The Willamette Valley stretches over 200 miles north-to-south along the Willamette River in Western Oregon. Cradled by mountain ranges to the east and west, the valley branches out northwards from the mountains outside of Eugene up through Salem and then past Portland, where the Willamette River meets the Columbia River at the Washington border. The valley is renowned for its rich and fertile soil, a result of volcanic glacial deposits from the Missoula Floods at the end of the last ice age, and the area is world-famous for its lush, old-growth forests as well as its agricultural output.
A view of the Willamette Valley from the top of Spencers Butte in Eugene.
The Willamette Valley is also world-famous for its prevalence and severity of hay-fever allergies. The valley registers the highest grass pollen counts in the nation on a regular basis, and it was recently stated that Eugene in particular has the highest grass pollen counts in the world. The severity of the pollen varies seasonally as well as yearly, but its especially high throughout May and June, and on the worst days many do not even leave their house due to breathing difficulties. Visitors to the area are often surprised to find themselves violently sneezing out of nowhere, especially if they don’t normally suffer from hay-fever back home where they live. Local residents enjoy pointing out the fact that nobody is immune from the effects of the pollen. Many are often quick to share a well-known local myth in order to drive home the severity of allergy season in the Willamette Valley.
I initially heard the myth on my very first visit to the Pacific Northwest, long before I ever called the Willamette Valley home. I was sitting at a counter in a restaurant just outside of Eugene, my backpack sitting next to me. I started to sneeze profusely, and the man sitting next to me glanced over at me in my sinus-based misery. “You know, ‘Willamette’ is an Indian word meaning ‘valley of sickness’ or something close to that,” he said to me. “The allergies were so bad here that when white folks first came over the [Oregon] Trail, the Indians warned ‘em not to settle here. They thought that we were crazy for doing so.”
The story immediately sounded suspect to me. At the time, I knew nothing of the history of the Willamette Valley, but I did know that far too often, “history” that references Native people is anything but truthful or accurate. As a product of American public schools, I was taught for years on end that Columbus “discovered” America and that the Pilgrims and Indians gathered for a happy Thanksgiving feast. Growing up in the NYC area, I was taught as accepted “fact” that Peter Minuit “purchased” Manhattan from a local tribe for $24. Stories such as these are accepted as “history” to many, and yet they are well-known to be heavily sanitized and mythologized in order to de-emphasize the oppression and colonialism that are central to their true history. I had a hunch at that moment in the restaurant that the “valley of sickness” tale I had just been told was nothing more than sanitized mythology in the same vein as Columbus or Minuit, and yet it was obvious by his telling of the tale that the man next to me believed it as factual truth and fully expected me to believe it as well.
A few years later, after I moved to Eugene, I immediately started to hear variations of the “valley of sickness” tale on a regular basis, told by people from all walks of life. There were many slight variations of the myth, as might be expected with any folklore. Often I heard it told as the valley of “death” as opposed to “sickness”. Once in a while, someone would say that “the Indians nicknamed this the valley of sickness”, as opposed to claiming that the word “Willamette” itself literally translates as such. In some versions, the Indians left and/or didn’t want to live here because of the pollen, and other times they just warned white settlers not to settle here. The basic story is always the same, however. And as opposed to commonly-held beliefs around Columbus, I never heard anyone refute nor even question the “valley of sickness” tale.
After hearing several versions of the tale within the first few months of my living here, it occurred to me more and more that not only was this tale most likely false, but that I was quite disconnected from the history of this valley that I chose as home. Prior to moving to Oregon, I had lived my entire life within a 100-mile radius of New York City, and I was quite well-versed in the history of the New York area, from the landing of the Mayflower through the present. That knowledge, especially as it relates to the land itself, became central to my spiritual exploration and practice when I lived on the East Coast. Researching and examining the history of place in relation to the activities, energies and present tendencies within that place was a source of constant fascination for me, and became essential to my practice in terms of navigating a dense urban landscape from an energetic perspective. Here in Oregon, however, while I had a decent understanding of the local culture, I knew nothing of the actual history of either Eugene in itself or the Willamette Valley as a whole. I felt a need to connect to both the timeline-based history of this valley as well as to the land itself, and I decided to start educating myself in local history using the “valley of sickness” tale as a starting point.
