Wenas Valley -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 2/11/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10718

The Wenas Valley in northwestern Yakima County has long been a transportation corridor for people traveling through the Yakima River Valley and across the Cascades. Indian tribes traveled through the valley to trading, hunting, gathering, and fishing areas. They also established settlements where they raised crops and horses. Many of the same patterns continued after non-Indian settlers began traveling through the valley in the 1850s. The Wenas Valley served as a vital link between the Yakima River and Snoqualmie and Naches passes, first for livestock drives and wagons, and later for automobiles on the Inland Empire Highway. Farmers grew crops and raised livestock on the fertile land. After the state highway route shifted to the Yakima River canyon in the 1920s, automobile traffic in the upper Wenas Valley declined significantly, allowing for the establishment of several wildlife reserves and natural areas beginning in the 1940s, some of which were combined into the Wenas Wildlife Reserve in 1997.  

At Home in the Valley 

The Wenas Valley is located in the northwestern corner of Yakima County, where the sagebrush steppe of Eastern Washington transitions into the Cascade foothills. Wenas Creek runs the length of the valley, originating near Bald Mountain and emptying into the Yakima River at Selah. 

People have lived in the Wenas Valley for thousands of years. Upper Yakama Indians had seasonal homes in the valley. After horses were adopted in the 1730s, the valley provided important feeding areas for Yakama horse herds because native grasses and forbs grew abundantly in the lower valley bottoms. At the valley's outlet into the Yakima Valley, Upper Yakamas also had a settlement along the river where they fished. 

The Wenas Valley served as a route into the Cascade Mountains. Yakamas traveled through the valley to reach mountain passes that connected to the Puget Sound basin, where they traded and socialized with Coast Salish groups. The valley also connected the Upper Yakama (sometimes called the Kittitas) with the Lower Yakama. The various groups of Yakamas living along the Yakima River and its tributaries shared a language and other cultural characteristics but were usually not united under single leaders. 

This pattern changed in the 1850s, when increasing pressures from miners, settlers, and the American government led the Upper Yakama, in the Wenas and Kittitas valleys, to unite under the leadership of Owhi (d. 1858) and Teias. Similarly, three brothers, Kamiakin (ca. 1800-1877), Skloom (d. 1861), and Showaway, led the Lower Yakama in the Yakima Valley. 

Long before then, the Upper Yakama had adopted some of the technology, goods, and practices of the European and American fur traders and settlers trickling into the region. In the 1730s, via trade connections to the south, the tribe acquired horses that had originated in Spanish settlements in the Southwest. From the British Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver and Fort Steilacoom, they traded for cattle and vegetable seeds in the 1840s. In the fertile Wenas Valley soils Owhi's band likely grew potatoes, corn, melons, squash, and barley. From the French Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Yakamas learned irrigation techniques that increased crop yields. 

Coming Through 

The first non-Indians to traverse the Wenas Valley came in small groups. Fur traders passed through in the 1810s, but the area was not as rich in beaver as other parts of the region, so the Hudson's Bay Company had little direct influence and American fur traders did not trap in the area. 

As more Americans settled in the Puget Sound region on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, they wanted to attract more of the stream of settlers reaching the Northwest over the Columbia Plateau. The Oregon Trail emerged from the Blue Mountains just south of the Columbia River. Most immigrants followed the trail to the Columbia and then floated downriver to settlements in the Willamette and Cowlitz valleys rather than continuing overland through the mountains to Puget Sound. 

Though numerous Indian horse trails crossed the Cascades north of the Columbia, the immigrants needed a road that could accommodate wagons. In the early 1850s, American settlers at Fort Steilacoom and Olympia advocated for a military road over Naches Pass. Congress appropriated $20,000 for a military road from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Steilacoom in 1853, but the military surveying party, led by George B. McClellan (1826-1885), had to not only arrange for construction of the road but also explore possible routes for a transcontinental railroad across the Cascades. In an attempt to be ready for that year's wagon trains, settlers on the west side began building a wagon road toward Naches Pass, getting close to the crest of the Cascades before bad weather set in.

