A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

October 1997

An Easy Country to Live In

By Dr. Mike Brewster-Wray


The land was very hard to clear, being covered with a heavy growth of vine maple that twisted and turned in all directions, the roots doing the same. There were also gooseberry bush, salmonberry bush, crabapple trees with thorns, and mingled all through, big cedars and spruce -- everything reeking with moisture.

from the memoirs of Charles Ballard




Extending from the Cascades above Enumclaw to where it joins the Duwamish River, the old White River Valley (today known as the Green River Valley from Auburn, north) is formally described as a "Seasonal Rain Forest" (Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994). However, as anyone who has lived here for more than a few months knows, the few weeks of "dry season" that we have in July and August makes this determination a mere technicality. The environment that we enjoy here in the Valley makes the entire region one of the most unique areas in the world. The cool temperatures and rainfall (over 34 inches per year) provide a forested environment dominated by Western Hemlock, Pacific Silver Fir and Western Red Cedar, but these factors also foster an overall plant growth which rivals the densest tropical rain forests of South America or Asia (Mathews, 1988). As Charles Ballard stated when his family first moved to the Valley in the 1860's "only in places was it possible to scramble through the brush and trees without first cutting a trail" (C. Ballard, mss).

This abundance of life is what made the entire region unique for human occupation. Only the mountains of the Middle East and the west coast of South America have concentrations of resources comparable to our rain forests. For as many as 14,000 years or more, people have been taking advantage of this bounty. The Native American peoples of our region are perhaps best known for their exploitation of the abundant salmon runs, shellfish beds and sea mammals. However, the bountiful plant life also played an important role in the development of the Native culture of the region. Not only did these plants provide Native peoples with a variety of foods from berries to roots, but they also provided materials for medicines, clothing, housing and the utensils necessary for cooking, hunting and fishing, giving Native culture its distinctive character. Later, it was the great stands of timber and excellent growing conditions which drew early pioneers into the old White River Valley.

The plant which played the most important role in the life of the Native American peoples was perhaps the Western red cedar. Its strong light wood is both easy to work and rot-resistant. While people have probably lived in the White River region for many millennia, it was not until about 4,000 years ago when climatic changes allowed the Western red cedar to became abundant in the region. Then, and only then, did Native culture begin to take on the distinctive character we know today. The large canoes, plank houses, watertight boxes, bark-fiber clothing or the ceremonial cedar bark paraphernalia, could not have been possible until the cedar was well established in the region (Pojar and MacKinnon, 1994).

For the Native American peoples, the Western red cedar played a very important spiritual role as the "giver of life". The huge cedar trees were only infrequently felled, but rather, bark-fiber and planks were split from the living trees being careful to leave enough for the survival of the tree itself (Stewart, 1984). Additionally, whether a small amount of bark-fiber was taken for clothing or the entire tree was felled for a canoe, it was important to first ask the tree's permission and offer prayers to the spirit of the cedar.


Puget Sound Native woman
Puget Sound Native woman digging edible roots.
She is wearing cedar bark dress, carrying a cedar root basket, and mat.
From the University of Washington , NA528, by Curtis.

The very straight grain of the cedar made the light wood an excellent choice for splitting planks. With only stone adzes, hand mauls and wedges made of yew wood or antler, long even planks up to three and a half feet wide and forty feet long could be produced (Stewart, 1984). These planks were tied to the pole frames of the houses and could be easily removed to provide ventilation. Smaller planks could be steamed in earth ovens and bent into the famous boxes used for storage as well as cooking. Strips of cedar inner-bark and the small roots of cedar were used in the manufacture of baskets, mats, rain hats and capes. The inner-bark fibers were pounded to soften them and used in making clothing, diapers and sanitary napkins, as well as spun with other fibers and used in weaving.

The early pioneers also valued the Western red cedar for many of these same reasons, as Charles Ballard stated;

...the finest and straightest grained red cedar ... was obtained 'up Stuck'; that is, up the Valley near the point where the Stuck River branched off from the White River, about four miles distant from our home. In that locality there was a stand of the finest red cedar timber to be found in our neighborhood. This cedar was most valuable to the settlers in building construction, being straight grained, easily worked and durable.
(C. Ballard mss.)

