Modern history

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Down the Columbia

October 8–December 7, 1805

As the expedition sped down the Clearwater toward its junction with the Snake, Lewis recuperated from his two-week bout with dysentery. On October 9, Clark recorded, “Capt Lewis recovring fast.” Soon he was as active as always. On October 13, the party came to a “verry bad place . . . a long bad rapid in which the water is Confined in a Channel of about 20 yards between rugid rocks for the distance of a mile.” It cried out for portaging, but the captains and the men wanted to get on. They were on the last leg and finally had gravity working for them. So, Clark recorded, “Capt Lewis with two Canoes Set out & passed down the rapid. The others Soon followed and we passed over this bad rapid safe.”

The dugout canoes were cumbersome. They overturned or grounded on rocks. They swamped. They sprung leaks. Supplies were damaged, trade goods lost. Men’s lives were endangered. The captains ran the rapids anyway, as many as fifteen in a day.

Old Toby was so frightened by the running of the rapids that he took off that night, without waiting for his pay. He was last seen running eastward along the riverbank. The captains asked Twisted Hair to send a horseman after Old Toby to ask him to come back to be paid, but Twisted Hair advised against such a course; the Nez Percé, he pointed out, would only take it from him as he passed their camps. Old Toby did pick up two of the expedition’s horses to ride back over the Lolo Trail and then to Cameahwait’s village on the Lemhi.I

On October 10, the expedition reached the Snake River, coming in from the left (south). The party camped that night near the site of present Lewiston, Idaho. The men bought dogs and dried fish from local Indians. “All the Party have greatly the advantage of me,” Clark reported, “in as much as they all relish the flesh of the dogs.” On the 14th, the unhappy Clark shot some ducks and was able to record, “for the first time for three weeks past I had a good dinner of Blue wing Teel.”

The expedition swept on toward the junction of the Snake and the Columbia, passing through the canyon-lined Snake on into present Washington State, where the Great Columbian Plain offered a barren landscape in stark contrast to the wooded mountains the party was leaving behind. Along the way, the expedition passed innumerable Indian villages. The natives were members of the extended Nez Percé nation, by far the largest and most powerful of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest. They had more horses than any tribe on the continent and were the only North American Indians to practice selective breeding. They scorned eating horse flesh; their diet was primarily deer and elk, supplemented by large quantities of fish. The Columbia and Snake River system, on which they lived, produced more salmon than any other river in the world. Their catches were incredible; one man could kill a hundred salmon on a good day, a full ton or more of fish.1

The Indians were hospitable, partly because Twisted Hair and another Nez Percé chief, named Tetoharsky, went ahead of the party to reassure their relatives that the white men were friendly, partly because—in Clark’s words—“the wife of Shabono our interpetr we find reconsiles all the Indians, as to our friendly intentions. a woman with a party of men is a token of peace.”

Lewis was torn between his desire to keep moving and the need to bring the Nez Percé into the American orbit. He was not in American territory. Neither the United States nor Great Britain had established sovereignty over the Pacific Northwest. Both countries wanted it and had some sort of claim, as did the Russians and the Spanish. But Lewis and Clark were the first white men to enter present Idaho, Washington, and Oregon by land. Although they never planted a flag to make a formal claim on the territory for the United States, they acted as if it were already theirs.

Lewis took a vocabulary of the different bands as they were encountered. He found variations in words but correctly concluded that they had a common origin. Twisted Hair could understand them. The Yakimas, Wanapams, Wallawallas, and others all belonged to the same Shahaptian-language family. They practiced a similar economy. They were all rich in dogs as well as horses. Not wanting to waste time sending out hunters, the captains continued to purchase dogs to have some meat to supplement their fish and roots.

To bring the various branches of the Nez Percé into active participation in the American trading system, Lewis practiced his usual Indian diplomacy. Around the campfires on the banks of the rivers, he gave his speech expressing his joy “in Seeing those of our Children around us” and handed out medals with Jefferson’s likeness on them. He urged the Indians to make peace with their neighbors and promised them trade goods, and he began to form in his mind a grand scheme involving the Nez Percé that would cut the British out of the fur trade with the Orient.

But long-term plans for an American takeover could be arranged in the spring, when the expedition could take its time going back upstream, since there was no point arriving on the western base of the Bitterroots before the snow had melted sufficiently to make a crossing practicable. That figured to be June at best, mid-July at worst. So, when Chief Yellept of the Wallawalla band asked Lewis to stay longer so that his people might come to see the white men, the captain excused himself—he wanted to keep moving. He promised instead that the party would spend a few days with Yellept’s people in the spring.

