The Way to the Western Sea Lewis and Clark across the Continent Chapter 15

David Lavender© 2001University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London

FIFTEEN. Wild Water

After so many days of plodding, the discoverers must have felt a heady exhilaration when the swift current of the Clearwater, as the river is called today, whipped their loglike dugouts downstream toward the Pacific. But the water was also low in October, and every so often clusters of black rocks rose ominously above tangles of frothing waves. [1]

The first wreck, which can typify the rest, came just one day after the launching. They had successfully passed "fifteen rapids, four islands, and a Creek." Perhaps they were cocky. Anyway, the boat Sergeant Gass was steering, either with a sweep oar or a big, Indian-style paddle, banged into a boulder and tossed him overboard. One side of the dugout split open, letting water pour in. Fortunately, that part of the river, though swift, was only waist deep and salvage was possible. Clark described it: "the men, Several of which Could not swim hung onto the Canoe. I had one of the other Canoes unloaded & with the assistance of our Small Canoe and one Indian Canoe took out everything & toed the empty Canoe on Shore, one man Tompson a little hurt." [2]

Most of the cargo was soaked, of course, and had to be spread out to dry while the canoe was repaired—under guard, for many Indians, alert for anything loose, had gathered quickly during the rescue work. At that point the two Shoshoni guides, Old Toby and his son, vanished, either because they feared being ducked in some later rapid or they had decided there were too many strange Indians around for comfort. Actually the defection did not matter much, for the two Nez Percé chiefs, Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky, had already taken over as river guides and ambassadors of good will among the stream-side Indians.

What did matter was the way the river was forcing the captains into a familiar dilemma of the Western world: lose time by hurrying. "we should make more portages," Clark admitted, "if the season was not so far advanced and time precious with us." They tried to compromise by adding precautions. On approaching an unusually heavy rapid—they were warned either by their Nez Perce guides or by the deep-throated roar of the water—Lewis and Clark would signal for the flotilla to land while they walked ahead with the guides and the steersmen to read the water. If it looked particularly rugged, they would have the nonswimmers walk to the foot of the tail waves, carrying what they could. Men able to swim would then take their chances with the partially lightened craft. Generally no more than one or two boats went through such stretches at a time. This precaution left the others perched in handy eddies, ready to dart out if rescue operations became necessary. As they did—at least five times during the first ten days. "we have great cause to lament," Clark wrote after one of the wrecks, while the salvaged goods were drying, "as all our loose Powder two canisters, all our roots prepared in the Indian way, and one half our goods [are lost]." To say nothing of time. [3]

As they bobbed and twisted downstream, the nature of the country changed radically. The Clearwater was breaking out of the last foothills of the Rockies and entering the bowl-shaped Columbian Plain in an area where, because of the rain shadow cast by the coastal Cascade Range, precipitation averaged less than ten inches a year. Pine trees disappeared from the hills, as did all vegetation, except stunted willows and weeds, from the stream margins. "Barren and broken" became the common words in the journals for the lands stretching out beyond the canyon walls. Prickly pear cactus covered the wind-scoured ground, but that and spaciousness were the only traits the region shared with the High Plains bordering the Missouri. There were no great, clotted herds of buffalo, elk, deer, or antelope. Food was limited to salmon, most of it dried, and to roots, and a slowly increasing number of dogs, all purchased from the stream-side Indians with articles reluctantly drawn from the expedition's shrinking supply of trade goods.

Stalks, twigs, and bits of driftwood served as fuel, and often had to be purchased. The captains, heedful of Jefferson's admonition about treating the Indians fairly, were scrupulous about paying for everything that was not clearly offered as a gift. But one night, after yet another wreck had left them cold and hungry and with a canoe-load of sodden goods in need of drying, they did break into a cache of unguarded wood they stumbled across. We know because all the journal keepers admitted to the theft, perhaps to exorcise their guilt by confessing it—or perhaps to help readers understand how dire their straits had become. [4]

Yet how marvelous those crystal rivers were! Five days out of Canoe Camp, they were hurried by the Clearwater into a stream more than a quarter of a mile wide, its water a faint, translucent green as it surged out of the south. The Nez Percé called it Kimooenim. After recalling his explorations of the Salmon River and remembering his many talks with Indians about the lie of the land, Clark decided this "new" river was actually a reappearance of the Salmon, swollen now by many tributaries. Lewis's River, he had named it—the great South Fork of the Columbia as postulated on their maps.

His only mistake was not realizing that Lewis's River, instead of being the main stream, was actually a tributary of the majestic Snake. Right then, however, the error was irrelevant. For as the captains knew from the Indians, a bigger river than the Kimooenim lay only a short distance ahead. This newest one had to be the main fork of the Columbia, which the Corps still identified with Alexander Mackenzie's Tacoutche Tesse. Riding a surge like that, they would surely reach the Pacific in short order. Or so they must have joyfully believed, pleased meanwhile that their guess-work geography, born of many hours of speculation, was turning out to be correct—except in the one vital matter of a short portage across the Rockies.

On October 16, having traveled by Clark's calculation 3,714 miles from Camp Wood at the mouth of the Missouri, they reached the Columbia. It was one of the great rivers of North America and a primary goal of the expedition, yet the journals record no elation. The matter-of-factness has baffled some commentators. But exhilaration had come to the explorers two months earlier, after the crossing of Lemhi Pass, where most of them, stooping beside a small rivulet, had first "tasted the water of the Great Columbia." This last encounter, however welcome, was no more than a confirmation.

Still it merited a halt. The captains wanted to make observations for latitude. (They again sidestepped the tricky calculations involved in computing longitude.) Lewis was anxious to collect comparative vocabularies, and Clark hoped to explore upstream toward another tributary he had heard of, today's Yakima. The men needed to mend their clothes and put their arms in order, "always a matter of attention with us," for they never forgot that the expedition was, essentially, a military force crossing lands held by potential enemies. And, as always, they had to replenish their larder as best they could.

