Salishan, Sahaptian, Chinookan

The Columbia Gorge's native traders spoke languages belonging to one of three major families: Salishan, Sahaptian, or Chinookan. With Clark recording their vocabularies, the expedition met speakers from each of these families.


Proto-Salishan is thought to have begun in the Fraser River delta, at today's Vancouver, British Columbia. There the 850-mile-long Fraser–once the world's richest salmon fishery–ends its journey from Mount Robson in the Rocky Mountains near Prince George, British Columbia.

Two widely separated branches of Salishan languages developed, Coastal and Interior. From above Vancouver Island's northern end, to the central Oregon coast, Coastal Salishan's four divisions are: Bella Coola, Central, Tsamosan, and Tillamook. Clark's whale-blubber trading party in January 1806 took him among the Tillamook people near today's Seaside, Oregon, on the Pacific.

Interior Salishan developed later among people who followed natural travel corridors into what are now western Montana and northern Idaho. Among its member languages are Kalispel-Spokane-Selish, Coeur d'Alene, and possibly Kootenay. Meeting with Salish people in western Montana on September 4-5, 1805, Clark described their speech as "a gu[r]gling kind of language Spoken much thro the Throught [throat]." Sergeant John Ordway added a somewhat broader perspective:

[T]hey have the most curious language of any we have Seen before.    they talk as though they lisped or have a bur on their tongue.    we Suppose that they are the welch Indians if their is any Such from the language.1


From The Dalles, Sahaptian (also Shahaptian) languages extended eastward to the Rocky Mountains. Speakers of these languages met by the Corps included the Walulas (Walla Wallas), Klickitat, Tenino, Umatilla, Yakamas, Wanapam, and Nez Perce.

Lawyer, Nez Perce (1905)

Art photo of a young Nez Perce warrior

Special Collections, Mansfield Library, The University of Montana

The man in this portrait, wrote photographer Edward Curtis, "is a member of the family of that Lawyer who played a prominent role in Nez Perce affairs in the years following the treaty of 1855." This man's ancestor, the first "Lawyer"–so-nicknamed by white men in recognition of his persuasive eloquence and keen mind–was Aleiya, the son of Lewis and Clark's friend, Twisted Hair. While negotiating the treaty of 1855, Governor Isaac Stevens declared him a "head chief," over the objections of other acknowledged leaders of the tribe. Whites also renamed the Nez Perces' Commearp Creek after him.

These also include the Klamaths, whom the Corps incorrectly knew as "Snakes" or "Paiutes."2 (The expedition did not meet Klamaths, but learned that Indians of the Lower Columbia's south side feared their raids.)

Sahaptian is a Plateau Penutian tongue; some scholars include Klamath-Modoc in the group, while others note only a close resemblance. The larger Penutian language family ranged from northern California across Oregon and north to Washington's Columbia Plateau.

When Clark met the Nez Perce on Weippe Prairie in September 1805, he found "their dialect appears verry different from the . . . Tushapaws [Salish people] although origneally the Same people," but did not give his source for this incorrect information.


Languages of the Chinookan group were spoken from the Pacific Coast to the lower end of the Columbia Gorge. On the coast, Lower Chinookan speakers spread from Willapa Bay (north of present Long Beach, Washington, the expedition's farthest northern reach on the coast) through the Chinook proper, and south to the Clatsop people on the Columbia's south side.

The border between Lower Chinookan and Upper Chinookan languages was about the eastern end of the Columbia Estuary in 1805. There, as Clark took vocabularies from the Wahkiakums, he noted that their language differed from those spoken upstream. The Wahkiakums shared the Kathlamet tongue with their neighbors on the Columbia's south side, the Kathlamets proper. This language is generally grouped with Upper Chinookan, but some linguists designate Kathlamat (which some label Middle Chinookan) as a third full branch of the Chinookan family.

Upper Chinookan languages were used along both sides of the Columbia River. Now almost all extinct, they included dialects of the Cascades, Clackamas, White Salmon, and the Wishram and Wasco at The Dalles. Their upper extent was, in fact, there at The Dalles, where the Sahaptian-speaking Nez Perce traveling with the Corps announced that they could no longer be helpful as translators.

1. He referred to the historic legend of the Welsh Prince Madoc, who led several boats of his countrymen west across the Atlantic in 1170, and never returned. In the 1530s, Sir George Peckham claimed the men had married native women and settled in North America–a story designed to bolster Elizabeth I's claims to lands there. Which nation the Welsh had married into changed with the teller and with expanding knowledge of the North American interior, and claims were advanced for the Paducahs, Cherokees, Alabama coastal peoples, the Mandans, and many other native tribes. Welshman John Evans, a Missouri Fur Company employee, had tested the Mandans in the 1790s and found no Welsh speakers, but the theory obviously was still alive when Ordway and his fellows headed up the Missouri.

2. The true Pauites, Yahooskins, were a nomadic people who lived close to the land in a harsh natural environment south of the Klamaths, according to Kathleen Shay Hill of the Klamath Tribes, while the Klamaths stayed in politically cohesive villages and chose leaders (women as well as men) for their abilities, assigning each one specific duties or projects. Frederick E. Hoxie, ed. Encyclopedia of North American Indians (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996), 318-19.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program