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Cultural History
Native Americans
Don Ivy of the Coquille Tribe and Nan MacDonald during the production of Estuary Live.
Don Ivy of the Coquille Tribe and Nan MacDonald
Archeological evidence indicates that the Coos estuary has supported a human population for at least 6,000 years.  Along the shores of the South Slough, the Miluk people occupied small villages and seasonal camps starting around 500 AD.  The Miluk villages were nearly autonomous gatherings of around 100 people.  Permanent dwellings were typically pole frame lodge structures made with split cedar planks and partially set into the ground such that the floor was below ground level.  The Miluk hunted, fished, and gathered all the food and fiber needed for subsistence in the South Slough estuary and the surrounding forest.  Wooden fish weirs, antler hooks and nets were used to catch a variety of fish, and elk and deer were trapped in large pits.  Shell middens found along the shores of South Slough provide evidence that the estuary was a productive place to collect crabs and other shellfish.  Berries, seaweed, and edible plants and roots added nutrition and variety to the diet of native peoples.  The remains of many villages, wooden fish weirs, and shell middens still exist along Coos estuary shorelines, but in many cases have been buried or substantially disturbed by more recent human development.
When early settlers arrived in the South Slough area during the 1850’s, the Miluk people lived in the southern part of the Coos estuary. Their area extended west to the ocean and south to the mouth of the Coquille River. The northern parts of the Coos estuary, along the Coos River, and areas as far north as Tenmile creek were inhabited by the Hanis. The languages of the Miluk and Hanis people were mutual unintelligible but are both included in the Coos family of the Penutian family of languages. South and east of the Miluk area and extending into the upper Coquille watershed lived people who spoke one of the Athabaskan languages, thereby distinguishing them from the Hanis and Miluk people. The descendents of the Coos peoples and other neighboring tribes now comprise the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Siuslaw, and Lower Umpqua Indians.
After Euro-American settlement, the original inhabitants of the South Slough area were at first forbidden to own land and were physically deported from the region. Eventually, in the 1870s, a number of the original families were permitted to claim otherwise undesirable sites, and many made new homes along South Slough or its tributaries. These families’ names - Wasson, Talbot, Elliott, Younker, Hanson - survive in many South Slough watershed creeks, points, and coves.

Land and Resource Use
South Slough pilings
By 1900, families who had taken up residence in South Slough had substantially altered the landscape to accommodate agricultural, transportation, and logging needs. Marshes were separated from the tides with earthen dikes and drained by ditches. Tide gates kept out salt water and provided drainage of fresh water. The dikes also served as roadways and, with culverts, as bridges across small streams or marshy areas. Almost all (90%) of the former tidelands around the edges of the Coos estuary have been diked or filled to accommodate transportation routes and to create flat land for building and agriculture.
By the 1960s, many tide gates along South Slough began to fail and have been allowed to deteriorate, while the earthen dikes are gradually eroding and have breached in some spots.  As a result, former pasture lands are in various stages of reversion from uplands and freshwater wetlands to estuarine habitats. Creeks in the shallower parts of the South Slough watershed were dredged during the early to mid-1900s for logging and other transportation needs. Some creek banks are deeply scarred by splash-damming, the practice of damming and then suddenly releasing a volume of water to float logs downstream.   Surplus dredge spoils were piled in the slough, and remain as small islands.

Logging and Mining
Logging and associated road building has produced the most marked changes in the uplands of the South Slough watershed.  All timber in the drainage has been cut at some time, and most of the watershed continues to be managed for commercial forest purposes by public and private owners. Some of the more evident changes caused by logging include a number of clearcuts in various stages of recovery, compacted dirt roads, and remnants of trestle railroads.  Parts of the shoreline and segments of Winchester Creek are lined with pilings which formerly supported docks or small donkey engine railroads for log hauling.  The last large commercial cuts inside Reserve boundaries were made in the early 1970s.  A small private inholding, subsequently purchased by the Reserve, was logged in 1992.
A small coal mine operated in the southern portion of the South Slough drainage during the late 1800s, but was later abandoned.

Most of the pasturage along South Slough was abandoned in the 1930s, although cattle were grazed on one parcel within the Reserve until the late 1980s. Cattle continue to be grazed just south of the Reserve along South Slough’s main tributary, Winchester Creek.

Fishing and Acquaculture
Commercial and sport fishing, which occur just outside the estuary, are an important element of the local economy. Commercial fishing supports a number of seafood processing plants in Charleston. The Oregon Department of Agriculture leases out several acres of state-owned submerged lands in the Coos estuary and South Slough for commercial oyster cultivation. The presence of the commercial oyster industry encourages maintenance of excellent water quality, and recreational clam harvesting is also common.

Euro-American Settlement
Fredericksen House
Euro-American explorers came to the Coos estuary in the late 1700s, and permanent settlement began in the 1850s introducing homesteads and farms, logging operations, and commercial fishing to the area.  Due in part to a small gold rush in the 1850s, increasing numbers of new settlers, including Chinese workers and shopkeepers, continued to move into the area, and more aggressive displacement of the original inhabitants began.
Some of the most significant changes in the Coos estuary landscape were initiated in the late 1800s to support the new settlers’ way of life. The town of Coos Bay (then Marshfield) was incorporated in 1874. At convergence of the Coos and South Slough estuaries, the small fishing village of Charleston developed in the late 1800’s. Stabilization of the bay mouth was initiated in the late 1880s, and marshes were drained, channels dredged, lowlands filled, and forests logged to support local families in agriculture and marine commerce.  Coal was mined in small amounts from 1854 to 1920.
Houses, barns, windmills, a school house, and other structures were built in the coves and low hills of the South Slough watershed from the late 1800s until the 1920s, although settlement was never dense. Families supported themselves by logging and ranching cattle, sometimes on a very large scale. Transportation to and from Slough homesteads was almost entirely by boat, and dependent on favorable tides. Valino Island was the site of a speak-easy or "blind pig" during Prohibition, but no physical structures remain visible there today. Many of the early buildings and homesteads in the watershed were abandoned during the Depression and have collapsed or been razed. The sites of several older buildings, including an old schoolhouse and a shake mill, are known, but are now indicated only by small piles of decaying lumber. One of the last buildings of this period still standing in the Slough watershed is the Frederickson House.