Lewis & Clark among the Indians 7. Down the Columbia

James P. Ronda© 1984University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London
"Our Situation well calculated to defend our selves from any designs of the natives,
Should they be enclined to attack us."
William Clark, 1805

When Lewis and Clark pulled out of the Nez Perce Clearwater villages in boats in early October, they were moving toward worlds wholly unlike any they had yet experienced. In the next two months the expedition left the mountains and ponderosa pines of the plateau and sailed through the awesome and seemingly desolate Columbia Plain. Navigating hazardous rivers, the Corps of Discovery paddled the Clearwater to the Snake and on at last to the Columbia. Driven to reach the western sea before winter and challenged by treacherous white water, Lewis and Clark had little time to describe the dark-walled canyons and treeless plains around them. But in one memorable passage, Clark tried to capture something of the strange landscape. "The face of the Countrey on both Side of the river above and about the falls," wrote the captain, "is Steep ruged and rockey open and contain but a Small preportion of herbage, no timber a fiew bushes excepted." [1] But below the Cascades of the Columbia the terrain and climate once again changed dramatically. Rain, fog, and dense ground cover all signaled that Lewis and Clark had at last reached a marine environment. They were in territory that received more than sixty inches of rain annually, more than six times the amount that fell on the land they had seen around The Dalles. Days marked by high winds, terrifying storms, monotonous meals of pounded salmon, and a damp that rotted clothing and tents pointed to what lay ahead during the winter at Fort Clatsop. [2]

Moving through climates and landforms striking for their abrupt changes tested the expedition's endurance, as did the Columbia itself. But even more striking were the physical and cultural differences among the Indians down the river and toward the coast. At the confluence of the Snake and the Columbia, Lewis and Clark entered an Indian world increasingly distant from the plains traditions that had been so much a part of expedition-Indian relations since those early days along the Missouri. On the Columbia, salmon was king and fishing the enterprise that gave shape to native life. Large houses with wooden frames, clothing a strange admixture of native and European fashions, graceful canoes with "curious images" at their bows, and practices like head-flattening—all pointed to a native environment dominated by Pacific ways.

To these sights were added the strange clucking sounds of the Chinookan speakers and the smells of tons of stacked salmon drying in warm winds blowing up the Columbia gorge. In flea-infested plank houses or at hastily made camps along the river, Lewis and Clark contended with Indians long accustomed to dealing with English, American, and native traders. The Columbia River Sahaptians and Chinookans could outbargain the sharpest Yankee in dealing for dog meat or precious firewood. In those transactions it was the Indian middleman—whether Wishram or Chinook—who expected to set the price, while outsiders of whatever cultural stripe were to pay or go without. An unfamiliar material culture coupled with hard bargaining methods a bit too close to home hinted that relations with the Indians in the Pacific Northwest were going to be distant at best and troubled at worst.

But much if not all of this was unimagined during the first days of travel beyond Canoe Camp. For nearly a week the expedition struggled with the twists, turns, and rapids of the Clearwater and Snake. As Lewis and Clark neared the Columbia-Snake confluence, they constantly had to deal with dangerous rocks, capsized canoes, and wet gear. Fully occupied in navigating through the many Snake River rapids, the explorers perhaps missed the subtle signs that they were approaching the eastern edge of the great Columbia Plain. One indication they did record was the growing scarcity of firewood. The Indians who lived along the Clearwater and upper Snake very carefully gathered and stacked whatever wood was available. On October 14, at Pinetree Rapids on the Snake some thirty miles below the Palouse River, the Americans were so short of wood that they asked their two Nez Perce guides for permission to take and burn some of the Indians' wood. [3]

If hints of coming changes in land and climate in land and climate were overlooked, it was harder to miss the human clues pointing to a life where salmon replaced buffalo. During the six days before coming to the Columbia, the party passed dozens of fishing villages. Those villages, typically containing four brush lodges, were located about eight to ten miles apart at good fishing runs. In the summer, lodges were built with willows and rushes in a style that may have reminded the explorers of Shoshoni wickiups. Winter lodges made with split pine rails wore a more permanent face. Attracting more of the expedition's attention were the graveyards prominently located in many villages. Unlike scaffold burial places seen on the plains, these cemeteries were marked by picket fences surrounding bodies interred in the earth. [4]

From their Nez Perce guides Lewis and Clark knew that they were quite close to the Snake-Columbia confluence and the territories of Indians having little contact with whites. Thus informed, the captains prepared for what proved to be the first of many meetings with Indians down the Columbia. Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky were sent ahead on October 14 to announce the expedition's advance. Those Sahaptians scouted by the chiefs were known to Lewis and Clark as Sokulks and Chimnapams. The Sokulks proved to be Wanapams who lived on the Columbia above the Snake-Columbia confluence, while the Chimnapams were Yakimas whose villages dotted the great river around present-day Pasco, Washington. [5]

Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky did their advance work skillfully; on October 16 near the Snake-Columbia junction, Clark saw five Indians coming upriver "in great haste." Anxious to make a good first impression, the captains brought out tobacco and smoked with the new arrivals. Each was given additional tobacco to distribute among other Indians. The native party, either Yakimas from nearby villages or visiting Wanapams, eagerly took the tobacco and hurried back to spread the news of an impending great event.

By midday the expedition was at the Snake-Columbia confluence and, as had so often happened on the Upper Missouri, the Americans quickly became objects of intense curiosity. Scores of Yakimas and Wanapams lined the riverbanks to stare in astonishment at the bearded strangers and all their fascinating baggage. Those Indian sightseers bold enough to approach Lewis and Clark were rewarded with small twists of tobacco. As the Indians watched closely, the explorers made camp and waited for official delegations from the river peoples.

