Comcomly descendant talks history, future

<p>Peggy Disney proudly talks of her grandmother and grandfather shown in the picture next to the house he carved from a huge old-growth cedar tree near Nemah. Disney, nee Lagergren, is related to Chinook Chief Comcomly, who helped Lewis and Clark survive in 1804 and 1805. "God put me in Bay Center and that's where I'm staying until I go out with the tide," she proudly says.</p>

BAY CENTER — “God left me here in Bay Center and that is where I will stay. I do everything Chinook. I put my boots on Chinook, I work as a Chinook, I do everything according to my heritage. The people may have been here 10,000 years ago,” Peggy Lagergren Disney said as she helped her husband, Terry Disney, manage Blue Heron Fishhouse.

Disney, the longest-serving Chinook tribal councilwoman and secretary-treasurer for the tribe, recently took time to discuss the past and future of her family and tribe.

“Both my mother and father are descendants of Comcomly. We started a custom of marrying within the tribe after the New People (Whites) came,” Disney related. Comcomly’s daughter Elvamox married Duncan McDougall, a member of the Astor Expedition. Disney’s son Marshall believes that there may be as many as seven generations from Comcomly to his mother and Disney says there could be as few as five. 

 

“It is the general consensus that my great-great-grandmother Margaret Ero was the last flattened-head Chinook. There may be some controversy as her father was a Frenchman named Urbain Herox, which was shortened to Ero,” Disney explained. “It is unlikely Urbain would have allowed his daughter to use the cradle board (to flatten her head), knowing that she would be living and interacting with the New People.”

Disney said, “Margaret, whose mother was named Ogwalic, knew four English words and they were, ‘Oh gee, but my’ and she would use that saying when she was surprised or pleased with something. Her remains are supposed to be buried on Pillar Rock. I believe she was born in the 1870s and died in 1935.” (Pillar Rock itself, a natural pillar of stone in the Columbia near the north shore in Wahkiakum County, was blasted flat by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to house a navigation marker. The heavily logged remains of a traditional tribal cemetery are on the nearby mainland.)

 

Memories of a stump house

The earliest relative Disney remembers is her grandfather, George Prior, who married Lulu of Chinookan descent. “He lived in a stump house that he carved from a huge old-growth cedar tree in Nemah around 1890. In 1964 when I was 5, we joined about 100 relatives for a picnic nearby and I remember having to run to the bathroom — outside,” Disney laughed.

“I can’t remember Lulu and I can’t remember George speaking,” she related. “I do remember my dad telling me of my grandmother, Millie Van Orsdol. She married George Van Orsdol. My dad built an 18-foot-long canoe named Tenaslelo similar to the ones Lewis and Clark used 200 years ago. He would paddle around the sloughs by Bay Center. 

“He also rode in Tenaslelo down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., during the bicentennial celebration,” Disney said with pride. “My dad used to jog two and a half miles to meet the school bus to go to Naselle. His family lived in the woods and lived off the wild. My dad would tell of the fish runs and of hunting. There was a great feeling of community,” Disney said. 

“I had four brothers and four sisters and we used to say that that was our tribe. We lived on a 125-acre farm near Bay Center. Our ‘tribe’ eventually grew to more than 70 people,” Disney said smiling.

“My dad and our family were self-sustaining, living off the land. We all had our jobs to do to make sure there was food every night when the 11 of us sat down for supper,” Disney recalled. 

 

The tribe in danger

“When Comcomly was chief everyone had a job. He was a great leader and made sure everyone had a purpose, as well,” Disney said. “Now I think our tribal people are in as much danger as when the small pox epidemic wiped out so many. The government is trying to manage the land, but we are finding out that the land is managing us. Tsunami escape routes are blocked by privately owned gates. The seafood industry is relentlessly painful.”

Peggy and Terry purchased Manke Seafoods in 1997 and processed Manila clams almost exclusively. In 2005 they expanded to purchase Blue Heron Fishhouse. “Right now we are busy with Dungeness crab, but we also process Manila and razor clams, sturgeon, and chum, Chinook, and coho salmon. Everything is seasonal, although there is some crossover,” she said of their seafood enterprise.

Peggy Lagergren was born in 1959 and graduated from South Bend High School in 1977. “I spent one year at a university studying to become a psychoanalyst, but decided I had no right trying to tell others how to live. I then went to the ‘University of Life’ and that taught me all I needed to know for what I do now,” she said.

