History of the Mid Columbia, Central Oregon,
and The Dalles in Wasco County

The Dalles, Oregon, located in Wasco County, is rich in history. The Dalles was incorporated as Dalles City by act of the Oregon Territorial Legislature on January 26, 1857. The Dalles is the fourth oldest incorporated city in Oregon. At the time, The Dalles was one of the largest population centers in the Pacific Northwest, and played a major role in terms of commerce, politics, military presence and inland navigation. The city was the center of navigation on the middle Columbia River, between the Cascades rapids and Celilo Falls. Lewis & Clark camped at The Dalles twice, in 1805 and 1806. It also served as the end of the overland Oregon Trail beginning in 1843. Fort Dalles was established here in the 1850s.  The site of the city was a major trade center for Native Americans for at least 10,000 years, and the surrounding area (Horsethief Lake, Wakemap Mound, Atlatl Valley, Roadcut) comprises one of the most significant archaeological regions in North America.

For more information on The Dalles or the State of Oregon, visit OregonEncyclopedia.org.

Ten thousand years of human history

The area began as an Indian home thousands of years before the Euro-American fur traders and settlers came. The area was once known as Win-quatt, a Native American name meaning ‘surrounded by rock cliffs’. One of the bands original inhabitants were members of the Wasco-pam tribe, the descendants of whom are now part of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

Native American trade took place annually in the Mid Columbia Basin as tribes from across the Northwest came together peacefully to fish, trade, and socialize. In the 1800s they were joined by the mountain men fur traders and French-Canadian boatmen of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Thirteen miles to the east of The Dalles is Celilo Village, which was where the thundering waters of Celilo Falls on the Columbia once roared. The region’s most important trading area was between Celilo Falls and modern-day The Dalles, where tribes from both sides of the Cascades, and even farther east, met for commerce. The waters of Celilo falls were buried March 10, 1957 when the newly completed The Dalles Lock & Dam went into operation, creating a 24 mile long backwater. The backwater Lake Celilo quickly submerged the rapids of The Dalles and Celilo Falls, changing the landscape and river shoreline.

Columbia Hills State Park in Washington (Hwy 14, across the Bridge Junction, approx. 15 minutes from The Dalles) has a public display of Petroglyph and Pictographs. The Temani Pesh-wa (Written on Rock) Trail is a short interpretive trail and the site of the iconic Tsagaglalal, or “She Who Watches.” (You must make reservations to see Tsagaglalal; all other petroglyphs may be seen during normal park hours.)

Celilo Falls

The Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, approximately 13 miles east of The Dalles, served as a gathering place and major trading center for many Indians, including the Wasco, Paiute, and Warm Springs tribes, for thousands of years.

Here the river cut into basalt rock to create a constriction of the river with a twenty-foot falls followed by a mile of narrow, channeled rapids with a drop of eight feet in river elevation. These rapids came to be named “The Great Falls of the Columbia” by the French Canadian fur traders.

The Celilo Village is all that remains of the historic location of Celilo Falls, which for centuries had been the location of a sacred regional Indian fishing ground. Here people gathered, fished and traded.

There are several suggested meanings for the aboriginal origin of “Celilo”; one is “floating sand cloud,” from the sand storms that occur when high winds sweep through the Columbia River Gorge. The Celilo Canal was completed in 1915, creating a short-lived steamboat waterway to Lewiston, Idaho. Lake Celilo behind The Dalles Dam, which was built in 1956-57, has inundated the falls. The flooding also eliminated important fishing grounds for many Indian tribes that relied upon the salmon caught at the falls.

