Lewis & Clark: Camping by the Pacific

Updated May 14, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Camping by the Pacific

Next in importance to the building of a winter camp was the fixing of a place where salt could be made. Salt is absolutely necessary for the comfort of man, and the supply brought out from the United States by the explorers was now nearly all gone. They were provided with kettles in which sea-water could be boiled down and salt be made. It would be needful to go to work at once, for the process of salt-making by boiling in ordinary kettles is slow and tedious; not only must enough for present uses be found, but a supply to last the party home again was necessary. Accordingly, on the eighth of December the journal has this entry to show what was to be done:-

"In order, therefore, to find a place for making salt, and to examine the country further, Captain Clark set out with five men, and pursuing a course S. 60'0 W., over a dividing ridge through thick pine timber, much of which bad fallen, passed the beads of two small brooks. In the neighborhood of these the land was swampy and overflowed, and they waded knee-deep till they came to an open ridgy prairie, covered with the plant known on our frontier by the name of sacacommis [bearberry]. Here is a creek about sixty yards wide and running toward Point Adams; they passed it on a small raft. At this place they discovered a large herd of elk, and after pursuing them for three miles over bad swamps and small ponds, killed one of them. The agility with which the elk crossed the swamps and bogs seems almost incredible; as we followed their track the ground for a whole acre would shake at our tread and sometimes we sunk to our hips without finding any bottom. Over the surface of these bogs is a species of moss, among which are great numbers of cranberries; and occasionally there rise from the swamp small steep knobs of earth, thickly covered with pine and laurel. On one of these we halted at night, but it was scarcely large enough to suffer us to lie clear of the water, and had very little dry wood. We succeeded, however, in collecting enough to make a fire; and having stretched the elk-skin to keep off the rain, which still continued, slept till morning."

Next day the party were met by three Indians who had been fishing for salmon, of which they had a goodly supply, and were now on their way home to their village on the seacoast. They, invited Captain Clark and his men to accompany them; and the white men accepted the invitation. These were Clatsops. Their village consisted of twelve families living in houses of split pine boards, the lower half of the house being underground. By a small ladder in the middle of the house-front, the visitors reached the floor, which was about four feet below the surface. Two fires were burning in the middle of the room upon the earthen floor. The beds were ranged around the room next to the wall, with spaces beneath them for bags, baskets, and household articles.

Captain Clark was received with much attention, clean mats were spread for him, and a repast of fish, roots, and berries was set before him. He noticed that the Clatsops were well dressed and clean, and that they frequently washed their faces and hands, a ceremony, he remarked, that is by no means frequent among other Indians. A high wind now prevailed, and as the evening was stormy, Captain Clark resolved to stay all night with his hospitable Clatsops. The narrative proceeds:-

"The men of the village now collected and began to gamble. The most common game was one in which one of the company was banker, and played against all the rest. He had a piece of bone, about the size of a large bean, and having agreed with any individual as to the value of the stake, would pass the bone from one hand to the other with great dexterity, singing at the same time to divert the attention of his adversary; then holding it in his hands, his antagonist was challenged to guess in which of them the bone was, and lost or won as he pointed to the right or wrong hand. To this game of hazard they abandoned themselves with great ardor; sometimes everything they possess is sacrificed to it; and this evening several of the Indians lost all the beads which they had with them. This lasted for three hours; when, Captain Clark appearing disposed to sleep, the man who had been most attentive, and whose name was Cuskalah, spread two new mats near the fire, ordered his wife to retire to her own bed, and the rest of the company dispersed at the same time. Captain Clark then lay down, but the violence with which the fleas attacked him did not leave his rest unbroken."