From time immemorial the junction of the Snake and Columbia rivers had been a favorite gathering place for Indians from throughout the Columbian Plain. Topographically, the place was not dramatic, for the river bluffs were low there, affording a view of empty scablands stretching endlessly toward nowhere. But if the land was empty, the river teemed each summer with salmon coming in repeated hordes to the forks. There the fish instinctively chose the branch that would lead them to the headwaters where they had been spawned and where those that survived the journey would spawn in their turn before dying—intense swarms whose pulsing, thrashing magnitude can scarcely be imagined today.

When the Corps of Discovery reached the confluence, the last of that year's migration was ending. Though myriads of fish still undulated in transparent water fifteen to twenty feet below the boats, an even greater number lay dead in putrefying windrows along the banks or floated on the surface of the streams. The Indians, too, were leaving. Many of their settlements, frequently located where salmon congregated at the bottoms of the rapids, were empty. But, like the living salmon, many still remained, the men busy with spears, nets, and weirs, while the women dexterously slit in half and disemboweled, one by one, the fish brought to them and then laid the pieces on wooden scaffolds to dry. Amazed by the number of the structures, Clark tried to find out how far the people had rafted the timbers used in their building, but his gestured questions, turned into words by Twisted Hair, were not understood.

As Lewis soon learned from his vocabulary work, the crowds of Indians in the vicinity all spoke dialects of the same Sahaptian tongue. Meanwhile both captains took note of the unusual houses. They were simple rectangles, fifteen to sixty feet long. Forked timbers supported the ridgepoles; the roof slopes and walls were covered with large mats made of rushes. An open slit along the entire ridge top of each dwelling gave egress to smoke from fires built along the center of the interior. The gap, said Clark, "proves to me rains are not common in this country." [5] Several families, each with its own fireplace, occupied each house.

The Nez Percé of the foothills, the captains found, were more "dressy" than their relatives at the junction. The former's hide garments were garishly decorated, as were the twin braids of the men's hair, which hung forward over their chests. The women of the Clearwater wore belted dresses that reached to their ankles, and they were far more modest than the men about "secreting the parts [emphasis by Clark]." The women downstream, however, eschewed ornaments and long dresses and wore only "a pece of leather tied around them at their hips and drawn tite between their legs and fastened before So as barly to hide those parts which are so sacredly hid & s[e]cured by our women."

These benighted people, the captains agreed, seemed happy. They had many horses; the men shared more tasks with women than was customary in most tribes. Monogamy was the rule; age was respected. But there were problems. One widespread affliction was sore eyes and, often, blindness—the result, the captains thought, of the sun's unbroken glare on water during the fishing season and on snow during winter. Many teeth were worn to the gums or missing entirely. The whites explained this by saying the grit of unwashed roots ground away the teeth. More recent theories suggest that both the trachoma and gonorrhea forms of conjunctivitis should bear most of the blame for the ailing eyes, and that sand worn from mortars and pestles during the grinding of food (roots were generally washed, Clark notwithstanding) accounted for the bad teeth. [6]

The Indians returned the whites' curiosity in full. The afternoon the Corps arrived at the confluence, they were greeted by two hundred natives, singing and pounding on their drums. They formed a half-circle around the visitors, smoked a little, and made what they could out of gestures concerning trade and universal peace. Chiefs were "made," and small gifts distributed. Acquiring food from the Nez Percé who lived along the river continued to be an all-important problem. With the greatest politeness, the captains turned down the salmon that were offered them, for they feared some of the fish might have been picked up dead or dying and be contaminated. But they did purchase an amazing heap of forty dogs. Unless the unfortunate creatures were bought already dressed and in individual transactions, the barking, howling, teeth-bared massacre must have been too gruesome even to contemplate.

At four o'clock in the afternoon of October 18, the explorers again took to their boats, still accompanied by Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky. The next day the wide Columbia, which had been running south, veered west through the Wallula Gap into new canyons. Barren, dark brown cliffs of basalt, the result of ancient lava flows, climbed higher and higher. There were more snarling rapids to run. More Indians to contact, including one group Clark inadvertently frightened out of their wits.

The episode occurred near the bottom of a rush of white water two miles long. He and some others walked ahead to lighten the boats for the passage. It turned out to be slow, and to kill time Clark climbed to the top of a two-hundred-foot cliff to see the view. Far to the west he made out, with what must have been a spark of excitement, a tall, snow-covered peak. Mount Saint Helens, he thought, named in 1792 by the British naval captain George Vancouver, who had sighted the mountain from the mouth of the Columbia. If Clark's identification was correct, the continental gap had been closed: two inquiring humans, separated by only a few miles and years, had stared in wonder at the same dazzling object, albeit from different sides. (Actually, the identification was not accurate; Clark had sighted a huge new peak later named Mount Adams. Mount Saint Helens was only twenty-five miles farther west, however.) The ocean lay just yonder, tangible at last. Englishmen had been there; the American Robert Gray had entered the river with his ship Columbia. But though part of the coast was known, the dark interiors of the land could still be frantically primordial, as William Clark learned on his return to meet the boats.

The setup was this. The smallest of the dugouts had reached the foot of the rapids, but the larger ones were still upstream, having trouble. Nor was Clark the only watcher. Across the river from where he settled down to wait were five long houses. Their inhabitants, who evidently had not noticed Clark as he descended the cliffs, were scattered out on ledges, staring at the fleet. At that point Clark half-negligently snapped a shot at a crane flying over- head, barely visible against fleecy clouds. A lucky hit: the bird dropped with a puff of feathers into the river. Instantly the Indians across the way, who never before had heard a gun, fled in panic into their long houses.

