John Kalama Portrait

Portrait of John Kalama, legendary town namesake, featured in the John Kalama room at McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

Portrait of John Kalama

Room 214, McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge
See the finished room  |  See Marie painting the headboard

Custom painted portrait of John Kalama for McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

When McMenamins offered me the chance to paint a portrait of John Kalama, I was thrilled! McMenamins is a popular chain of restaurants, breweries, and historic hotels based in Portland, Oregon. Each facility is adorned with custom artwork that depicts its history.

Kalama-ites were very excited when McMenamins decided to build a hotel, restaurant and brewery on the waterfront in the City of Kalama where I live!  McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge is located at the Port of Kalama, on the Columbia River waterfront alongside a walking path that parallels the Port’s beaches, parks, picnic areas, marina and historical museum. In my opinion, it is Southwest Washington’s best kept secret about to go big time

The facility is modeled after the historic Pioneer Inn in Lahaina, Maui, because Kalama is a Hawaiian name, and the legendary namesake of the town was Hawaiian. Thus, one of the lodging rooms is named John Kalama. And inside it, my painting of John Kalama!

Legend, folklore and various historical narratives say that the town of Kalama, Washington was named after John Kalama, one of the many native Hawaiians (Kanakas) who came to the Pacific Northwest to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. 

Other historians dispute this was the case, given there are no actual records that indicate he was a significant figure in the town’s pre-history. That’s probably because much of the documentation on the development of Washington and Oregon is derived from secondary accounts. Author Gordon B. Dodds, in The American Northwest: A History of Oregon and Washington, states:

the history of the region–especially for the twentieth century–is mainly unwritten. There were whole areas of life for which not one single scholarly account appears.

However, the existence of one John Kalama in the Pacific Northwest is verified. Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) employee rosters indicate he was first employed there in 1837 and worked periodically until 1863, performing labor jobs at Fort Nisqually near Tacoma, at Fort Vancouver, and at the Cowlitz Farm. As such, he most likely piloted a canoe up and down the Columbia River, passing the mouth of the Kalama River and likely stopping to rest or trade at the Cowlitz Indian encampment there.  

He also had a Nisqually Indian wife Mary, and a son Peter, who went on to procreate future generations, according to census records. 

First idea sketch for custom painted portrait of John Kalama for McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

Initial Idea Sketch for John Kalama Painting

McMenamins’ historian provided me with documentation. It was interesting, but not revealing. For example, there are no photographs. None! How does an artist paint a posthumous portrait with no photographs? All I know is that he was Hawaiian, worked for the HBC, and had a wife and child.

Plus, as history nerds know, legend and folklore isn’t always true to the research done by historians with academic degrees. More often than not it’s based on beliefs, stories, myths or legends that have been repeated generation after generation through whatever communication channels existed at the time. And like the children’s game of repeating the secret around the circle, sometimes the story changes. Think Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. Did they actually exist. We’ll never know.

Ditto John Kalama. We know he existed, we just don’t know if his given name was the inspiration for the town’s name. There’s always a language translation distortion inherent in any historical narrative. We also know the original inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest; specifically Kalama, were Native Americans, and that they spoke their own languages. 

The name Calama, or Kalama is an Indian name meaning beautiful, stone, or pretty maiden. It was first mentioned in the Lewis and Clark Journals in 1806, and then later by Gabriel Franchere in his Narrative of a Voyage to the Northwest Coast of American, 1811-1814.

Second prepatory sketch for custom painted portrait of John Kalama for McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

Second Preparatory Sketch for John Kalama Painting

Franchere’s narrative mentions an Indian village called Thlakalamah, located on a small stream. In 1900, the book The New Pacific School Geography, in a chapter on Etymology of Georgraphic Place Names in Washington, stated the name Kalama was of Indian origin and meant stone.

“Kalama (Indian), a word of the same derivation as “calumet” and “cathlamet”, meaning stone.”

Then in 1910, Frederick Webb Hodge published a Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico that stated, “Thlakalama.” — A Chinookan tribe formerly residing at the mouth of Kalama r., Cowlitz co.

How did John Kalama end up the Town’s Namesake?

Given the legitimacy of these publications, plus a whole lot more I haven’t mentioned, one has to wonder how John Kalama ended up being the town’s namesake. Could it be that through language translation along with that unpredictable grapevine, the word Thlakalamah or Calama was appropriated to a word more familiar to the white man, like John Kalama? We’ll never know. 

Third prepatory sketch for custom painted portrait of John Kalama for McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

Third Preparatory Sketch for John Kalama Painting

Which returns me to my dilemma, how does an artist paint a portrait with nothing but a bit of narrative and HBC employment records? I drew, and drew, and drew some more, trying to bring out the Hawaiian-ness of the man people expect to be the namesake, based on what I was able to learn about Polynesian men based on Google searches. Namely, they are strong, barrel-chested, curly haired, stoutly built men with well defined Polynesian facial features.

The Opportunity

Another concept familiar to history nerds, is if there isn’t a story, what an author writes becomes the story. Similarly, if there isn’t a picture, what an artist paints becomes the picture. This was the biggest opportunity. Like molding clay, I used my drawing and painterly skills to invent what I wanted him to look like.  And as I read and drew, I came to understand not only his Hawaiian heritage, but also the greater heritage of the Cowlitz, Chinook and Nisqually tribes of our region.

Custom painted portrait of John Kalama for McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

John Kalama, his wife Mary, and son Peter

 I chose to depict him as a friendly and strong Hawaiian man robed in the blanket of his employer, the Hudson’s Bay Company. He is gazing contemplatively into the distance, as if imagining his future. Beside him are his Nisqually Indian wife and son Peter, whose offspring produced many generations.

This family unit forms a compositional triangle, which I anchored with a tribal canoe and a paddle in his hand that he most certainly would have used to navigate up and down the Columbia River. The river bends, as it does at the mouth of the Kalama River, where he would have stopped to visit the Cowlitz encampment there.

Salmon, the most honored of fishes by Northwest Native Americans, are jumping in the river. They represent our region’s intrinsic connection to those peoples. The seagulls I added for excitement. They are flapping their wings above John’s head, cawing and celebrating as seagulls do. I like to imagine they are heralding his arrival!

I leave you to ponder the rest of the story.

The image of this man is of my own imagination, in spite of historical records that say his face was badly slashed and his nose almost entirely cut off in a drunken brawl. I chose not to depict him that way, because I don’t believe his ancestors would want to remember him that way. To them, he is their “kahu anela”, the Hawaiian word for guardian angel. Without him they would not exist, and without him, the town of Kalama would have been named something else. 

Aloha John!

Fourth preparatory sketch for custom painted portrait of John Kalama for McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

Fourth Preparatory Sketch for John Kalama Painting

Fifth preparatory sketch for custom painted portrait of John Kalama for McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

Fifth Preparatory Sketch for John Kalama Painting

Final drawing for custom painted portrait of John Kalama for McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge.

Final Drawing for John Kalama Painting