The Way to the Western Sea Lewis and Clark across the Continent Chapter 16

David Lavender© 2001University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London

SIXTEEN. The Farthest Reach

With what must have been mixed feelings, the Corps toiled up the Netul past slashes and through a wide slough to the foot of Lewis's hill. Peering through the rain, Clark approved the choice, as most of the men probably did, by damning it with faint praise. "this is certainly the most eligable Situation for our purposes of any in its neighbourhood." [1] So what else was in the neighborhood?

After carrying their baggage up the slope out of reach of the tide, after setting up the tripods from which cooking pots would be suspended, each over its own fire, and after pitching what was left of their tents, the soldiers started clearing space for the quarters that would be named Fort Clatsop. It was to be square, fifty feet to a side, and consist of two parallel rows of rooms. Running north and south, the rows faced each other across a twenty-foot-wide parade ground where the troops could be reviewed.

The western row would hold four rooms, the largest of which was designated for the captains. It was to be graced by a wall fireplace whose chimney protruded into the parade ground, an arrangement that allowed more interior space for furniture crafted by Joseph Field—a table, chairs, and, for each officer, "a wide slab hued to write on." [2] York probably cooked for them on that fireplace. A roofed sentinel box stood outside the captain's door.

On either side of the captains' quarters were somewhat smaller rooms, each with a chimneyed fireplace in its center. Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and their child were to occupy one. The other, the orderly room, served as the office of the sergeant of the guard and his three men, a rotating assignment. It may be that York slept in the orderly room, where he could be quickly summoned by his owner. At the north end of the row was an even smaller room destined for the smoking and storing of meat.

The row on the opposite side of the parade ground held three rooms, each with a center fireplace. One was eighteen by fifteen feet; the other two, sixteen by fifteen—hardly roomy, yet each housed eight men.

The ends of the parade ground were walled off by sharpened pickets. The main gate faced south toward the boat landing. The stockade at the other end of the courtyard contained a small gate that gave egress to a freshwater spring only about thirty feet away. (The water in the slough was brackish.) There were two latrines, locations not specified. The state of the weather considered, one hopes they were provided with roofing of some sort.

The walls of the cabins were built "of the streightest and most beautifullest logs" (Clark's phrase) and daubed with mud. [3] Planks served for roofs and floors. The first trees felled for that purpose—whether Douglas fir or Sitka spruce cannot be determined—rived easily into boards up to ten feet long and two wide. But they seem to have soon run out of that wood, for Clark wrote on December 17, "The trees which our men have felled latterly Split verry badly." On the 19th, accordingly, he sent Pryor with eight men in two dugouts to a vacant Indian long house on the shore of Meriwether Bay, there to help themselves to as many boards as they could load on. Poor boards, Clark grumbled later. [4] But they were free. No Indian objection is recorded.

At first only about half of the Corps were involved in clearing away trees and pulling stumps from the site of the fort. On December 8, the day after the landing, twelve hunters departed in two canoes in pursuit of elk. (How different from stalking buffalo on the dry plains!) That same day Clark set out with five more men to blaze a trail to some site beside the ocean where a crew, yet to be appointed, could obtain salt by tediously boiling off the water. The assignment was necessary because too much salt had been cached beside the Missouri, awaiting the return journey. Of what remained, the last grains had disappeared along the lower Columbia, leaving the men with no savoring for their insipid diet of pounded fish, boiled roots, and overly lean elk. A physiological need may have also been involved. The men worked hard, perspired profusely, and may have required salt to rebalance body chemistry. In any event and in spite of Clark's own indifference to salt, the captains gave priority to stockpiling the seasoning both for the stay at the fort and the journey back to the caches.

As Captain Clark and his trailblazers soon learned, cross-country travel in a watery wilderness posed special problems. They scrambled arduously through the thick timber littering the ridge that divided the Netul drainage from the next watershed to the west, became entangled in a maze of overflow channels, built a raft to cross a deep creek, and compounded their difficulties by sighting a large "gange of elk." They pursued the animals for three miles "through bogs which the wate of a man would Shake for ½ an acre, and maney places I Sank into the Mud and water up to my hips." They killed one elk and that night huddled under the fresh hide while rain drenched the small knoll where they camped.

