Palouse Indians

Palouse Heritage Harvest 2017

This past week we commenced our 2017 Palouse Country heritage grains harvest by working with our longtime friends Joe and Sara Delong at their incredibly beautiful and historic if somewhat remote ranch along the Palouse River about five miles upstream from our Palouse Colony Farm. The Delongs have partnered with us to raise landrace Sonoran Gold wheat, Purple Egyptian barley, and other heritage grains and this past week it was time to commence the annual harvest.

The Delong ranch is well known in our region as the oldest farm in the county and also has the special distinction of being the one continuously owned longer than any other family around. Joe’s frontiersman ancestor, Indiana native Joseph Delong, drove a team of oxen over the Oregon Trail in 1862 and eventually settled in 1869 on the Palouse River where the family farm is now located at the end of long gravel road. I think Great Great Uncle Joe would be proud of his 21st century namesake since he and Sara have worked long hours for many years to be good stewards of the land where they continue to raise grain and livestock in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Joe is a master mechanic who can keep equipment of any vintage running forever, and in the shadow of immense and rugged basaltic bluffs they share the landscape with deer, golden eagles, and occasionally errant moose and elk.

Palouse Heritage Red Russian Wheat;   Delong Palouse River Ranch

Palouse Heritage Red Russian Wheat; Delong Palouse River Ranch

I’ve known the Delong family most of my life since they farmed just a few miles from where I was raised. Back in 1980 I interviewed Joe’s father, Ray, who was not only proud of his pioneering past but had also preserved many priceless documents handed down since the farm had been established decades earlier. The journals and account books kept by Joseph, Sr. provide a rare glimpse of life on the Palouse frontier during its earliest years of settlement. The records reveal the kind of self-sufficiency rarely known in our day as he tended a considerable orchard and established a packing house as well as raised grain and livestock. He also established the first store in the vicinity to supply farm families who came later and travelers who passed by on the historic Kentuck Trail.

Joe, Sr.’s journal entries from the late 1800s record information essential to pioneer life under such scribbled headlines as "Smallpox Cure," a concoction of sugar, foxtail, and zinc sulfate, "Recipe for Preserving Green Fruit," and "Grasshopper Poison." Related knowledge of value clipped from early issues of the Walla Walla Statesman and Palouse Gazette was safeguarded between the small, lined pages of his hardboard bound books providing the mathematical formula "To Measure Hay in Ricks," stories about Lincoln and Grant, and favored verse: "Let live forever grow, and banish wrath and strife; So shall we witness here below, the joys of social life." Perhaps to advance social relations with the travelers and neighbors who frequented his place, DeLong also found time to jot down riddles. One favorite of this thinly bearded soul with kindly mien was in rhyme: "I went to walk through a field of wheat, and there found something good to eat. It was neither fat, lean or bone, I kept it till it ran home. (An egg!)”

Pioneer Joe Delong and Colt (c. 1900);   Courtesy of Joe and Sara Delong

Pioneer Joe Delong and Colt (c. 1900); Courtesy of Joe and Sara Delong

Apples from the Delong Orchard

Apples from the Delong Orchard

Most folks with whom DeLong most often shared such wit and practical knowledge were families of those who later settled near him on the pine covered slopes of the Palouse River Valley. Names frequently appearing in his account books include Ben Davis, Frank Smith, Steve Cutler, Link Ballaine, and E. E. Huntley. These families came to DeLong's store to visit, collect mail, and procure staples, often on credit. DeLong's inventory included eggs, onions, coffee, sugar, and baking powder; soap, sarsaparilla, and tobacco. He also stocked hardware supplies like nails and wire, and such curatives as oil of anise, oil of bergamot, and sulfuric of ether. DeLong and his neighbors spent considerable time building and repairing split rail fences to hold in their livestock, and also experimented with a variety of grains and fruits to determine those best suited to the region’s soils and climate. Joseph also planted hundreds of apple trees that he obtained from Walla Walla nurseries as well as pear, cherry, plum, prune stock, grape vines, and currant bushes. Summer visitors to his store could always expect a good supply of Tall Pippins, Yellow Bells, and Northern Spy as well as soft fruit and vegetables which he sometimes traded for salmon with Indians who seasonally passed along the old trails along the river.

