Camping with the Nez Perces

Updated May 14, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Camping with the Nez Perces

Soon after they had fixed their camp, the explorers bade farewell to their good friend Tunnachemootoolt and his young men, who returned to their homes farther down the river. Others of the Nez Perce, or Chopunnish, nation visited them, and the strangers were interested in watching the Indians preparing for their hunt. As they were to hunt the deer, they had the head, horns, and hide of that animal so prepared that when it was placed on the head and body of a hunter, it gave a very deceptive idea of a deer; the hunter could move the head of the decoy so that it looked like a deer feeding, and the suspicious animals were lured within range of the Indians' bow and arrow.

On the sixteenth of May, Hohastillpilp and his young men also left the white men's camp and returned to their own village. The hunters of the party did not meet with much luck in their quest for game, only one deer and a few pheasants being brought in for several days. The party were fed on roots and herbs, a species of onion being much prized by them. Bad weather confined them to their camp, and a common entry in their journal refers to their having slept all night in a pool of water formed by the falling rain; their tent-cover was a worn-out leathern affair no longer capable of shedding the rain. While it rained in the meadows where they were camped, they could see the snow covering the higher plains above them; on those plains the snow was more than a foot deep, and yet the plants and shrubs seemed to thrive in the midst of the snow. On the mountains the snow was several feet in depth. The journalist says: "So that within twenty miles of our camp we observe the rigors of winter cold, the cool air of spring, and the oppressive heat of midsummer." They kept a shrewd lookout for the possibilities of future occupation of the land by white men; and, writing here of country and its character, the journalist says: "In short, this district affords many advantages to settlers, and if properly cultivated, would yield every object necessary for the comfort and subsistence of civilized man." But in their wildest dreams, Captains Lewis and Clark could not have foreseen that in that identical region thrifty settlements of white men should flourish and that the time would come when the scanty remnant of the Chopunnish, whom we now call Nez Perces, would be gathered on a reservation near their camping-place. But both of these things have come to pass.

In describing the dress of the Chopunnish, or Nez Perces, the journal says that tippets, or collars, were worn by the men. "That of Hohastillpilp," says the journal, "was formed of human scalps and adorned with the thumbs and fingers of several men slain by him in battle." And yet the journal immediately adds: "The Chopunnish are among the most amiable men we have seen. Their character is placid and gentle, rarely moved to passion, yet not often enlivened by gayety." In short, the Indians were amiable savages; and it is a savage trait to love to destroy one's enemies.

Here is an entry in the journal of May 19 which will give the reader some notion of the privations and the pursuits of the party while shut up in camp for weary weeks in the early summer of 1806:--

"After a cold, rainy night, during a greater part of which we lay in the water, the weather became fair; we then sent some men to a village above us, on the opposite side, to purchase some roots. They carried with them for this purpose a small collection of awls, knitting-pins, and armbands, with which they obtained several bushels of the root of cows, and some bread of the same material. They were followed, too, by a train of invalids from the village, who came to ask for our assistance. The men were generally afflicted with sore eyes; but the women had besides this a variety of other disorders, chiefly rheumatic, a violent pain and weakness in the loins, which is a common complaint among them; one of them seemed much dejected, and as we thought, from the account of her disease, hysterical. We gave her thirty drops of laudanum, and after administering eye-water, rubbing the rheumatic patients with volatile liniment, and giving cathartics to others, they all thought themselves much relieved and returned highly satisfied to the village. We were fortunate enough to retake one of the horses on which we [Captain Lewis] had crossed the Rocky Mountains in the autumn, and which had become almost wild since that time."

A day or two later, the journal has this significant entry: "On parcelling out the stores, the stock of each man was found to be only one awl, and one knitting-pin, half an ounce of vermilion, two needles, a few skeins of thread, and about a yard of ribbon-- a slender means of bartering for our subsistence; but the men have been so much accustomed to privations that now neither the want of meat nor the scanty funds of the party excites the least anxiety among them." To add to their discomfort, there was a great deal of sickness in the camp, owing to the low diet of the men. Sacajawea's baby was ill with mumps and teething, and it is suggested that the two captains would have been obliged to "walk the floor all night," if there had been any floor to walk on; as it was, they were deprived of their nightly rest. Here is an example of what the doctors would call heroic treatment by Captain Clark, who conducted all such experiments:--

