The Way to the Western Sea Lewis and Clark across the Continent Chapter 17

David Lavender© 2001University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London

SEVENTEEN. Against the Flow

On the morning of April 1, a small fleet of Indian canoes swung into the overnight camp the explorers had set up on the north bank of the Columbia, well over a hundred miles from the ocean. The news the visitors brought was alarming. The annual salmon run had not yet begun, and the fishing villages in the Columbia's gorge were all but out of food. To escape starvation the visitors were paddling downriver in search of wapatoo, sturgeon, or anything else they could find to eat.

"This information," Lewis wrote, "gave us much uneasiness with rispect to our future means of subsistence." The captains had been counting on buying enough food at the villages to carry them across the barren Columbian Plain to the land of the Nez Percés. But if the Indians were hoarding what little they had, they would resent the intrusion of thirty-two hungry strangers and would ask exorbitant prices—assuming they agreed to sell any part of what they had.

What to do? The captains rejected the idea of waiting until salmon appeared. The delay might force them to spend another winter on the Missouri. The Nez Percés might leave on a buffalo hunt before the explorers arrived to claim the horses Chief Twisted Hair was guarding—horses absolutely necessary for taking personal baggage, specimens, and remaining trade goods across the Rockies. The only solution, the Americans decided, was to spend the next few days procuring and drying as many bundles of meat as possible under the still-cloudy skies. The hides they acquired could also be used in bartering. [1]

Early the following morning, April 2, another group of Indians rowed into the camp to learn what was going on. Because some of them were from a tribe unfamiliar to the explorers, Clark questioned them about their local geography as diligently as he could through signs and the smattering of Chinook trade jargon he had picked up. What he was after was information about a grand southern tributary of the Columbia that had to exist—if logic and Indian rumor picked up at Fort Clatsop were correct.

Envision the topography. A broad trough, sometimes called the Puget Trough, runs north and south between the high Cascade Mountains on the east and the low Coast Range on the west. The Columbia River breaks into the eastern (Cascade) side of the trough through its fabulous gorge. It flows west about thirty-five miles and then bends north for about the same distance. After picking up two sizable northern tributaries, known today as the Cowlitz and Lewis rivers, the augmented river veers west again through the Coast Range.

On their way downstream the previous spring, the captains had described what they saw of the trough as "a fertile and delightful country, shaded by thick groves of tall trees. . . . The soil is rich and capable of any species of culture." It looked fully as good when they reached it again in the spring. The land and the mild climate, they estimated, could sustain fifty thousand agriculturists. [2] Such information would delight Jefferson, but the data would not be complete until the southern tributary had been found and described. Strangely, however, the explorers had seen no sign of such a stream.

By drawing a map on a grass mat with a piece of charcoal, the visiting Indians explained the mystery. While following the Columbia through the trough, both upstream and down, the whites had hugged the north bank. A curtain of islands had shut off the view of the south shore where a large stream the Indians called Multnomah slanted in from the southeast. Today it is the Willamette, pronounced "wil-am-it."

While Lewis and most of the men hunted or built scaffolds on which to dry meat, Clark and seven others hurried downstream with an Indian guide to see as much of the Multnomah as time allowed. [3] They, too, would need food for their trip, and when they saw, just before reaching the mouth of the new river, a large plank house with several small canoes out front, they stopped to buy roots.

The inhabitants were inside, perhaps in connection with some ceremony. When they did not respond to a call, Clark and a few men went in. The Indians rebuffed them. As they stood there frustrated, Clark perhaps recalled the commotion he had caused the previous fall by lighting his pipe with a magnifying glass in another plank house farther up the Columbia. Anyway, he took from his pocket a "port-fire match," a slim paper tube packed with gunpowder that artillerymen used for firing cannons. (The expedition's last swivel gun was cached with the white pirogue near the Great Falls of the Missouri. How did he happen to have a fuse with him on the Columbia? No one knows.) Sitting beside the fire, he dropped the match unnoticed into the flames. Simultaneously he held up a compass with its face toward the watchers and set the needle to spinning with a magnet.

The fuse sparkled, hissed, and smoked; the Indian women and children scrambled to hide behind the men, and all implored him to desist. They'd give him bundles of roots. The fuse died of its own accord. Clark pocketed the compass, paid for the wapatoo he took, and resumed his journey. When he told the story in his journal, he said nothing about the ethics of the performance. His men needed the roots, didn't they—just as they had needed to steal Comowool's canoe? Similar dilemmas—the means and the goal—would occur again and again during the rest of the transcontinental trip.

The Multnomah turned out to be as noble a river as rumor had said. The explorers camped about ten miles above its island-studded mouth on a crisp and glorious evening. Northward the snow-covered, volcanic peaks of Mounts Rainier and Saint Helens glowed with sunset light. Mount Hood rose spectacularly to the east. All three had been named fourteen years earlier by Vancouver's men as they probed about in their ships and longboat. But to the southeast, unrecorded on the Englishmen's charts, was another striking snow cone. Clark called it Mount Jefferson. Though he does not say so, he may have considered the action a retort to the British, just as carving his name and the date, December 3, 1805, on a tree near the Columbia's mouth had been a retort to Alexander Mackenzie. Americans, too, he was saying in effect, had their claims to this land.