Later in the evening, the expedition was treated to a spectacle the likes of which they had not seen since their grand welcome by Cameahwait's Shoshonis . Led by their chief Cutssahnem, two hundred Wanapam men came striding into the American camp singing and beating on small drums. In the firelight the Wanapams formed a half circle and continued to chant a festive greeting. After the obligatory smoke, the captains got down to serious talk with Cutssahnem. But as was so often the case in the Northwest, Lewis and Clark were handicapped by translation difficulties. American intentions were explained in signs to Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky, who then had to be relied upon to present a faithful summary to their fellow Sahaptian speakers. Lewis and Clark wanted the Wanapams and Yakimas to know "our friendly disposition to all nations, and our joy in Seeing those of our friendly Children around us." If the Nez Perce translators failed to get the message across, the explorers knew from long experience that gifts were a powerful declaration of "friendly disposition." For Cutssahnem there was a large medal, a shirt, and a handkerchief. An unnamed "second chief" and a headman from one of the Wanapam villages were given smaller medals. With all parties properly welcomed and in good spirits, the Americans ended the day by purchasing eight fat dogs, some dried salmon, and twenty pounds of dried horsemeat. [6]

The junction of the Snake and the Columbia rivers had long been a favorite place for Yakimas and Wanapams to gather for fishing, trading, and visiting. Lewis and Clark decided to camp for an additional day or two at the junction to repair broken equipment, dry dampened papers, and purchase additional provisions. On the morning of October 17, while Cutssahnem and several of his principal men traded dogs and vocabulary phrases with Lewis, Clark took two men in a small canoe for a short reconnaisance up the Columbia. The mat-lodge fishing villages and drying scaffolds he saw along the banks were of the sort that would be described in the expedition's records for many days to come. At one cluster of lodges, Clark stopped for a closer look. In one house he found a busy crowd of men, women, and children. Seemingly unafraid of their uninvited guest, the Wanapams politely offered Clark a sitting mat and some boiled salmon "on a platter of rushes neetly made." As Clark enjoyed his meal and the good company, he took careful note of his hosts' clothing, manners, and physical characteristics.

Once back at camp, Clark found time to write an extended commentary on the river folk. Following the categories that were now an integral part of expedition ethnography, he described their bodies, dress, and houses. His observations on Wanapam and Yakima clothing and ornament were written with his characteristic eye for detail. What especially captured Clark's attention that day were three barely related but arresting facets of native life. Following directions from Jefferson and Rush that economic relations between males and females be carefully noted, the explorers generally repeated the white wisdom proclaiming Indian women "squaw drudges" to tyrannical husbands. Along the Columbia, the explorers found societies in which the sharing of labor between men and women was much more in evidence. Those societies placed considerable emphasis on age and wisdom. At one mat lodge Clark met a centenarian who sat at the best place in the house, and "when She spoke great attention was paid to what she said." Mat lodges, so unlike Mandan earth lodges or plains tepees, also called for written description. Later in their Columbia voyage, the explorers would see large plank houses and pit dwellings, but from the Snake-Columbia confluence to The Dalles mat lodges were the most common native architecture. Clark noted that the houses measured from fifteen to sixty feet long and were "generally of an oblong sqare form." The whole dwelling was supported by interior poles and forks. Openings along the roof allowed smoke from cooking fires to escape. Quick to see the relationship between house design and climate, Clark noted that flat roofs "proves to me that rains are not common in this open country." Perhaps thinking of the kinds of medical information so eagerly sought by Benjamin Rush, Clark recorded the eye ailments and dental peculiarities present among river people. Looking over his new-found native friends, the explorer pronounced them "of a mild disposition and friendly disposed." [7]

The time taken with Indians at the Snake-Columbia junction was well spent because it allowed for repairing equipment and gathering vital geographic information. From Cutssahnem the explorers obtained a charcoal-on-skin map "of the rivers and Tribes above on the great river and its waters on which he put great numbers of villages of his nation and friends." An unnamed Yakima chief who joined the council on October 18 offered a second map of the same territory and its people. These maps and the numbers of people seen around the confluence made it plain to Lewis and Clark that daily encounters with Indians were to be expected. As the expedition left the junction and began to navigate the Columbia, Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky were sent on ahead again to prepare the way. When the two Nez Perce scouts returned later in the day and found the expedition past the Walla Walla River and ready to camp in present-day Washington, they carried news of chief Yelleppit and the Walla Walla Indians. [8]

Relayed by the Nez Perce guides, the greeting Lewis and Clark got that evening from the Walulas or Walla Wallas and their chief Yelleppit was as enthusiastic as that offered earlier by Cutssahnem and his kin. Yelleppit's message of welcome included an offer of scarce firewood as an additional sign of friendship. Later that night the chief and some twenty of his men came upriver and made camp a short distance from the explorers.

Early the next morning Yelleppit, two other Walula chiefs, and a chief from either a Cayuse or a Umatilla band appeared in camp for a grand council. Yelleppit was an imposing figure, described by Clark as "a bold handsom Indian, with a dignified countenance about 35 years of age, about 5 feet 8 inches high and well perpotioned." Struggling as always with translations, the explorer-diplomats did the best they could with signs to convey their "friendly intentions towards our red children perticelar those who opened their ears to our Councils." Lewis and Clark's words were not recorded, but the Walula chief probably heard the usual diplomatic speech directed to Indians. Presentations of a medal, a handkerchief, some wampum for Yelleppit, and additional strings of wampum for the other chiefs were all part of the expedition's good-will ritual.

