PAT NEAL: Continued: Who owns the river?

In last week’s episode, we were attempting to answer the question, “Who owns the Hoh River?”

Ownership began with the Native Americans shortly after the last ice age. In the 1700s, this ownership was challenged by various European nations which came to our shores claiming land for their empires, looking for treasure and searching for the fabled Northwest Passage, a water route across the continent that would serve as a convenient shortcut to China from Europe. No one found it.

Capt. George Vancouver proved there was no water route across the continent in his exhaustive exploration of Puget Sound in 1792. Alexander Mackenzie confirmed there was no Northwest Passage in his overland journey across the continent in 1793.

By the 1800s, the Hoh River country was a part of what was known as the Oregon Territory — a huge expanse of the Pacific Northwest that was jointly occupied by Britain and the United States until the Treaty of 1846, in which Britain agreed to move north of the 49th parallel.

Coincidently, in 1846, an estimated 400,000 European settlers, including the Neal family, began the 2,000-mile journey from Missouri to Oregon.

Fueled by Manifest Destiny, a belief that Americans had a preordained right and duty to civilize and subdue the North American continent, we shot the buffalo, fouled the water holes and outraged the Indians.

We were looking for free land.

The land was not free. It was still owned by the Native Americans. Their title to the land had to be extinguished before it could be opened for homesteading by the invading Europeans. This was a legal technicality easily dismissed by Isaac Stevens, who was Washington’s territorial governor, Indian agent and railroad surveyor long before the term “conflict of interest” had been invented.

In drawing up the treaties, Stevens thought an Indian war would be good for the economy, and the genocidal terms of the treaties reflected this belief. Once the Native American title to their lands was extinguished, the land was open for settlement.

The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed individuals to claim 160 acres for a fee of $10, if they established a residence and cultivation of a crop for five years.

It was not until 1892 that the first homesteaders reached the Hoh River.

John Huelsdonk, the legendary “Iron Man of the Hoh,” and his brothers filed claims in this remote valley where the only access was by poling a canoe up the river or walking The Pacific Trail. This was a trail made entirely of split cedar boards that ran from Forks to Moclips.

At the time, homesteaders could pay their taxes by working on the trail.

Times were hard. Markets for produce and livestock were far away. There were few meager alternatives to make a living in the wilderness. The Huelsdonks captured calf elk that were traded to Alaska for mountain goats. Bounties on wolves, cougar and bears helped many of the early settlers eke out a living.

By the late 1890s, land speculators had abused the Homestead Act to such an extent that it was a common practice for timber company employees to establish fraudulent homesteads that were sold to timber companies that logged the land and let it go back to the county for back taxes.

This practice, described by one lawmaker as the “looting of the public purse,” ended the Homestead Act.

Congress granted Washington millions of acres of unclaimed land to support schools and other public institutions.

These School Trust Lands are managed today by the state Department of Natural Resources.

Next: The Olympic Forest Reserve.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via