Next morning, Captain Clark walked along the seashore, and he observed that the Indians were walking up and down, examining the shore and the margin of a creek that emptied here. The narrative says:-

"He was at a loss to understand their object till one of them came to him, and explained that they were in search of any fish which might have been thrown on shore and left by the tide, adding in English, `sturgeon is very good.' There is, indeed, every reason to believe that these Clatsops depend for their subsistence, during the winter, chiefly on the fish thus casually thrown on the coast. After amusing himself for some time on the beach, he returned towards the village, and shot on his way two brant. As he came near the village, one of the Indians asked him to shoot a duck about thirty steps distant: he did so, and, having accidentally shot off its head, the bird was brought to the village, when all the Indians came round in astonishment. They examined the duck, the musket, and the very small bullets, which were a hundred to the pound, and then exclaimed, Clouch musque, waket, commatax musquet: Good musket; do not understand this kind of musket. They now placed before him their best roots, fish, and syrup, after which he attempted to purchase a sea-otter skin with some red beads which he happened to have about him; but they declined trading, as they valued none except blue or white beads. He therefore bought nothing but a little berry-bread and a few roots, in exchange for fish-hooks, and then set out to return by the same route he had come. He was accompanied by Cuskalah and his brother as far as the third creek, and then proceeded to the camp through a heavy rain. The whole party had been occupied during his absence in cutting down trees to make huts, and in hunting."

This was the occupation of all hands for several days, notwithstanding the discomfort of the continual downpour. Many of the men were ill from the effects of sleeping and living so constantly in water. Under date of December 12, the journal has this entry:-

"We continued to work in the rain at our houses. In the evening there arrived two canoes of Clatsops, among whom was a principal chief, called Comowol. We gave him a medal and treated his companions with great attention; after which we began to bargain for a small sea-otter skin, some wappatoo-roots, and another species of root called shanataque. We readily perceived that they were close dealers, stickled much for trifles, and never closed the bargain until they thought they had the advantage. The wappatoo is dear, as they themselves are obliged to give a high price for it to the Indians above. Blue beads are the articles most in request; the white occupy the next place in their estimation; but they do not value much those of any other color. We succeeded at last in purchasing their whole cargo for a few fish-hooks and a small sack of Indian tobacco, which we had received from the Shoshonees."

The winter camp was made up of seven huts, and, although it was not so carefully fortified as was the fort in the Mandan country (during the previous winter), it was so arranged that intruders could be kept out when necessary. For the roofs of these shelters they were provided with "shakes" split out from a species of pine which they called "balsam pine," and which gave them boards, or puncheons, or shakes, ten feet long and two feet wide, and not more than an inch and a half thick. By the sixteenth of December their meat-house was finished, and their meat, so much of which had been spoiled for lack of proper care, was cut up in small pieces and hung under cover. They had been told by the Indians that very little snow ever fell in that region, and the weather, although very, very wet, was mild and usually free from frost. They did have severe hailstorms and a few flurries of snow in December but the rain was a continual cause of discomfort. Of the trading habits of the Clatsops the journal has this to say:-

"Three Indians came in a canoe with mats, roots, and the berries of the sacacommis. These people proceed with a dexterity and finesse in their bargains which, if they have not learned it from their foreign visitors, may show how nearly allied is the cunning of savages to the little arts of traffic. They begin by asking double or treble the value of what they have to sell, and lower their demand in proportion to the greater or less degree of ardor or knowledge of the purchaser, who, with all his management, is not able to procure the article for less than its real value, which the Indians perfectly understand. Our chief medium of trade consists of blue and white beads, files,- with which they sharpen their tools,-fish-hooks, and tobacco; but of all these articles blue beads and tobacco are the most esteemed."

But, although their surroundings were not of a sort to make one very jolly, when Christmas came they observed the day as well as they could. Here is what the journal says of the holiday:-

"We were awaked at daylight by a discharge of firearms, which was followed by a song from the men, as a compliment to us on the return of Christmas, which we have always been accustomed to observe as a day of rejoicing. After breakfast we divided our remaining stock of tobacco, which amounted to twelve carrots [hands], into two parts; one of which we distributed among such of the party as make use of it, making a present of a handkerchief to the others. The remainder of the day was passed in good spirits, though there was nothing in our situation to excite much gayety. The rain confined us to the house, and our only luxuries in honor of the season were some poor elk, so much spoiled that we ate it through sheer necessity, a few roots, and some spoiled pounded fish.

