Comcomly's Tomb

Comcomly's Tomb

A burial site that looks like a canoe elevated by four large posts

Special Collections, Mansfield Library, The University of Montana

Wood engraving by Joseph Drayton (1795-1856) from a drawing by A. T. Agate, in Charles Wilkes, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (6 vols. 1844-45), 4:321.

Comcomly was a prominent Chinook citizen and leader whose people lived on the north side of the Columbia estuary, on the shore of Haley's Bay. On November 17, 1805, he introduced himself to Lewis and Clark at Station Camp. "The Chief of the nation below us came up to see us," wrote Clark. "The name of the nation is Chinook and is numerous. They live principally on fish, roots, a few elk, and fowls. They are well armed with good fusees."

He was a power broker on the lower Columbia River from at least 1795 until his death. When John Jacob Astor's fur traders established their post at Astoria in 1811, Comcomly offered his warriors to help them defend themselves against the British, but when the British seized the fort in 1812, he astutely switched sides.

Comcomly is believed to have died about 1830 during an epidemic of "Intermittent Fever," also called the "Cold Sick"—probably malaria—that plagued the coastal area for several years. His remains were interred in a canoe, according to Chinook custom, in the family burial ground near Point Ellice. In 1835 a Hudson's Bay Company doctor named Gairdner robbed the coffin of the chief's skull and sent it to Scotland for scientific study. Some of Comcomly's people placed the rest of his bones in a wooden box and carried them to the hill behind present-day Astoria, overlooking the river. The tomb there was in ruins when Agate recreated the scene with his pen in 1841.

Further Reading

Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, The Chinook Indians: Traders of the Lower Columbia River (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), 194-96.