Fascinated by the explorers and impressed with their store of goods, Yelleppit asked them to remain a day longer so that all his people could see them. His request betrayed something more than just native curiosity about whites. The chief had his eye on the weapons and goods carried by the explorers. If European objects were already in Walula hands (and no expedition diarist mentioned seeing any such until further downriver) they surely came from other Indian traders. Like the Teton Sioux or Arikaras who hoped to keep the explorers and their goods from moving on, so too did Yelleppit seek to persuade Lewis and Clark to remain a while longer. The chief's search for European goods would continue for years after the captains politely rejected his request. When David Thompson visited Yelleppit in July 1811, the chief made the same kind of request. In addition, Yelleppit wanted Thompson to build a trading house at the Snake-Columbia confluence. [9]

As the expedition continued down the Columbia and neared the mouth of the Umatilla River, Indian reactions began to change dramatically. The welcomes offered by Cutssahnem and Yelleppit vanished and were replaced first by fear and then by ill-concealed hostility. That fear became evident during the afternoon of October 19 as the explorers left Walula territory and entered that occupied by Umatillas. Throughout the afternoon, the men saw hastily abandoned villages and frightened Indians. "At our approach," said Clark, "they hid themselves in their Lodges and not one was to be seen until we passed." Although the expedition's records offer no straightforward explanation for this sudden shift in native attitudes, an event later in that afternoon does suggest how Indians with little or no contact with whites responded to the expedition.

As Clark was walking on shore with a small party that included Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and the Nez Perce guides, he idly shot a crane. Clark thought no more about the incident. A cluster of mat lodges in the distance seemed more worthy of attention. Indians from those lodges were spotted running in terror back to their village. Anxious to quiet the Umatillas' fears, Clark decided to take Drouillard and the Field brothers on a visit. Once at the settlement, they found five mat houses with their doors firmly shut. Pipe in hand, Clark pushed his way into the first lodge and found thirty-two men, women, and children "in the greatest agutation." As the Indians cried, wrung their hands, and lowered their heads in preparation for death, Clark struggled to allay their fears. Handshaking, a proffered pipe, and gifts eventually soothed them. He repeated the performance at the other lodges and, with the help of the Nez Perce chiefs and the presence of Sacagawea, terror passed into what he claimed was "greatest friendship." Then the Umatillas spilled out the reason for their fear. As Clark explained it later to Nicholas Biddle, "The alarm was occasioned by their thinking that we were supernatural and came down from the clouds." The Umatilla perception of Lewis and Clark as sky gods had been sparked by Clark's random killing of the crane. "These shots (having never heard a gun), a few light clouds passing, the fall of the birds and our immediately landing and coming towards them convinced them we were from above." [10]

As the expedition moved closer to Celilo Falls and The Dalles, the Indians continued to show signs of fear and distrust. Perhaps the outsiders were identified with Paiute warriors who frequently raided in the region. For whatever reason, the river people traded warily with Lewis and Clark. Ordway recalled that these Indians acted "as if they were in fear of us." [11]

Noting that edginess, members of the party stayed close to their weapons, but something else increasingly captured their attention. On October 20, Clark saw the first piece of European clothing, a "salors jacket," on a river Indian. Even more trade goods were in evidence when the explorers visited the Upper Memaloose Islands. Known as the "place of the departed," the islands contained many large burial vaults filled not only with human and equestrian remains but with all sorts of trade goods of European manufacture. That those grave offerings were part of native daily life was verified when the explorers stopped at an Indian camp to purchase fish and found "some articles which showed that white people had been here or not far distant during the summer." By the time Lewis and Clark were around the John Day River, non-Indian clothing and implements were everywhere. [12]

Sailors' overalls, brass bracelets, tea kettles, and scarlet blankets all pointed to the presence of a vast trade network centered at The Dalles of the Columbia. Although Lewis and Clark did not yet know it, they were about to encounter that center and cross a fundamental cultural and linguistic boundary. Just as the Middle Missouri trade network and the people involved in it had a profound impact on the expedition, so did the Pacific-Plateau system dominate Indian-explorer relations around The Dalles and down the Columbia. Understanding the Pacific-Plateau economic and cultural network is essential for comprehending the often tangled and tense encounters between river Indians and the American party.

On the broadest level, the Pacific-Plateau system involved exchanging huge quantities of dried salmon for other food and trade goods. What corn and buffalo were to the Missouri villagers, dried fish was to the Wishram and Wasco merchants at The Dalles. Stretching from the Pacific coast to Nez Perce territories and linked to the Middle Missouri system by way of the Shoshoni Rendezvous, the network joined Chinookan and Sahaptian-speaking peoples in an intricate set of personal and economic relationships. Through the trade system flowed not only fish, wappato bread, buffalo robes, and European goods but also games, songs, and stories. Preserving the system met the needs not only of The Dalles middlemen but also their more distant Chinookan and Sahaptian trading partners.

Geography, in the form of a dramatic narrowing of the Columbia at The Dalles and the resulting creation of ideal fishing stations, conspired with weather—warm dry winds blowing up the gorge—to make the Indian villages around the Long and Short Narrows, in Clark's words, "great mart[s] of trade." [13] The Wishram Indians lived on the north bank at The Dalles; the Wascos occupied sites on the south side of the river. Although trading and fishing took place from Celilo Falls down to The Dalles, the most intense bargaining was done at the main Wishram village of Nix-luidix. That village, whose name meant "trading place," was located at the head of the Long Narrows. When Lewis and Clark visited it on October 24, they found some twenty large wooden plank houses. Each plank dwelling held three Wishram families. Asked by the explorers who they were, the Wishrams replied, "i'tcxluit," meaning "I am Ita'xluit." That phrase sounded like Echeloot to American ears; hence the expedition's maps and journals always referred to the Wishrams as Echeloots.

