For Yakama, history is about Kamiakin’s garden

By Adriana Janovich
Ahtanum, Washington (AP) 9-07

No wheat rustling in the wind.

No maturing cornstalks. No ripening vegetables.

No monument, either. No roadside marker. No trace, really, that this place once helped nourish a nation.

Sure, stuff still grows here – grass, weeds, wildflowers – but nothing cultivated. These days, Kamiakin’s Garden exists on paper – in records, books and photographs – and online, in electronic files. The people who would remember it, who were there, have long since faded into the shadows of time and shrouds of the earth, just like the garden itself.

History buffs, old-timers and tribal members know of its existence. But how could the average passer-by? There are faint, if any, remains of the garden on this patch of pastureland.

Still, its significance endures.

This land was nurtured by a great Yakama leader, once described by author Theodore Winthrop as “every inch a king.” His garden served as one of the earliest examples of agriculture in the Yakima Valley. In fact, it is credited with bearing the first irrigation ditches, along with the St. Joseph Mission at Ahtanum, just down the road.

Take a drive to the area and try to look back in time.

That’s what Yakima historians Yvonne and George Wilbur did one afternoon in late spring, parking on a dirt turnout along the south side of Ahtanum Road.

“We”re sure it was right on this land,” 74-year-old Yvonne Wilbur says, making her way to a farmer’s fence, which blocks her way to the spot where the historic garden and its network of irrigation ditches might have been.

Facing the brown, lonely hills of the Ahtanum Ridge and trying to see into the past, she says she feels a bit sorrowful. It’s sad – “Isn’t it?” – there are no reminders. There’s no evidence here that these grasslands were once sown and grown by a chief.

“There wouldn’t be,” Yvonne Wilbur says. “What was it, 140, 150 years ago?”

“Land changes so much.”

It’s private property now, pastureland dappled with dandelions, dried cow pies and a couple of animal skins, buzzing with flies. Dry grass, low-lying brush and a few pieces of aging farm equipment blanket an old asparagus field nearby.

The foundation of a house – the sunken impression where the cellar was, its steps still visible – lies here. So does a small, wooden house, once inhabited by hired hands. Ahtanum Creek flows behind them, in the distance, under the sagebrush-covered hills.

There’s not much here now.

But from 1852 to 1855, Cary Campbell says, the “black robes” and the Yakamas worked side by side at the mission to dig irrigation canals and raise crops, likely wheat and corn, pumpkins, potatoes and cabbage. At Kamiakin’s Garden, near the present-day intersection of Slavin and Ahtanum roads, “they probably would’ve grown much of the same things,” she says.

Kamiakin, born around 1800 and dying around 1877, learned how to irrigate from the mission’s Catholic priests, whom he invited to the area. He shared the knowledge with his people, who helped him cultivate crops. The bounty from his garden would have helped feed his family and his tribe.

He also shared it.

“He would bring vegetables to the priests,” says 49-year-old Campbell, who’s spent the last seven years researching the history of the mission, founded in 1852. She’s served as its caretaker since the summer of 2000.

Water for Kamiakin’s Garden came from natural springs near the old Wiley homestead. Irrigation ditches, dug by Kamiakin and the Yakamas, would have carried it eastward to the vicinity of the old Eglin ranch, now occupied by the fourth and fifth generation of the same farming family.

Most of the garden grew south of modern-day Ahtanum Road.

“It couldn’t have been too big,” says 62-year-old Hiram White, who owns the site today. His great-grandfather, A.D. Eglin, settled there in the late 1870s. His ranch has been in the family ever since. Descendants, though, are losing the oral history of the Ahtanum.

“With each generation, less and less is passed on,” White says.

His daughter, 21-year-old Julia, an environmental science major at Washington State University, stands to inherit the place where Kamiakin’s Garden grew. She wants to keep her family’s longtime farm going. She’s realistic, but she has dreams, too.

“It depends on water and how much money you have,” she says. “I want to hold out as long as we can. ... If I ever have kids, I want them to be raised in this place.”

Stakes once marked the historic spot. But like the garden, they’ve been lost to time.

Documents say members of the Pioneer Association and Yakima Valley Historical Society drove a stake into the ground at the site of Kamiakin’s Garden on June 30, 1918. They don’t say where exactly, only that it was at the farm of Wallace Wiley, then secretary of the historical society.

Today, both Campbell and Yvonne Wilbur want to see some sort of sign or plaque explaining the area’s importance and connection to Kamiakin. After all, Kamiakin’s Garden – Site No. 76001926, described as (west) of Union Gap on Lower Ahtanum (Road) – is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was added in 1976.