"With one of the men [Bratton] we have ventured an experiment of a very robust nature. He has been for some time sick, but has now recovered his flesh, eats heartily, and digests well, but has so great a weakness in the loins that he cannot walk or even sit upright without extreme pain. After we had in vain exhausted the resources of our art, one of the hunters mentioned that he had known persons in similar situations to be restored by violent sweats, and at the request of the patient, we permitted the remedy to be applied. For this purpose a hole about four feet deep and three in diameter was dug in the earth, and heated well by a large fire in the bottom of it. The fire was then taken out, and an arch formed over the hole by means of willow-poles, and covered with several blankets so as to make a perfect awning. The patient being stripped naked, was seated under this on a beach, with a piece of board for his feet, and with a jug of water sprinkled the bottom and sides of the hole, so as to keep up as hot a steam as he could bear. After remaining twenty minutes in this situation, he was taken out, immediately plunged twice in cold water, and brought back to the hole, where he resumed the vapor bath. During all this time he drank copiously a strong infusion of horse-mint, which was used as a substitute for seneca-root, which our informant said he had seen employed on these occasions, but of which there is none in this country. At the end of three-quarters of an hour he was again withdrawn from the hole, carefully wrapped, and suffered to cool gradually. This operation was performed yesterday; this morning he walked about and is nearly free from pain. About eleven o'clock a canoe arrived with three Indians, one of whom was the poor creature who had lost the use of his limbs, and for whose recovery the natives seem very anxious, as he is a chief of considerable rank among them. His situation is beyond the reach of our skill. He complains of no pain in any peculiar limb, and we therefore think his disorder cannot be rheumatic, and his limbs would have been more diminished if his disease had been a paralytic affection. We had already ascribed it to his diet of roots, and had recommended his living on fish and flesh, and using the cold bath every morning, with a dose of cream of tartar or flowers of sulphur every third day."

It is gratifying to be able to record the fact that Bratton and the Indian (who was treated in the same manner) actually recovered from their malady. The journal says of the Indian that his restoration was "wonderful." This is not too strong a word to use under the circumstances, for the chief had been helpless for nearly three years, and yet he was able to get about and take care of himself after he had been treated by Captain (otherwise Doctor) Clark. Two of his men met with a serious disaster about this time; going across the river to trade with some Indians, their boat was stove and went to the bottom, carrying with it three blankets, a blanket-coat, and their scanty stock of merchandise, all of which was utterly lost. Another disaster, which happened next day, is thus recorded:--

"Two of our men, who had been up the river to trade with the Indians, returned quite unsuccessful. Nearly opposite the village, their horse fell with his load down a steep cliff into the river, across which he swam. An Indian on the opposite side drove him back to them; but in crossing most of the articles were lost and the paint melted. Understanding their intentions, the Indians attempted to come over to them, but having no canoe, were obliged to use a raft, which struck on a rock, upset, and the whole store of roots and bread were destroyed. This failure completely exhausted our stock of merchandise; but the remembrance of what we suffered from cold and hunger during the passage of the Rocky Mountains makes us anxious to increase our means of subsistence and comfort, since we have again to encounter the same inconvenience."

But the ingenuity of the explorers was equal to this emergency. Having observed that the Indians were very fond of brass buttons, which they fastened to their garments as ornaments, and not for the useful purpose for which buttons are made, the men now proceeded to cut from their shabby United States uniforms those desired articles, and thus formed a new fund for trading purposes. To these they added some eye-water, some basilicon, and a few small tin boxes in which phosphorus had been kept. Basilicon, of which mention is frequently made in the journal, was an ointment composed of black pitch, white wax, resin, and olive oil; it was esteemed as a sovereign remedy for all diseases requiring an outward application. With these valuables two men were sent out to trade with the Indians, on the second day of June, and they returned with three bushels of eatable roots and some cowas bread. Later in that day, a party that had been sent down the river (Lewis') in quest of food, returned with a goodly supply of roots and seventeen salmon. These fish, although partly spoiled by the long journey home, gave great satisfaction to the hungry adventurers, for they were the promise of a plenty to come when the salmon should ascend the rivers that make into the Columbia. At this time we find the following interesting story in the journal of the expedition:--

"We had lately heard, also, that some Indians, residing at a considerable distance, on the south side of the Kooskooskee, were in possession of two tomahawks, one of which had been left at our camp on Moscheto Creek, and the other had been stolen while we were with the Chopunnish in the autumn. This last we were anxious to obtain, in order to give it to the relations of our unfortunate companion, Sergeant Floyd,[1] to whom it once belonged. We therefore sent Drewyer, with the two chiefs Neeshnepahkeeook and Hohastillpilp (who had returned to us) to demand it. On their arrival, they found that the present possessor of it, who had purchased it of the thief, was at the point of death; and his relations were unwilling to give it up, as they wished to bury it in the grave with the deceased. The influence of Neeshnepahkeeook, however, at length prevailed; and they consented to surrender the tomahawk on receiving two strands of beads and a handkerchief from Drewyer, and from each of the chiefs a horse, to be killed at the funeral of their kinsman, according to the custom of the country."

