By April 20, 1806, the expedition had acquired only eight horses. The number fluctuated. For example, Lewis learned that "one horse which I had purchased and paid for yesterday and which could not be found ... I was now informed had been gambled away by the rascal who had sold it to me and had been taken away by a man of another nation." William Clark attempted to make up for the loss, admitting that he used "even false Statements to enduce those pore devils to Sell me horses."
Trade negotiations hit a snag after the natives pilfered six tomahawks and a knife from the party. Lewis warned the Indians that if he "caught them attempting to purloin any article from us I would beat them severely." Conversation ended at that point as the natives "went off in reather a bad humour." In the morning, Lewis noticed that the Indians made away with yet another tomahawk overnight, and he actually caught a fellow stealing an iron socket from a canoe pole. Sergeant Patrick Gass wrote in his journal that the theft by the Indian "so irritated Captain Lewis that he struck him; which was the first act of the kind, that had happened during the expedition. The Indians, however, did not resent it, otherwise it is probable we would have had a skirmish with them." For the second time, Lewis spoke directly to the tribesmen, saying that next time he "would shoot the first of them that attempted to steal an article from us. that we were not affraid to fight them, that I had it in my power at that moment to kill them all and set fire to their houses, but it was not my wish to treat them with severity provided they would let my property alone." Fortunately, they soon did.
Once the Corps ventured beyond the narrow confines of the Columbia River at Celilo Falls, the landscape flattened out and opened up. More and more Indian villages contained horses, many with owners willing to sell. "It astonished me to see the order of their horses at this season of the year," remarked Lewis. "I did not see a single horse which could be deemed poor and many of them were as fat as seals."
Soon the expedition had enough animals to pack the supplies. As Lewis and Clark acquired more horses, the captains divided the men into two groups, allowing them to alternate with each other: one day riding horses, the next day walking. It took only one day, noted Sgt. Gass, before "The men in general complain of their feet being sore; and the officers have to go on foot to permit some of them to ride."
With the canoes now being extraneous, two were disposed of in mid-April, three more were detached on April 21, and the final two were sold on April 24. Deciding to abandon the canoes and continue their journey on overland trails involved risk. The wisdom of Lewis and Clark's action, however, can be seen in a comparison of miles traveled. In the week between April 14, 1806, when they first saw horses on the return journey, and April 20, when the Corps of Discovery had maneuvered through The Dalles, the expedition canoes traveled a total of 27 miles. On April 25, 1806, after the Corps of Discovery had divested themselves of all canoes, they made 20 miles on a trail that paralleled the Columbia River. The next day they increased their distance to 28 miles. That evening they made camp in present Plymouth, Wash., opposite present Umatilla, Ore. and adjacent to what would become McNary Lock and Dam. Each day brought them closer to St. Louis and the conclusion of their remarkable journey.
NEXT WEEK: The Corps of Discovery takes a shortcut across southeast Washington on an ancient Nez Perce trail.
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.