Life in Baker County, Oregon


Photo courtesy John Collins.
     The basic social unit of the people was the family. Society was based upon the principles of equality anti cooperation. Among the Northern Paiute peoples, small dispersed household groups of related families were the basic independent economic and political unit for most of the year. Influential men directed activities among families associated at winter encampments, but generally the people had no formal leader. Alliances among groups were fluid. Small family dwellings were thatched or sagebrush mat-covered brush conical lodges. Women manufactured pottery, baskets, and net carrying bags. Plant seeds, roots, small game and fish were an important part of the diet. Antelope and jack R rabbits were hunted by communal drives into corrals or nets.
     Among the Plateau peoples, villages composed of 35-100 people would select councils, with leaders or headmen selected for their outstanding personal characteristics. Neither the village council nor headman could enforce decisions, but relied upon the cooperation of the people. Clusters of villages formed bands and groups of bands formed composite bands. Councils formed by band headman selected leaders to provide special guidance and advice. Each band and village was considered autonomous, yet bound together by common ties of language, custom, culture, and areas of traditional resource use.
     During the spring the people began to move to upland prairies and streams, where the women dug roots with a digging stick. Roots
were baked in earth ovens and dried for winter storage. Along the upper reaches of streams and rivers the people fished the annual runs and prepared fish for winter consumption. Platforms and fish trap walls constructed of networks of sticks or stone were employed. Fish were also gathered in scoop nets and taken with harpoon spears. Important fishing and plant gathering areas for the .Indians included Pine Valley where camas was abundant, Eagle Creek, and the upper reaches of the Powder River. In late summer and early fall the people moved as small groups into higher country to gather berries, late roots and to hunt game.

     Some of the hunters traveled to the subalpine heights of the mountain ridges overlooking the Powder River Valley. The use of the bow and arrow for hunting was well established, as indicated by the presence of small arrowpoints in archaeological sites. Ignimbrite, similar in appearance to obsidian, was available for tool manufacture from the Dooley Mountain area. Native bison, mountain sheep, bear, elk, deer, and antelope were hunted. Throughout the year, the diet consisted of approximately 50% fish, 30% plant foods (particularly roots and berries), and 20% game animals. As the year progressed, people began to return to the lower elevation winter villages.

     Although there is no documented evidence of pithouses in Baker Valley during this period of time, based upon the known archaeological evidence, it is certain that the Powder River valley was occupied and used by Native Americans through the last 10,000 years. The people may not have lived in the Baker Valley during the winter, and so perhaps did not leave evidence of their pithouse lodges; but they camped along the edge of the valley to hunt game and waterfowl and to gather plants.

     About 1730 the people of the Blue Mountains, Columbia and Snake Rivers acquired the horse from the Shoshone, which led to some dramatic changes in their lifeways. The southern Plateau people became well known for their fine horse herds. In the 1700's the native bison of the Baker County area were probably hunted until they disappeared. The horse enabled the people to travel to the eastern plains to hunt buffalo and acquire some of the cultural trappings of the Plains Indians; and to travel to rendezvous during the fur trade years. Groups also traveled to important salmon fishing locations along the Columbia River, where they traded well made basketry and bags, camas, and biscuitroot for items they wished to acquire from more western groups.

     The arrival of the emigrant wagon trains in Baker County in the decades between 18401860 brought many new changes to the native peoples who had lived here so successfully for thousands of years. Euro-American diseases brought by the settlers ravaged the native populations; and European concepts of land ownership and social customs were alien to the native people. Conflicts with the new settlers, and the deaths of those at the Whitman Mission, led to the 1855 treaty which established the first reservations for these Plateau peoples. Most of the land in Baker County is included within the area where the people retained treaty rights to hunt, fish, gather plants and graze stock.

     Oregon Trail pioneer diaries contain only a few references to Indian groups living in Baker County. A small group of Indians was noted living along Alder Creek near Durkee, in an 1850's pioneer record. When pioneers traveled through Baker County during the late summer - early fall, most of the Indian groups were probably hunting and gathering in the mountain foothills, avoiding the emigrant route, and were thus not seen by the pioneers.

