Lewis and Clark in Washington

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 9/27/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5556

In May 1803, the United States purchased Louisiana from France.  The doubling of U.S. territory caused President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) to send Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) on a westward expedition to explore the nation's new piece of real estate.  The Corps of Discovery was a party of 33 people, including Sacagawea, a Shohone Indian, and York, an African slave.  The Corps, under the leadership of Captain Lewis and Captain William Clark (1770-1838), traveled by foot, horse, and watercraft across North America and back again beginning in Wood River, Illinois, in May 1804, and returning to St. Louis, Missouri, in August 1806.  The period the Corps spent along the Columbia and Snake rivers and at the mouth of the Columbia -- from October 1805 to May 1806 -- was principally within what is now the State of Washington.

The Dream of a Transcontinental Water Route

President Thomas Jefferson, who had long believed Americans would populate much of North America, now had an opportunity to embrace his dream. After several abortive attempts to explore unknown Western lands, he asked his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, who in turn chose William Clark as co-captain, to lead an expedition up the Missouri River and find the headwaters of the Columbia River. Jefferson was convinced that such an undertaking would not only result in a commercial cross-continent water route, but would produce scientific, military, and ethnographic (Indians) data of vital importance to the nation.

Extensive preparations for the journey took place in January-June, 1803. In May 1804 the Corps of Discovery -- its official military title -- departed Wood River, Illinois, and began an arduous trip up the 2,500-mile-long Missouri River. Crossing the Rocky Mountains and the Bitterroot Range were near disasters. The Corps' September 1805 meeting with the Nez Perce Indians renewed their spirits, although the party's general health was poor. After burning out logs Indian-style to make canoes, the Corps "proceeded on," arriving at the junction of the Snake River, which Clark named "Lewis's River," on October 10, 1805. On that day the Corps was at the border of today's state of Washington.

Snake River Country

Lower Snake River country is a showcase for dramatic Palouse hills and great wheat ranches. Except for a railroad, a highway, and four dams, it has changed little since Lewis & Clark's day. The Corps encountered rapids, treeless vistas, a paucity of animal life, and small Nez Perce villages. Their campsite, near today's Lewiston, Idaho, offered the Corps its first view of Washington state's Palouse country. It also offered an opportunity to describe the Chopunnish or Nez Perce people: "stout, portly, well-looking men ... the women are small with good features and generally handsome ... fond of displaying their ornaments ... [they wear] buffalo or elk-skin robe[s] decorated with beads ... sea-shells, chiefly mother-of-pearl, attached to an otter-skin collar and hung in the hair ... feather, paints of different kinds, principally white, green, and light blue" (Clark).

On October 11, 1805, about 30 miles west of Clarkston, Washington, near Almota, a Nez Perce fishing site, the party went ashore at its first Washington campsite. The party had experienced a wet ride, dodging rocks and islands. The men dried their baggage, repaired a canoe, purchased roots, and dined with the local Indians.

Traveling another 30 miles, the Corps camped on October 12 just southwest of today's Little Goose Dam. After purchasing three dogs and a few fish to eat, the party noticed a scarcity of driftwood, which they used to fuel their fires. The Corps embarked the next morning in wind and rain and soon encountered another ominous set of rapids. With the help of two Indian guides and the skills of the French watermen, the party negotiated two miles of dangerous water and pulled ashore at day's end, October 13, 1805. En route, Ship Rock (Monumental Rock) was named.

On October 14, 1805, five miles west of Lower Monumental Dam, Corps members found Indian-split logs and used them for firewood. Having killed a few ducks and teal, they settled in for the night. The next evening, near today's green, tree-covered Fishhook Park, the party bedded down on an island that appeared to be an abandoned Indian fishing ground. Again, they purloined timber and ate a thin meal of waterfowl.

The Columbia

After reaching the scenic confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers on October 16, 1805, the Corps noted the low hills and wide reach -- 960 yards they estimated -- of the great Columbia. This crossroads is today the site of Sacajawea Park. Clark took a small party and paddled up the great river to the approximate location of today's Pasco, where he described great quantities of salmon drying on scaffolds. Dead fish were everywhere. Eighteen Indian canoes accompanied Clark's boat. Upon landing at a village, Clark shared tobacco and ate fish with the friendly tenants. The Indians then showed him the mouth of today's Yakima River.

