LIVING OFF THE LAND: THE STORY OF THE YAKONA AND THEIR ANCESTRAL HOMELAND


Where the Yaquina River widens to become Yaquina Bay on the Oregon coast, an unnamed 250-acre peninsula lies between King and McCaffery Sloughs. It was here — and in the surrounding area — that an ancient clan known as the Yakona made their home on the Yaquina watershed as early as 1,000 BCE. 

The Yakona flourished for 3,000 years in the region between Cape Foulweather and Beaver Creek. They moved on foot and inhabited terrain that was inland enough to provide protection from the persistent coastal winds. The shores of their ancestral hub, the peninsula on Yaquina Bay, were lined with small, delicious oysters. Considered hunter-gatherers, the Yakona didn’t possess guns or horses and flourished through their connection to the land and waters that teemed with life. When the tide came in, the table was set.

This small tribe was known by European settlers as “Flatheads” because of their tradition of intentionally flattening the shape of their heads. The Yakona believed that this unique profile would distinguish them from lower classes in the afterlife, securing their place in the next world. So when Yakona babies were born, wooden pressers were placed on their heads for six months to flatten their foreheads. Despite the appearance, the practice caused no lasting damage.

WESTWARD EXPANSION LEADS TO DOWNFALL

European settlers brought new diseases that decimated Oregon tribes who had no natural immunities. By the late 1700s, smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, gonorrhea and alcoholism had claimed eighty percent of the Yakona. And in a tragic case of mistaken identity, the Hudson Bay Company, seeking retribution for the death of two trappers and determined to teach a lesson, slaughtered many of the surviving Yakona in 1820. Forest fires further destroyed the tribe and by the end of 1849, only 80 Yakona remained.

During westward expansion of the growing nation, the United States government formed the Siletz Reservation in 1855. Some 3,000 indigenous people from at least 14 different tribes were forcibly relocated onto a consolidated reservation. Its land area consisted of 102 miles of coastline from Cape Lookout in the north, to an area between the Siuslaw and Umpqua Rivers in the south and 20 miles inland. Based on government promises and treaties never ratified, representatives from five tribes — including the Yakona — met on Yaquina Bay and signed away their rights to ancestral lands.

LOSING THEIR ANCESTRAL LAND

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Each tribe had its own distinct culture, customs and way of life. Yet they were all forced to live together and assimilate at the Siletz reservation. Missionaries resolved to indoctrinate the Yakona in their religion, education and customs. Until 1871, whipping posts were used whenever natives followed banned tribal practices. The Coast Range served as a natural barrier separating the reservation from the settlers who farmed the fertile Willamette Valley.  

In 1861, a Yakona Indian shared the location of a rich supply of native oysters near McCaffery Slough with a soldier. Soon, white men began harvesting and selling the small, delicious mollusks found only in the Yaquina waters and they became an immediate hit in San Francisco, sparking interest in the area. 

The first European settlement on the Yaquina was near what is now Poole Slough and was named Oysterville. Yakona women worked sorting oysters for the settlers who harvested them. Economic incentive and political pressure mounted to remove the Yaquina River and its watershed from the reservation. Without a strong military presence or ratification of its treaty with the tribes, settlers continually trespassed on reservation land in pursuit of oysters and fortune. 

The Yakona remained around Yaquina Bay, traveling two well-established trails from the Yaquina River to the Siletz community. President Pierce was erroneously told that the Yaquina River area was no longer occupied or desired by natives, so the government appropriated $16,500 to buy the Yaquina River and its watershed. The commercial oyster business boomed and soon a wagon road was built from Corvallis to Elk City, at the headwaters of the Yaquina. In 1865 the Yaquina watershed was taken from the Yakona when a strip of land 25 miles wide was carved from the center of the reservation and opened to the tide of advancing settlers. 

A NEW TOWN IN AN ANCIENT HOMELAND

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In 1866, Sam Case and Dr. JR Bayley opened a large hotel on the north side of Yaquina Bay at the site of today’s US Coast Guard station and named their settlement Newport. Guests at the hotel made the arduous wagon journey from the Willamette Valley to visit the seashore. In less than a year, Newport had saloons, stores and additional hotels. Sacks of oysters could be harvested with tongs along the shores of the bay without waiting for low tide.  

By 1870, white settlers had logged conifers some ten feet in diameter from the area and saw mills had sprung up around the bay. Homes, gardens, docks and a school were built on the peninsula near its largest estuary. Commerce grew in the newly “discovered” area.

The January 8, 1883 edition of the New York Times extolled the benefits of Yaquina Bay, reading: “… a sunken reef three quarters of a mile from the coastline provides safe entrance even in storms.  This is a peculiar advantage which no other harbor in the world possesses, and is of the highest value … neat homes dot the river.”  Soon a San Francisco entrepreneur, Colonel T. Egenton Hogg, aspired to lay tracks from Corvallis to the coast making it the terminus of a transcontinental railroad.  He offered Newport’s residents $50,000 for their waterfront, which they summarily rejected.  Undaunted, Hogg turned his sights four miles upriver and in 1882 formed his own town where Sawyer’s Landing is now located, naming it Yaquina City.