The next morning he and his men went another two miles upstream. At a point that would later be included within the city of Portland, Oregon, they measured the Multnomah: five hundred yards wide and more than fifteen feet deep. Oceangoing vessels could dock there. Where, he wondered, did so big a river come from?

Its course, as he looked upstream, was a little east of south. Indians he met confirmed that the Multnomah continued in that direction even after it reached the Cascade Mountains. They named the many tribes that lived beside it and its tributaries, and mentioned that beyond the mountains was a great expanse of dry, open land—surely, he thought, a southern extension of the Columbian Plain.

His imagination jumped. A river as big as the Multnomah must rise a long distance away—as far, perhaps, as the central height of land he had indicated on his 1805 map, drawn largely out of conjecture at Fort Mandan. A height whose northern slope was the common fountain of the Gallatin, Madison, and Yellowstone forks of the Missouri on its northern slopes, of the Platte and Arkansas on the east, of the Rio Grande and Colorado on the south. And now the Multnomah on the west, completing the symmetry.

He was quite wrong. Western topography possesses no such intellectually pleasing order. Yet the compulsion that made Clark think so is rooted in human nature. As geographer John Allen Logan has pointed out, we are all inclined, when faced with the unknown, to press the familiar into it as a preliminary step toward understanding the challenge. The farther back the known rivers of the West could be extended, the smaller the blank spaces on the continent's map became. Nearly every one of Clark's western rivers, as first delineated, was too long.

Another comfort was his assumption, based on sign talk and murky interpretations of strange languages, that the Multnomah ticked the southern edge of the great Columbian Plain. Such a course would explain Shoshoni and Nez Percé tales of a big river in that direction, one on whose banks scattered bands of the widespread Shoshoni nation lived. The stream was actually the Snake, carving a long arc through what is now southern Idaho. The captains never would get that river straight, partly because Clark decided that the stream they kept hearing about was the Upper Multnomah. [4]

A curious historical irony flowed from the mistake. By early 1824, fur trappers had crossed the Continental Divide in today's Wyoming by way of South Pass, so-called to distinguish it from Lewis and Clark's North (Lemhi) Pass. The way up the Platte Valley to South Pass was so easy, according to an overenthusiastic article published in a St. Louis newspaper, that "loaded wagons can [some day soon] reach the navigable waters of the Columbia"—i.e., the Multnomah. And the Multnomah, according to Clark's map, published in Nicholas Biddle's 1814 version of the captains' journals, flowed gently through the Cascade Range to a valley capable of supporting fifty thousand farmers.

Dreaming of the wonder a half-mad Massachusetts promoter, Hall J. Kelley, proposed, in 1828, an Oregon Emigration Society of three thousand members who would first cross South Pass by wagon (when Kelley wrote no wagon had yet made that "easy" crossing) and then would 'load their horses, cattle, plows, furniture, wives, and children on Kentucky-style flatboats and "glide down current about 800 or 1000 miles at their ease to this 'Land of Promise.' " Impossible, of course, as several fur men quickly pointed out. [5] But for a while during the initial years of the Oregon fever that would eventually sweep the Pacific Northwest into American hands, it seemed that the transcontinental highway Jefferson so badly wanted did exist, thanks to the headwaters of a stream William Clark never saw but vividly imagined. Too vividly. The Willamette, fed by the heavy precipitation the Corps was still enduring in April 1806, needed no long run to build up its size. It rose grandly on the western slopes of the Cascades, hardly two hundred miles from where the captain had first encountered it.

On the evening of April 9, the reunited parties reached the base of the Lower Cascade rapids. During Clark's absence, Lewis's group had smoked enough elk meat to carry the expedition as far as Nez Percé land, provided they were able to supplement their rations with a few roots, dogs, and an edible horse or two along the way. But as they stared at what lay ahead, they felt other misgivings. The river, which spread out more than a mile wide behind them, was compressed up front, into a raging channel scarcely four hundred yards across. Its water, as nearly as they could tell, was twenty feet deeper than it had been the previous fall. The distance from the bottom of the lower cascade to the top of the upper, with a quiet stretch in between, was seven miles. They would have to portage their baggage most of the way and tow the boats up empty. But they had one stroke of luck. That night they were able to collect, close to their camping place, a large supply of resin oozing from trees recently burned. It would come in handy if the battered canoes needed waterproofing at the top of the torrent, as seemed likely.

The next morning the men were divided into three groups. One, armed with short-barreled Harpers Ferry rifles, were to pack the baggage to the midway point. Lewis and a few men undertook to guard the piles of equipment at either end of the portage trail. Clark's group was to handle the single rope of elkskin which was all they had for hauling their three big dugouts and two small canoes.

Indians who had been friendly last fall were hostile now, perhaps as a prelude to demands for toll, a custom that caused great trouble to later fur traders. [6] They crowded and jostled the porters. One threw stones down on them. There were individual scuffles here and there. The climax came when some of them lured Lewis's black Newfoundland dog away. Toll? To Lewis it looked like theft. Furious, he sent three armed men in pursuit with orders to kill if necessary—the first time (as far as the journals show) that such a command had been given concerning native peoples whom Jefferson wanted treated "in the most friendly & conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit." Nor did the confrontation end there. The dog having been recovered without the need of violence, the captains assembled the Indians hanging around the baggage piles and warned them with unmistakable signs that anyone stealing any article or insulting any white man would be instantly shot. They then unceremoniously ordered the aggressors (as the explorers considered them) out of the camp.