The next day Drouillard and Shannon were detached to make another run after the "gange" of elk. Clark and the others struggled through more slashes and were baffled by more creeks until they chanced on three Clatsop Indians traveling in a canoe light enough to be carried from one stream to another. These amiable new friends ferried and guided the whites across several sand dunes to a small Clatsop village of three long houses occupied by twelve families. It stood beside a fork of the Skipanon River, a name the explorers seem not to have learned. Clark did learn, however, that the Skipanon wound north to enter Meriwether (now Young's) Bay a short distance west of the mouth of the Netul. Valuable information, that. The best way to reach the ocean from the fort—to avoid bogs, down timber, and the wind-swept ridges of the divide—was to go by boat down the Netul and up the Skipanon to the village and then walk a few hundred yards over a low hill to the beach. The savings in effort would be well worth the increase in miles—a tantalizing thought as the explorers slogged back cross-country to help Drouillard and Shannon carry the meat they had procured to the fort builders. [5]

Because Drouillard and Shannon were the Corps's best shots, they were soon sent out again, this time up the right fork of the Netul, to kill as many more elk as possible. (Salt making was delayed; everyone was busy at other things.) On Friday the 13th—no bad luck there—the two hunters rowed back with word they had killed and butchered, at widely separated spots, eighteen of the high-horned animals. This feat, a Fort Clatsop record, served to introduce Clark to rainy-season elk hunting in northwestern Oregon, and he did not relish the experience.

The general practice was for hunters chosen by the captains to go by dugout along one or another of the sluggish, twisting waterways to areas that, for the most part, were assigned them. On reaching the designated spot, the nimrods beached their boats and pushed afoot through heavy timber to the edges of the bogs and into the more open slashes where hunting was likely to be best. Having killed an animal, they skinned it, disemboweled it (it would spoil quickly if not gutted), quartered it, and then lugged the pieces and the valuable hide back to the dugout, a carry that might range in length from a few hundred yards to two or three miles. Whenever sizable numbers of carcasses were involved, the hunters rowed back to the fort for help.

On December 15, while Lewis supervised construction, Clark went with sixteen men in three dugouts to retrieve the eighteen dismembered elk slain by Drouillard and Shannon. No one, not even Clark, was exempt from the carrying, and he also cooked at least one meal for the group. Darkness caught them before the boats were loaded. Rain was falling as usual. "when we lay down," Clark wrote afterwards, "the water soon Came under us and obliged us to rise." They sat up the rest of the night, shivering under elkskins, as the salt party had.

The next morning he filled two dugouts with the parts of thirteen elk. Then, leaving seven men to fetch the remaining carcasses, he headed for the fort. A desperate trip. "The winds violent Trees falling in every derection, whorl winds, with gusts of rain Hail & Thunder, this kind of weather lasted all day, Certainly one of the worst days that ever was!" ... plus, at the end, no little danger from the high waves the storm kicked up on the river. For the next few days, he said, several of the men went around complaining of having hurt themselves while handling the meat. [6]

Those rain-forest elk were not as satisfactory a food as one might think. The animals at that season were lean, and their flesh was stringy. The weather, moreover, was mild and would stay that way, except for several days late in January and early February when snow fell and ice dulled the surface of the sloughs. In such a climate, meat grew tainted before it could be brought to the smokehouse, and even there it did not always stay fresh until consumed.

The point came home at Christmas. There was double cause for celebration: the day itself and the fact that the fort was near enough completion that the men had moved in out of the rain the day before. Everyone tried to be merry. The enlisted men roused the officers at daylight (not very early at that season) with a volley of rifle fire, a cheer, and a song. Presents were exchanged. Clark does not say what he gave, just what he received—articles of clothing from Lewis, a pair of moccasins from Whitehouse, a small Indian basket from Goodrich, and two dozen white weasel tails from Sacagawea. The captains divided half of the expedition's remaining tobacco among the smokers; nonsmokers, a decided minority, received silk handkerchiefs. To which Clark added, "The day proved Showery wet and disagreeable." By all rights they should have feasted, "had we any thing either to raise our Sperits [i.e., liquor] or even gratify our appetites, our Diner consisted of pore Elk, so much Spoiled that we eate it thro' mear necessity, Some Spoiled pounded fish, and a few roots." [7]

The tasteless diet, the captains probably realized, was also unhealthful. (We know today that lean elk, dried fish, and wapatoo bulbs were low in caloric intake for active workers.) [8] Debilitation was to be avoided partly because it interfered with daily work but more because it would sorely handicap the four thousand-mile dash for St. Louis that Lewis and Clark hoped to begin as soon as spring came. Accordingly they set about trying to improve the quality of the daily meals as much as their limited resources allowed.