Not connecting the incidents but wanting to keep all Indians on a friendly footing, Clark called to Drouillard and the Field brothers, who were waiting nearby. Boarding the small boat, they rowed across the river. Along the way Clark shot at a duck. It, too, fell into the river.

Arrived at the closest house, the whites shoved aside the upright mats that blocked the doors and entered. Abject terror greeted them. Thirty-two men, women, and children crouched on the floor, heads hanging as they wailed and moaned and wrung their hands. The thought crossed Clark's mind that he could go among them tomahawking each in turn without encountering resistance. [7] It was an instinctive, bloodthirsty reaction born in his own dark, unexplored interior, and psychologists might like to play with it. In the event, however, Clark simply took each person by the hand and offered trinkets and bits of ribbon. As the people calmed, he sent his men to the other lodges to repeat the performance.

To seal the peace, he produced his pipe and loaded it with tobacco prior to passing it around for a ceremonial smoke. Sunlight falling through the slit in the roof led him to light the tobacco with a burning (magnifying) glass—no pocket matches in those days. At that the terror returned full force. Fire drawn by a demi-god from the sun!

Realizing what he had done, Clark retreated outside and sat on a rock, holding the pipe in a welcoming position. No one ventured out, however, until Lewis arrived with Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky. The two Nez Percés jabbered questions. The Indians explained. They had heard roars like thunder; dead birds had fallen from the sky. Clearly the white man was from the sun. Twisted Hair clucked. No, this was the way of it. But what really wiped the fears away was the sight of Sacagawea coming up the hill with her eight-month-old son in his carrier on her back. "This ... confirmed those people of our friendly intentions, as no woman ever accompanies a war party of Indians in this quarter." [8]

As the miles fell away, the desolation of the land increased. The lava-rock precipices, particularly those bordering the north side of the river, climbed hundreds of feet high. Over the eons they had shed huge chunks of basalt into the water. These dark, forbidding rocks split the river into many fretful channels, some stirred in places by whirlpools as if with a giant spoon. And these were but preludes. From the natives the explorers kept hearing the word timm, spoken in deep tones to imitate the roar of unseen falls ahead. As for the Indians, most continued to be of Sahaptian stock—Nez Percé and their relatives. Here and there, however, the whites began coming across squat, unkempt, loose-haired, bandy-legged members of the Chinookan language group.

The Chinookans were true flatheads. Foreheads, molded when infant bones were soft, sloped backward without indentation from the tip of the nose to a pointed cranium. Protrusions at the back of the head were also flattened out, to intensify the peaked-head look that among the Chinookans signified beauty and nobility. Two or three of the Columbia Chinookans had blankets of red and blue cloth; one wore a sailor's jacket. The articles clearly came from the mouth of the river. But did the whites who had traded the merchandise live in permanent posts, as the Indians seemed to indicate, or did they simply make occasional visits by ship to the coast? At that point the destitute explorers probably did not care greatly either way, so long as ship or post, even if manned by Britons, was well stocked with supplies.

On October 22, after speeding down a roaring channel between the south shore and a long island spiked with fantastic towers and pinnacles of basalt, they came to the brink of a massive, perpendicular, twenty-foot waterfall—timm water, shrouded in mist. If Lewis felt any resurgence of the awe that had gripped him at the Great Falls of the Missouri, it is not mentioned. Nor does Clark reveal anything more than a concern to get on down the river as efficiently as possible. Aesthetics and adventure were losing their savor. [9]

Because this was a heavily traveled Indian route, the captains had no trouble planning procedures. Accompanied by an old Indian, they located a rough, twelve-hundred-foot portage across solid rock and windblown sand. By hiring a few horses for transporting the heaviest bundles and letting the men carry the rest, they completed moving their cargo by nightfall and camped near "5 lod[g]es of natives drying and prepareing fish for market."

The steep, winding route would not do for the heavy dugouts, however. So the next morning Clark and the greater part of the men rowed the boats to the south side of the river and, with great difficulty, "hauled" them a quarter of a mile through the debris of a recently abandoned fishing camp. The fleas swarming there infested the men. Frantic, they tore off their hide clothing and worked naked so they could brush away the vermin as opportunity allowed. They could not abandon their overrun clothing, however, for they had nothing else to wear. So they took the fleas with them on a swift ride through a narrow channel that ended at the top of a snarling cascade whose total drop was about eight feet. The pitching banks allowed no room for portaging big dugouts, and the tremendous surge of the water created a maelstrom unsafe for the men to ride. Finding perches on rocks above the fury, the men lined the empty craft through with elkskin ropes. One broke loose and was pounced on by Indians waiting below the falls; ransoming the boat was costly. The full drop of falls and cataracts, a unit later called Celilo Falls, was, by Clark's calculations, thirty-eight and a half feet.

Another bit of foresight here. In a back eddy below the falls the captains saw two beautiful canoes different from any they had witnessed before. Tapering gracefully at both ends, they were unusually wide in the middle. Their sides, "dug thin" in Clark's words, were strengthened by crossbars; these also served as handles for lifting the relatively light vessels out of the water onto the shore. The bows were decorated by fanciful figureheads. Such canoes, they learned through their Nez Percé interpreters, were constructed to ride high waves and carry huge burdens. Since the Corps dugouts most assuredly could not do those things, Lewis sought out the owner of one of the vessels and, after much bargaining, obtained it in exchange for the expedition's small dugout plus a hatchet and some trinkets. [10]

A couple of miles below Celilo Falls, a massive black promontory thrust into the stream as if trying to touch a shorter span on the opposite bank. Accompanied by several Indians who lived near the obstruction, Clark climbed to its top to study what he later called the Short Narrows. It was awesome—the entire Columbia pouring into a gap forty-five yards wide as if into a high-pressure nozzle. Yet avoiding the stretch by portaging the heavy dugouts across the steep, broad obstruction was impossible.

