Although Washington is one of the more recent additions to the United States, archaeological evidence suggests that the Pacific Northwest was one of the first populated areas in North America. In recent years, animal and human remains as much as 13,000 years old have been found across the state.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, archaeologists uncovered numerous artifacts and partial skeletons of people known as Marmes Man in a cave overlooking the Palouse River near its confluence with the Snake River. Dated at more than 10,000 years old, this is one of the earliest known human occupation sites in North America.
At Ozette in the northwest corner of the state, an ancient village was covered by a mudflow, perhaps triggered by an earthquake some 500 years ago. More than 50,000 well-preserved artifacts have been found and cataloged; many are now on display at the Makah Cultural and Research Center in Neah Bay. Other sites have also revealed how long people have been here: Thumbnail-sized quartz knife blades found at the Hoko River site near Clallam Bay are believed to be 2,500 years old.
One of the most fascinating discoveries occurred in 1977, when Emanuel Manis, retired on a farm outside of Sequim, was digging a pond on a back corner of his land and found two enormous tusks. A Washington State University archaeological team, led by zoologist Carl Gustafson, concluded that these were 12,000-year-old mastodon tusks. The group discovered other mastodon bones, including a rib that contained the bone point of some prehistoric weapon used to kill the animal. These bones are now on display at the Sequim-Dungeness Museum in Sequim.
According to one theory (hotly disputed right now), Native Americans originally crossed over to Alaska from Asia at the end of the last Ice Age, when the sea was 300 or more feet below present levels and the strait was a walkable passage. As these peoples spread throughout the Pacific Northwest, they adopted significantly different lifestyles on each side of the Cascades. West of the mountains, salmon, shellfish, whales, and other seafood made up a large part of the Native American diet; western red cedars provided ample wood for canoes, houses, and medicinal teas and ointments. A mild climate and plentiful food allowed these coastal tribes to stay in one place for most of the year, and in fact the north coast tribes were among the wealthiest in America. They often built longhouses—wooden structures up to 100 feet long and 40 feet wide that housed several families.
Coastal tribes were skilled canoe carvers and could travel up the Columbia as far as The Dalles, where rapids prohibited further progress. Inland tribes would meet them here for an annual fair with trading, dancing, gambling, and general hell-raising. Haidas and Tlingits from Alaska and British Columbia thought nothing of paddling hundreds of miles to trade—or raid.
East of the Cascades, particularly near the Columbia River, salmon was an important part of the diet, though dependence on deer, elk, bear, squirrel, and rabbit led these tribes to live seminomadic lives. The introduction of the horse to eastern Washington in the mid-1700s made hunting, especially for large bison, much easier. Native Americans in eastern Washington lived in caves or rock shelters while hunting, as well as in well-insulated pit houses that could hold several families.
The Europeans’ arrival was met with reactions ranging from tolerant acceptance to swift murder. Relations between the races are still strained today; the interpretation of peace treaties signed in the 1850s is being hotly debated, with many lawsuits concerning property, water, and especially fishing rights pending. Tribes have also caused considerable consternation among some local and state governmental agencies by building casinos on their reservations and earning millions of dollars each year for their members. Most Native Americans do not live on reservations, though there are 22 reservations scattered throughout Washington, the largest being the Yakama and Colville.
© Ericka Chickowski from Moon Washington, 8th edition