We live on the traditional land of the Salish Sea tribes. These tribes lived in this region since the end of the Ice Age, and in honor of their history, we’d like to recognize their traditional home style: shed roof plank houses.
The Salish Sea tribes built shed roof plank houses throughout the shores of Washington State and British Columbia. These homes were once the largest structures in all of North America, thanks to the prevalence of cedar trees as ready building material. These houses were built entirely out of western red cedar: plank walls and a shed roof of overlapping cedar shakes. Each building had a rectangular floor plan, and they often reached lengths of 200 feet or longer. An average shed roof plank house had a staggering 12,000 square feet of floorspace.
These homes were the most prevalent shelters constructed by Native Americans in the Salish Sea area for 2,500 years. In 1790, an estimated 150,000 shed roof plank houses lined the shores of the Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Strait of Georgia. The Salish Sea area was, in fact, the densest area of pre-European North America.
Before European contact, the Pacific Northwest was populated by small villages—no cities or large concentrations of houses existed. Instead each village, on average, contained two or three shed roof plank houses. These houses typically sat in a row facing the water, parallel to the beach. They were built close together to provide greater shelter from wind and rain.
Shed roof plank houses weren’t massive, single-family homes; rather, they were communal dwellings, and in addition to providing shelter, they served as community centers. A shed roof plank house was a place to prepare and store food, a workshop, a meeting place, a schoolhouse, and the location for many rituals and ceremonies.
One of the largest known shed roof plank houses existed on the beach at Agate Pass on today’s Port Madison Reservation. University of Washington student Frank Carlson described the house in 1903 while researching his thesis:
In front, the outline of the house measures about nine hundred feet, in the rear a little less, as the house curved somewhat to correspond with the beach. In width, it measures about sixty feet, with the exception of a short distance at each end of the house, where it measures only fifty feet. At the north end, the rear end of a few of the rafters rested upon the bank. In height, it was twelve feet in front and between eight and nine in the rear.
It covered an area of about an acre and a quarter, containing about forty apartments, each entirely separated from the other by a partition of boards or planks split from cedar, held together by sticks fastened at the top with withes.
The rafters consisted of round cedar logs, hewed off at the upper side so as to make it level for the room. They were about sixty-five feet long with a diameter of twenty-four or more inches in the large end and about twelve in the small end. These rafters had also a post in the middle to support them. The roof was covered with cedar boards (shakes), which were laid on planks that rested on the rafters. The outside walls of the building, like the roof, consisted of split cedar planks which were put up similar to the partitions.
Although they were used every year, these homes were not continually occupied. Native Americans only lived in shed roof plank house during the winter (November to early March). During the rest of the year, the Salish Sea tribes lived in temporary structures built from poles, mats, and cedar planks close to food-gathering sites. These building materials often came from the shed roof plank houses themselves. In early spring, the Native Americans would partially dismantle their winter homes and carry the planks by canoe to set up their more convenient summer dwellings. The post and beam superstructure was left behind, ready to be restored next November when the tribes needed more shelter from the coming winter.
More than 7 million people now live in the Salish Sea region in cities such as Victoria, Vancouver, Bellingham, Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, and Port Angeles. Every one of these modern cities was originally the location of a Salish tribe’s village.
As European explorers, missionaries, and settlers moved into the area, shed roof plank houses slowly vanished. Disease, money, new religions, foreign laws, and different cultures changed the face of the Northwest and the lifestyle of the Salish Sea tribes. By 1860, no new shed roof plank houses were being built, and the existing ones were falling into disrepair. Native Americans were forced onto reservations, and by 1920, only a few superstructures of the once-widespread shed roof plank houses remained. Today, only one still partially stands. It’s on the land of the Nuu-cha-nulth on Barkley Sound, western Vancouver Island, in British Columbia.
For more information about the Salish Sea tribes and shed roof plank houses, check out this report by Christina Wallace.