Skip to Main Content

Kalapuya: Native Americans of the Willamette Valley, Oregon

This guide was written by former LCC librarian Don Macnaughtan. This guide is no longer being updated.

The Kalapuyans are a Native American ethnic group. Many of their contemporary descendants are members of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. The Kalapuyan traditional homelands were in the Willamette, Elk Creek, and Calapooya Creek watersheds of Western Oregon. They hunted and gathered as far east and west as the Cascades and Coast ranges and traded with the Chinookans to the north and Coos peoples on the coast. Their major tribes were the Tualatin, Yamhill, and Ahantchuyuk at the north, the Santiam, Luckamiute, Tekopa, Chenapinefu in the central valley and the Chemapho, Chelamela, Chafin, Peyu (Mohawk), and Winefelly in the southern Willamette Valley. The most southern, Yoncalla, had a village on the Row River and villages in the Umpqua Valley and so lived in both valleys. The major tribal territories were divided by the Willamette River and its tributaries.



The Kalapuyans did not belong to a single homogeneous tribal entity, but rather to multiple autonomous subdivisions speaking three closely related languages. The three languages were: Northern Kalapuya (or Tualatin-Yamhill), Central Kalapuya (or Santiam-Marys River (Chenapinefu)), and Southern Kalapuya (or Yoncalla) which may have been mutually intelligible.
Each of these bands occupied specific areas along the Willamette River and its tributaries. The various Kalapuyan bands were hunter-gatherers, gaining food by fishing and hunting by the men, and gathering of nuts, berries and other fruits and roots by the women, children and extended family members. The tribe made use of obsidian (obtained from the volcanic Cascade ranges to the east) to fashion sharp and effective projectile points, including arrowheads and spear tips. The Calapooia Point is an exceptional variety of serrated obsidian arrowhead that is commonly found in the Willamette Valley.

(Note: Kalapuya and Calapooia are the two most common spellings of the word for the people, Kalapuyans means the people of the tribal nation. There are about 20 different spellings of the word Kalapuya historically, with this version the most commonly used and ascribed to by scholars today.)

Prior to contact with white explorers, traders, and missionaries, the Kalapuyan population is believed to have numbered as many as 15,000 people. Robert Boyd estimates the total Kalapuyan population between 8,780 and 9,200 for the period between 1805-1830. The Kalapuyans married extensively with all neighboring bands and counted among the Chinookans especially important wealthy kinship relations.

Catastrophic epidemics of malaria, smallpox, and other diseases accompanied the entry of Euro-Americans. Some accounts record tales of entire villages empty of people. By 1849 the population had dropped to around 600.




Kalapuya bands typically consisted of extended families of related males, their wives, and offspring. These bands would occupy a year-round village throughout the winter, with some members splitting off into smaller groups and departing to gather seasonal food, like camas, wapato, acorns, elk, deer, fish, and huckleberries and raw materials during the spring and summer. Bands would frequently have a single leader, a headman or chief — generally the most wealthy male — who would resolve arguments, settle collective debts of the community such as those incurred gambling, and would provide food for feasts.

As was the case for many tribes of the Pacific Northwest, the Kalapuyans practiced slavery, with slaves generally obtained through trade or as gifts. Northern Kalapuyan groups, such as the Tualatin and Yamhill, would obtain slaves through trade with other tribes. Slaves would be obtained by raids on distant tribes or through servitude related to paying off debts.  Slaves were considered a form of wealth and were used for the purchase of desired commodities, including beads, blankets, and canoes.

Slaves lived with the families who owned them, working side-by-side in daily tasks and performing mundane chores such as the collection of firewood and water. Slaves were often free to marry, and their freedom could be purchased through their own accumulation of property or through sufficient payment to the owner.

In addition to the patriarchal and wealth-driven differentiation of Kalapuyan society, there were also special shamans. These were believed to possess supernatural predictive or healing powers and might be either male or female, free individual or slave.