"The next day brought a continuation of rain, accompanied with thunder, and a high wind from the southeast. We were therefore obliged to still remain in our huts, and endeavored to dry our wet articles before the fire. The fleas, which annoyed us near the portage of the Great Falls, have taken such possession of our clothes that we are obliged to have a regular search every day through our blankets as a necessary preliminary to sleeping at night. These animals, indeed, are so numerous that they are almost a calamity to the Indians of this country. When they have once obtained the mastery of any house it is impossible to expel them, and the Indians have frequently different houses, to which they resort occasionally when the fleas have rendered their permanent residence intolerable; yet, in spite of these precautions, every Indian is constantly attended by multitudes of them, and no one comes into our house without leaving behind him swarms of these tormenting insects."

Although the condition of the exploring party was low, the men did not require very much to put them in good spirits. The important and happy event of finishing their fort and the noting of good weather are thus set forth in the journal under date of December 30:-

"Toward evening the hunters brought in four elk [which Drewyer had killed], and after a long course of abstinence and miserable diet, we had a most sumptuous supper of elk's tongues and marrow. Besides this agreeable repast, the state of the weather was quite exhilarating. It had rained during the night, but in the morning, though the high wind continued, we enjoyed the fairest and most pleasant weather since our arrival; the sun having shone at intervals, and there being only three showers in the course of the day. By sunset we had completed the fortification, and now announced to the Indians that every day at that hour the gates would be closed, and they must leave the fort and not enter it till sunrise. The Wahkiacums who remained with us, and who were very forward in their deportment, complied very reluctantly with this order; but, being excluded from our houses, formed a camp near us.


"January 1, 1806. We were awaked at an early hour by the discharge of a volley of small arms, to salute the new year. This was the only mode of commemorating the day which our situation permitted; for, though we had reason to be gayer than we were at Christmas, our only dainties were boiled elk and wappatoo, enlivened by draughts of pure water. We were visited by a few Clatsops, who came by water, bringing roots and berries for sale. Among this nation we observed a man about twenty-five years old, of a much lighter complexion than the Indians generally: his face was even freckled, and his hair long, and of a colour inclining to red. He was in habits and manners perfectly Indian; but, though he did not speak a word of English, he seemed to understand more than the others of his party; and, as we could obtain no account of his origin, we concluded that one of his parents, at least, must have been white."

A novel addition to their bill of fare was fresh blubber, or fat, from a stranded whale. Under date of January 3 the journal says:-

"At eleven o'clock we were visited by our neighbor, the Tia or chief, Comowool, who is also called Coone, and six Clatsops. Besides roots and berries, they brought for sale three dogs, and some fresh blubber. Having been so long accustomed to live on the flesh of dogs, the greater part of us have acquired a fondness for it, and our original aversion for it is overcome, by reflecting that while we subsisted on that food we were fatter, stronger, and in general enjoyed better health than at any period since leaving the buffalo country, eastward of the mountains. The blubber, which is esteemed by the Indians an excellent food, has been obtained, they tell us, from their neighbors, the Killamucks, a nation who live on the seacoast to the southeast, near one of whose villages a whale had recently been thrown and foundered."

Five men had been sent out to form a camp on the seashore and go into the manufacture of salt as expeditiously as possible. On the fifth of January, two of them came into the fort bringing a gallon of salt, which was decided to be "white, fine and very good," and a very agreeable addition to their food, which had been eaten perfectly fresh for some weeks past. Captain Clark, however, said it was a "mere matter of indifference" to him whether he had salt or not, but he hankered for bread. Captain Lewis, on the other hand, said the lack of salt was a great inconvenience; "the want of bread I consider trivial," was his dictum. It was estimated that the salt-makers could turn out three or four quarts a day, and there was good prospect of an abundant supply for present needs and for the homeward journey. An expedition to the seashore was now planned, and the journal goes on to tell how they set out:-

