Across the Great Divide

Updated May 14, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Across the Great Divide

Captain Clark had now left the water-shed of the Missouri behind him, and was pressing on, over a broken, hilly country, to the lands from which issue the tributaries of the Columbia. The Indian village which Captain Lewis had previously visited had been removed two miles up the stream on which it was situated, and was reached by Clark on August 20. The party was very ceremoniously received by Chief Cameahwait, and all hands began to explain to the white men the difficulties of the situation. How to transport the canoes and baggage over the mountains to some navigable stream leading into the Columbia was now the serious problem. The Indian chief and his old men dwelt on the obstacles in the way and argued that it was too late in the season to make the attempt. They even urged the white men to stay with them until another spring, when Indian guides would be furnished them to proceed on their journey westward.

On the twenty-first, Clark passed the junction of two streams, the Salmon and the Lemhi, which is now the site of Salmon City, Idaho. As Captain Lewis was the first white man who had seen these waters, Clark gave to the combined water-course the name of Lewis' River. The mountains here assumed a formidable aspect, and the stream was too narrow, rapid, and rock-bound to admit of navigation. The journal says of Captain Clark:--

He soon began to perceive that the Indian accounts had not been exaggerated. At the distance of a mile he passed a small creek [on the right], and the points of four mountains, which were rocky, and so high that it seemed almost impossible to cross them with horses. The road lay over the sharp fragments of rocks which had fallen from the mountains, and were strewed in heaps for miles together; yet the horses, altogether unshod, travelled across them as fast as the men, without detaining them a moment. They passed two bold running streams, and reached the entrance of a small river, where a few Indian families resided, who had not been previously acquainted with the arrival of the whites; the guide was behind, and the woods were so thick that we came upon them unobserved, till at a very short distance. As soon as they saw us the women and children fled in great consternation; the men offered us everything they had--the fish on the scaffolds, the dried berries, and the collars of elks' tushes worn by the children. We took only a small quantity of the food, and gave them in return some small articles which conduced very much to pacify them. The guide now coming up, explained to them who we were and the object of our visit, which seemed to relieve their fears; still a number of the women and children did not recover from their fright, but cried during our stay, which lasted about an hour. The guide, whom we found a very intelligent, friendly old man, informed us that up this river there was a road which led over the mountains to the Missouri."

To add to their difficulties, game had almost entirely disappeared, and the abundant fish in the river could not be caught for lack of proper fishing-tackle. Timber from which canoes could be made, there was none, and the rapids in the rivers were sharp and violent. With his Indian guide and three men, Captain Clark now pressed on his route of survey, leaving the remainder of his men behind to hunt and fish. He went down the Salmon River about fifty-two miles, making his way as best he could along its banks. Finding the way absolutely blocked for their purposes, Captain Clark returned on the twenty-fifth of August and rejoined the party that he had left behind. These had not been able to kill anything, and for a time starvation stared them in the face. Under date of August 27, the journal says:--

"The men, who were engaged last night in mending their moccasins, all except one, went out hunting, but no game was to be procured. One of the men, however, killed a small salmon, and the Indians made a present of another, on which the whole party made a very slight breakfast. These Indians, to whom this life is familiar, seem contented, although they depend for subsistence on the scanty productions of the fishery. But our men, who are used to hardships, but have been accustomed to have the first wants of nature regularly supplied, feel very sensibly their wretched situation; their strength is wasting away; they begin to express their apprehensions of being without food in a country perfectly destitute of any means of supporting life, except a few fish. In the course of the day an Indian brought into the camp five salmon, two of which Captain Clark bought and made a supper for the party."

Two days later, Captain Clark and his men joined the main party, having met the only repulse that was suffered by the expedition from first to last. Eluding the vigilance of the Indians, caches, or hiding-places, for the baggage were constructed, filled, and concealed, the work being done after dark. The weather was now very cold, although August had not passed. Ink froze in the pen during the night, and the meadows were white with frost; but the days were warm, even hot.