After studying "this agitated gut swelling, boiling & whorling in every direction," Clark and Pierre Cruzatte, the principal boatman, decided it could be run. Presumably the captains sent all nonswimmers, including Sacagawea and her baby, and the most valuable goods around the cauldron. But he doesn't say so, as he does every other time the group is divided, and the exception tantalizes. Did everyone run the gut—a rougher run, Clark admitted later, than he had anticipated and one that amazed the Indians watching from the rocks above? After clearing the agitated whorls, the boats raced on through a slightly wider slot to a "very bad place, the current divided by two islands." There, at the Short Narrows, nonswimmers did carry the expedition's most valuable "papers Guns & amunition" by land while the dugouts took on the "very bad place" without casualties.

Between the Short Narrows and the next rapid, which Clark named the Long Narrows, stood a strong village of Wishram Indians, a Chinookan band. Called Nixluidix, the town consisted of twenty-one long, plank houses, their foundations dug deeply into the earth—the first wooden town the captains had seen since leaving the Illinois country. Along with a settlement of related Wascos located on the southern shore (a village the captains did not visit), Nixluidix dominated the twelve-mile stretch of furious water later named La Grande Dalle de la Columbia, or, more simply, The Dalles. [11]

From mid-April to mid-October, salmon of several species could be taken in almost unlimited numbers as they struggled upward toward their spawning grounds. Cleaned, dried, and pounded into a powder, the catches were stored in big baskets lined with fish skins. The storage baskets were then stacked in pyramids, seven below and five above. Mats were wrapped around the stacks and cinched tight with cords. Clark counted 107 stacks scattered around the environs of Nixluidix—by his estimate, ten thousand pounds of "neet" fish (fish unmixed with other substances). The fish meal, he was assured, would stay edible for several years and was a principal source of winter food. The odorous region—fish entrails, excrement, and decay in general—also attracted innumerable fleas and polecats. [12]

Nez Percés and other Sahaptian groups from higher up the Columbia came to the area to increase their own supplies of fish and also to swap their furs, hides, bear claws, bear grass (used in making baskets), and dried meat with Chinookan visitors for dried clams, tools whittled out of wood, cloth and metal items from ship traders who stopped by the Columbia's mouth, and choice dentalium shells that trickled south along the coast from Vancouver Island. The shells were about two inches long and curved like tiny walrus tusks. Chinooks liked to wear them in their noses, and a few Nez Percés imitated the custom, just as some Sahaptians flattened their children's heads according to the Chinookan style. Other exchanges at the great mart consisted of folk stories, dances, and whatever was staked on the interminable gambling games.

The Wascos and Wishrams who lived along The Dalles were as intent on retaining control of the Indian commerce that flowed through their part of the gorge as the Teton Sioux had been in mastering the trade of the middle Missouri. Of the two groups at The Dalles, the Wishrams were the more belligerent, and it was among them that Lewis and Clark camped during their descent of the river. The Indians were suspicious. Just what did these strangers want? According to Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky, the villagers were even planning to attack the expedition. No problem, the captains said, but made a show of examining the men's arms and issuing enough ammunition to give each soldier a hundred rounds.

Evidently the demonstration had its effect. The Indians became civil. With Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky acting as representatives of the Nez Percés, the captains arranged a peace between the tribes. Pax Americana, just what President Jefferson wanted, even out here where his nation exerted no sovereignty—as yet. From this moment on, Clark wrote with astounding naiveté, "those two bands or nations will be on the most friendly terms." In celebration Pierre Cruzatte fiddled and the soldiers danced, to the delight of the natives.

On October 25, the explorers successfully passed the Long Narrows, boiling and whirling just below the Wishram settlements. The thirty-five miles of relatively quiet water that followed served to take them out of the arid Columbian Plain into the humid rain forests of the coastal Northwest. The change was extraordinary. Average annual rainfall (which of course the explorers had no way of measuring) rises from fourteen inches at The Dalles to sixty-five inches—more than five feet!—on the western slope of the Cascade Mountains. Under the influence of the repeated deluges, the stunted pines and oak coverts the explorers had noticed at The Dalles gave way to Douglas firs, red cedars, spruce and hemlock of unbelievable size. Rioting underneath the high canopy of the branches were almost impenetrable tangles of lesser trees, brush, and giant ferns.

The Indians changed too. The Eneeshur band of Sahaptians, who lived near Celilo Falls, could not understand the Echeloot Wishrams who lived only half a dozen miles away. [13] Although salmon were an important part of the economy of the Sahaptians, and especially of the Nez Percé, their chief orientation was toward the grassy, untimbered land where their horse herds ranged. In the thick forests west of the Cascade Mountains, however, horses were useless. The Chinookans were people of the Pacific littoral and of its great rivers, and of fantastic canoes that were capable of riding across waves that would keep the cumbersome log dugouts of the Americans pinned to the shore for days at a time. They were a people of wood. They built plank houses covered with riven fir and cedar; they carved not only domestic utensils from the produce of the forest but also decorative figureheads for their boats and curious images of human forms to set up beside their wooden burial vaults. [14]

Lewis and Clark distrusted them. Part of the prejudice came from Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky, who accompanied the expedition through the Short and Long Narrows with great reluctance and then hurried home on horses they had purchased near Celilo Falls. One of the duties of the Corps, however, was to be friendly, so they could acquire, through observation and pantomime, knowledge that might some day be useful to their country. For themselves they needed to create a good will they could draw on while toiling back up the river the following spring. [15] Each day, accordingly, they smoked with most of the groups they encountered on the river, and at night entertained neighborhood villagers with the well-tested devices of fiddle music, the soldiers' dancing, York's exuberant jigging, and demonstrations of the airgun. They also needed to buy fish meal and edible dogs from the people they met, and so the underlying antipathy they felt did not surface visibly until they had reached the discomforts of the lower river.

