Modern history


Lewis as Ethnographer: The Clasops and the Chinooks

Important as Lewis’s biological and Clark’s geographical work at Fort Clatsop was, Lewis’s ethnological studies were even more valuable, because the plants and animals and the rivers and mountains they described in such painstaking detail are, mostly, still with us, but the coastal Indians are not. Badly depleted by two smallpox epidemics in the decades before Lewis and Clark arrived, the Clatsops and Chinooks and their relatives were decimated by an epidemic of malaria in 1825–26. The handful of survivors mingled with whites and lost much of their culture. Within a generation of the winter of 1805–6, the once-flourishing Chinookan family had almost ceased to exist. Lewis gave the world the first and by far the fullest description of this tribe.1

He did his ethnology on a daily basis, using his ears, eyes, and tongue. He made a vocabulary. He described what he saw. And he spent hours interviewing Clatsops and Chinooks about their way of life.

The conversations were difficult. The sign language of the Plains Indians was inadequate on the Pacific Coast, the Americans learned few Chinookan words, and the natives had only some bits and pieces of English. Lewis recorded on January 9, 1806, that they used such words as “musquit, powder, shot, nife, file, damned rascal, sun of a bitch &c.” That wasn’t much. There was no Chinookan Sacagawea to translate for him.

Under the circumstances Lewis did his best, and although he complained about his inability to get into depth on such subjects as religion or politics, his portrait of the coastal Indians was rich and fascinating, if not complete.

They were unlike any Indians that Americans (other than sea captains and their crews) had ever encountered. They were “a mild inoffensive people,” Lewis wrote on January 4, in his first set of observations, “but will pilfer.” They were “great higlers in trade,” a consequence of their regular contact with trading vessels. But if a buyer walked away from an Indian seller, the Indian would be back the next day with a much-reduced price. And sometimes they would sell a valuable article “for a bauble which pleases their fancy.”

Lewis did not at all approve of these practices, but he had to endure them while trying to profit from them. In his view, the cause was “an avaricious all grasping disposition” (January 6). But there were redeeming features. Also on January 6, Lewis described the Indians as “very loquacious and inquisitive; they possess good memories and have repeated to us the names [of the] captains of the vessels &c of many traders.” That was potentially useful information for the captains, who made a list of the ships and their skippers who traded regularly at the mouth of the Columbia.I

Physically Lewis found the natives “generally low in stature, proportionably small . . . and much more illy formed than the Indians of the Missouri.” They had “thick broad flat feet, thick ankles, crooked legs wide mouths thick lips nose moderately large, fleshey, wide at the extremity with large nostrils, black eyes and black coarse hair” (March 19). They bound their women’s ankles, to produce swollen legs, a mark of beauty with them. They squatted rather then sat, which helped swell the legs. They practiced head-flattening by compressing the infant’s head between two boards.

They were always barefoot, and women as well as men covered themselves only from the waist up, for the good reason—as Lewis took care to note—that they lived in a damp but mild climate and were in and out of their canoes in waist-deep water much of the time. Lewis remarked that he could do a visual examination for venereal disease on every man who came to the fort. He described their cloaks, furs, hats, and ornaments in considerable detail, then rendered his final, scathing judgment: “I think the most disgusting sight I have ever beheld is these dirty naked wenches” (March 19).

Disconcerting as it was to a Virginia gentleman to have fully exposed men and women squatting in front of him, Lewis was able to overcome his disgust and point out various positive attributes of the Clatsops and Chinooks. They built solid wood houses, twenty feet wide and up to sixty feet in length, divided into rooms where extended families lived. They had a fire in the center, slept on boards raised from the ground, and dried their fish and meat in the smoke. They had wooden bowls and spoons for eating, and woven baskets to store food.

Their bows were short, only two and a half feet, but “extreamly neat and very elastic.” They were good for small game and fish, but not very effective with elk. “Maney of the Elk we have killed since we have been here,” Lewis noted on January 15, “have been wounded with these arrows, the short piece with the barb remaining in the animal and grown up in the flesh.”

They had no rifles, their only firearms “being oald refuse American and brittish Musquits which have been repared for this trade . . . invariably in bad order” (January 30). Therefore, their principal method of getting elk was to trap them in deadfalls and pits.

Their hats were a masterpiece of design. They were conic in shape, made of the bark of cedar and bear grass (obtained in trade with upriver Indians) woven tightly together, and held in place by a chin strap. The shape “casts the rain most effectually,” Lewis noted on January 30. He and Clark found these hats so attractive and practical that they ordered two made-to-measure hats from a Clatsop woman. When the work was done, Lewis reported that they “fit us very well” and satisfied so completely that the captains bought hats for each of the men. Lewis remarked that the style of the hat “is that which was in vogue in the Ued States and great Britain in the years 1800 & 1801.”

The canoes beat anything Lewis or Clark had ever seen. “I have seen the natives near the coast riding waves in these canoes with safety and apparently without concern where I should have thought it impossible for any vessel of the same size to live a minute,” Lewis wrote on February 1. Some of the larger canoes were up to fifty feet long and could carry five tons or thirty people. They were “waxed painted and ornimented with curious images at bough and Stern.” Their paddles too were of a superior design. They chiseled out a canoe using only old files embedded in a block of wood as a handle. “A person would suppose that the forming of a large canoe with an instrument like this was the work of several years,” Lewis wrote, but, to his astonishment, “these people make them in a few weeks.”

So impressed was Lewis that he came as close as he ever did to praising the Clatsops and Chinooks. The canoes, he wrote on February 22, along with “the woodwork and sculpture of these people as well as these hats and their waterproof baskets evince an ingenuity by no means common among the Aborigenes of America.”