In the absence of Captain Clark, his colleague and party had been visited by Cameahwait and about fifty of his band, with their women and children. Captain Lewis' journal says:--

"After they had camped near us and turned loose their horses, we called a council of all the chiefs and warriors, and addressed them in a speech. Additional presents were then distributed, particularly to the two second chiefs, who had, agreeably to their promises, exerted themselves in our favor. The council was then adjourned, and all the Indians were treated with an abundant meal of boiled Indian corn and beans. The poor wretches, who had no animal food and scarcely anything but a few fish, had been almost starved, and received this new luxury with great thankfulness. Out of compliment to the chief, we gave him a few dried squashes, which we had brought from the Mandans, and he declared it was the best food he had ever tasted except sugar, a small lump of which he had received from his sister Sacajawea. He now declared how happy they should all be to live in a country which produced so many good things; and we told him that it would not be long before the white men would put it in their power to live below the mountains, where they might themselves cultivate all these kinds of food, instead of wandering in the mountains. He appeared to be much pleased with this information, and the whole party being now in excellent temper after their repast, we began our purchase of horses. We soon obtained five very good ones, on very reasonable terms-- that is, by giving for each horse merchandise which cost us originally about $6. We have again to admire the perfect decency and propriety of the Indians; for though so numerous, they do not attempt to crowd round our camp or take anything which they see lying about, and whenever they borrow knives or kettles or any other article from the men, they return them with great fidelity."

Captain Lewis anxiously wished to push on to meet Clark, who, as we have seen, was then far down on the Salmon River. Lewis was still at the forks of Jefferson River, it should be borne in mind; and their objective point was the upper Shoshonee village on the Lemhi River, across the divide. While on the way over the divide, Lewis was greatly troubled by the freaks of the Indians, who, regardless of their promises, would propose to return to the buffalo country on the eastern side of the mountains. Learning that Cameahwait and his chiefs had sent a messenger over to the Lemhi to notify the village to come and join an expedition of this sort, Captain Lewis was dismayed. His journal says:--

"Alarmed at this new caprice of the Indians, which, if not counteracted, threatened to leave ourselves and our baggage on the mountains, or even if we reached the waters of the Columbia, to prevent our obtaining horses to go on further, Captain Lewis immediately called the three chiefs together. After smoking a pipe he asked them if they were men of their word, and if we could rely on their promises. They readily answered in the affirmative. He then asked if they had not agreed to assist us in carrying our baggage over the mountains. To this they also answered yes. `Why, then,' said he, `have you requested your people to meet us to-morrow where it will be impossible for us to trade for horses, as you promised we should? If,' he continued, `you had not promised to help us in transporting our goods over the mountains, we should not have attempted it, but have returned down the river; after which no white men would ever have come into your country. If you wish the whites to be your friends, to bring you arms, and to protect you from your enemies, you should never promise what you do not mean to perform. When I first met you, you doubted what I said, yet you afterward saw that I told you the truth. How, therefore, can you doubt what I now tell you? You see that I divide amongst you the meat which my hunters kill, and I promise to give all who assist us a share of whatever we have to eat. If, therefore, you intend to keep your promise, send one of the young men immediately, to order the people to remain at the village till we arrive.' The two inferior chiefs then said that they had wished to keep their word and to assist us; that they had not sent for the people, but on the contrary had disapproved of that measure, which was done wholly by the first chief. Cameahwait remained silent for some time; at last he said that he knew he had done wrong, but that, seeing his people all in want of provisions, he had wished to hasten their departure for the country where their wants might be supplied. He, however, now declared that, having passed his word, he would never violate it, and counter-orders were immediately sent to the village by a young man, to whom we gave a handkerchief in order to ensure despatch and fidelity. . . .