The towering stacks of dried salmon at Nixluidix, estimated by Clark at about ten thousand pounds, pointed up the vast quantities of goods exchanged in the Pacific-Plateau network. Trading took place from spring through fall during the three major salmon runs, with most activity reserved for the fall season. During September and October dried fish and roots were freshly prepared and in abundant supply. To The Dalles trade fair came the nearby Yakimas and Teninos as well as the more distant Umatillas, Walulas, and Nez Perces . Local Sahaptians brought to The Dalles food products, including meat, roots, and berries. At the trading places, the Wishram middlemen exchanged those goods for dried salmon and European cloth and ironware. Distant Sahaptians, especially the Nez Perces who had access to the plains, brought skin clothing, horses, and buffalo meat. Less interested in fish than their Columbia cousins, the Sahaptians of the plateau were drawn to The Dalles in search of European goods, especially metal and beads.

Centered at The Dalles and with one arm stretching east, the Pacific-Plateau system also extended west down the Columbia to the coastal Chinookans. Those Pacific peoples brought to the trade system a variety of European goods obtained from fur traders, as well as indigenous crops. Among the manufactured objects carried by them and eagerly sought by The Dalles merchants were guns, blankets, clothing, and the prized blue beads. Coming upriver in their graceful canoes, the lower Chinookans carried wappato roots to be pounded and made into a bread that even the explorers found tasty. Once at The Dalles, Chinookans obtained dried salmon, buffalo meat, and valuable bear grass used in making cooking baskets and the distinctive Northwest Coast hats.

Lewis and Clark observed and recorded much about the Pacific-Plateau network and the kinds of goods that passed through it, but they arrived too late in the season to witness the full flavor of a rendezvous at The Dalles. Although the smell of dead fish still hung in the air and clouds of fleas hovered everywhere, the real trading days were over by mid-October. The explorers grasped something of the economic significance of The Dalles because they could see physical signs of the trade. The Astorian Alexander Ross, who had extensive Columbia River experience soon after Lewis and Clark, caught the personal side of that trading before it was swept away by the great fur companies. Ross estimated that at peak trading times three thousand Indians gathered at the Wishram villages for bargaining. But Ross also understood that trading was more than a simple act of economic exchange. Here Indians met old friends, made new ones, and heard the latest news. Gambling, socializing, and sporting for the opposite sex were all essential features of the trading days. "The Long Narrows," said Ross, "is the great emporium or mart of the Columbia and the general theatre of gambling and roguery." [14]

Escaping the analysis of Lewis and Clark and later whites was the political significance of upper Chinookan control at The Dalles. In the Middle Missouri system, it was essential for Teton Sioux bands to dominate both the flow of goods up the river and access to crops produced by village farmers. Although Lewis and Clark consistently misconstrued the nature of the relationship between nomads and villagers, they at least sensed that trade and politics were closely joined along the Missouri. The captains were much less aware of the balance of power down the Columbia. Upper Chinookans such as the Skilloots did not have the military power possessed by the Teton bands, but they were willing to resort to force in order to protect their place as middlemen in the trade system. Just how far Indians from The Dalles to the Cascades would go do defend their place in the network would be revealed in 1812 and 1814 when the fur traders Robert Stuart, Alexander Stuart, and James Keith fought pitched battles with the river Indians for passage on the Columbia. Lewis and Clark never drew such a violent response from the river peoples; it is worth recalling that the only real trouble the expedition had while on the river was with the Skilloots, a people very protective of their role as traders. [15]

On October 22 the expedition came to Celilo Falls, the first physical barrier on the Columbia. Long a major salmon-fishing place, the falls area was filled with lodges and fish-drying scaffolds. It was plain from the flood of water over the falls that a portage of the expedition's baggage had to be organized. That portage required native help and soon the explorers enlisted a number of Teninos for that duty. All the hurry to prepare for the portage, as well as the outlandish appearance of the Americans, drew a large crowd of Indian onlookers. Ordway pointedly wrote, "The natives are very troublesome about our camp." The trouble Ordway had in mind was petty theft. Any object laid aside for a moment was bound to vanish. Clark recognized the problem and claimed that when the expedition established secure camps in the Celilo Falls-Dalles area the greatest concern was not Indian arrows but "the protection of our stores from theft." [16]

The issue of theft, which reached peak proportions during the trip along the Columbia between Celilo Falls and the Cascades, troubled the explorers as it would later students of the expedition. Lewis and Clark found it a growing annoyance and eventually a drain on their diminishing supply of trade goods. On the return journey up the Columbia they openly threatened to fire on the thieves. In an unusual outburst of anger and frustration, Lewis struck a Skilloot Indian caught stealing during the return portage through The Dalles. At one point the captains had to restrain some members of the expedition who seemed "well disposed to kill a few of them." [17]

What Lewis and Clark saw as troublesome and potentially dangerous behavior was perceived by the river Indians rather differently. Taking axes, clothing, or rifling through the expedition's luggage probably involved two patterns of behavior not understood by the captains or their men. On one level, river people saw the things they took from the expedition as proper payment for services rendered. As the Indians viewed it, the explorers had more knives and blankets than they could possibly use. What harm could there be in taking a blanket, especially when the whites had so many and the Indians had provided valuable support in portaging around dangerous places in the river? But the issue was more complex. The river peoples had a strong sense of private property. They left stacks of valuable dried fish standing unguarded without thought of loss. In pilfering small objects from the Americans, they sought Lewis and Clarks' acknowledgment of their importance. Taking an axe was done to remind the white men of the need to offer respect and attention to the trading lords of the Columbia. As a recent student of Wishram and Wasco life put it, "Thefts from whites would arise not from fundamental lawlessness or from defining whites as enemies but rather from a temporary dislocation of relations which might be remedied if pressure were applied, for example, through thefts or incidents. These [pressures] would serve to reestablish, not break, relationships." [18] Theft as a means of creating mutually rewarding reciprocal relations was a notion utterly foreign to the explorers. It made far more sense in their world to see river people as crafty traders and cunning thieves.

