The Hoko River Complex

The Hoko River originates in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains (Washington State) and flows for about 25 miles to the Pacific Ocean. It flows into the Strait of Juan de Fuca about 16 miles east of the Makah town of Neah Bay. By 3,000 years ago, the Makah were using the area around the mouth of the river for a wide range of sea, river, and forest resources. The Hoko River Archaeological Complex is composed of three site areas: (1) a riverbank wet site, (2) dry campsites adjacent to the wet site, and (3) a rock shelter at the mouth of the river.

The Hoko River sites first came to the attention of archaeologists in 1967 when people reported to Washington State University that they were finding artifacts in the area. An archaeological survey found that a large site ran some 600 feet along the river and that much of the site had already slumped into the river. Full-scale investigation, however, did not begin until 1977. Initial financial support was provided by the Makah Tribal Council and the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. Some additional support was provided by Jean Auel, the author of a series of archaeological-based novels.

Wet sites provide some interesting challenges for archaeologists. Writing in the Handbook of North American Indians, Gary Wessen from the Makah Cultural and Research Center describes the Hoko River wet site:“Most of the wet site is situated within the range of tidal fluctuations, and much of it can only be examined during low tides.”

Ruth Kirk and Richard Daugherty, in their book Archaeology in Washington, describe the problems in working with the wet site:  “Excavation entailed pumping water from the river and spraying it out through garden hoses to gently wash artifacts free from the riverbank mud that held them. Conventional troweling, no matter how careful, might damage a wooden or fiber artifact before it could be noticed.”

Wet sites, however, have an advantage as the artifacts have stayed wet for millennia and have been spared from decay. Once they are excavated from the site, they must remain wet. For preservation and analysis, the artifacts are bathed in polyethylene glycol which soaks into the waterlogged tissue, replacing the water with wax.

The excavation at the Hoko River Wet Site yielded many fiber artifacts, including baskets, hat, mats, nets, and cordage. Nearly 70% of the material from the site was cordage. Some of the baskets uncovered at the site had been coarsely woven which allowed water to drain out. According to the Makah elders from Neah Bay, these baskets would have been used for packing salmon from fishing weirs upriver to drying racks at the camp at the river mouth.

One of the other interesting finds was a fishnet with two-inch mesh. This artifact was uncovered in deposits which dated to 3,200 years ago. Ruth Kirk and Richard Daugherty report:  “Scanning electron microscope examination of cell structure identified its fiber as split spruce root or bough, most likely bough, which is stronger than root and absorbs water less readily.”

Ethnographies of Northwest Coast Indian nations, such as the Makah, report that one of the symbols of nobility, of high-class status, was a woven hat with a knob on top. At the wet site, five of these hats were recovered, which suggests that social stratification in this area was much older than previously thought.

The wet site also yielded a number examples of tule mats which were used for many different things including mattresses, canoe cushions, partitions within the long houses, and so on. As a part of the archaeological efforts to understand the past, Makah tribal elders instructed the archaeological field school students in making tule mats. Ruth Kirk and Richard Daugherty report:  “The goal of the early Hoko River people must have been to make high-quality, long-lasting mats, and therefore, even an experienced mat-maker must have needed three or four days to gather materials for a single mat, prepare them, make the string, and do the sewing.”

Tule mats were used to cover the sides of temporary shelters. The postholes found at the dry site were used to estimate the size of the temporary shelters and it was determined that six to eight mats would have been needed for these shelters. Each mat would have been about four feet by eight feet.

At many sites along the Northwest Coast archaeologists have found small stone blades known as microliths. It was assumed that these microliths had been hafted in some fashion. At the wet site, the archaeologists found hafted knives in which thumbnail-size stone flakes had been placed in between five-inch splints of red cedar and then bound with spruce root and wild cherry bark. Working with the Makah elders, experimental archaeology showed that these knives were used in butchering fish.

At the dry campsite, archaeologists uncovered the bones of rockfish, cod, dogfish, flounder, halibut, salmon, and other fish. The deep-sea species are evidence of off-shore fishing. This means that the people who used the Hoko River sites had watercraft. In addition to fish bones, the archaeologists also found several hundred wooden fishing hooks. These fishhooks date from 1,700 to 3,000 years old and show little change through time.