"This difficulty being now adjusted, our march was resumed with an unusual degree of alacrity on the part of the Indians. We passed a spot where, six years ago, the Shoshonees had suffered a very severe defeat from the Minnetarees; and late in the evening we reached the upper part of the cove, where the creek enters the mountains. The part of the cove on the northeast side of the creek has lately been burned, most probably as a signal on some occasion. Here we were joined by our hunters with a single deer, which Captain Lewis gave, as a proof of his sincerity, to the women and children, and remained supperless himself. As we came along we observed several large hares, some ducks, and many of the cock of the plains: in the low grounds of the cove were also considerable quantities of wild onions."

Arriving at the Shoshonee village on the Lemhi, Captain Lewis found a note from Captain Clark, sent back by a runner, informing him of the difficulty and impossibility of a water route to the Columbia. Cameahwait, being told that his white friends would now need twenty more horses, said that he would do what he could to help them. The journal here adds:--

"In order not to lose the present favorable moment, and to keep the Indians as cheerful as possible, the violins were brought out and our men danced, to the great diversion of the Indians. This mirth was the more welcome because our situation was not precisely that which would most dispose us to gayety; for we have only a little parched corn to eat, and our means of subsistence or of success depend on the wavering temper of the natives, who may change their minds to-morrow. . . .

"The Shoshonees are a small tribe of the nation called the Snake Indians, a vague appellation, which embraces at once the inhabitants of the southern parts of the Rocky Mountains and of the plains on either side. The Shoshonees with whom we now were amount to about one hundred warriors, and three times that number of women and children. Within their own recollection they formerly lived in the plains, but they have been driven into the mountains by the Pahkees, or the roving Indians of the Sascatchawan, and are now obliged to visit occasionally, and by stealth, the country of their ancestors. Their lives, indeed, are migratory. From the middle of May to the beginning of September they reside on the headwaters of the Columbia, where they consider themselves perfectly secure from the Pahkees, who have never yet found their way to that retreat. During this time they subsist chiefly on salmon, and, as that fish disappears on the approach of autumn, they are driven to seek subsistence elsewhere. They then cross the ridge to the waters of the Missouri, down which they proceed slowly and cautiously, till they are joined near the Three Forks by other bands, either of their own nation or of the Flatheads, with whom they associate against the common enemy. Being now strong in numbers, they venture to hunt the buffalo in the plains eastward of the mountains, near which they spend the winter, till the return of the salmon invites them to the Columbia. But such is their terror of the Pahkees, that, so long as they can obtain the scantiest subsistence, they do not leave the interior of the mountains; and, as soon as they have collected a large stock of dried meat, they again retreat, thus alternately obtaining their food at the hazard of their lives, and hiding themselves to consume it.

"In this loose and wandering life they suffer the extremes of want; for two thirds of the year they are forced to live in the mountains, passing whole weeks without meat, and with nothing to eat but a few fish and roots. Nor can anything be imagined more wretched than their condition at the present time, when the salmon is fast retiring, when roots are becoming scarce, and they have not yet acquired strength to hazard an encounter with their enemies. So insensible are they, however, to these calamities, that the Shoshonees are not only cheerful, but even gay; and their character, which is more interesting than that of any Indians we have seen, has in it much of the dignity of misfortune. In their intercourse with strangers they are frank and communicative; in their dealings they are perfectly fair; nor have we, during our stay with them, had any reason to suspect that the display of all our new and valuable wealth has tempted them into a single act of dishonesty. While they have generally shared with us the little they possess, they have always abstained from begging anything from us. With their liveliness of temper, they are fond of gaudy dresses and all sorts of amusements, particularly games of hazard; and, like most Indians, delight in boasting of their warlike exploits, either real or fictitious. In their conduct towards us they have been kind and obliging; and though on one occasion they seemed willing to neglect us, yet we scarcely knew how to blame the treatment by which we were to suffer, when we recollected how few civilized chiefs would have hazarded the comforts or the subsistence of their people for the sake of a few strangers.

. . . . . . . . .

