Historical site west of Salem is slowly being developed

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News Friday, July 28, 2006


Historical site west of Salem is slowly being developed

ROY GAULT Statesman Journal

July 28, 2006

As forts go, it's not much to look at.

But its stories of soldiers, treaties and Native Americans, some still being scraped by archeologists from beneath the earth's surface, are so intriguing that it will be opened to the public Monday as Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area.

"One thing we're quick to let the public know is that Fort Yamhill is not a completed park," said Eric Timmons of the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department. "Nor will it be completed in 2007 or 2008. It's a park in progress."

Fort Yamhill was built in 1856, shortly after treaties of the early 1850s moved about 1,000 Native Americans from homelands across Western Oregon and placed them on a 64,000-acre reservation in the Grand Ronde Valley, 31 miles northwest of Salem.

Spirit Mountain Casino, built by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in 1995, is just outside the southern boundary of the land the reservation once covered, about a mile west of the site of the original fort.

"The first time I went up there, I thought, 'What's the big deal?'" said Timmons, who oversaw the fort-site development until the past few weeks, when he was promoted within the parks department. "It just looked like the side of a hill. You didn't see much happening, but boy, any place you stand on this fort today, the feeling of the history that took place is something. It's a jewel that really needs protecting."

Exciting discovery

The state park comprises 55 acres, including 2.7 acres deeded by Polk County for a parking lot, and access to the park crosses a 135-acre tribal powwow grounds. The powwow grounds eventually will include an interpretive center next to the state park that will tell the history of the Grand Ronde tribe and its predecessors.

The park will have an interpretive trail that follows the original fort boundary for a short distance, then makes a circle inside the fort past the site of the original livery stable, barracks, mess hall and kitchen, and the blockhouse.

None of those buildings is standing, but their locations are obvious from original maps and excavations done when they were built. The limestone foundations for the officer's quarters still are in place on the hill above the parade grounds, but are mostly buried to protect against vandalism.

Only one building from the original fort remains intact -- one of the officer's houses -- but nobody knew what it was until a facade built in 1915 was torn off to reveal the 1856 architecture.

"You can see why nobody had any idea it had anything to do with the original fort," Timmons said. "But imagine how excited we were when we pulled off the facade to see the original whitewash and the lines of the original roof."

The house, sold and moved a half mile from its foundation in 1874, is slowly being renovated and will be taken back up the hill to its original location.

Another building, the blockhouse, was moved from the fort, and most of the original logs have been replaced one by one over the years. The blockhouse was sold at auction for $2.50 when the fort was abandoned in 1866, and eventually ended up in Dayton City Park.

Grand Ronde nation

Visitors never should visualize Fort Yamhill as a typical 1850s fort built to protect the U.S. Army from attack by Native Americans, wild bears or bandits.

The original 545-foot by 1,100-foot perimeter of the fort was bordered merely by a wooden fence, set in place to define a boundary more than to stop any possible enemy.

"It's one of three forts built in the Willamette Valley in the mid-1850s, and it was principally established to protect the Native Americans, who had been relocated onto the reservation, from the settlers," said Tim Wood, the director of state parks in Oregon. "Generally, you think of it being the other way around."

Timmons said the history of the fort began when gold miners devastated the fish runs on the Rogue River. Then, in 1855, white settlers wiped out much of a Rogue Valley village while its braves were hunting.

"Some atrocities happened, then some natives retaliated and burned some cabins," Timmons said. "Joseph Lane and Indian agent Joel Palmer decided they needed to remove the Native Americans out of the Rogue River."

The Native Americans who were moved to the Grand Ronde Valley were from as far south as the Oregon-California border and from as far north as the Columbia River, and included Native Americans from the Rogue River area.

"But the truth of the matter is, Western Oregon and Western Washington Indians were never involved in major conflicts with the federal government or non-natives," said Troy Johnson, a cultural education coordinator for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.

Those who came together to form the Grand Ronde nation spoke at least 25 dialects of eight languages.

"Some languages were as foreign as English and Korean," Johnson said. "On the other hand, the folks that came here almost all had a common language that was used for intertribal communication, Chinuk Wawa."