“I knew nothing of the actual history of either Eugene in itself or the Willamette Valley as a whole. I felt a need to connect to both the timeline-based history of this valley as well as to the land itself.”
I broke down the tale in order to identify the basic alleged facts within the story. If any or all parts of the tale have any truth to them, then any or all of the individual facts within the story need to carry some truth:
- That high pollen counts were an issue in the 1850s.
- That the native people who inhabited the land prior to white settlement were adversely affected by the pollen.
- That “willamette” is a native word that translates to “valley of sickness.”
- And/or that “willamette” does not specifically translate as such but the native inhabitants also gave the valley another nickname that translated to “valley of sickness.”
- And/or that the native inhabitants discouraged white settlers from settling in the area due to the pollen.
- That the native inhabitants left because of all the pollen and related sickness.
- And/or the native people never lived here in large numbers in the first place because of all the pollen.
With this outline as a guide, I immersed myself in both the history of the Willamette Valley as well as its present conditions. And indeed, I learned quickly that the “valley of sickness” tale was a multi-layered falsehood that among other things served to deny and mask the injustices done to the native inhabitants of this area. The truth itself did not surprise me as much as how easy the truth was to find for anyone who cared to look for it. A few books combined with a few conversations gave me all the answers I needed.
Prior to white settlement, the Willamette Valley was originally inhabited by the Kalapuya, a semi-nomadic tribe who migrated within the valley for centuries before Europeans ever set foot in Oregon. Lewis and Clark first passed through the Willamette Valley in 1806, and the fur trappers and missionaries came through the area soon thereafter, bringing with them smallpox, measles, and other diseases that the Kalapuya had no immunity to. These diseases ravaged the Kalapuya population through the mid-1800’s, with some sources estimating that over 90% of the Kalapuya had died by the time that the first wave of white settlers came through the Willamette Valley from the Oregon Trail in the early 1850’s.
The remaining Kalapuya referred to the Willamette Valley as the “valley of sickness” after the settlers came, but it was due to smallpox, not hay-fever. Some of the remaining Kalapuya may have migrated elsewhere on account of the widespread sickness, but the rest were removed to a reservation in 1855. The word “Willamette” itself derives from a Chinook word, and there is no definitive record as to its precise meaning. Most historians and scholars agree that it most likely referred to the water and/or specifically the river, and that the word pre-dates the smallpox epidemic and has nothing to do with sickness or pollen.
The pollen issue itself is a separate piece of the puzzle, where the changing terrain of the land itself comes into play. Most significant in terms of disproving the “valley of sickness” tale is the fact that the highly elevated pollen counts that cause such severe allergies in the Willamette Valley are a modern phenomenon that is the result of widespread industrial agriculture as opposed to a natural product of the native ecosystem.
The native terrain of the Willamette Valley was mostly composed of prairie-savannas and wetlands, with a mix of surrounding coniferous forests. The Kalapuya were hunter-gatherers, not farmers, and did not plant or cultivate crops. Various histories of the Kalapuya make no mention of excessive pollen or hay-fever, and there is nothing specific that stands out in the botanical and/or ecological composition of the Willamette Valley prior to white settlement that would give cause for the excessive pollen counts, especially such excessive pollen from any one plant source such as grass.
Rainbow in Willamette Valley
In contrast, the present-day Willamette Valley is a major agricultural center, and commercial non-native grass seed is by far the most prevalent crop. Grass seed production in the Willamette Valley was introduced in the 1920’s, and currently the valley produces nearly two-thirds of the nation’s grass seed. Production in acreage recently peaked at nearly 500,000 acres, and currently nearly 1,500 farms are devoted to grass seed, many of which are owned by national and multinational seed companies. The highest grass pollen counts in the world and the subsequent hay-fever allergies are essentially a direct result of a $250 million-dollar industry that is significantly shielded from blame by the widespread proliferation of the “valley of sickness” tale. But due to the commonly-held belief that residents of the Willamette Valley have been sneezing nonstop since the 1850s, a typical sneezer in Eugene is often completely unaware of the fact that the elevated pollen levels that cause such severe allergies are mainly caused by commercial grass seed production as opposed to by the local trees and plants in the immediate area.