Their main dependence had to be on foods brought them by the Indians. From that standpoint, Fort Clatsop, isolated by several miles of forest and stream from the native villages scattered along the Columbia estuary to the north and the ocean beaches to the west, was not well situated. Members of the expedition seldom visited the towns, but waited for the Clatsops and the more distant Chinooks and Cathlamets to come to them by canoe, as a small but steady stream of natives did. As word of the whites' needs spread, they began bringing in, for sale, furs for clothing and occasional edible dogs, sturgeon, and, more frequently, wapatoo roots. Like shrewd bargainers everywhere, the Indians enjoyed haggling and had sharpened their wits in their dealings with the trading ships that now and then dropped anchor inside the Columbia's mouth. Quickly realizing how much Fort Clatsop depended on them, they jacked their prices beyond what the captains considered reasonable and certainly beyond what they could afford to pay, day in and day out, from their shrunken stores of merchandise.

Wapatoo furnished a prime example. The plants did not grow near the coast but were harvested from inland swamps and the bottoms of shallow ponds and lakes. Women did the work. They paddled small canoes to a likely gathering place, slid over the edge of the craft into the water, often neck deep, and worked the bulbs loose with their feet. [9] They—women often traded as well as harvested—took whatever surplus they accumulated to the Columbia's estuary, where they traded the roots to the coastal Indians for manufactured goods—blankets, cloth, buttons, sheet metal, knives, kettles, beads, and mirrors—which the latter had picked up from passing ships. The exchanges put a lot of edible bulbs in the hands of the coastal tribes—roots they hoped, opportunistically, to sell at a profit to the unexpected white newcomers from the east. Unaware of the complexities of the trade, the captains felt they were being exploited beyond reason, and they resented it.

Whenever an opportunity arose for them to act on their own, independent of middlemen, they seized it vigorously. Shortly after Christmas they directed Joseph Field, William Bratton, and George Gibson to establish the delayed salt works at the nearest suitable place on the Pacific coast, a project that would make tainted elk more palatable and thus move the Corps closer to self-sufficiency. At about the same time traveling Indians brought word that a whale had been beached in the estuary. Immediately Lewis prepared to take a crew there, thinking that fried blubber and roots cooked in whale oil would be highly nourishing, as, indeed, they were—consider the Eskimos. Unhappily, the effort was defeated by several days of high winds.

A second chance came early in January with the report that an exceptionally large whale had been washed ashore near a village of Tillamook Indians, some thirty-five miles south of the fort. [10] This time it was Clark who put together a small bundle of trade goods in the hope of buying a part of the beached creature from whoever owned it. He selected twelve men to go with him in two boats, enough to hold large quantities of blubber. Just before departure, Sacagawea begged to go along. She had not visited the great water during Clark's trip to Cape Disappointment and beyond. Now that there was a monstrous fish to see, she felt it would be hard not to view the combined marvels. He acquiesced, although it meant she would have to float rivers, thread swamps, and climb mountains with her child, not yet a year old, riding in his carrier on her back.

Although stormy water kept the blubber seekers from reaching the Skipanon River, as Clark wished, they were able to duck into a parallel creek that took them in the general direction they wanted to go. When night fell they ate most of a freshly killed elk for supper and then camped comfortably beside a roaring fire of driftwood, under—rare treat—a clear sky luminous with the light of a full moon. The next day they left their canoes beside landmarks Clark recognized from his earlier trip to the coast, clambered over sand dunes to the beach, and turned south until they reached the salt camp. It was well located between tide pools and the fresh water of today's Necanicum River. Wood from the nearby forest kept five large iron kettles boiling night and day, evaporating water from good, pure white salt, some of which the mess cooks at the fort were already using. Also close by were four large, plank houses occupied by a mix of Clatsop and Tillamook Indians. The natives had been kind and attentive, the salt makers said. On the strength of that recommendation, Clark hired one to guide the party across the towering promontory now called Tillamook Head.

