Here is an example of what travel in a canoe looked like. John and Mary Kelly, residents of Morton, WA once transported their children across the Cowlitz River near the former location of Cowlitz Falls to get to school in the Indian shovel-nosed canoe in 1935. Photo courtesy: Lewis County Historical Museum.

In the mountainous regions of the west, in the times of western movement and long before, the rivers served as highways for the people. As the most efficient mode of travel, Native Americans mastered northwest rivers with canoes. With the arrival of the “Boston Man” as settlers were called, the Columbia and Cowlitz river became the entry point to what would one day be Washington State.

In 1825-1830, The British Hudson Bay Company began a farm on the Cowlitz Prairie one mile downstream of modern day Toledo. Cowlitz Farm covered four square miles and produced staples like wheat and oats as well as cattle and other livestock. Cowlitz Landing, the northernmost river navigation point for those entering the territory from the south, served the Hudson Bay Company. Between 1825 and 1845, the Cowlitz route was used exclusively.

Looking toward the site of the old Cowlitz Landing also known as Warbassport in 1889 after the wharf had washed away. Photo courtesy: Lewis County Historical Museum.

In 1846, Great Britain and the United States came to a boundary settlement and established the border between Canada and the United States at the 49th parallel. Consequently, the Hudson Bay Company relinquished control of Cowlitz Landing and the northward settlement began in earnest. In 1850, the Donation Land Claim Act gave substance to dreamers who hoped to carve out a new life on the land.

Some, however, laid claim earlier. John R. Jackson, who was born in England and spoke with a British accent, made a tentative claim in 1845. Legend has it he convinced the Hudson Bay men that he was an English National, and consequently, they let him explore northward.

Many a weary traveler stepped foot for the very first time in the new Territory at Cowlitz Landing. The beautiful prairie region became home to several early pioneers. Thus Lewis County is called, “The Mother of All Counties.” In addition to Jackson, Michael T. Simmons founder of Newmarket (Tumwater) came through the landing. Pioneer men such as Joseph Borst, who traveled with Sidney Ford, passed through Cowlitz Landing, as did Lewis Hawkins Davis, founder of Claquato. Ezra Meeker’s wife arrived by way of the Cowlitz as well.

One of the earliest American Settlers in the Territory, John R. Jackson traveled through Cowlitz Landing in 1844, making his claim in 1845. Photo courtesy: Lewis County Historical Museum.

Several accounts of the journey up the Cowlitz and the Landing exist, giving the modern reader a glimpse at what it was like.

In 1846 Sidney S. Ford and his wife Nancy took a Donation Claim on Ford’s Prairie. The process of bringing his family north from Oregon produced an amusing family story. Descendent Tove Hodge, in the essay The Family of Sidney S. Ford, Senior, wrote the following anecdote about Elizabeth Ford (Ticknor), Sid and Nancy’s four-year-old daughter.

“After crossing the Columbia to Fort Vancouver, the women and children and luggage were put into canoes managed by Indian paddlers, while the men drove the stock, cattle, and the lightening wagons along the bank, swimming the sloughs and fording the streams.

When arriving at the mouth of the Cowlitz, little Lizzie, my great-grandmother, eager to start the journey up the stream, jumped into the first canoe with the luggage. Before her family missed her, the Indian paddler had carried her far up the river. When her anxious family arrived at the first landing, they found her calmly sitting on the beach, looking very tiny indeed. Although surrounded by a wilderness of river and forest, she seemed quite indifferent to her parents’ anxiety about her safety. She had regarded the Indian boatman as her friend. This was the beginning of her trust of the friendly Indians of the vicinity.”

Joseph Borst, for whom Borst Park in Centralia is named, traveled with Sidney Ford through Cowlitz Landing to find a land claim. His family is pictured in 1880 and includes Mary A. Borst, Allen Borst, Joseph Borst, Eva Borst McElfresh and Ada Borst Blackwell. Photo courtesy: Lewis County Historical Museum.

