A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

April 2001



Archaeology of the White River Valley
From myth-time to contemporary time, our world has changed greatly. See two ways of telling this story of change.

by Leonard Forsman and Dennis Lewarch of Larson
Anthropological and Archaeological Services Limited

Glaciers Come and Go
Over the past 5,700 years Indian people in the White River Valley in King County have adapted to a dynamic, changing environment. The valley floodplain between Auburn and the confluence of the White River and former Black River in Renton has been occupied by ice, seawater, then soil and eventually human habitation.

Prior to approximately 5,700 years ago, the White River Valley was a marine fjord that geologists call the Duwamish Embayment. Pleistocene glaciers carved a deep trough during their many advances through the Puget lowland. The valley, or trough, filled with the marine waters of Puget Sound after the last ice retreated north. This massive Cordilleran Ice Sheet ran parallel to the Pacific along the coast of the Americas, and retreated to Canada about 13,000 years ago.

So, after 5,700 years ago, the White River and Green River gradually filled the Duwamish Embayment with sediment. The source of the sediment was the Osceola Mudflow, a massive flow that swept down from the northeast face of Mount Rainier and covered portions of the Enumclaw Plateau with up to 100 feet of clay, sand, and gravel and roughly shaping the valley floor.

The Osceola Mudflow changed the drainage pattern of the White River, which used to flow east through the Buckley area to a confluence with the Puyallup River. Immediately after the Osceola Mudflow, the mouth or delta of the ancestral Duwamish River was near the confluence of the Green River and the White River, in the southern portion of Auburn. Through time, the delta of the ancestral Duwamish River gradually moved north as the Duwamish-Green River Valley filled with sediment.

The initial land surfaces at the river delta were saltwater marshes and levees adjacent to the out flowing or distributary channels of the Duwamish-Green River.



Glacial formation about 20,000 to 18,000 before present,
ice advancing southward. Sea level stood 300 to 400 feet lower
forming a marine basin throughout the Puget Sound area,
and broad flat plains stretching seaward from today's coastal shores.


Glacial formation about 15,000 before present, sea level low
compared to today. River drainages carried enormous run off
 from the glaciers -- forming many of the valleys we know today.


Glacial formation 13,000 to 12,000 before present. The Cordilleran ice
retreats into British Columbia, Southern Puget Sound seems
to have been a lush valley.

Illustrations from Exploring Washington Archaeology


Sea level was within one to two meters of the contemporary elevation of Puget Sound around 5,700 years ago, so the initial delta and floodplain surfaces would have been from three to six feet below the today's ground surface of the Duwamish-Green River floodplain.

In the past 2,000 years the Duwamish-Green River channel shifted from the west side to its current position on the east side of the Duwamish-Green River Valley. This eastward shift occurred abruptly, rather than by gradual migration of the channel across the floodplain. An earthquake on the Seattle Fault Zone may have caused the dramatic change. Geological, botanical, and limnological research demonstrate that an earthquake approximately 1,100 years ago uplifted areas near the historic period (1792+) mouth of the Duwamish River much as 20 feet.

Human Habitation



The first illustrations of Native villages of the area were created by Captain Vancouver's on-board illustrator, in 1792. This marks the beginning of a historic record for the Pacific Northwest. Butes Canal, Vancouver Island. 
Courtesy University of Washington Special Collections


Most recorded hunter-fisher-gatherer archaeological sites in the White River Valley are in the northern valley. Archaeologists have identified several sites in the vicinity of the confluence of the Black and White Rivers in the Renton area. These include a hilltop hunting camp that may date between 4,000 and 7,000 years ago, a fishing camp dating back 1,600 years, an early historic period fishing camp, and an area near an important early historic period village where people camped and harvested Wapato tubers, a starchy, potato-like tuber that grows in shallow lakes and sloughs.

Few archaeological sites have been recorded in the southern valley because of extensive modifications to the riverbank and the thick alluvial sediments that cover old river levees and channel margins. However, based on studies in similar environments in Western Washington, archaeologists estimate that there should be numerous archaeological sites in the Kent-Auburn area of the White River Valley. We would expect hunting, fishing, and plant collecting campsites on old river levees adjacent to abandoned river channels. The abandoned channels were flooded in the winter and spring and so were abundant with fish, mammals, plants, and waterfowl that served as important food sources. Native people often selected sites where several incoming streams or confluences occurred for villages or fishing camps. Small, temporary campsites used by travelers would have occurred at these areas as well as on natural river levees that provided dry ground surfaces a few feet above the river and floodwater elevation.

Village Sites
In the native Lushootseed language, the aboriginal inhabitants of the White River Valley were known as the Stkamish, the Smulkamish, and the Skopamish. (The common anglicization of the "amsh" suffix, which means "people of," resulted in many local tribes with the "mish" suffix, such as the Duwamish and Suquamish.)



1906 image of the great log jam at O'Brien
WRVM #905


The Stkamish name was taken from a village on the White (now Green) River in the Kent vicinity, known as Steq, meaning, "log jam." The people of Steq were the Steq-ABSH, or the "people of the log jam." Settlers and government officials anglicized Steq-ABSH into Stkamish and applied the term to all villages between Auburn and Renton Junction.