No matter how badly Lewis and Clark wanted good relations with the natives, sometimes they put daily needs first. “We have made it a point at all times not to take any thing belonging to the Indians even their wood,” Clark noted on October 14, but since there was no timber on the island where the party camped that night, “we are Compelled to violate that rule and take a part of the Split timber we find here.” The next night, “we were obliged for the first time [sic] to take the property of the Indians without the consent or approbation of the owner. the night was cold & we made use of a part of those boards and Split logs for fire wood.”

Stealing from the natives was as easy as it was tempting. The captains hated having it done to them, which was beginning to happen with increasing frequency as they made their way west. The articles taken were small, but, because the trade goods were the captains’ capital and diminishing fast, their anger was large.

Still, their spirits were soaring. At night, around the fire, Private Cruzatte brought out his violin, to the delight of the men, who danced to the music, and to the Indian guests, who watched and then did their own dancing. On October 15, Lewis took a walk on the plains about the river and saw in the distance a mountain range that could only be the Cascades.

The next day, the party reached the junction with the Columbia, the first white men to be on the river east of the Cascades. They camped for two days; Clark investigated the Columbia for about ten miles upstream. The men were astonished at the numbers of salmon in the river, mostly dying after the spawn and therefore inedible. The water was so clear that, no matter how deep the river, the bottom was plainly visible.

By now, signs that the Pacific could not be far distant were everywhere. The nearness of the trading emporium at the mouth of the Columbia was apparent from items possessed by the natives, including scarlet-and-blue cloth blankets and a sailor’s jacket. On October 19, Clark climbed a cliff and saw a snow-covered mountain which he deduced “must be one of the mountains laid down by Vancouver, as Seen from the mouth of the Columbia River.” He thought it was Mount St. Helens; actually it was Mount Adams. But his essential point was right. Lewis’s and Clark’s sightings of the Cascades made the first connection, the first transcontinental linking, of what would become the United States.

Lewis had long realized that the Columbia had to have many rapids and some major falls on it as it descended from the Rockies to the Pacific. On October 23, the expedition came to the beginning of a spectacular but dangerous stretch of the river that extended some fifty-five miles. It contained four major barriers (all inundated today by dam reservoirs), beginning with the Celilo, or Great Falls. In one short stretch of violent, roaring cataracts, the river dropped thirty-eight feet through several narrow channels between cliffs as high as three thousand feet.

Today’s Deschutes River came into the Columbia from the left just above the falls. At the mouth of the Deschutes, Lewis and Clark went off in different directions to examine the surrounding countryside and study the falls. Clark got to the falls first, Lewis having delayed on his exploration to examine a root, the wapato, that the natives dug in great quantities in the bottom of the Deschutes. After studying the falls and conferring, the captains decided that only the twenty-foot drop had to be portaged. They were able to hire local Indians and their horses to help portage the heavier articles. At other places, they managed to lower the canoes through the rapids, using strong ropes of elk skin, while packing the baggage on a portage.

Indians gathered on the riverbanks to watch the white men. Their presence was often a blessing. They had dogs and dried fish to sell, they provided information on the state of the river downstream, and they had a technology that the captains could use. Lewis visited a village where he had observed his first Chinookan canoe, made of pine, remarkably light, wide in the middle and tapering at each end, with crosspieces at the gunnels that made the craft surprisingly strong, and skillfully carved animal figures on the bow. Clark wrote that “these Canoes are neeter made than any I have ever Seen and Calculated to ride the waves, and carry emence burthens.” Lewis was able to exchange the expedition’s smallest canoe for one of the Indian craft, after he agreed to throw in a hatchet and a few trinkets.II

As the expedition prepared to make its way through the falls downstream, the captains learned that they would be passing into the country of a people with a different culture and language from any they had previously encountered. They were Chinookan, and the Nez Percé were at war with the Chinooks. On the night of October 23, Twisted Hair said he had heard from his relatives among the local Indians that the Chinookan people living farther down the river intended to kill the Americans when they arrived. The captains examined the rifles and made certain every man had a hundred rounds of ammunition, but that was a daily routine anyway. Clark commented, “as we are at all times & places on our guard, [we] are under no greater apprehention than is common.”