Harvesting Palouse Heritage Scots Bere Barley at Delong’s

Harvesting Palouse Heritage Scots Bere Barley at Delong’s

Thanks to Joe and Sara’s regard for heritage and health, we were able to complete harvest this past week of our Sonoran Gold soft white and Red Russian soft red wheats which we will soon be transforming into flavorful all-purpose flours. We had a few breakdowns but we’ve come to believe there’s nothing made of metal that Joe can’t repair in short order. Brother Don, nephew Andrew, and I took turns driving truck while Joe did the hard work on top of the combine—a 1959 McCormick combine that hasn’t missed a harvest since 1959! Perhaps the company should send him a new one, though at $650,000 that’s probably not likely. As we were finishing up in a corner of the field I noticed a row of old plum trees along a fence line loaded with dark red fruit. So on my next trip to town I returned with a bucket to retrieve some for Grandma and returned with enough to keep us all in jam and sauce until next year.

Land and First Peoples

Looming above the panoramic Palouse near the heart of the region stands a promontory revered by the native peoples known today as Steptoe Butte. To the Palouse Indians it was Yamustas (“Elk’s Abode”), a sacred high place of spirit quests and the abode of mythical Bull Elk. An honored figure in tribal folklore, this creature was said to have found sanctuary during the time of the Animal People in the cleft of the butte's eastern face. Its majestic antlers stretched toward the summit and remain visible today. To the area's first European-American explorers, who dubbed it "Pyramid Peak" for resembling Egypt's great monument to Cheops, the butte served like a mariner's landmark, a strange island in an oceanic maelstrom of earthen waves cresting with wind-pulsed native wheatgrasses and fescues.

Before the sextant and plow demarcated and denuded these fertile swells, they were seasonally transformed from soft springtime viridian hues with wildflowered splashes of bluebells, flaming Indian paintbrush, and bright yellow arrowleaf balsamroot into summer and fall's muted green-brown pastels mixed in the bunchgrass billows. The butte continues to serve as a landmark Palouse portal to Native Americans today. On several occasions while in the company of Nez Perces returning to Lapwai from the Colville Reservation or with Coeur d' Alenes headed east from Warm Springs, I have heard elders say, "When I see Steptoe Butte, I know that I am home."

Elk's Abode - Steptoe Butte (John Clement)

Elk's Abode - Steptoe Butte (John Clement)

The Palouse region covers that part of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho in the Palouse River basin as well as adjacent lands characterized by a rolling terrain of fertile loess soils. This area covers approximately 4,000 square miles and lies largely in Washington's Whitman and Spokane counties, the eastern third of Adams County, and in Idaho's Latah County. Nearly seventy percent of the land is arable, composed of deep deposits of rich but fragile topsoil which cover immense layers of brown-black basalt. This bedrock shield is up to 10,000 feet thick resulting from successive lava flows through fissures across the Columbia Plateau during the late Miocene Epoch between six and seventeen million years ago when the area of today's Palouse Country, before the Cascade uplift, received as much as fifty inches of annual rainfall to host a mixed forest of conifers, maples, water tupelo, and oak similar to America's southeastern bald cypress swamps of today.

The Palouse is bounded by the Snake and Clearwater rivers on the south and Idaho's imposing Bitterroot and Clearwater Mountains to the east. The evergreen forests of these eastern uplands extend across the northern half of Spokane County along a line roughly corresponding to the deepest penetration of the great Pleistocene glaciers to form the region's northern limit. The Cheney-Palouse lobe of the Channeled Scablands comprises the region's western boundary which extends from the timber line near Tyler, Washington south to the mouth of the Palouse River. Annual rainfall increases from an average of fourteen inches in the western Palouse prairies to eighteen inches in the central Palouse Hills and up to twenty-two inches in the foothills of the eastern mountains.

This pattern corresponds to a rise in elevation from 1,200 feet in the southwest corner of the Palouse prairie to the fringe of the Clearwater Palouse Range at 2,800 feet, almost exactly one inch of precipitation for every hundred feet of elevation. Variations in soil fertility developed over ages due to increasing rainfall eastward led to climax vegetation associated with the Palouse's three climatic life zones: Upper Sonoran in the western Palouse, Arid Transition across the central Palouse Hills, and Canadian in the eastern mountain uplands.