byRobert Carriker & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & eriwether Lewis, usually the more expressive of the two men who led the Corps of Discovery, noted a momentous event on March 23, 1806, with an uncharacteristic economy of words: "at 1 P. M. we bid a final adieu to Fort Clatsop." Lewis' co-commander, William Clark, displayed considerably more sentiment: "at this place we had wintered and remained from the 7th of Decr. 1805 to this day and have lived as well as we had any right to expect, and we can Say that we were never one day without 3 meals of Some kind." Several of the enlisted men on the expedition furnished additional details. Sgt. John Ordway, the third in command, proudly noted that his men had kept the larder full at this outpost on the southern shore of the Columbia River notwithstanding "rain which has fallen almost constantly." Another sergeant, Patrick Gass, estimated that during the winter the party kept the pantry stocked by killing 155 elk along with 20 deer. According to Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse, the downed animals furnished not only meat but also the leather for 338 pairs of moccasins. The men would need that much footwear, he added, in order to return an estimated 4,134 miles "to the place from whence we took our departure," meaning the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
Paddling five canoes against the current of the mighty Columbia River -- sometimes against a "Stiff breese from the S. W. which raised Considerable Swells" -- sapped the strength of the expedition men. Inasmuch as they had spent the winter ashore, the men need not have felt embarrassed at being a little out of shape, but another episode probably did shame them. Earlier, on March 17, as the captains made final preparations for the journey back to Missouri, Lewis bought a canoe from the Clatsop Indians at a price that required him to give up his uniform coat plus a quantity of tobacco. He confided to his journal that "we yet want another canoe, and as the Clatsops will not sell us one at a price which we can afford to give we will take one from them in lue of the six Elk which they stole from us in the winter." Clark concurred. The following day, Sgt. Ordway reports, "4 men went over to the prarie near the coast to take a canoe which belonged to the Clatsop Indians, as we are in want of it." Two men concealed the canoe near the fort until it was time to depart on March 23. But on the afternoon of March 24, when the expedition got lost among some islands, "an Indian perceiving pursued overtook us and put us in the wright channel." Unexpectedly, the Indian recognized his canoe in the flotilla manned by the Corps of Discovery. Oops! Lewis writes that the man "consented very willingly to take an Elk's skin" for the canoe after which he immediately departed. Is receiving an elk skin a fair trade for a handcrafted canoe? Not usually. In this instance, a lone man stood before 31 other men, each of them possessing a rifle.
As had been the case on the westward journey, the men of the expedition favored daily meals of meat to fuel their hard-working bodies. Hunters took to the field daily, but ultimately elk disappeared from the dinner menu. Deer flesh could not satisfy, remarked Clark, as it "is too poore for the men to subsist on and work as hard as is necessary." On March 26, the hunters returned to camp, having killed three eagles and a large goose. Dogs could be acquired from the natives, but that usually required offering tobacco, a commodity valued as much by the buyers of canines as the sellers. After such bargains, the chewers of tobacco among the men substituted bark from wild crabapple trees; they found it bitter but agreeable. The smokers in the group adjusted by peeling the inner bark from the red willow tree and mixing it with dried leaves. Sometimes fish, roots and fruit were the only foods available. Lewis and Clark preferred sturgeon among the fish; the flesh of harbor seals they also found a worthy substitute for elk meat. Wapato, dug in marshes along the river, became the vegetable of choice, it being a "species of small white tuberous roots about two inches in length and as thick as a man's finger; these are eaten raw, are crisp, milkey, and agreeably flavored." It was not yet berry season in the Pacific Northwest, but the expedition did manage to trade with the Indians for some dried raspberries. Lewis thought them "reather acid tho' pleasently flavored."
Near present Longview, Wash., William Clark sought to honor his sister Frances by placing her nickname on a shallow valley, labeling it "Fanny's Valley" on his map -- a fortunate revision, because, in his journal, he had referred to the site as "Fanny's bottom."
Next week: William Clark explores the Willamette River.
Robert Carriker has directed eight National Endowment for the Humanities seminars on the Lewis and Clark expedition and is author of Ocian in View! O! the Joy. When he's not out retracing the steps of the Corps of Discovery, he teaches history at Gonzaga University.