Willamette Meteorite Fell In Oregon
Willamette Meteorite is Displayed in New York

Go Figure!

The Willamette Meteorite is one of the largest meteorites in the world and the largest ever found in the United States. When looking at either the picture or the actual stone it is hard to fathom that it weighs almost sixteen tons. The size is what is the most deceiving. It is roughly nine feet high measuring five foot by four foot in width and breadth making an egg-like shape. But the weight is nearly sixteen tons. When it was originally moved to New York City the cart carrying it through the streets was sinking into the pavement.

But what is the history of this massive meteorite and how did it end up in The American Museum of Natural History in New York?

Discovery According To White Historians

Europeans discovered it in 1902 in the western foothills of the Cascade Mountains in present day West Linn, Oregon. That is when and from where its modern day travels began. First it was dug up and moved by farmer Ellis Hughes. For three months he dug and transported the stone three-quarters of a mile to his property. There he built a shed to house it and then charged 25 cents a peek. As circumstances would have it, the lawyer for the owner of the property where it was found saw it and brought a lawsuit to have it returned to its original site.

The Oregon Supreme Court decided the meteorite was to be returned to the Oregon Iron and Steel Company who owned the property where it had been found. In 1905 the meteorite was put on display as part of The Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon. Then following the Exposition the Willamette Meteorite was sold to Mrs. William Dodge of New York and she donated it to The American Museum of Natural History, where it has been on display ever since. In fact, it is now the centerpiece of the Cullman Hall of the Universe at the Rose Center for Earth & Space at the American Museum.

This particular meteorite has been studied
and the things learned are of the type that can lead
to real science fiction stories

This chunk of nickel-iron is believed to be the core of a planet that was part of our early solar system. The studies show it to have been in two collisions after its breakup. The second collision probably sent it crashing to earth.

Where it landed the billion or so years ago is a mystery, but I would guess it was in what was the western ocean from the ancient continent of Pangea. Then a few hundred million years ago it was lifted to the surface when the western plate was thrust up creating the present day Rocky Mountains. This still left the rock somewhere in southern Canada or maybe Montana.

During one of the ice ages it was then scoured to the surface and locked in a chunk of ice. At last when the Missoula floods of western Montana began some 12,000 years ago it was "rafted" to the location where it was found; first by the Native American population, The Clackamas, and later by Ellis Hughes.

The appearance of it with the holes and pock marks is a result of rainwater reacting with iron sulfide of the meteorite to produce a weak sulfuric acid and eroding the holes into the exposed surface. The rainwater that gathered in those cavities was considered to have supernatural power and was used by the Clackamas and other tribes for a host of reasons. For healing, for rituals of the vision quest, and empowering arrows for a successful hunt; are a few of the uses that were made of Tomonowos (Heavenly Visitor). The reason that we know of these uses is because Ellis Hughes, in order to cloud the ownership question in the original trial, brought forth two elderly Indians who described some of the ceremonies and uses that their people had had for the rock.

True Discovery By Civilization Lost

However, after the treaty of 1855 most of the natives of the Willamette Valley were moved from their traditional lands to the current reservation in the coastal mountains of western Oregon. They were not allowed to practice ancient culture or religion and most certainly not allowed back on their traditional lands. So that by 1905 the stories introduced into evidence were irrelevant and had no basis.

In November of 1999 members of the Cultural Board of The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde uncovered the stories and the latest chapter of Tomonowos began. A series of meetings and negotiations were begun, using the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGRPA) as a backdrop. Although repatriation of the meteorite to the site used by the tribes was discussed, it was economically impractical and not otherwise desirable.

An agreement was reached in June, 2000, that brought The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and The American Museum of Natural History together in a manner that uses NAGRPA and transcends it for the best possible outcome for all. The agreement leaves the Willamette Meteorite in place at the museum and allows the tribe access to it for cultural and religious purposes, allowing the people to reestablish their ties to it. Also the agreement would give the tribe possession in the future should the museum no longer have an ongoing need for it.

A separate agreement with the museum sets up an internship for Native American youth that will allow for those involved to study at the museum. This is perhaps more important than the agreement worked out for possession. It opens a door for ongoing education of Native American youth that has in the past been difficult to get in. The access to a complete and broad-based science education is an important step in the assimilation of Native Americans. Just as importantly it expands the field of opportunities for Native American youth and presents them with one more dream that could be theirs.

See a more complete reading of the story of The Willamette Meteorite. While there, be sure to explore the entire Museum website. The American Museum of Natural History was founded in 1869 and is one of the foremost institutions of its kind in the world.

Michael Sherer



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Last Modified: Friday, 06-Apr-2007 23:49:41 EDT