The trail was so steep in places "we were obliged to Support and draw our selves up by the bushes & roots." The view from the top was tremendous—waves breaking into towering jets of spray around the huge, detached rocks in the sea near the base of a series of headlands. Off to the north the mouth of the Columbia sprawled, dotted with islands and fed, particularly on its south side, by a maze of crooked, timber-girt streams. The travelers did not sightsee for long. Still ahead stretched an even more arduous traverse where "if we had unfortunately made one false Step we Should eneviateably have fallen into the Sea and dashed against the rocks in an instant." As a consequence they went slowly and yet reached, in midafternoon, what was left of the whale.

The leviathan had washed ashore near a settlement of Tillamook Indians. They had gone to work on it immediately, cutting off big chunks of blubber they piled in a wooden trough with hot stones that cooked out part of the oil. The liquid was stored in containers made from the whale's own bladder and intestines, and the partially prepared blubber was set aside for later eating. Before the villagers were well started on their butchering, other Indians from throughout the area appeared, drawn by the seemingly instantaneous intertribal communications network of canoes. By the time the whites arrived, nothing was left of the whale but a skeleton that Clark estimated, perhaps overenthusiastically, as being 105 feet long.

As first on the scene, the Tillamooks had harvested well. Clark thought they should have been generous with their riches. Instead they were parsimonious (in his eyes), parting with only three hundred pounds of blubber and a few gallons of oil in exchange for his entire stock of trade goods. To these gleanings he painstakingly added his usual ethnographic and geographic notes, a work briefly interrupted when an Indian stranger in the town reportedly sought to kill Hugh McNeal for his blanket.

The next morning, loaded with parcels of blubber and oil in addition to the bedding and personal gear in their knapsacks, the party faced with a "Shudder . . . the dreadfull road on which we have to return." They reached their boats at sunset, very fatigued. But the tide was favoring and Clark insisted they go ahead. At 10:00 P.M. they were at the fort after what must have been a spooky ride through the mist with little more than the sound of surf on the beach to guide them. The blubber, doled out among the messes with great care, lasted until January 29.

By that time the captains and men were operating under two new procedures laid down on January 1, 1806, shortly after the fort's completion. Meriwether Lewis, who for long periods had kept no records other than rough field notes, was now the official keeper of the journals. And security measures concerning visiting Indians had been tightened considerably.

The change that held the greatest significance for the future was the extraordinary number of essays Lewis poured forth day after day in keeping with Jefferson's directive that the explorers note for posterity as many physical and cultural characteristics of the distant land as possible. What is strange about this performance is that Clark, busy with his maps, apparently—but only apparently—copied down, almost verbatim, each of Lewis's long journal entries, day after wearisome day. As spelling and phrasing indicated, Lewis never copied Clark during this period.

The two men kept their diaries in separate notebooks. But when Reuben Gold Thwaites edited and printed the complete journals in 1904–5 as part of the centennial observation of the historic crossing, he coalesced the entries. He put Lewis's entry of January 1, 1806, first and followed it with Clark's duplication. So it went, every day, Lewis and then Clark. Now, why did this rigamarole come about? Why didn't Clark keep his own diary, filling it with his own pungent observations?

The probability is that he did keep a set of running notes like those that elsewhere have been identified either as field notes or first drafts. In the main, however, he was involved at Fort Clatsop with collating his many sketch maps and the astronomical observations he and Lewis had taken at key points along the way. That done, he incorporated the results, in scale, into the big map of the West he had begun drawing at Fort Mandan during the spring of 1805. The potential importance of this carefully drawn map to the expansionary forces of the young United States hardly needs emphasis.

