Sea Lion Cave

North of Florence, just south of the Heceta Head Lighthouse, is popular tourist attraction Sea Lion Cave. It is said to be the largest sea cave on the west coast. The Sea Lion Cave’s website claims that Captain William Cox discovered the cave in 1880. But is that really true? It seems unlikely that the Native people of the region, Siuslaws and Alsea in particular, would have been unaware of its existence. I wanted to look into it more as the word ‘discover’, in popular vernacular always seems to mean the first time something became known to non-indigenous people. The longer history of indigenous people gets overlooked (if not ignored completely).

Practically all the mentions of Sea Lion Cave are in Harrington’s notes (from 1942). No one states directly that they knew of the Cave before Cox rowed a boat into it, but there are stories about the area that make me think they did know it was there.

The Siuslaw place name Hltuuwiis applied to both the Heceta Lighthouse site and Sea lion cave; south of that is Huwiina or Huwiiniich, Cape Mountain. This region is mentioned in the Alsea world-transformation story found in Alsea Texts. The world transformer S’uku comes ashore at the Umpqua River and begins to travel north. Along the way he ‘fixes’ things in the world; creating how tobacco and kinnikinnick leaves are mixed for smoking, putting sturgeon in the Umpqua River, putting salmon in all the rivers and creeks he passes. Then he reaches Cape Mountain:

Then when he arrived at where the beach ends he climbed upon the mountain [Cape Mountain]. And after he arrived at the top he heard some monsters singing at the lower part of that mountain. So he said, “I will go and see what it may be.” So, indeed he went down, and after he came to where he heard those previously mentioned monsters he beheld (the place) simply full (with) those beings, several of them being black. Then he began to think in his mind “I wonder what I shall do with them? Yes, I will fix them so that my children will (be able to) eat those black ones; their name will be Sea-Lions, and the name of those big ones will be Whales.” And then after he was through with them he clmbed up again and went on. (Alsea Texts, page 87)

So S’uku reaches the point where Sea Lion Cave is today, hears all these noisy ‘monsters’ and transforms them into sea lions and whales. And in the story, that is why sea lions are found along that part of the coast to this day.

Indian people did hunt sea lions there; as well as gather sea bird eggs from the offshore rocks and got Coho salmon from Cape Creek. Harrington’s Alsea informant described how once, as a youth, he was with a party that had left the Alsea enclave at Waldport during the Alsea subagency years, hunting sea lions by Sea Lion Cave and Heceta:

when 15 years old went with y. and also some aged Indians went to Sea Lion Caves…at real low tide, 5 grown men & us 2 kids, all males. The sealions were sleeping there thick divided the sealions into 2 herds as the sealions became alarmed, some taking to the ocean & some toward inland, this old man was fleet & out-distanced men who tried to run following him.

We all had clubs of any kind of hard wood, 4 or 5 ft long, & we succeeded in clubbing just one old big sealion, those who had headed inland also escaping to sea. That old sealion had some of his teeth broken out, came to after we had clubbed him much. They tried to kill only big old ones. They cut that sealion up & packed what they cd use of him back to Waldport. We followed the beach & some trails at places back to Waldport – a long walk. (23:841ab)

Spencer Scott (Lower Umpqua-Siuslaw) also recalled hunting sea lions in this area:

…Knows a place s. of Yahach [Yachats] where there is a big hole in the rock into which the ocean goes way in.

When I ask about the sealions, says that place is {Hltuuwiis][Heceta]. Now there is a ladder, but used to be just a little trail to descend there on, at low tide more than 100 down there. [Sea lions] Howl like dog. Clubbed them. (23:845b)

Frank Drew told a story that could be a story about Black Bear, or a strange alternate version of the Five Grizzly Bears (four of whom were killed at Heceta Head because they kept eating people), and this story took place at Sea Lion Cave:

A bear ran up and down a pole. There is a story. This pole was above where the stairs are now – that only is the steepest place.

That Sea Lion cave.

There was only one person that was successful in climbing up the pole – all the others went down, failed-bear climbed trees just like bear runs along ground… He was a person one time and the Indians won’t eat the meat because for that. (23:338a)

In other versions of the Five Grizzlies story (one told by James Buchanan to Frachtenberg, one by Frank Drew to Melville Jacobs some 10 years before he was interviewed by Harrington) the Grizzlies (and other game contestants) climb a rope, not a pole. This may be an alternate but related story, or a separate story. Since he gave no Indian words here it is unclear what kind of ‘bear’ he meant – black bear (Hanis shximhl, Miluk pelel, Siuslaw t’ii) or grizzly bear (swahl in both Hanis and Siuslaw). Many people did hold that black bear meat was taboo, as they had once been human or were otherwise regarded as kin, though fat and hides were often used. It isn’t clear to me if similar taboos held for grizzlies, as I’ve never found a mention one way or the other. In stories, they have distinctive roles – black bear often plays the fool (tho’ in the Five Grizzlies he is not) and occasionally victim or victor (thinking of the bloody “Black Bear and Grizzly Bear” story) but Grizzly (male or female) always appears as a dangerous, murderous being who is usually killed by the end of the story.

So I have no found clear mentions of knowing of the cave before Cox. However, people camped and hunted around Cape Mountain and Heceta for generations and were quite aware of it as an excellent area for hunting sea lions. Indian people did travel up and down the coast in canoes, (once Doloos Jackson’s father and friends paddled a canoe south to Coos Bay all the way from the Columbia River) and the cave is visible from the sea, so it is likely at some point in time the cave was spotted. I doubt it was all that accessible – the currents are strong and rough, and it would be very risky to take a dugout canoe there.

All in all I lean toward the idea that they did know of its existence. It’s possible Cox was the first person to ever go inside the cave, but at this remove I suppose there is no way we will ever know for sure.


About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
This entry was posted in History, Myths, toponyms and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Sea Lion Cave

  1. Pingback: Sea Lions | Shichils's Blog

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