In the spring of 1803, a trading ship hunting for sea-otter pelts sailed into Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Resentful of several years of mistreatment by white traders, the Indians massacred all the crew except the ship's twenty-year-old, English-born armorer (blacksmith) John Jewitt, and the sailmaker, John Thompson. Those two languished as prisoners until rescued on July 19, 1805, by Captain Samuel Hill of the brig Lydia, out of Boston. The salvation was effected without bloodshed, and on departing for further trading operations along the Northwest Coast, Captain Hill said he would return to Nootka within a few months to pick up whatever pelts the Indians gathered during his absence.
Throughout his captivity, young John Jewitt kept a secret diary, using berry juice as ink. His entries, however, ceased with his rescue, and thereby hangs our tale. On finally reaching Boston by way of China late in the spring of 1807, Jewitt made arrangements for a printer to issue A Journal Kept at Nootka Sound . It was dull—terse because of necessity and vapid because the ill-educated sailor had "small capacity as a narrator," to borrow the words of Richard Alsop of Hartford, Connecticut, a rich merchant with literary ambitions. Alsop plucked the needed drama out of Jewitt bit by bit. Using Robinson Crusoe as a model, he then published in 1815 a Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt. Although the style is turgid and the tone elevated, the Narrative kept being reprinted until as late as 1975 (Robert F. Heizer, editor, Narrative of ... John R. Jewitt [taken from the edition of 1820], published by the Bellona Press of Ramona, California). During those many decades it has become a standard item of students of the Lewis and Clark expedition for the following reasons.
As stated, Jewitt left off his diary with his rescue. His story was blood, thunder, and life with the Indians. English-born, he cared next to nothing about Lewis and Clark. Alsop, however, wanted to get his hero home to his loved ones. So he continued pumping Jewitt about the last stages of the story and in the process learned that during the course of sailing tediously back and forth along the coast, the Lydia had crept about ten miles into the Columbia estuary in search of a convenient stand of timber from which to cut a new mast and spars. While the traders were there, visiting Indians showed the mariners medals given them by Lewis and Clark, who, they said had arrived by land with a small party and then, only a fortnight earlier, had started home, again by land.
Alsop pounced. Lewis and Clark would certainly interest American readers, for in this year of 1814, when Alsop was interviewing Jewitt, Nicholas Biddle and Paul Allen had finally published their official History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, to the Sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean ... during the Years 1804–5–6. We can imagine Alsop digging away: how about some details? And we can imagine Jewitt shrugging. All that boring search for pelts from one foggy anchorage to the next—no blood and thunder in that. There were no details.
Well, then, when had the encounter with the Columbia River Indians taken place? Jewitt looked back across eight or nine years at the blur. No diary to refresh his memory. Another shrug. Maybe it had been in November, shortly before the Lydia had returned to Nootka, as promised, for more pelts. At least he thought the brig went back to Nootka in November.
And then? Again we can picture a shrug. Nothing much—more wandering along the coast—a pelt here, a pelt there—until mid-August, 1806, when Hill at last struck across the Pacific for Macao, China. He paused there to swap his furs for Oriental goods in demand in Boston. During the layover, Jewitt sent a letter to his mother by an earlier ship to let her know he was still alive—a small point for us to remember later.
Bridging the gap between Jewitt's rescue and his homecoming filled roughly two pages of Alsop's 160-page Narrative. Of those two pages two sentences were devoted to the encounter with the Indians who had the medals Lewis and Clark had given them—throwaway lines as far as Jewitt was concerned. But to American students of the expedition they were exciting. November! Why, from November 8 or so to the 25th, the explorers had been camping at various spots along the north side of the Columbia estuary, the same side where the Lydia had anchored. On the 25th the Americans had moved to the south side, where some of them had stayed until early December before going a couple of miles inland to build Fort Clatsop. How ironic! How dramatic! The Corps had been desperate for the kind of supplies the Lydia carried. They were eager to send specimens and reports to the president. And the ship had been there! Yet they had not seen it. They had not heard a word about it from the Indians. And the Lydia had learned nothing of them until after the whites had gone inland to settle at Fort Clatsop—a move the Indians represented as a departure for the East. How amazing!
