Digging Oregon’s History at Champoeg State Heritage Area

July 20, 2012 (Updated February 25, 2013)

If you enjoy traveling across Oregon, consider a different sort of journey that lets you travel back to a time when pioneers were putting down roots and starting new lives. At Champoeg State Heritage Area, volunteers really dig Oregon history.

Karly Law loves digging into history and this summer she’s scraping through decades of it, one centimeter at a time. The Oregon State University junior had never seen anything like the palm-sized blue ceramic that she uncovered in the dirt. The young archaeology student was about to make a little history as she pulled the piece that was buried two feet deep in the soil and perhaps dating back nearly centuries too.

OSU Archeology Professor Dr. David Brauer says that OSU’s Archaeology Field School touches the past that’s hidden in the dirt at an Oregon State Park that’s rich with artifacts from the early 19th century. The first pioneers put down roots 180 years ago in the Willamette Valley and they didn’t speak English. “You would hear French – that was the dominant language. The people, the language – all would have been French-Canadian settlers. In fact, the first floor in this house has their artifacts from the 1820’s and 1830’s and we didn’t expect that in any way, shape or form.”

Champoeg State Park Manager Bryan Nielsen adds: “It’s the heritage of Oregon and part of our history that led up to statehood. We’re protecting something under the ground – that we didn’t even know was here – and how lucky we are to have it in a state park.”

Park visitors who join in on the free guided tours of the Champoeg dig site are even luckier because they get to watch the scientists in action. OSU graduate student Molly Manion guides the tours that occur each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10:00 am sharp. The groups range in size from a couple of dozen to as many as fifty park visitors.

The visitors have a chance to watch the action, ask questions and ponder a different time in Oregon’s past. Manion said that this summer’s project is rewriting the Oregon story: “By digging at this site, we’ve added 20 years to Oregon history that we never would have put together without putting archeology and archives together.”

One of the new discoveries that they are putting together is that the French-Canadian settlers lived a much better quality of life than previously thought. That fact is measured by small classic comforts like porcelain dishware.

So far, the dig team has unearthed more than 9,000 artifacts at the park site. That brings us back to Karly Law, who discovered a ceramic chunk with a telltale British trademark. The ceramic piece was part of a larger vase or bowl. It was rare, unusual and she couldn’t have been more proud.

The dig, the tours and the rewriting of Oregon history continue each Monday, Wednesday and Friday through August 13 at Champoeg State Park. The tours start 10 am sharp.

About The

Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.