Snoqualmie-Skykomish Watershed

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 12/27/2016
  • Essay 20226

The Snoqualmie-Skykomish watershed encompasses 1,532 square miles of forests, meadows, hills, and valleys that have been shaped by environmental forces and by generations of human activities. The watershed, in turn, has shaped the communities along its rivers, including the Snoqualmie and Skykomish peoples who have lived there for thousands of years and the non-Native communities that came much later. The rivers begin high in the Cascades and drain the upper portion of the Snohomish River basin, then meet just west of Monroe to form the Snohomish River. Millions of years of geological activity created the Cascade Mountains and glacial action and rivers have shaped the valleys. As the place we know today came into being, the ancestors of today's Snoqualmie and Skykomish people developed their communities and a wide-ranging network of relationships. When non-Native settlers arrived in the 1850s, they entered a place shaped by Native communities. These new settlers brought their own value systems and relationships to the watershed and significantly altered it. Over the past two centuries, the area has been in transition as people living here adapt to new circumstances and develop strategies for living in the watershed.

The Rivers

The Snoqualmie River begins as three forks -- the North, Middle, and South -- in the alpine elevations of the Cascade Mountains north of Snoqualmie Pass. The South Fork flows west from the pass and the other forks flow southwest and merge with the main river near North Bend at Snoqualmie Prairie. Just downstream from the confluence, the river drops abruptly 270 feet at Snoqualmie Falls and enters the Snoqualmie River Valley, where a much gentler slope than the high mountain valleys slows the river as it meanders its way north.

The Skykomish River begins as two forks, the North and South, near the crest of the Cascades. The Tye, Foss, Beckler, and Miller rivers form the South Fork, which meets the North Fork at Index. Sunset Falls, just above Index, marks the break between the upper river, with its rapid descent through narrower valleys, and the broader mid-elevation river valley where the river flows more slowly until it meets the Snoqualmie.

Monumental Forces

The rivers' similar topography is the result of the geological history of the region. Millions of years ago, colliding tectonic plates pushed up the Cascade Mountains. Volcanic activity increased their height as lava flowed across the mountains and cooled.

Alpine glaciers flowed down the valleys from the upper elevations, creating u-shaped valleys that would be further eroded by rivers carrying moisture from rain and snow to the sea. Continental ice sheets moved across the lower elevations repeatedly, scraping the landscape clear and depositing layers of sand, clay, and till. The most recent ice sheet, which covered the Puget lowlands during the Vashon stade of the Fraser glaciation between about 18,000 and 14,900 years ago, largely created the landscape we see today.

During the Vashon stade, the Puget lobe -- an enormous ice sheet about 3,000 feet thick at the location of Seattle today -- filled the lowlands. Along the eastern margin of the ice sheet, deposits formed moraines that blocked rivers flowing from the mountains, filling the valleys with lakes. As the glacier receded, the meltwater formed an enormous lake that filled the Snoqualmie Valley and eroded channels through the ridge on the west as it drained.

Origin Stories

Without written records or even archaeological evidence from the glacial period, it is hard to recreate the human history of that era. We can reference the Transformer stories told by the Snoqualmie people, which explain how the world we know came into being and the nature of relationships between humans and the non-human world. The stories tell how Moon the Transformer changed non-human beings into the plants, animals, and places that humans rely upon to live. These and other stories passed down over the generations guide the Snoqualmie people's relationships with the world and shape their understanding of how people should interact with the world and with each other.

Another important Native story from the Snoqualmie River Valley tells about the origin of the Tolt River and the landslide associated with it. According to the story, the Wolf people came to the Snoqualmie River valley in search of food and found elk in the Tolt River valley. They called the valley Txwoda'tctLib, or elk's tallow, because of the river that was created when the Wolf people poured elk tallow into a ravine.

A recurring theme in these stories is the prevalence of change and disruption in the history of the area. Earthquakes, floods, landslides, and other earth-shaping events occurred periodically. Climate changes, seasonal changes, and the meandering (and often flooding) riverbeds required people who lived here to adapt regularly to new circumstances. Over the millennia they developed a number of cultural practices to help them negotiate this ever-changing world.

