The Prince’s cabin is thought to be the oldest standing cabin in the state of Washington. It originally stood at a Cayuse wintering place just upstream of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman’s Presbyterian mission, two miles east of the Frenchtown Historic Site. Narcissa Whitman refers to its presence in a letter from January 1844, telling of the recent move by an immigrant family from the crowded mission building to “the Prince’s house up the river.”[i] After the killing of the Whitmans in 1847, and during the ensuing war of 1855, the village site and the cabin were likely abandoned.
In 1855, the Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Umatilla Indian Tribes signed a treaty ceding more than 6.4 million acres of what is now northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington to the United States, including the Frenchtown area. Although the treaty was ratified by Congress in 1859, the last Cayuse were not forced off the land in this area until early 1861, when white settlers demanded their removal, threatening to hang hostages if they stayed. In the same year, Albert and Elizabeth Blanchard laid claim to the property where the cabin still stood. The Homestead Act of 1862 officially opened the land up for settlement, and the Blanchards filed their land patent in Vancouver, Washington in 1866.[ii]
The land and cabin were acquired by the Smith family around 1888. While oral history indicates the cabin was moved from its original location “across water,” the first Government Land Office survey of the area in early 1860 notes a house on the precise spot where the cabin was located when Kriss and Robin Peterson purchased the property in 1990.[iii]
It was Robin Peterson who recognized the cabin as a fur trade relic and began the process of researching its origins and construction. In 2013, his widow Kriss Peterson donated the cabin to the Frenchtown Historical Foundation, to be moved, restored and interpreted at the historic site.
The Cayuse name of the Prince was not recorded. “Prince” was often used in fur trade culture to refer to a headman or trading partner’s younger brother or son. The Prince was a younger brother of Hiyumtipin, headman at Pašx̣ápa (pronounced Pash-KA-pah), the Cayuse village just east of the Whitman Mission. It was Hiyumtipin who discovered the drowned body of young Alice Clarissa Whitman in the Walla Walla River in 1839. Hiyumtipin and the Prince were from the same extended family as Wilewmutkin (Old Joseph) and Wilewmutnin (Twisted Hair, who was Lewis and Clark’s Nez Perces Guide), as well as Young Chief (Tauitau), Looking Glass, Homlie, and others, all leaders in a regional indigenous political alliance.
Around 1834, Looking Glass of the Nez Perces, Young Chief of the Cayuse, and the Prince became involved in a dispute with Pierre Chrysologue Pambrun of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) over prices for furs and horses. They allegedly seized Pambrun and interpreter Jean Toupin, threw blankets over them and beat them severely. In response to this incident, the HBC cut off trade with those involved, blacklisting all three leaders and their families.[iv]
When the three men returned to the HBC to seek reconciliation, Pambrun used “gift diplomacy” to resolve the conflict. Gift diplomacy was the common practice of offering gifts (typically European-style homes[v]) in exchange for goods, horses, or promises of good behavior. It is documented that Pambrun built a cabin for Young Chief in or before 1840.[vi]
In fact, and in part because of the Prince’s involvement in this conflict, we believe Pambrun built at least two cabins: one for Young Chief on the Umatilla River, and one for the Prince at Pášx̣apa. It is not known if Looking Glass received a cabin.
Although there is no official record linking the Prince’s cabin to Pambrun, his connection to its construction is apparent through these and other pieces of evidence. The 1844 letter by Narcissa Whitman referencing “the Prince’s house up the river,” attests to the location and ownership of the Prince’s cabin. In addition, as discussed later, the cabin itself exhibits structural characteristics typical of the 1830s, and a level of construction skill specific to French-Canadian artisans of the time.
The Prince’s notoriety as a Cayuse leader waned in the years following the attack.[vii] During a council with Indian Agent Elijah White in 1843, the Prince is reported to have said:
“Perhaps you will say it is out of place for me to speak, because I am not a great chief. Once I had influence, but now I have but little…yet, I am from honorable stock. Promises which have been made to me and my fathers have not been fulfilled…But it will not answer for me to speak, for my people do not consider me their chief.”[viii]
Unfortunately, the Prince did not long enjoy the shelter of his cabin – he was slain by members of another tribe in about 1845, while en route to the buffalo country.
Hudson’s Bay Company
In contrast with the industrial Frenchtowns of New England, western Frenchtowns were a by-product of the fur trade, established by former employees of the North West Company (NWC) and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Upon retirement (or termination) from the companies, these French-Canadian men and their Native American or Métis wives often settled near trading posts, such as the Willamette Trading Post in Oregon beginning in the 1810s and Fort Nez Perce, later Fort Walla Walla, beginning in the 1820s. Economically, they were still connected, however, selling food and supplies to the posts rather than skins.[ix] The first Frenchtown cabin was built in 1823 by former NWC and HBC employee Joseph LaRocque and his wife Lisette Walla Walla.