Meanwhile, the McClellan party explored several railroad routes from the east side. Owhi allowed McClellan to establish his base camp alongside his farm fields, known later to settlers as Owhi's (or Ow-hi's) Gardens. The surveyors stayed in the Wenas in August 1853, investigating Naches and Stampede passes, but refusing to continue a short distance north to Snoqualmie Pass as their Indian guides recommended. 

When, in September 1853, the Longmire-Byles wagon train reached the Umatilla Plain, the immigrants heard that they could cross the Cascades on the military road that would, presumably, be passable by the time they reached it. Most of the party, more than 30 wagons, decided to follow that route.  

Upon reaching the Upper Yakamas' fields along Wenas Creek on September 20, 1853, the wagon train stopped for several days to rest before crossing the mountains. Owhi traded 13 bushels of potatoes and other vegetables to the immigrants to replenish their stocks.  

The Longmire-Byles wagon train barely made it across the mountains, but more work was done on the road the following year and several wagon trains took the Naches Pass route in subsequent years.  

Treaty Making 

Though settlers had not yet tried to establish themselves in the Wenas Valley, Upper Yakamas were soon involved in territorial governor Isaac I. Stevens's (1818-1862) treaty-making tour through the Northwest. As one of the representatives of the Upper Yakama, Owhi signed the Treaty with the Yakama in June 1855 at Stevens's treaty council with Columbia Plateau tribes in Walla Walla.  

Under the terms of the treaty, the Yakama and other Columbia Plateau tribes that would become part of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation ceded millions of acres of land to the United States government in exchange for payments, goods, and services, but reserved the rights to hunting, fishing, and other activities in their traditional territories.  

While the treaty made its way toward ratification by Congress, disputes arose over settlers and miners encroaching on tribal lands across the plateau, from which tribes were not required by the treaty to relocate to reservations until one year after ratification. The Stevens treaties were not ratified until 1859, but in the meantime tensions over encroachments erupted into three years of intermittent armed conflict. The United States Army quashed the tribes' resistance and removed them to three different reservations. The Upper Yakama from the Wenas Valley went to the Yakama Indian Reservation located south of Ahtanum Creek.  

Settling In 

Despite the military road and its rich lands, the valley remained depopulated until 1865, when Augustin (also recorded as Augustine and Augustus) Cleman (1816-1882), his wife Rebecca Griffith Cleman (1834-1902), and their children brought a herd of sheep to a homestead in the valley. According to geographer D. W. Meinig, the Yakima River area did not see a rapid influx of settlers after the region was opened to homesteading, as the Walla Walla Valley did, because the primary travel routes on the Columbia Plateau bypassed the Yakima. Most settlers at that time sought easy access to the Columbia River for transportation to markets and miners left the river at The Dalles or Wallula, downstream of the Yakima, and headed overland, north to British Columbia or east to Idaho and Montana. 

The Yakima Valley became more attractive to ranchers as farmers moved in to the lower valleys in the 1870s and 1880s and pushed the ranchers onto lands less suitable for crops like wheat, but well-suited to livestock operations. The Wenas Valley fit this description with its well-watered and protected lowlands and its access to summer range in the higher elevations. Just as the Upper Yakama had used the valley to raise horses, the settlers raised sheep and cattle. 

Cleman and the settlers who followed in the late 1860s, including brothers Joseph and James Brown, William Flynn (1830-?), and Alfred Miller (1833-1908), brought herds of cattle and sheep to graze on the valley's grasslands in the winter and then moved them each spring to the upper reaches of the valley and the Cascade foothills to graze in the cooler forest for the summers. They also raised hay crops on their lands in the lower valley. 

When the ranchers were ready to sell their livestock, they herded the animals over Snoqualmie Pass, following an existing Indian trail through a cleft in the hills toward the Umtanum Creek drainage, then over Umtanum Ridge to the Kittitas Valley (the upper valley of the Yakima River). They continued following the Indian route along the Yakima River up into the mountains. Some drove their herds over Naches Pass, but the population center of Puget Sound had shifted north to Seattle in the years since the Longmire-Byles wagon train passed through in 1853. Most meat was butchered in Seattle and distributed to other towns on Puget Sound, including Victoria, British Columbia. 