The transition into wetness was complete by the time the Corps reached the infamous rapids that became known, during immigrant days, as the Upper and Lower Cascades of the Columbia—rapids that gave their name to the mountain range through which the river bored. (Today those once powerful and startlingly beautiful waters are buried underneath the reservoir backed up by Bonneville Dam.) Like the Short and Long Narrows higher upstream, both Cascades were compression rapids, the confined waters rushing "in a most horriable manner" among a clutter of boulders "both large and small." Clark promptly named the Upper Cascade the Great Shute (sic).

The Great Shute was so formidable that the captains decided they would have to portage the dugouts as well as the cargo around it. They accomplished the difficult feat by having the men place poles across the ragged crevices between the boulders littering the shore and then skidding the heavy boats across the timbers. The work, handicapped by rain and slippery footing, was so onerous that on reaching the Lower Cascade they decided to portage only their shrunken packs of merchandise and equipment and again risk the empty dugouts to the white turbulence. All five slammed through right side up.

A briefly joyful climax rewarded them. Just beyond the bottom of the last rapid, under the shadow of a stone pillar almost nine hundred feet high called Beacon Rock, they encountered the first tides of the ocean they were striving to reach. It would come as a shock to learn, gradually, that in spite of the fluctuations, the sea was still more than a hundred miles away.

They were miserable miles, even though the confining mountains soon gave way, in a stretch where the river ran northward, to broad, almost level forests broken by occasional prairies. For the days were short, fogs common, rains all but unending. Curious, light-fingered Indians were everywhere, some in high-prowed canoes that put the whites' clumsy dugouts to shame, others on the flat, tree-covered islands that dotted the widening river or in clearings on the shore. The natives carried guns, swords, sailors' clothing, copper and brass trinkets, and other articles that could have reached them only through white traders. And some of those traders, the Indians kept insisting, insofar as the Americans could read their gestures, lived in houses near the mouth of the river. [16]

The increasing ambivalence with which the two races regarded each other became evident on November 4, on what is now Sauvie Island near present-day Portland. (The Corps was skirting the north shore of the big island; as a result they did not see the many-channeled mouth of the Willamette River, which enters the Columbia from the south.) During the morning they landed at a village of twenty-five long houses. On the shore in front of the houses were fifty-two canoes, many very large and high in the bow. The inhabitants consisted of two hundred male Skilloots and their families, one of the many Chinookan bands. "We were treated very kindly by them," Clark wrote, "they gave us round root near the size of a hens egg roasted which they call Wap-to to eat." This was a happy introduction to a food more commonly spelled wapatoo (and known to later immigrants as swamp potato) that would serve the travelers well throughout the winter.

After purchasing four bushels of the roots, the Corps went on several miles before pausing to eat. Hard behind them came several canoe-loads of armed Skilloots dressed in garish combinations of sailor clothing and native garb. This meeting was not as pleasant as the earlier one. The Indians, who were armed, were "assumeing and disagreeable, however we Smoked with them and treated them with every attention & friendship." Taking advantage of the hospitality, the visitors adroitly purloined Clark's pipe tomahawk and a capote belonging to one of the interpreters. At that the captains' tempers slipped the leash. While the soldiers held their rifles at ready, Lewis and Clark searched both the persons and boats of the Indians.

In the captains' minds the effrontery was justified. "Finding us determined not to suffer any imposition . . . they showed their displeasure in the only way which they dared, by retreating in an ill humor to their village." But were the Indians pilfering as the word is defined by property-conscious Anglo-Saxons? Apologists say no and argue that the Indians were not appropriating the articles for personal gain, but to force the whites to notice them and enter into what one commentator calls "mutually rewarding reciprocal relations." All the Indians wanted was honest payment for the use of their territory, the theory holds. [17]

On November 7, three days and roughly eighty river miles from the Skilloot town, the explorers entered a broad indentation on the north side of the river. By then the Columbia, flowing mostly west again, was penetrating the Pacific Coast Range. The gentle banks that had prevailed farther upstream were gone. In their place were "high rugid hills with Steep assent the shore boalt [bold] and rockey, the fog so thick we could not See across the river." The tide was in, islands were numerous; without a hired Indian pilot, the travelers would have had difficulty finding the proper channel. (They also bought three dogs, some wapatoo roots, and salmon at the pilot's home village.) In the afternoon the fog lifted partially, though a light rain persisted, and they saw the great river of the West widening into what seemed an endless expanse of water. "Great joy in camp," Clark wrote. "we are in view of the Ocian ... the great Pacific Octean which we have been so long anxious to See, and the roreing or noise made by the waves brakeing on the rockey Shores (as I suppose) may be heard distictly."

Technically he was wrong. Those waves were breaking on the steep shores of Gray's Bay, and the ocean was still about twenty direct-line miles away. And yet psychologically Clark was right. Gray's Bay had been named for the American ship captain Robert Gray, who, on the bright spring morning of May 11, 1792, had entered the mouth of the Columbia and a little later had anchored in that bay, the first white man to do so. [18] On entering the same bay from the east, the first whites to do so, the Corps of Discovery was finally tying the middle section of North America together.

