First Across the Continent
From Tidewater to the Sea
Near the mouth of the river which the explorers named Quicksand River (now Sandy), they met a party of fifteen Indians who had lately been down to the mouth of the Columbia. These people told the white men that they had seen three vessels at anchor below, and, as these must needs be American, or European, the far-voyaging explorers were naturally pleased. When they had camped that night, they received other visitors of whom the journal makes mention:-
"A canoe soon after arrived from the village at the foot of the last rapid, with an Indian and his family, consisting of a wife, three children, and a woman who had been taken prisoner from the Snake Indians, living on a river from the south, which we afterward found to be the Multnomah. Sacajawea was immediately introduced to her, in hopes that, being a Snake Indian, they might understand each other; but their language was not sufficiently intelligible to permit them to converse together. The Indian had a gun with a brass barrel and cock, which he appeared to value highly."
The party had missed the Multnomah River in their way down, although this is one of the three largest tributaries of the Columbia, John Day's River and the Des Chutes being the other two. A group of islands near the mouth of the Multnomah hides it from the view of the passing voyager. The stream is now more generally known as the Willamette, or Wallamet. The large city of Portland, Oregon, is built on the river, about twelve miles from its junction with the Columbia. The Indian tribes along the banks of the Multnomah, or Willamette, subsisted largely on the wappatoo, an eatable root, about the size of a hen's egg and closely resembling a potato. This root is much sought after by the Indians and is eagerly bought by tribes living in regions where it is not to be found. The party made great use of the wappatoo after they had learned how well it served in place of bread. They bought here all that the Indians could spare and then made their way down the river to an open prairie where they camped for dinner and found many signs of elk and deer. The journal says:-
"When we landed for dinner, a number of Indians from the last village came down for the purpose, as we supposed, of paying us a friendly visit, as they had put on their favorite dresses. In addition to their usual covering they had scarlet and blue blankets, sailors' jackets and trousers, shirts and hats. They had all of them either war-axes, spears, and bows and arrows, or muskets and pistols, with tin powder-flasks. We smoked with them and endeavored to show them every attention, but we soon found them very assuming and disagreeable companions. While we were eating, they stole the pipe with which they were smoking, and the greatcoat of one of the men. We immediately searched them all, and discovered the coat stuffed under the root of a tree near where they were sitting; but the pipe we could not recover. Finding us determined not to suffer any imposition, and discontented with them, they showed their displeasure in the only way which they dared, by returning in an ill-humor to their village.
"We then proceeded and soon met two canoes, with twelve men of the same Skilloot nation, who were on their way from below. The larger of the canoes was ornamented with the figure of a bear in the bow and a man in the stern, both nearly as large as life, both made of painted wood and very neatly fixed to the boat. In the same canoe were two Indians, finely dressed and with round hats. This circumstance induced us to give the name of Image-canoe to the large island, the lower end of which we now passed at the distance of nine miles from its head."
Here they had their first full view of Mt. St. Helen's, sometimes called Mt. Ranier. The peak is in Washington and is 9,750 feet high. It has a sugar-loaf, or conical, shape and is usually covered with snow. The narrative of the expedition continues as follows:-
"The Skilloots that we passed to-day speak a language somewhat different from that of the Echeloots or Chilluckittequaws near the long narrows. Their dress, however, is similar, except that the Skilloots possess more articles procured from the white traders; and there is this farther difference between them, that the Skilloots, both males and females, have the head flattened. Their principal food is fish, wappatoo roots, and some elk and deer, in killing which with arrows they seem to be very expert; for during the short time we remained at the village, three deer were brought in. We also observed there a tame blaireau, [badger]."
The journal, November 5, says:-
"Our choice of a camp had been very unfortunate; for on a sand-island opposite us were immense numbers of geese, swan, ducks, and other wild fowl, which during the whole night serenaded us with a confusion of noises which completely prevented our sleeping. During the latter part of the night it rained, and we therefore willingly left camp at an early hour. We passed at three miles a small prairie, where the river is only three-quarters of a mile in width, and soon after two houses on the left, half a mile distant from each other; from one of which three men came in a canoe merely to look at us, and having done so returned home. At eight miles we came to the lower point of an island, separated from the right side by a narrow channel, on which, a short distance above the end of the island, is situated a large village. It is built more compactly than the generality of the Indian villages, and the front has fourteen houses, which are ranged for a quarter of a mile along the channel. As soon as we were discovered seven canoes came out to see us, and after some traffic, during which they seemed well disposed and orderly, accompanied us a short distance below."
