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Chasing the Multnomah Myth
Author: Melissa Steineger
Posted: May 2, 2005

A history professor uncovers the stories behind the ubiquitous Oregon name. 

Nose around the city of Portland and you can find many references to Multnomah. There is the county, of course, and its myriad agencies. There is Multnomah Village, Multnomah Athletic Club, even a statue of Chief Multnomah in Washington Park. Just a short distance away, Multnomah Falls lures tourists by the thousands each summer. The name is everywhere, but just who—or what—was Multnomah?

For Ann Fulton, adjunct professor of history, this question wouldn’t go away.

Fulton teaches American history, and about two years ago she realized she was avoiding the history of Native Americans in Oregon; it was an area she knew little about.

She decided to educate herself and began talking with Indian people and reading. Focusing on Oregon’s settlement era, the 1840s through the 1860s, she read Indian accounts, captains’ logs, settlers’ journals, diaries, and many, many newspapers.

A name continually cropped up: Chief Multnomah. Some of the references pointed to his existence as an archetype only, while Indian sources assured her that he was a great chieftain who dominated the Columbia River Valley in the 18th century. Fulton was hooked on the research and kept digging.

Frederick V. Homan, fourth president of the Oregon Historical Society, wrote in 1910, “Multnomah was not the name of a chief nor of any one Indian, but it may have been used as a nickname.” Another president, Omar C. Spencer, agreed, writing in 1953 that “Chief Multnomah is pure fiction.”

Fulton suspected that their verdicts were handed down simply because they discounted Indian oral history.

Those who lived closer to the legendary chief’s time saw—or heard—it differently. Very differently.

“Before the pale-face appeared, this country had been the home of the powerful Mult-no-mah, the most noted chieftain of his time, who counted his warriors by the thousands, in the days before they had horses.” Thus wrote Andrew Jackson Splawn, based on stories he had heard from Native Americans.

Splawn was six in 1851, when his family settled in Linn County. He and other settler children were probably eager listeners when Indians repeated the stories of their tribes. From their accounts, written when they became adults, and other corroborating sources, Fulton, has pieced together the life of Chief Multnomah.

For 40 years in the 1700s, Multnomah ruled from the Cascades to the Pacific Coast as chief of the Willamettes and war chief of the Wauna confederacy. This vast network included tribes from areas now known as Okanagan Valley, Puget Sound, Willamette Valley, and the Oregon Coast.

Within the Wauna confederacy, the Willamettes were the most powerful. One Native American recalled in the 1880s that “Once, long before my father’s time and before his father’s time, all the tribes were as one tribe and the Willamettes were tyee (chief).”

“Over sixty or seventy petty tribes stretched the wild empire,” wrote Frederic Balch, and they were “welded together by the pressure of common foes and held in the grasp of the hereditary war-chief of the Willamettes.”

That would be Multnomah.

Balch, born in 1861, grew up along the Willamette and Columbia rivers listening to the Native Americans and their accounts of the days before white men arrived. He, too, heard stories of Chief Multnomah and fictionalized the stories in his novel, Bridge of the Gods: A Romance of Indian Oregon.

Chief Multnomah’s headquarters were at Sauvie Island, a strategic position of power at the confluence of two main transportation routes. As late as 1854, some Willamettes still lived on the island.

William Tappan, the Washington Territory’s southern Indian district sub-agent at the time, wrote, “Among them are two or three of the once original occupants of the soil, representatives of the once bold and numerous tribe called the ‘warriors’ nation’ (whose) head quarters were where the town of St. Helens now is and who there established a sort of Custom House, leveeing and collecting taxes of all who passed whether white or Indian. But four or five of that great tribe are still alive.”

Another of those who listened to the stories about Chief Multnomah was Dr. Elijah White, Oregon’s first federal agent of Indian affairs. White later wrote about the stories he had heard in the 1850s.

“It seems the country about the (Willamette) falls was once inhabited by a tribe, at the head of which was a chief, whose standing was similar to that of dictator,” wrote White. “He was, in fact, their idol; and to him were rendered honors as were never before granted a single chieftain in the western world. When he attended council, he was borne thither upon a mat litter, on the shoulders of eight men. It is said to be about 70 years since this chief expired, and he is still in tradition remembered and deeply mourned by the scattered remnant of his tribe.”

The eruption of Mt. Hood in the 1780s may have led to the decline of Chief Multnomah and the Willamettes, concludes Fulton after reading Indian accounts. The mountain’s eruption may have destroyed the Bridge of the God, a land bridge that some think once crossed the Columbia River, and that Indians believe was the Willamettes’s spirit power.

When the expedition of English Captain George Vancouver reached the area in 1792, its members heard nothing about a Chief Multnomah. However, historians have found that early written accounts of the Northwest missed other important people and places.

In 1805 Lewis and Clark described a village of Native Americans known as “mulknomahs” encamped on Sauvie Island, and they originally called the Willamette River the Mulknoma. Multnomah County takes its designation from these Native American words.

Multnomah’s story might have ended long ago, except for the Indian people who knew it and the settler children who later wrote it down.

Following publication in 1890, Balch’s Bridge of the Gods became a bestseller in Portland and raised white awareness of Chief Multnomah, at least temporarily.

Balch, as was the style of his day, romanticized Multnomah as a “noble savage,” writing that, “His dark, grandly impassive face, with its imposing regularity of feature, showed a penetration that read everything, a reserve that revealed nothing, a dominating power that gave strength and command to every line.”

Based on the book’s popularity and the belated interest of white reformers in Indian people, sculptor Hermon A. MacNeil in 1904 created The Coming of the White Man, a bronze statute of two Indians, the older of whom is identified as Chief Multnomah, now in Washington Park. MacNeil later produced statuettes of Chief Multnomah in the noble savage style.

But despite these tangible legacies, over time memories faded.

Chief Multnomah needs recognition, says Fulton, to honor a Native king of Portland and the Indian heritage of the city. Portland began as an Indian place, and Indian people, both past and present, have contributed to its development.

By relying on Indian oral histories and written records, Fulton has written a paper hoping to expand awareness of Chief Multnomah. An early draft has a list of footnotes almost as long as the paper.

Fulton is sensitive to being an outsider both to historians—since her area of expertise is not Native American history—and, more importantly to Native Americans—since she is “only a sixteenth Choctaw.”

“I don’t feel that what I’m saying is more important than what anyone else says,” Fulton explains, “but I have the luxury to do the research, and so I’ll toss what I have into the pile.”

And she’s convinced the effort is important.

“You live in a county named Multnomah,” she says. “You’ve heard there may have been a tribe named Multnomah. We’re using this identity. We’ve appropriated and capitalized on Chief Multnomah, and we don’t even believe in him?”