There were other reasons to celebrate. Lewis and Clark had long since given up their initial plan, expressed in a letter of early April to President Jefferson, of returning at least as far as the headwaters of the Missouri before going into winter quarters. Now they were thinking in terms of the lower river. If a settlement, even a British settlement, did exist near the Columbia's mouth, as they understood the Indians to say, many of the problems of wintering in the storm-swept land, among natives of unpredictable moods, would be largely solved. If there was no settlement, as the captains were inclined to believe, at least a trading ship was likely to appear—perhaps the one commanded by a Captain Haley, whose name was well and favorably known to the Indians. They could replenish their alarmingly depleted store of trade goods; they could send messages, specimens, and copies of their journals to Jefferson, as he had requested. Above all, they would have the satisfaction of talking to others of their own kind, and of learning, in the language of home, what had been going on in the distant world during their long absence.

And so there was joy in camp.

Premature joy, as events developed. Because of frenzied weather and booming tides, they never did get their canoes to the river's mouth. Half of the group never did stand on the great north headland known as Cape Disappointment and look across the white-capped rollers that were pounding toward the coast, uninterrupted, all the way from the Kuril Islands north of Japan.

The miseries began in the very camp from which they peered with such joy at what they supposed was the ocean. The shore was so narrow they escaped high tide only by spreading their sleeping mats on heaps of round stones at the edge of the forest—in the rain, inevitably. The next day, November 8, they crept along the shore for a meager eight miles. The waves were high. The dugouts twisted and sheared and bobbed. Many of the crew—Clark listed Reuben Field, Peter Wiser, Hugh McNeal, and Sacagawea—vomited in agonized seasickness over the sides of the dugouts they were in. (What of the baby? No one says.) Giving up finally, they camped on a narrow shingle between the water and a hill too steep and brushy for the hunters to ascend in search of food.

That night the roar of the rising tide awakened them. Scrambling to the dugouts, they unloaded them in the rain-swept darkness and boosted the baggage onto log platforms. The next day they spent struggling to keep the tossing boats from being crushed by gale-driven driftwood trees two hundred feet long and up to seven feet thick. But, Clark said, the men were still cheerful, thinking of the nearby ocean. [19]

Whenever the gales slackened briefly during the next several days, the explorers reloaded the dugouts and rowed toward the next bay to the west—Baker's Bay, named by George Vancouver's men for a trader who had entered the Columbia only a few weeks behind Robert Gray. Trading ships often anchored there, or so the whites understood from Indian gestures. They might even find the rumored settlement. But the approach was blocked by a cliff-sided promontory later named Point Ellice. (Clark labeled it Point Dismal on his sketch map.) Each time the dugouts neared the obstruction, screaming winds and heavy seas drove them back to a landing that seemed worse than the one before. In one place they had to build their fires and lay their beds on a driftwood raft that during high tide was "all on flote." In another place they sought to protect their canoes from the waves by filling them with rocks and sinking them.

For eleven days and nights rain fell almost ceaselessly. Elkskin clothing and moccasins rotted. Tents and sails were in tatters. The Corps's merchandise, which was their only bank account, was constantly soaked and much was spoiled. Only occasionally were they able to spear a few salmon, shoot a few waterfowl, or buy a few roots from passing Indians. Otherwise they made their meals from the dry, pounded, tasteless fish they had laid by for emergencies far back at Celilo Falls. They watched enviously as the Indians rode as easily as gulls over the towering waves—"the best Canoe navigaters I ever Saw," Clark wrote. Resentment and frustration filled him: "the most disgreeable time I have experienced confined to a tempiest [tempestuous] coast wet, where I can neither git out to hunt, return to a better situation, or proceed on." [20]

Gradually, though, they did proceed. First Lewis and a small advance party managed to break around Point Dismal into the eastern part of Baker's Bay. From there they could see the full expanse of the five-mile-wide ocean gateway between Cape Disappointment on the north and Point Adams on the south. [21] Neither town nor ship was visible. But some of the beaches, though windswept, were broad and sandy. An abandoned Indian settlement of thirty-six plank houses stood nearby; the ruins were full of fleas, but the Corps could take away enough boards to build shelters at a safe distance. Also nearby were two camps of Indians who called themselves Chinooks—the first meeting of either captain with the dominant tribe of the area and one whose name soon spread generically to related bands speaking the same language. After sending a suggestion to Clark that the Corps move to this propitious spot as wind and tides allowed, Lewis continued west—on foot, because the waves rolling in from the sea were rougher than he wanted to attempt by boat. His intent: to investigate the bays on the coast north of Cape Disappointment (Vancouver's chart showed at least one) for possible ships and/or winter quarters.

By the evening of the 16th, the rest of the Corps were ashore in Baker's Bay, at a location northwest across the river from the present city of Astoria, Oregon. The men worked busily at creating the first decent camp, relatively speaking, they had lived in for more than a week. When Lewis's party rejoined the main group on the 17th, morale was up again.

Who else wanted a closeup view of the ocean that had been their goal across two-thirds of a continent? William Clark, born explorer and mapmaker, certainly did. He told all who wished to go with him to be ready at daylight on the 18th. At the appointed time he started hiking with Sergeants Pryor and Ordway; Shannon, Colter, Wiser, and Bratton; Charbonneau, and York. Joseph and Reuben Field, who had been with Lewis's party, went along for a second look. The rest of the Corps stayed put; they could see all the salt water they wanted from their new camp.

After climbing to the rocky top of the cape and watching, in astonishment, giant breakers exploding against the cliffs, they turned north. They walked and slept in intermittent rains, crashed through brush, traversed grassy slopes, and carved their names on trees, as their predecessors had done. Reuben Field shot a condor with an amazing wingspan of nine and a half feet. Reuben's brother, Joe, killed a hitherto unknown species of black-tailed deer; it provided, on the morning of the 19th, "a Sumptious brackfest of Venison which was roasted on Stiks exposed to the fire." That same day Clark named a distant, striking height of land "after my particular friend Lewis." Today it is known as North Head. They saw no ships, although they undoubtedly scanned the ocean's misty face as closely as Lewis's group had.

