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Oral histories of the Puget Lowland tribes: Do some myths provide a cultural memory of catastrophic laharic floods from Mount Rainier, Washington?

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Author(s): Michelle Kearns, Patrick T. Pringle

Category: POSTER
Document Type:
Publisher: Program and abstracts of the 10th Washington Hydrogeology Symposium
Published Year: 2015
Pages: 58
DOI Identifier:
ISBN Identifier:

Myths of Puget Lowland native peoples transcribed by Ballard (1929), Clark (1953), and others present allegories that appear to describe the profound affects of volcanic activity at Mount Rainier on downstream areas. In "How the whales reached the sea", whales burrow through a valley bottom to change the course of a river. The new stream course that resulted was the Stuck River, which is the historic name of a stream draining south from near Auburn into the Puyallup River. Today the White River, which heads on Mount Rainier's east and northeast flanks, roughly follows that course, although at times in the past, the White River has drained north to Elliott Bay from near Auburn, where it debouches from Puget Lowland plateau into the Duwamish valley. Buried forests radiocarbon dated to about 1100 yr BP were exhumed in the in the mid-to-late 1990s at Auburn and Fife. The subfossil trees reveal that a great volcanic flood inundated these areas with a layer of andesitic sand and gravel ranging from about 0.5 to as much as 2 m in thickness. In the northern Duwamish River valley, this gravelly volcanic sand extends north to the Port of Seattle, where it is about 1.5-m thick. A volcanic ash layer at Mount Rainier having a correlative age shows that the lahar that coursed down the White River was triggered by a moderate-size explosive eruption at the volcano. The thick lahar-derived sand and gravel in the lowland near Fife and the Port of Seattle likely was deposited within days or weeks of the eruption. The thickness and extent of the deposits indicates catastrophic aggradation in the valley bottoms of the Puget Lowland, and the scale of these landscape changes more than a millennium ago appears to have been captured in oral stories by the power of the burrowing whales changing the course of the river. Alternatively, the burrowing whales may also capture the power of the strong ground motion of the nearby Seattle and Tacoma Faults, both of which produced major earthquakes within a century of the eruption and lahar. Ludwin and others (2005a, 2005b) describe indigenous stories related to the Seattle Fault rupture and that of the Cascadia Fault in 1700 CE.

Other indigenous stories, such as "The young man's ascent of Mount Rainier" (Ballard, 1929) and "The lake on Mount Rainier" (Clark, 1953) describe a flood of water and debris that buried the Puyallup River valley near the present town of Orting. These stories likely are referring the Electron Mudflow, which buried the Orting area about CE 1500. We are using studies of tree-rings of the subfossil trees in an attempt to better constrain the ages of the events and to test the correlation of the Fife and Auburn buried forests.

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In Text Citation:
Kearns and Pringle (2015) or (Kearns and Pringle, 2015)

References Citation:
Kearns, M. and P.T. Pringle, 2015, Oral histories of the Puget Lowland tribes: Do some myths provide a cultural memory of catastrophic laharic floods from Mount Rainier, Washington?: Program and abstracts of the 10th Washington Hydrogeology Symposium, 58 p..