Labor was differentiated within Kalapuyan society according to gender. Males engaging in fishing, hunting, and warfare, as well as tool manufacture and the construction of canoes. Women gathered and prepared the staple plant foods (especially camas, wapato and acorns) that were the basis of the Kalapuyan diet, set up temporary camps, and constructed baskets and other craft products. During the summer months, the women of the band would prepare food products for winter storage, generally preparing the foods at seasonal encampments and then transporting the processed foods back to the main village. Large winter were located underground and excess foods would be taken to regional trade centers like that available at the Clackamas villages at Willamette Falls. There processed camas “wheels,” packets of wrapped precooked camas, could be traded for dried or smoked salmon and many other items from the Columbia River Trade Network.

Trade with other tribes in the Columbia River was a significant activity which allowed specialization of products by tribes who lived in specific environments. Columbia Tribes would have trading centers and festivals and much dried and smoked salmon would  be available, but traded into the network were products from as far as the American Plains (Bison products) and the Pacific coast (shells, whale, dentalium) which made the network an indicative characteristic of the region culture.  Kalapuyans specialized in camas and wapato and were middlemen trading products from the Columbia to southern and coastal tribes. Ethnographic accounts of the Coos suggest that the Kalapuyans would bring them buffalo robes in exchange for shells, suggesting the enormity of the trade network.




In Oregon, there were two main treaty cycles which concerned the Kalapuya: those in 1851 and those in 1854–1855. The 1851 treaties were negotiated by Oregon's Superintendent of Indian Affairs Anson Dart, and those in 1855 by Dart's successor Joel Palmer. The 1851 treaties were never ratified due to the proposed placement of Indian reservations inside the Willamette Valley and the fact that the whole valley was fully claimed by white Americans by 1851. The Treaties with the Tualatin (1854)was also never ratified due to a lack of orders from Washington D.C., but the treaties with the Yoncalla and Umpqua (1854)  and the Confederated Tribes of the Willamette Valley (1855), were ratified. The latter treaties promised a permanent reservation, money, annuities for food, clothing, education, and health care and safety and security away from the white Americans.

On April 12, 1851, at the Santiam Treaty Council in Champoeg, Oregon Territory, the leaders of the Santiam Kalapuya tribe expressed strong opinions over where they were to live. The Santiam leaders Tiacan (principal Chief) and Alquema (second Chief) maintained their desire to remain on their traditional territory, between the forks of the Santiam River. The other Kalapuyan tribes followed the Santiam lead and proposed the same deal for their area.

In the Treaty of Calapooia Creek, Oregon, (November 29, 1854), the Umpqua and Kalapuyan tribes of the Umpqua Valley ceded their lands to the United States. And agreed to remove to a permanent reservation. They were among the first tribes to be moved onto the Grand Ronde Reservation in late February 1856.

In the Willamette Valley Treaty (also called the Treaty with the Kalapuya etc.)) at Dayton, Oregon, concluded on January 22, 1855, the Kalapuyans and other tribes of the Willamette valley, including Molallans, Clackamas and tribes on the Columbia- Cascades, Multnomah, and others, ceded the entire drainage area of the Willamette River. They agreed to remove to a permanent reservation and were temporarily relocated to ten temporary reservations on settler donation land claims. Between February and May 1856 they were removed to Grand Ronde Indian Reservation.



Most Kalapuya peoples were removed to the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation. In later years some Kalapuyans married with other tribal peoples and removed to other reservations Siletz, Warm Springs, and even Yakama.

The Grand Ronde Indian Reservation was settled in 1856 as a temporary reserve and was first called the Yamhill River Reserve. It was officially renamed and set aside as the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation in 1857 by presidential Executive Order.

