Camas Oven Sites
In the late spring the bright blue flowers of the camas make a pretty show along the highway ditch banks and across the low pastureland in the Willamette Valley. A century and a half ago thousands of acres were in bloom at one time causing at least one early traveler to compare the valley bottom with a vast lake of blue water. To the Kalapuya, the Native American inhabitants of the Willamette Valley when Euro-American explorers entered the Willamette Valley during the early nineteenth century, camas was much more than a pretty flower. Camas bulbs formed a dietary staple which not only provided a bounty when harvested but could be processed and stored for winter use. In fact, archaeological excavations have uncovered evidence which indicates that camas has been part of the diet of Native American inhabitants of the Willamette Valley for nearly 8,000 years.
Harvested during the spring and early summer when the ground was soft enough to dig, several hundred pounds of bulbs were needed to meet a family's needs throughout the year. Gathering the starchy camas bulbs was the job of the Kalapuya women. Groups of women would proceed through the camas patches digging the bulbs using a wooden digging stick with a fire-hardened point and an antler handle and placing the bulbs in woven burden baskets which they wore on their backs. When the women returned to the special camas processing camps along streams near the camas patches the bulbs were washed and then placed in earth ovens where they were baked for twenty-four hours. Earth ovens were made by digging a one-and-one-half to two foot deep, oval-shaped pit two or three feet in diameter and filling it with fist-sized rocks. A fire was built on the rocks and kept burning until the rocks were very hot. Then the ashes were swept out, a layer of grass was placed over the rocks, the cleaned camas bulbs were placed on the grass, more grass was placed over the top of the bulbs, then rocks which had been heated in an adjacent fire were placed on top of this. Finally, a layer of dirt was thrown over the top of the rocks and a fire built and kept burning for twenty-four hours. Archaeologists recognize camas processing sites by the large amounts of fire-cracked rock from the "lids" of the ovens and by the rock filled pits which often contain a few charred camas bulbs in the bottom.
When the camas bulbs were removed from the earth oven they were ready to eat. At this time they could also be crushed and formed into cakes about three inches thick, weighing nearly ten pounds. Dried and wrapped the cakes would keep for a year. These dried cakes of crushed camas bulbs were traded by the Kalapuya to neighboring tribes for food items or materials which were not found in the Kalapuya homeland.