Throughout the day on October 23, members of the expedition struggled and sweated as they manhandled goods and canoes over the Celilo Falls portage. That difficult task was made even more unpleasant by swarms of fleas infesting the dried grass and by fish skins littering the ground. Tortured by the fleas, many in the party stripped off their skin shirts and breeches in an effort to rid themselves of the biting pests. The portage lasted all day and eventually provided work for a few Indians and entertainment for more who watched the whole undertaking with a mixture of amusement and wonder.

Near the end of the day, the strain of the portage effort was broken by an alarming piece of news. One of the Nez Perce chiefs appeared at the expedition's camp and with signs claimed he had heard from Indians around the falls that "the nation below intended to kill us." When the Sahaptians who had crowded around the Americans all during the day left earlier than usual, Lewis and Clark thought the rumor was confirmed. To prepare for the expected attack, they carefully checked weapons and issued each man a sufficient number of rounds. With a bravado born of unfamiliar surroundings and some real fear, Whitehouse boasted, "We were not afraid of them for we think we can drive three times our number." The arms and ammunition may have reassured men like Whitehouse, but the Nez Perce chiefs remained visibly worried throughout the night. [19]

Although the Teton Sioux and Hidatsa threats against the expedition had some real intention behind them, talk relayed thirdhand about the supposed plans of "the nation below" appears in retrospect to be less reliable. The Indians referred to as "the nation below" were certainly upper Chinookans, perhaps Wishrams or Cascades. Those Indians and their neighbors did show considerable hostility toward fur traders whose activities challenged The Dalles trade fair system. The rumor reveals not so much the planned actions of the Chinookans around The Dalles as the relations between the Nez Perces and the Chinookans. Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky admitted to the captains on October 24 that they feared for their lives if they remained with the expedition once it passed The Dalles. During trading times the Nez Perces and Chinookans maintained the same sort of partnership as did the Mandans and Assiniboins . But for most of the year there was considerably more tension and occasional raiding between the two peoples. The alleged preparations for an attack on Lewis and Clark may have been rumormongering or an effort to justify the desire of the Nez Perce guides to leave the party. [20]

Whatever the cause of the alarm, the expedition's plans for combat did not go unnoticed; as the Americans ventured through the dangerous Short and Long Narrows, Indians approached them with much caution. Some Eneeshur Sahaptians who lived around the Short Narrows watched in amazement as Lewis and Clark sent their canoes and best watermen to shoot the Narrows. As this daring venture in whitewater navigation was unfolding, Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky announced that they were ready to leave the expedition. The Nez Perce interpreters correctly reported that The Dalles was the boundary between Sahaptian and Chinookan speakers. Lewis and Clark recognized that the chiefs could do no interpreting past The Dalles, but because they hoped to effect a peace treaty between the Sahaptians and the Chinookans, they persuaded the chiefs to remain for two more days.

Once safely past the Short Narrows and into Chinookan territory, the expedition made camp near Nixluidix, the principal Wishram village. Attracted by the large plank houses in the town, Clark paid the Wishrams a visit. He was welcomed warmly and invited into one of the houses. Clark's journal entry for the day contains a careful description of the house and details of its construction. But it remained for the practical carpenter Patrick Gass to pronounce Nixluidix as a town filled with "tolerably comfortable houses."

Still bothered by flea bites and short of fuel for their fires, the explorers settled in at their Dalles camp. Later that evening an Indian whom Lewis and Clark vaguely described as "the principal chief from the nation below" presented himself and several of his men at the American camp. It remains unclear who this chief was and what group he represented. Whoever he was, the explorer-diplomats seized on his arrival as an opportunity to promote one more of their intertribal peace schemes. The expedition's records do not reveal the course of the negotiations, but Lewis and Clark clamed they had engineered lasting peace and friendship between the Nez Perces and the Chinookans. That claim had as much validity as did earlier optimistic reports of a Missouri villager alliance against the Teton Sioux. In both cases, Lewis and Clark simply did not understand the nature of tribal and band politics. But none of those unpleasant facts intruded on pleasant illusions. Medals and gifts heightened the illusion of lasting peace, and the evening slipped away to the sounds of dancing and of Pierre Cruzatte's fiddle. [21]

With the hazards of The Dalles behind them, Lewis and Clark continued their sweep down the Columbia. Reassured by the friendly Nixluidix reception and by an apparently successful piece of diplomacy, the explorers did not expect much Indian trouble beyond the now-familiar incidents of theft. But just as the physical and cultural landscape was persistently unsettling, so too did rumors of danger persist. No sooner had the boats gotten through the Long Narrows than the Nez Perce guides again began to talk about threats posed to the Americans by unnamed "nations below." But when Lewis and Clark landed at a Wishram village past the Long Narrows, they found no hostility but only a war chief and a number of warriors on their way to attack Paiute bands. When the Nez Perce chiefs finally left the expedition, each was given a medal. There was no sense of impending trouble as Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky went back upriver. [22]