Perhaps they wondered, as some later critics have, why President Jefferson did not send a ship to succor them. [22] Yet why should he have? Supposedly the expedition had left St. Louis with all the equipment it needed. On April 7, 1805, at the time of departing from the Mandan villages, Lewis had written Jefferson that he expected to reach the Pacific and return at least as far as the headwaters of the Missouri before winter set in. He had said nothing about being short of supplies. Schedules could go awry, of course; indeed, the Corps might never reach the Pacific. In view of those uncertainties, exactly when should a reinforcing ship appear off the mouth of the Columbia? And would a Congress speckled with Jefferson's political enemies authorize outfitting a vessel—an expensive undertaking for an administration that trumpeted of economy—to circle Cape Horn on so tenuous a mission? Sensing these deterrents long in advance, Jefferson had provided Meriwether Lewis with the only reasonable escape available: the right to contact whatever trading vessels he saw for whatever he needed, even to returning home on one if such proved necessary.

The right, however, did not bring a vessel with it. That being true, what should be done now?

Making the decision seems to have plagued the captains more than any other problem they had faced so far. They hated to give up all hope of a vessel, and yet they could not stay in this estuary, exposed to an endless sequence of storms. A week's hard experience had showed them that they could not count on their guns to provide them with the food they needed, yet they did not have enough merchandise left to buy a winter's supply of food from the hard-bargaining Indians.

If they did not stay, where should they go? The men who accompanied Clark to the coast expressed a desire to winter near Celilo Falls. [23] The climate there would be dry—but cold and short of the kind of large animals from which clothing could be made. Another possibility was the Sandy River, which drained off Mount Hood into the Columbia a little west of the Lower Cascade. Meadows broke the forests there; deer would probably abound and the climate would be mild.

So there was talk. Yet after Clark returned to the Baker's Bay camp a little after midday on November 20, the days went by as though nothing serious pressed on anyone's mind. The captains made chiefs and distributed medals among the canoe-borne Indians who kept coming in and out despite a ferocious new storm. (Clark simply could not reconcile himself to such weather: "O! how horriable is the day waves brakeing with great violence against the Shore throwing the water into our camp &c. all wet and confined to our Shelters.") Red traders, impervious to the deluge in conical hats tightly woven of split twigs, hawked their wares. Both Lewis and Clark yearned for a luxurious robe of otter skins that one Indian would sell only for more blue beads, a valued medium of exchange throughout the Northwest, than the Americans could afford to dip out of the expedition's skimpy supply. Eventually they solved the problem by persuading Sacagawea to part with a belt of blue beads she habitually wore around her waist; in return they gave her a blue cloth coat that was more adaptable than her buffalo-skin robe.

Another trade article in great demand was produced by a Chinook madam, wife of a chief, who showed up with six of her daughters and nieces "for the purpose of gratifying the passions of our men." Clark's diary entries for November 21 grew puritanical. The young women's countenances, he admitted grudgingly, were pretty—if one ignored their slanted foreheads. But they were short of stature, their hair hung loose and long, they had "large swelled legs & thighs." Their limbs were tattooed. Venereal scabs were plain on some of them. They "sport openly with our men." But there was no use objecting: "we divided some ribin between our men . . . to bestow on their favorite Lasses, this plan to save the knives & more valueable articles."

What finally ended the indecision was the arrival, late on November 23, of seven Clatsop traders from the south side of the river. Undisturbed by the whites' refusal to buy the furs they offered for sale, the Indians cheerfully suggested their own territory as winter quarters. Over yonder, their gestures said, elk abounded, a source of food and of skins for clothing. The ocean and the Columbia's estuary were close by. The first meant the whites could prepare salt to improve the taste of their food. The second would allow them to contact, through the Indians, any trading vessel that dropped anchor in the river's protected bays. The one obvious drawback would be living for months in the dreadful weather, as the newcomers considered it, of the coast.

Reluctant to impose their own preferences on the men—nothing could be more damaging to already shaky morale—the captains called for a vote from everyone, soldiers, interpreters, black York and red Sacagawea. A few favored going to Celilo Falls; more declared for Sandy River. But the majority followed the captains in choosing the Clatsop lands, with this qualification: if, after an examination, hunting and living conditions proved inadequate, they could move up the river. [24]

On the 25th they started out. Not daring to risk the broad estuary in their log dugouts, they labored upstream to a narrower spot, crossed, and crept back along the shore to Tongue Point, a promontory about four miles long but only fifty yards wide at its narrowest section. They had succeeded in rowing around this obstruction when a new storm pinned them to its exposed ocean side.

On the 29th Lewis, always impatient, broke loose. The big dugouts might not be able to handle the huge swells, but the small Indian canoe he had purchased at The Dalles could. Accompanied by Drouillard, Reuben Field, Colter, Shannon, and Labiche, he explored the coast of what Clark would later name Meriwether Bay (now Young's Bay) in his honor. After considerable trial and error, he found an inlet into which the Netul River flowed. (Today it is the Lewis and Clark River.) The party followed its windings through marshy ground thick with small trees and brush, a mix they called "slashes." The knolls rising out of the slashes supported much larger evergreens, and when they came to one whose top was some thirty feet above high tide level and when they saw elk tracks everywhere around it, they decided this would do for their winter camp. On the morning of December 5, three of them started back to summon the others. Two stayed behind to hunt. Nothing was said, at least in the journals, about a two-or three-week examination before a final choice was made. [25]

Waiting for Lewis's return was another doleful experience for William Clark. Winds strong enough to blow down trees raged through the camp. Thick smoke from wet fuel hurt Clark's eyes. The roar of the sea depressed him more and more. It had assaulted his ears for "24 days Since we arrived in Sight of the Great Western; (for I cannot say Pacific) Ocian as I have not seen one pacific day . . . [just] emenc waves . . . tempestous and horiable." [26]

Though there were elk in the vicinity of Tongue Point, the hunters were rarely able to bring down one of the animals as they raced away among the thick trees and through the pelting rain. Except for occasional hawks and waterfowl, their food again was fish meal boiled in salty water dipped from the ocean side of the point. Digestive disturbances left Clark and some of the men too unwell to eat even that. Deciding the salt water was to blame, he directed the cooks to use fresh water from the upper side of the point. It helped, he thought.