The explorers now met Indians of a different nation from those whom they had seen before. The journal says:-
"These people seem to be of a different nation from those we have just passed; they are low in stature, ill shaped, and all have their heads flattened. They call themselves Wahkiacum, and their language differs from that of the tribes above, with whom they trade for wappatoo-roots. The houses are built in a different style, being raised entirely above ground, with the caves about five feet high and the door at the corner. Near the end, opposite this door, is a single fireplace, round which are the beds, raised four feet from the floor of earth; over the fire are hung the fresh fish, which, when dried, are stowed away with the wappatoo-roots under the beds. The dress of the men is like that of the people above, but the women are clad in a peculiar manner, the robe not reaching lower than the hip, and the body being covered in cold weather by a sort of corset of fur, curiously plaited and reaching from the arms to the hip; added to this is a sort of petticoat, or rather tissue of white cedar bark, bruised or broken into small strands, and woven into a girdle by several cords of the same material. Being tied round the middle, these strands hang down as low as the knee in front, and to the mid-leg behind; they are of sufficient thickness to answer the purpose of concealment whilst the female stands in an erect position, but in any other attitude form but a very ineffectual defence. Sometimes the tissue is strings of silk-grass, twisted and knotted at the end. After remaining with them about an hour, we proceeded down the channel with an Indian dressed in a sailor's jacket for our pilot, and on reaching the main channel were visited by some Indians who have a temporary residence on a marshy island in the middle of the river, where is a great abundance of water-fowl."
The tribe of Indians known as the Wahkiacums has entirely disappeared; but the name survives as that of one of the counties of Washington bordering on the Columbia. Wahkiacum is the county lying next west of Cowlitz. When the explorers passed down the river under the piloting of their Indian friend wearing a sailor's jacket, they were in a thick fog. This cleared away and a sight greeted their joyful vision. Their story says:-
"At a distance of twenty miles from our camp, we halted at a village of Wahkiacums, consisting of seven ill-looking houses, built in the same form with those above, and situated at the foot of the high hills on the right, behind two small marshy islands. We merely stopped to purchase some food and two beaver skins, and then proceeded. Opposite to these islands the hills on the left retire, and the river widens into a kind of bay, crowded with low islands, subject to be overflowed occasionally by the tide. We had not gone far from this village when, the fog suddenly clearing away, we were at last presented with the glorious sight of the ocean-that ocean, the object of all our labors, the reward of all our anxieties. This animating sight exhilarated the spirits of all the party, who were still more delighted on hearing the distant roar of the breakers. We went on with great cheerfulness along the high, mountainous country which bordered the right bank: the shore, however, was so bold and rocky, that we could not, until at a distance of fourteen miles from the last village, find any spot fit for an encampment. Having made during the day thirty-four miles, we now spread our mats on the ground, and passed the night in the rain. Here we were joined by our small canoe, which had been separated from us during the fog this morning. Two Indians from the last village also accompanied us to the camp; but, having detected them in stealing a knife, they were sent off."
It is not very easy for us, who have lived comfortably at home, or who have travelled only in luxurious railway-cars and handsomely equipped steamers, to realize the joy and rapture with which these far-wandering explorers hailed the sight of the sea,-the sea to which they had so long been journeying, through deserts, mountain-passes, and tangled wildernesses. In his diary Captain Clark thus sets down some indication of his joy on that memorable day, November 8, 1805: "Great joy in camp. We are in view of the Ocean, this great Pacific Ocean which we have been so long anxious to see, and the roaring or noise made by the waves breaking on the rocky shores (as I suppose) may be heard distinctly." Later, same day, he says, "Ocean in view! O! the joy!" Fortunately, the hardships to be undergone on the shores of the ocean were then unknown and undreamed of; the travellers were thankful to see the sea, the goal of all their hopes, the end of their long pilgrimage across the continent.
