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Native American Legends of Tsunamis in the Pacific Northwest

For general interest, studies and accounts regarding Native American Legends of possible tsunamis in the Pacific Northwest are excerpted below. Much of the information on this page was presented by Jim Bergeron, Oregon Sea Grant, Astoria Extension at a 1995 Meeting in Seaside, Oregon. Those interested in the subject are encouraged to refer to the original reports:

Heaton, T. H., and Snavely, P. D., Jr., 1985, Possible tsunami along the northwestern coast of the United States inferred from Indian traditions. Bull. Seism. Soc. Am., 75, 1455-1460.

Anderson, D., 1995, Oral History: Legends give valuable hints. Eureka, California Times-Standard newspaper. Sunday Feb. 12, 1995.

Swan, J.G., 1868, The Indians of Cape Flattery, at the entrance to the straight of Juan de Fuca, Washington Territory. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, 200, 108 pp.

Makah Legend (as accounted by Swan, 1868)

The only tradition that I have heard respecting any migratory movement among the Makahs, is relative to a deluge or flood which occurred many years ago, but seems to have been local, and to have had no connection with the Noachic deluge which they know nothing about, as a casual visitor might suppose they did, on hearing them relate the story of their flood. This I give as stated to me by an intelligent chief; and the statement was repeated on different occasions by several others, with a slight variation in detail.

"A long time ago," said by informant, "but not at a very remote period, the water of the Pacific flowed through what is now the swamp and prairie between Waatch village and Neeah Bay, making an island of Cape Flattery. The water suddenly receded leaving Neeah Bay perfectly dry. It was four days reaching it lowest ebb, and then rose again without any wave or breakers, till it had submerged the Cape, and in fact the whole country, excepting the tops of the mountains at Clyoquot. The water on its rise became very warm, and as it came up to the houses, those who had canoes put their effects into them, and floated off with the current, which set very strongly to the north. Some drifted one way, some another; and when the waters assumed their accustomed level, a portion of the tribe found themselves beyond Nootka, where their descendants now reside, and are known by the same name as the Makahs in Classett, or Kwenaitchechat. Many canoes came down in trees and were destroyed, and numerous lives were lost. The water was four days regaining its accustomed level."

Legend accounted by Deborah Carver (in Anderson, 1995)

"A number of stories, including one from Washington state, tell of a huge earthquake occurring in the middle of the night, Deborah Carver said, in some cases after people in a doomed village have misbehaved. Elders tell the young that they must run for high ground. Those who heed their warning survive, although the 'flood' waters follow close behind them. They spend a cold night in the hills, surrounded by animals who have also fled the flood. In the morning they find that all traces of their village, and all neighboring coastal villages, have been completely washed away and no one else has survived.

"Among the signs of danger, the elders warn, is long-lasting shaking moving from west to east, and sand that becomes so loose people walking on the beach sink into it."