“For over 10 years I worked at Bay Center Market and there I learned to communicate with people. I also learned that there was no need to feel littler than someone else because we all have things we do that are needed by others. Even rich people need their oysters picked and opened,” Disney explained. 

 

Long history of service

“I then worked more than four years at the Chinook Tribal Office in Bay Center and that is where I picked up my business skills. I have been secretary-treasurer for the Tribal Council for 17 years and I have been on the council the longest,” she said.

“My husband Terry is related to Walt Disney as there is record of only one Disney family coming to America. He may be a second or third cousin to Walt,” she said. Besides Marshall, who works at Blue Heron, the Disneys have a daughter, Mataya, who attends South Bend High School and an older daughter, Falon Disney, who is married and lives in Nemah. “Our family has stayed pretty close, which seems to be the way of our people.”

Disney stated, “Comcomly did right by helping Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. He helped sustain them through the winter and now our people live among non-Indians and we are all community.”

There is one issue that bothers Disney a great deal. “In 2001 the Chinooks were acknowledged as a tribe, but in 2003 that disappeared. I went from a high to a very low in my life. It was hurtful, but I will not give up because there will be a tomorrow,” she said. 

“I could be bitter for the way the descendents of the people Comcomly saved have treated us, but he did the right thing. We Chinooks must keep a grasp of who we are, whether we are recognized or not. We must remember that we do not own the land, but the land owns us and we all will eventually go back to the land,” she said.

“I am still living on ‘Indian time’ because I live by the tide. Our business is as big as we want it to get. My goal is to go back to being as self-sustaining as possible. I’d eventually like to get off the electricity grid. To be able to live without all of the things we think we have to have is my goal,” Disney said.

“I will eventually go out with the tide myself, but for now my blood is here in Bay Center.” 

Chinook Tribe Chief Comcomly

Chief Comcomly was one of the Chiefs of the Chinook Tribe at the time of Lewis and Clark. Reports of his birth range as being anywhere from 1754 to 1770 and died around 1830 reportedly from a fever epidemic that struck his tribe. 

Chief Comcomly and the Chinook and Clatsop tribes were very helpful to Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. Had the tribes and Comcomly not helped the Corps of Discovery to survive in 1804 and 1805, the western United States and Alaska could well have been claimed by Russia, Britian or Spain.

During Comcomly’s lifetime he was a trader, navigator, and not only befriender of Lewis and Clark, but also benefactor of the early Astorians. Chief Comcomly’s village was located at Chinook Point, today the location of Fort Columbia east of the present town of Chinook. 

Comcomly was the principal chief of the Chinook Confederacy, which extended along the Columbia River from the Cascade Range to the Pacific Ocean. Washington Irving described him in his book “Astoria” as “a shrewd old savage with but one eye.” Comcomly was friendly to explorers whom he encountered, and received medals from Lewis and Clark for helping them in 1804 and 1805.

Chief Comcomly first appeared in the historic record in the journal of Captain Charles Bishop of the British ship Ruby that wintered in Baker Bay from December 1795 to January 1796. Lewis and Clark first met him in November 1805.

“... This Chin nook Nation is about 400 Souls inhabid the Countrey on the Small rivrs which run into the bay below us and on the Ponds to the N W of us, live principally on fish and roots, they are well armed with fusees and Sometimes kill Elk Deer and fowl. our hunters killed to day 3 Deer, 4 brant and 2 Ducks, and inform me they Saw Some Elk Sign. I directed all the men who wished to See more of the main Ocian to prepare themselves to Set out with me early on tomorrow morning. The principal Chief of the Chinnooks & his familey came up to See us this evening ...” so wrote Clark, Nov. 17, 1805.

“... found maney of the Chin nooks with Capt. Lewis of whome there was 2 Cheifs Com com mo ly & Chil-lar-la-wil to whome we gave Medals and to one a flag. ...” 

In December 1805 Clark wrote “... in the evening two Canoes of Clât Sops Visit us they brought with them Wap pa to, a black Sweet root they Call Sha-na toe qua, and a Small Sea Otter Skin, all of which we purchased for a fiew fishing hooks and a Small Sack of Indian tobacco which was given by the Snake Inds. Those Indians appear well disposed. we gave a Medal to the principal Chief named Con-ny-au or Com mo-wol and treated those with him with as much attention as we could. I can readily discover that they never close a bargin except they think they have the advantage ...”

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