Fort Nez Perces was established by the North West Company in 1818 at Wallula gap, on the south bank of the Columbia River near the mouths of the Snake and Walla Walla Rivers. In 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Company took possession and eventually renamed it Fort Walla Walla.
The principal charge of the HBC Fort Walla Walla was not fur. Rather, they were charged with supplying horses for the Okanagan-Fraser Brigade, the Snake Brigade and the farm at Fort Vancouver, and as well as with ensuring safe passage for company goods and mail through the region. [x]
Wallula, from the native Walúula, meaning “little river,” was a large, traditional village of the Walúulapam, or Walla Walla people, and the second largest trading point for the tribes of the Columbia River Plateau after Celilo. As such, it was the ideal location for this function.
In 1832, Pierre Chrysologue Pambrun (1792-1841) was put in charge of Fort Walla Walla, described by the HBC’s regional administrator John McLoughlin as “one of the most troublesome posts…in the Country”[xi] because of the “numerous daring and warlike tribes”[xii] there. In 1839, he was promoted to Chief Trader,[xiii] the only French-Canadian in the HBC to achieve that rank. Pambrun ran the Fort from 1832 until 1841. The Pambruns of nearby Athena, Oregon are descended from Pierre and his wife Catherine Umfreville, the Métis (Cree) daughter of an important HBC trader family.
The practice of gift diplomacy was common in the fur trade. It connected with pre-existing diplomatic customs between tribes for acknowledging relationships and agreements. Gifting cabins would have been a fairly extreme example of the practice, but Pambrun believed “the main object must be to keep the Natives qui[e]t. Keep all matters smooth….”[xiv] It is unlikely the Prince’s cabin could have been constructed after Pambrun’s term–after his death in 1841 his successor Archibald McKinlay discontinued the practice.[xv]
French-Canadian Cabin Design
The Prince’s cabin displays prominent characteristics of homes of French-Canadian/ Métis design of the 1830s. These features include the cabin’s size (16’ x 24’), original hinges, door (Fig. 1), and interior paint color, as well as the design of the interior wall (Figs. 2 & 4). Its hand-hewn, squared log construction uses the angled dovetail joint typical of French Canadian construction (as opposed to the saddle joint commonly found in western cabins). This joint is characterized by the 45˚downward slant of the topmost cut surface, a technique which preserved the wood by shedding water away from the heart of the joint (Fig. 7).[xvi]
The finely tuned joinery and finish of the cabin suggests the work of an artisan skilled not only with the offset broadaxe, but also with the whip and bow saws, mallets and chisels, the froe, the drawknife, and the adze,[xvii] skills all present in the Frenchtown community–as evidence, note that Louis Tellier was hired by Whitman as a millwright in 1836.[xviii] French-Canadian design also typically secured the first pièce (log) to the sole (sill) with a cheville (dowel pin) (Fig. 5).[xix] While the Prince’s cabin lacks forged nails, the features of cut nails found in the cabin are also consistent with nail technology and signatures from the period 1815 to 1830 (Fig. 3).
Finally, French-Canadian style cabins were normally one and a half stories, with a grenier (attic area) accessed by straight stairs coming from the main floor (Fig 4). The grenier was an important aspect of the cabin’s functional design, used for storage and additional sleeping space.[xx]
These details, in combination with historical documentation and the experienced craftsmanship required to build a dwelling of this kind, set the Prince’s cabin apart from a simple trapper’s dwelling and are consistent with our proposed construction date of 1837.
Moving & Restoring the Cabin
At the time of donation in 2012, the upper floor of the cabin was intact and in relatively good condition while the lower walls were partially dismantled and actively deteriorating. The Frenchtown Historical Foundation consulted with archaeologists, contractors, craftsmen, historians, tribal representatives, and professional movers to plan the relocation and restoration of the cabin. Rather than fully disassemble the cabin, it was decided to detach and move the entire upper story in one piece. The attached shed on the south side of the cabin was a later addition and was removed.
Once at the Frenchtown site, the upper story was placed on steel posts set in concrete footings. These posts serve to both strengthen the walls and support the upper story. The lower walls were stabilized in place and moved to the site in six intact segments. Each wall segment was placed on new foundation stones and attached to the posts.
The ponderosa logs originally used to build the cabin were much more durable than the more easily available but much softer cottonwood logs. The attached sheds had protected the side walls from the elements, but an opening for farm equipment had been cut into the east wall and the west end wall was severely weathered.