Without Nez Perce guides and among people whose language was unknown to them, the Americans' safety now depended on the attitudes of the river people. At the same time, much rested on the ability of the captains to restrain a growing belligerence in the ranks directed against the Chinookans. From October 25 to the first days of November, the explorers had almost daily contact with a large number of Chinookans. Those encounters usually involved stopping at villages to purchase dogs and dried fish to replenish the expedition's larder. Because these stops never lasted long and communication was very difficult, pursuit of the usual diplomatic and ethnographic goals proved nearly impossible. Nevertheless, the explorers did manage to distribute medals and gifts to a number of village leaders. Years later, during the complex Anglo-American negotiations surrounding the Oregon Question, those actions of the expedition were used to bolster United States claims to the Northwest. Despite language and time limitations, Clark's journal entries contain an amazing amount of information about the river peoples and their ways. Vivid descriptions of clothing, canoes, house construction, trade, and burial practices can be found in expeditionary records for this period. Lewis even found time to piece together laboriously several Chinookan vocabularies, although how this was accomplished without interpreters remains unclear. Throughout the last days of October and into November, relations between the explorers and the Indians remained peaceful. Accustomed to the presence of European goods and the indirect influence of white traders, most Chinookans were not startled by the Americans. Many enjoyed the fiddle music and dancing. York remained the attraction he had always been. The days contained the usual trials of wilderness travel, but there was little expectation that the Indians on the Columbia would add to the trials.

Once the expedition passed The Dalles, travel was rapid and relations with the river Chinookans were reasonably good. Although theft was an ever present irritation, the expedition's need for food and information made the captains unwilling to make good on the sorts of threats that would surface on the return journey. For their part, the river Indians viewed Lewis and Clark as curiosities and potential trading partners, certainly not as a possible challenge to native domination in the region.

But much of that apparent good will evaporated on November 4 when the expedition encountered a large Skilloot village near the mouth of the Willamette River. The Chinookan-speaking Skilloots occupied both sides of the Columbia between the Washougal and Cowlitz rivers. Lewis and Clark met Skilloot traders all along the river and on the return journey found a Skilloot settlement as far east as The Dalles. During the early days of November, as the explorers entered Skilloot territories—near present-day Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington—they noted an ever increasing stock of European goods. That supply of guns, swords, clothing, and assorted copper and brassware suggested the economic role of the Skilloots. Ranging from the coast to The Dalles, they acted as secondary middlemen along the western arm of the Pacific-Plateau system. [23]

Landing at a large Skilloot village of twenty-five houses, Lewis and Clark were impressed by the many well-armed warriors as well as by the number of canoes drawn up in front of the settlement. Invited into one of the lodges by a Skilloot who had been hired earlier to pilot the expedition over this stretch of river, the captains enjoyed roasted wappato roots and apparent good company. After purchasing four bushels of wappato, Lewis and Clark's party moved several more miles downriver, hoping to locate a suitable place for the noon meal. As the explorers prepared their usual river diet of dried fish, dog meat, and roots, several canoes of Skilloots appeared. Dressed in garb that was a colorful mixture of native dress and European clothing, the Indians seemed bent on a festival or council. Anxious to accommodate them, the captains promptly invited the Skilloots to join them. It would be the last time Lewis and Clark ever allowed such a large number of heavily armed Indians into camp. What the explorers expected would be a friendly meeting soon turned unpleasant. For reasons that may have had something to do with a fear of losing their economic position to unknown newcomers, the Skilloot warriors became "assumeing and disagreeable." Adding injury to insult, one of the Skilloots managed to steal Clark's prized ceremonial pipe tomahawk. As the captains searched the Indians and their canoes, another Skilloot made off with a capote belonging to either Charbonneau or Drouillard. All this confusion and trouble added up to a thoroughly nasty afternoon. The expedition kept to the river for an hour after dark "with a view to get clear of the natives who [were] constantly about us, and troublesom." Now more than ever, the expedition looked upon the people of the Columbia with a wary eye. As the explorers prepared to spend their last weeks on the river, they were in no mood to accept Indians as anything other than necessary trading partners. [24]

For several days after the unhappy Skilloot encounter, the explorers kept up their guard as they floated past Multnomah, Kathlamet, and Wahkiakum villages. As with other river Chinookans, contacts with these villagers were brief and usually for trade in food stores. Now and again there was time for some ethnographic observations, as when Clark wrote an especially detailed description of Wahkiakum houses. But what continued to occupy Lewis and Clark's attention was the sizable number of European objects held by river people. In fact, European influence now went beyond material goods and could be heard in the language. It is not clear when Lewis and Clark first heard the Chinook trade jargon. English words and curse phrases were noted among the Skilloots and their neighbors early in November. The explorers also heard about the English trader, Mr. Haley. And it was on November 7 that William Clark wrote his memorable phrase "Ocian in view O! the joy." Although the ocean proper was not quite yet in view, all attention was now focused on reaching the coast and finding winter quarters as quickly as possible. [25]

Information from the river Indians led Lewis and Clark to believe that there were permanent trade establishments along the coast. Hoping to find traders and locate a suitable place for wintering over, the captains attempted to quicken the pace of travel. Thwarted by the rolling currents of the Columbia and the steadily deteriorating weather, they found themselves stalled at Gray's Point in Gray's Bay. From November 10 to November 15, the expedition camped on the east side of Point Ellice. Those were miserable, wet days that dampened spirits and rotted clothing already in tatters. Clark summed up the misery everyone felt when he wrote, "We are all wet as usual—and our Situation is Truly a disagreeable one; and our selves and party Scattered on floating logs and Such dry Spots as can be found on the hill sides and crivicies of the rocks." [26] Borrowing from native practice, the explorers made hasty shelters from poles and mat. Later those temporary lean-tos gave way to huts made from boards scavenged from an abandoned Chinook village. Getting their first taste of a coastal winter, the whole expedition may well have started to feel nostalgic for the cold but bracing days on the northern plains.