Life at Grand Ronde was difficult for the tribes, with at least 27 tribes removed to the reservation. The reservation was managed by Indian agents assigned by the Superintendent of Indian affairs for Oregon. Fort Yamhill was established with a detachment of dragoons, to defray possible attacks on the tribes by white Americans, many of whom professed a desire to “exterminate all Indians,” and to be a deterrent against Indian outbreaks or Native people leaving the reservation. It was illegal for native peoples to be off reservation without a pass, as they were not U.S. citizens until 1924 when the Native American Citizenship Act was passed.

Schools were established at Grand Ronde, Day schools paid for through treaty annuities, and boarding schools managed and taught by first the Protestant missionaries and later the St. Michael’s boarding school established by the Catholic Church under government auspices. The day school and an on-reservation boarding school, were established to assimilate Native children to American cultures, and at the boarding schools children had to stay throughout the school year. Many children were later sent to off-reservation Indian boarding schools, like Chemawa Indian School in Salem.

It was through education that the Indian Agents sought to carry out federal policies of assimilation for children. For adults assimilation was carried out by impressing upon them to become farmers and to convert to Christianity through the government-sanctioned missionary churches.

The First Catholic missionary at Grand Ronde was Rev. Adrian Croquet, who came from Belgium and established St. Michael’s mission and church on the reservation in 1860 and he remained for nearly 40 years.

Sanitation and health care at the reservation was poor and mortality was high. By 1900 only about 300 remained of the original 1,200 people that had been removed to the reservation. The population reduction was caused in part by poor health care and poor nutrition, but the culture of poverty at the reservation caused many to leave and never return. Promises in the ratified treaties of land were not formally followed through with until 1889 (Dawes Severalty Act 1887), and so for the years 1856 to 1889 the native people lived in extreme poverty, completely dependent on government supplies, only gaining some land in the 1870s, and becoming self-sufficient for many by 1880.

Termination and restoration
All of the bands and tribes of the Kalapuyans were terminated at the Grand Ronde Reservation when their treaties were terminated in 1954 along with all other Western Oregon tribes, in the Western Oregon Indian Termination Act, PL 588. Final termination occurred when most lands of the reservation sold, all services removed, and final rolls published in the Congressional record in 1956.

The Kalapuya treaties were restored through the restoration bills of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz (1977) and Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon (1983).

The descendants of the Kalapuyan tribes and bands married extensively into other tribes throughout the Northwest and within the reservation, and most now have multiple native ancestries. The majority of Kalapuyan descendants are enrolled at The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community. There are an estimated 4,000 Kalapuyan descendants.

​Kalapuyan named groups
  Speakers of the Northern Kalapuya Language:
⦁    the Tualatin people, residing along the Tualatin River, Wapato Lake (Gaston, Oregon), and the lower Willamette River (northern Willamette Valley)
⦁    the Yamhill people, along the South Yamhill River and main Yamhill River (northwestern Willamette Valley)

  Most of the following groups are believed to have spoken dialects of Central Kalapuya:
⦁    the Ahantchuyuk people, along the Pudding and Molalla Rivers (northeastern Willamette Valley)
⦁    the Santiam people, along the Lower Santiam River (central Willamette Valley)
⦁    the Luckiamute people, along the Luckiamute River (central Willamette Valley)
⦁    the Chepenafa or Marys River people, along Mary’s River (central Willamette Valley)
⦁    the Chemapho or Muddy Creek people, at Monroe, Oregon (central Willamette Valley)
⦁    the Tsankupi people, along the Calapooia River (southeastern Willamette Valley)
⦁    the Chelamela or Long Tom people, along the Long Tom River (southwestern Willamette Valley)
⦁    the Winefelly and Mohawk (Peyu) dialects spoken along the Lower McKenzie, Mohawk, and Coast Fork Willamette Rivers (southeastern Willamette Valley)

Speakers of the Southern Kalapuya (Yoncalla) Language were the Yoncallas, a band of whom lived along Row River in the Willamette Valley, and other bands along the Elk, Yoncalla and Calapooya Creeks and the middle Umpqua River (southwestern Oregon interior)

reviewed and edited by David G. Lewis, PhD (OSU, CTGR)