"The appearance of the whale seemed to be a matter of importance to all the neighboring Indians, and as we might be able to procure some of it for ourselves, or at least purchase blubber from the Indians, a small parcel of merchandise was prepared, and a party of the men held in readiness to set out in the morning. As soon as this resolution was known, Chaboneau and his wife requested that they might be permitted to accompany us. The poor woman stated very earnestly that she had travelled a great way with us to see the great water, yet she had never been down to the coast, and now that this monstrous fish was also to be seen, it seemed hard that she should be permitted to see neither the ocean nor the whale. So reasonable a request could not be denied; they were therefore suffered to accompany Captain Clark, who, January 6th, after an early breakfast, set out with twelve men in two canoes."

After a long and tedious trip, the camp of the saltmakers was reached, and Captain Clark and his men went on to the remains of the whale, only the skeleton being left by the rapacious and hungry Indians. The whale had been stranded between two shore villages tenanted by the Killamucks, as Captain Clark called them. They are now known as the Tillamook Indians, and their name is preserved in Tillamook County, Oregon. The white men found it difficult to secure much of the blubber, or the oil. Although the Indians had large quantities of both, they sold it with much reluctance. In Clark's private diary is found this entry: "Small as this stock [of oil and lubber] is I prize it highly; and thank Providence for directing the whale to us; and think him more kind to us than he was to Jonah, having sent this monster to be swallowed by us instead of swallowing us as Jonah's did." While here, the party had a startling experience, as the journal says:-

"Whilst smoking with the Indians, Captain Clark was surprised, about ten o'clock, by a loud, shrill outcry from the opposite village, on hearing which all the Indians immediately started up to cross the creek, and the guide informed him that someone had been killed. On examination one of the men [M'Neal] was discovered to be absent, and a guard [Sergeant Pryor and four men] despatched, who met him crossing the creek in great haste. An Indian belonging to another band, who happened to be with the Killamucks that evening, had treated him with much kindness, and walked arm in arm with him to a tent where our man found a Chinnook squaw, who was an old acquaintance. From the conversation and manner of the stranger, this woman discovered that his object was to murder the white man for the sake of the few articles on his person; when he rose and pressed our man to go to another tent where they would find something better to eat, she held M'Neal by the blanket; not knowing her object, he freed himself from her, and was going on with his pretended friend, when she ran out and gave the shriek which brought the men of the village over, and the stranger ran off before M'Neal knew what had occasioned the alarm."

The "mighty hunter" of the Lewis and Clark expedition was Drewyer, whose name has frequently been mentioned in these pages. Under date of January 12, the journal has this just tribute to the man:-

"Our meat is now becoming scarce; we therefore determined to jerk it, and issue it in small quantities, instead of dividing it among the four messes, and leaving to each the care of its own provisions; a plan by which much is lost, in consequence of the improvidence of the men. Two hunters had been despatched in the morning, and one of them, Drewyer, had before evening killed seven elk. We should scarcely be able to subsist, were it not for the exertions of this most excellent hunter. The game is scarce, and nothing is now to be seen except elk, which for almost all the men are very difficult to be procured; but Drewyer, who is the offspring of a Canadian Frenchman and an Indian woman, has passed his life in the woods, and unites, in a wonderful degree, the dexterous aim of the frontier huntsman with the intuitive sagacity of the Indian, in pursuing the faintest tracks through the forest. All our men, however, have indeed become so expert with the rifle that we are never under apprehensions as to food; since, whenever there is game of any kind, we are almost certain of procuring it."

The narrative of the explorers gives this account of the Chinooks:-

"The men are low in stature, rather ugly, and ill made; their legs being small and crooked, their feet large, and their heads, like those of the women, flattened in a most disgusting manner. These deformities are in part concealed by robes made of sea-otter, deer, elk, beaver or fox skins. They also employ in their dress robes of the skin of a cat peculiar to this country, and of another animal of the same size, which is light and durable, and sold at a high price by the Indians who bring it from above. In addition to these are worn blankets, wrappers of red, blue, or spotted cloth, and some old sailors' clothes, which are very highly prized. The greater part of the men have guns, with powder and ball.