The map work was finished, by and large, on February 14. [11] Studying the results focused the captains' attention on what they needed to do during their return journey. Most important, the map showed clearly that their Shoshoni guide, Old Toby, had been right when he had said that travelers could cross the Continental Divide from Traveler's Rest near the mouth of the Flathead River (now the Bitterroot) to the junction of the Dearborn and Missouri above theGreat Falls, in four days. That route would be at least five hundred miles shorter than the hairpin curve the outward bound expedition had followed south along the Missouri to Lemhi Pass and then north again. The water along the new path might not be navigable, but it needed checking anyway. Also Lewis wanted to take another look at Maria's River, to learn how far north it really did extend. Finally, they had promised, when writing Jefferson from Fort Mandan, that they would explore the Yellowstone, a trip Clark could make while Lewis was on the Maria's.

The separation of the captains would subject the single journal Lewis was keeping to possible destruction. Hoping to guard against such contingencies, Jefferson had ordered that duplicate records be kept. And so, at some unstated date after his maps had been completed, Clark began his dreary chore as copyist. He was still at it when the expedition left Fort Clatsop. [12]

He was not entirely slavish. At times he nodded a little and got blocks of text slightly out of order. He omitted occasional sentences. Now and then he added material from his own notes. He made slight alterations. For instance, Lewis wrote at one point concerning their diet, "I have become so perfectly reconciled to the dog that I think it an agreeable food and would prefer it vastly to lean Venison or Elk." Clark could not swallow that. He omitted the sentence and wrote in its place, "as for myself I have not become reconciled to the taste of this animal as yet." [13]

It is unlikely, also, that Lewis wrote each day's long entry under the date ascribed to it. What he did do was jot down a brief summary of each day's events, including in it, repetitively, such lugubrious phrases as "rained last night as usial," "not any occurences today worthy of note," and "everything moves on in the old way." He then used the short opening paragraph as a not-always-relevant hook on which to hang a discourse dealing with one of the broad variety of topics Jefferson had directed him to consider. He lovingly described the plants he and Clark had seen west of the Rockies (sagebrush, Oregon grapes, ferns, licorice, rushes, many varieties of berries, including cranberries, whose hard wood the Indians used for making wedges to hollow out canoes); trees (long-needled pines and short-needled firs, hemlocks, and spruces, including one fir 36 feet in circumference and 230 feet tall); birds (condors, woodpeckers, grouse, swans, and on and on, at least fifty species altogether); domestic animals (horses and Indian dogs); fishes and reptiles. Many of the life forms he dwelt on were new to the science of his time.

His eye for detail was sharp, whether he was discussing the form of a leaf, the length of a bird's beak, or the way a mule deer ran. He was attentive to Indian culture—their plank houses and hats of bark and bear grass, their scanty clothing, their foods, domestic utensils, funeral customs, and, in particular, their canoes. He commented on the place of women and old people in the social structure, and dutifully noted how the former were isolated during their menstrual periods. In many places he included rough drawings to illustrate his descriptions. [14]

He was prescient. Jefferson, it will be recalled, had hoped the expedition would discover routes over which the furs of Canada and of the headwaters of the Columbia could be diverted, by short land portages and canoes, to the Missouri and thence into American hands. The unexpected height of the Rockies and the lack of navigable streams near the Continental Divide had erased that hope. But in reviewing what Clark and he had seen west of the Rockies, Meriwether Lewis glimpsed another avenue for commerce. Fine horses, easily acquired, thrived among the Shoshoni and Nez Percé. "This abundance and cheapness of horses," he predicted, "will be extremely advantageous to those who may hereafter attemt the fir trade to the East Indies by way of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean" [15]—an exact reverse of what had been originally promulgated. In John Jacob Astor's hands, a similar concept would lead, a few years later, to the founding of Astoria, the first (and short-lived) American settlement on the Pacific.

The Indian tribes of the lower Columbia were cheerful, hospitable, tranquil, and, except for habitual pilfering, almost devoid of spirit—or so the captains reported. [16] The enlisted men liked to socialize with them. Lewis and Clark got on with them equally well and varied their bargaining sessions by handing out small medals and mentioning, in such Clatsop phrases as they were picking up, the glories of the United States.

This easygoing situation did not accord with military regulations as laid down by an army that since the Revolution had been employed mainly in waging intense battles against tribes resisting the loss of their homes east of the Mississippi River. Nor did distance reduce the need to heed authority. As soon as Fort Clatsop was completed, Lewis and Clark brought procedures into line by issuing an order of the day whose relative mildness would have won Jefferson's approval, while at the same time its strictures against fraternizing would satisfy the military's habitual suspicion of all aborigines.

