Friday, May 14, 2010

wálamt, wallamat, wolamat, wolamut, Willamette

In doing research for my book, I recently came across Urban Scout's discussion of the origin of the word "Willamette". He debunks some myths about the meaning of this word, and concludes:

In remembrance of the Kalapuyan and Clackamas (lower Columbia Chinook) [I]ndians who lived and died here, and in honor of those who still live here; please stop saying “no one lived here.” Please stop saying that Willamette means “the valley of sickness and death.”[1] Please know that if the natives later refered to this valley as one of “sickness and death,” it came from the biological genicide inflicted on the natives by this [i.e., Euro American] civilization. Please go to the library, or better yet find a living native, and learn the real history of this place.

Urban Scout does a great job of sleuthing that includes critiquing "explanations" of the name that do not cite a source and then referencing scholarly works on the topic, particularly Henry Zenk's essay in the Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 7: Northwest Coast (1990). To add a little to this . . .

Lewis and Clark identified the river we now know as the Willamette as the Multnomah in their journal entries of early April 1806, though the Chinookan word that served as their source refers only to a village on Sauvie Island (/máånumaå/, “those towards the water”).

Henry Zenk finds that trappers and Indians extended the name “Willamette” (also spelled wálamt, wallamat, wolamat, and wolamut) to the entire river and watershed by the time the Pacific Fur Company founded Fort Astoria in 1811. Zenk posits that this is most most likely by way of the lingua franca of the Columbia basin, Chinuk Wawa. Previously, the name appears to have only applied to the name of a Chinook village on the west side of Willamette Falls that had long served as an important center of trading, at least until the large-scale depopulations from malaria outbreaks between 1830 and 1834. We have no definitive record of what the name “Willamette” meant to the Chinooks.[2]
[1] I hadn't heard this explanation before reading this Urban Scout's blog.

[2] Henry Zenk, "Notes on Native American Place-names of the Willamette Valley Region," Oregon Historical Quarterly 109: 1 (Spring 2008), 25-26. See entries for April 2- 6, 1806, in Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001),, accessed May 3, 2010.



  1. My ANTH professor in college wrote her dissertation about the valley and said it got its name from a plague that killed off 2/3 of the natives here. Also, Willamette is largly mispronounced. Its supposed to be, Willa-metty.

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      Thanks for the information. It'd be great if you could provide more information for your data, including a citation to that dissertation. I don't claim to have all of the knowledge myself, which is why I make every effort to back-up whatever I write on this blog with the research of experts in their field -- Henry Zenk, in this case.

    2. This is all very interesting and fun. Another piece of lore (?) about how the Willamette got its name comes from Gale Ontko book “Thunder over the Ochoco Volume one The Gathering Storm” page 10. According to Gales Research, The Brother of Charles Clark (no relation to Lewis and Clark) Tom Clark met Stephen Meek in Sacramento. Charles and Tom owned a very influential company that brought wagon Trains to Oregon and California. Tom was interested in additional possible routes for wagon Trains into the Willamette valley. Stephen Meek told Tom to go see his brother Joe Meeks up in Oregon and that he would know if there was additional routes. Tom traveled to Oregon and met with Joe. Joe told Tom that when the “Corps of Discovery” (Lewis and Clark) arrived at this tributary of the Columbia “Lewis asked Clark, Will, am it a river”. Clark thought for a moment and decided that it probably was.
      Thought you might find this interpretation fun.
      John Price
      Oregon Outback Mining

  2. I thought the name sounded pretty, but now I am confused. Williametta, Willia, Williette, Willimea, sound like pretty names for a girl, but not if it means valley of sickness and death. Ooh noo.