During the days of waiting he wandered around the vicinity, observing plants and wildlife and faithfully recording what he saw. It seems likely, too, that he passed some of the time reading from Alexander Mackenzie's account of his own crossing of the continent, with its climactic lines, "I now mixed up some vermilion, in melted grease, and inscribed, in large characters, on the South-East side of the rock on which we had slept, this brief memorial—'Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.' "

With that in mind the American found a large tree and carved into its bark, "Capt William Clark December 3rd 1805. By Land. U. States in 1804–05." In thus imitating Mackenzie, he may have only been reassuring himself in his doldrums. Or he may have been announcing to all who read his words, which he copied in his journal, that Mackenzie's feat had been matched. Or the lines may have carried implications of national sovereignty to come, as Mackenzie's most certainly had.

Or perhaps all three motives were involved. Today there is no way to be sure.


1. From Canoe Camp to the junction of the Snake and Columbia: III, 97–119; Biddle, II, 407–26; Ordway in Quaife, 295–99; Whitehouse in VII, 166–74. When Clark took over full responsibility for the journals on this stretch, he first prepared a rough draft, which generally included compass readings and mileage estimates between prominent points. When opportunity allowed, he elaborated on the other data in the draft. Thwaites presents each day's drafts in sequence. One should read both versions since the trial drafts sometimes convey incidents and impressions omitted from the final copy. (back)
2. III, 99. Biddle, II, 407. Whitehouse, in VII, 168. (back)
3. III, 113. Biddle, II, 417. (back)
4. III, 115–16. (back)
5. At the junction of the Snake and Columbia: III, 119–30. (back)
6. Sore eyes: III, 126; Biddle, II, 423; Cutright, Pioneering Naturalists, 223. (back)
7. The thought of tomahawking the frightened Indians appears in Clark's rough draft, not in the finished one. (III, 133–36.) The run from the junction to Celilo Falls: III, 130–50; Biddle, II, 429–46; Ordway in Quaife, 100–104; Whitehouse, in VII, 174–87. (back)
8. Sacagawea: III, 136. See also ibid., III. (back)
9. Celilo Falls through the Long Narrows: III, 150–58. See Clark's sketch maps, one as frontispiece of III, the other facing 158. Also Ordway in Quaife, 304–5; Whitehouse, in VII, 182–88; Biddle, II, 429–48. (back)
10. III, 151. (back)
11. Water roaring through compressed straits tends to wear the confining stone into relatively thin strata. These layers cracked into pieces that looked like flagstones (dalles) to French voyageurs who, after Lewis and Clark's time, took boats through the Columbia narrows for Canadian trading companies. Hence by association the rough-water stretch became known as The Dalles—a name applied to several other North American rapids. Still later, The Dalles, as a name, slid downstream to a mission station located just below the narrows. Today The Dalles is a town—the only one in the U.S. with "The" as a legal part of its name. The Dalles as white water have been lost under a reservoir's flat surface. For the area in Lewis and Clark's time: Josephy, 22–23; Ronda, 173–74; Hodge under "Wishram" and "Vasco." (back)
12. III, 148, 155. (back)
13. III, 164. For the transit from the narrows through the Cascades; III, 159–90; Riddle, II, 448–64; Ordway in Quaife, 305–7; Whitehouse in VII, 182–88. Whitehouse's diary ends, incidentally, after his entry of November 6. (back)
14. III, 178. (back)
15. Ibid. (back)
16. The lower river to the estuary: III, 192–208; Biddle, II, 464–87; Ordway in Quaife, 307–9. (back)
17. The Skilloot encounter: III, 194–99; Biddle, II, 465–68; Ronda, 172, 176. (back)
18. Gray's Bay was named five months after Gray's discovery of the river by Lieutenant William Broughton of Vancouver's fleet. Broughton ascended the Columbia about a hundred miles in a ship's longboat during the latter part of October. By contrast, Gray had halted in the estuary; in Broughton's opinion that didn't count as far as establishing national sovereignty was concerned. He named Gray's Bay to emphasize his point: the American had gone no farther than that. Baker's Bay, just west of Gray's Bay, was named for an English trader who entered the estuary a few weeks after Gray's departure. (See Fuller, 56.) (back)
19. III, 211–14. For the problems of the estuary in general: III, 208–48; Biddle, II, 473–87; Ordway in Quaife, 309–14. (back)
20. III, 223. (back)
21. A good map of the estuary (but with inexact trails) is in Appleman, between pages 198 and 199. See also Clark's sketch map in III, facing 234. Cape Disappointment was named by the English trader John Meares in 1788. He had heard of a great river in the vicinity, but when he rounded the then-unnamed cape, he thought he was looking at another bay. The name reflects his feelings. (back)
22. Bakeless, Lewis and Clark, 284. DeVoto, Course, 550. Dillon, 224. (back)
23. III, 231. (back)
24. III, 247–49, gives the votes and arguments, but contains several small, inexplicable inconsistencies. (back)
25. Lewis kept a journal on November 29 and 30, and then ceased again. Details of his search for the campsite have to be surmised from what Clark saw and briefly commented on. (back)
26. III, 263. (back)