The dry campsites, located in the forested area back from the river, are composed of three sites dating to 3,400 years ago, 3,100 years ago, and 1,700 years ago. Stone debris shows that some toolmaking was done here. There are also stone-lined storage pits.

The rock shelter at the mouth of the river dates to about 1,000 years ago and shows evidence of seasonal use. The rock shelter had been originally formed through river and wave action and over time had been uplifted by 30 feet, which made it usable for human occupation. Ruth Kirk and Richard Daugherty report:  “The placement of the hearths suggested that people lived in the northern part of the rock shelter, where prevailing winds would tend to clear out smoke or blow it to fish-drying racks set up in the southern part of the cave.”

Sea mammal bones found at this site include fur seal (69% of the sea mammal bones), elephant seal, porpoise, and whale.


The Makah, whose traditional homeland is on the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington, are the western-most Indian nation in the lower forty-eight states of the United States. The name “Makah,” given to this tribe by the neighboring S’Klallam, refers to the generosity of their feasts. The Makah name for themselves means “People Who Live by the Rocks and Seagulls.” Linguistically and culturally, the Makah are related to the Native peoples on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

The Makah village of Ozette is located at the westernmost point of the Olympic Peninsula. The village was established about 50 CE at a prime location for intercepting migrating gray whales as well as fur seals and Steller sea lions. The Makah were a whaling people and the archaeological findings from Ozette show that 75% of the meat and oil came from whales. Northern fur seals were also important.

In 1700, an earthquake along the Pacific coast triggered a mudslide which covered Ozette. Five houses, one of which was unoccupied, were buried. Journalist Ruth Kirk and archaeologist Richard Daugherty, in their book Archaeology in Washington, write:  “The Ozette houses were large—60-70 feet long and about 35 feet wide, dimensions typical of Northwest Coast houses and like them built of plants split from cedar logs and lashed to a framework of upright cedar posts.”

The cedar planks used in the walls were up to 2 1/2 feet wide. The wall planks were smoothed with an adze and some were incised with whale, thunderbird, and wolf motifs. Each house was occupied by six to ten individual families and visiting relatives. James Swan spent time with the Makah in 1859 and remarks of their houses:  “They are very comfortable dwellings, and contain several families each. Every family has its separate fire, the smoke of which serves not only to dry the fish and blubber suspended over it, but causes an intense smarting to the eyes of the visitors who are unaccustomed to its acrid fumes.”

Ruth Kirk and Richard Daugherty describe the Ozette houses this way:  “Each family had its own living area, readily detectable because of separate cooking hearths. Raised platforms ringed the living space, serving as beds and for storage.”

In 1970, a storm and tidal erosion began to uncover the remains of Ozette. As hikers from the nearby Olympic National Park were walking away with valuable artifacts, The Makah Tribe decided that the site had be to scientifically excavated and tribal chairman Ed Claplanhoo called archaeologist Richard Daugherty at Washington State University and asked him to reopen the archaeological investigation at the site.  For the next 11 years, archaeologists from Washington State University working with the Makah recovered more than 55,000 artifacts. Many people feel that this was one of the most important archaeological digs in North America, not only because of the artifacts uncovered, but also because of the involvement of the Makah people in the process. Ruth Kirk and Richard Daugherty report:  “Makah students took part in the fieldwork and the preservation of artifacts; Makah elders visited the site and shared memories and information regarding various objects.”

With regard to the agreement between the Makah and the archaeologists, Patricia Erickson, in her book Voices of a Thousand People: The Makah Cultural & Research Center, reports:  “No artifacts would leave the physical jurisdiction of the tribe to be displayed, nor would any prehistoric loss of life associated with the Ozette mudslide be mentioned publicly, if any were discovered.”

The Makah site is what archaeologists call a “wet site” in which the mud which covered the village also served to protect organic material from decay by sealing out the air. As a result, the archaeologists were able to recover things like a piece of a dog-wool blanket and a braid of human hair.

Most prehistoric archaeological sites in North America are places which were abandoned by the Indian people who had lived there. As a result, archaeologists have to interpret daily life by the trash that people left behind. Ozette, however, is more like Pompeii in Italy in that the mudslide covered up a living village giving the archaeologists a glimpse of the daily lives of the people.

