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Estimated to have 2200 people at the beginning of the 18th century, the Tillamook lost population in the 19th century to infectious disease and effects of encroachment by European Americans. In 1849 they were estimated to have 200 members. In 1856 they were forced to the Siletz Reservation with other small remnant tribes. In 1898 the Tillamook and the Clatsop, another Coast Salish people, were the first tribes to sue the United States government for compensation for land it had taken from them. They were paid a settlement in 1907. Their descendants are now considered part of the Siletz, as generations of people have intermarried.
According to anthropological and archaeological research, the first ancestors of the Tillamook settled in their historic territory in the 15th century, living in an area ranging from Cape Lookout to Cape Meares. The Native American Historical Data Base (NAHDB) calculates that the population was about 2200 in at the beginning of the 18th century, based on written historic accounts.
The first documented encounter of Europeans with the Tillamook was in 1788 by Robert Haswell, second mate on Robert Gray's ship. A second encounter was in late 1805 by the American Lewis and Clark Expedition, who were wintering at Fort Clatsop. They had reached the Pacific Coast while exploring the extent of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase for President Thomas Jefferson.
A whale was washed ashore near Necost, and the Tillamook quickly stripped it of flesh, saving the blubber as food and the oil for later use. After hearing of this, Lewis and Clark sought to trade for blubber. They received 300 pounds and some oil in exchange for trade goods. Lewis and Clark described a village of around 1000 people living in about 50 houses, estimating the entire population at around 2200. According to the expedition, the staple food source of the Tillamook was salmon. The people caught salmon during the annual salmon run of April to October, when the salmon went upstream in freshwater rivers from the ocean to spawn. The Tillamook ate some fresh and processed much of the fish to use throughout the year, preserving it by drying it and grinding it into a powder.
In 1824 and 1829 the tribe suffered high mortality in smallpox epidemics; this was a new infectious disease to them, introduced by contact with European peoples, among whom it was endemic. Native Americans suffered because they had no acquired immunity. The arrival of Oregon Trail settlers in 1841 and resulting conflicts over land and resources caused further population losses. By 1845 Wilkes estimated there were 400 Tillamook remaining. In 1849 Lane estimated 200 of the tribe survived.
In 1856 the federal government forced the Tillamook and more than 20 other remnant tribes to the Siletz Reservation. Additional population estimates are impossible as the tribes have intermarried and are no longer separately enumerated. In 1898 the Tillamook became the first tribe to sue the US government for compensation for the lands they had taken, along with the Clatsop. In 1907, along with two other tribes, they were awarded $23,500.
The Tillamook initially spoke Tillamook, a Salishan language, but gradually began to use English in greater amounts. The last fluent speaker of Tillamook died in 1970, rendering the language extinct. Between 1965 and 1972, in an effort to revitalize the language, a group of researchers from the University of Hawaii interviewed the few remaining Tillamook and created a 120-page dictionary.
Early 20th-century anthropologist Franz Boas wrote, "The Tillamook Indians are the most southern branch of the Coast Salish. They live on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, and are separated from their more northern kinsmen by tribes speaking Chinookan languages. Their language is spoken two dialects, the Siletz and the Tillamook proper. It was first described and classified by Horatio Hale in the Publications of the Wilkes Expedition."
The name Tillamook was derived from Chinook people's references to them, referring to their place of settlement. It meant the people of Nekelim (pronounced Ne-elim). The latter name means the place Elim, or, in the Cathlamet dialect, the place Kelim. This dialect differed from the northern dialects in its peculiar phonetics. Boas noted that the culture of the Tillamook seemed to have differed quite considerably from that of the northern Coast Salish, and has evidently been influenced by the culture of the tribes of northern California.
The Tillamook were skilled basket-weavers, and had a detailed mythology with links to existing events; the Story of the Thunderbird and Whale, for example, reflects the large earthquake in that region in 1700. The Tillamook divided their mythology into three categories; the earliest was the Myth Age, followed by the Age of Transformation, when the "South Wind" remade the land. The third age is the "period of true happenings", or events that happened in what the Tillamook considered recent history. Despite this, stories from the third age were considered just as much of a myth as those from the first or second.
Some Nekelim people are enrolled in either the federally recognized Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon or the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. Other Nehalem are part of the unrecognized Clatsop Nehalem Confederated Tribes.
- Barry M. Pritzker, A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000; pg. 207.
- Coastal Oregon Native Americans Archived 2006-02-17 at the Wayback Machine.
- Lewis and Clark . Native Americans . Tillamook Indians | PBS
- National Geographic: Lewis & Clark—Tribes—Tillamook Indians
- Ethnologue 14 report for language code:TIL
- Official site of Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes Archived 2011-06-16 at the Wayback Machine.
- The Journal of American Folk-Lore, Vol.11, No. 40, Pg. 23-28
- Indian Tribe History Archived 2009-10-12 at the Portuguese Web Archive
- The Collector’s Guide: Native American Baskets
- Pritzker 208
- Boas, Franz. "Traditions of the Tillamook Indians," Journal of American Folklore, v. 11 (1898), pp. 23–38.
- Crawford, Ailsa. Tillamook Indian Basketry: Continuity and Change as Seen in The Adams Collection. MA thesis. Portland State University, Department of Anthropology, 1983.
- Jacobs, Elizabeth Derr. Nehalem Tillamook Tales. Eugene, OR: University of Oregon Books, 1959.
- Pritzker, Barry M. A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Sauter, John and Johnson, Bruce. Tillamook Indians of the Oregon Coast. Portland, OR: Binfords and Mort, 1974.
- Seaburg, William (ed.) The Nehalem Tillamook: An Ethnography. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 2003.