The sternness had its effect. The next day the Indians kept a sullen distance, except for one chief who apologized profusely for his people and went along with the whites as a self-appointed bodyguard, actions that earned him a small medal as a reward. The clearing of the air was needed. The baggage still had to be lugged from the overnight bivouac to the top of the Great Shute at the head of the Upper Cascade. Again Clark took charge of the towing and spent a full day moving four of the craft into calmer waters above the rapids.

The activity injured the boats sorely. The next day—rainy, of course—Clark oversaw the repairs and the sealing of the joints with melted resin. Meanwhile Lewis and a fresh crew tackled the fifth boat, a heavy dugout. As they were straining to pull it around a projecting rock, the bow got too far out into the current. Hit broadside by the weight of so much water, the dugout tore loose from the workers' hands and vanished, end over end, into the foam. They didn't bother looking for the pieces.

For a little while after that luck improved. At a village a short distance above the Shute, Lewis purchased, as replacements for the lost dugout, two small, sound, easily maneuvered canoes. The cost: four elkskins and two far-traveled buffalo robes. Deerskins were exchanged for three fat dogs, and the hunters added more deer to the larder.

The area was populous. Each day more outsiders arrived to share the coming salmon run with the local Indians. Faithfully the captains added new lists to their vocabulary compilations and described the various native dresses and customs. Two items on which they dwelt at length were the Indians' procedures with their canoes and their mobile homes. Tribes that visited the gorge's fishing and trading grounds had to make at least two trips a year, one coming in and the other departing. Although their superbly built canoes could be carried, with difficulty, around the rapids, the effort was seldom resorted to. Those who lived below the Cascade Rapids would leave their boats where the white water feathered out and walk up the portage trail with their goods. At the top they rented other canoes for the rest of the trip to The Dalles; if they went beyond those rapids they frequently used rented horses for the portages. On returning downstream, they surrendered whatever they had hired to the owners and walked along the trails until they reached their own boats.

People who lived above or in the gorge of course reversed the process. Whichever direction they traveled, they transported their houses with them. The dwellings, made of boards covered with cedar bark, were easily taken apart for carrying, a labor shared equally by men, women, and older children. When assembled, these temporary houses were sometimes well over a hundred feet long and occupied by several families. Generally they rested flat on the ground. By contrast, the gorge's permanent residents wintered in smallish caverns dug as much as eight feet deep and roofed with timbers and earth. A hole in the top, equipped on the inside with a ladder, served both as entry and chimney. When warm weather arrived, the cave dwellers emerged to live in long plank houses like the ones the visitors used.

The natural setting of this teeming stretch of the Columbia was superb. A variety of flowers bloomed in April. The air near The Dalles, Lewis wrote appreciatively, was noticeably drier and more bracing than it had been near the coast. The wetland firs were gradually replaced by long-needled ponderosa pines and those, too, would soon disappear. High, dark cliffs of basalt lined the river's north bank. Cataracts swollen by rain and snowmelt dropped several hundred lacy feet down the forested slope to the south. Lewis, who worked hard over such scenes, tried to convey the spectacle in words: "mountains high and broken . . . romantic views occasionally enlivened by beautiful cascades rushing from the heights, and forming a deep contrast with the firs, cedar and pines, which darken their sides." [7] One of the waterfalls, today's famed Multnomah Falls, plunged seven hundred feet in two giant steps.

As the travelers neared The Dalles, they saw ten or twelve horses grazing near a cluster of plank houses. Twelve!—enough to carry their personal baggage, trade merchandise, pounded fish, roots, and dried elk meat (and William Bratton, who was still all but immobilized by pains in his lower back) to the foot of the Rockies, where their own animals waited. But the Indians at all the villages that had horses proved obdurate. No trade—not for anything the captains were able to offer. [8]

On the evening of April 15, the Corps camped on a prominent point below the Long Narrows. Several Indians visited them there, and those from the north bank said that if the Americans would come to their town the next morning, their people would sell. At 8:00 A.M., accordingly, Clark rowed across the river with eight men and Sacagawea, for the captain hoped that in so heterogeneous a gathering of natives there would be someone who understood Shoshoni. Lewis and the rest of the men stayed on the shore, confidently making twelve pack saddles and pack ropes for lashing down the loads that would be piled on them. Hunters ranging across the new grass of the plains brought in more meat to dry, and, all in all, things seemed more propitious than they had been for some time.

The euphoria soon faded. Although crowds gathered to see what Clark's detachment offered for sale, no one would part with horses. "Tanterlized" by the natives' on-again, off-again moods, Clark and his people moved slowly upstream, village to village, carrying their peddlers' packs on their backs after the water grew too rough for their canoes. During his second day of dickering, the captain bought, at exorbitant rates, three animals, only one of which he would have glanced at under different circumstances. That same day Toussaint Charbonneau, half-Indian himself and a canny trader, purchased a fine mare out of his private stock of ermine fur and elks' teeth. It is nowhere clear whether the interpreter let the expedition use the animal or retained it for his wife and child.