On November 15, after reconnoitering by John Colter and other members of the expedition, the Americans moved down the coast four miles to a sandy beach just below Chinook Point. Here, at an abandoned Chinook village, they spent the next nine days until November 24. With the weather now clearing, they could see Point Adams and Cape Disappointment. There in front of the weary explorers were the rollers of the Pacific—the goal Clark had once described as "this great Pacific Octean which we been so long anxious to see." [27] The days spent at the Chinook Point camp were filled with visits from many neighboring Chinooks and Clatsops. Although the explorers allowed only small numbers of Indians into camp and treated all natives "with great distance," there was a chance to meet Chinook chiefs like Comcomly and Chillarlawil. Besides trade in fish, there were the more personal exchanges between the men in the expedition and the young women offered by Delashelwilt's wife.

The camp at Chinook Point provided a temporary respite from the demands of constant travel. But the need to find a reliable food supply and a sheltered place for winter quarters required the expedition to move once again. The Indians told Lewis and Clark that lands along the south side of the river offered the best game and roots. After taking a vote on November 24, the expedition moved back upriver and crossed over to the south side of the Columbia. Early in December, following a search by a small party under Lewis's command, the site for Fort Clatsop was selected. Surrounded by marshes and towering fir trees, and invaded by a pervasive dampness, the Lewis and Clark expedition prepared to spend a second winter in the land of Jefferson's imagination.

Indian visitors to the rain-soaked camps at Point Ellice and Chinook Point could not have missed the tough talk and threats. The Chinooks, Kathlamets, and Clatsops were repeatedly warned that any false moves would be met with maximum force by the expedition. Sentries were ordered to fire on Indians suspected of theft if it appeared that firearms were being taken. Clark claimed that all these threats and verbal onslaughts produced the desired result. "We find the Indians easy ruled and kept in order by stricter indifference towards them." Symbolic of all that suspicion was the password "no Chinook" already in use by men of the expedition even before the construction of Fort Clatsop. [28]

The ill-concealed tensions between the expedition and coastal Indians was the legacy of experiences and misunderstandings on the journey down the Columbia. After the nasty encounter with the Skilloots, the explorers began to build a negative image of river and coastal peoples that colored relations throughout the winter. That powerful image was a composite of several related attitudes about Pacific Northwest people and their lifeways. A principal element was the perception of Chinookan peoples as incorrigible thieves. The theft of expedition goods and the fear of losing weapons was behind much of the provocative language directed at the Indians. Clark would have found substantial agreement in his ranks when he branded the Chinookans as "thievishly inclined." [29]

But it was more than a belief in their criminality that led the explorers to view their Indian neighbors with suspicion and sometimes open hostility. During the days at Point Ellice and Chinook Point, the expedition often depended on nearby Indians for food. The Chinooks and Clatsops, accustomed to hard bargaining with whites in the sea otter trade, expected to drive equally hard bargains with the hungry explorers. Lewis and Clark clearly resented paying "immoderate prices" for essential foodstuffs. When some Kathlamets came offering roots, skins, and woven mats, "they asked such high prices that we were unable to purchase anything of them." [30] What Indians saw as simply good business and the Yankee law of supply and demand looked quite different to hungry and wet Americans. The Chinookans, so it appeared to Lewis and Clark, were not only thieves but sharp traders bent on gouging the needy. There was no trace of admiration in Lewis's voice when he declared that the Clatsops were "great higlers in trade and if they conceive you anxious to purchase [they] will be a whole day bargaining for a handfull of roots." It did not take many days of fruitless trading for green fish and roots in a pouring rain to convince the explorers that coastal Indians were possessed of an "avarcious all grasping disposition." [31]

To the image of thievish and grasping Indians Lewis and Clark added a third element. They found many Chinookan customs and practices both incomprehensible and reprehensible. Although the expedition always viewed Indian life through the filter of its own Euro-American values, there were native ways, especially on the northern plains, that the explorers found praiseworthy. No such praise was offered to coastal peoples. Lewis and Clark repeatedly described the Chinookans as dirty, poorly clad people who engaged in such barbarous customs as head flattening and ankle binding. Coastal sexual practices also came in for much pointed comment. During the Fort Mandan winter, sexual relations between village women and men in the expedition had been commonplace. Although concerned about the spread of veneral complaints in the ranks, the captains had been muted in their criticism of those Indian women. There was no such reluctance to vilify the coastal women. From the time of the first sexual encounters with Chinook women in November, Lewis and Clark blasted them as promiscuous sellers of their own bodies for trinkets and bits of ribbon. [32]

Finally, and perhaps most important, there was the matter of the physical appearance of coastal Indians. Every culture promotes its own image of an attractive body. The Indians of the northern plains came quite close to the somatic norm held by the explorers. But the Indians Lewis and Clark found on the lower Columbia and on the coast did not fit the Euro-American image. Shorter in stature and possessing facial features quite unlike those of the plains natives, the Chinookans appeared to the explorers as "low and ill-shaped." The fact that these Indians were superb canoe navigators, masterful traders, and skillful fishermen was often overlooked as the expedition stressed what it saw as the negative aspects of a "badly clad and illy made" people. [33]