As an outsider in this community, it was initially hard for me to understand why the myth was so prevalent and widespread despite easily accessible information that disproves the story entirely. It was also hard for me to understand the mindsets of several people I encountered who were very aware that at least one or more core factual elements of the tale were untrue. When I asked them if they ever corrected people on the facts, most of them admitted that they did not. “The story is appealing”, one woman told me, defending her silence. “I don’t want to be the bearer of bad vibes.” I disagreed strongly with her stance, but over time I understood her point more than I wished to admit. In a town full of back-to-the-land hippies and leftist intellectuals who are often all-too caught up in a culture of positive affirmations and passive-aggressive niceties, nobody wants to be the one bringing up genocide in the middle of a barbecue.
But over the years, when I look deep into the eyes of the myth itself time and time again, as well as into the eyes of the people who tell it, I have come to understand its appeal within the context of the local culture, especially given the fact that most of those who tell it are white, middle-class folks who are either the descendants of pioneers or transplants from other parts of the country. The myth serves as an easy explanation for the pollen issues, and it connects modern inhabitants of the Willamette Valley with the native people who lived here before them. There’s a sense of comfort inherent in the idea that even indigenous tribes hundreds of years ago suffered from hay-fever as people do today. Many also feel that the myth demonstrates the wisdom of the native inhabitants, and they feel that by telling the tale they are honoring that wisdom. “The Native Americans were right,” a friend said to me recently, in the midst of a hay-fever spell during one of the highest pollen measurements on record. “They warned us not to settle here, and man were they right.”
And yet, the myth is oppressive and damaging on many levels. The myth falsely explains away the modern suffering of those who benefited from colonialism at the expense of the truth behind the suffering of those who were oppressed by the colonizers. Not only does the “valley of sickness” tale dishonor the legacy and memory of the Kalapuya by whitewashing the truth of their history and suffering, but the myth also dishonor the spirits and ancestors of this valley that lived and experienced that truth. The fact that the myth also protects multinational agribusinesses whose profit-driven actions wreak havoc on the health of the people in addition to disrupting the native ecosystem is simply the icing on the cake, especially in an area where local values tend to be left-leaning and anti-corporate in principle.
Deconstructing this myth taught me many lessons, and gave me many insights into the local history and culture that have been invaluable to me ever since. More importantly, my questions regarding the myth not only revealed to me my own disconnect with the history of the land, but the fact that most who live here are ignorant of their own history, both the history of their ancestors as well as the history of this valley itself. My disconnect was due to being an outsider, and to some extent it is the outsider’s perspective that inspired me to develop the relationships and understandings that I have with both the land and the culture of the Willamette Valley. Researching the myth also brought me in contact for the first time with the energies and spirits of this land, a relationship which has not only greatly deepened over time, but one that has become essential to my work as a community activist and amateur historian.
“Researching the myth also brought me in contact for the first time with the energies and spirits of this land, a relationship which has not only greatly deepened over time, but one that has become essential to my work as a community activist and amateur historian.”
It’s currently allergy season, and I’ve heard the “valley of sickness” tale twice this week alone. And while I can’t prevent its telling, nor can I necessarily deflate its ubiquity, I can strongly dent its armor in subtle ways. But rather than lecturing people on genocide, oppression, and whitewashed history, I’ve found that the most effective method of drowning out such sanitized mythology is to simply tell a new story, one based in truth and fact.
And so I have become the awkward guest at the dinner party, so to speak, but I keep it short, sweet, and easy to digest. Whenever I hear the myth mentioned in my presence, my response has become almost automated. “That story is bullshit. The Kalapuya were sick with smallpox, not hay-fever, and pollen wasn’t an issue in the valley until agribusiness moved in. If you don’t like the hay-fever, blame the grass seed companies, but retelling that story only serves to disrespect the original inhabitants of the valley.”
Once in a while, in the midst of debunking the myth, I often sense something in the wind. I take it as a reminder that the land is always listening.