That night they camped near the mouth of the river in what is now known as Gray's Bay, on the north side of the river, in the southwest corner of Wahkiacum County. Before they could reach their camping-place, the water was so rough that some of the men had an unusual experience,-seasickness. They passed a disagreeable night on a narrow, rocky bench of land. Next day they say:
"Fortunately for us, the tide did not rise as high as our camp during the night; but being accompanied by high winds from the south, the canoes, which we could not place beyond its reach, were filled with water, and were saved with much difficulty. Our position was very uncomfortable, but as it was impossible to move from it, we waited for a change of weather. It rained, however, during the whole day, and at two o'clock in the afternoon the flood tide set in, accompanied by a high wind from the south, which, about four o'clock, shifted to the southwest and blew almost a gale directly from the sea. The immense waves now broke over the place where we were camped; the large trees, some of them five or six feet thick, which had lodged at the point, were drifted over our camp, and the utmost vigilance of every man could scarcely save our canoes from being crushed to pieces. We remained in the water, and drenched with rain, during the rest of the day, our only food being some dried fish and some rain-water which we caught. Yet, though wet and cold, and some of them sick from using salt water, the men were cheerful, and full of anxiety to see more of the ocean. The rain continued all night."
This was the beginning of troubles. Next day, the wind having lulled, the party set forth again, only to be beaten back and compelled to take to the shore again. This was their experience for several days. For example, under date of the eleventh the journal says:-
"The wind was still high from the southwest, and drove the waves against the shore with great fury; the rain too fell in torrents, and not only drenched us to the skin, but loosened the stones on the hillsides, which then came rolling down upon us. In this comfortless situation we remained all day, wet, cold, with nothing but dried fish to satisfy our hunger; the canoes in one place at the mercy of the waves, the baggage in another, and all the men scattered on floating logs, or sheltering themselves in the crevices of the rocks and hillsides. A hunter was despatched in hopes of finding some fresh meat; but the hills were so steep, and so covered with undergrowth and fallen timber, that he could not penetrate them, and he was forced to return."
And this is the record for the next day:-
"About three o'clock a tremendous gale of wind arose accompanied with lightning, thunder, and hail: at six it lightened up for a short time, but a violent rain soon began, and lasted through the day. During the storm, one of our boats, secured by being sunk with great quantities of stone, got loose, but, drifting against a rock, was recovered without having received much injury. Our situation now became much more dangerous, for the waves were driven with fury against the rocks and trees, which till now had afforded us refuge: we therefore took advantage of the low tide, and moved about half a mile round a point to a small brook, which we had not observed before on account of the thick bushes and driftwood which concealed its mouth. Here we were more safe, but still cold and wet; our clothes and bedding rotten as well as wet, our baggage at a distance, and the canoes, our only means of escape from this place, at the mercy of the waves. Still, we continued to enjoy good health, and even had the luxury of feasting on some salmon and three salmon trout which we caught in the brook. Three of the men attempted to go round a point in our small Indian canoe, but the high waves rendered her quite unmanageable, these boats requiring the seamanship of the natives to make them live in so rough a sea."
