Umatilla celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, but the history of the site is much older.

Named for “lots of rocks,”  I’matalam was established more than 10,000 years ago at the meeting of two rivers, and the village location is now a protected part of the Umatilla Old Town site.

“For the tribe, this is a village site that is dated, I believe, 13,000 years of occupation in the archeological record and oral history,” said Bambi Rodriguez, assistant program manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. “We had several different areas where people would stay year-round, and other families and groups would come through.”

The site was an important location for berry and root gathering as well as a fishing and memorial site, Rodriguez said. “Trails ran here from the mountains and other surrounding areas,” she said. “It was also later used for grazing and breeding of horses.”

Tribes continued to occupy the site until settlers and trade businesses began to move into the area in the 1850s. Lewis and Clark reference the site as a village in 1806, and as a trade site, Umatilla was first surveyed in the early 1860s as Umatilla Landing. On Aug. 2, 1862, Jesse Lurchin applied for pre-emption of 120 acres above the mouth of the Umatilla River to establish a townsite — the year the city recognizes as its founding — and the first post office opened in 1863, the same year the first city plat was filed.

The city was named the county seat of Umatilla County in an 1865 election.

When the Umatilla Indian Reservation was established in 1855, members of the Umatilla, Walla Walla and Cayuse tribes were moved to that location southeast of Pendleton. Less than a century later, the residents of the City of Umatilla would also be removed from the Old Town site, however.

During the construction of the John Day Dam in the 1960s, officials predicted water levels would rise and flood the town. Between 1965 and 1968, all residents and businesses of Umatilla were relocated to its current location. Buildings were moved or demolished, and the Old Town site was closed.

“Some of the homes were moved, many destroyed,” Larry Nelson, Umatilla Museum representative, said. “Many of them were just knocked down, and there’s been no development there since.”

The water levels failed to rise as high as predicted, however, and much of the site remains dry and unoccupied with paved roads and some foundations still intact.

During this summer’s Umatilla Landing Days and 150th Anniversary Celebration, the Umatilla Museum will host bus tours of the property, which is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Access to the property has been restricted for more than 50 years.


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