcomly pointed to Sacagawea’s belt of blue beads and indicated that is what he wanted for the robe. One of the captains then gave Sacagawea a blue coat for her belt and she gave the belt to Comcomly. The journals do not indicate who finally got the robe.

The Americans generally expressed mistrust and contempt for both the Chinook and the Clatsop. There is some indication that Comcomly also mistrusted the Americans as evidenced by the fact that he did not visit their camp.  

In 1810, the Boston ship Albatross under the command of Nathan Winship sailed up the Columbia River past Chinook chief Comcomly’s trading headquarters. About 45 miles upstream, the Bostonians built a fort. As an old hand in the Pacific fur trade, Winship wanted to bypass Comcomly’s monopoly on trade with the Indians of the Columbia River and to establish direct trade with the Indian nations upstream.

Comcomly was insulted by this action, and a delegation of warriors, all fully armed, paddled to the newly established fort. There was some hostile confrontation in the form of shooting and shouting. One of the Bostonians recorded:

“Much to our chagrin we find it impossible to prosecute the business as we intended, and we have concluded to pass farther down. On making this known to the Chinooks they appeared quite satisfied and sold us some furs.”

The Bostonians abandoned their enterprise after eight days.

The first permanent settlement of American traders at the mouth of the Columbia River came in 1811when the Pacific Fur Company established Fort Astoria. The first group of Astorians arrived on the ship Tonquin. Two of the American partners, Duncan McDougal and David Stuart came ashore in a small boat and met with Chief Comcomly. They found Comcomly agreeable to the idea of a trading post for his people.

When the Americans set out to return to their ship, Chief Comcomly pointed out that the rough conditions on the river would make the trip across the Bar difficult in their small vessel. The Americans didn’t listen and set out anyway. Chief Comcomly, knowing that they couldn’t make it, simply followed in one of his canoes. When the traders’ boat capsized, Comcomly rescued them. Comcomly took the wet men ashore, built a fire, dried their clothes, and then took them to a Chinook village. He advised them to wait until conditions were more suitable for the return to their ship.

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The Americans found that the Chinook village consisted of about 30 very large, wood houses. For three days they were entertained in the village (it is assumed that this included having sex with Chinook women). Then Comcomly took his guests back to their ship in his royal canoe. This helped firm up the good relations between Comcomly and the traders.

The trading alliance with Fort Astoria added to the prestige and wealth of the Chinook in general and Comcomly in particular. The power which Comcomly held over the trade along the Columbia can be seen in the log of the Pacific Fur Company. Fort Astoria was visited by few Clatsop and Chehalis and when asked about why they didn’t trade directly:

“They told us that being cautioned by the Chinooks, against coming, as we were very inveterate against their Nation, for their conduct to former Visetors they did not wish to put themselves in our power. This we made them sensible to be an egregious falsehood imposed upon them by the Chinooks, merely to monopolize the Trade….”

In order to solidify the alliance even further, McDougal dispatched one of his clerks with an important message for Comcomly: he wanted to marry one of Comcomly’s daughters. Comcomly, who had many daughters, was pleased to oblige.

Comcomly made almost daily visits to Fort Astoria and was admitted to the most intimate councils of his son-in-law. He was also given his own quarters in the fort.

Word that the United States was at war with Britain reached the Astorians in 1813 along with a party of Nor’westers (traders from the North West Company-owned by the British). The Nor’Westers informed the Astorians that a British war ship was on its way to take over the fort and consequently the Astorians hastily sold the fort to the Nor’westers.

When the British warship Racoon arrived, Fort Astoria was renamed Fort George. Comcomly was soon aboard the Racoon telling the captain that he was delighted to see a British ship on the river. He left with a British flag, coat, hat, and sword. The following day, he wore his new regalia to Fort George. Duncan McDougal, the working partner of the Pacific Fur Company who sold the company to the Nor’Westers, stayed on at the fort in the employ of the Nor’Westers. This meant that Comcomly retained his connections with the trading post.

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In 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and the Nor’westers merged. In 1824, HBC governor George Simpson and Dr. John McLoughlin, the new chief factor for the fort, arrived at Fort George. Simpson was not pleased with either the fort or with Comcomly’s relationship to it. With regard to Comcomly and the Chinook, Simpson said:

“They never take the trouble of hunting and rarely employ their Slaves in that way, they are however keen traders and through their hands nearly the whole of our Furs pass, indeed so tenacious are they of the Monopoly that their jealousy would carry them the length of pillaging and even murdering strangers who come to the Establishment if we did not protect them.”

HBC moved their trading operation 90 miles upriver where they established Fort Vancouver. This moved deprived Comcomly of his role of middleman, thus diminishing his prestige and wealth.

Comcomly had an excellent understanding of the Columbia River and its dangerous Bar. With the increasing number of ships attempting to cross the Bar bringing in trade goods and supply, Comcomly’s skill as a pilot was soon in great demand. His skill as a pilot earned him the respect of the HBC captains as well as Chief Factor McLoughlin.