It should be borne in mind that the canoes of the explorers were poor dug-outs, unfit to navigate the turbulent waters of the bay, and the men were not so expert in that sort of seamanship as were the Indians whom they, with envy, saw breasting the waves and making short voyages in the midst of the storms. It continued to rain without any intermission, and the waves dashed up among the floating logs of the camp in a very distracting manner. The party now had nothing but dried fish to eat, and it was with great difficulty that a fire could be built. On the fifteenth of the month, Captain Lewis having found a better camping-place near a sandy beach, they started to move their luggage thither; but before they could get under way, a high wind from the southwest sprung up and they were forced to remain. But the sun came out and they were enabled to dry their stuff, much of which had been spoiled by the rain which had prevailed for the past ten days. Their fish also was no longer fit to eat, and they were indeed in poor case. Captain Lewis was out on a prospecting trip, and the party set out and found a beach through which a pleasant brook flowed to the river, making a very good camping-place. At the mouth of this stream was an ancient Chinook village, which, says the journal, "has at present no inhabitants but fleas." The adventurers were compelled to steer wide of all old Indian villages, they were so infested with fleas. At times, so great was the pest, the men were forced to take off all their clothing and soak themselves and their garments in the river before they could be rid of the insects. The site of their new camp was at the southeast end of Baker's Bay, sometimes called Haley's Bay, a mile above a very high point of rocks. On arriving at this place, the voyagers met with an unpleasant experience of which the journal gives this account:-
"Here we met Shannon, who had been sent back to meet us by Captain Lewis. The day Shannon left us in the canoe, he and Willard proceeded till they met a party of twenty Indians, who, having never heard of us, did not know where they [our men] came from; they, however, behaved with so much civility, and seemed so anxious that the men should go with them toward the sea, that their suspicions were excited, and they declined going on. The Indians, however, would not leave them; the men being confirmed in their suspicions, and fearful that if they went into the woods to sleep they would be cut to pieces in the night, thought it best to pass the night in the midst of the Indians. They therefore made a fire, and after talking with them to a late hour, laid down with their rifles under their heads. As they awoke that morning they found that the Indians had stolen and concealed their guns. Having demanded them in vain, Shannon seized a club, and was about assaulting one of the Indians, whom he suspected as a thief, when another Indian began to load a fowling-piece with the intention of shooting him. He therefore stopped, and explained by signs that if they did not give up the guns a large party would come down the river before the sun rose to such a height, and put every one of them to death. Fortunately, Captain Lewis and his party appeared at this time. The terrified Indians immediately brought the guns, and five of them came on with Shannon. To these men we declared that if ever any one of their nation stole anything from us, he should be instantly shot. They reside to the north of this place, and speak a language different from that of the people higher up the river.
"It was now apparent that the sea was at all times too rough for us to proceed further down the bay by water. We therefore landed, and having chosen the best spot we could select, made our camp of boards from the old [Chinook] village. We were now situated comfortably, and being visited by four Wahkiacums with wappatoo-roots, were enabled to make an agreeable addition to our food."
On the seventeenth Captain Lewis with a small party of his men coasted the bay as far out as Cape Disappointment and some distance to the north along the seacoast. Game was now plenty, and the camp was supplied with ducks, geese, and venison. Bad weather again set in. The journal under date of November 22 says:-
"It rained during the whole night, and about daylight a tremendous gale of wind rose from the S.S.E., and continued through the day with great violence. The sea ran so high that the water came into our camp, which the rain prevents us from leaving. We purchased from the old squaw, for armbands and rings, a few wappatoo-roots, on which we subsisted. They are nearly equal in flavor to the Irish potato, and afford a very good substitute for bread. The bad weather drove several Indians to our camp, but they were still under the terrors of the threat which we made on first seeing them, and behaved with the greatest decency.
"The rain continued through the night, November 23, and the morning was calm and cloudy. The hunters were sent out, and killed three deer, four brant, and three ducks. Towards evening seven Clatsops came over in a canoe, with two skins of the sea-otter. To this article they attached an extravagant value; and their demands for it were so high, that we were fearful it would too much reduce our small stock of merchandise, on which we had to depend for subsistence on our return, to venture on purchasing it. To ascertain, however, their ideas as to the value of different objects, we offered for one of these skins a watch, a handkerchief, an American dollar, and a bunch of red beads; but neither the curious mechanism of the watch, nor even the red beads, could tempt the owner: he refused the offer, but asked for tiacomoshack, or chief beads, the most common sort of coarse blue-colored beads, the article beyond all price in their estimation. Of these blue beads we had but few, and therefore reserved them for more necessitous circumstances."
The officers of the expedition had hoped and expected to find here some of the trading ships that were occasionally sent along the coast to barter with the natives; but none were to be found. They were soon to prepare for winter-quarters, and they still hoped that a trader might appear in the spring before they set out on their homeward journey across the continent. Very much they needed trinkets to deal with the natives in exchange for, the needful articles of food on the route. But (we may as well say here) no such relief ever appeared. It is strange that President Jefferson, in the midst of his very minute orders and preparations for the benefit of the explorers, did not think of sending a relief ship to meet the party at the mouth of the Columbia. They would have been saved a world of care, worry, and discomfort. But at that time the European nations who held possessions on the Pacific coast were very suspicious of the Americans, and possibly President Jefferson did not like to risk rousing their animosity.