Once the ice receded about 15,000 years ago, the basic topography that we know today was in place. The rivers crashed down out of the mountains via glacial valleys, carrying eroded materials from the upper elevations. In the mid-elevations, the gradient lessened as the rivers reached the Snoqualmie Prairie and the Skykomish River Valley below Index. Over thousands of years, the rivers have slowly eroded those former glacial-lake basins, carrying sediment downriver to the lower elevations where the river slowed further, dropping the sediment and creating broad alluvial plains.

Forests and Fish

Although the topography would be familiar to people today, about 10,000 years ago the forests differed significantly. Pine, spruce, and fir trees dominated in the colder and wetter climate. The forests also were somewhat sparser, because soils lacked the nutrients needed to support more abundant plant communities.

Over the next several millennia a combination of nutrient cycles, climate change, and human activities transformed the glacier-scoured landscape into the richly diverse mosaic of forests and prairies that characterizes the watershed today. Decomposing plant matter, animal excrement and carcasses, and minerals built up the soil over thousands of years. A key component of this process were the salmon that began to populate the rivers and streams after the glaciers receded. Studies of salmon evolution have found that, although they usually return to their natal stream to spawn, salmon will colonize new habitat as it becomes available. Strays -- fish that venture up new streams to spawn -- establish new salmon runs after disturbances block old river channels or open new ones.

These salmon runs are vital to the ecological systems that build soil fertility and support biodiversity in the Snoqualmie-Skykomish watershed. The fish carry marine nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, and other micronutrients from the North Pacific. Predators absorb these nutrients and transform the energy from the fish into body mass to be eaten by other animals or broken down as carcasses decompose. Salmon carcasses decay in the streams and rivers after spawning, adding more food and nutrients to the food chain.

Changing Climates

Climate changes also influenced the environment during the post-glacial era. Around 8,000 years ago, the earth tilted on its axis so that the northern hemisphere was closest to the sun during the summer months, leading to warmer-than-usual summer temperatures in the Northwest. Douglas firs dominated the forests during this time, and oak savannas dotted the landscape.

About 6,000 years ago the earth shifted again and summer temperatures cooled. This favored temperate rainforest development in the Pacific Northwest, and pollen records show that a more closed forest of Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar developed. The thicker vegetation accelerated the enrichment of soils, and plant life became more diverse. Beginning about 4,000 years ago, the climate also became wetter, and the western red cedars evolved into the massive trees that would provide building materials for longhouses and logs of sufficient size to fashion into canoes the Native people used to travel long distances over water.

The interaction between vegetation and water also shaped the landscape. Logs toppling into rivers and across creeks created habitat for fish and contributed to logjams that detained water, flooded lowlands, and shifted the paths of waterways. At the highest elevations, wetlands, bogs, lakes, meadows, and subalpine forests influenced how water moved through the land. Forests shielded snowpack from the sun, slowing melting in the spring and summer. At the middle elevations, flooding built up soils that supported riparian habitats and deposited soils that supported riparian vegetation and meadows, while spring freshets exposed gravel beds for spawning.


As the landscape evolved, so too did the communities of people living in the watersheds. Given that many of the materials they would have used were not preserved in archaeological sites and that other kinds of information were kept only through oral histories, we have a limited understanding of the particulars of people's very early interactions with the watershed. It appears that small groups of highly mobile people moved across the watershed, from the upper elevations down to the sound, to take advantage of a wide range of resources. The villages they established were likely located on river terraces, out of reach of floodwaters.

Archaeological evidence suggests that around the time the climate stabilized about 4,500 years ago, people began to move less as they developed techniques for food preservation and storage, which allowed populations to grow and groups to specialize in fewer food resources.

Between about 4,000 years ago and the mid-eighteenth century, the relationships between people and the watershed and between groups of people in the Puget Sound region and beyond grew in complexity. They developed trade relationships to broaden the base of resources they could rely upon and increase security in a land subject to disruptive events like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and seasonal variations in food availability. The rich salmon runs are legendary, but they could diminish unexpectedly due to climate variations or other factors, and it required coordinated efforts to take advantage of the fecundity before the run was complete.