[1] See page 23.

The Chopunnish chiefs now gave their final answer to the two captains who had requested guides from them. The chiefs said that they could not accompany the party, but later in the summer they might cross the great divide and spend the next winter on the headwaters of the Missouri. At present, they could only promise that some of their young men should go with the whites; these had not been selected, but they would be sent on after the party, if the two captains insisted on starting now. This was not very encouraging, for they had depended upon the Indians for guidance over the exceedingly difficult and even dangerous passages of the mountains. Accordingly, it was resolved that, while waiting on the motions of the Indians, the party might as well make a visit to Quamash flats, where they could lay in a stock of provisions for their arduous journey. It is not certain which of the several Quamash flats mentioned in the history of the expedition is here referred to; but it is likely that the open glade in which Captain Clark first struck the low country of the west is here meant. It was here that he met the Indian boys hiding in the grass, and from here he led the expedition out of the wilderness. For "quamash" read "camass," an edible root much prized by the Nez Perces then and now.

While they lingered at their camp, they were visited by several bands of friendly Indians. The explorers traded horses with their visitors, and, with what they already had, they now found their band to number sixty-five, all told. Having finished their trading, they invited the Indians to take part in the games of prisoners' base and foot-racing; in the latter game the Indians were very expert, being able to distance the fleetest runner of the white men's party. At night, the games were concluded by a dance. The account of the expedition says that the captains were desirous of encouraging these exercises before they should begin the passage over the mountains, "as several of the men are becoming lazy from inaction."

On the tenth of June the party set out for Quamash flats, each man well mounted and leading a spare horse which carried a small load. To their dismay, they found that their good friends, the Chopunnish, unwilling to part with them, were bound to accompany them to the hunting-grounds. The Indians would naturally expect to share in the hunt and to be provided for by the white men. The party halted there only until the sixth of June, and then, collecting their horses, set out through what proved to be a very difficult trail up the creek on which they were camped, in a northeasterly direction. There was still a quantity of snow on the ground, although this was in shady places and hollows. Vegetation was rank, and the dogtooth violet, honeysuckle, blue-bell, and columbine were in blossom. The pale blue flowers of the quamash gave to the level country the appearance of a blue lake. Striking Hungry Creek, which Captain Clark had very appropriately named when he passed that way, the previous September, they followed it up to a mountain for about three miles, when they found themselves enveloped in snow; their limbs were benumbed, and the snow, from twelve to fifteen feet deep, so paralyzed their feet that further progress was impossible. Here the journal should be quoted:--

"We halted at the sight of this new difficulty. We already knew that to wait till the snows of the mountains had dissolved, so as to enable us to distinguish the road, would defeat our design of returning to the United States this season. We now found also that as the snow bore our horses very well, travelling was infinitely easier than it was last fall, when the rocks and fallen timber had so much obstructed our march. But it would require five days to reach the fish-weirs at the mouth of Colt [-killed] Creek, even if we were able to follow the proper ridges of the mountains; and the danger of missing our direction is exceedingly great while every track is covered with snow. During these five days, too, we have no chance of finding either grass or underwood for our horses, the snow being so deep. To proceed, therefore, under such circumstances, would be to hazard our being bewildered in the mountains, and to insure the loss of our horses; even should we be so fortunate as to escape with our lives, we might be obliged to abandon all our papers and collections. It was therefore decided not to venture any further; to deposit here all the baggage and provisions for which we had no immediate use; and, reserving only subsistence for a few days, to return while our horses were yet strong to some spot where we might live by hunting, till a guide could be procured to conduct us across the mountains. Our baggage was placed on scaffolds and carefully covered, as were also the instruments and papers, which we thought it safer to leave than to risk over the roads and creeks by which we came."

There was nothing left to do but to return to Hungry Creek. Finding a scanty supply of grass, they camped under most depressing circumstances; their outlook now was the passing of four or five days in the midst of snows from ten to fifteen feet deep, with no guide, no road, and no forage. In this emergency, two men were sent back to the Chopunnish country to hurry up the Indians who had promised to accompany them over the mountains; and, to insure a guide, these men were authorized to offer a rifle as a reward for any one who would undertake the task. For the present, it was thought best to return to Quamash flats.

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