Once archaeologists have dug a site, the next task includes preserving the artifacts, interpreting what they mean, and then displaying them to the public. For most archaeological sites in the United States, this means transporting the artifacts to a distant museum or university where non-Indian people take over the tasks of interpreting meaning and displaying the artifacts to the public. In the nineteenth century the emphasis was on displaying artifacts, but this has changed: most museums over the past fifty years or so want to explain the artifacts to the public, to use them in telling a story. The story, however, is often a non-Indian view of the American Indian past. Patricia Erickson, in her book Voices of a Thousand People: The Makah Cultural & Research Center, writes:  “In the history of the United States, and of many European societies, the museum has been one of the places where particular versions of knowledge have been legitimated and others have been categorized as primitive folklore or myth.”

The Makah did not want their heritage sent to a distant facility: they wanted to retain it on their own reservation so that their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren would be able to understand their own past and the teachings of the elders. In 1979 the tribe opened the Makah Cultural and Research Center to house the artifacts from the archaeological excavation at Ozette. The museum is more than a display of artifacts for tourists: it is intended to inform and educate the community about the ancestral Makah. It is about remembering ancestors, traditions, language, and values.

With regard to language, museum collections have been traditionally arranged and indexed with regard to material culture which would include categories such as containers, hunting gear, and so on. However, in the development of the Makah museum it was soon realized that these categories were English language cognitive categories. Thus the collection was organized on the basis of Makah cognitive categories instead of English categories. Patricia Erickson reports:  “Makah conceptual categories became used not only for organizing the collection but also for stimulating reflection on Makah worldviews codified in their language.”  Bilingual labels are used in the Museum’s displays.

Today, the Makah Cultural and Research Center is one of more than 100 tribal museums in the United States (there are also about 50 in Canada). About 20,000 non-Makah visitors per year get to see and experience the Makah heritage and the materials from Ozette.


Non-Indians and the Makah, 1788 to 1855

Non-Indians first encountered the Makah in 1788 when the British sloop Princess Royal anchored at the Makah village of Classet on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The Makah, who occupy the western-most part of what is now the lower forty-eight states of the United States, had lived in this territory for thousands of years. Unlike the other Indian nations of coastal Washington and the Puget Sound area, the Makah are not a Salish-speaking group, but are instead the southern-most members of the Wakashan language family. Linguistically, the Makah are most closely related to the Nootka (Nuu-cha-nulth) of British Columbia.  

Two years later, the Spanish explorer Manual Quimper traded with the Makah under chief Tutusi at Neah Bay. The following year, the Spanish explorer Francisco de Liza visited the Makah in Neah Bay and traded 33 sheets of copper for 20 small boys and girls. Slavery was common among the tribe of the Pacific Northwest long before European contact. Among the Makah, slaves were captured in warfare, or sometimes they were purchased from other tribes who had acquired them by capture.

In 1792, the Spanish returned with the intent of establishing a permanent colony on Makah territory on the Olympic Peninsula. Under the Doctrine of Discovery, the Spanish, as a Christian nation, felt that they had legal, moral, and religious rights in claiming Indian land. The colonists of Nunez Gaona came to describe the Makah as warlike, thievish, and treacherous. As a result, they soon abandoned the colony. José Cardero, the Spanish artist with the colony, painted the portrait of Chief Tatoosh and his two wives.

In 1828, Captain Henry Kellet landed at a Makah village for fresh water. He met Chief Dee-ah. Kellet was unable to pronounce the name correctly and recorded the site as Neah Bay.

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.

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.

In 1849, Samuel Hancock established a trading post among the Makah at Neah Bay. The Makah had not requested the trading post and were unhappy about this intrusion on their land. They tried to make Hancock leave and threatened to kill him. Hancock threatened to contact the American government for military support and the Makah backed off their threats.

The non-Indians brought in more than manufactured trade goods, such as metal axes, guns, glass beads, and other items: they also brought with them epidemic diseases such as smallpox, measles, mumps, influenza, and more. These new diseases devastated Indian communities.

In the 1850s, smallpox ravaged the Makah, decimating their population. There was not a single epidemic, but several. Many elders died before they could transmit their cultural knowledge to others. In 1852, the Makah abandoned the village of Biheda because of smallpox. The residents moved to nearby Neah Bay.

Trading vessels from San Francisco carried smallpox to the coastal tribes of Washington and Oregon in 1853. An estimated 2,000-3,000 Indians died. One witness described the impact of the epidemic on the Makah at Neah Bay, Washington:

“The beach for a distance of eight miles was literally strewn with the dead bodies of these people.”

