Garry Oaks and Acorns in Native American Cultural Landscapes and Diets

  • By Russel Barsh and Madrona Murphy
  • Posted 1/28/2024
  • Essay 22909
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Garry oaks, the only native oaks in Washington, grow west of the Cascades and along the Columbia River below The Dalles. Although acorns were a staple food for Native Americans in California and to a lesser extent in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, acorn harvesting on any scale in Washington was restricted to prairies between Puget Sound and the Columbia River, and to a relatively small and geographically distinct group of Sahaptin and Coast Salish speakers including the Nisqually, Cowlitz, Chehalis, and Klickitat. In much of Puget Sound and the wider Salish Sea, where most Coast Salish peoples managed or cultivated camas intensively, acorns were an occasional novelty or not consumed at all. But oaks nevertheless benefited from frequent brush- and garden-clearing fires aimed at camas, berries, and deer browse. As such Garry oaks were a distinct, conspicuous element of culturally produced pre-contact landscapes around the lower Columbia River and the Salish Sea in what is now western Washington.

Oaks in the Salish Sea

Garry oak (Quercus garryana) is one of 20 native oak species found on the Pacific Coast of North America, but the only native oak found in western Washington or British Columbia. It tends to be an understory shrub in the deciduous woodlands of the central California Coast, where much larger oak species can dominate the landscape. In the Salish Sea, Garry oaks tend to be encountered as understory shrubs in coniferous landscapes. Genetically, the Garry oaks around the Salish Sea, the inland marine waterways of what are now Washington and British Columbia, belong to a single haplotype that is distinct from the Garry oaks in the Willamette Valley, from where oaks presumably dispersed and recolonized western Washington and British Columbia after the last continental glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago. Garry oaks are considerably more diverse genetically in central California, where they have thrived without interruption for hundreds of thousands of years in competition with other oak species.

Pollen records from areas including the Nisqually River watershed in south Puget Sound suggest that Garry oak populations in the central Salish Sea peaked 6,000 to 8,000 years ago when the regional climate was warmer and drier. Oaks were never as large a component of post-glacial Salish Sea landscapes Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) or Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii). During the period of exploration and settlement by newcomers, oaks were reported mainly in the low-lying prairies that extended from the Nisqually River (on the present-day border between Pierce and Thurston counties) south to the Columbia River, typically interspersed with drought-tolerant conifers such as pines or deciduous trees such as alders and aspen that prefer moister ground. Oaks did not form continuous forests.

In 1833, William F. Tolmie (1812-1886), newly arrived in the region as clerk and surgeon for the Hudson's Bay Company, and also an experienced botanist, made frequent mention in his personal journal of oaks scattered about the "plains" along the Columbia and around the Nisqually prairie, using terms such as "patches of oak," "dotted picturesquely with clumps of oak & aspen," "straggling oaks & pines," "sprinkled with young oaks," "hills thinly clad with oak & pine," and "winding elevations carpeted with young oaks & brake & clothed with Pines" (Tolmie, Physician and Fur Trader, 169, 182, 184, 195, 198, 227). Lieutenant Augustus Case of the Wilkes Expedition described the same landscape in 1841 as "rolling prairies separated by hills of woods," "low & verdant with small pines" and clearings with "grass & flowers" (Charles Wilkes ..., 147-150). Charles Wilkes himself wrote of "an extended plain, covered with pine, oak, and ash trees, scattered here and there so as to form a park-like scene" (Charles Wilkes ..., 18). This is consistent with observations made in 1853 by naturalist James Graham Cooper (1830-1902), who reported "scatter[ed] oaks and Firs" near Fort Steilacoom, a short distance north of Nisqually (Cooper, 91).

In central and northern Puget Sound Garry oaks were restricted to fewer and smaller areas. Oak "parkland" was touted by settlers in the Victoria area as early as the 1850s (Cavers, 70-71), and C. B. R. Kennerly (ca. 1830-1861), a naturalist for the U.S. Boundary Commission, visited a Garry oak-dominated landscape on south-central San Juan Island in 1860:

"About eleven o'clock Dr. Craig, Lt Conner, Mr. Warren, Mr. Griffin & myself started out on a ride over the island. We went out to what is known as Oak Prairie, taking the northern trail out & the southern one in. We had quite a pleasant time notwithstanding that the roads were in a horrible condition "(Kennerly, 44-45).