The following day, Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky said they had decided to return home. They explained that the Chinooks would surely kill them if they had a chance; besides, they could not speak the language, so they could no longer serve as interpreters. The captains persuaded the chiefs to stay with them for two more days, until the expedition had gotten below the next falls, which were but two miles downstream, to give the captains an opportunity to bring about a peace between the warring nations.

The next set of falls, called The Dalles, began with the Short Narrows, a quarter-mile-long stretch in which the river was constricted to a mere forty-five yards in width. Clark was appalled by “the horrid appearance of this agitated gut Swelling [water], boiling & whorling in every direction.”

The captains explored the banks. Agreeing that no portage for the heavy canoes was possible over the rocky ledges, they decided to send by land the men who could not swim, carrying the most valuable articles with them, while they and the swimmers ran the fall in the canoes, bringing the heavy and less valuable baggage with them.

In selecting the items to be portaged, the captains showed their priorities. First of all, the journals, field notes, and other papers, including Jefferson’s letter of credit to Lewis, which would become invaluable if they chanced to meet a trading ship at the mouth of the Columbia. Second, the rifles and ammunition (this was taking a chance—for the first time, the bulk of the party would be defenseless in the presence of Indians—but that risk was more acceptable than risking the rifles in the falls). Finally, the scientific instruments.

By the standards of today’s canoeists, this was a Class V rapid, meaning it could not be run even in a modern canoe specially designed for whitewater. The natives, expert canoeists themselves, did not believe Lewis and Clark could do it in their big, heavy dugouts. They gathered by the hundreds along the banks to watch the white men drown themselves, and to be ready to help themselves to the abandoned equipment afterward. But, to the astonishment of the Indians, the Americans made the run without incident.

Below the Short Narrows was a relatively calm three-mile stretch. Along the bank there was an Indian village of wooden houses, the first wooden homes the captains had seen since they left St. Charles seventeen months earlier. There were stacks of dried, pounded fish on scaffolds, at least five tons by the captains’ estimate. The principal chief from the village below paid a visit, which in Clark’s words “afforded a favourable oppertunity of bringing about a Piece and good understanding between this chief and his people and the two Chiefs [Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky] which we have the Satisfaction to Say we have accomplished, as we have every reason to believe, and that those two bands of nations are and will be on the most friendly terms with each other.” That was wishful thinking, and how the captains could have been so sure of themselves and so satisfied is a mystery: neither side could understand a word the other side said, and the sign language of the Plains Indians that Drouillard used was imperfectly understood by the Chinooks.

The next river obstacle was the Long Narrows, where the river narrowed to fifty to a hundred yards for some three miles. As at the Short Narrows, the captains decided to have the nonswimmers portage the most valuable items while they ran the river in the canoes. Again Indians gathered on the banks to await the inevitable disaster; again the canoes made the passage safely.

Below the narrows, where the river widened, the party made camp on a high point of rocks. The captains chose the site because it formed a kind of fortification. Clark explained, “this Situation we Concieve well Calculated for defence.” They called it “Fort Rock Camp” (on the site of today’s city named The Dalles, Oregon). There they stayed for three days to make repairs to the canoes, dry the baggage, and do some hunting. Lewis took the opportunity to make some celestial observations for longitude and compass variation. They had a parting smoke with Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky.

The local Indians were proving troublesome because of their proclivity for petty theft: any object laid aside for a moment vanished. The captains’ greatest concern became not the Indians’ arrows but “the protection of our Stores from thieft.” It got so bad that the men muttered they were “well disposed to kill a few of them.” On at least one occasion, the captains had to restrain the men.2 As Clark pointed out, “it [is] necessary at this time to treat those people verry friendly & ingratiate our Selves with them, to insure us a kind & friendly reception on our return.”

On the night of October 26, two chiefs and fifteen men crossed the river in a canoe, bringing presents of deer meat and cakes of bread made of roots. The captains gave medals to the chiefs, trinkets to the men. Private Cruzatte brought out his violin. York danced for the Indians, to their delight. The hunters had brought in five deer that day, so there was plenty of meat. One of the men gigged a steelhead trout, which he fried in some bear oil given him by one of the Indians. Clark pronounced it “one of the most delicious fish I have ever tasted.” The visiting chiefs spent the night. Altogether, it was a good start for U.S.-Chinookan relations.