No member of the garrison, the captain's directive read, should abuse, assault, or strike the natives, unless provocation came first from the Indians. However, the soldiers could refuse to let troublesome natives enter their rooms. Above all, no Indian could stay inside the fort's gates after sunset. [17]

At first the Indians resented being herded outside into the rain as darkness fell. Later they seemed to accept the exclusion as part of the strangers' strange way of doing things. And the captains did soften the sting by ordering exceptions in the case of small groups containing women and children and/or a chief of local importance. But whenever a potentially dangerous situation arose, military prudence ruled. Such was the case of Tahcum, a principal chief of the Chinooks, who stopped by the fort on February 20 with twenty-five armed men. In spite of the Indians' weapons, the visit was intended as a get-acquainted call, and the captains were glad to see the group. The Chinooks were the dominant tribe of the area, but because they lived on the north bank of the Columbia, the Americans had had little contact with them since moving to the south bank late in November. As a matter of national diplomacy, therefore, Lewis and Clark plied the group with smoke and afterwards fed them lavishly, although twenty-six extra mouths were a drain on their limited stocks. They gave Tahcum the standard medal and no doubt extolled the virtues of peace and American trade, as they almost always did. But at sunset they ejected the visitors.

Afterwards Lewis felt called upon to explain the action. "We all know," he wrote in his journal, "that the treachery of the aborigines of America and the too great confidence of our countrymen in their sincerity and friendship, has caused the destruction of many hundreds of us." As military men, Lewis and Clark believed that statement. Forts had been captured and ships burned by natives whose shows of friendship had lulled the whites into relaxing their guard. (The Indians might have considered their actions sound strategy rather than treachery.) No such entrapment must he allowed to develop at Fort Clatsop. Out the Chinooks went, and, in all probability, the enlisted men received another lecture on the virtues of alertness. [18] The point here, however, isn't only white arrogance, although frontier America was imbued with that trait. Rather, it is the ability Lewis and Clark possessed, in spite of their training and prejudices, to keep their trigger fingers and those of their men under control. When Lewis, writer of the apology for the treatment of Tahcum's Chinooks, did at last resort to violence, there was provocation. But that is getting ahead of the story.

The days dragged, wet, boring, sickly. Colds, coughs, fevers, and an ailment Ordway spelled "enflucnzy" were common. Fleas continued to be maddening. Once again, venereal complaints brought the Corps's supply of mercury out of the medicine chest. The poison cured a couple of the men before the drug itself could kill them—at least Lewis thought it did. He believed, too, that the physical unattractiveness of the available women reduced the number of contacts with the soldiers, so that Fort Clatsop was less afflicted by sexual diseases than Fort Mandan had been. Still, he was alarmed when the old Chinook bawd who had produced her retinue of daughters and nieces for the gratification of the Corps on the Columbia's north bank suddenly reappeared on the south with the same group. Gathering the enlisted men together, he wrung a vow of chastity from them: Let's stay in shape for the trip home. The bored, husky young men kept the promise, Lewis reported later. [19]

The salt makers wound up their work late in February after producing enough seasoning to satisfy the cooks at the fort and also fill twelve small, ironbound kegs for the return journey. Health had been bad at the salt camp, too. Gibson had to be carried back on a stretcher, but responded to treatment. William Bratton, whose pain centered severely in his lower back, did not, and a baffled Lewis confessed to worries about whether the man would ever recover. [20]

One tasty change from the monotonous fare of elk and wapatoo roots came on February 25 when Comowool, chief of the nearest Clatsop village, sold the Corps half a bushel of a smallish fish the captains called anchovies. After declaring them the most savory fish he had ever tasted, Lewis described them carefully in his journal, while Clark embellished the copy he later made with one of his better-known illustrations. [21] The "anchovies" were so rich in oil that they would actually burn after being dried and so became known, later, as candlefish. Scientifically they were a species of smelt named eulachon. Whatever the name, Pryor and others of the force were hurried to the river with trade goods to buy as many as possible from the Cathlamets, whose south-bank villages were strategically located near the head of the estuary. They returned with, we are told, thousands of "anchovies." But the little fish (about ten inches long) spoiled quickly unless smoked at once, and before long the Corps was again depending on elk. Because of constant hunting, these animals were becoming more and more difficult to track down.

