The Amazing Heavenly and Earthly Journey of

The Willamette Meteorite

The Willamette Meteorite measures about the size and shape of a Volkswagen Bug and weighs some 15 tons. It seems such a massive chunk of iron and nickel would stay put once it smashed into the Earth. But its travels had only begun...

Tomonowos, the Heavenly Visitor

Formed with the Solar System, about 4.5 billion years ago, the Willamette Meteorite made countless revolutions around the Sun and then, many thousands of years ago, hurtled to the Earth. The meteorite's first Earthly journey took it from Idaho to the Willamette Valley in Oregon.  

Between 12,500 and 15,000 years ago, the last ice age included the formation of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet, a mass of ice that covered northern-most America west of the Rocky Mountains; the glacier lifted and shifted boulders (such as the Willamette Meteorite) that lay beneath it. When the ice age ended, over a period of 2000 years, ice-melt created Glacial Lake Missoula, an unimaginably huge reservoir which repeatedly flooded the northwestern continent. As ice dams reformed and broke, the floods created walls of water 2000 feet high that swept at 65 miles per hour all the way to the sea.  

The last Great Missoula Flood swept along a channel called the Purcell Trench and eventually carved rivers and deposited massive debris in the Oregon country. Such glacial/flood deposits (called glacial exotics) are common throughout the Columbia Gorge and Willamette Valley. Unique among these is the Willamette Meteorite which had traveled from Idaho's Pend d'Oreille region to a spot near the Falls of the Willamette River.

When a star falls from the sky

It leaves a fiery trail. It does not die.
Its shade goes back to its own place to shine again.
The Indians sometimes find the small stars
where they have fallen in the grass.


A Menomini poem from Gary W. Kronk's "Meteors and the Native Americans"

 The Willamette Meteorite fell to Earth long before even the earliest Native American oral history traditions--and probably even before the first people came to North America. Yet, the local people of the Willamette Falls area were quite aware of its origin. The Clackamas people called it Tomonowos, variously translated as "Heavenly Visitor" or "Visitor from the Moon". Like Indians throughout America, the Clackamas were aware that sometimes shooting stars land on the Earth and can be recognized by their particular substance and nature. Like cultures everywhere, the Clackamas likely attached a mythical--or spiritual--meaning to a stone fallen from Heaven.

The Willamette Meteorite is definitely unEarthly in appearance. It has a flattened semi-circular shape, humped on the upper side, with huge smooth cavities throughout. These pits are large enough for children to play in, a fact discovered when the Meteorite reached New York (--but that's for later in this story). The high iron content of the meteorite, which allowed rust and water erosion to create the cavities, also gave the stone a peculiar property: it sounds a deep, hollow ring when struck.

 In 1902, this sound alerted Ellis Hughes to the peculiar nature of the boulder he'd chanced upon in the Oregon woods. Hughes, a Welsh coal miner, rightly identified his find as a meteorite and was determined to profit from it. Hughes spent months dragging the meteorite by horse- cart from lands owned by the Oregon Iron and Steel Company to his own homestead. While Hughes was charging visitors 25 cents a peek at the Meteorite, the Steel Company sued for ownership.

A few hints about the spiritual significance of the Willamette Meteorite to its original owners, the Clackamas people , came out in testimony during the court battle over ownership. By the time Hughes came across the meteorite, the Clackamas no longer existed as a tribal entity in the Willamette Valley, victims of disease and dispersal brought by the white settlers who now occupied the land. Only 88 Clackamas signed the 1855 treaty that created Grand Ronde Reservation, a place over 50 miles southwest of their original homelands (and a refuge for several other tribes). By 1870--with only 44 Clackamas reported at the Reservation--few left Grand Ronde to visit sacred sites or relatives in the Willamette Valley.

In court in 1903, Old Soosap (an elderly Wasco Indian) and Sol Clark (another Wasco who lived among the whites in Clackamas County) reported conversations they once had with a long-deceased chief, Wochimo, and others of the Clackamas tribe. Their story said that Tomonowos, the Heavenly Visitor, had dropped from the sky in a time beyond memory. At certain seasons, at night, young men would be spiritually initiated beside the meteorite. Rain-water that filled the depressions became powerful; the Clackamas would ritually wash their faces or dip their arrows into this holy water.

As a ploy in court, Hughes's lawyer argued that the meteorite once belonged to the Clackamas, may have been moved by them and certainly had been moved by glaciers. Therefore the meteorite belonged to Hughes, who had "discovered" it, rather than to his rivals in court.

The court ruled Indian claims (and Hughes's suit) "irrelevant" and awarded the meteorite to the Oregon Iron and Steel Company which held title to land formerly occupied by the Clackamas. The Willamette Meteorite's spiritual significance was transformed into monetary and scientific value. It would eventually travel a long way from home as well as from its original owners.

In the next section, A Strange Journey: Further Travels of the Willamette Meteorite, the meteorite takes a secret ride by horse-cart, goes to court, sails downriver to visit a fair in Portland, and eventually winds up in New York City. In the following section, Who Owns a Meteorite?, the Willamette Meteorite comes up the U.S. House of Representatives as Oregon school children try to bring Clackamas County's big iron rock home.

Go to Strange Journey: Further Travels of the Willamette Meteorite

Go to Who Owns a Meteorite?

Go to Sources (Books and Links) About the Willamette Meteorite


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Patricia Kohnen