Hogg’s railroad provided daily train service to the coast by mid-1885, lurching from Corvallis to Yaquina City.  His town quickly grew to more than 1,500 residents and boasted “good school and church privileges, a fine hotel, a sawmill, three salmon canneries, the only banking house in the county outside Corvallis, a shipyard, customs house, telegraph office, large warehouse and docks for handling freight, a railway depot and yard with the company’s machine shops …”

The Yaquina railroad station in 1912. Across the river is West Yaquina now Yakona Nature Preserve.

The Yaquina railroad station in 1912. Across the river is West Yaquina now Yakona Nature Preserve.

Soon, West Yaquina was platted on the peninsula directly across the bay from Yaquina City, promising future home sites for wealthy New York investors in Hogg’s railroad – a Saranac Lake of the west.  Homes and a school were built.  A ferry service ran between West Yaquina, Yaquina City and Newport.  

Hogg purchased a 231-foot ocean going steamer, named it the Yaquina City, and began shipping products to San Francisco in a record 37 hours.  It was the FedEx of the day.  Highly prized Oregon cargo included Yaquina oysters, salmon, apples, pigeons, chittum bark, cheese and granite.  In 1888, 144 ships entered and left Yaquina Bay.   But in December 1887, the Yaquina City had sunk crossing the Yaquina Bay bar.  Hogg promptly bought a second ship, the Yaquina Bay, but it also promptly wrecked and sank.  The back-to-back losses bankrupted Hogg and ownership of his railroad passed to the Southern Pacific Railroad company.  

As white settlements expanded and flourished, by 1892 only 19 Yakona remained, marginalized by larger, more aggressive tribes, decimated by disease and fires, denied the land that had sustained them and their ancestors for three millennia.  Soon their culture and language vanished.   

Federal investment in the jetties at the entrance to Yaquina Bay allowed greater shipping opportunities and between 1912 and 1915, 522 vessels visited the harbor.  Newport continued to grow while Yaquina City began to dwindle.  The popular native oysters were over-harvested and, like the Yakona, vanished from the Yaquina watershed.  

PRIME TIMBER FOR A NATIONAL CAUSE
During World War I, strong and lightweight Sitka spruce was crucial in the production of military aircraft. Some of the world’s finest spruce grew in Oregon’s coastal fog-belt forests. In order to harvest and mill the timber, the U.S. government drafted a class of worker to provide a labor force — the first and only time this has happened. 

Before long, a huge mill in the nearby city of Toledo was under construction, meant to employ 3,000 logger/soldiers to mill the harvested timber. The Armistice ending WWI was signed 30 days before the mill became operational, and the intense need for the high-grade lumber evaporated. 

Today, six ancient Sitka spruce that were spared, each over ten feet in diameter, stand on the unnamed peninsula —silent sentinels to this chapter of our nation’s history.

FROM BOOM TO BUST

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The railroad tracks laid to access prime spruce during WWI were sold to private interests and logging became the backbone of the local economy. Around 1934, truck logging proved more flexible and practicable. As a result, train service to Yaquina City ceased and the precarious railroad tracks from Toledo to Yaquina City were removed. Once considered the prosperous “San Francisco of the North,” Yaquina City was soon a ghost town.

A NEW GENERATION

The peninsula and surrounding areas were zoned Timber Conservation in 1970 and commercial timber harvesting continued at a rapid pace. By that time, much of the peninsula was comprised of small, privately owned parcels that had last been harvested over one hundred years before, including the platted township of West Yaquina.

A PENINSULA WORTH PRESERVING

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Bill and JoAnn Barton learned of the peninsula and its rich history in 2008. Their first purchase four years later included 77 acres that crowned the peninsula — 47 acres of which had been commercially harvested two years earlier. The Bartons replanted the clear cut area with native trees, shrubs and wildflowers. 

As the Bartons have continued to purchase more of the land comprising the peninsula, they’ve envisioned a nature preserve, day use public park, and education center. Their hope is to introduce the public to the area’s flora and fauna and its rich history, including the lost Yakona tribe, the glory days of Yaquina City and its West Yaquina suburb beckoning across Yaquina Bay.

This unique peninsula, protected from development and rich in history, is a treasure for future generations  — of humans and wildlife. With diverse sources of support, it will endure to share the area’s fertile past and invite partnerships to protect a robust future.

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REFERENCES
Castle, Darlene et al. 1978 - Yaquina Bay 1778 – 1978
Courtney, E. Wayne 1989 - The Indians of Yaquina Bay
Lincoln County Historical Society 1980 - Lincoln County Lore
Wilkinson, Charles 2010 - The People Are Dancing Again
Wyatt, Steve 1999 - The Bayfront Book