Amazing is right. This blind leap at an offhand remark by Alsop/Jewitt put the historians who made the jump in an untenable position. (I admit to being one of them—Lavender, Land of Giants, New York: Doubleday, 1958, pp. 73–74—until I examined the entire context of the Jewitt Narrative.) While it is barely possible, given the state of the weather, that the Americans did not see the brig, it is inconceivable that the small parties of Indians who stopped by their camps every day to gossip and sell food and furs did not mention the ship—if it was in the vicinity. Some historians evade the issue, saying the Indians' silence was an enigma. Others have cooked up a conspiracy theory. The Chinooks from the many different bands, they say, had agreed to seal their lips as a way of taking revenge on the whites because Clark had threatened to shoot them for stealing from the Corps. Well, possibly they stayed silent while the explorers might still have reached the Lydia. But what about the nearly four months that followed? Several Chinooks visited Fort Clatsop during the period. Did none boast of the feat in order to watch the whites squirm? Members of other tribes, Clatsops and Cathlamets, also floated in and out. None mentioned the Lydia, ever. Such an unbroken veil of secrecy among the gossippy, far-traveling, curious Indians—remember how fast the news of the beached whales spread—passes credulity.
Conspiracy is a favorite refuge for those unwilling to face simple, direct explanations. Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy entirely on his own? No, no. There had to be conspirators in the background. Similar reasoning holds that all the Indians living around the Columbia delta agreed to stay silent about the Lydia in order to—well, discomfit Lewis and Clark, who actually would have traded eagerly with them for supplies, if they had been able to get the necessary goods from the ship. To suppose the shrewd-bargaining Indians did not realize this is to suppose they wanted to do themselves out of business for the sake of a small revenge.
There is a simpler explanation. From Meriwether Lewis's journal we know that shortly before the Corps left Fort Clatsop on March 23, 1806, Clark and he gave to several Indians a written notice of their crossing, together with a rough map of their route and a list of the expedition's personnel. They asked the recipients of these documents, some of whom had medals as well, to pass the papers along to the first trading ships that showed up. Their hope was to let Jefferson know as soon as possible that they had indeed reached the Pacific; after all, they might not get back, and history should be aware of their feat. Then off they went. Shortly thereafter, in April, the Lydia definitely did enter the estuary. Indians thronged around, and one of them gave Captain Hill one of the documents. He carried it to China, where he arrived in December 1806. Knowing he would be delayed there by his mercantile enterprises, he handed the papers to another ship captain for delivery. Almost surely the paper traveled to New England aboard the same ship that carried Jewitt's letter to his mother. And that indeed is irony, because the rescued blacksmith could have straightened out the matter then and there by mentioning the Lewis and Clark documents. But Lewis and Clark were nothing to him—so little, in fact, that when Alsop probed for details, Jewitt probably got his dates mixed up. He said that after cutting spars in the estuary, the Lydia had returned to Nootka, arriving there late in November. It is more likely, however, that the Lydia had gone to Nootka in April, after the Lewis and Clark papers had fallen into Hill's hands. It was an easy mistake to make, considering all the beating back and forth along the coast the ship had done during those winter months.
Of course it is possible that the Lydia also went to Nootka in November, after pausing in the estuary shortly before Lewis and Clark arrived there. Such a pause would account for the frequent mentions of a ship in the delta that the Americans heard as they descended the river, only to be greeted by empty water when they arrived. But whether or not the Lydia bracketed the explorers' months in the area or simply arrived in April, the main point is that there was no ship there during the Americans' stay. The matter would hardly merit mention if the legend weren't still being delivered to wide-eyed tourists in the Northwest as another item of great drama in real life.