"The women have in general handsome faces, but are low and disproportioned, with small feet and large legs, occasioned, probably, by strands of beads, or various strings, drawn so tight above the ankles as to prevent the circulation of the blood. Their dress, like that of the Wahkiacums, consists of a short robe and a tissue of cedar bark. Their hair hangs loosely down the shoulders and back; and their ears, neck, and wrists are ornamented with blue beads. Another decoration, which is very highly prized, consists of figures made by puncturing the arms or legs; and on the arms of one of the squaws we observed the name of J. Bowman, executed in the same way. In language, habits, and in almost every other particular, they resemble the Clatsops, Cathlamahs, and, indeed, all the people near the mouth of the Columbia, though they appeared to be inferior to their neighbors in honesty as well as spirit. No ill treatment or indignity on our part seemed to excite any feeling except fear; nor, although better provided than their neighbors with arms, have they enterprise enough either to use them advantageously against the animals of the forest, or offensively against the tribes near them, who owe their safety more to the timidity than the forbearance of the Chinooks. We had heard instances of pilfering while we were among them, and therefore gave a general order excluding them from our encampment, so that whenever an Indian wished to visit us, he began by calling out `No Chinook.' It is not improbable that this first impression may have left a prejudice against them, since, when we were among the Clatsops and other tribes at the mouth of the Columbia, they had less opportunity of stealing, if they were so disposed."

The weeks remaining before the party set out on their return were passed without notable incident. The journal is chiefly occupied with comments on the weather, which was variable, and some account of the manners and customs of the Indian tribes along the Columbia River. At that time, so few traders had penetrated the wilds of the Lower Columbia that the Indians were not supplied with firearms to any great extent. Their main reliance was the bow and arrow. A few shotguns were seen among them, but no rifles, and great was the admiration and wonder with which the Indians saw the white men slay birds and animals at a long distance. Pitfalls for elk were constructed by the side of fallen trees over which the animals might leap. Concerning the manufactures of the Clatsops, they reported as follows:-

"Their hats are made of cedar-bark and bear-grass, interwoven together in the form of a European hat, with a small brim of about two inches, and a high crown widening upward. They are light, ornamented with various colors and figures, and being nearly water-proof, are much more durable than either chip or straw hats. These hats form a small article of traffic with the whites, and their manufacture is one of the best exertions of Indian industry. They are, however, very dexterous in making a variety of domestic utensils, among which are bowls, spoons, scewers [skewers], spits, and baskets. The bowl or trough is of different shapes-round, semicircular, in the form of a canoe, or cubic, and generally dug out of a single piece of wood; the larger vessels have holes in the sides by way of handles, and all are executed with great neatness. In these vessels they boil their food, by throwing hot stones into the water, and extract oil from different animals in the same way. Spoons are not very abundant, nor is there anything remarkable in their shape, except that they are large and the bowl broad. Meat is roasted on one end of a sharp skewer, placed erect before the fire, with the other end fixed in the ground.

"But the most curious workmanship is that of the basket. It is formed of cedar-bark and bear-grass, so closely interwoven that it is water-tight, without the aid of either gum or resin. The form is generally conic, or rather the segment [frustum] of a cone, of which the smaller end is the bottom of the basket; and being made of all sizes, from that of the smallest cup to the capacity of five or six gallons, they answer the double purpose of a covering for the head or to contain water. Some of them are highly ornamented with strands of bear-grass, woven into figures of various colors, which require great labor; yet they are made very expeditiously and sold for a trifle. It is for the construction of these baskets that the bear-grass forms an article of considerable traffic. It grows only near the snowy region of the high mountains; the blade, which is two feet long and about three-eighths of an inch wide, is smooth, strong, and pliant; the young blades particularly, from their not being exposed to the sun and air, have an appearance of great neatness, and are generally preferred. Other bags and baskets, not waterproof, are made of cedar-bark, silk-grass, rushes, flags, and common coarse sedge, for the use of families. In these manufactures, as in the ordinary work of the house, the instrument most in use is a knife, or rather a dagger. The handle of it is small, and has a strong loop of twine for the thumb, to prevent its being wrested from the band. On each side is a blade, double-edged and pointed; the longer from nine to ten inches, the shorter from four to five. This knife is carried habitually in the hand, sometimes exposed, but mostly, when in company with strangers, is put under the robe."