As always, Lewis took a vocabulary of the Indians, although how he accomplished it without a translator is unclear. On October 30, the party set out again, to a point two miles above the last great drop, the Cascades of the Columbia (the “Great Shute” to Lewis and Clark), where it made camp in anticipation of a reconnaissance in the morning.

Lewis took a party of five men to visit a nearby Indian town. Along the way, he shot unsuccessfully at a California condor, which he correctly judged to be the largest bird in North America. At the village, he got a friendly reception. The Indians gave him berries, nuts, and fish to eat. But, he told Clark, “he could get nothing from them in the way of Information,” because of the language barrier.

The reconnaissance revealed a section of river some four miles long filled with rapids passing through a series of chutes and falls, “the water passing with great velocity forming & boiling in a most horriable manner.” But beyond the Great Shute the river widened “and had everry appearance of being effected by the tide,” which was great news.

On November 1–2, the party made its way through this final barrier. At times the men had to portage the canoes and the baggage; at other places it was possible to run the canoes through, using elk-skin ropes to lower them. The following day, moving downstream, the party came to Beacon Rock, the beginning of tidewater.

The expedition had entered a much-changed world. The banks were covered with fir, spruce, ash, and alder, contrasting sharply with the treeless semidesert country upstream. Migrating waterfowl were everywhere. Fog was frequent and often thick; many days, the party could not set out until afternoon. Indian villages dotted the banks. Indian visits were frequent. The natives made a poor impression on Lewis and his party, except as canoeists, where their superiority over the white men was obvious and duly acknowledged. Otherwise, they were judged to be “low and ill-shaped . . . badly clad and illy made,” petty thieves and objects of suspicion.

James Ronda points out that one reason for the overwhelmingly negative view the captains and their men had of the Indians near the mouth of the river was that the natives were “accustomed to hard bargaining with whites in the sea otter trade,” and therefore “expected to drive equally hard bargains with the hungry explorers.” Clark’s journal is full of complaints about the inflated prices charged for roots and fish.3

The captains did not look forward to wintering with or near these Indians. They recalled, with nostalgia, the winter with the Mandans. They would have gladly traded the rainy weather for the bitter cold of Fort Mandan, especially if they could also have the honest and friendly Mandans for their winter companions, and buffalo to eat. But it was not to be, and they determined to make the best of their situation.

Their immediate concern was getting to the ocean. Not until that was accomplished could they begin to decide where to spend the winter. On November 2, the expedition passed the mouth of Sandy River, which had been the highest point upriver reached by European or American explorers.III The following day, it reached present Vancouver, Washington, and camped opposite the mouth of the Willamette River (although they did not know it, since the mouth was hidden by an island and they were on the north bank). For the first time since April 1805, the expedition was in country previously explored and mapped by whites. Here the maps from west and from east came together.

The party camped on an island. Lewis borrowed a small canoe from local Indians and with four men took her to a lake on the island, where they enjoyed an after-dark hunt. The lake was teeming with swans, brants, geese, and ducks. Lewis’s party killed three swans, eight brants, and five ducks.

On the night of November 4, several canoe-loads of Indians from the village upstream came down for a visit. They were colorful, with scarlet-and-blue blankets, sailor’s jackets, shirts, and hats, and apparently friendly. But they also brought along a show of weaponry that included war axes, spears, bows at the ready, quivers of arrows at their sides, some muskets and pistols.

map

Lewis’s sketch of three canoes and a paddle, in his journal. (Courtesy American Philosophical Society)

It was a situation fraught with danger. Two groups of armed young men, from different cultures, unable to communicate with words, facing each other. The captains were up to the challenge. Even though “Those fellows we found assumeing and disagreeable,” Clark wrote, “we Smoked with them and treated them with every attention & friendship.”

But the atmosphere changed when Clark discovered that one of those fellows had “Stold my pipe Tomahawk which They were Smoking with.” Though Clark searched every man and the Indians’ canoes, he could not find his pipe. To add to the injury, while the search was being carried out, an Indian stole Drouillard’s capote (a long blanket coat, hooded, made of heavy wool, long popular in the Canadian fur trade). More angry words, and another search. The capote was found, but not the pipe.

The captains showed their contempt and outrage, or, as Clark so nicely put it, “we became much displeased with those fellows, which they discovered and moved off.”