Pine logs were hand-hewn to replace missing pieces and the ends were cut into traditional French Canadian-style dovetail corners. Mortar chinking, restored windows and doors, and a floor of repurposed barn wood completed the initial phase in 2015.
In 2016, volunteers completed restoration work on the cabin’s inner wall and stairway, exterior soffits and fascia. Thanks to our members’ support, a grant from the Wildhorse Foundation, and Alan Gillespie Roofing, we replaced the tin roof with cedar shakes in time for the Saint-Jean-Baptiste day celebration in 2016.
Unfortunately, due to building code requirements for earthquake safety, visitors are not allowed inside the cabin.
Text by Sam Pambrun, Dan Clark, Sarah Hurlburt, Nicki Day-Lucore, Jessie Day-Lucore.
Last update: December 1, 2016
[i] Letter from Narcissa Whitman to her parents, November 19, 1841 quoted in Theodore Stern, Chiefs and Change in the Oregon Country: Indian Relations at Fort Nez Percés, 1818-1855, (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1996), 39.
[ii] U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, “General Land Office Records,” Serial Patent, glorecords.blm.gov, (http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/details/patent/default.aspx?accession=WAVAA%20%20025728&docClass=SER&sid=orykw3ka.35d: accessed June 29, 2016), WAVAA 025728, entry for Albert Blanchard, Meridian- Willamette, 007N-035E, SE1/4 SE1/4, Section 32, Walla Walla, issued April 5, 1866.
[iii] The surveyor’s notes from 1860 show this location.
[iv] Frances Fuller Victor, The Early Indian Wars of Oregon: Compiled from the Oregon Archives and Other Original Sources: With Muster Rolls, (Salem: State Printer, 1894), 67; Stern, Chiefs and Change, 35-37.
[v] Greg Cleveland and Associates, “The Construction and Survival of the Peterson Cabin: A Walla Walla Valley Legacy of Canadien Métis Craftsmanship,” February 2010, p. 11.
[vi] A.M.A. Blanchet to Célestin Gauvreau, Vicar-General, Superior, College of Ste.-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, 13 September 1848, in Selected Letters of A.M.A. Blanchet, Bishop of Walla Walla & Nesqualy 1846-1879, ed. Roberta Stringham Brown and Patricia O’Connell Killen (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013), 28.
[vii] Victor, Early Indian Wars, 67.
[viii] The Prince at 1843 council, quoted in Frances Fuller Victor, The Early Indian Wars of Oregon: Compiled from the Oregon Archives and Other Original Sources: With Muster Rolls, (Salem: State Printer, 1894), 68.
[ix] Gibson, James R. Farming the Frontier: The Agricultural Opening of the Oregon Country, 1786-1846. (UBC Press, 2011), 130.
[x] Gibson, James R. The Lifeline of the Oregon Country: The Fraser-Columbia Brigade System, 1811-47. (UBC Press, 1998), 72, 136.
[xi] John McLoughlin to Hudson’s Bay Company, 6 December 1836, in McLoughlin’s Fort Vancouver Letters First Series 1825-38 (London: The Hudson’s Bay Record Society, 1941), 196.
[xii] “Biography–Pambrun, Pierre-Chrysologue–Volume VII (1836-1850)–Dictionary of Canadian Biography,” accessed May 26, 2016, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/pambrun_pierre_chrysologue_7E.html.
[xiii] Theodore Stern, Chiefs and Change in the Oregon Country: Indian Relations at Fort Nez Percés, 1818-1855 Vol. 2 (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1996), 15.
[xiv] Pierre Chrysologue Pambrun, quoted in Stern, Chiefs and Change, 16.
[xv] Narcissa Whitman to her parents, November 19, 1841 quoted in Stern, Chiefs and Change, 39.
[xvi] James Michael Hebert, “Culture Built Upon the Land: A Predictive Model of Nineteenth-Century Canadien/Métis Farmsteads,” (Master’s thesis, Oregon State University, 2007), 39.
[xvii] Cleveland and Associates, “The Construction and Survival of the Peterson Cabin,” February 2010, p. 10.
[xviii] “Tellier, Louis,” in H.D. Munnick and Adrian R. Munnick, Catholic Church Records of the Pacific Northwest: Missions of St. Ann and St. Rose of the Cayouse (1847-1888), Walla Walla and Frenchtown (1859-1872), Frenchtown (1872-1888), (Portland, Binford & Mort Publishing, 1989).
[xix] Hebert, “Canadien/Métis Farmsteads,” 52.
[xx] Hebert, “Canadien/Métis Farmsteads,” 65.