“It would be nice if there was a big rock (identifying) Kamiakin’s Garden and the years he gardened it,” Campbell says.

Others aren’t so sure. Eighty-year-old George Wilbur fears such a marker would be a target for graffiti. White is also wary. He worries a roadside sign would bring visitors and vandals to his property.

“Notoriety is fun, but you get a lot of baggage with that,” he says.

Although there was no single chief among the 14 bands now known as the Yakama Nation, Kamiakin was looked upon as a central authority figure. He was the last to sign the 14-page, handwritten 1855 treaty, outlining boundaries and rights to traditional hunting, fishing and food gathering.

Notes taken during the treaty talks show he didn’t say much.

“I have nothing to talk long about. I am tired, and I am anxious to get back to my garden. That is all I have to say,” he reportedly said during the treaty session.

Gov. Isaac Stevens did most of the talking, including threatening tribal leaders: “If you do not accept the terms offered and sign this paper, you will talk in blood knee-deep.”

Kamiakin, described by observers as being in a silent rage, bit his lip so badly it bled as he signed the treaty.

Less than two weeks later, the terms were broken. Stevens allowed non-Indians into tribal lands. Then an Indian sub-agent, was killed. And armed conflict – known as the Yakima Indian War of 1855 – erupted. That November, soldiers burned the mission. They also destroyed Kamiakin’s camp. It’s not written what happened to his garden. Campbell guesses soldiers destroyed it, too.

The Yakama united with the Walla Walla and Cayuse tribes, and more raids and battles followed. Fighting culminated in 1858, when soldiers defeated the Yakama and their allies near Spokane. Most chiefs were captured, then shot or hanged.

Kamiakin, however, escaped to Canada, later settling near the Palouse River, where author A.J. Splawn met him briefly in 1865.

“He looked to me a hero that day,” Splawn later wrote.

Nearly a century later, on Nov. 11, 1956, members of the Yakima Valley Historical Society helped to re-mark Kamiakin’s Garden. They drove a pipe – guests signed a register that was rolled up and tucked inside it – into the ground on a small knoll east of the Wiley house at the approximate place of the first marker.

According to minutes from that meeting more than 50 years ago, though, there was “still evidence of an ancient irrigation ditch running from the springs east of the house to where the alfalfa field (was).”

On a recent summer evening, White, standing on his land, points to indentations running through the dry earth of the neighboring pasture, impressions that might have been primitive, irrigation ditches.

“As you can see, over the years, the dirt builds up,” he says, adding the area “has been farmed a lot.”

A dusty road runs through the impressions. A farmer who leases the land drives up in his work horse, an early 1990s Chevy.

Sitting in the cab of the truck, on his way to change the sprinklers at his nearby alfalfa field, 55-year-old Mike Drury ponders Kamiakin’s Garden.

“It was here, now it’s gone,” he says, matter-of-factly, leaning out the window. The sky is turning pink in the distance; the sun is beginning to set. “Times change.

“Were here,” he says. “We’ll be gone.”

Subject; Yakima Historical Society Minutes
Title: YHSM Page 35
Description: Yakima Valley Historical Society Minutes and Historical Papers
Vol I. - September 20, 1917 to July 25, 1946

Facility: Yakima Valley Museum


Full Text:
In 1840 Kamiakin went to Fort Vancouver to trade for cattle which he drove to Yakima. This is said to have been the first herd that reached this valley. He showed good business sense in the importation of the cattle and demonstrated his intelligence as a stock man by later purchases of cattle from emigrants to keep up the herd. In 1847 he went to Walla Walla to ask for a catholic priest for his tribe. Two oblate fathers E. C. Chirouse and Paschal Ricard were sent that same year to found a mission among the Yakimas locating near Kamiakin’s village on the upper Ahtanum. It was at this mission that Lt. George B. McCellen with the first government equipped body of men met and held council with Kamiakin telling him of the coming of Governor Stevens and of the proposed treaty and of the opening up and settlement of the indian’s land. In telling of the first irrigation ditch in the Yakima Mr. Splawn says; “The first one was build by indians many years before. I saw it in 1864 and it was an old ditch on Chief Kamiakin’s place. The ditch was taken out of a prong of the Ahtanum and ran about a quarter of a mile. The Chief was a close friend of the catholic missionaries and they I presume suggested the ditch to him.” In 1853 when the Longmire train passed through and found Owhis garden on the Wenas, Kamiakin’s garden flourished at the same time. Kamiakin’s garden is a sacred spot because of its early religious association, the birth place of irrigation and stock raising in the Yakima Valley.

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