At this time, the expedition was making better than thirty miles a day down the lower Columbia. On November 5, it met the first coastal canoes, a flotilla of four of different sizes. The largest had a bear’s image carved into the bow and a man’s image on the stern. The design so impressed Clark that he did a sketch of the craft. On the 6th, another flotilla came out from a village, bringing roots, trout, and furs for sale at bargain prices. Clark bought two beaver skins for five small fishhooks. The Indians said there was a white man living below, with whom they traded. Encouraging news, and a good day.

But that night, the campground was scarcely sufficient. The men had to move large stones to make a place among the smaller stones where they could lie down on the level. All was wet and disagreeable.

In the morning, fog. As it slowly lifted, the expedition set off. By midafternoon, the sky was clear.

A shout went up. In his field notes, William Clark scribbled his immortal line, “Ocian in view! O! the joy.”

The men dug in, putting everything they had into the race to the ocean. The canoes sped along; they made thirty-four miles that day. Once again, the campsite was barely sufficient to lie on and composed of small stones. It was raining. Despite the conditions, Clark wrote, “Great joy in camp we are in view of the Ocian, this great Pacific Octean which we been So long anxious to See.” They could distinctly hear waves breaking on rocks.

Without comment (but there must have been some pride in it), Clark added up the miles since the first falls (Celilo, 190 miles upriver). Then he wrote, “Ocian 4142 Miles from the Mouth of Missouri R.”

There was no celebration: it was raining too hard for Cruzatte to bring out his violin. But in their ragged, all-but-rotten clothes, and under their good-for-nothing covers, each man’s heart must have been warm with satisfaction, each man’s mind soaring with a sense of triumph.

One longs for Lewis’s emotional reaction to the triumph of crossing the continent. He had been at it for two and a half years, ever since he left Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1803. One supposes that he shared that “Great Joy in camp” that Clark wrote of, but he never expressed it himself. He had not written in his journal since meeting the Nez Percé in September, and with minor exceptions would not again until the New Year.

For the biographer, Lewis’s silence is a frustrating and tantalizing mystery. It was not that he didn’t have time, or example—every day he saw Clark writing in his journal. Yet he did not lift his quill.

Except for his severe illness when he first met the Nez Percé, Lewis had been active, coping successfully with the various challenges the party had to face. There is no hint in Clark’s journal, or in the journals of the enlisted men, that he was depressed, downcast, muttering to himself, or otherwise showing symptoms of the melancholia Jefferson had observed in Lewis’s father and in Lewis when they lived together in the President’s House.

He was in a world filled with people, bays, weather, flora and fauna all new to him, a situation that usually sent his quill flying over the pages, but he did not write.

Was he depressed? Not so depressed as to neglect his duties, but enough to keep him from taking quill in hand to set down the day’s events? If so, what caused the depression?

With manic-depressives, there is no agreement as to the cause of the disorder—whether biological or psychological—or what triggers either a manic or a depressed state. In many if not most cases, a wave of euphoria, a surge of energy, and a feeling that “I can do anything” just comes on, followed by a wave of nausea, a draining of energy, and a feeling that “I can’t do anything.” How long each state lasts depends on the individual—weeks, months, years.

In many cases, patients in a depressed state are almost incapable of acting. They have no energy, no sense of self-worth. They feel that nothing they do will matter to anyone.

Lewis would come to such a point, but he certainly didn’t feel that way in the fall of 1805—he knew the importance of what he was doing, and he had the willpower to summon up the energy to operate at peak efficiency. Jefferson later commented that he thought Lewis’s voyage helped him ward off depression. There is nothing like daily decision-making to get the brain functioning and the body moving. From personal experience, Jefferson knew what he was talking about.

But writing was another matter. Lewis couldn’t summon the energy to be reflective.

Of course, he had some real problems, of which the most distasteful was having to inform Jefferson that there was no all-water route or anything remotely like it across the continent, a fact reinforced by those terrible falls on the Columbia. Did the prospect of having to cross the Bitterroots again weigh on his mind?

His worries were many. He feared that the expedition would not be able to rely on its rifles for subsistence until it got back to the Great Plains and the buffalo herds. He feared that the dwindling supply of trade goods was insufficient to purchase provisions in the quantity needed. Despite having reached the ocean, the expedition would not be a success unless and until the captains got their journals back to civilization.

Was the triumph of reaching the ocean only a reminder of how much remained to be done, and how little he had to do it with? Did he doubt that it could be done?