In 1830, the epidemic known as the “cold sick” (possibly malaria) swept through the Native populations of the region. One of the victims of this epidemic was Comcomly. He was estimated to be in his mid-sixties when he died. His body, together with his war weapons, ceremonial dresses, and other possessions, was placed in a canoe. The canoe was placed on a raised platform near Point Ellice.

Ranald MacDonald, Teacher of English to the Japanese

In 1853 Commodore Matthew C. Perry brought the American Navy to Japan and forced Japan to end its policy of isolation from the rest of the world. In the negotiations, the Japanese government had interpreters who spoke English. Since Japan had isolated itself from the rest of the world and had barred foreigners from their island nation, how did Japanese interpreters come to speak English? The answer to this question lies in the hidden history of American Indians.  

About Japan:

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Japan had closed its doors to the outside world. This was in response to aggressive Christian missionaries from Spain and Portugal who were converting Japanese and threatening traditional Japanese society. The Shogunate expelled the missionaries and then forced the converts to revert to Japanese religions or die.

After 1635 and the introduction of Seclusion laws, foreigners were forbidden to enter Japan and the Japanese were not allowed to leave. Some foreign trade was allowed from the southern port of Nagasaki, but here the foreigners, mostly irreligious Chinese and a few Protestant Dutch, lived in prison-like conditions. Inbound ships were allowed only from China, Korea, and the Netherlands. These ships, known as Red Seal Ships, were required to have a permit from the Shogun.

With the discovery of Hawaii by Americans and Europeans in the late eighteenth century, the establishment of Fort Astoria in the early nineteenth century, and the development of the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest generated a great deal of interest in Japan. A lucrative system of triangular trade developed in which American ships acquired furs from Indians along the coast of present-day Oregon and Washington, then took these furs to China where they were traded for Chinese goods, and then transported their Chinese cargoes to the Northeastern United States. Now if Japan could be added to this trade, American and English businessmen speculated, even greater profits could be made.

In 1822, John Quincy Adams urged that:

“it was the duty of Christian nations to open Japan, and that it was the duty of Japan to respond to the demands of the world, as no nation had a right to withhold its quota to the general progress of mankind.”

Ranald MacDonald:

Ranald MacDonald was born near present-day Astoria, Oregon in 1824. His mother was generally called Princess Raven or Princess Sunday. Her Chinook name was Koale’xoa and her father was  the prominent Chinook leader Comcomly MacDonald’s father, of Scots heritage, was Archibald McDonald, the Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Shortly after he was born, the Hudson’s Bay Company moved its operations from Fort George (now Astoria, Oregon) 90 miles upstream to Fort Vancouver. As a M├ętis child in a fur trading community and household, he grew up hearing a mixture of languages-French, English, Gaelic, Chinook, Iroquois, and other Indian languages. Thus he was able to quickly adapt to different cultures.

In 1833, the Japanese ship Hojun-maru washed ashore near Cape Flattery. The ship had set sail more than a year before from the Japanese port of Toba with a cargo of rice and ceramics. A storm blew the ship off course. When the crippled junk made landfall, the Makah captured three Japanese sailors. The Hudson’s Bay Company bought the sailors from the Makah hoping to use them to open up trading with the Japanese. As a child growing up in the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post of Fort Vancouver, he heard many stories about Japan and about the Japanese sailors who had been shipwrecked.

For hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, ships from Japan and China had been riding the Kuroshio (Black) Current from Asia to North America. The Hojun-Maru was not the first crippled Asian ship to make the trip, nor would it be the last. MacDonald, like many others, felt that his Native American ancestry was linked somehow to Japan. The stories of the Japanese ships coming to North America nourished within him the dream of visiting this island nation.

As an aside, it should be noted that the Hudson’s Bay Company, once they had purchased the Japanese sailors from the Makah, transported them first to Fort Vancouver in present-day Washington, and then to London. In London, they were placed on a ship with Christian missionaries to return them to Japan with the hope of opening up Japan to both trade and Christianity. The Japanese, however, fired upon the vessel and refused to allow it to land.

Ranald MacDonald started his formal education by attending a Hudson’s Bay Company school at Fort Vancouver, Washington. At the age of ten he was then sent to the Hudson’s Bay Company school at the Red River Settlement in Manitoba (Canada). After graduating from school, he became a bank clerk apprentice, but soon quit, journeyed to New York City, and looked for a ship to take him to Japan. Failing to find such a ship, he went to Europe and later to San Francisco as a sailor.

One of his shipmates describes him this way:

“a man of about five feet, seven inches; thick set; straight hair and dark complexion…He was a good sailor, well-educated, a firm mind, well calculated for the expedition upon which he embarked.”

In 1848, Ranald MacDonald made a deal with the captain of a U.S. whaling ship in Hawaii. The ship carried him across the Pacific. After successfully taking a number of whales near Japan, MacDonald purchased from the captain a small boat rigged for sailing. With supplies for 36 days and located about five miles from the nearest island, he bid farewell to the ship to set out on his adventure.

He came ashore on Rishiri Island in northern Japan. When he landed he was met not by Japanese but by Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan. The Ainu, whose men have beards and abundant body hair and whose women tattooed their upper lips, do not look Japanese. The Ainu, after welcoming him, turned him over to the Japanese authorities. The first word spoken by the high-ranking Japanese official who first interviewed him was Nippon-jin (Japan-man, indicating that MacDonald looked Japanese).