On the third day of trading, Clark resorted to ingenuity. Noticing painful sores on the skin of one of the chiefs in the crowd looking at the merchandise, he dipped into the medicines he had brought along and treated the eruptions. For good measure he applied camphor and warm flannel to the aching back of the chief's wife—"a sulky Bitch," he wrote out of his own ill humor. In return for the doctoring he received a promise of two horses.

By then he was nervously and physically exhausted. Because of mice, fleas, and bitter cold nights—he had not brought along enough blankets and he had passed beyond the tree line where wood was available for fires—he had scarcely slept for two nights. Leaving four men in charge of the sales merchandise, he and the rest of his crew led the few horses that had been delivered to them downstream to rejoin Lewis. There the normally equitable Clark hoped to get himself back under control. [9]

By that time Meriwether's group had crossed the river with their twelve new pack saddles and had arduously towed the expedition's two remaining dugouts and five canoes up the swift current to the bottom of the Long Narrows. [*] There, of necessity, they halted. Nothing, Lewis declared, could pass up or down that leaping fury without being portaged—and the two dugouts were far too heavy. Realizing this, the neighborhood Indians refused to trade even a single dog for vessels they expected would be abandoned. To spite them—and to warm themselves—the captains ordered the men to chop up the vessels, burn part of the pieces, and prepare the rest for portaging.

Aided by the horses, the men were able to get their baggage and the five canoes to the top of Celilo Falls by dark on April 19. Rejoicing Indians surrounded them. Salmon had at last arrived. Small pieces of the first one caught were divided among the village children, as tradition required. Prying horses from the celebrants was no easier, however. Only by collecting the animals promised by the doctored chief and by trading off all their iron kettles except one small cooking pot per mess—there were eight people in each mess—were the captains able to bring to nine the number of horses they owned. A Nez Percé who chanced to be visiting in the vicinity lent them another and agreed to accompany them to his homeland as guide. [10]

While Clark made a last futile effort to get more animals, Lewis prepared for the march to the base of the Rockies. When he discovered that Indians were pilfering from the different piles of baggage scattered about awaiting packing, he issued a warning through the chiefs. Shortly thereafter he caught one fellow trying to make off with the iron socket of a canoe pole. He dealt him several blows and had a few of his men give the culprit a bum's rush out of the camp. To everyone in hearing—a fairly large assembly—he announced that it was in his power to burn the Indians' houses, kill their people, and seize their horses if he so wanted. So take care. Stern words, but he was worried by these Indians. They were, he wrote angrily, "poor, dirty, haughty, inhospitable, parsimonious, and faithless in every respect. nothing but our numbers I believe prevents their attempting to murder us at this moment." [11] We have no way of knowing, of course, what the Indians thought of the whites.

They broke away from that exasperating land with its alarming delays on April 21, with their baggage lashed onto nine horses. The ailing Bratton rode the tenth. They piled the duffel that wouldn't go on the horses into two of their five canoes. Sergeant Gass and Reuben Field rowed one while John Colter and John Potts, who would become trapping partners a few years later, handled the other. Lewis sold two of the remaining vessels, along with some elkskins and pieces of scrap iron, for beads, a staple item of Indian currency everywhere. When the Indians declined to buy the third canoe, he cut it up for fuel.

They traveled on the north side of the Columbia, climbing each morning to the top of the encompassing bluffs in order to reach the open plains. In the evening they returned either to the river or to a tributary. There was no straggling; this was a military march. Some of the men led the loaded horses, no doubt to the accompaniment of blistering profanity, for the majority of the animals were ill-broken stallions, given to tantrums. The rest of the soldiers were divided into two detachments, each commanded by one of the captains. One squad marched in front of the pack string for a day, the other behind. The next day they changed positions. In some places the way was roughened by knotted sagebrush, prickly pear, and rocks. In other places their moccasins sank into sand. Because they had done little marching for several months, the men were soon complaining of sore feet and legs—a discomfort Lewis and Clark and perhaps some of the enlisted men relieved by bathing their extremities each night in cold water. [12] In spite of the aches, the short-grass openness of the plains, which had seemed forbiddingly barren the preceding fall, was now a relief after the confinement of the dense, wet coastal forests and soaring mountains.

They passed cavalcades of Indian families bound for the salmon fishing. Sometimes the natives made nuisances of themselves by riding into the middle of the line of march. In other ways they were godsends. They occasionally sold horses to the Corps for pewter buttons, pieces of brass, and strips of twisted wire. Using two of Sacagawea's "leather sutes," Charbonneau bought another mount for himself. By April 25 the captains were able to shift all their baggage onto horses, with two left over for the most sore-footed of the men to ride. They traded the two canoes (which they had once supposed they could swap for horses) for a few strands of beads—and then only after threatening to destroy the vessels unless the Indians came across with something. The migrating natives also sold them dogs, generally skinny, and wood or weed stalks for cooking them. Feeling bankrupt, the captains purchased only enough fuel for one small cooking fire each meal. Because their tents had long since disintegrated, they found the fireless nights uncomfortably cold. [13]

As they neared the point where they would have to cross the Columbia, they talked again of a land route on the opposite side—one that would do away with the long, north-sweeping arc they had followed down the Clearwater and Snake in October. According to maps Clark had drawn at Fort Clatsop, the shortcut would save about eighty miles—if those miles were, in fact, passable. But first they would have to find Indians who would help ferry them, their goods, and their horses across the swollen Columbia.

