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Dig Gives Insight Into Early Oregon

Robert Newell is known for being among the first people to drive a wagon across the country to Oregon.

A summer dig may yield some clues about early Oregon and its settlers.

Evan Sernoffsky / OPB

This summer, archaeologists are digging at the site of his home in Champoeg State Park.

Now they’ve found evidence of a community that lived in the area well before Newell arrived — and who don’t get much of a mentioned in Oregon’s history books.

On top of a large pile of rich soil, Oregon State University student Lyle Jenks holds a sieve. Inside it, there’s a mound of dirt.

“Some of these big clumps will hide artifacts so we push them through the screen as a last second check before we put the dirt into the back dirt pile,” Jenks said.

Jenks is one of about 26 students from Oregon State University excavating Robert Newell’s first home.

The story goes that in the 1840’s he built it here next to the Willamette River.

Over time, others settled nearby and a town sprouted.

Evan Sernoffsky / OPB
Nails are found at the summer dig.

But Mother Nature had other plans. The entire town was swept away by a flood in 1861.

100 years later, nobody knew where Newell’s first house had been located. He’d built another on a hill, which now serves as a museum. But the original site was lost to history.

That was until 1998 when ground-penetrating radar pinpointed its location.

Now says OSU Professor David Brauner, there’s even more reason to study the site.

“We started finding much earlier artifacts. Suggesting somebody was here before Newell,” he said.

Brauner believes the house probably dates back to a man named John Ball, a school teacher from Fort Vancouver who farmed here in the 1830’s.

But Brauner is also interested in evidence of another community of perhaps 100 families who were living in the area before either of them arrived. He calls them the Metis and he believes they were French Canadians who had worked for the Hudson Bay Company.

“They spoke French in a variety of a Indian languages. The men had local Indian wives … they weren’t literate. They weren’t writing about themselves. So when the Americans start coming in in droves, after 1843… they were sort of viewed just like the Indians, like the landscape. They were to be gotten rid off,” Brauner explained.

Ph.D candidate Molly Manion, says to her, the Newell House is like a little island of English speakers in the middle of French Prarie.

“And so we’re kind of hoping that this’ll be a baseline for us to start comparing against the French Canadians to see if we can acutlally see that difference between the American culture that was coming in and the French culture that was already established,” Manion said.

Back at the dig, students work around the original fire hearth — carefully put together with interlocking broken bricks. There’s also a path that Brauner had hoped would lead to an outhouse.

 “If we could find a privy, they’re valuable archives of information for people.”

Brauner explained why, “Well. This may sound sort of gross. But you get a lot of information about diet…. Privies were often used as disposal sites. You get a lot of bottles and crockery and whatnot in a privy. …Sometimes you can learn about their ailments —  if they had parasites, sometimes their egg cases would preserve in the now organic soil in the privy.”

They haven’t found the privy yet. But over the last three days they’ve uncovered several bits of smoking pipe, part of a glass tumbler, a fork, a hook for clothes and the metal tap for a barrel. Digging is expected to continue until August 5th.

Tours are organized for those who would like to see the dig. More details are available at the Oregon State Parks webpage.

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