The Dalles had served initially as a way station on the emigrant road to the Willamette Valley. The construction of a pioneer road over the Cascades in 1845 and the Donation Land Act of 1850 brought families to the area to settle. Wasco County became a major transportation hub for both river traffic and inland traffic. River traffic on the Columbia River was profoundly affected in 1935 by the building of Bonneville Dam in Multnomah County and by The Dalles Dam in 1957 in Wasco County. The two dams were created to facilitate river traffic through some of the most treacherous and dangerous rapids on the Columbia river, and to provide hydro-electric power for the region. The construction of Dalles Dam was responsible for the flooding and destruction of Celilo Falls in March of 1957.The incalculable cultural loss of Celilo Falls continues to be a source of mourning and great sorrow to regional Indian tribes to this day.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition and Rock Fort

A key chapter of inland exploration opened in 1805 with arrival of the “Corps of Discovery.” Captains Meriweather Lewis and William Clark came to the Columbia Gorge after descending the western slopes of the Rockies, then following the Snake River to its confluence with the Columbia. They camped at several different locations along the Mid-Columbia, traveling westward toward the Pacific Ocean in the fall of 1805, then eastward on their return journey the following spring. (They spent a wet, miserable winter on the Oregon coast near present-day Astoria.) Lewis and Clark were the first white men in the area when they camped at The Dalles in October 1805 near the creek the local Indians referred to as Quenett, now known as Mill Creek. They called the site they camped at “Rock Fort Camp.” It is one of only two sites in the country where the exact campspot of Lewis and Clark Expedition is known and has been the source of recent archeological study.

The Dalles served twice as campsite for the Lewis & Clark expedition – in October 1805 and April 1806 – before developing into a key regional center for the fur trade, supporting a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost in 1829. Fur traders came through in the 1810s and 1820s. Trappers, explorers, other military expeditions and immigrants soon followed, with important centers of influence developing at Fort Vancouver (under English control), and Fort Dalles (established by the US Army). Explorers, botanists, artists, writers, and adventurers all came to the “grand dalles of the Columbia.”

The Dalles of the Columbia River

The Hudson’s Bay boatmen and the French Canadian fur traders called the greatest rapids on the Columbia River “Le Grand Dalles de la Columbia.” These rapids became known as the “Long Narrows,” and their companion, “les petites dalles” as the “Short Narrows.” The word dalle is French for flagstone or large tile, and was a reference to flagstones used to line gutters on ships. The “grande dalles” of the Columbia referred to the long gutter-like channel cut by the turbulent waters of the Columbia River. At the Long Narrows, the entire flow of the Columbia River was compressed through a natural basalt rock chute, thundering through a channel 200 feet deep by 150-450 feet wide. This torrent of water created a series of treacherous rapids.

The Indian name in use for the area was Win-quatt, signifying a place encircled by rock cliffs. The Dalles was incorporated in 1857, making it one of the oldest incorporated cities in Oregon. The military first referred to the location as Fort Drum, and eventually changing the name to Fort Dalles. The first use of the name Dalles for the town was in 1814. The post office was established in 1851 with William R. Gibson as first postmaster. The town has had several names since incorporation: Dalles, 1851; Wascopum, 1853; The Dalles, 1860. On September 3, 1853, the town’s name was changed to Wascopum. In March, 1860 the name was changed to The Dalles. In 1966, the name City of The Dalles was officially adopted by city ordinance to conform with popular usage.

Early Missionaries and Pulpit Rock

WASCOPAM MISSION – Methodist Episcopal missionaries, Rev. Daniel Lee and Rev. Henry K.W. Perkins, arrived at the Dalles of the Columbia on March 21, 1838. They had traveled upriver in six canoes, accompanied by an Indian chief named Marnicoon who acted as their guide. They were greeted by about 50 members of the area Wasco tribe. They spent the next several months erecting the Wascopam Mission building, where they began their work to bring the word of God to the natives of the mid-Columbia.

PULPIT ROCK – Marking the area near where Rev. Daniel Lee, along with Rev. Henry K.W. Perkins, established the Wascopam Mission in 1838 is Pulpit Rock. Daniel Lee’s uncle, Rev. Jason Lee was head of the Oregon Missions, and was said to have preached from the natural rock formation now known as “Pulpit Rock”. After establishing the Oregon missions in the Willamette Valley, Jason Lee traveled extensively to the east coast to preach about the wonders of the Oregon Territory and the need to bring Christianity to the native population. His speeches were responsible, in large part, for the interest in Oregon that exploded a few years later into the western emigration of the Oregon Trail. In ten short years, between 1850 and 1860, the sparsely populated outpost of Fort Dalles exploded into the booming western town of Dalles City with a swollen “floating tent” population of 10,000, filled with soldiers, god-fearing missionaries, goldminers, tavern owners, bordellos, immigrants, adventurers, gamblers and scallywags. The mission along with Marcus Whitman’s museum at Waililatpu near Walla Walla gave help to starving, ill, and deserate emigrants of the Oregon Trail. Pulpit Rock still stands in The Dalles, at East 12th and Court Streets.