Developing the Valley 

In the 1870s, as transportation improved and more settlers claimed homesteads or bought public land in Eastern Washington, more came to the Wenas Valley, too. David Longmire (1844-1925) and Elizabeth Pollard Longmire (1849-1888) brought their family to the valley, near where David had stopped in 1853 when he crossed Naches Pass with his family's wagon train. 

The first school in the Wenas Valley opened in 1873 and a stage line from The Dalles began operating on the Shushuskin Road to Ellensburg. The Shushuskin Road, named for an Upper Yakama man who lived at the Kittitas Valley end of the road, followed the same route as the Indian trail used by livestock herders. An alternate toll route, built by Jacob Durr in 1882, crossed over Umtanum Ridge directly from the lower end of the Wenas Valley, meeting up with the Shushuskin Road just before it emerged in the Kittitas Valley. Although Durr's road offered a savings of several miles, the route was so steep that he had to build "turntables" at the end of several of the switchbacks because wagons did not have enough room to turn the corners. The turntables were platform-like areas that allowed a driver to turn a wagon and its team of horses around at each end of a switchback.  

In addition to the livestock operations, local landowners also operated sawmills in the upper reaches of the valley. In the 1880 federal census, the last entries for the Wenas precinct are all single men with the occupation "Woodsman." With very little timber in the lowlands of the Yakima Valley, most early wooden construction in Selah and Yakima used lumber from the Wenas Valley. 

Sheep Wars 

As sheep herds increased in the 1880s, more people took advantage of the summer range in the Cascade foothills. By the early 1890s, the conflict between resident sheep farmers and sheepherders who brought their flocks to the foothills from outside the valley came to a head. Because the rangelands were part of the public domain, anyone could make use of them. Local farmers complained, however, that there were too many sheep, that the "foreign" sheepherders set fire to the land to encourage new plant growth, killing small trees, ran too many sheep and held them in one location too long causing them to eat plants down to the roots, and polluted the streams. Additionally, they believed that snow on the denuded hillsides melted more rapidly, leaving them with less water during the hotter, drier summer months.  

In 1891 an association of Wenas Valley farmers passed a resolution stating that, "Whereas, The early settlers took up these valley lands with the understanding there was not enough of the land in many cases susceptible of cultivation to afford them and their families support and that they were equally entitled to the privileges of these grazing lands," the outside sheepherders should cease "monopolizing all the best watering places and the richest grazing lands" ("After the Scalps ..."). 

The Yakima Herald labeled the sheepherders "predatory nomads" ("Settlers Enter a Protest"). This sentiment echoed the hostility from farmers and conservationists that sheepherders faced across the western United States over their use of the public range. John Muir called sheep "hoofed locusts" (Muir, 75). Conservation groups sought their complete exclusion, but livestock associations challenged the science behind the charges brought against the sheep and lobbied forcefully for continued access. Some sheep-grazing allotments were reduced, but it would take changing market conditions to really reduce grazing on public lands. 

In the Yakima Valley, landowners in the Cowiche, Ahtanum, and Wenas valleys repeatedly petitioned the federal government to exclude "foreign" sheep outfits. They enlisted the help of the Northern Pacific Railway, which owned significant tracts of land interspersed among the lands of the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve. The reserve was land held back from homesteading and sale that would become part of the national forest system when the Forest Service was formed in 1905. 

Area farmers formed the Yakima Husbandry Association, headed by Andrew Splawn (1845-1917). In 1899 they petitioned the federal Department of the Interior to reduce grazing permits on the Rainier Reserve, and worked to win public support, particularly from members of the Yakima Commercial Club, for their position. Numerous newspaper articles in the Yakima Herald, The Seattle Times, The Olympian, and other papers, tied the issue to conservation. The grazing allotments were reduced in 1902 and the issue faded from the local press. 

Irrigation Schemes 

As the population of the valley increased and more land was used for agriculture, developing irrigation water sources became the focus of numerous cooperative efforts in the 1890s and early 1900s. The lower valley had some areas with well-watered lands, but crops grown in the valley generally required supplemental water.  

