For generations, the Applegate family shared stories of how their relatives were led to a spring by native people to settle in the Umpqua Valley.
Archaeologists found proof that both cultures lived near the spring during an archaeological dig last week on the site of the old springhouse near the Applegate House in Yoncalla.
“In the case of an archaeological dig it isn’t so much the artifacts that are found as the story that is provided, the larger story we’re trying to interpret,” Shannon Applegate said. “We found things that will enlarge and enhance our historical knowledge of both kinds of people who lived in this area. It’s a very special way to enlarge that understanding.”
Shannon Applegate is the great-great-granddaughter of Charles and Melinda Applegate.
More than 20 volunteers helped during the dig, including members of the Oregon Archaeological Society and others, including Applegate family members and high school students.
This was a collaboration between the Applegate House Heritage Arts and Education and Lane County Historical Society. The project also received funding for the Oregon Cultural Foundation’s Oregon Trail Fund.
“The whole theme of Applegate House Heritage Arts and Education is to find the places where the lives of settlers and native people met,” Shannon Applegate said. “We want to talk equally about that.”
Prior to the start of the excavation, the site of the archaeological dig was blessed by descendants of the Komemma Tribe, who used to live in the area.
The Applegate family and tribes have remained close throughout generations. Esther Stutzman of the Komemma Kalapuya Tribe continues to take part in historical education in the area and at the Applegate House.
The four-day dig was supervised by a team of archaeologists from the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Patrick O’Grady was the lithic specialist on site and Chris Ruiz the historical archaeologist. Historical preservationists and interpretive specialists also helped at the site.
“We found a diverse selection of mid-19th to early 20th century artifacts that reflect the work in and around the springhouse, such as fragments of storage crockery that may have been used in the storage of butter and milk,” Ruiz said. “We also found a number of items related to the Kalapuya people’s occupation and life on site, including stone flaking debris.”
Some of the native items found on the site were mixed in with pioneer-era materials, indicating that the two may have lived in the area at the same time. While other stone flaking material was founder deeper, suggesting it was used prior to the Applegate family’s arrival in Yoncalla.
The museum team has performed investigations at the Applegate House since 2012.
Artifacts found at the site were taken to the lab at the museum to get cleaned.
Applegate ancestors built the springhouse around 1850, to protect the spring from animals and impurities. Shannon Applegate said the site was the oldest spot of pioneer usage on the property.
“We were interested especially in the springhouse, because we knew that native people would have used that site and found it of value as much as pioneer people,” Shannon Applegate said.
Ruiz said the archaeologists believe they were able to establish a clearer outline of the original building, although future work is needed to confirm the configuration.
“The large quantity of nails recovered during the excavation is indicative of the wood construction of the building, although the exact type of construction of the building in its last iteration on the site — whether the original log or a later frame replacement— was not confirmed,” Ruiz said. “Many of the hand-wrought and hand-forged metal pieces are as yet unidentified in terms of function, but were likely made by Charles Applegate, who was among other things a blacksmith.”
A pioneer cabin was built nearby, while the Applegate House that still exists today was built later by Charles and Melinda Applegate.
The home is the oldest known residence in Oregon that has remained under continuous family ownership since its construction. The Applegate House, which stands on 110 acres of fields, forest and wetlands, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
Charles and Melinda Miller Applegate were part of the great migration of 1843 and settled in Polk County before relocating to the Yoncalla Valley with Charles’ brothers Jesse and Lindsay.
The family is known for helping to establish the Applegate Trail and their contributions to early Oregon politics.
“There are a number of other sites that we’re hoping at some point to excavate on the property, as well as to come back for a closer look at the cabin site and the springhouse site in the future,” Shannon Applegate said.
According to the university, the project was designed to provide educational access to the site for Tribal members, University of Oregon students and the wider community to help gain a better understanding of Native American culture and the early settlement period in Oregon.