Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Pacific Region

The Prehistory of the Malheur Marshes

The abundance of birds, animals and plants found within the Harney Basin has provided Native Americans with abundant food and resources for over 11,000 years.  Use of the area was greatly influenced by climatic changes, some lasting one or two centuries, which altered the range of plants across the basin and influenced wildlife and human use.

Archaeological research shows that people were using land encompassed by the refuge by 9,800 years ago, when the Harney Basin contained a huge lake that covered 255,000 acres.  These early inhabitants used plants and animals found along the edge of this vast lake and in the surrounding uplands.  The lake was over 25 feet deep and at various times during it's existence overflowed into the Malheur River near the town of Crane.  This connection to the Snake River system allowed anadromous fish (steelhead and salmon) to enter the basin.  The climate then became progressively drier causing lake levels to lower.  For a while the shallower lake meant that the marsh covering Malheur Lake actually increased in size and supported more plants and wildlife.  Eventually the dry climate caused the marsh to shrink and limited the resources available to people and wildlife.

Use of the refuge increased around 6,000 years ago when the climate became wetter and the marsh expanded outward into areas previously covered by greasewood.  The first documented use of the spring at Refuge Headquarters begins around this time and continues into the historic period.  Inhabitants of the Refuge Headquarters site were fishing for tui chub, suckers and squawfish, and were hunting ducks, antelope, mountain sheep, coyote, muskrat and bison.

Prehistoric hunter setting out tule duck decoys from a tuleboat


At around 3,500 years ago small villages began to appear along the edge of the marsh and the Blitzen River.  These sites include stone ring structures or house pits, and some are associated with rock art. Three sites excavated in the Blitzen River valley show increased use of marsh and river resources and a fairly stable way of life.  At one of these early villages, rabbit, fish and large game animals were being eaten; grass and juniper seeds were being harvested for food; and conifer and sage brush were being used to fuel fires.  Unfortunately, the inhabitants of this village were forced to abandon their homes when hot cinders from an eruption at Diamond Craters blanketed the landscape.

A drought around 1,400 years ago caused shrinking of the lakes and marsh.  However, the number of sites distributed across the refuge and surrounding the lakes increased after this drought when moist conditions returned to the area.  Lake, marsh and upland resources were abundant and sites from this period are found around the lakes and extend into the Blitzen Valley in increasing numbers.  This may be the period of most intensive use of resources in the basin.

Geomorphic data from the Headquarters site suggests that the lake rose significantly 1,050 years ago and again flowed into the Malheur River for a short time before it shrank to the size (50,000 acres) we see today.  A drought around 700 and then 500 years ago may have briefly limited the resources available to inhabitants of the basin, however, people continued to live in stone ring villages in the valley and on the lakes after the drought.  Mat covered structures known as wickiups, used for shelter part of the year, appear during this late period.  Of particular interest during this later occupation of the basin is the use of tui chub at Harney Lake where roasting pits and middens filled with thousands of fish bones have been excavated.  This pattern extended into the historic period when the Wada'tika (Northern Paiute of the Harney Basin) used the same resources as those identified in the archaeological record.

Last updated: November 10, 2008