Maple was another tree which was very abundant here in the White River Valley and extensively used by both Natives and settlers. Vine maple is often cursed for the way that it grows, stretching its long, low, twisting branches through the forest undergrowth, contributing to the dense nature of our forests. However, its strong flexible wood was used for heavy openwork baskets, fish traps and salmon tongs (Gunther, 1988). Additionally, the slow, hot burning character of the wood, made it a valuable source of fuel for both Natives and settlers (C. Ballard, mss). Perhaps even more useful was the broadleaf maple. This tall tree with large spreading limbs, boasts the largest leaves of the forest, many measuring over a foot across (Turner, 1979). These broad leaves were commonly used by Native Americans as disposable mats for cleaning fish, lining and covering baskets of berries for storage and wrapping meat for steaming, or adding a pleasant flavor to the food. The bark was used to make rope and tumplines. Most useful, however, was the wood, which was carved into masks, combs, hairpins, canoe paddles, handles, bowls, platters and spoons (Gunther, 1988). The early settlers of the Valley also found both species of maple useful for furniture and utensils. While the broadleaf maple does not produce a sap equal to the eastern sugar maple, Charles Ballard reports that the settlers nonetheless found it made a very serviceable syrup. "The sap that came from these trees was quite sweet. Father tapped a number and made a syrup by boiling the sap down in a wash boiler" (C. Ballard, mss.).

Devil's Club
Perhaps even more cursed than the vine maple, is the devil's club. Even the normally bland botanists could not ignore the nastiness of this plant when they gave it the Latin name Oplopanax horridum. This plant grows in thick stands up to ten feet tall with an umbrella of large flat leaves, topped by a cone of bright red berries. The entire plant is thickly covered with millions of thin sharp spines which can inflict painful wounds. While this plant was studiously avoided by the early pioneers, the Native Americans were able to find a use for even this nasty inhabitant of our forests. The plant was burned to an ash and mixed with grease to produce a reddish brown body paint and pieces of the stem were used as fish lures, that would spin to the surface. Arthur Ballard also reported that the Natives of the Valley here, steeped the roots to make a tea good for colds, while the dried bark was ground to a powder and used as a talc or deodorant (A. Ballard, 1927).


Splitting a large cedar log
Artist Duane Pasco splitting a large cedar log with
yew wood wedges and a stone mallet.
Photo by Mary Randlett

The families of plants which provided much of the basic nourishment for Native Americans and early pioneers are the broad variety of berries which are found in the Valley. Salmonberry, huckleberry, blackberry, snowberry, bunchberry, thimbleberry, Oregon-grape, and sallal, among others, all contributed significantly to the Native American diet. The earliest of these is the salmonberry, which ripens early in the spring about the time of the spring salmon runs, which is where it gets its name. Later in the season, berries like blackberry and huckleberry ripen, producing some of the sweetest and most sought after fruits. In late summer and fall the snowberry, Oregon-grape and sallal ripen. These fruits are more tart and must be sweetened to use, and they can be left on the bush and harvested into the winter, providing a source of food when few other resources are available.

Berries were frequently eaten fresh, but several techniques were used to store them over the winter. Berries to be stored were boiled down to a thick paste, spread thin in a rectangular frame and allowed to dry in the sun. The resulting fruit leather could then be rolled or folded and stored for several months in cool, ventilated areas. Another technique that was used to store hard berries like huckleberry, rose hips and crab apples, was to pack them into cedar boxes and cover them in fish oil (Gunther, 1988). This must have made for some rather curious (by our standard) tasting meals, but preserved the berries nicely over the winter.


Vine maple (Acer circinatum) and
Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum)

Sweet Camas
The plant that was most valued for its storage potential was the bulbs of the sweet (or blue) camas plant. This delicate relative of the lily family was common in upland prairies such as the Enumclaw plateau. The camas has a small, thin iris-like blossom and in the early spring covered the prairies with a beautiful blue glow. However, the fine blue flowers had to be carefully marked since a close relative, the death camas, shares the same environment and is deadly poisonous. The only distinguishing feature between these two plants is the pure white blossom of the death camas. Therefore, the locations of the edible sweet camas was staked out during the spring, so it could also be harvested later in the year. The sweet camas produces a small bulb which can be steamed or boiled and eaten like a potato. It can also be sun dried, pressed into blocks and stored almost indefinitely (Smith, 1969).