The rain that now deluged the unhappy campers was so incessant that they might well have thought that people should be web-footed to live in such a watery region. In these later days, Oregon is sometimes known as "The Web-foot State." Captain Clark, in his diary, November 28, makes this entry: "O! how disagreeable is our situation dureing this dreadfull weather!" The gallant captain's spelling was sometimes queer. Under that date he adds:-
"We remained during the day in a situation the most cheerless and uncomfortable. On this little neck of land we are exposed, with a miserable covering which does not deserve the name of a shelter, to the violence of the winds; all our bedding and stores, as well as our bodies, are completely wet; our clothes are rotting with constant exposure, and we have no food except the dried fish brought from the falls, to which we are again reduced. The hunters all returned hungry and drenched with rain, having seen neither deer nor elk, and the swan and brant were too shy to be approached. At noon the wind shifted to the northwest, and blew with such tremendous fury that many trees were blown down near us. This gale lasted with short intervals during the whole night."
Of course, in the midst of such violent storms, it was impossible to get game, and the men were obliged to resort once more to a diet of dried fish, This food caused much sickness in the camp, and it became imperatively necessary that efforts should again be made to find game. On the second of December, to their great joy an elk was killed, and next day they had a feast. The journal says;
"The wind was from the east and the morning fair; but, as if one whole day of fine weather were not permitted, toward night it began to rain. Even this transient glimpse of sunshine revived the spirits of the party, who were still more pleased when the elk killed yesterday was brought into camp. This was the first elk we had killed on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, and condemned as we have been to the dried fish, it formed a most nourishing food. After eating the marrow of the shank-bones, the squaw chopped them fine, and by boiling extracted a pint of grease, superior to the tallow itself of the animal. A canoe of eight Indians, who were carrying down wappatoo-roots to trade with the Clatsops, stopped at our camp; we bought a few roots for small fish-hooks, and they then left us. Accustomed as we were to the sight, we could not but view with admiration the wonderful dexterity with which they guide their canoes over the most boisterous seas; for though the waves were so high that before they had gone half a mile the canoe was several times out of sight, they proceeded with the greatest calmness and security. Two of the hunters who set out yesterday had lost their way, and did not return till this evening. They had seen in their ramble great signs of elk and had killed six, which they had butchered and left at a great distance. A party was sent in the morning."
On the third of December Captain Clark carved on the trunk of a great pine tree this inscription:-
"WM. CLARK DECEMBER 3D 1805 BY LAND FROM THE U. STATES IN 1804 & 5."
A few days later, Captain Lewis took with him a small party and set out to find a suitable spot on which to build their winter camp. He did not return as soon as he was expected, and considerable uneasiness was felt in camp on that account. But he came in safely. He brought good news; they had discovered a river on the south side of the Columbia, not far from their present encampment, where there were an abundance of elk and a favorable place for a winter camp. Bad weather detained them until the seventh of December, when a favorable change enabled them to proceed. They made their way slowly and very cautiously down-stream, the tide being against them. The narrative proceeds:-
"We at length turned a point, and found ourselves in a deep bay: here we landed for breakfast, and were joined by the party sent out three days ago to look for the six elk, killed by the Lewis party. They had lost their way for a day and a half, and when they at last reached the place, found the elk so much spoiled that they brought away nothing but the skins of four of them. After breakfast we coasted round the bay, which is about four miles across, and receives, besides several small creeks, two rivers, called by the Indians, the one Kilhowanakel, the other Netul. We named it Meriwether's Bay, from the Christian name of Captain Lewis, who was, no doubt, the first white man who had surveyed it. The wind was high from the northeast, and in the middle of the day it rained for two hours, and then cleared off. On reaching the south side of the bay we ascended the Netul three miles, to the first point of high land on its western bank, and formed our camp in a thick grove of lofty pines, about two hundred yards from the water, and thirty feet above the level of the high tides."