Who Owns the River?


 Tourists ask many questions about this land of ours. Is the weather always like this? How deep is the river? As a professional know-it-all, if I don’t have an answer, I’ll make something up. One day a tourist asked a question that was really tough to answer:

“Who owns the Hoh River?”

It began with the melting of the great continental ice sheet about 15,000 years ago. The water filled the river. The river shaped the land. The land has been forever the history of man. That began here more than 13,800 years ago if Sequim’s Manis mastodon site is any indication. That’s where a spear point made from another mastodon bone was found in a rib bone of a partially butchered mastodon. Making it the oldest documented barbecue in the Pacific Northwest. Analysis determined the mastodon was old and arthritic, which somehow paved the way for Sequim to become a retirement community.

We can assume this land has been continually inhabited by Native people ever since. Why would they leave? It was a paradise of seafood and big game that amounted to the ultimate surf and turf buffet with herbs, root crops and berry side dishes, all there for the taking.

The people moved west and south along our coast, which would have been 20 miles west of the present coastline in those days. They began fishing for salmon about 9,000 years ago while hunting the myriad Pleistocene mega-fauna into extinction because then, as now, that’s the way man has always done it.

To be fair, the climate was cooling and the landscape was changing. Those big animals needed grasslands, and our forests were beginning to appear. By 8,000 years ago, people began shifting from land mammal hunting to fishing and clam digging. Our forests dominated the region about 5,000 years ago in response to a shift to a colder, wetter climate. The people began making canoes about 3,000 years ago. The first cedar plank houses were built more than 1,000 years ago.

By then, a Northwest Coast culture had developed that largely depended on salmon, seals, whales and tidal resources for food and the cedar tree for a material culture that blossomed until the appearance of the Europeans.

The invasion of the West Coast began in 1513 when Vasco Nunez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama, waded into the Pacific and claimed possession of the sea and all the lands it touched for Spain. He was followed by English and American explorers and traders who came from the south while the Russians came from the north. All of them looking for treasure, plunder and territory to claim.

When they discovered there was no gold, the Spanish interest in the Northwest cooled. The Russians went broke. The Americans bluffed the British, leaving the United States owners of the Hoh River. At the time, there were seven villages of the Hoh people along the river from tidewater to the subalpine zone. The entire watershed was used for hunting, fishing, foraging, spiritual rituals and burial sites. The Russians shipwrecked on the Hoh River in 1809 mentioned 13 canoes full of people passing downriver in one day, indicating the Hoh was a very busy place.

In 1863, the Hoh Tribe was forced to sign a treaty that moved them to Quinault, but they refused to abandon their homeland. President Grover Cleveland established the current 443-acre Hoh Reservation in 1893. By then, Europeans were claiming land along the Hoh River under the Homestead Act. The Hoh People could not homestead what had been their land because they were not U.S. citizens at the time.

To be continued …