There were several schemes put forward. In 1889, a group of landowners pooled their funds to try building a pumping station at the Yakima River that would send water up the valley. It does not appear to have been built. In 1892, landowners purchased drilling and casing equipment to drill artesian water wells, but the nature of the bedrock below the valley floor limited the available water. In 1894, a small dam was built on Wenas Creek that diverted water to nearby farms. 

In 1899, David Longmire filed a lawsuit challenging the right of upstream farmers to divert that water. He argued that, according to Washington water law, he was entitled to all the water he needed to irrigate his farm before anyone else diverted water from the creek because he held the earliest water rights. Farmers upstream from him argued that they had rights to the water because they had used it for their farms for 10 years, thus perfecting their water rights under a different legal standard. The Washington State Supreme Court decided in Longmire's favor in 1901, and the case established an important precedent in Washington water law.

In 1891, the Yakima Herald reported that J. D. Lewis proposed storing water for irrigation rather than simply diverting it from the run of a stream or river. Lewis owned land in California and had seen water storage projects work for irrigation there. Lewis's idea was implemented with the construction of the Wenas Dam on the creek in 1912. The lake impounded by the dam allowed farmers to irrigate crops during the driest months of the year with water that would otherwise have passed through unneeded in wetter months. Like other dams built in this era, the dam blocked salmonid species from reaching spawning habitat in the upper portions of the valley. In 1924, the Wenas Irrigation District was formed. The directors of the district bought the dam and raised its height by 13 feet. 

Roads and Wildlife Areas 

In 1915 the road through the valley and over Umtanum Ridge, the former Shushuskin Road, was developed into a segment of the Inland Empire Highway, part of the state's newly built highway system. Improvements to the road made it passable for automobiles, though it was often rough going because it was only partially paved. The road was used for just 10 years, however, because the state highway department opened a shorter and flatter route through the Yakima River canyon in 1925. The old road remains open in 2014, still only partially paved. 

While farmers made use of most of the valley floor, the hillsides remained largely uncultivated and market changes reduced the number of sheep grazing on the rangelands. By the 1950s few cattle grazed there either. Beginning in the 1940s, the state Game Department began purchasing land for wildlife areas to provide grazing area for Rocky Mountain elk introduced by sportsmen in 1913. The original elk reserves grew and are now managed as wildlife areas by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.  

The wildlife areas provide habitat for both the elk and a number of native species, including California bighorn sheep that were reintroduced to the Cleman Mountain area on the west side of the valley in 1967. In the early twentieth century hunting pressure, diseases likely spread from domesticated sheep, and competition for forage had led to the bighorn sheep's local extinction. The introduced herds have had some problems with disease, but became established. 

In 1997 parts of the Oak Creek and L. T. Murray wildlife areas were combined into the new Wenas Wildlife Area, covering 113,642 acres of the upper Wenas Valley and the surrounding foothills. In 2008, the Department of Fish and Wildlife arranged a land swap with Western Pacific Timber for 82,458 acres in Yakima and Kittitas Counties. The state offered Western Pacific Timber 20,970 acres made up of a combination of parcels in other parts of the Cascades. This allowed the state to eliminate the patchwork of public and private ownership in the wildlife area, which made it easier to manage and for the public to use. 

A "Priority Watershed" 

Among the property incorporated into the wildlife area as a result of the land swap was the Wenas Creek Campground. This area, earlier owned by Boise Cascade, had been maintained as a public campground. In 1963, Bea Buzzetti (1897-1992), Ruth Anderson, and Hazel Wolf (1898-2000) explored the area and asked Boise Cascade if Audubon Society members could camp there for Memorial Day weekend. The company agreed and an annual tradition (which continues in 2014) began. Each year the Washington State Audubon Society holds a campout at the campground that includes birding walks and other educational programs.  

Like many agricultural areas in Washington, the Wenas Valley faces development pressure, with more people who work in nearby Selah and Yakima seeking to build homes in the valley. At the same time, agricultural activities can take a toll on the environment, affecting riparian and upland habitats.  