Shortly after settling in at Fort Clatsop, Lewis and Clark had chosen April 1 as the date for starting home. Some carefully pondered guesswork accounted for the timing. A primary motive for selecting the Fort Clatsop site had been the hope that sooner or later a trading ship would sail into the Columbia, and they did not want to give up that chance for relief until they had to. On the other hand they could not afford to stay so long that the Missouri would freeze before they could reach St. Louis—a joy they anticipated even more than they wanted a ship. The points of balance were the snowy Columbian Plain, where not a stick of wood existed for fires, and the massive snowdrifts of the Rockies. Under the circumstances, how soon was soon enough? April 1, they decided. [22]

The plan was toppled by too much rain, too little poor food, homesickness, and a general malaise of body and spirit. Fort Clatsop became, quite simply, unendurable. Shortly before the middle of March the captains decided to start east as soon as the necessary logistics could be put together. First they wanted to store up a supply of meat. As events turned out, the hunters—even Drouillard—were not able to get ahead of daily needs. They decided to go anyway, moving slowly while hunters ranged ahead in search of each night's supper. If emergencies arose, they would fall back, cautiously, on their trade goods—so few fishhooks, beads, small knives, little files, burning glasses, and trinkets that the material could be wrapped up in two handkerchiefs. Beyond that they could count on odds and ends of clothing and a few kettles. But at least, they thought, they could keep moving. [23]

They wanted Jefferson to learn as soon as possible that they had reached the Pacific, and yet they were unwilling to hand over their single extra copy of the journals to local Indians for delivery to the first trading vessel that arrived. They did consider, briefly, leaving the document with two or three of their own men in a camp beside the estuary, but rejected the notion. They had outlined so many investigations for their return trip that they could not afford to reduce their strength, especially with Bratton still incapacitated by his back problem. In the end, therefore, they wrote and gave to the Indians for delivery several short summaries of their crossing, each embellished with a rough map and a list of the expedition's personnel. [24]

(As chance would have it, one of the documents fell, during early April, into the hands of Captain Samuel Hill of the Boston-registered brig Lydia. Traveling by way of China, the news reached Philadelphia in January 1807. Clustered about this episode are bits of Lydian mythology that are glanced at in Appendix III.)

Another acute need was for boats. Of the five craft they had brought to Fort Clatsop—four big dugouts built beside the Clearwater and the small Indian canoe Lewis had purchased below Celilo Falls—only three had survived. All three were ponderous dugouts. Seamed with cracks, they needed to be caulked and water-proofed with resin gathered from nearby evergreens and melted for the job, a procedure delayed again and again by the incessant rains. Efforts to buy supplementary Indian canoes were frustrated by high prices until Drouillard, the all-purpose man, picked up a small one in exchange for Lewis's laced uniform coat and half a carrot of the Corps's vanishing tobacco. The price mirrored the regard in which the coastal Indians held their canoes. A lover generally gave one to his sweetheart's father as the price of the girl's hand. So the cost was not exorbitant. Nevertheless Lewis remained disgruntled. "I think the U'States are indebted to me another Uniform coat"—a bill he collected in due time. [25]

One canoe was not enough, and at that late date (March 17) the explorers lacked either the time or the willingness to build another. Instead they followed Drouillard's suggestion that they appropriate one from the nearest Clatsop village—the village whose chief, Comowool, the captains considered "the most friendly and decent Indian we have met with in this neighbourhood." Drouillard justified his proposal on the grounds that Comowool's Clatsops had made off with six elk carcasses the preceding February 6. The only redress the hunter had been able to obtain had been two small dogs. In his mind the payment was hardly adequate, although it may have seemed so to the Indians, once the dogs had been accepted and eaten.