"As war is the chief occupation, bravery is the first virtue among the Shoshonees. None can hope to be distinguished without having given proofs of it, nor can there be any preferment or influence among the nation, without some warlike achievement. Those important events which give reputation to a warrior, and entitle him to a new name, are: killing a white [or grizzly] bear, stealing individually the horses of the enemy, leading a party who happen to be successful either in plundering horses or destroying the enemy, and lastly, scalping a warrior. These acts seem of nearly equal dignity, but the last, that of taking an enemy's scalp, is an honor quite independent of the act of vanquishing him. To kill your adversary is of no importance unless the scalp is brought from the field of battle; were a warrior to slay any number of his enemies in action, and others were to obtain the scalps or first touch the dead, they would have all the honors, since they have borne off the trophy.

. . . . . . . . .

"The names of these Indians vary in the course of their life. Originally given in childhood, from the mere necessity of distinguishing objects, or from some accidental resemblance to external objects, the young warrior is impatient to change it by some achievement of his own. Any important event--the stealing of horses, the scalping of an enemy, or the killing of a brown bear--entitles him at once to a new name, which he then selects for himself, and it is confirmed by the nation. Sometimes the two names subsist together; thus, the chief Cameahwait, which means `One Who Never Walks,' has the war-name of Tooettecone, or `Black Gun,' which he acquired when he first signalized himself. As each new action gives a warrior a right to change his name, many of them have several in the course of their lives. To give to a friend one's own name is an act of high courtesy, and a pledge, like that of pulling off the moccasin, of sincerity and hospitality. The chief in this way gave his name to Captain Clark when he first arrived, and he was afterward known among the Shoshonees by the name of Cameahwait."

On the thirtieth of August, the whole expedition being now reunited, and a sufficient number of horses having been purchased of the Shoshonees, the final start across the mountains was begun. The journal says:

"The greater part of the band, who had delayed their journey on our account, were also ready to depart. We took leave of the Shoshonees, who set out on their visit to the Missouri at the same time that we, accompanied by the old guide, his four sons, and another Indian, began the descent of the Lemhi River, along the same road which Captain Clark had previously pursued. After riding twelve miles we camped on the south bank of this river, and as the hunters had brought in three deer early in the morning, we did not feel the want of provisions."

Three days later, all the Indians, except the old guide, left them. They now passed up Fish Creek, and finding no track leading over the mountains they cut their way. Their journal says:--

"This we effected with much difficulty; the thickets of trees and brush through which we were obliged to cut our way required great labor; the road itself was over the steep and rocky sides of the hills, where the horses could not move without danger of slipping down, while their feet were bruised by the rocks and stumps of trees. Accustomed as these animals were to this kind of life, they suffered severely; several of them fell to some distance down the sides of the hills, some turned over with the baggage, one was crippled, and two gave out, exhausted with fatigue. After crossing the creek several times we at last made five miles, with great fatigue and labor, and camped on the left side of the creek in a small stony low ground. It was not, however, till after dark that the whole party was collected; and then, as it rained and we had killed nothing, we passed an uncomfortable night. The party had been too busily occupied with the horses to make any hunting excursion; and though, as we came along Fish Creek, we saw many beaver-dams, we saw none of the animals themselves."

The Indian guide appears here to have lost his way; but, not dismayed, he pushed on through a trackless wilderness, sometimes travelling on the snow that now covered the mountains. On the fourth of September, the party came upon a large encampment of Indians, who received them with much ceremony. The journal says:--

"September 5, we assembled the chiefs and warriors, and informed them who we were, and the purpose for which we had visited their country. All this was, however, conveyed to them through so many different languages, that it was not comprehended without difficulty. We therefore proceeded to the more intelligible language of presents, and made four chiefs by giving a medal and a small quantity of tobacco to each. We received in turn from the principal chief a present consisting of the skins of a blaireau (badger), an otter, and two antelopes, and were treated by the women to some dried roots and berries. We then began to traffic for horses, and succeeded in exchanging seven and purchasing eleven, for which we gave a few articles of merchandise.