Naturally, all of the Columbia River Indians were found to be expert in the building and handling of canoes. Here their greatest skill was employed. And, it may be added, the Indians of the North Pacific coast to-day are equally adept and skilful. The canoes of the present race of red men do not essentially differ from those of the tribes described by Lewis and Clark, and who are now extinct. The Indians then living above tide-water built canoes of smaller size than those employed by the nations farther down the river. The canoes of the Tillamooks and other tribes living on the seacoast were upwards of fifty feet long, and would carry eight or ten thousand pounds' weight, or twenty-five or thirty persons. These were constructed from the trunk of a single tree, usually white cedar. The bow and stern rose much higher than the gunwale, and were adorned by grotesque figures excellently well carved and fitted to pedestals cut in the solid wood of the canoe. The same method of adornment may be seen among the aborigines of Alaska and other regions of the North Pacific, to-day. The figures are made of small pieces of wood neatly fitted together by inlaying and mortising, without any spike of any kind. When one reflects that the Indians seen by Lewis and Clark constructed their large canoes with very poor tools, it is impossible to withhold one's admiration of their industry and patience. The journal says:-

"Our admiration of their skill in these curious constructions was increased by observing the very inadequate implements which they use. These Indians possess very few axes, and the only tool they employ, from felling the tree to the delicate workmanship of the images, is a chisel made of an old file, about an inch or an inch and a half in width. Even of this, too, they have not learned the proper management; for the chisel is sometimes fixed in a large block of wood, and, being held in the right hand, the block is pushed with the left, without the aid of a mallet. But under all these disadvantages, their canoes, which one would suppose to be the work of years, are made in a few weeks. A canoe, however, is very highly prized, being in traffic an article of the greatest value except a wife, and of equal value with her; so that a lover generally gives a canoe to the father in exchange for his daughter. …

"The harmony of their private life is secured by their ignorance of spirituous liquors, the earliest and most dreadful present which civilization has given to the other natives of the continent. Although they have had so much intercourse with whites, they do not appear to possess any knowledge of those dangerous luxuries; at least they have never inquired after them, which they probably would have done if once liquors bad been introduced among them. Indeed, we have not observed any liquor of intoxicating quality among these or any Indians west of the Rocky Mountains, the universal beverage being pure water. They, however, sometimes almost intoxicate themselves by smoking tobacco, of which they are excessively fond, and the pleasures of which they prolong as much as possible, by retaining vast quantities at a time, till after circulating through the lungs and stomach it issues in volumes from the mouth and nostrils."

A long period of quiet prevailed in camp after the first of February, before the final preparations for departure were made. Parties were sent out every day to hunt, and the campers were able to command a few days' supply of provision in advance. The flesh of the deer was now very lean and poor, but that of the elk was growing better and better. It was estimated by one of the party that they killed, between December 1, 1805, and March 20, 1806, elk to the number of one hundred and thirty-one, and twenty deer. Some of this meat they smoked for its better preservation, but most of it was eaten fresh. No record was kept of the amount of fish consumed by the party; but they were obliged at times to make fish their sole article of diet. Late in February they were visited by Comowool, the principal Clatsop chief, who brought them a sturgeon and quantities of a small fish which had just begun to make its appearance in the Columbia. This was known as the anchovy, but oftener as the candle-fish; it is so fat that it may be burned like a torch, or candle. The journal speaks of Comowool as "by far the most friendly and decent savage we have seen in this neighborhood."

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