In Andrew Chambers’ account of his 1847 journey in College Independent 1904-05, he describes the ascent up the Cowlitz by boat. When the rapids were so strong, tow lines were employed to pull them up the river, zigzagging as they went. The food, on the other hand, was the reward.

“There was a great quantity of salmon in the river. We had all that we wanted and cooked it Indian fashion. This was, to dress the fish, run a stick through it and place the stick in the ground close to the fire, and, as the fish cooked, turn it so that it would bake evenly. We always left the scales on until it was cooked. After working hard all day, it was fine – we thought delicious.”

Phoebe Goodell Judson wrote a thorough description of the experience of 1853 in A Pioneer’s Search for an Ideal Home.

“… we began the ascent of the Cowlitz river in an Indian canoe, propelled by Indian muscle, making about the same speed against the strong current as did our oxen when pulling up a steep mountain. There were many portages, where jams of logs obstructed the river. Frequently the water was so shallow that the Indian pushed the canoe along more rapidly than they paddled through the deep water. For a time, the novelty of it was quite interesting, but, as there was a lack of variation, it soon became monotonous – only varied by the mild excitement of the occasional salmon leaping from the water.”

Sid and Nancy Ford brought their entire family through Cowlitz Landing when they arrived in 1846. Photo courtesy: Lewis County Historical Museum.

Judson amused herself by learning the Chinook Jargon, a conglomeration of French, Indian and Hudson Bay Company words that the Native Americans used to speak to the “Bostons.”

Judson continued, “Sitting in one position all day, in the bottom of a canoe, we found very wearisome; and we were only too glad when we landed at a stopping place with no name, only one building – a rude hotel kept by a ‘bach’ who was known by the pioneers from one end of the Sound country to the other by the name of “old hard bread,” because of the hard bread (hard tack) he invariably served to his customers. We, however, fared sumptuously on salmon and potatoes.

At noon the next day we reached Cowlitz Landing, where, on the prairie, the Hudson Bay Company had a trading post, and here put up at a hotel kept by another ‘bach,’ but, from all appearances, it was run by the Indians.”

The Territory’s first Governor, Isaac I. Stevens traveled this route with his family in 1854. Mrs. Margaret Stevens wrote an account which agrees on many points with Judson’s.

Here is an example of what travel in a canoe looked like. John and Mary Kelly, residents of Morton, WA once transported their children across the Cowlitz River near the former location of Cowlitz Falls to get to school in the Indian shovel-nosed canoe in 1935. Photo courtesy: Lewis County Historical Museum.

“We were placed in the canoe with great care, so as to balance it evenly, as it was frail and upset easily. At first the novelty, motion and watching our Indians paddle so deftly, they seize their poles and push along over shallow places, keeping up a low, sweet singing, as they glided along, was amusing. As we were sitting flat on the bottom of the canoe, the position became irksome and painful. We were all day long on this Cowlitz River. At night I could not stand on my feet for some time after landing. We walked ankle deep in mud to a small log house, where we had a good meal. Here we found a number of rough, dirty looking men, with pantaloons tucked inside their boots, and so much hair upon their heads and faces they all looked alike…”

By 1850 Cowlitz Landing contained two hotels, two general stores, a saw and grist mill, the 1849 blockhouse, several dwellings and the landing wharf. Advertisements for Carter & Padgett dealers in produce, merchandise, groceries and provisions as well as owners of the Cowlitz Hotel “where travelers can find good fare and accommodations” appear in the 1845 additions of the Olympia newspaper, Pioneer and Democrat. A plant nursery, specializing in fruit trees, is also advertised at the Landing. Canoe passage services on the Cowlitz and horse services from Tumwater to Cowlitz Landing appeared regularly at the time.

By 1861 the first steamship arrived and replaced the canoe. Roads were constructed and travel became easier. Cowlitz Landing was flooded in October 1867, and any original remnant of this historic place was washed away by the river for which it was built. A historical marker is erected in the vicinity of Cowlitz Landing.

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