Establishment of Fort Dalles


Fort Dalles was established in 1850 as Camp Drum.

The Oregon Trail (1841 – 1866)

For twenty five years, half a million people pulled up stakes and headed for the farms and gold fields of the West. Oregon was the destination for about a third of the emigrants . This was the last of the so-called Great Migrations. For three years The Dalles was the end of the Oregon Trail as an overland route. The Dalles became a critical stop for pioneers following the Oregon Trail. Emigrants had to portage their freight one and a half miles around ‘les dalles’ over a rough, rocky trail. It was here, just past The Dalles, that the wagons were loaded on rafts or bateaux and floated west to Fort Vancouver and Oregon City. From 1843 until 1845, wagons could reach The Dalles, but from there if the emigrants wished to press on westward, they had little choice but to make a raft of pine logs, buy a raft from enterprising Indians, or rent a bateaux from the Hudson’s Bay Company for around $80. Many lives were lost on the rapids of the Columbia River, the relentless winds overturned many a raft, and there was a stretch of impassable rapids that had to be portaged.

Eventually an alternate route was built, and pioneers were able to choose between the water route or the rugged Barlow Road route around Mt. Hood. Museums and historic mural displays in The Dalles tell of the difficult “Decision at The Dalles.”

Barlow Road (1846-1919)
Sam Barlow devised a plan to build a road from The Dalles to the Willamette Valley, avoiding the Columbia altogether. Just one obstacle stood in his way: Mt. Hood. Barlow obtained official permission to build the Mount Hood Toll Road in early 1846. The Provisional Government allowed him to charge $5 a wagon and 10¢ a head for livestock to use the Road.In 1845 Barlow and 40 men, including his friend Joel Palmer, began hacking a narrow road through the forests of Mt. Hood from The Dalles to Oregon City—a distance of about 150 miles. By 1846, the Barlow Road was finished. Reuban Gant is recorded to have driven the first wagon across the new road in 1846; Barlow reported to the Oregon Spectator — the first newspaper published west of the Rockies — that 145 wagons and nearly 1600 head of livestock made it over the Road that first year. Take Hwy. 197 south to Dufur, Tygh Valley, Wamic and around Mt. Hood. Visit the Pioneer Woman’s Grave near Government Camp, where several hiking trails lead to historic sites. A replica of the original tollgate is located in Rhododenron. Finally, reach Wildwood and view the ruts left by pioneers near the Sandy River.
Wasco County and the Original Wasco County Courthouse

Wasco County is named for the Wascopam tribe of Indians that lived on the south shore of the Columbia River, near The Dalles, Oregon.

Dalles City (now known as The Dalles) was designated the county seat when Wasco County was created on January 11, 1854 and was the second largest county in the country at the time. Wasco County was created from portions of Clackamas, Marion, Linn, and Lane Counties and consisted of all of Oregon Territory between the Cascade Range and the Rocky Mountains and from latitude 42deg. (the California border) to latitude 46deg. (the Washington border). This was one of the largest counties ever formed in the United States, originally consisting of 130,000 square miles.

Courthouses were built in 1859, 1884, and in 1914. All three buildings are standing today and the 1914 building is still in use as the county courthouse. The Sheriff’s department still operates a mounted patrol.

Over the years, seventeen other counties in eastern Oregon were created from Wasco County, which now consists of 2,387 square miles. It is bordered by two rivers, the Columbia to the north and the Deschutes to the east, and by the Warm Springs Indian Reservation on the south and Mt. Hood National Forest on the west. Wasco Wasco County shares political boundaries with Sherman, Wheeler, Jefferson, Clackamas, and Hood River Counties.