It cannot be that he was simply too tired. He had too often demonstrated an ability to forget his aching muscles and his nearly overwhelming need to sleep in order to describe the day’s activities and discoveries. It cannot be that he felt he had nothing to say beyond what Clark had written, for he often went on side explorations and saw what Clark did not. It cannot be that he regarded his journal as unimportant: he took too good care of it at all times for that to be the case.

Yet he was a professional soldier ignoring direct orders from his commander-in-chief. There must be an explanation—but we can only guess.

My guess is that he was a manic-depressive. The disorder ran in his family. If this is true, then it was his special triumph that he seldom let his emotional state take over, and then only momentarily. Whether he was high or low, his emotional state played no role in daily decision-making for two and a half years.

Whatever Lewis’s emotional state, it was strongly affected by his drinking habits.

It had been a long time since Meriwether Lewis had had a drink. And the certainty was that it would be a long time before he had another.

He had been a hard-drinking youth. In St. Louis during the winter of 1803–4, he attended a good many balls and private parties, where it seems likely he indulged in pretty heavy drinking. It went with the territory; frontier officers and traders drank a lot of whiskey.

For the first year of the expedition, Lewis had limited himself to the same ration of whiskey the men received, hardly enough to sustain a serious alcoholic, but enough to keep a habit, perhaps even a need, alive. On July 5, 1805, he had been forced to quit cold turkey. No one can say what, if any, effect Lewis’s abstinence had on his mood.

Whatever the reason, the scene that so moved Clark, who gave us such a memorable phrase as he let his emotions burst forth, was not described by Lewis.

It is through Lewis’s eyes and words that we see the White Cliffs, the Great Falls before the dams, the Gates of the Mountains, Three Forks, the Shoshones. Wonderful portraits, all. Vivid. Immediate. Detailed. They set the standard.

But we don’t have his description of what he saw and how he felt in this moment of triumph.

Clark had been a bit premature: what he had seen was the Columbian estuary, not the ocean. Actually, they were too close to the ocean for their own good anyway. For the next week and more, they were pinned down by the tide, the waves, the wind, at Point Ellice. They were unable to go forward, to retreat, to climb out of their campsite because of the overhanging rocks and hills, to do anything except endure pure misery. It rained for eleven days. At high tide, gigantic waterborne trees of cedar, fir, and spruce, some of them almost two hundred feet long and up to seven feet in diameter, crashed into the camp. Fires were hard to start, difficult to maintain.

The captains and men of the expedition looked more like survivors from a shipwreck praying for rescue than the triumphant members of the Corps of Discovery. For a while, spirits remained high: “For Several days past,” Clark wrote on the 9th, “not withstanding the disagreeable time of the Party, they are all Chearfull.”

But it didn’t last. Never one to suffer silently, Clark wrote on November 12, “It would be distressing to a feeling person to See our Situation at this time all wet and cold with our bedding &c. also wet, in a Cove Scercely large enough to Contain us . . . canoes at the mercy of the waves & driftwood . . . robes & leather Clothes are rotten.”

November 22: “The wind increased to a Storm . . . blew with violence throwing the water of the river with emence waves out of its banks almost over whelming us in water, O! how horriable is the day.”

November 27: “The wind blew with Such violence that I expected every moment to See trees taken up by the roots, Some were . . . ! O how Tremendious is the day.”

Since May 1804, the expedition had stopped only for winter or because the captains decided to take a couple of days’ rest. They hated being immobilized by a force they could not fight. They had to be rescued by Clatsop Indians, the Chinookan people living on the south bank of the estuary, who were able to cross the estuary easily in their coastal canoes, in conditions that absolutely defeated every effort the Americans made to get out of their bad spot.IV The Clatsops saved them by selling roots and fish.

On November 13, the desperate captains sent Privates Colter, Willard, and Shannon in the Indian canoe, which rode the swells better, to explore the shoreline beyond Point Ellice to see if a better campsite could be found. The next day, Colter returned, by land, to report that there was a sandy beach in the bay beyond the point, and a way inland from it, and game in the area. The captains agreed that Lewis would lead an advance party to the site while Clark arranged to move the entire camp as soon as the weather permitted.

The following afternoon, Lewis took advantage of a head-on wind to have five men take himself, Drouillard, and three privates around the point. The paddlers put Lewis and his party ashore on the beach and returned to the main camp, their canoe nearly swamped by the following waves breaking over it.

