Fur trader Alexander Ross arrives at the mouth of the Yakima River on August 16, 1811.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 2/28/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8500

On August 16, 1811, Alexander Ross, a trader and explorer with Astor's Pacific Fur Company goes up the Columbia River and arrives at the mouth of Yakima River. There he encounters a number of Indians and observes a novel method of fishing. He is also asked to restore two dead children to life.

Permission to Proceed

Ross and his party had attended a tribal council with the chiefs gathered at the mouth of the Snake River on August 15, 1811, where the chiefs granted him permission to proceed up the "north branch" (the Columbia). On August 16, he arrived at the mouth of the Eyakema (Yakima) River, which he said "surpassed in picturesque beauty anything we had yet seen" (Ross). 

Three Walla Walla Indians came galloping up on horseback, alarming them, until Ross realized that they were delivering a bag of shot they had left by mistake at their previous night's camp. He called this "convincing proof that there is honesty among Indians" as well as proof that the Walla Wallas were especially trustworthy.

Fishing Technology

Ross also noted that the Indians there fished not only for "monster salmon," but also for tiny three-to-four-inch fish that they caught by a novel method. The Indians would cut a small bit of leather off their shirts, tie the bean-sized piece of leather to horsehairs for a line, and toss it into the water.

"When the fish had hold of the bit of wet leather, or bait, their teeth got entangled in it, so as to give time to jerk them on shore,” wrote Ross in his journal. “Which was, to us, a new mode of angling” (Ross).

Meanwhile another Indian would pick up the little fish that the angler tossed on shore, impale them on small sticks, and plant the sticks in a circle around the fire to roast. "The fellows then sitting down, swallowed them -- heads, tails, bones, guts, fins and all, in no time, just as one would swallow the yolk of an egg," wrote Ross.

At White Bluffs

Upstream from the Yakima, Ross and his party encountered a "long range of marl hills," today called the White Bluffs.

"Here two children were presented to us by their parents, in order that we may restore them to life again, and a horse was offered as the reward," wrote Ross. "We pitied their ignorance, made them a small present and told them to bury their dead."

Sources: Alexander Ross, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Columbia River, 1810-1813 (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 141-143.

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