Sweet camas was highly prized by the Native Americans of the Valley and care was taken to maintain the grassland environment needed by this plant to prosper. The prairies were frequently burned over and the brush and trees carefully cleared away to insure a good camas crop for the next year (Pojar and MacKinnon, 1994). Dried camas was also one of the major items of trade between the White River Valley, southern Sound region and areas where this important resource was unavailable (Gunther, 1988). As a result, this plant was one of the major points of conflict between early settlers and Native Americans. When the pioneers first came to our region, being unaware of the importance of this resource, they saw the camas prairies simply as unused clearings in the forest, perfect for their farms and fields. The Native Americans, on the other hand, saw these new farms as the destruction of one of the major food sources in their environment, which they had carefully tended for centuries.


Sword fern (Polystichumnumitum), and
Maidenhair fern, (Adaintum pedatum)

Camas (Camassia quamash) and
Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)


One of the most common family of plants found in the forest of the old White River Valley is the fern. These plants were extensively used by the Native Americans of the region for a broad variety of purposes. The broad durable fronds of many species of ferns were used as disposable materials for wiping and cleaning fish, lining baking pits for cooking, lining and covering baskets and boxes used in the storage of berries and dried food stuffs. The fronds were also used to make comfortable padding for beds which could be easily gathered and frequently changed. The early young unfurling fronds of nearly all of the fern species provided a welcomed fresh green vegetable in the spring after a winter of dried and stored foods, while the starchy rhizomes of the sword, lady and bracken ferns provided a resource that could be harvested and baked year round (Gunther, 1988). The rhizome of the bracken fern, however, was said to be eaten only in limited quantities since it had an intoxicating effect (Turner, 1975).

Specific ferns also provided valuable resources for the Native Americans of the Valley. The rhizomes of the small licorice fern, found growing on the moss-covered branches of alder and maple trees, was gathered as a tasty licorice flavored treat for children and Arthur Ballard states that the rhizome was commonly chewed by the Native peoples of the Valley for coughs and sore throats (A. Ballard, 1927). Ballard also reported that the rhizome of the large sword ferns of the Valley were boiled to produce a soothing wash for sores and minor wounds, while the spore sacks of the sword ferns were scraped off the bottom of the fronds and applied to burns and skin irritations like the stings caused by the stinging nettle (A. Ballard, 1927). Additionally, the graceful maidenhair fern, found deep in the dark, moist areas of the forest, were especially sought out by Native peoples. The black mid-rib of this fern was valued for working decorative designs in baskets and the fronds of the maidenhair fern were soaked and the water used as a hair wash which imparted body and shine to the hair (Gunther, 1988).

Introduced Plants
Finally, the early settlers of the White River Valley also brought many plants with them as they transformed the area into their home. Some of the plants introduced by the early pioneers, such as the lovely, yellow blossomed Scotch broom, seen along the roads today, or the large, sweet Himalayan and evergreen blackberries have since become quite a nuisance, proliferating in large numbers and driving the native plants out of many areas. The rich alluvial soils of the Valley, excellent for growing crops, was one of the primary qualities that drew early settlers. Hardy fruit trees, vegetables and root crops are some of the valuable plants introduced which we have become familiar with here in the Valley.

Potatoes were one of the earliest of these crops. They were brought to the Olympic Peninsula perhaps as early as the late 1700's by the Spanish from South America. The Hudson's Bay Company probably introduced the plant into our region as early as the early 1800's. The moist climate, cool temperatures and rich acid soils provided excellent growing conditions for this productive crop. Charles Ballard states that after his family had cleared their farm land north of Auburn, the rich forest soils produced a harvest of nearly 40 pounds of potatoes per hill (C. Ballard, mss).

This same short, cool, moist growing season, however, was not universally beneficial for the crops introduced. The early pioneers often complained that grains grew poorly in the Valley. Again, Charles Ballard reports;

"Father tried raising wheat to make flour, though the country had such early rains and so much moisture that it always grew rank and would fall down before it was ripe enough to be cut. ... The flour made from the wheat we raised made sticky bread and as soon as we were able we bought our flour" (C. Ballard, mss).

The settlers limited success in growing grains notwithstanding, the old White River Valley offered a cornucopia of resources for Native Americans and early pioneers alike. Materials for construction, producing basic utensils, food resources and medicinal plants for their ailments were abundantly available simply for the taking. All of these factors created an environment which Harvey Jones, an early settler in the Valley, described in 1855 as "a very easy country to live in" (Jones, mss).

Dr. Mike Brewster-Wray is a faculty member at South Puget Sound Community College, Olympia and a caretaker at the City of Auburn's historic park-to-be Olson Family Farm.