The necessary angel turned out to be amiable Yellept, a principal chief of the Walla Walla tribe. The explorers had met Yellept during their descent of the Columbia, but had been too hurried then to visit for as long as the chief wanted. They were hurried this time, too, but Yellept, recalling their promise to tarry on their return journey, was determined not to let them go until he had furthered his prestige by displaying them to his neighbors in the north, the Yakimas. To give the Yakimas time to arrive at the big party he planned, he declined to furnish canoes for ferrying the whites across the river until the next day. He made no objection, however, to their taking the horses over that afternoon, using a canoe belonging to an Indian whose injured knee Clark had treated. The passage was effected not by transporting the rebellious stallions one by one in the small unsteady boat, as is sometimes supposed, but by forcing two or three at a time into the water at the river's edge and then, after the animals had reached swimming depth, pulling them along behind the canoe with their halters. [14] Yellept topped all this off by giving Clark an "eligant" white horse. Afterwards he hinted he would like a kettle in exchange. Having none to spare, Clark substituted his sword and a hundred rounds of ammunition. Everybody ended up happy.

The party that night turned out to be quite an affair. Upwards of a hundred Yakima men, women, and children joined an even greater number of Walla Wallas in a big arc in front of the whites' camp to watch the soldiers do square dances and reels to the jigging tune of Cruzatte's fiddle. Afterwards the enlisted men taught the Indians a couple of American folk songs and then participated in a hop-and-chant dance with 350 or more natives of all ages. This time the music came from hide drums and rattles. By the time the Corps bade farewell the next day to "the most hospitable, honest, and sincere people that we have met with on our Voyage," they had built up their horse herd, by purchase and gift, to twenty-three animals. Though the Indians assured them the trail across the high plateaus to Lewis's River (the Snake) wound through a country rich in game, they cautiously added twelve dressed dog carcasses to their commissary. A wise precaution. They saw little game along the way, and on May 3, when they dropped down from the high country to the Snake River, seven miles below its confluence with the Kooskooske (Clearwater), they were hungry again.

Their immediate goals were two villages: that of Twisted Hair, to whom they had entrusted their horses, and of Broken Arm, the tribe's most influential leader. Broken Arm had been absent during their outward trip, but they had sent him a flag and medal. Now they wanted to talk to him, in council with other chiefs, about the wishes of the United States: peace among all tribes; locating sites for trading posts on the eastern side of the Continental Divide, in U.S. territory, that the Nez Percés could reach; and appointing delegates the Corps could escort to Washington to meet the Great Father.

The search for the villages presented problems. The winter had been severe, its snows deeper than usual. Many of the bands had run out of dried fish and roots; some of the people had been reduced, at times, to scraping lichen off certain pine trees and boiling it into a repulsive gruel—but they would not devour, except in extreme emergencies, any of the many horses they owned, for they were extravagantly attached to the animals. Even now, in May, the salmon had not appeared, and many of the bands, including the two they most wanted to see, had left the deep canyons for the plateaus. There the men, armed only with bows and arrows and disguised with antlers and buckskin over their heads and shoulders, searched for deer among the thin stands of ponderosa pines. While that was going on, the women dug and pounded into meal a root new to the captains: cowish, or cous. (The captains spelled it cows.) Because cous closely resembled water hemlock, a deadly poison, Lewis and Clark would not let their men risk digging it for themselves, hungry though they were.

They collected a large retinue as they traveled, still in military formation, up the rough canyons of the Clearwater, crossing back and forth over the surging stream in native canoes while the pack-horse and the few riding horses swam. Among the attendants was a brother of Twisted Hair, who volunteered as guide. Another was a Shoshoni prisoner who, with Sacagawea and Charbonneau, could act as interpreter during the coming talks. A third was a chief whose name translated as Cut Nose; although Lewis and Clark were not impressed, they gave him a small medal because of his station.

There were too many people. Along the way frictions developed. When the Corps halted for the night, Indians crowded around the fires in such numbers that completing the chores was difficult. Conversely, after the soldiers had been dismissed, they displeased the Nez Percé by pushing into their long houses, hoping to exchange their own trinkets for food. The constant search for dogs to eat created a potentially explosive incident. Dog meat was not a fare the Nez Percé relished. One noon as Lewis was sitting cross-legged at a meal of canine cutlets, a young show-off tried to win a laugh by scooping up a small, half-starved pup and dropping it almost onto the captain's plate. Furious, Lewis came up like a spring and—poor pup—flung the little creature back into his tormentor's face. Gesturing violently with his tomahawk, he then drove the fellow away and "we continued our Dinner without firther molestation." [15] But if the Indian had fought back and the tribe had chosen sides—well, there's not much use speculating about such things.