"This encampment consists of thirty-three tents, in which were about four hundred souls, among whom eighty were men. They are called Ootlashoots, and represent themselves as one band of a nation called Tushepaws, a numerous people of four hundred and fifty tents, residing on the head-waters of the Missouri and Columbia rivers, and some of them lower down the latter river. In person these Indians are stout, and their complexion lighter than that common among Indians. The hair of the men is worn in queues of otter skin, falling in front over the shoulders. A shirt of dressed skin covers the body to the knee, and over this is worn occasionally a robe. To these are added leggings and moccasins. The women suffer their hair to fall in disorder over the face and shoulders, and their chief article of covering is a long shirt of skin, reaching down to the ankles, and tied round the waist. In other respects, as also in the few ornaments which they possess, their appearance is similar to that of the Shoshonees: there is, however, a difference between the languages of these two people, which is still farther increased by the very extraordinary pronunciation of the Ootlashoots. Their words have all a remarkably guttural sound, and there is nothing which seems to represent the tone of their speaking more exactly than the clucking of a fowl or the noise of a parrot. This peculiarity renders their voices scarcely audible, except at a short distance; and, when many of them are talking, forms a strange confusion of sounds. The common conversation that we overheard consisted of low, guttural sounds, occasionally broken by a low word or two, after which it would relapse, and could scarcely be distinguished. They seemed kind and friendly, and willingly shared with us berries and roots, which formed their sole stock of provisions. Their only wealth is their horses, which are very fine, and so numerous that this party had with them at least five hundred."

These Indians were on their way to join the other bands who were hunting buffalo on the Jefferson River, across the Great Divide. They set out the next morning, and the explorers resumed their toilsome journey, travelling generally in a northwesterly direction and looking for a pass across the Bitter Root Mountains. Very soon, all indications of game disappeared, and, September 14, they were forced to kill a colt, their stock of animal food being exhausted. They pressed on, however, through a savage wilderness, having frequent need to recur to horse-flesh. Here is an entry under date of September 18, in the journal: "We melted some snow, and supped on a little portable soup, a few canisters of which, with about twenty pounds' weight of bear's oil, are our only remaining means of subsistence. Our guns are scarcely of any service, for there is no living creature in these mountains, except a few small pheasants, a small species of gray squirrel, and a blue bird of the vulture kind, about the size of a turtle-dove, or jay. Even these are difficult to shoot."

"A bold running creek," up which Captain Clark passed on September 19, was appropriately named by him "Hungry Creek," as at that place they had nothing to eat. But, at about six miles' distance from the head of the stream, "he fortunately found a horse, on which he breakfasted, and hung the rest on a tree for the party in the rear." This was one of the wild horses, strayed from Indian bands, which they found in the wilderness, too wild to be caught and used, but not too wild to shoot and eat. Later, on the same day, this entry is made in the journal:

"The road along the creek is a narrow rocky path near the borders of very high precipices, from which a fall seems almost inevitable destruction. One of our horses slipped and rolled over with his load down the hillside, which was nearly perpendicular and strewed with large irregular rocks, nearly one hundred yards, and did not stop till he fell into the creek. We all expected he was killed, but to our astonishment, on taking off his load he rose, seemed but little injured, and in twenty minutes proceeded with his load. Having no other provision, we took some portable soup, our only refreshment during the day. This abstinence, joined with fatigue, has a visible effect on our health. The men are growing weak and losing their flesh very fast; several are afflicted with dysentery, and eruptions of the skin are very common."

Next day, the party descended the last of the Bitter Root range and reached level country. They were at last over the Great Divide. Three Indian boys were discovered hiding in the grass, in great alarm. Captain Clark at once dismounted from his horse, and, making signs of amity, went after the boys. He calmed their terrors, and, giving them some bits of ribbon, sent them home.