To address these issues, the Board of Yakima County Commissioners designated the valley a "priority watershed" as defined by the Voluntary Stewardship Program enacted by the Washington State Legislature in 2011 as an amendment to the Growth Management Act. The Voluntary Stewardship Program seeks to "[p]romote plans to protect and enhance critical areas within the area where agricultural activities are conducted, while maintaining and improving the long-term viability of agriculture in the state of Washington and reducing the conversion of farmland to other uses" (2011 Wash. Laws, Ch. 360). The county commissioners chose the Wenas Valley because of the significance of its agricultural activities, including hay production and cattle raising, wildlife refuge areas, water resource issues, and potential to provide salmonid habitat. County officials planned to work with local landowners and community groups to develop a voluntary program for protecting the watershed while supporting agricultural activities.


Sources: W. Turrentine Jackson, Wagon Roads West: A Study of Federal Road Surveys and Construction in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1846-1869 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952), 89-106; Robert S. Lince, The Selah Story: History of the Selah, East Selah and Wenas Valley in Yakima County, Washington (Selah: Selah Valley Optimist Printing, 1984); David Longmire, "First Immigrants to Cross the Cascades," Washington Historical Quarterly, January 1917, p. 26; W. D. Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley Comprising Yakima, Kittitas and Benton Counties, Vol. 2 (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1919), 25-26; Jo N. Miles, "Kamiakin's Impact on Early Washington Territory," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Fall 2008, pp. 159-72; John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), 75; J. Orin Oliphant, "The Cattle Trade Through the Snoqualmie Pass," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, July 1947, pp. 193-213; Fred G. Plummer, The Mount Rainier Forest Reserve, Washington (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Geological Survey, 1900); Lawrence Rakestraw, "Sheep Grazing in the Cascade Range: John Minto vs. John Muir," Pacific Historical Review, November 1958, pp. 371-382; Scott Sandsberry, "State Approves Landmark Land Swap with Timber Company," Yakima Herald-Republic, November 8, 2007 (www.yakimaherald.com); "County Joins State Farming Stewardship Effort," Ibid., January 12, 2012; Joel Shoemaker, "The Farmers vs. the Sheepman," The Seattle Times, June 8, 1902, p. 24; A. J. Splawn, Kamiakin, The Last Hero of the Yakimas (Portland, OR: Kilham Stationery & Printing Co., 1917); Claude N. Warren, "The View from Wenas: A Study in Plateau Prehistory," in Occasional Papers of the Idaho State University Museum, No. 24, ed. by B. Robert Butler and Earl H. Swanson (Pocatello, ID: Idaho State University Museum, 1968); 2011 Wash. Laws, Ch. 360; "After the Scalps of Sheep Herders," Yakima Herald, September 17, 1891, p. 2; "Another Big Irrigation Scheme," Ibid., April 4, 1889, p. 3; "Settlers Enter a Protest," Ibid., August 27, 1891, p. 3; "Solution to the Irrigation Problem," Ibid., June 4, 1891, p. 3; "A Bad Shot," The Seattle Times, May 9, 1902, p. 7; Board of Yakima County Commissioners Resolution No. 14-2012, “In the matter of participating in a Voluntary Stewardship Program pursuant to RCW 36.70A.700 et seq. regarding the regulation of agricultural activities under the Growth Management Act, Chapter 36.70 RCW,” adopted January 10, 2012; "Elk and Bighorn Sheep Feeding -- Oak Creek Wildlife Area," Naches Valley Chamber of Commerce website accessed January 21, 2014 (http://www.nachesvalleychamber.com/info/elkfeeding.html); "Elk Brought to Yakima," The Seattle Times, January 26, 1913, Sports Section, p. 27; "Enlarging Wenas Dam," The Seattle Times, August 6, 1925, p. 16; "Forest History Timeline," Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest website accessed January 22, 2014 (http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/mbs/learning/history-culture/?cid=fsbdev7_001653); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, " Pioneer David Longmire buys homestead in Wenas Valley, Yakima County, on March 10, 1871." (by John Caldbick) and " First emigrant wagon train crosses Naches Pass through the Cascade Mountains in the fall of 1853." (by Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed January 24, 2014); "L. T. 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Related Topics:   Agriculture | Environment | Northwest Indians | Pioneers

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