Tribal staff members have been in on the planning of Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area from the start and have put their stamp on the historical interpretations that will be told there.

"It is a partnership, and has been from day one," said Lindy Trolan, a cultural resources special-ist for the tribe. "We've been involved in making sure the tribal perspective is included in all interpretation, and it has been."

Johnson said that tribal members have a wide range of feelings about the fort and its part in their history.

"Fort Yamhill is part of a sad episode in the history of the Grand Ronde people," Shelley Hansen said, when -- as executive director of the Spirit Mountain Community Fund -- she announced a contribution of $50,000 to the first stage of an interpretive plan.

"Telling our tribe's story and sharing our culture through this interpretive exhibit will help all people understand the complete history of our country and all of its people."

Prime location

Fort Yamhill was located where it is, in a saddle above the south fork of the Yamhill River, because it blocked access by intruders to the Grand Ronde Valley, but also because it was on the Tillamook Trail, the main route for 5,000 years for Native Americans between the coast and the Willamette Valley.

"When the trees were grown up, you couldn't see it, but now that we're uncovering the landscape, it makes a lot of sense why the fort is here," Timmons said. "From here, you can see the whole Grand Ronde Valley down below."

The fort was built for $32,000 with labor by soldiers and Native Americans, and much of it by contracting with local carpenters.

"The grandson of one of the carpenters can remember as a little kid his grandfather talking about building the fort," Timmons said. "But there aren't a lot of locals who know much about it. We don't know of the families of any soldiers being in the area."

Farmers in the area have turned up lead musket balls in their fields, and architects are still mining historical goodies from the fort site.

"They've found a lot of things that had to do with military occupation -- odds and ends like buttons and clips that hold the military suspenders," Timmons said. "They haven't found any shot balls or anything like that, but there's been lots of alcohol-bottle fragments."

Most of the roadways and building foundations have been easy to locate. A new 60-foot cedar flagpole on the parade grounds will represent the original 200-footer that journals say towered over the fort at its origin, and will fly a 36-star flag from 150 years ago.

Maps have enabled Timmons and his staff to locate the depression of the original well and of a privy that held a clay smoking pipe, but most artifacts were raided from the site years ago.

The fort was occupied by the Army only 10 years and was abandoned because the Civil War depleted the ranks of soldiers after breaking out in 1861. Fort property was auction off in 1866 and brought the government $1,260.

Much to learn

The fort's claim to fame has been Phil Sheridan, a lieutenant when he served there off and on for four years. He later was a Civil War hero and became a general.

It is speculated that the officer's house being renovated was Sheridan's residence, but Timmons said there's no evidence to support that.

He said that Sheridan did order additions onto the officer's houses -- such an addition has been made to this one -- "because he didn't think the originals were houses befitting an officer."

Although the officer's house eventually will be moved and it's possible that a replica of the blockhouse will be built, Wood said not to expect Fort Yamhill ever to become an elaborate layout.

"We don't have any plans to reconstruct a bunch of buildings," he said. "We'd like to restore the fencelines so people can understand the spatial idea of where things were. We want people to be able to relate to what each building's role was and how the whole site was laid out."

Timmons said he learns something new every day he's on the fort site.

"I want the park to be all it possibly can be, and I don't know yet what that is," he said. "It's a puzzle, and pieces keep falling in into place. We are slowly filling in the blanks, and I hope people are able to fall in love with it like we have."

rgault@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6723


Online

Oregon Parks and Recreation Department: http://egov.oregon. gov/OPRD

New state park

WHAT: The opening of Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area

WHEN: Opens Monday. The fort will be open during daylight hours. A formal opening will follow sometime in September.

WHERE: Just off Highway 22, 31 miles northwest of Salem. Take Highway 22 for 30 miles west from Salem, then turn right toward Hebo and Tillamook. The park turnoff is one mile after the turnoff.

ADMISSION: Free.

AMENITIES: A paved parking lot and vault toilets; interpretive panels along a packed-gravel trail that includes some sections of boardwalk and is wheelchair accessible.

Call: (503) 393-1172, Ext. 29.


Copyright 2006 Statesman Journal, Salem, Oregon

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