Fireweed growing along Nehalem Bay. Phot by Author
Soft “Downe” for Clothing
Fletcher describes the ndians spinning the finest softest down he had ever seen;
“…His guard also had each coaets of the same shape, but of other skins: some having cawles [hats] likewise stuck with feathers, or covered over with a certain downe, which growth up in the country upon a herb much like our lettuce; which exceeds any other downe in the world for fineness….”
Photo The fireweed and lettuce plant look much alike when allowed to seed; tall thin plant stalks with sparse leaves and with seed tops as in photo 65. When seeding, instead of a head of lettuce, Fletcher correctly describes “much like our lettuce”, this soft down from the fireweed plant (see Chapter 6 for additional fireweed descriptions and uses). Hard evidence has shown that this plant, called fireweed (Augustifolium, the summer plant), was steadily observed over a two-year period by the author and verified by ethnobotanist Douglas Deur, University of Washington, as fireweed from which down was gathered for clothing.
Fireweed is one of the plants which grow first in an area that has been burnt. The Nehalem Indians are known to have burned off the Neahkahnie Mountain face in order to make hunting easier (see fig. 46), since deer and elk will browse on open-field foliage rather than in the heavy forest. The mountain face would have large areas of fireweed for picking of the down by the Nehalem for use in hat, headdresses and other clothing items reserved for the chief and other tribe members of importance.
Even today, fireweed down is known as the finest plant material to be used in a mix with wool. Fireweed is harvested after it goes to seed in late summer. 46
Finally, the open-minded reader should realize that the Indians who met Drake were well-dressed, well-fed, intelligent and bright enough to live off the land for at least 9,000 years before Drake arrived. However, the natives had never seen such a sight, such a large ship with clouds for sails, men with guns, cannon, metal and big medicine. Perhaps it’s no wonder they treated Drake like a god and a supreme shaman.
Wapato (Pat'eh) tubers
Pet’ah – Wapato Root
" …Their train or last part of their company consisted of women and children each woman bearing against her breast a round basket or two, having within them divers things, as bags of Tab’ah , a root which they call Pet'ah , whereof they make a kind of meal, and either bake it into bread, or eat it raw; broiled fish like a pilchard; the seed and downe forenamed, with such like:…Their baskets"
As discussed in Chapter 4, Pet'ah is one of the four most specific items, along with the Neahkahnie Survey, Hondius map, and Islands - which authenticate Drake's stay in Nehalem Bay. Pet'ah is wa-pa-to, and it was the prime aquatic plant food source of the Nehalem Bay Indians.
The Nehalem Indians at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition called this root wapato, 223 years after Drake. Lewis and Clark traded for wapato during their stay at Fort Clatsop. It’s stated in their journal that on their expedition to find whale blubber for food and for lamp fuel in January of 1805, on one occasion they could acquire only a little wapato because it was of such value. While traveling on their journey to the Pacific coast they even named an island in the lower Columbia River as Wapato Island because of the great abundance of this aquatic plant. “A few miles below the cascades, a large river, called the Willamette (called the Multnomah by Lewis and Clark), enters the Columbia from the south by two mouths, between which an extensive island is named Wapato Island, from an edible root [Saggitafolia] so called, 48 found growing upon it in abundance.”
Alexander Ross in 1811 described the wapato during his stay at Fort Astoria, "a perennial root, of the size, shape, and taste of the common potato, is a favorite article of food at all times of the year. This esculent is highly esteemed by the whites; many other roots and berries are to be had, all of which grow spontaneously in the low marshy ground." 49
Nehalem Bay is less than forty miles south of the Columbia River where Fort Astoria was located. This writer has eaten wapato both raw and boiled, and it is quite palatable (see Chapter 4 Wapato photos). As stated previously, there is no "wa" in front of pet'ah due to the guttural nature of speech coming from the throat in Salish language 50 as described to Jacobs. A person unfamiliar with the language and hearing wapato coming from the throat and grunted would understand it to be Pet'ah. This food source, described by Fletcher as “pet’ah”, in the way it’s found, prepared and eaten can only be wapato.
Today’s bay has changed, but in Drake's time Wapato Island (Sauvies Island) and the backwaters of the Nehalem Bay were full of wapato. Wapato could be grown today if it were not for current dike roads blocking the backwaters built in the mid 20th century, and other necessary uses of the land.