In five years of collecting and observing natural history in the San Juan Islands and north Puget Sound, however, Kennerly did not otherwise mention of Garry oaks in his field notes.

Garry Oak Habitat

Currently, Garry oaks are concentrated around Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM)and other areas of Pierce, Thurston, and Mason counties in south Puget Sound. Small patches can also be found throughout central and north Puget Sound including Whidbey Island, the San Juan and Gulf islands, southernmost Vancouver Island, and parts of the lower Fraser River valley. Wild-seeded Garry oaks thrive in two kinds of Northwest habitats: deep, relatively level, poorly drained loamy soils that were described as "parkland," "prairies," or "plains" by early European explorers, and were historically associated with the lowlands that extend from the south shores of Puget Sound south to the Columbia River; and dry, gravelly hill slopes and small rocky islands, chiefly in the central and north Sound.

Oaks tend to grow faster and larger when they have access to water; oak seedlings devote most of their energy for two to three years to growing deep taproots. On dry hillsides, windswept small islands, and seashores, Garry oaks tend to be short and shrubby ("scrub oaks" as described by Canadian ecologist Ted Lea) and to produce few acorns. Oaks are often more conspicuous in arid habitats because they enjoy relatively little competition from other woody species.

The same habitat pattern is found in Shore Pines (Pinus contorta), which thrive in peat bogs and fens but can also dominate dry hill tops and rocky islands in western Washington. Camas (Camassia quamash and Camassia leichtlinii), a well-documented traditional Native American staple food throughout the Northwest, was reportedly transplanted from dry slopes into moist prairies and gardens so it would grow larger and be easier to harvest. Oaks, pines, and camas are therefore often found together in the same landscapes, and are all vulnerable to being outcompeted and overgrown by native roses, snowberry, and Douglas firs except under the most arid conditions.

The prairies described by early explorers and settlers of the Pacific Northwest were relatively flat areas with few trees, dominated by wildflowers, mosses, ferns, and sparse native grasses. They were large openings in otherwise continuous, dense forests dominated by conifers. With their deep, organically rich, humid soils, prairies along the lower Columbia and Nisqually rivers were already in demand by newly arriving settlers by the early 1800s, and were quickly degraded by sheep, cattle, horses, and plows. Settlers also sowed Eurasian grasses for their sheep and other livestock, which quickly displaced native wildflowers, including edibles such as camas.

Managing Landscapes with Fire

A characteristic of prairies in western Washington is their tendency to be quickly overgrown by grasses, shrubs, and trees. Ecological succession from wildflowers to woodlands proceeds on a decadal scale. If these habitats are so transient under natural (unmanaged) conditions, how could they have been so widespread in the past? James Graham Cooper, who explored the region in 1853 as part of the Pacific Railroad Surveys team, was the first to attribute western Washington's extensive prairies to fires set periodically by Indigenous peoples. Indigenous uses of fires to modify and manage landscapes, including on the Pacific Coast from California to British Columbia, are now widely recognized.

There is physical evidence that fire frequency in Salish Sea landscapes increased approximately 2,000 years ago, during a period that also witnessed increasingly large and widespread permanent human settlements. Fire technology probably contributed to the dramatic growth of Coast Salish economy and population at that time by modifying landscapes to increase food production. Camas gardens benefit from burning weeds every few years. Camas and other root foods in lightly-managed prairies would also benefit from the occasional fire to recycle nutrients and push back encroaching shrubs and trees.

While early explorers found oaks scattered throughout southwestern Washington prairies, they associated Native American management and use of these habitats chiefly with camas, berries, and wapato or "Indian potato" (Sagittaria latifolia), rather than oaks or acorns. Cowlitz and Upper Chehalis elders told pioneer ethnographer Thelma Adamson (1901-1983) in the 1920s that their ancestors had burned the prairies along the Columbia River to produce more deer, wild berries, and camas. Nisqually Tribal historian Cecilia Svinth Carpenter (1924-2010) stressed the importance of prairies for the annual harvest of camas.