Over time, people established villages, usually along the rivers, that were occupied year-round. The Snoqualmie villages included Toltxw, along the Tolt River; Yell'h, at the site of Fall City today; and Tsoo-tsoo-wah-deb on the Snoqualmie Prairie near today's North Bend. The Skykomish villages included 'Xiatədat the confluence of the Wallace and Skykomish rivers and Xə'xaysalt at the current site of Index.

Following the Seasons

Native peoples also moved around the watershed in smaller groups to places where they tended plants and hunted animals. For example, when the first new vegetation emerged in the spring, families moved to prairies where they could gather salmonberry sprouts. In the early summer, berries could be found in prairies and shellfish could be gathered on beaches. The Snoqualmie and Skykomish spent time on Whidbey Island and at the bay at the mouth of the Snohomish River. Gatherers could take advantage of warm, dry weather to dry berries and shellfish in the sun and preserve them for the winter.

In the late summer people gathered together to catch salmon on the rivers and dry or smoke it for later use. Fall weather drew them to the upper elevations to gather late-ripening huckleberries and to hunt elk, deer, bear, mountain goats, and other land animals. During the dark winter months, people created baskets and other household items, using grasses, horns, stone, and wood they had collected or traded for. They also used that time to share stories, trade, socialize, and conduct spiritual practices.

Knowing Their World

As they moved around to different resources, Snoqualmie and Skykomish people developed a deep understanding of how the environment worked and how they could influence it. They burned prairies to exclude trees and encourage the growth of useful plants such as bracken fern, huckleberries, and camas. Native people were able to easily grow potatoes acquired from the Hudson's Bay Company in the 1840s because their cultivation was similar to the tending of native camas and wapato beds.

Going back to time immemorial, Native people have relied on relationships with non-human beings, including the plants and animals, that help them gain the knowledge needed to manage resources successfully. These practices and knowledge were directly related to the Snoqualmie-Skykomish watershed. Family relationships determined where people could fish or gather. The same berry patches were visited each year, and hunting areas were associated with specific groups of people. It is not coincidental that the rivers bear tribal names. Although tribal governments are more structured and formalized today than they were prior to the 1855 Point Elliott treaty, the rivers each had a band of Coast Salish people connected with it who shared language, customs, and familial ties. They passed place-specific knowledge down through the generations, including traditional gathering sites and where and how fish could be caught and animals hunted. The Snoqualmie and Skykomish were particularly well-known for hunting the wary and nimble mountain goats in the steep alpine reaches of the Cascades. Their wool was prized throughout the region for making blankets.

Relationships through Trade

The Snoqualmie, living in the uplands along a major trans-Cascade trail, occupied a middle ground between coastal groups and plateau peoples from the east side of the Cascade Mountains. They exchanged pelts, skins, and meat for dentalium shells, shellfish, and other coastal goods, then carried those across the mountains to trade for horses, salmon, and other plateau items. While coastal Native groups continued to rely on canoe travel, the Snoqualmie adopted the use of horses from plateau tribes that had acquired them via trade with Native people in the Southwest in the 1730s.

These trade networks formed the most far-reaching layer of relationships developed by the Snoqualmie and Skykomish. The most immediate level, between the bands that lived in the same watershed, offered access to local resources and knowledge. Inter-watershed relationships, many of them also familial through marriage between bands, provided access to a wider range of resources, offering assurance against local scarcity. Regional trade networks offered another layer of protection and access to things that could not be found in the local area, such as bison robes and obsidian. Because of their cross-montane connections, the Snoqualmie people often spoke at least two languages.

The belief systems of the Snoqualmie and Skykomish are centered around the cooperative relationship between humans and the non-human world. While the broader Coast Salish community around Puget Sound was not immune from conflict, it was largely accepting of outsiders and open to the exchange of goods and ideas.