Finally, the impatient Lewis could do some exploring at the mouth of the river. He had a specific and immediate goal: he wanted to see if there really were some white men living on the coast. If so, and he could find their trading post, he figured to be able to use Jefferson’s letter of credit to provide the expedition with ample trading goods for the return trip, and start a copy of the journals to Washington via a visiting sea captain. And of course he wanted to see the ocean.

When he set out in the morning, he found Privates Shannon and Willard in a precarious position. After separating from Colter, they had gone hunting and exploring. They had spent the night with five Chinooks, members of the tribe living on the north bank. While they slept, the Indians stole their rifles. In the morning, discovering the theft, they informed the Indians with crude but emphatic signs that a larger party of white men was about to join them and would surely shoot the thieves.

At that moment, Lewis and his small party appeared on the scene. His presence, and perhaps some threatening motions, convinced the thieves to repent. They handed back the rifles.

Lewis sent Shannon back to the sandy beach, which he correctly surmised Clark would have reached by now. The chastised Indians went with Shannon, virtual prisoners. When Clark heard Shannon’s story, he exploded. “I told those Indians . . . they Should not Come near us, and if any one of their nation Stold anything from us, I would have him Shot, which they understoot verry well . . . and if any of their womin or bad boys took any thing to return it imediately and Chastise them for it.”

Lewis, meanwhile, continued his exploration, rounding Cape Disappointment and going up the coastline for several miles. No trading post, no ship. He kept no journal. But he did carve his name into a tree at the extremity of Cape Disappointment with a certain sense of pride—enough, anyway, to tell Captain Clark later that he had recorded his presence.

At 1:30 p.m. on November 17, Lewis joined Clark at the camp on the sandy beach that the party would occupy for the next week (in present-day Fort Canby State Park, near McKenzie Head). It was a much-superior campsite, and the hunters could get out and bring in some meat.

On November 18, it was Clark’s turn to ramble. He set out with York and ten men on a reconnaissance to Cape Disappointment, where he found Lewis’s name carved in the tree. Together with the men, Clark followed Lewis’s example but greatly improved on it by adding to his name and the date the magnificent line: “By Land from the U. States in 1804 & 1805.”

On his return from his reconnaissance, Clark found Lewis with a group of Chinooks, including two chiefs. They all sat for a smoke. The captains handed medals and an American flag to the chiefs. Some trading was done.

One of the chiefs had on a robe made of sea-otter skins that Clark declared “more butifull than any fur I had ever Seen.” Lewis agreed. In his turn, each captain tried to strike a bargain for the robe, offering different articles.

No, said the chief. He pointed at Sacagawea’s belt of blue beads, the most highly prized beads of all. The captains looked at her, questioningly. She made it clear that if she had to turn over the belt she wanted something in return. One of the captains brought her a coat of blue cloth, and she handed over the belt. Clark’s journal fails to say who ended up with the fur coat, but it surely wasn’t Sacagawea.

The next day, an old Chinook woman appeared with six of her daughters and nieces in tow. She was selling their favors. Clark remarked, “Those people appear to view Sensuality as a Necessary evile. . . . The young females are fond of the attention of our men.”

At this, their westernmost campsite, the captains again felt the urge to mark their presence. Lewis used his branding iron to mark a tree; Clark and all the men carved their names into the surrounding trees.

Meanwhile, the word had gotten out among the Clatsops that the captains would pay almost any price for sea-otter furs. That night, a group came over the estuary with two robes to sell. The captains wanted them, but the price was too high. Clark was astonished when one owner turned down the offer of a watch, a handkerchief, a bunch of red beads, and a dollar in American coin. The Indians wanted blue beads, and the captains were all but out of them. Still, the captains found they liked the Clatsops much better than their relatives the Chinooks, mainly because the Clatsops were not thieves.

That became a factor in the decision that now had to be made: where to spend the winter. The obvious requirements were good water, plenty of game, and some shelter. They had three choices: to stay where they were, to cross to the south bank to see if there was a better site there, or to go back upstream to the falls.

The Clatsops informed them that elk were plentiful on the south side. The captains were certain that their supply of beads and trinkets was so inadequate, and the Chinooks’ prices were so high, that they could not get through the winter buying their food. They needed a continuing source of meat.