Fire does not promote germination of Garry oak acorns, which sprout where they lay in winter, responding to water rather than to heat or smoke. The authors found that frequent prescribed burns in the San Juan Islands defoliated oak seedlings and impeded their growth. It nevertheless appears that Garry oaks often benefited indirectly from light burns ignited by Native Americans in the past because fires helped suppress competing shrubs and trees.

Harvesting Acorns

Acorn-flour breads have long been a part of some southern European diets, although associated with poverty and poor grain-harvest years. Once bitter water-soluble tannins have been leached out of dried, ground acorns, what remains is mainly digestible starch.

Acorns made up a large part of the traditional diets of Indigenous peoples of California, such as the Chumash, Pomo, and Miwok, all of whom had extensive vocabularies for different kinds of oaks and acorns, specialized tools for gathering and processing acorns, and acorn cuisine. In central and southern California, acorns were the most important food plant, playing a role very similar to the role of camas in Coast Salish diets in western Washington and British Columbia. Indigenous Californians routinely used fire to manage oak stands for more acorns, which only incidentally benefited camas and other root foods that grew in wildflower meadows.

In western Washington, acorns could have been a food resource that incidentally benefited from burning habitats for camas. The threshold question is the extent to which acorns were valued as food by the Coast Salish, Sahaptin, and Chinookan-speaking peoples that inhabited the Salish Sea and lower Columbia River.

The authors confirmed that Garry oak acorns from the San Juan Islands can easily be processed to remove tannins, yielding a mealy palatable flour. Meal produced from acorns collected on San Juan Island in October 2023 was used to make bread that was served to colleagues at a gathering of the Indigenous Plants Forum, and was appreciated as mildly nutty in flavor. Acorns have begun to attract the attention of Northwest foragers.

Hence here is no culinary reason why acorns would not have been harvested by Native American peoples of western Washington in the past. First-hand accounts located to date, however, are limited to those recorded in the "Journal of Occurrences" kept at the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Nisqually in what is now the city of DuPont. On August 9, 1834, the journal reported that a "large party of Indians ... have pitched near us for the purpose of gathering acorns and berries" ("Journal of Occurrences," 70). Coast Salish people continued to visit the trading post and collect acorns as summer turned to fall. On September 26 the journal noted "Indians are as usual employed at gathering acorns for the winter" and on October 1 it recorded "[t]he Indians are still about us gathering acorns" ("Journal of Occurrences," 75, 144). Acorn harvesters were mentioned once again three years later, in November 1837, with a reference to relatives of the local Nisqually coming from across southern Puget Sound to help gather the crop and take some home for their winter use.

A clue to the possible importance of acorns to Sahaptin speakers on the lower Columbia River is a sketch map of the Klickitat Trail in the flyleaf of James Graham Cooper's 1853 field notebook, which identifies a small "plain" a short distance northeast of Fort Vancouver as Wahwaikee; this word has been interpreted more recently to mean "acorn." In Sahaptin, the term wawačí can mean the wild native hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) as well as an acorn, however. Acorns and oaks are otherwise missing from the Indigenous place-names that early explorers and traders recorded for the Nisqually prairies and Fort Vancouver plains, although one prairie was known as ləkəmə́s' íli'i ("camas land").

Oral history of eating acorns in western Washington is largely restricted to the Sahaptin-speaking peoples of the lower Columbia River and their closest Coast Salish-speaking neighbors on the southern shores of Puget Sound, such as the Nisqually, Chehalis, and Twana. The earliest published reference to an acorn-harvesting tradition in western Washington was made by photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), who in his 1913 album Salishan Tribes of the Coast asserted:

"Acorns were highly regarded. Western Washington is peculiar in having, dotted here and there from the northern to the southern border, little patches of prairie from a few acres to several thousand acres in extent. Here grow scattering groves of small oak trees from which hundreds of bushels of acorns were harvested annually. Nisqually Plains, at the head of Puget sound, furnished the chief supply of the nuts for Sound tribes, and thither in the fall came canoes from all points on the neighboring waters and even from the Strait of Juan de Fuca" (Curtis, 59).