The Japanese took him to Nagasaki. Here he spent six months as a prisoner. The question of his citizenship at this point in time is interesting: he was Chinook, an American Indian nation, because of his mother; he had been born in Astoria when the British flag was flying there and his father was British; he had been educated in Canada; but at the time of his capture, Astoria had just become a part of the United States.

During his time in Nagasaki he taught English to the Japanese interpreters, Moriyama and Tokojiro, who would later carry out the negotiations with Commodore Perry. He would later write:

“Without boast, I may say that I picked up their language easily, many of their words sounding familiar to me-possibly through my maternal ancestry.”

He also wrote:

“In look, facial features, etc. I was not unlike them; my sea life and rather dark complexion, moreover giving me their general colour-a healthy bronze.”

He was deported from Japan in 1849, but instead of returning to the United States or Canada, he continued traveling around the world. He spent some time working at various jobs in British Columbia and in 1882 moved to the old Hudson’s Bay Company trading post of Fort Colville in Washington.

MacDonald wrote a book about his adventures in Japan and in 1853 left the original manuscript with a friend of his father’s, Malcolm McLeod, in Ottawa. He did not communicate with McLeod again for 25 years. By 1887, he had prepared a second draft of the manuscript and a third by 1891. At this time, however, no publisher was willing to produce the book as public interest in Japan had faded.

By 1891 he had returned to Astoria, Oregon where he was respected as the only lineal descendent of chief Comcomly. He died in 1894 on the Colville Reservation in Washington. As he died in his niece’s arms, his last words were “Sayonara, my dear, sayonara…”

Today, the Japanese remember Ranald McDonald as the “first teacher of English.” There is a monument to him in Nagasaki, Japan. In addition, there is another monument to him in Astoria, Oregon with the inscription written in Japanese.

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The Cedar People (Photo Diary)

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The Heritage Museum in Astoria, Oregon has one gallery devoted to displays and interpretation of the Native peoples of the Columbia River: Clatsop, Chinook, Kathlament, Klatskanie, and Tillamook. The Clatsop occupied the areas of Astoria, Warrenton, and down the coast to Seaside. The Klatskanie lived inland along the coastal range. The Kathlamet lived farther upriver. The Tillamook and Nehalem lived on the coast south of Seaside. To the north of the river lived the Chinook, Wahkiakum, and Shoalwater. Shown below are photographs of some of the displays.  

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Fishing was an important economic activity. Shown above is a fishing spear.

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Shown above is a net weight used for anchoring fishing nets.

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The Indian nations of the lower Columbia were well-known for their basketry skills (see above).

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One of the unique features of the Indian cultures of the Northwest Coast is the basketry hats such as the one shown above, often used to protect the wearer from rain.

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Shown above is a picture of food preparation.

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One of the cultural practices of the Indian people of the Lower Columbia was cranial deformation: the flattening of the head. As an infant, the child would be placed in a cradleboard which had a board that came down over the child’s forehead. The board would then be tied firmly in place. The result, seen in the painting above, was the high forehead. This custom was practiced especially by more prestigious members of the tribes.

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The Indian nations of the Lower Columbia traditionally buried their dead in raised canoes along with all their worldly possessions. The name of the dead person was never spoken again. A burial in a raised box is shown in the painting above.

Language:  

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The Chinook, Clatsop, and Kathlamet languages all belong to the Chinookan language family. The Tillamook language, spoken farther south, belongs to the Salish language family, and the Klatskanie language, spoken to the east, belongs to the Athapascan language family.

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Shown above is Charles Cultee (1850-1897). According to the display:

“Little would be known about the Lower Chinook proper and Kathlamet languages once spoken along the Lower Columbia River if not for Charles Cultee. He was one of the last speakers of those two languages.”

Franz Boas, often regarded as the “Father of American Anthropology,” interviewed Cultee over a period of several years beginning in 1890.  Cultee told Boas the old stories in Chinook proper and in Kathlamet. Boas wrote these stories down and published them along with an English translation as Chinook Texts (1894) and Kathlamet Texts (1901). As a result of their collaboration, the languages, myths, and traditions of both groups were preserved.

Housing:

The Indians of the Lower Columbia River lived in villages of 5 to 20 permanent longhouses. The houses, made from cedar planks and cedar logs, ranged in size from 20 to 60 feet in length and from 14 to 20 feet in width. The roof was a pitched gable with a long overhanging eve. The houses were built over a pit that was 4-5 feet deep and roughly the same size as the dwelling.

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The doorway to the house (shown above) was an oval shaped opening just large enough for one person to pass through at a time.

Several families would live in a single longhouse. Bunks made from cedar planks lined the interior of the outside walls and served as shelving and storage areas as well as providing sleeping quarters. A single house might be home to 20 to 50 people. Cooking was done over a large fire pit in the center of the house. Large houses might have more than one hearth.

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Shown above is the inside of the longhouse at the Heritage Museum.

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The Heritage Museum is shown above.