A Historical River Voyage, Part 2: Up the ‘Cheecheeler River’

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Editor’s Note: As Chronicle journalists paddle down the Chehalis River for the "Headwaters to Harbor" project, we look back at one of the first written accounts of a similar voyage, from Scottish botanist David Douglas in 1825. Read a previous installment and see all the coverage from the project at https://chronline.com/chehalis-river/.

After an exhausting and harrowing journey through tempests and overland toil, David Douglas had fallen into a deep sleep on the south end of what we today call Grays Harbor. He was awakened by his guide, a chief of the native people who lived on the other side of the bay.

Members of Tha-a-muxi’s village had heard the sound of Douglas shooting for ducks the night before. They sent a canoe to pick up the travelers. They lived in one of several villages around the mouth of what we call the Chehalis River, near present-day Aberdeen.

There are various spellings from two centuries ago of the people who lived there and the river itself: Chochalii, Cheecheeler, Chickeeles and Tsihalis. The name is now standardized as Chehalis, meaning “sandy,” a reference to the sandy-bottomed river, according to “Traveler in a Vanished Landscape,” a biography of Douglas and his adventures.

John Work, a Hudson’s Bay Company chief trader who had been in the area of the Chehalis estuary a year before Douglas, noted that the area’s phenomenal salmon runs supported 15 villages at the river’s mouth.

“The Cheecheeler River is a large stream, nearly as large as the Thames, very rapid, with numerous cascades,” Douglas wrote in his journals. “I reached my guide's village a little before dusk, where I had every kindness and all the hospitality Indian courtesy could suggest.”

He met up with Alexander McKenzie, the clerk from Fort George, who was trading in the area. They decided to head home via the Chehalis and Cowlitz rivers. Tha-a-muxi obliged them by ferrying the white men 60 miles upstream in his canoe, probably up to the present-day site of the towns of Chehalis and Centralia.

Douglas writes in his journal:

“On the 7th November, I proceeded up the river in a canoe with my guide; made halts at places such as presented anything different from what I had seen before. On the 11th, I reached sixty miles from the ocean, where I found my canoe too large to pass in many places by reason of cascades and shallowness of the water.

“I abandoned the idea of proceeding further in that direction. I therefore made my guide such presents as were adequate for the service and kindness I had experienced from him.”

As they parted, possibly somewhere near today’s Exit 77 at Interstate 5, their guide asked Douglas “to let all King George's chiefs know of him, when I spoke to them with paper.”

The chief also asked Douglas for a final parting gift: a proper English shave. Douglas happily obliged, and invited him back down to their post at Fort Vancouver for another shave on New Year’s Day.

The gift of a shave was apparently appropriate: their guide’s name, Tha-a-muxi, meant “The Beard.”

Next time: Downstream on the Cow-a-lidsk River.