The Corps possessed one tremendous resource—Clark's reputation as a healer. Although Lewis had the better medical training, thanks to his pre-expedition crash courses in Philadelphia, Clark had established better rapport with Indians. During the Corps's western journey, he had relieved a few Nez Percés. As word of the whites' reappearance spread, groups of sick and ailing crowded into the camps for treatment—ignoring, evidently, the captains' inability to cure the semiparalysis of one of the expedition's own members, William Bratton. Soon Clark was treating as many as fifty patients a day for complaints ranging from "bad" eyes (the most common) through cracked bones, sore backs, rheumatism, internal disorders, depression, abscesses, and strains and sprains of many kinds. They mixed their own "eye water" from ingredients in their medicine chest. When they ran out of a soothing basilicon salve of lard and pitch they had brought with them, they concocted another out of pine resin, bear oil, and—of all things—beeswax. (There were no bees in the American West in those days. Clark, acting on impulse, had purchased this wax from a Tillamook Indian he met during his venture down the Oregon coast to buy whale blubber. Originally it had been part of the cargo of a Spanish ship that had gone aground and broken up on Nehalem Beach. The Tillamook Indians dug chunks of the stuff out of the sand for years.) [16]

When their own hunting failed, the whites traded Clark's medical skills for food. Well aware that the trust of the patients accounted for most of his cures, he justified the "deceptions" on the ground of the Corps's need, adding, "We take care to give them no article which can possibly injure them, and in maney cases can administer such medicine and sirgical aides as will effectually restore in simple cases." And though Lewis and Clark may have started the program cynically, they did not end that way. As their affection for their patients grew, they many times added to their records such statements as "I wish it was in our power to give releif to these poor aff[l]icted wretches." [17]

By using their diplomatic skills they brought about a healing of a different sort. Chief Cut Nose, jealous of the prestige Twisted Hair had gained as keeper of the expedition's horses, had sarcastically criticized Twisted Hair's methods. During the quarrel that erupted, nobody kept watch over the animals, and the captains feared they might have strayed beyond recovery. To make sure the search, so vital to their future, went smoothly, they and Drouillard adroitly patched up the quarrel. Twisted Hair then grew energetic and the horses were soon rounded up, except for the two Old Toby and his son had appropriated for returning to the Lemhi River. It developed, too, that when a flood had threatened to sweep away the saddles, Twisted Hair had intervened in time to salvage most of them.

The reconciliation of the chiefs took place on a high plateau west of the main fork of the Clearwater. (Because of the climb out of the canyon, the Corps missed seeing the place where they had built their five dugouts the preceding fall.) From this high ground they could see, to their dismay, the massive blanket of snow that covered the Bitterroot Mountains. They would not be able to cross, the Indians said, until the middle of June—"unwelcome intiligence to men confirmed to a diet of horsebeef and roots, and who are as anxious as we are to return to the fat plains of the Missouri, and thence to our native homes." [18] As if to underscore the difficulties, a storm that in the bottom of the canyons was rain dumped eight inches of snow on their exposed camp. It was May 10.

On they plodded, the snow balling up on the horses' feet and tripping them. About four in the afternoon they reached Broken Arm's "village." Like many other Nez Percé communities, it consisted of a single movable structure built of sticks, mats, and bundles of dry grass. Shaped like the roof of a house (an A-frame?), it was about 150 feet long, closed at the ends and with many small doors along the front. Undivided inside, it sheltered twenty-four fires and twice that many families. The noise of the women pounding roots sounded to Lewis (and to Clark, who, by and large, was still copying Lewis's journal) like a nail factory. In spite of the crowding, the captains declared, the Chopunnish (their name for the Nez Percé) "were more clenly in their persons and habitations than any nation we have seen since we left the Ottoes on the river Platte." [19]

They were hospitable as well. Broken Arm (Chief Tunnachemootoolt, as the captains spelled his Indian name) met them in front of the house, beside the American flag they had sent him—an exciting sight, that. He showed them where to camp and had some of the band's women erect a plains-style leather tepee for them and bring them roots and two horses for butchering. Because nearly all of the principal chiefs had gathered there to see the historic meeting, Lewis and Clark were able to arrange for a council the next day, May 11. In spite of the tedious chain of interpretation, they were able to urge peace, transmontane trade, and the sending of representatives East to see the strengths of the friendly white people. To indicate some of those strengths they fired the airgun and showed off the workings of their magnets, spyglasses, compasses, "and sundrey other articles equally novel and incomprehensible to them."

The next morning, May 12, the chiefs met privately to debate the whites' proposals. Peace? Of course it was advantageous. The tribe's feud with the Shoshoni, for instance, was costly in lives, but inasmuch as the Nez Percés had recently avenged the latest Shoshoni attacks, they were ready now to embrace their former enemies—especially since Lewis and Clark said they had also urged peace on the Shoshoni the previous summer.

The Blackfeet and their allies on the northern plains were different. Those implacable Indians had many guns. The captains had not yet spoken to them, and the Nez Percé were not certain what the answer would be. They were willing, however, to send some young men across the divide to the Missouri with the expedition, to learn the outcome of the meeting, if any. If the emissaries returned with word that peace had been arranged, then—and only then—would the Nez Percé feel safe in visiting the American trading houses of which the captains had spoken.

One point only, the sending of delegates to Washington, was left in abeyance.

Having decided on these responses in private, the chiefs summoned as many of the tribe as were within reach to vote on the issues. As was true with most Indians, unanimity among the males was necessary. After the chiefs had harangued the listeners, Broken Arm prepared kettlefuls of gruel. Those favoring the proposals should eat of the offering. Those opposed should abstain. Later a participant told Lewis there was no dissent: "all swallowed their objections, if any they had, very cheerfully with their mush." Not so the women. They had no vote, but they knew how many of their men had been killed or wounded by the tribes they were now embracing. Was this wise? As their answer, they "cried wrung their hands, toar their hair and appeared to be in the utmost distress."

