Only 12 miles northwest of downtown Portland, Oregon is an island within the Columbia River system that is a great example of agricultural, wildlife, and recreational mixed-use. Sauvie Island is reached by traveling west from I-405 on highway 30. Though adjacent to a metropolitan area with a population of nearly two million, the island is predominantly farmland and wildlife refuge with fewer than 1000 year-round residents and only a small number of private enterprises including kennels, nurseries, commercial and hobby farms, and hunting clubs. The vast farms and protected wildlife areas are a visible reminder that Sauvie Island is still a land apart.
Sauvie Island was formed by the Missoula Floods approximately 14,000 year ago. The island is bordered by the Willamette River on the south, Columbia River on the east and Multnomah Channel on the west. A shipping channel runs through this section of the Columbia River, with the occasional freighter or container ship passing through. Sauvie Island is 14 miles long, oriented from north to south and 4.5 miles at its widest point east to west. It is the largest river island in the U.S.
The original inhabitants were the Multnomah Indians – a Chinookan band – numbering approximately 800 in population when first recorded by Lewis and Clark in 1805. The name Multnomah is derived from nemathlonamaq, probably meaning “downriver.” In a journal entry from William Clark dated October 17, 1805 he states: “I took two men in a Small canoe… to an Island… on which two large Mat Lodges of Indians were drying Salmon (as they informed me by Signs for the purpose of food and fuel)… The number of dead Salmon on the Shores & floating in the river is incrediable to say — and at this Season they have only to collect the fish Split them open and dry them on their Scaffolds on which they have great numbers…. The waters of this river is clear, and a Salmon may be seen at the deabth of 15 or 20 feet….”
There were earlier encounters between the Multnomah and whites. On October 28, 1792, Lieutenant William Broughton – as part of a British expedition under Captain George Vancouver – anchored off a point near the northern end of the island and found himself surrounded by 23 canoes of natives, each carrying 3-12 people dressed in war gear and prepared for combat. Consequently, he named this “Warrior Point.”
On the east side of Warrior Point just off the tip lies a feature called “Warrior Rock”, a basalt outcropping of Grande Ronde Columbia River lava. To the southeast of Warrior Rock is located the “Warrior Rock Lighthouse.” Though it remains in place the lighthouse has not been used since 1969 when it was damaged by a barge.
Many other Native American tribes utilized the islands’ favorable climate and abundant natural resources for food procurement. Water birds, fish and mammals were very abundant on the island during the entire year but especially during the winter. Many species of vegetation provided food and shelter, with Wapato – an edible tuber also known as “duck potato” and “Indian potato” – being the staple food for many of these tribes.Wapato is an herbaceous wetland plant that loves shallow ponds, swamps, slow moving streams, and the margins of quiet lakes; all of which are prominent on Sauvie Island. The plant requires a rich muck that is submerged in water for most or all of the year. When cooked, Wapato tubers taste and feel pretty much like Idaho potatoes with a very slight tinge of bitterness and a pleasantly nutty flavor. Lewis and Clark named the island Wappato Island.
In 1824, the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Vancouver, under the direction of Dr. John McLoughlin. (McLoughlin would also go on to be known as “the father of Oregon.) The Fort, in an effort to be self-sustaining, commenced farming operations that included the planting of grain and orchards, and the raising of sheep and cattle. Within a year of its establishment, supplies of seed corn, barley, oats, peas, potatoes, and wheat arrived. Pigs, chickens and other livestock had come in by other Hudson’s Bay posts or by sea from California. On Wappato Island a complex of dairies was created to supply needed milk, butter, and cheese. The Hudson Bay Company employee operating this complex of dairies was named Laurent Sauvie. Hence forth the island became known as Sauvie Island.
By 1834 smallpox and malaria had decimated the Multnomah. The Hudson Bay Company at Fort Vancouver removed the survivors and burned the settlements. The remaining tribes who ceded this area are documented under the treaty by the Confederated Bands of the Willamette Valley signed on January 22, 1855. Collectively, the Multnomah and other peoples who inhabited the Lower Columbia and Willamette Rivers at the time of Euro-American settlement are collectively known as the Grande Ronde. Their descendants are included in the modern Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. By 1856, most of Sauvie Island was staked out by settlers who had crossed the continent via the Oregon Trail.
Today, only remnants remain of this history. The island has many uses including extensive farming. Farmers offer their homegrown fruit and produce in open-air stands throughout the summer and into the early autumn. Blueberries and peaches are great U-pick opportunities now, and the corn is ripening quickly. One of the oldest and largest farms is Sauvie Island Farms which was founded in 1938. The U-pick operation was added in the 1960s. It remains a family enterprise with the third generation now operating the farm. They grow berries, peaches, sweet corn, flowers, and pumpkins for U-pick. Along with these crops, they also grow cabbage, cucumbers, green beans, sweet corn, pumpkins, wheat and more for the wholesale and cannery markets. The farm is open Monday-Saturday, 8am-7pm during the season for U-pick.