The Newcomers

When non-Native settlers arrived on Puget Sound in the 1840s they could situate themselves in this regional trade network. One entrepreneurial settler, Samuel Hancock, traveled from the mouth of the Snoqualmie River to the Snoqualmie Pass area in 1849. His Indian guides told the local people that "they had received the most favorable accounts of me [Hancock] from the Snohomish Chief at whose instance they had accompanied me, and that their impression was that I was a mah-kook man (merchant) and if I concluded to settle among them they might consider themselves fortunate" (Hancock, 128). Hancock received word from his guides that "This … they were delighted to hear, as they would not then be obliged to go all the way to Fort Nisqually or over the British side to Victoria to do their trading" (Hancock, 128).

However, Hancock was not really a merchant, but instead traveled through the region scouting potential settlement locations for the many non-Natives arriving in Puget Sound. The splendid prairies and forests promised to serve these settlers well, and in the mid-nineteenth century they brought new economic and belief systems into the Snoqualmie-Skykomish watershed.

In keeping with practice across the American West, in 1855 at Point Elliott (site of Mukilteo today) the federal government signed a treaty with the Snoqualmie, Skykomish, and other bands of Coast Salish living north of the Green River area. The tribes ceded a swath of land extending from the crest of the Cascades to Puget Sound and from the Duwamish-Green River Valley north to the Canadian border. The federal government agreed to establish a reservation near Hibulb, a Snohomish Indian village across the Snohomish River from today's Everett. According to the government's plan, the tribal members from all of the tribes would move to this reservation, learn to farm, and be assimilated into the non-Native community.

The treaty was not ratified until 1859, delaying establishment of the reservation -- not that the Snoqualmie or Skykomish eagerly awaited moving there. It was located on the coast, not in the uplands where they lived and where they practiced their spiritual beliefs. The tribes retained their rights to hunt and fish in their usual and accustomed places, which specifically tied them to the upriver valleys and mountains, even if non-Native settlers acquired the lands where they fished and hunted. The non-Natives making the treaties, particularly Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1862), did not see any potential problems with these overlapping claims; they envisioned the Native people would assimilate and cease to exist as tribal entities.

Adaptation, Once Again

The Snoqualmie and Skykomish people dealt with the new circumstances in a variety of ways. Some moved to the reservation when it finally was established in 1859; others stayed in the river valleys. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Skykomish Tribe ceased to exist as a separate political entity, though the Skykomish people did not disappear. They are now members of the Snoqualmie, Tulalip, and other area tribes.

Snoqualmie tribal members established three communities, one at Meadowbrook, one at the junction of the Tolt and Snoqualmie rivers, and one on Lake Sammamish. Some Snoqualmie worked for non-Native settlers, who began claiming land in the river valley in the 1850s. A number of them continued to live according to their traditional practices and values while also adapting to the culture of non-Native settlers.

A Rapidly Changing World

The settlers were largely migrants from New England, the Upper Midwest, and other regions of the United States, along with immigrants, most from European countries. They established small farms and cut timber along the rivers, from where they could float the logs to mills in Everett. They also claimed prairie land to grow crops, though the difficulty of getting goods to market limited what they could sell, and the non-Native population in the valley grew slowly until transportation connections to the growing towns at Everett and Seattle improved. Steamboats began carrying people and goods on the rivers in the 1870s. The Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railway built tracks to North Bend in 1889 and the Great Northern Railway completed its transcontinental railroad through Stevens Pass in 1893. By the 1920s state highways crossed Snoqualmie and Stevens passes, following the routes of Indian trails.

Transportation routes opened up the watershed to new connections with distant markets. Farming, mining, and logging operations relied on trade as the tribes did, but also as a means to raise capital and build material wealth to provide economic security. The new industries introduced new seasonal patterns dictated by the needs of cash crops and livestock.

Economic activity in the Skykomish River valley shifted to mining and logging and Great Northern Railway operations in the 1890s and 1900s. Towns grew up along the river with the railroad and nearby lumber mills. The Snoqualmie River had more farmland, especially in the lower valley around Carnation. On the Snoqualmie Prairie, the Hop Growers Association operated an enormous hop farm from 1887 until the 1890s.