In many ways, reaching the Great Western Sea was an anticlimax. Certainly all members of the expedition were exhilarated by the sight of the ocean. There was a sense of achievement in knowing that they had passed the tests of a hazardous land. Clark's own enthusiasm emerged when, taking a cue from Alexander Mackenzie, he carved on a big pine tree: "William Clark December 3rd 1805. By land from the U. States in 1804 & 1805." As Clark recalled, his men appeared" much Satisfied with their trip beholding with estonishment the high waves dashing against the rocks & this emence Ocian." [34] But those feelings of excitement and accomplishment were tempered by relations with new neighbors that were already less than cordial. Throughout November, as the explorers suffered in the rain and cold, they were increasingly willing to use threats against the Chinookans. Given their experiences with other river bands and the constant problem of theft, Lewis and Clark surely felt justified in telling the Indians that they would be summarily shot if caught stealing guns or other weapons. Short on provisions and confronted by native traders who demanded high prices for their goods, the explorers felt trapped. Resorting to threats satisfied their desire to be in control of a difficult situation, but it spread fear and suspicion among the very people the Americans needed as winter allies and friends. Hemmed in by an inhospitable climate, an uncertain and monotonous food supply, and a language foreign to all expedition ears, Lewis and Clark faced a winter whose hazards were no less real than they had been at Fort Mandan. Whether their Indian neighbors would exacerbate those dangers was still unknown.


B A E       Bureau of American Ethnology

Field Notes.       Osgood, Ernest, S., ed. The Field Notes of Captain William Clark, 1803–1805. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964.

Gass, Journal.       Gass, Patrick. A Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery. Edited by David McKeehan. 1807. Reprint, with preface by Earle R. Forrest. Minneapolis: Ross and Haines, 1958.

Ordway, Journal.       Quaife, Milo M., ed. The Journals of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Sergeant John Ordway. Madison: Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1916.

Thw.       Thwaites, Reuben G., ed. The Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. 8 vols. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1904–1905.

Whitehouse, Journal.       "The Journal of Private Joseph Whitehouse." In Thw. 7:29–190.


1. Thw. 3:159. (back)
2. Donald W. Meinig, The Great Columbia Plain: A Historical Geography, 1805–1910 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968), pp. 3–20. (back)
3. Thw. 3:113–16. (back)
4. Ibid. 3:109. (back)
5. Verne F. Ray, "Native Villages and Groupings of the Columbia Basin," Pacific Northwest Quarterly 27 (1936):119; Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, Indians of the Pacific Northwest: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981), p. 17; Thw. 3:116. (back)
6. Gass, Journal, p. 181; Ordway, Journal, p. 299; Thw. 3:119–20. (back)
7. Thw. 3:124–27. Photographs of mat houses can be found in Ruby and Brown, Indians of the Pacific Northwest, p. 18. (back)
8. Gass, Journal, p. 182; Thw. 3:128–32; Whitehouse, Journal, p. 175. (back)
9. Thomas R. Garth, "Early Nineteenth Century Tribal Relations in the Columbia Plateau," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 20 (1964):45–48; Glover, ed., Thompson's Narrative, pp. 350–51; Thw. 3:134–35. Because the Walulas were dependent on Cayuse traders for their manufactured goods, it is possible that Yelleppit was searching for a source of supply that would make his people less dependent on the Cayuses. (back)
10. "Biddle Notes," 2:529; Thw. 3:136–37. (back)
11. Ordway, Journal, p. 301; Thw. 3:145. (back)
12. Gass, Journal, p. 183; Thw. 3:138, 140. (back)
13. "Biddle Notes," 2:527. (back)
14. Alexander Ross, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, ed. Milo M. Quaife (1849; reprint, Chicago: The Lakeside Press, 1923), pp. 127–28. (back)
15. Biddle-Coues, History, 2:785–90; "Biddle Notes," 2:499–500; Ross, Adventures on the Oregon, pp. 127–29; Thw. 4:289. For recent studies see David French, "Wasco-Wishram," Spicer, ed., Perspectives in American Indian Culture Change, pp. 343–52; Leslie Spier and Edward Sapir, Wishram Ethnography, University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, vol. 3 (Seattle, 1930), pp. 224–28; Wood, "Contrastive Features," pp. 153–66. (back)
16. Ordway, Journal, p. 302; Thw. 3:148. (back)
17. Ibid. 4:267–69, 302–9. (back)
18. French, "Wasco-Wishram," pp. 352–53. (back)
19. Ordway, Journal, p. 303; Thw. 3:150–51. Whitehouse, Journal, p. 179. (back)
20. Garth, "Tribal Relations," pp. 51–55. (back)
21. Gass, Journal, p. 186; Whitehouse, Journal, p. 180. For additional information on the Nixluidix site, see W. Duncan Strong, Archaeology of the Dalles-Deschutes Region, University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, vol. 29 (Berkeley, 1930), pp. 1–16. Clark's detailed map of Indian villages in The Dalles region is in Thw. 3:158. (back)
22. Gass, Journal, p. 187; Ordway, Journal, p. 304; Thw. 3: 158. (back)
23. Joel V. Berreman, Tribal Distributions in Oregon, Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association, vol. 47 (Menasha, Wisconsin, 1937), p. 16; Thw. 6:117. (back)
24. Ibid. 3:197–98. (back)
25. Ordway, Journal, p. 308; Thw. 3:205, 207. (back)
26. Thw. 3:216. (back)
27. Ibid. 3:210. (back)
28. "Biddle Notes," 2:541; Thw. 3:224–26, 243–44. (back)
29. Ibid. 3:199. (back)
30. Ibid. 3:253. See also 3:186, 244–45, 251. (back)
31. Ibid. 3:311. (back)
32. Ibid. 3:186, 239. (back)
33. Ibid. 3:209, 217. (back)
34. Ibid. 3:234. (back)