The wealth of the first residents at Station Camp, long before Lewis and Clark arrived, suggests that a tribal chief or close relative might have lived there.

"The amount of wealth items found at this site suggests that either a close relative of Concomly or Concomly himself lived here," said archeologist Doug Wilson.

The mouth of the Columbia River was a major trading location long before Lewis and Clark arrived - and long before the first tall-masted ships sailed up and down the West Coast.

The Chinook Indians held a near-monopoly in fur trade along the Columbia. They controlled all the trade going in and out of the river. No one came through without trading with the Chinooks. And historic records show they were accomplished traders.

The arrival of large sailing ships changed the Northwest.

"Two hundred years ago, events changed the course of history of the Northwest," said Wilson at Thursday night's Columbia Forum. "It changed from a Stone Age culture to one affected by the Industrial Revolution."

Wilson is the chief archeologist at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site and an adjunct associate professor at Portland State University. He told 70 listeners at the Duncan Law Consumer Seafood Center that his excavation of Station Camp revealed a site that was at the "crux of change in the Pacific Northwest - the crux of history."

"Trade elevated the Chinook," he said.

The excavation of the site began as Washington state began to consider moving U.S. Highway 101 a little farther inland. The first thing Wilson did was check on the site with the U.S. Geological Survey. He found there was a name for the site; McGowan, Wash.

"Uh-oh, there's a name," he said to himself. "There's going to be archeology."

St. Mary's Church still stands on the site.

P.J. McGowan built a thriving salmon pickling and packaging plant in the 1800s.

"But besides having a salmon cannery town, there were native artifacts," Wilson said.

What they found

As the archeologists delved into the mysteries of the cannery, they found native projectile points, net weights, glass trade beads, musket balls and gun flints.

The layers of sand slowly revealed their secrets. A cross section of the earth where they were digging revealed a timeline of the people who had used the site. But there were horizontal dark stains that were unexplainable. Archeologists determined the stains weren't rodent burrows, because there were no rodent bones. There were no earthworms in the soil.

They realized the stains were parts of the Chinook buildings. They were "features." In archeological terms, features are similar to artifacts, but they can't be removed. In this instance, the features were the stains left when the walls or ceilings of the Chinook buildings decomposed.

The excavation exposed hundreds of features, where the Chinook had built and rebuilt their houses in the same location over the years.

But the best-preserved Chinook building they found was entombed under a dairy barn with a concrete slab floor - Area F.

The excavation revealed clues to what the Chinook ate. Thirty-five percent of food products found were sturgeon bones. They found elderberries, blackberries, Indian plum, hazelnuts and camas root.

Wilson said the excavation of the site turned up some unexpected finds. Rather than finding hundreds and hundreds of projectile points, which is typically the case in a site like this, there were only 11. Instead, there was an abundance of glass, gun flints and metal objects.

"Metal was a status symbol," Wilson said. "High-status people would have had these sorts of things.

"Copper - to the Chinook - was like gold."

He said the Chinook could trade copper for slaves or wives. If wives and slaves were indications of wealth, the Chinook were high society. The highest density of slaves was at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Area B of the excavation disclosed copper artifact manufacturing debris. Area F contained whole copper artifacts.

There were items from all over the world - including English and Chinese glass shards. They found fragments from a porcelain crescent and a Staffordshire tea caddy. Wilson described the caddy as the equivalent of a Rolex watch today.

Chinook key to story

Charlie Funk, the archeological site monitor for the Chinook tribe, visited the site with Wilson earlier in the afternoon Thursday. He said that the Chinook created such a monopoly on the price of furs coming out of the Columbia River that traders began to complain.

When Lewis and Clark arrived, the Chinook were already trading with other tribes all along the Columbia and up and down the coast.

Station Camp lies within Lewis and Clark National Historical Park.

David Szymanski, the park superintendent, said it's now the park's goal to tell three stories at the site. The park wants to tell the story about the first international contact between the Chinook and the world, St. Mary's Church and McGowan and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

"We want to put all that into a narrative. Most important is the fact that this site is exceptionally important to the Chinook people," he said.

"You can't tell the story of Long Beach to here without this," Funk said.

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