Lewis said that upriver the winter would be more severe, and this location would not really help them get started on the homeward voyage. They would have to wait for the snow to melt in the Bitterroots anyway, so there was plenty of time to go back up the Columbia-Snake in the spring. He wanted to get closer to the ocean, which was easier done on the south side, so that he could put men to making salt from the seawater. He and all the men craved salt.

Not Clark. He heartily disapproved, writing that he was indifferent to whether or not he had salt; anyway, “Salt water I view as an evil in as much as it is not helthy.”

Lewis had a better reason than his taste buds for wanting to stay near the coast. There was at least a good chance that a trading vessel would arrive during the winter; if one did, it would solve major supply problems. Clark agreed. He also pointed out that, with elk more abundant on the south shore and deer on the north, the choice was easy: elk were bigger and easier to kill, and their skins were better for clothing.

So the captains made up their own minds, but on this occasion they decided to let everyone participate in the decision. They put it to a vote. They never explained why. Perhaps they felt that, since they were all going to be in this together, they should all have a say; maybe they just wanted to involve everyone so that none would have a right to complain.

The choices were to stay, to proceed to the falls, or to cross to and examine the other side before deciding. Naturally, the third alternative won, overwhelmingly—only Private John Shields voted against it. If the sites on the south side were unsatisfactory, about half the voters wanted to go up to the falls, half to stay at the mouth. York’s vote was counted and recorded. Using Sacagawea’s nickname, Clark noted, “Janey in favour of a place where there is plenty of Potas.”V

This was the first vote ever held in the Pacific Northwest. It was the first time in American history that a black slave had voted, the first time a woman had voted.

On November 26, after going upriver for two days to find a shorter crossing, the party crossed to the south shore. They camped on the east bank of the John Day River, and were again pinned down by bad weather. By the 29th, Lewis had had enough. He told Clark he would take their Indian canoe and round Tongue Point to examine the country where the Clatsops said there were elk. He hand-picked the men he wanted with him—Drouillard, of course, along with Privates Reubin Field, Shannon, Colter, and Labiche.

They set out early in the morning, got around the point, and made camp that night near the site of present-day Astoria, Oregon. Lewis sent out the hunters. They returned with four deer and some geese and ducks, a haul as encouraging as it was welcome. Lewis made a short journal entry, providing a bare outline of his activities, as he would do the next two days as well. Clark wrote on the last page of Lewis’s writings, “Capt. Lewis rough notes when he left Capt. Clark near the mouth of Columbia for a few days to examine the S.W. side.”4

Lewis set out at sunrise to explore Youngs Bay (so named by Lieutenant Broughton of Vancouver’s expedition). Finding nothing satisfactory at the outlet of Youngs River, he went up today’s Lewis and Clark River about a mile, and was discouraged. Lewis returned to the bay, hoping to find some Clatsops, “who have tantilized us with there being much game in their neighbourhood,” to ask them where that game was. All about him, they might have answered—there were great numbers of brants, geese, sandhill cranes, and blue herons, and a large variety and immense number of ducks in the bay. But of course Lewis wanted elk. In his field notes that night, he recorded botanical data.

Over the next couple of days, he explored, this time going farther up the Lewis and Clark River, where he found his spot. He told Clark it was on a small bluff rising some thirty feet higher than the high-tide mark, some two hundred feet back from the river, and about three miles up from its mouth. It was near a spring, and there were plenty of big trees that could be used to make shelter and a fort. It was but a few miles to the open ocean, where salt could be made. Best of all, it promised good hunting: Drouillard and another hunter had killed six elk and five deer.

Clark reported that “this was verry Satisfactory information to all the party.” The expedition made ready to move to its winter quarters as soon as the wind would allow it to round the point to get into the bay and then up the river. On December 6 the wind was too high, but the following morning Lewis guided the expedition to the site of what the captains would call Fort Clatsop. Clark took one look and pronounced it a “most eligable Situation.”


I. With that he rode out of history, but he will never be forgotten as the man who guided the Corps of Discovery over the Bitterroot Mountains.

II. On January 11, 1806, Lewis described the canoe: “she is so light that four men can carry heer on their sholders a mile or more without resting; and will carry three men and from 12 to 15 hundred lbs.”

III. Lieutenant William Broughton of George Vancouver’s 1792 expedition had gone this far up the Columbia.

IV. “Certain it is they are the best canoe navigators I ever Saw,” Clark wrote.

V. Apparently she meant roots.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!