Bonneville Dam

The Columbia flooding in the spring of 1936 during construction of Bonneville Dam.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo


The Columbia is a river of many names.

To the Indian tribes of the river’s middle reaches, the Yakima and Warm Springs, for example, it is Nci-wana, the big river. To the Chinookan people of the lower Columbia valley near the Pacific Ocean, it is Yakitl-Wimakl, the great river. To the Ktunaxa people whose homeland includes Columbia Lake in British Columbia, the source of the river, it is Miȼqaqas ʔakinmituk, “river in the chickadee territory.”

In 1603, the Spanish explorer Martin de Aguilar, surveying the Pacific Ocean coast discovered what he described as “a very copious river” flowing into the ocean at about the latitude of the mouth of the Columbia. Later, cartographers would refer to this as Aguilar’s River. Another ocean explorer, the Spaniard Bruno de Heceta, described a great bay and strong outflow in the same latitude in August 1775 and called it Asuncion.

Meanwhile, far to the east, the Columbia was a rumor that gradually took on a name and a description. In 1633, the Jesuit missionary Paul Lejeune first recorded the term Ouragan, the term for a bark dish used by local Indians in New France, now eastern Canada. Later, the French governor of Canada used the term Ouragan in a letter to refer to The River of the West after hearing from Indians, as did another French explorer in 1721, about a great western river that drained to the Pacific Ocean.

To the Boston fur trader Robert Gray, the first non-Indian known to have sailed across the river’s treacherous bar, it was Columbia’s River, or the Columbia River, after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva.

To Woody Guthrie, troubadour of hydropower, rural electrification, and Depression-era recovery, it was “that wild and wasted stream.”

To the historian Richard White, it is an organic machine. His 1995 book of that name concisely captures the dilemma of the modern Columbia: environment for prized fish and wildlife, machine to produce nearly half of the electricity consumed today in the Pacific Northwest.

I have written an almanac-style history of the Columbia River, which is posted on the website of my employer. These entries explore the many names and faces of the river, its varied and sometimes conflicting uses, its people and places, its fish and wildlife, its past and future — in sum, the forces and ideas and passions and decisions that defined this remarkable river over time, and continue to define it today.