When Wasco County was created, Jan. 11, 1854, it comprised all the area of the Oregon Territory between the Cascade Range and the Rocky Mountains, an empire in itself. By successive takings for other states and counties, the area of Wasco County has been reduced to 2408 square miles. Wasco is the modern name for a tribe of Indians. Early writers used the name in many forms. Woss in “Fur Hunters of the Far West, v.1, p. 186,” speaks of the Wiss-co-pam tribe. Lee and Frost in “Ten Years in Oregon, p. 176,” give Was-co-pam. For references to various spellings, see “Handbook of American Indians, v.2, p. 918.” About the time of the immigrations white people shortened the name to Wasco. The Wasco Indians were a Chinook tribe, formerly living on the south side of the Columbia River, in the vicinity of The Dalles. The name Wasco is said to be derived from the Wasco word wacq-o, meaning a cup or small bowl made of horn. “The Handbook of American Indians, v.2, p. 917”, says this referred to a cup-shaped rock near the main village of the tribe, but Dr. William C. McKay, in an article in The Dalles Mountaineer, May 28, 1869, said that the name Wasco meant makers of basins, and that the literal meaning of the word was horn basin. Some of these basins were fantastically carved. Both of the explanations may be correct. Dr. McKay said that the locality of the city of The Dalles was called Winquatt, signifying a place surrounded by bold cliffs.
— Source: Oregon Geographic Names, Sixth Edition, 1992, Lewis L. McArthur, Oregon Historical Society Press, ISBN O-87595-237-2.

The Treaty of 1855 and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs

The Indians of the region were forceably relocated by the US Military to the Warm Springs Reservation in 1855. There was great unrest at the time from all quarters of the Indian population as the tribes fought for their homeland. Fort Dalles became a central military headquarters for dispatching troops to combat the unrest.

The site of the signing of the Treaty is commonly believed to have been at a massive oak tree on Mill Creek, later known as the Treaty Oak. A plaque on its remaining eight-foot stump commemorates the event. The tree became diseased and was cut down. The actual story of the Council Oak is interesting; it marked a place important to the Indians, just not the Treaty site. While the Treaty Oak is commonly believed to be the site of the signing of the Treaty of 1855, other accounts say the 1855 Treaty was not signed at the Treaty Oak site on Mill Creek, but at the “Crossing” on 3-Mile. There are at least 3 first-hand accounts placing it “east of The Dalles.” Two references to the 3-Mile location are made by Mary Pigott Cushing in her memoirs “Mary’s Story,” and a third account was made by Daniel Webster Butler. The late historian, Anita Drake, wrote several detailed letters to the Chronicle explaining the true story, but so much misinformation has been written that the facts have remained buried under the myth.

Under the terms of the 1855 Treaty, the Indians of the region were relocated to the Warm Springs Reservation, retaining certain “off reservation rights”. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs include the Warm Springs, Wasco and Paiute Native American Tribes, and the area of their nation stretches from the summit of the Cascade Mountains to the cliffs of the Deschutes River in Central Oregon. . The Museum at Warm Springs provides a historic perspective on tribal culture of our region, and Kah-Nee-ta High Desert Resort and Casino offers a luxurious and enjoyable hot springs spa, dining, golf and vacation get-away.

The Dalles, Oregon today

The Dalles is still the trading hub for the Mid Columbia, with easy access to many recreational opportunities: rafting, boating, swimming, skiing, hiking, windsurfing, fishing and rock climbing. Historical ghost towns, Native American petroglyphs, museums, and sites of interest abound. The region’s development was closely linked with transportation, beginning with river commerce and the need to portage around large rapids at Cascade Locks and east of The Dalles, as well as Celilo Falls. Today The Dalles has a population of 12,000, the county seat of Wasco County. Primary agricultural crops are cereal grains, sweet cherries and apples. Ranching is also common. Wheat is the dominant field crop with 190,000 acres. Durable goods, wood products, and Mid Columbia Medical Center are also top employers. Google located a facility in The Dalles in 2006, taking advantage of the hydro-electric power and fibre-optic network available. Columbia Gorge Community College is working closely with renewable resources, training workers to work on the wind farms in the area.

Visitors who would like to learn more about this region’s history have a variety of opportunities, with local museums in all of the major Columbia Gorge communities and many smaller towns.