The downside to this windfall of meat, in the eyes of Lewis, was that "we found some indians with our hunters when we arrived; these people are constantly hanging about us." Late that night, "the centinel detected an old indian man attempting to creep into camp in order to pilfer" a spoon. According to Lewis, the sentry "gave the fellow a few stripes with a switch and sent him off." Lewis, William Clark, and a number of the enlisted men found the near-constant company of Columbia River Indians on the return journey stifling in the extreme. On April 9, about a mile below Beacon Rock, John Colter, one of the expedition stalwarts, "observed the tomehawk in one of the lodges which had been stolen from us on the 4th of November last as we decended this river; the natives attempted to wrest the tomahawk from him but he retained it." Lewis blamed some "illy disposed" Indians. Later that day, when stopped at another Indian village, Lewis characterized the inhabitants as "great rogues" and obliged his men "to keep them at a proper distance from our baggage." Portaging the canoes around the rapids and falls of the Columbia River only brought the two cultures into closer contact. Near the Cascades of the Columbia two Indians stole a dog from John Shields, the expedition blacksmith, after which they "pushed him out of the road." Shields, Lewis continues, "had nothing to defend himself with except a large knife which he drew with an intention of putting one or both of them to death before they could get themselves in readiness to use their arrows, but discovering his design they declined the combat and instantly fled through the woods."
That same afternoon (April 11), "villains" of the same tribe stole Seaman, Lewis's Newfoundland dog. As soon as he heard the news, Lewis dispatched "three men in pursuit of the thieves with orders if they made the least resistence or difficulty in surrendering the dog to fire on them." After two miles of pursuit, the expedition patrol came within sight of the bandits but, happily, bloodshed was averted because the Indians "left the dog and fled." Meantime, another Indian grabbed an ax from the expedition stores, only to have one of the expedition members wrestle it back. Fed up, Lewis ordered his sentinels to keep the Indians out of camp. And Clark informed the Indians by signs that if they "insulted our men or Stold our property we Should Certainly put them to death." Finally, Lewis complained to the village headman. It was his hope "that the friendly interposition of this chief may prevent our being compelled to use some violence with these people; our men seem well disposed to kill a few of them." He added, to no one in particular, "I am convinced that no other consideration but our number at this moment protects us."
Amid all of these distractions, the Corps of Discovery steadily conquered the free flowing, swollen Columbia River, mile by mile. Lewis believed the rapids to be much worse than when they passed through them the previous fall, mainly because "the water appears to be upwards of 20 feet higher than when we decended the river." When possible, the expedition portaged supplies around the rapids. Bulky canoes, however, had to be lined through, sometimes with unintended results. One canoe, for example, turned broadside in the current on April 12 "and the exertions of every man was not Sufficient to hold her. the men were Compelled to let go the rope and both the Canoe and rope went with the Stream." The ramification of such a loss was great, for "the loss of this Canoe I fear," wrote Clark, "Compell us to purchase another at an extravigent price." Opening negotiations for a canoe would only bring the leaders of the expedition into closer association with the Columbia River natives -- considering recent events, not a good prospect.
Next week: The Corps of Discovery decides to abandon canoe travel and instead purchase horses to continue their journey.
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.