Wallula Gap

The party's next campsite, on October 18, 1805, was just south of the soaring and historic Wallula Gap, site of a prehistoric ice dam and lake that broke free, shaping and smoothing the Columbia Gorge as water roared to the sea. This is also the confluence of the Walla Walla and Columbia Rivers. (The party took a route through the Walla Walla Valley on its return journey in April 1806. In fact, the Corps would use an ancient Nez Perce trail paralleling the Walla Walla River.)

The evening of November 18, 1805, became a social occasion. Chief Yelleppit of the Walla Wallas offered scarce firewood. He and his companions, after a long smoke and conversation with the captains, camped nearby. The next morning Yelleppit, "a bold handsom Indian, with a dignified countenance about 35 years of age (Clark)," held a grand council. The friendship of the Walla Wallas would be important to the Corps on its return journey in April and May, 1806. On that occasion, they presented Clark with a white horse and guided the party to a new, shorter route through the Walla Walla Valley.

In the 1820s, not long after Lewis & Clark identified the area, British fur trading companies established Fort Nez Perce, later called Fort Walla Walla, at Wallula. The site was inundated in 1953 by waters behind McNary Dam. From this point to the sea, the Corps would ride the river boundary between today's Oregon and Washington. However, most of its campsites would be on the Washington side.

Snow Peaks and Rapid Waters

With the river flowing fast, the Corps covered almost 35 miles in a day, putting in on October 19, 1805, at today's Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge. In front of them were a series of islands, known as memaloose, or places of the dead, where deceased Indians were wrapped in skins and placed in canoes or on scaffolds. Along this scenic reach the Corps caught glimpses of the snow-covered Cascade Mountains. Within the next few days they identified (from George Vancouver's maps) Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood. (Mount Adams would be described on the return trip in 1806.) They also noted that Indians were wearing trinkets and clothing from coastal trading ships. Their excitement was palpable and they could almost smell the "bad-tasting lake," or Pacific Ocean.

Observing white pelicans and black cormorants as the Corps negotiated white water, on October 20, members camped at the site of an Indian village, a settlement of 17 huts at the present location of North Roosevelt, Washington. Again, their dinner was sparse: poor tasting dried fish, a few berries, dog flesh. The next day, encountering more rapids (inundated today by Columbia River dams), they camped at a place the Indians called "Timm" (Clark, October 21), a word emphatically pronounced by the Indians to describe the sound of wild downstream waterfalls. That word has also been used to denote the beat of a heart, i.e. "Tum-Tum."

The Indians were right. Just 15 miles downriver the Corps encountered the first of what they called the Great Falls of the Columbia (as contrasted with the Great Falls of the Missouri, which they had portaged around some months previous). This 20-foot-high cataract was later called Celilo, an Indian word for "floating sand cloud," in recognition of occasional sandstorms.

The Corps spent the next six days -- until October 28, 1805 -- in this formidable area. This was not only the site of the Long and Short Narrows -- wild, steep-walled coulees with flagstone floors (origin of the French name "The Dalles") -- but also an aboriginal crossroads dating back 13,000 years. Indians from California, the Dakotas, Canada, and the coast had been meeting here to catch wild salmon. The results could be seen everywhere: West Coast trade goods, buffalo robes, ship's kettles and sailor's uniforms, and, most intriguingly, petroglyphs (carvings) and pictographs (paintings) on nearby basalt walls. The captains called the area a "Great Trademart."

On October 29, 1805, the Corps camped near the Little White Salmon River in today's Klickitat County. Dinner consisted of pounded fish, filberts, berries, and white bread made of roots. The village chief made clear that he and his people were at war with another nation. To prove his point, he showed the captains a medicine bag holding 14 fingers, each representing an enemy he had killed. After purchasing 12 dogs, four sacks of fish, and dried berries, the Corps proceeded on.

Just downstream from Stevenson, Washington, at the approximate site of Bonneville Dam, the Corps established a rain-soaked campsite, 30-31 October. The captains described the skins of wolves, deer, elk, and wildcat worn by the Indians. They also saw the hide of a mountain (bighorn) sheep and watched swans swimming in a small pond behind the village. The captains' descriptions of the Chinook Indians, who dominated the western side of the Cascades, included references to their short stature and squat frames which they attributed to the Indians' habit of sitting on their haunches and constantly riding in canoes. (Several scholars attribute the Chinook's stature to the smallpox epidemic of 1783.) They also noticed flattened heads, unique to the Chinook in those times.