Sawmills began operating near Monroe in 1860 and at the mouth of Tokul Creek in the Snoqualmie valley in 1872. When steam engines made it possible to access trees at higher elevations and to cut them more quickly, production picked up. Weyerhaeuser operated the Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company and Cherry Valley Logging Company as subsidiaries beginning in the 1910s. Bloedel-Donovan began logging on the Skykomish River and in its tributary valleys in 1919.

Beginning in the 1880s, the Army Corps of Engineers kept navigation open on the Snoqualmie River to Fall City below Snoqualmie Falls, and to Sultan on the Skykomish River. For decades, the Corps removed snags and logjams, built levees, armored riverbanks, straightened and dredged channels, and carried out other projects intended to confine the rivers to their channels and promote transportation.

The Price of "Progress"

Throughout all of this change, the Snoqualmie people continued to live and work in the river valley. It was difficult to continue their traditional practices; racism limited where they could live and cast them as outsiders in their traditional territories, but the Snoqualmie maintained their connection with places important to them. A member of the Snoqualmie Tribe then, and now, is closely tied to places in the Snoqualmie watershed and nearby areas through the practice of their cultural traditions and spiritual beliefs. Their treaty-reserved rights also connect them directly to their "usual and accustomed places" for fishing, hunting, and gathering.

This contrasts sharply with non-Native settlers. When lumber companies exhausted New England and Upper Midwest forests, they moved on to the West Coast and reestablished their operations in new places. Their cultural practices and economy were defined by what they were doing, not where they were doing it. For a nearly a century, it appeared that the local ecosystems could withstand the logging, mining, river management, farming, and fishing that accompanied this worldview.

When issues arose around water pollution, erosion, declining fish populations, and rapidly disappearing timber stands, efforts were made to address the most urgent problems. Fish and game laws limited pressure on the reduced populations. Water- and air-pollution legislation followed. The establishment of the Snoqualmie National Forest in 1908 provided some protection for alpine forests, although significant logging continued until the development of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1992 set new forest-management standards and logging decreased precipitously. Additional preserves have protected other forests, including the Mountains to Sound Greenway and the Raging River Natural Area.

Local and regional population growth has had a significant impact on the watershed. The City of Seattle dedicated a dam and reservoir on the Tolt River for its municipal water system in 1964. The City of Everett constructed a dam and pipeline at Spada Lake to supply its water system. The opening of the Lake Washington Floating Bridge in 1940, along with the continued development of highways, opened up the watershed to suburban development. The population in the Snoqualmie basin doubled between 1980 and 2000 and continues to grow.

Making Amends

The 1994 listing of Puget Sound Chinook salmon as an endangered species triggered requirements for restoring the salmon runs in the Puget Sound basin. As a result, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and tribes are working together to reclaim the processes and functions that will allow the rivers to support fish populations. This requires more accommodation to enable the rivers to function as they did in the past.

In 1999 the Snoqualmie Tribe gained federal recognition, giving it a formal role in land-use management and watershed-restoration projects. Beginning with the Boldt decision in 1974 that reaffirmed the treaty tribes' rights to fish in their usual and accustomed areas, a series of legal decisions have clarified that those rights can only be exercised if there are salmon to fish. But the courts have also reaffirmed the tribes' rights to hunting, shellfish gathering, and access to and protection of culturally significant places, even if they are in wilderness areas or national parks.

In combination with the need to meet treaty obligations, a growing recognition of the challenges of climate change has led government agencies to begin to think about the watershed differently. Planning now emphasizes ecosystem services and the interconnectedness of human health, cultural stability, and environmental health. The Snoqualmie Tribe and the Tulalip Tribes have been involved in a number of restoration projects and consult with other government agencies in the watershed. More so than in the past, tribal values and priorities are part of decision making about the watershed, opening up the possibility that the Snoqualmie people will be able to preserve their traditional knowledge and carry out their traditional cultural activities, and that non-Native people will learn to live in the region more sustainably.


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