byRobert Carriker & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & P & lt;/span & addling five canoes against the relentless current of the unrestrained Columbia River exhausted the men of the Corps of Discovery. Their fatigue can partly be explained by the failure of the expedition hunters to regularly procure protein-rich elk meat for meals. Extreme weariness in the men can also be attributed to the design of the expedition canoes. Most of the canoes had been crafted half a year earlier in present-day Idaho, and while they performed adequately the previous fall going downstream on the Snake and Columbia rivers, the vessels now seemed clumsy and unmanageable. On March 30, 1806, when the expedition landed in the vicinity of present Vancouver, Wash., Sgt. Patrick Gass mused that "The natives of this country ought to have the credit of making the finest canoes, perhaps in the world, both as to service and beauty." Capt. Meriwether Lewis also envied the native canoes, and on April 1, he purchased one, paying with 36 feet of strung colored beads. But the man "shortly after returned and canceled the bargain, took his canoe and returned the beads." Alas, "this is frequently the case in their method of traiding and is deemed fair by them," observed a dejected Lewis.
Increasingly, the practices of the Indians annoyed both Lewis and William Clark. Lewis disapproved, for example, of the "very singular custom" among one tribe of "baithing themselves allover with urine every morning." Clark decried the "leather breech clout" worn by the women of another tribe as "indesant." Described as being the width of "a Common pocket Handkercheif or Something Smaller and longer," in Clark's view it "bearly covers the Mons venus, to which it is drawn So close that the whole Shape is plainly perseived." (Writers in the Jeffersonian era commonly used Latin for sensitive terms because, it was thought that only the most educated among the populace would have an interest in science -- and besides, in this case, the matter concerned the female body.)
Nine days after leaving Fort Clatsop, the Corps of Discovery reached present Washougal, Wash. Here they planned to delay for a day or two to "kill Some meat to last us through the Western Mountains." That arrangement, however, underwent revision when "three Indians encamped near us and visited our fire we entered into a kind of a Conversation by signs, of the Country and Situation of the rivers." New information at that meeting greatly surprised -- and dismayed -- Clark, the expedition's geographer. Apparently the Corps of Discovery had failed to notice a considerable tributary that entered the Columbia several miles below their present camp. "This information if true will render it necessary to examine the river below," Clark confided to his journal, for the description by the Indians made it sound as if the river had its source in California. The next morning "this information was corroborated by that of sundry other indians who visited us." On April 2, another party of eight natives arrived at the expedition camp and they too confirmed the existence of the river, one man even drawing a map using charcoal and a mat. To resolve the mystery of the river, which the Indians called Mult-no-mah, Clark organized a small party of six enlisted men plus an Indian guide.
Clark's party, traveling in a single canoe, encountered their first Indian village later that afternoon. The captain entered a house and offered to trade for food with the inhabitants. He found them "Sulkey and they positively refused to Sell any." Vexed, Clark took a piece of rope impregnated with gunpowder -- the sort of fuse that might be used with a cannon -- out of his pocket and slyly placed it in the fire where it "burned vehemently." Simultaneously, Clark pulled out his compass and, using a magnet, caused the needle to spin wildly. Clark's magical combination generated uncommon apprehension among the natives, some of whom rushed forward with a full amount of wapato roots, placing them at Clark's feet. At this point, Clark later told Lewis, the natives "appeared Somewhat passified and I left them."
Entering the Willamette River, Clark confirmed the veracity of the Indian report of an overlooked river. He continued about six miles up the river until, on April 3, he became "perfectly Satisfied of the Size and magnitude of this great river" and ordered his men to reverse course. All went well on the return journey until Clark's small unit visited the home village of their Indian pilot. There the father of their guide introduced them to "a woman who was badly marked with the Small Pox and made Signs that they all died with the disorder which marked her face. . . from the age of this woman this Distructive disorder I judge must have been about 28 or 30 years past." That evening Clark rejoined Lewis at the main camp. He had many stories to tell at the campfire.
Next week: Relations between the Corps of Discovery and the Columbia River natives deteriorate further.
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.