Sea Otters and Salmon

November 1st found the Corps at the foot of 848-foot-high Beacon Rock, which Clark spelled as "Beaten." Seals were frolicking and chasing salmon. The next day Mt. Hood could be seen. The party was in the heart of the Cascade Mountains, surrounded by basalt walls, ancient landslides, and Douglas fir. Rocky boulders of the pre-historic Bridge of the Gods were everywhere. On the Oregon side, great falls were cascading down the cliffs. On November 2 they camped near today's Reed Island, where Lt. William Broughton, Captain Vancouver's adjutant, had held a ceremony in May 1792 to claim the area for Great Britain. On November 3rd the Corps camped near modern-day Camas, Washington.

Rushing by today's Port of Portland, Vancouver, Washington, and the mouth of the Willamette River (which they did not see because of sand islands and debris), the party turned northward on the Columbia. On November 4th, Corps members learned from the Chinook Indians about the wapato root, a substitute for potatoes and bread that would become a food staple during the remainder of their western adventure.

They also set up camp across from Diamond Island (Washington side, near today's Ridgefield) and shot deer and fowl on the island itself. (On the return journey, in late March 1806, they stopped off at an Indian village on nearby Bachelor's Island where they saw 14 "large wooden houses." At this point the Corps was warmly received by the Bachelor Island residents. They were also given wapato and anchovies -- probably Eulachon, a member of the smelt family -- by the residents.)

Emensely Noumerous Swans and Geese

Clark complained in his journal on November 5, 1805, about having trouble sleeping "for the noise Kept (up) dureing the whole of the night by the Swans, Geese, white & Gray Brant Ducks ... on a Small Sand Island ... they were emensely noumerous, and their noise horid. We Set out early ... "

Rain and fog stayed with the party as it passed Puget Island, a sign that the ocean was ahead. Steep hills on the Washington side would one day hold the charming town of Cathlamet. On November 7, 1805, Clark exultantly wrote in his journal: "Great joy in camp, we are in view of the Ocian, this great Pacific Octian which we have been so long anxious to see, and the roreing or noise made by the waves brakeing on the rockey shores (as I suppose) may be heard distictly." Later, he proclaimed: "Ocian in view! O! the joy." The debate continues to this day. Did Clark actually see the Pacific, or was he gazing across the wide mouth of Grays Bay on the Columbia River? Further, what did he hear?

The next six days were stormy, with gale winds and a steady downpour. Clark referred to their riverside campsite as a "dismal nitich" because it was narrow, rocky, cramped, and offered little protection from the elements. After drying out their goods during a patch of sunshine on November 15th they moved around Point Ellice, the northern anchor of today's Astoria-Megler bridge. They paddled on to a "butiful Sand beech (Clark)" next to a small stream. At the mouth of the stream was an uninhabited Chinook village of 36 houses. On November 18th a California condor was shot and described by Clark as 9.5 feet from wingtip to wingtip.

Several exploring members of the party had spent the previous night with Indians and awoke to find their guns stolen. Fortunately, Captain Lewis and his party arrived about the time a confrontation was brewing. The guns were returned and the Corps decided to make camp at what is known as Chinook Point. Sgt. Patrick Gass, keeper of a trip journal, named the area Point Open-Slope. Today it is called Station Camp. The site is under water just off Highway 101 near the old McGowan Church and town of Chinook, Washington.

Captain Lewis "coasted," which presumably means "canoed," down the bay on 17 November, visiting local chiefs, hunting (3 deer, 4 brant and 2 ducks), and tasting a boiled root that resembled licorice (culhomo or culwhamo).

On to Cape Disappointment

The Corps was now in full view of the ocean. On the morning of 18 November Captain Clark, with 12 men (York, Sgts. Ordway and Pryor, the Field brothers, Shannon, Bratton, Colter, Weiser, Labiche, Charbonneau) struck out on a land reconnaissance of the area. Clark's team hiked down Haley's (now Baker's) Bay to Cape Disappointment, climbed over the cape, and continued several miles up the Long Beach peninsula. The explorers probably reached the area north of the town of Long Beach, Washington. Clark noted on this day that he marked his "name & and by land the Day of the Month and the year" on a tree. The party returned the same way, but crossed the neck of the hilly peninsula, retracing its steps along the bay to Station Camp.

