by Robert Carriker & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & U & lt;/span & sing a shortcut trail from the Columbia River to the Clearwater River in late April and early May of 1806 proved to be more difficult than expected for the Corps of Discovery. Nevertheless, the Lewis and Clark Expedition pushed on. Because of information provided to them on May 3 by a friendly Nez Perce chief, Lewis and Clark knew that they had only to surmount one more hill and then follow a creek downhill to reach the Snake River at a point not far from its merge with the Clearwater River.
May 4 dawned "cold and disagreeable," but it could not dampen the spirits of the expedition. The hill -- Alpowa Summit above present Clarkston, Wash. -- turned out to be "most parts rocky and abrupt" and difficult for the horses. Even so, eight miles down the hill, the expedition arrived at a lodge of six families living on the banks of the Snake River: "we obtained a few large cakes of half cured bread made of a root which resembles the sweet potatoe, with these we made some soope and took breakfast." Sergeant Patrick Gass viewed this meal as "a scanty allowance for thirty odd hungry men." Another eight miles up the Snake River, Lewis and Clark knew from experience gained the previous fall that the Clearwater River joined the Snake River and beyond that lay the homeland of the Nez Perce Indians. Taking the advice of the local Indians, the expedition crossed to the north side of the Snake River and made its way east toward the Clearwater. They established their final camp in Washington just west of present-day Clarkston, Wash.
Small settlements of Nez Perce families lined the Clearwater River at irregular intervals. As they proceeded down the river on May 5, the Corps of Discovery often stopped and asked for food. The inquiry brought two different sets of responses during the next several days. In the best cases, Lewis and Clark learned that when they provided medical attention to the natives, the Nez Perce, in return, would offer food. It turned out that when Clark had spent time with the Nez Perce in the fall of 1805, "I gave an Indian man some Volitile liniment to rub his knee and thye for a pain of which he complained, the fellow soon after recovered and have never seased to extol the virtue of our medicines." A second man also sang the praises of Clark: "as we decended last fall I met with a man, who could not walk with a tumure on his thye. . . I gave this man a jentle pirge cleaned & amp; dressed his sore and left him some casteel soap to wash the sore which soon got well. this man also assigned the restoration of his leg to me. those two cures has raised my reputation and given thos nativs an exolted oppinion of my skill as a phician." Inasmuch as the Indians paid for the care, Clark continues, "in our present situation I think it pardonable to continue this deception for they will not give us any provisions without compensation in merchendize, and our stock is now reduced to a mear handfull." He adds that "We take care to give them no article which can possibly injure them, and in maney cases can administer & amp; give such medicine & amp; sirgical aid as will effectually restore in simple cases & amp;c."
The worst response to the query dredged up bad memories. Lewis reports that "while at dinner an indian fellow verry impertinently threw a poor half starved puppy nearly into my plait by way of derision for our eating dogs and laughed very heartily at his own impertinence; I was so provoked at his insolence that I caught the puppy and thew it with great violence at him and struk him in the breast and face, siezed my tomahawk and shewed him by signs if he repeated his insolence I would tommahawk him, the fellow withdrew apparently much mortifyed." Sgt. Gass shows that he adapted more quickly to his new neighbors than did Lewis with this assessment: "All the Indians from the Rocky Mountains to the falls of Columbia are an honest, ingenuous, and well-disposed people; but from the falls to the sea-coast, and along it, they are a rascally, thieving set." Lewis needed to make some distinctions, too.
Getting along with the Nez Perce would be imperative for the Corps of Discovery because the Indians informed Lewis "that the snow is yet so deep on the mountains that we shall not be able to pass them untill the next full moon or about the first of June; others set the time at still a more distant period." Clark considered this "unwelcom inteligence to men confined to a diet of horsebeef and roots, and who are as anxious as we are to return to the fat plains of the Missouri and thence to our native homes."
NEXT WEEK: The expedition recovers its horses and makes a semi-permanent camp.
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.