"Soon after the boys reached home, a man came out to meet the party, with great caution; but he conducted them to a large tent in the village, and all the inhabitants gathered round to view with a mixture of fear and pleasure these wonderful strangers. The conductor now informed Captain Clark, by signs, that the spacious tent was the residence of the great chief, who had set out three days ago with all the warriors to attack some of their enemies toward the southwest; that he would not return before fifteen or eighteen days, and that in the mean time there were only a few men left to guard the women and children. They now set before them a small piece of buffalo-meat, some dried salmon, berries, and several kinds of roots. Among these last is one which is round, much like an onion in appearance, and sweet to the taste. It is called quamash, and is eaten either in its natural state, or boiled into a kind of soup, or made into a cake, which is then called pasheco. After the long abstinence this was a sumptuous treat. They returned the kindness of the people by a few small presents, and then went on in company with one of the chiefs to a second village in the same plain, at the distance of two miles. Here the party were treated with great kindness, and passed the night. The hunters were sent out, but, though they saw some tracks of deer, were not able to procure anything."

The root which the Indians used in so many ways is now known as camas; it is still much sought for by the Nez Perces and other wandering tribes in the Northwest, and Camas Prairie, in that region, derives its name from the much-sought-for vegetable.

Captain Clark and his men stayed with these hospitable Indians several days. The free use of wholesome food, to which he had not lately been accustomed, made Clark very ill, and he contented himself with staying in the Indian villages, of which. there were two. These Indians called themselves Chopunnish, or Pierced Noses; this latter name is now more commonly rendered Nez Perces, the French voyageurs having given it that translation into their own tongue. But these people, so far as known, did not pierce their noses. After sending a man back on the trail to notify Captain Lewis of his progress, Captain Clark went on to the village of Chief Twisted-hair. Most of the women and children, though notified of the coming of the white man, were so scared by the appearance of the strangers that they fled to the woods. The men, however, received them without fear and gave them a plentiful supply of food. They were now on one of the upper branches of the Kooskooskee River, near what is the site of Pierce City, county seat of Shoshonee County, Idaho. The Indians endeavored, by means of signs, to explain to their visitors the geography of the country beyond.

"Among others, Twisted-hair drew a chart of the river on a white elk-skin. According to this, the Kooskooskee forks [confluence of its North fork] a few miles from this place; two days toward the south is another and larger fork [confluence of Snake River], on which the Shoshonee or Snake Indians fish; five days' journey further is a large river from the northwest [that is, the Columbia itself] into which Clark's River empties; from the mouth of that river [that is, confluence of the Snake with the Columbia] to the falls is five days' journey further; on all the forks as well as on the main river great numbers of Indians reside."

On the twenty-third of September, Captain Lewis and his party having come up, the white men assembled the Indians and explained to them where they came from and what was their errand across the continent. The Indians appeared to be entirely satisfied, and they sold their visitors as much provisions as their half-famished horses could carry. The journal here says:--

"All around the village the women are busily employed in gathering and dressing the pasheco-root, of which large quantities are heaped in piles over the plain. We now felt severely the consequence of eating heartily after our late privations. Captain Lewis and two of the men were taken very ill last evening; to-day he could hardly sit on his horse, while others were obliged to be put on horseback, and some, from extreme weakness and pain, were forced to lie down alongside of the road for some time. At sunset we reached the island where the hunters had been left on the 22d. They had been unsuccessful, having killed only two deer since that time, and two of them were very sick. A little below this island is a larger one on which we camped, and administered Rush's pills to the sick."

The illness of the party continued for several days, and not much progress was made down-stream. Having camped, on the twenty-seventh of September, in the Kooskooskee River, at a place where plenty of good timber was found, preparations for building five canoes were begun. From this time to the fifth of October, all the men capable of labor were employed in preparing the canoes. The health of the party gradually recruited, though they still suffered severely from want of food; and, as the hunters had but little success in procuring game, they were obliged on the second to kill one of their horses. Indians from different quarters frequently visited them, but all that could be obtained from them was a little fish and some dried roots. This diet was not only unnutritious, but in many cases it caused dysentery and nausea.

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