Curtis did not identify his source and the canoe-loads of acorns he described may have been an exaggeration; they had been missed by 19th century observers like Myron Eells (1843-1907) and George Gibbs (1815-1873) who described the lifeways of Coast Salish peoples.

Acorns in Traditional Diets

Professional ethnographic fieldwork in the decades following Curtis's publication confirmed the presence of acorns in traditional diets of some south Sound and lower Columbia cultures, if not at the scale or regional extent that Curtis claimed.

Marian Wesley Smith (1907-1961) conducted fieldwork with Nisqually elders in the 1930s. In an exhaustive review of traditional Nisqually plant foods, including 22 species of roots and berries, Smith wrote "Acorns were gathered wherever they could be found and salt water groups made special trips to prairie groves to obtain them. They were eaten raw or pit-baked" (Smith, 251). Nisqually historian Cecelia Svinth Carpenter cited Smith and the Fort Nisqually journals as evidence of traditional use of acorns, but underscored the importance of camas in her writings). In 2017, the Nisqually Tribe's "food sovereignty" program asked Tribal members which traditional food plants they continued to eat, or would like to eat. Camas was on the list, but acorns were not (Krenn).

Some twenty miles southwest of the Nisqually prairie, Chehalis people dug camas and other edible roots at Grand Mound. Acorns were also gathered, leached, and baked for eating, according to elders interviewed by Thelma Adamson in 1926 and 1927. Other "nuts" were also gathered, presumably wild native hazelnuts that grew throughout Puget Sound and the lower Columbia River.

At the head of Hood Canal not too far from the Chehalis, the Twana (modern-day Skokomish Tribe) made "minor" use of acorns along with pine nuts and hazelnuts, according to the elders that William F. Elmendorf (1912-1997) interviewed in the 1930s:

"Acorns (ča'aʼč) were occasionally eaten fresh, or prepared ground as cakes or mush. All seem to have been supplied by Upper Chehalis (k'wayɜʼłq) visitors or obtained from this people in trade. They were never leached" (Elmendorf, 130).

Similarly, ethnographer Eugene Hunn (b. 1943) concluded that acorns were routinely eaten by Sahaptin-speaking peoples of the lower to mid-Columbia River, although not as a significant part of their traditional diet . Sahaptin peoples also dug and ate camas; but while they protected and sometimes burned their root-digging fields, they did not cultivate camas in the same intensive way as Coast Salish villagers, and they wild-harvested a much greater variety of other root foods. Specific terms for acorns, along with camas and a large number of other roots, seeds, and nuts, have been documented in Sahaptin.

There is less evidence of acorn harvesting among Coast Salish peoples of central Puget Sound and farther north, where prairies were fewer and much smaller, and Garry oaks more sparsely distributed. The Nooksack cultural teacher Elizabeth King George says that you look for oaks to find the best-cared-for and least-disturbed part of a prairie, where there will be plenty of camas bulbs and other plants to eat. In her telling, oaks are useful as a compass species, rather than a food resource.

Erna Gunther (1896-1982) reported that Klallam people in the Port Townsend area sometimes ate acorns, mashed up raw and never leached like the Twana. In a subsequent paper incorporating the unpublished field notes of Herman Haeberlin (1891-1918) on the Snohomish and Snoqualmie people of the central Sound, Gunther argued that "Acorns were more important for some Puget Sound people, as for instance the Nisqually, than for others, but everyone seems to have made some use of them" (Haeberlin and Gunther, 20-21). Gunther walked back this broad assertion in her 1945 synthesis of Indigenous uses of plants in western Washington:

"The Nisqually, Chehalis, Cowlitz, and Squaxin, who live in sections where oak trees are most numerous, use the acorn as food, but in the true evergreen forest area that is an unknown dish" (Gunther, Ethnobotany ..., 27-28).