On the heels of the smallpox epidemic, and reeling from the deaths of so many tribal members, the Makah had to deal with another new disease: American greed. Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens imposed a series of treaties on the coastal Indian nations in which they gave up much of their homeland and moved out of the way of American settlement.

The Americans concluded the Treaty of Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula in 1855. The Makah agreed to the establishment of a reservation at Neah Bay. None of the five main Makah villages were included within the new reservation. While the Makah had been successful fishing people for thousands of years, the United States wanted them to become farmers on land which is not suited for agriculture.

As in other treaty councils, Stevens told the Makah to select a single man to serve as their supreme chief even though this had never been their traditional way. When they declined to do so, he simply appointed Tse-kow-wootl, an Ozette, as supreme chief.

The Makah, whose orientation was toward the sea, were willing to sign the treaty as long as it allowed them to continue to venture out onto the Pacific Ocean to fish and hunt whales so that they could support their people. The treaty called for the Makah to be paid $30,000 in goods.

In understanding the treaty, it must be kept in mind that the Makah had been devastated by smallpox and many of their traditional leaders were dead. Many of those who signed the treaty were not the traditional leaders.

Makah Longhouse photo DSCN8029_zps8183a03f.jpg

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Shown above is the longhouse in front of the Makah Cultural and Research Center.

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The figures shown above are in front of the Makah Cultural and Research Center.

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Shown above is a photograph of a Makah woman by Edward Curtis.

Russian Castaways Among the Indians

The Russian-American Company (RAC) was formed in 1799 as a quasi-governmental monopoly to control the North American fur trade and rule the Russian colony in Alaska. Within a decade, the company managers began to expand their operations down the Pacific coast from their headquarters at New Arckhangel (present-day Sitka, Alaska).  

In 1808 the Russian schooner Sv. Nikolai (St. Nicholas), owned by the Russian-American Company, sailed from New Arkhangel to explore Vancouver Island and then the Washington/Oregon coast to the south. The schooner carried 22 people, including five men and two women who are identified as Aleut from Kodiak Island. Also on board is the wife of the navigator (who served as the schooner’s captain). The schooner was to barter with Natives for sea otter pelts and to discover a site for a permanent Russian post in the Oregon country. However, the ship was driven ashore on a sandy beach near the mouth of the Quilayute River near the present-day town of La Push, Washington on the present Quileute Indian Reservation.

After salvaging part of their cargo, the Russians clashed with the Quileute, abandoned most of their supplies, and fled south into Hoh country. Timofei Tarakanov, one of the Russians on the ship, would later describe their encounter with the Quileute this way:

“We killed three of the enemy, one of who they dragged away. How many we wounded I do not know. As spoils we acquired a large number of spears, raincoats, hats, and other things left at the scene of the battle.”

Their initial encounter with the Hoh was somewhat friendly. However, it was soon evident that the Hoh wanted to capture the group to sell as slaves to other coastal Indians. In a brief encounter, two men and two women, including the Russian wife of the party’s leader, were captured by the Hoh. The rest of the Russians and Aleut fled toward the interior to escape the coastal Indians.

Away from the coast, they spent a miserable winter struggling to avoid starvation. On a number of occasions, they plundered native camps, occasionally fighting with small groups of natives. They vainly sought some way they might be rescued.

The following year, the Russians and Aleut returned to the coast hoping that they would find some way of being rescued. They found that the wife of their leader had been sold by the Hoh to the Makah. They actually made contact with her and found that she was fairly comfortable and content. When she found that they were planning a raid to rescue her, she rejected the idea. Instead, she urged the Russians to surrender to her captors. Timofei Tarakanov reports it this way:

“In horror, distress, and anger, we heard her say firmly that she was satisfied with her condition, did not want to join us, and that she advised us to surrender ourselves to this people.”

A few of the Russians surrendered to the Makah and the rest were captured by the Hoh and the Quileute.

In 1810, an American captain sailing for the Russian-American Company paid a large ransom to the Makah to rescue thirteen of the survivors from the shipwreck of the Sv. Nickolei. Another American captain purchased one or two more survivors from the Indians in the Columbia River area. The wife of the Russian leader died before she could be ransomed and at least one Russian is reported to have gone native.