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Life in the Coastal Communities

Native Americans living along the Pacific coast of what is now Oregon and Washington considered cedar trees to be sacred gifts and the materials taken them living symbols of their relationship to their environment. The American explorers quickly saw the utilitarian benefit of using hats like this one. Woven of cedar bark alone or of cedar twined with beargrass or sedge grass, they were light and waterproof.

Lewis reported in January 1806, that the hats were “more durable than chip or straw.” However, rather than adopting the well-designed garb of the indigenous population, the Americans insisted on wearing buckskin shirts and pants that absorbed moisture and gradually rotted off of their bodies during the damp Oregon winter.

Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) grows in mountainous areas of the Pacific Northwest. Beargrass combined with cedar helped make light, watertight containers and waterproof hats. In this damp climate, people preferred woven capes to water-absorbing skin shirts. Beargrass was a staple of the Columbia River trade. Gathered by women in June, processed and dried by them at lower elevations and formed into bundles, it was a commodity nearly every coastal community could use. German botanist Frederick Pursh prepared this illustration from specimens gathered by the Corps of Discovery.

Bill James. Cedar Hat, modern.

Frederick Pursh. “Beargrass,” in Flora Americanae Septentrionalis, 1814.

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Courtesy of Bud Lane

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