Their decisions confirmed, the chiefs went in a body to inform the captains, who were sitting in front of the lodge the women had pitched for them. Two young men, acting as representatives of the nation, presented each captain with a fine horse. Lewis and Clark responded by giving each chief a flag, a pound of powder, and fifty rifle balls. (At that time the entire Nez Percé tribe probably did not possess more than half a dozen rifles, but the gift of ammunition slyly suggested there could be more if the new program succeeded.) The chiefs concluded by urging the whites not to be too precipitate about trying to cross the mountains, even though they would have young Indians with them who knew the trail, as agreed in council. [20]

Waiting in the vicinity of Broken Arm's village for the snow to disappear would place an undue burden on the hunters of both groups. The Corps therefore packed up and moved, on May 13 and 14, to a broad meadow in the canyon bottom across the river from and just below the site of present-day Kamiah, Idaho. There they placed their baggage inside what they believed were the remains of an ancient Indian fort but probably had been a winter pit lodge. Some thirty feet in diameter, the depression was three and a half feet deep and ringed by a low mound of earth. They covered the goods—and themselves—with shelters of brush and grass like those used by the Nez Percés and put together, a little distance away, a rough log corral in which their horses could be gathered as needed. Although the captains did not name this stopping place, historians of the expedition have taken to calling it Camp Chopunnish. [21]

They had about sixty-five horses then, including those they had retrieved from Twisted Hair. Many were stallions that kept the herd in turmoil with their kicking and biting. The Corps solved part of the problem by eating the most fractious of the studs. The rest they gentled by lassoing them, throwing them, and castrating them. Indians proved more adept at the surgery than the whites. One fine horse that Drouillard operated on became so badly infected that it was shot—and eaten. [22]

Medical work continued with both their own people and Indians. Most alarming was the illness of Sacagawea's son, by then about fifteen months old and cutting teeth. Infection swelled the lymph glands of his neck. An abscess formed under one ear; his fever soared. The captains—both were involved on this occasion—applied hot poultices of wild onions and later their homemade salve of resin, oil, and wax. When their favorite laxatives of cream of tartar and flowers of sulfur (the latter sometimes used now as an insecticide) proved inadequate, they resorted to an enema. The journals do not refer to his mother at any time during the illness, although her love, care, and diligence in keeping him clean (diapers consisted of moss or cattail fluff held in softly tanned animal skins that could be washed) were probably as effective as the soldiers' ministrations. During the next two weeks he gradually recovered. [23]

Those same days saw the case of the mysterious sweat baths. On May 22, Sergeant Ordway and Goodrich were sent to a village about five miles away to buy roots and bread made from pounded cous. There they watched some Nez Percé males strip themselves, crawl into a small sweat house similar to those used by native tribes throughout North America, and sit as long as possible in steam generated by sprinkling water on hot rocks. On their return to Camp Chopunnish the soldiers evidently talked about the process. This reminded John Shields, the gunsmith, of having seen white men with back trouble restored by "violent sweats." When Bratton asked that he be so treated, the captains authorized the digging of a hole deep enough to sit in. After the earth had been well heated by fire, the embers were removed and the patient was put into the pit on a chair, with a board at his feet and a vessel of water to sprinkle about. The cavern was sealed with blankets draped over bent willows. After twenty minutes, during which Bratton drank copiously of strong mint tea, "he was taken out and soddenly plunged into cold water twise and was then immediately returned to the sweat hole where he was continued three quarters of an hour longer then taken out covered up in several blankets and suffered to cool gradually." The next day he was walking with little pain.

On the day of that walk, several Nez Percé carried in a minor chief who had scarcely moved a limb for three years, and yet his bodily functions remained unimpaired. The captains had tried doctoring him with their concoctions at Broken Arm's village to little avail. Nevertheless, the man wanted more help—specifically a sweating after he had seen the effects of the treatment on Bratton. Since he was unable to sit, the hole had to be enlarged so that the patient's father could slide in beside him and hold him on the chair. The pains the chief felt were eased with laudanum. Although he needed more treatments than Bratton did, he was up and about when the expedition left the camp. [24]

Explanations? Modern doctors don't really have any. It has been suggested that Bratton may have been disabled originally by an inflamed sacroiliac joint, or by an intervertebral disc that nature had about healed by the time of the bath. If the assumption is accurate, sweat was not a prime factor in the cure. The chief may have suffered from hysteria that yielded, psychologically, to the many subconscious suggestions attending the performance. But the main point, as far as the expedition is concerned, is the flexibility and ingenuity the captains showed in dealing with whatever problems, medical or otherwise, faced them.

The child and the soldier recovered when it was necessary they do so. The Corps of Discovery could stay no longer at Camp Chopunnish. Although the hunters had killed several deer and bear during the first days there, game had become increasingly difficult to find. Salmon, which by then were running up the Snake River, did not visit the Clearwater. And the Snake River was too far away to be depended on, as Sergeant Ordway learned. He, Wiser, and Frazer took a rough cross-country ride to visit both the lower Salmon and the Snake River in the hope of buying fish. By the time they were back most of what they had purchased had spoiled. Meanwhile the Corps had run out of things to trade for food. Coat buttons, needles, thread, ribbon, fur, cloth, links of chain Shields turned into awls, old files, musket balls, and what not—all were gone.