The Smulkamish were the "people of White River," named after the term that referred to the former course of the Upper White River. The Smulkamish lived in villages on the present Muckleshoot Indian Reservation and near present-day Enumclaw.

The Skopamish lived along the Green River, above the former confluence near present Auburn. The Skopamish, or Skop-ABSH, were "the people of the variable stream." The term "skop" means "first big and then little," in apparent reference to fluctuations of the Green River; hence the name. The descendants of the Stkamish, Smulkamish, and Skopamish are all contemporary members of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.

Some of the most prominent native villages in the White River Valley were at Ilalqo, Steq, and Oo-tep-ALTWH. Ilalqo village was at the former confluence of the Green and White Rivers in present downtown Auburn. The term Ilalqo is a probable reference to "striped water." The water of the White and Green Rivers was usually half-muddy and half-green for nearly a mile below the confluence hence the probable name "striped water." The winter houses at Ilalqo were made of cedar and had planked roofs. The early ethnographer Arthur Ballard stated that there were three large houses at Ilalqo that included at least one historic Indian house probably built with milled lumber. Many important Muckleshoot ancestors lived at Ilalqo, including "Big John." Ilalqo village was vacated after the White River was diverted in 1909. [A social side affect of the diversion not noted in last quarter's newletter.]

Steq and Oo-tep-ALWH were on the White (now Green) River near present-day Kent. Steq meant "a log jam," in reference to the pile of logs in the river that was formerly an obstacle to native canoers. Chief Seattle's mother was born at Steq and the village had a "high class" reputation based on its wealthy inhabitants, who also thought highly of themselves. The people of Steq looked down on their upstream neighbors at Oo-tep-ALWH, whose name meant "flea's house." The villages had two connecting trails. Reportedly, the trails were segregated, with one trail for the "high class" people of Steq and the other trail for less esteemed Oo-tep-ALWH people.

The members of these villages also had trails leading west to Three Tree Point and to clam beaches elsewhere on Puget Sound. Long ago, legends tell that the people of Steq built a trail to the beach and asked the people of Oo-tep-ALWH to help them, but the Oo-tep-ALWH refused. The people of Steq were insulted when the Oo-tep-ALWH people built a short connecting trail and began using the new beach route. In retaliation, the Steq people kidnapped and later killed the Oo-tep-ALWH chief's son.

The name "flea's house" comes from a mythic story involving the daughter of Elk and Flea, who were married at Oo-tep-ALWH. Elk's daughter realized that Flea and his family (who was in myth-time as big as people) was going to kill her, and she retaliated by clubbing the fleas to death. The blood of the fleas was scattered over the land and later came to life, which is why fleas are so small today. If not for Elk's daughter, fleas would be large and able to kill us with a poisonous bite.

So life along the Green and White Rivers has moved from myth time to current time, from cedar plank houses to tilt-up warehouses. But the Muckleshoot people are still here; high on the 3,600 acre plateau reservation that the Bureau of Indian Affairs allocated. Muckleshoot, or from "a place where you can see everything" has become home for the Stkamish, the Smulkamish, and the Skopamish peoples of long ago.

The traditional Native American way of explaining archaeologic changes:


How The Whales Reached The Sea

A long time ago the valley between what is now Sumner and Renton Junction was a vast lake; the course of the Puyallup River followed what is now know as Wapato Creek. In the lake there used to be two whales; there they made their home. Upon the point of the hill, northwest of Sumner, now blasted away to give room for the Tacoma highway, there used to stand a huge boulder. To this spot the people would go to get a view of the country above the impenetrable forest. From this point they could see the whales disporting themselves in the lake. One day, however, children from the village noticed the whales acting strangely, and reported the strange actions to their elders. The whales had become tired of their restricted range in the inland lake and were thrashing about and churning the waters mightily in their effort to make their way out. Finally on the fourth day they plowed into the land and forced their way through, opening a way through the plain out to the Sound

The water followed them down the channel, and thus a new river came into being. We call that river Stax, which means "plowed through." The Whites call it Stuck River. Most of the water in the lake drained out through the new channel. What used to be the main river now became just a small creek, Wapato Creek (STO-luh-WAH-lee, river channel). Where the lake used to be is now a level valley.

as recorded by Arthur Ballard from John Xot


Glossary of Words and Phrases
alluvial sediments: deposits of mud, sand, and silt by a passing river flow
confluence:  flowing together of two or more streams or rivers Cordilleran Ice Sheet:  an ice sheet associated with the entire chain of mountain ranges parallel to the Pacific Coast
delta:  a nearly flat plain of alluvial sediment
distributary:  an out flowing branch of a stream or river, as opposed to tributary
embayment:  to enclose or surround, as in is a bay of water Historic Period:  refers to the era when human beings first created a written history. In the Pacific Northwest this record begins in the late 1792 with Vancouver's Voyage of Discovery.
river levee:  a natural deposit of mud and sand built alongside a river or stream
Pleistocene:  a geologic epic that began two million years ago and ended ten thousand years ago.

Leonard Forsman and Dennis Lewarch