Columbia River Salmon

The Columbia is the largest river of the American West, and its annual migrations of Chinook salmon were once spectacles of nature. These prized fish, some weighing more than 70 pounds, churned the waters as they returned upstream to reproduce.

For centuries, salmon have been central to the diet, economy, and culture of the river’s native peoples. In the 1860s, American entrepreneurs established canneries on the river and brought the taste of salmon to people from England to Australia. But decades of commercial fishing and canning also brought dramatic change to the region’s landscape, environment, and culture.



The River

The Columbia River flows 1,200 miles from southeastern British Columbia to the Pacific. It forms the border between Oregon and Washington.


Salmon Exports

In the late 1800s, over half of the output of Columbia River packers was exported to Great Britain and Australia. Can labels with brand names like “Globe,” “Empire,” and “Royal,” and depicting English royalty and flags of many nations, reflected the global reach of the most prized species: Chinook, coho, and sockeye.

Courtesy of the Columbia River Maritime Museum


From John N. Cobb, “Pacific Salmon Fisheries.” (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office), 1921

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Pacific Salmon

The North Pacific is home to five species of salmon and steelhead, a migratory form of trout. Each kind of salmon is known by different names: Chinook (king), sockeye (red), coho (silver), chum (dog), and pink (humpback). All are commercially valuable, but the Chinook were the prize of the Columbia River system.


Some 2,500,000 cans of salmon nearly filled a cannery’s store room in Astoria, Oregon, in the late 1800s.

Courtesy of the Columbia River Maritime Museum