     The rush for gold in Northeast Oregon increased the intensity of difficulties between the Native Americans and the immigrants, leading to treaty violations by gold seekers and settlers. Many local histories record brief conflicts with small Indian groups during the years following gold discovery in Baker County. Escalating troubles led to the Nez Perce War of 1877. The Bannock-Paiute War of 1878, in which some Cayuse were involved, spilling over from Idaho and southeast Oregon into Baker County. After these wars, most of the Native Americans were confined to smaller reservations or moved from their traditional areas. As late as 1882, land surveyors noted the presence of a small cluster of Indian lodges along Daly Creek, a tributary of the Powder River. Local family histories indicate that small groups of Indians continued to travel about in Baker County after the establishment of reservations, but they never regained control of their ancient homelands. (B : Mary Oman, Archaeologist, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Baker, Oregon.)

Baker County Soil and Drainage Description

     The Powder Basin comprises more than 2 million acres, including almost all of Baker County and a small part of Union County. The basin is bounded on the west by the Elkhorn and Blue mountains, on the north by the Wallowa Mountains, and on the east by the Snake River Canyon. The divide between Burnt River and Willow Creek of the Malheur River Basin forms the southern boundary.

Valley Lands

     Valley lands are scattered throughout the basin and vary a great deal in precipitation and temperature. Even within Baker Valley itself, the mean annual precipitation ranges from 18 inches on the west side to 9 inches on the east. Pine Valley receives about 21 inches. Valleys within the forested uplands have more precipitation and colder temperatures than those within the grassland uplands. The soils are formed from alluvium on stream flood plains, fans, and terraces. Most flood plains and terraces are nearly level with the youngest alluvium on the lowest surfaces, close to the stream. Older terraces may have steeper slopes cut by erosion.

     The original vegetation has been destroyed in most of the valleys. It ranged from forest in some of the highest and most humid valleys to grassland. The kind of grass and shrub vegetation varied with soil drainage and degree of sodium saturation. Some of the well-drained soils had bluebunch wheatgrass and sagebrush as did the adjacent upland soils. With increasing wetness, giant wildrye and rushes became more important. Greasewood and salt grass were the characteristic plants on alkali soils.

Grassland Uplands

     The grassland upland are in the central, eastern and southern parts of the basin. The mean annual precipitation ranges from 9 to 17 inches. The growing season ranges from 100 to 200 days and the mean annual air temperature from 46 to 531/8 F. The main rocks are basalt, and esite, greenstone, tuff, shale, diorite, limestone, argillite, and stratified, unconsolidated sediments. Deep canyons have been cut by the Snake River and its tributaries, producing steep to very steep side slopes with gently sloping to sloping ridge tops.

     Vegetation consists of grasses and shrubs, primarily sagebrush. The dominant grass on south slopes, especially in areas with lower rainfall, is bluebunch wheatgrass. Idaho fescue tends to be on north slopes, especially in areas with higher rainfall.

Forested Uplands

     The forested uplands are in the northern and western parts of the basin. Mean annual precipitation ranges from 15 to 40 inches, mostly in the form of snow. The growing season is from less then-90 to 120 days, with warm temperatures in the summer months and September. The main rocks are basalt, andesite, quartz diorite, and argillite. The areas have steep and very steep side slopes, cut by dissecting streams, and gently sloping ridge tops.

     The vegetation varies with slope aspect, precipitation, soil depth, and ash content of the soil. North slopes, where volcanic ash from the eruption of Mt. Mazama many years ago is concentrated, produce a mixed forest of Douglas-fir, fir, larch and lodgepole pine. The south slopes at lower elevations and lower precipitation produce stands of ponderosa pine with grass understory. Douglas-fir increases and grass decreases with elevation and precipitation. Very shallow soils have grass and shrub vegetation without trees.

     The ashy soils, mostly on north slopes and some ridge tops is from 15 to 40 inches thick. Soils without a distinct ashy layer in areas of basalt or andesite bedrock are in the Klicker, Hall Ranch, or Rock Creek series, and are 20 to 40 inches deep to bedrock, stony, and commonly forested. Rock Creek soils are very stony, shallow, and lack forest cover.

Partial Soil Descriptions

     Clayey soils are derived mostly from shale, argillite, tuff and greenstone materials, and are formed in Durkee, Brownlee, North Powder, and Keating soils. The Salisbury, Keating, Brownlee, and Nagle soils have darker surface layers and lower lime content than other soils of the grassland uplands.

     Soils of the Virtue, Hibbare, Baker, Hutchinson, and Applegate series occur on older fans and terraces and have silica-cemented hardpans. (Virtue soils are near Keating and Applegate soils are found in Pine Valley.)

     Fan terraces of glacial origin form good soils along the west side of Baker Valley. Haines and Baldock areas are found to be of variable alkali conditions. (Grant Lindsay. Retired, Soil specialist)

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