Between Nov. 8 and 15, 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark measured their forward progress along the estuary of the Columbia River not by miles but by sheer effort. Eight days of struggle against the elements -- a river current that clashed with tidewater amid wind-driven rain -- yielded the Corps of Discovery a net advance of only 13 miles. But it was enough distance to take them across Point Ellice, their final obstacle. On a sandy beach in Washington, roughly 15 miles from Pacific Ocean breakers, and in clear sight of landmarks at the mouth of the Columbia River, Lewis and Clark congratulated themselves for having accomplished the priority goal set for them by President Thomas Jefferson.
Lewis and Clark felt compelled to verify their accomplishment. To that end, Clark busied himself with a sextant, taking astronomical calculations and drawing a preliminary map. The sergeants saw to the task of establishing, and securing, a camp that would be the home of the expedition for, as it turned out, the next 10 days. Clark ultimately named the place "Station Camp," and so it is known today in the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park, the newest unit in the U.S. National Parks system. On Nov. 17, Clark "Sent out 6 men to kill deer & amp; fowls." He also received a one-eyed chief of the Chinooks -- a tribe Clark estimated to be "about 400 Souls" -- who came to pay an official visit to the newcomers. Later, when Meriwether Lewis returned from a reconnaissance to Cape Disappointment, a mariner's landmark from the 1780s whose name reflects the frustration of attempting to pilot a ship across the bar of the Columbia River, Clark volunteered to take "all the men who wished to See more of the Ocean to Get ready to Set out with me on tomorrow day light." Eleven men turned out, including York, Clark's manservant.
While William Clark is best known in history for his accomplishments as a cartographer, during this three-day journey he revealed an equally strong intellectual attraction to natural history. He noted, for example, the backbone of a beached whale, probably a gray whale since scientists tell us that approximately 800 of those marine mammals die on Pacific beaches each year. Clark also described "a Curious flat fish Shaped like a turtle" and sketched it in such a realistic fashion that today ichthyologists recognize it as a starry flounder. When one of the men downed a "Buzzard," Clark penned such a competent description of the bird that ornithologists agree that Clark examined a California condor. And before Clark's mini-expedition returned to Station Camp, he took the time to inspect a deer brought in by one of the hunters. The deer of the Pacific Coast, he concluded, "differ materially from our Common deer in [as] much as they are much darker deeper bodied Shorter ledged [with] horns equally branched from the beem the top of the tail black to the end [and] Eyes larger and do not lope but jump." An awkward description, yes, but still accurate enough to enlighten scholars who subsequently named the Columbian black-tailed deer a subspecies heretofore unknown to science. Clark's only academic misstep was an inexact description of a 10-foot long dead sturgeon.
The most poignant episode to take place at Station Camp involved Sacagawea, the young Indian woman who joined the expedition at Fort Mandan in the spring of 1805 with her husband and 55-day old son. Sacagawea was, in all respects, a valuable and uncomplaining auxiliary member of the otherwise all-male Corps of Discovery. One afternoon -- the date is either Nov. 20, or 22 or 23 because, oddly, four expedition journalists who reported the event cannot agree when it took place -- some Chinooks visited Station Camp and Meriwether Lewis took a strong liking to an Indian robe made from sea otter skins. Lewis offered a blanket, even a coat, in exchange, but the Chinook man held out for blue beads, of which Lewis, unfortunately, had none. Lewis had purchased nearly 50 pounds of multicolored trade beads in Philadelphia, but he had no way of knowing at the time that the Indians would exhaust his supply of prized blue beads first. Clark joined the negotiations when he judged the robe "more butifull than any fur I had ever Seen." He upped the ante to two blankets, but the owner said he would not take even five. Finally, according to Clark, "we at length precured it for a belt of blue beeds which the Squar -- wife of our interpreter Shabono wore around her waste." Did the captains ask Sacagawea for her belt or did they order it taken off? Did she volunteer for the good of the expedition? No one says. All we know is that on another day Clark reports, "we gave the Squar a Coate of Blue Cloth for the belt of Blue Beeds we gave for the Sea otter Skins." Was a cloth coat of undetermined origin of equal value with a personal belt of blue beads? You decide.
Next week: In our final chapter, the expedition crosses the Columbia River to present-day Oregon.
Robert Carriker has directed eight National Endowment for the Humanities seminars on the Lewis and Clark expedition and is author of Ocean in View! O! the Joy. When he's not out retracing the steps of the Corps of Discovery, he teaches history at Gonzaga University.