Even so it had been a good camp. Relations with the Indians had been warm. (Years later several American army men in the Northwest ran into a light-haired Nez Percé who boasted that William Clark was his father.) [25] The weather in the canyon bottom had turned summer hot. There had been leisure for Lewis to add appreciably to his natural history notes and for Clark to work on his maps. The enlisted men had made saddles, saddle pads, and lash ropes. Everyone's health had improved. To build up stamina for the crossing of the Bitterroots, the captains had launched a fitness program—footraces with the Indians and such contests between teams of the soldiers as prisoner's base.

On June 9 the horses were brought in and inspected. (By that time the expedition must have had seventy or more.) On the 10th they set out in high spirits, each man well mounted and leading a second, lightly loaded animal. They had supplementary horses for eating if the need arose. Their goal was the west end of the Lolo Trail at Weippe Prairie, where they had first met the Nez Percés in September 1805. There, if plans materialized, the hunters would bring in enough meat to carry them across the mountains. What they lacked, and what Lewis no longer expected to see, was the peace mission to the Blackfeet that Broken Arm had said would be along as soon as a council of chiefs selected them. (Its young members could double as guides along the Lolo Trail.) By contrast, Clark, who was the last to talk to the chief about the matter, was confident the men would appear in due time.

The trail to Weippe was taxing, first a long climb out of the Clearwater and then a breakneck crossing of a tributary canyon. But when they reached the prairie—two thousand acres of grass rimmed by trees—the camas lilies were blooming so profusely the meadows looked like lakes. An amazing progression of seasons: summer in the canyons and spring on the prairie, while up ahead, as they could plainly see, the remnants of winter still clung grimly to the land.

They camped near the site of the village where they had first met the Nez Percés and where eating camas roots had made them so sick. (The village, being transportable, had been carried by its occupants down into one or another of the canyons for the winter.) Their schedule called for them to hunt vigorously until June 15, when they would take to the trail. In spite of the snow their spirits stayed high. For they fully believed that their intense desire to reach home would be sufficient to guarantee success.


1. IV, 227–28. (back)
2. III, 201–2, IV, 220. Biddle, II, 470, III, 600, 611–12. Allen, 332–33. Ordway in Quaife, 333. The quotations in this section are from Biddle. (back)
3. IV, 236. Clark's trip to the Multnomah: IV, 227–39; Biddle, III, 605–9. (back)
4. The problem of the Willamette's source is discussed in Allen, 327–28, 336, 341, 394. See also the maps in 384–89, which, however, are hard to follow. (back)
5. The "new" portages and Hall Kelley's part in the delusion are treated by F. N. Powell, ed., Hall J. Kelley on Oregon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1932). Also Lavender, Westward, 214–15. (back)
6. The passage of the Cascades: IV, 259–68; Biddle, III, 619–21; Ronda, 216. George Simpson, governor-in-chief of the Hudson's Bay Company's territories in North America, passed through the Columbia rapids in 1824 and gives a lively summary of several years of Indian problems there. Simpson, 61–63. (back)
7. As rendered by Biddle, III, 627. (back)
8. Dickering for horses: IV, 283–94: Biddle, III, 626–28. (back)
9. Again (see note 14, chapter 14) it is not possible to tell from the journals (IV, 294–308) how many horses the captains had at any point during the passage of The Dalles and Celilo Falls. Ordway is no help, and neither is Biddle, who omits entirely the exchange of medical treatment for mounts. See also Appleman, 374 n. 130. (back)
10. IV, 304. (back)
11. IV, 321. (back)
12. The march: IV, 318–27. (back)
13. With the Walla Wallas: IV, 328–36. (back)
14. Bakeless, Lewis and Clark, 311. Although the journals do not describe how the men used a canoe for ferrying the horses, this author believes, from experience on other rivers, that the method suggested in the text was the only one that would have worked. (back)
15. Lewis's account of the incident is in IV, 368. Clark's version, copied almost verbatim, is in IV, 361. (back)
16. Chuinard, 363. Coues, 768. Fuller, 44. (back)
17. IV, 358–62, V, 27, 58, 77, etc. (back)
18. V, 20. (back)
19. At Broken Arm's village: V, 17–31; Biddle, III, 660–66; Ordway in Quaife, 355–57. (back)
20. The council and its aftermath: V, 19–24, 78–84; Ronda, 225–27. (back)
21. V, 35, 39, 52. Ronda, 227–28. (back)
22. V, 58, 100, 104, etc. Ordway in Quaife, 357–63. (back)
23. V, 56–100, passim. Chuinard, 370–76. (back)
24. Sweat cures as in 23 above, plus Cutright, Pioneering Naturalists, 293–96. (back)
25. Josephy, 14. Ronda, Montana, the Magazine of Western History V (Summer 1955). (back)
*. The Corps had started from Fort Clatsop with two Indian canoes. They had bought two more to replace the dugout lost in the Upper Cascade. Somewhere, in an unrecorded transaction, they had acquired a fifth. The existence of five canoes is made clear in Lewis's journal entry for April 20. (back)