Cape Disappointment was so named by British captain John Meares (1756?-1809) in 1788. He chose the name because, he wrote, "We can now with safety assert that no such river as that of Saint Roc (the Columbia) exists as laid down in the Spanish chart (Bruno Heceta's map)." Atop the cape today is a Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center facing the Pacific Ocean between two lighthouses, and surrounded by a trail network.

Beginning on November 19, 1805, the rains came. Game was hard to find, the Indians helped themselves to camp items, Corps member's leather clothing was rotting, and the Chinook Indians, skillful traders, were driving hard bargains for food. Morale was sinking.

On November 20, two chiefs appeared, one of who appeared in a beautiful robe made of two sea otter skins. He would not part with his wrap until Sacagawea agreed to give up her belt of blue beads. One of the chiefs was one-eyed Concomly, the principal chief of the Chinook nation. An old woman, the wife of a Chinook chief, showed up on the 21st, with six young women. The women, Clark wrote, were brought "for the purpose of Gratifying the passions of the men of our party and receving for those indulgiences Such Small (presents) as She (the old woman) thought proper." Clark goes on to note that the Chinooks "appear to View Sensuality as a Necessary evel, and do not appear to abhor it as a Crime in the unmarried state."

The Consultation

November 24, 1805, was an historic day. A democratic vote ("consultation") was taken. Each member of the party, including Clark's black slave, York, and the Indian woman, Sacagawea, voiced their opinion. It was decided to cross the river to the south shore (Oregon) where game was more plentiful and trees abundant. They also wanted to remain near the mouth of the river within hailing distance of a ship and to obtain salt.

Before abandoning the north (Washington) side Clark professionally surveyed the area with compass and "pole" chain, which suggests that this stop was an important milestone in the journey.

Winter at Fort Clatsop

The Corps' winter at Fort Clatsop, on the Oregon side of the river, is a separate wonderful story. In the fort's snug rooms more than 300 pair of moccasins ("mockersons") were made, the hunters kept the larder full despite almost incessant rains, and the captains brought their journals up to date.

The return journey commenced on March 23, 1806. Many of the campsites were new but the terrain and Indian contacts were familiar.

On April 27th, 1806, the Corps found themselves again among the Walla Walla nation. Chief Yelleppit was pleased to see the Captains and provided the Corps with hospitable treatment, including food, fuel, horses and new directions on a route to the south of the Snake River. Yelleppit presented Clark with a white horse. Clark, having run out of trade goods, gave the chief his sword, balls, and powder.

During the eastward trek, which was more or less along the south bank of the Snake River in Washington state, the Corps followed part of the Walla Walla Valley to the present sites of Waitsburg and Dayton, Washington. On May 4, 1806, near Patit Creek (Dayton) the Corps ate their last meal (dog) in Washington while rain, hail and wind whipped the encampment.

It is worth noting that on the return journey the Corps had troubles. First, they had few trade goods at hand so they practiced medicine as a means of obtaining help, affecting a number of "cures." On July 27th, 1806, the Corps was involved in the first and only deaths of two Indians (Piegan or Blackfeet), and on August 11th Captain Lewis was accidentally shot in the buttocks by one of his own men (Pierre Cruzatte).

On September 23, 1806, the party descended the Mississippi River and landed at St. Louis where the little community gave the Corps "the heartiest and most hospitable welcome (Lewis)."

The Journals were written in virtually equal parts by both Lewis and Clark. However, the Washington state portion was penned by Clark. Why? We don't know, but it's possible that Lewis lost some of his notes, or he was too busy with details of the trek to take time for writing.


James P. Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1984); Bernard DeVoto, The Journals of Lewis and Clark (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1953); Elliott Coues, Editor, The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition Vols. I, II, and III (New York: Dover Publications, 1893); Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (New York and London: Simon & Schuster, 1996); David Lavender, The Way to the Western Sea: Lewis and Clark Across the Continent (New York and London: Doubleday, 1988); The Essential Lewis and Clark ed. by Landon Y. Jones (New York: HarperCollins, 2000); A Guide and Map: The Washington Experience of the Lewis & Clark Expedition (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1999); Barbara Fifer and Vicky Soderberg, Along the Trail with Lewis and Clark (Great Falls, MT: Montana Magazine, 1998); The Journals of Patrick Gass, Member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition ed. by Carol Lynn MacGregor (Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1997).

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