Ethnographer and linguist Wayne Suttles (1918-2005) concluded in 1951 that "Camas was by far the most important" traditional food plant in the San Juan and Gulf Islands, followed by yampah or Indian carrot (Perideridia gairdnerii)," Springbank clover (Trifolium wormskjoldii), and bracken fern roots (Pteridium aquilinum) (Economic Life, 58). His informants did not mention acorns. The Lummi elders consulted by John Peabody Harrington (1884-1961) in the 1940s did not mention acorns, nor did the Swinomish elders interviewed by Sally Snyder (1930-1967) for an exhaustive list of traditional food and medicinal plants. Thus, acorns were almost certainly absent from the diets of Coast Salish peoples that lived north of present-day Tacoma.

Treats Rather Than Staples

Specific terms for acorns are absent from the recently completed modern dictionaries of the Coast Salish languages of the central and south Sound (Lushootseed) and of the north Sound, San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island (the Senćoŧen dialect of Lekwungen or "Northern Straits"). Most Coast Salish languages have a general term for tree-nuts, which is derived from the Proto-Salish root s-c'ík'/k and does not distinguish between pine nuts, hazelnuts, and acorns. Thus, the Nisqually word for acorns recorded by Marian Smith as tcats could have meant hazelnuts as well. In Lushootseed, q'áp'x̆w , from a root meaning something that cracks or makes a cracking sound, can be used to refer generally to nuts, or specifically to the native hazelnut. As noted earlier, the term wawačí in Sahaptin can refer to hazelnuts as well as acorns, and the same is true of the word p'íshech' in Lekwungen.

Confounding hazelnuts with acorns may explain ethnographic references to eating acorns raw. In California, where acorns were a staple food, Indigenous peoples went to great lengths to dry the nuts and leach out their tannins. Acorns may have been an occasional novelty for the Twana and Klallam, and they simply did not know how to prepare them properly. Or perhaps more likely, Elmendorf's and Gunther's informants were confusing acorns with pine nuts or hazelnuts, both of which can be eaten fresh from the cone or shell, although their flavors benefit from drying and roasting.

Only three archaeological sites in the Pacific Northwest have yielded leaching or roasting pits with the remains of acorns and/or hazelnuts: Sunken Village near Olympia, Sauvie Island on the lower Columbia River, and Ozette on the Pacific Coast of the Olympic Peninsula. Sunken Village is close to the remnant oak prairies of the Nisqually watershed. No acorn pits have been found farther north in the Salish Sea, although camas-roasting pits have been documented there, including at Ebey's Landing on Whidbey Island. This is consistent with acorns having been a localized food tradition in parts of the southernmost Sound and mid-Columbia River that did not extend elsewhere in the Salish Sea.

It remains to consider why many Coast Salish seemed only marginally interested in this potential food resource that co-existed with their carefully maintained camas prairies, meadows, and gardens.

A plausible explanation can be found in the reproductive behavior of oaks, which produce large crops of acorns sporadically ("mast"), rather than annually, as a means to foil insects and other predators of acorns. In California, where there are 20 species of oaks, some of them are bound to mast in any given year; their reproductive cycles overlap, making the oak community as a whole a reliable food source for people as well as wildlife. Indeed, there is archaeological evidence that Indigenous peoples of central California relied more heavily on acorns than on salmon until relatively recent times (Tushingham and Bettinger).

In Washington and British Columbia however, with a single oak species, the annual supply of acorns varies unpredictably. In the San Juan Islands, we have observed a "mast" only once or twice per decade. By comparison, camas harvesting is highly reliable.

"One of the most anticipated seasonal treks to the open prairies was the trip to dig the camas bulbs. Being one of the staple foods of the Nisqually Indian people, a bountiful harvest of this little bulb represented food on the table come next winter. The camas never disappointed them" (Carpenter, "The Camas Bloom Again," emphasis added).

In addition, kinship and trade networks throughout the Salish Sea ensured that no village would go hungry in the event of a local crop failure or poor fishing. Under these conditions, for much of the area acorn-based foods would be treats when available, rather than staples the way they were for Native peoples in California.


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