“They are generally cheerfull but never gay,” Lewis observed. He described their games and their gambling proclivities, but apparently saw no dances or celebrations. For pleasure, he found that they were “excessively fond of smoking tobacco.” They inhaled deeply, swallowing the smoke from many draws “untill they become surcharged with this vapour when they puff it out to a great distance through their nostils and mouth.” Lewis had no doubt that smoking in this manner made the tobacco “much more intoxicating.” He was convinced that “they do possess themselves of all it’s [tobacco’s] virtues in their fullest extent.”

To Lewis’s approval, “these people do not appear to know the uce of sperituous liquors, they never having once asked us for it.” He assumed that the captains on the trading vessels never paid for furs with whiskey, “a very fortunate occurrence, as well for the natives themselves, as for the quiet and safety of thos whites who visit them.”

They were peaceful people who fought neither among themselves nor against others. “The greatest harmoney appears to exist among them,” Lewis wrote on January 19. Their chiefs were not hereditary. A chiefs “authority or the deference paid him is in exact equilibrio with the popularity or voluntary esteem he has acquired among the individuals of his band.” His power “does not extend further than a mear repremand for any improper act of an individual.” Their laws consisted of “a set of customs which have grown out of their local situations.”

The Chinookan Indians at the mouth of the Columbia were at the center of a vast trade empire that ran from the Rocky Mountains to the Hawaiian Islands and on to the Orient. Lewis was keenly interested in how it worked and made such inquiries as he could.

“There is a trade continually carryed on by the natives of this river,” he learned, “each trading some article or other with their neighbours above and below them; and thus articles which are vended by the whites at the entrance of this river, find their way to the most distant nations enhabiting it’s water” (January 11).

The trading ships came to the Columbia in April and remained until October. The whites did not come ashore to establish trading posts; instead, the natives would visit them in their canoes, bringing furs and other items to barter. The ships anchored in today’s Baker Bay, which was “spacious and commodious, and perfectly secure from all except the S. and S.E. winds . . . fresh water and wood are very convenient and excellent timber for refiting and repairing vessels” (January 13).

No sailing vessel could possibly come to the Pacific Northwest from London or Boston in one year, which led Lewis to speculate that there had to be a trading post down the coast to the southwest, or perhaps on some island in the Pacific. He was wrong about the trading post, right about the island. Although he never knew of its existence, the trading base was Hawaii.

Lewis was always interested in how Indian tribes treated their women. His comparisons were between one tribe and another, never between Indian male-female relations and those of Virginia planters and their women, much less slaveowners and female slaves.

He noted first that the Indians had no compunctions about discussing their women even in their presence, “and of their every part, and of the most formiliar connection.” They did not hold their virtue in high estimation “and will even prostitute their wives and daughters for a fishinghook or a stran of beads.” As with other Indians, the women did every kind of domestic work, but, unlike other tribes, Chinookan men shared the drudgery. Even more surprising to Lewis, “notwithstanding the survile manner in which they treat their women [the men] pay much more rispect to their judgment and oppinions in many rispects than most indian nations; their women are permitted to speak freely before them, and sometimes appear to command with a tone of authority.”

Old people were treated with rather more deference and respect than among the Plains Indians, in Lewis’s judgment because the old-timers among the Chinooks made a contribution to obtaining a livelihood. That observation got him off on a philosophical point. “It appears to me that nature has been much more deficient in her filial tie than in any other of the strong affections of the human heart,” he wrote. As far as he could tell, the Americans’ practice of seeing to the ease and comfort of their old folks was a product of civilization, not human nature.

As for the Plains Indians, when their men or women got too old to keep up on a hunt or journey, it was the practice of their children “to leave them without compunction or remose; on those occasions they usually place within their reach a small peace of meat and a platter of water, telling the poor old superannuated wretch for his consolation, that he or she had lived long enough, that it was time they should dye and go to their relations who can afford to take care of them much better than they could” (January 6).

When Clark copied that passage, it reminded him of an experience he had had the previous winter among the Mandans. An old man had asked him for something to ease the pain in his back. “His grand Son a Young man rebuked the old man and Said it was not worth while, that it was time for the old man to die.”

The Chinookan people buried their dead in canoes. The craft were placed on a scaffold, with a paddle, furs, eating implements, and other articles. A larger canoe was then lifted over the canoe-casket and secured with cords. “I cannot understand them sufficiently to make any enquiries relitive to their religeous opinions,” Lewis lamented, “but presume from their depositing various articles with their dead, that they believe in a state of future existence.”

Although Lewis never acknowledged it, obviously the Corps of Discovery could not have gotten through the winter on the coast without the Clatsops and Chinooks. They provided priceless information—where the elk were, where the whale had come ashore, who the ships’ captains were and when they came—along with critical food supplies. It was only thanks to the natives’ skills as fishermen and root collectors that the Americans were able to survive.

Lewis called them savages, even though they never threatened—much less committed—acts of violence, however great their numerical advantage. Their physical appearance disgusted him. He condemned their petty thievery and sexual morals, and their sharp trading practices. Except for their skill as canoe-builders, hatmakers, and woodworkers, he found nothing to admire in his winter neighbors.

And yet the Clatsops and Chinooks, without rifles, managed to live much better than the Americans on the coast of the Pacific Northwest. They had mastered the environment far better than the men of the expedition managed to do. The resources they drew on were renewable, whereas the Americans had shot out all the elk in the vicinity in just three months. With the coming of spring, the Corps of Discovery had no choice but to move on. The natives stayed, living prosperous lives on the riches of the Pacific Northwest, until the white man’s diseases got them.

I. It is used today by historians of the fur trade.

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