The captains, breaking their own rule about not stealing from the Indians, authorized the taking of the canoe. On March 18 four men paddled surreptitiously around the water route to the village, removed a boat from among several resting on the village beach, brought it back, and hid it where Comowool, who happened to be visiting the fort with some of his people, would not see it. They were desperate, to be sure. And so a question of relative ethics arises: how desperate do you have to be to resort to pilfering from a friend who demands more for what you must have than you are able to pay? [26]

On March 22 the captains sent three hunters ahead to provide meat for the first camp on their outward journey. That same day Comowool dropped by. The officers handed him a parchment certificate attesting to his good character and helpfulness, and topped that by giving him title to Fort Clatsop. Were they salving their consciences by presenting his tribe with something that no longer had value to them? Had Comowool recognized the stolen canoe as belonging to his village? Was the gift of the fort a way of buying him off? The journals do not say, although the problem was not yet finished with.

At 1:00 P.M. on March 23, under clearing skies, they departed. Sergeant Gass looked back on their stay through a lens of statistics. From November 4, a day or two after they had emerged from the gorge, through March 24, the Corps had experienced only twelve days without rain and six of those had been cloudy. From December 1 through March 20, they had killed 131 elk. (Ordway raises the count for the period to 150 elk and several deer.) From those hides they had made 338 pairs of moccasins and an unspecified number of leather shirts and pants.

High winds and high waves almost swamped them as they rounded Tongue Point on their way to their first camp. The next day a different sort of obstruction arose. As they were passing a Cathlamet village (the Cathlamets and Clatsops were neighbors and friends) an Indian recognized the stolen canoe. Paddling out, he said it was his. "Having no time to discuss the question of right, we compromised with him for an elk skin." [27] With that, the last unpleasant link to their dreary winter quarters was broken. As they pushed up the swollen river, dodging the mats of driftwood that accumulated in the eddies, there wasn't a person among them who did not think joyfully that at the end of this journey, home beckoned. All that remained was to pass through the obstreperous Indians of the gorge, cross the divide, reach the Missouri, and along the way finish those tasks of exploration that had eluded them on their way west.


1. III, 270. (back)
2. Clark's rough sketches of the layout are in III, 268, 298. See also 297n; Appleman, 195, 346; Cutright, Pioneering Naturalists, 248–49. Joseph Field's furniture making: III, 289, 291. (back)
3. III, 279. (back)
4. II, 285–86. Ordway in Quaife, 318. (back)
5. Clark's salt exploration: III, 272–77. (back)
6. The elk adventure: III, 279–84. (back)
7. III, 290–91. (back)
8. Will, 13. (back)
9. III, 217–18, 340. (back)
10. The first word of the second stranded whale was brought January 3 by Chief Comowool of the coastal village almost due west of the fort. The news was confirmed by Willard and Wiser, who had helped carry kettles to the salt camp; they brought a chunk of blubber with them, along with a keg of salt. A meal of the blubber persuaded the captains to try to get more. (Biddle, II, 503–4; Thwaites, III, 308ff.) Clark's account of the whale expedition: III, 314–35. (back)
11. IV, 70–71. Allen, 324–25. (back)
12. Dunlay, 6–8. (back)
13. See the duplicate entries in Thwaites for January 3, 1806. (back)
14. Discussions of Lewis's work as supplemented by Clark are in Cutright, Pioneering Naturalists, 246–75, and, especially for ethnography, Ronda, 181–213. (back)
15. IV, 72, 74. (back)
16. Biddle, II, 513, 517, 534, 540. (back)
17. III, 302–4. (back)
18. IV, 88–91. (back)
19. IV, 16, 27, 170ff. (back)
20. IV, 195. (back)
21. IV, 102–3. Clark's illustration of the eulachon forms the frontispiece of IV. (back)
22. III, 350. (back)
23. IV, 168–76. Biddle, III, 591–92. (back)
24. Jackson, Letters, I, 300. (back)
25. Dickering for the canoes: IV, 173–77. Recompense for Lewis's coat: Jackson, Letters, II, 428. (back)
26. IV, 38, 177, 179. Ordway in Quaife, 329. Ronda, 211, is scathing about the theft and connects it with Lewis's denigration of Indian character in general after he'd ordered Tahcum's Chinooks from the fort on February 20. The implication is that Lewis's dealings with Indians accord with Jefferson's directions and not with Lewis's own feelings. (back)
27. Gass, 227, 229. Ordway in Quaife, 329. Biddle, III, 595. (back)