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Lewis and Clark: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark

 

CHAPTER VIII

THE LAST STAGE OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY

Should a water route be taken from the Shoshone villages, it would be necessary to descend the Lemhi to Salmon River; the Salmon would conduct them to the Snake, and that to the Columbia. But they were told that this course was impracticable. The Lemhi flowed in an ungovernable torrent through wild cañons which the hardiest adventurers from this tribe had never succeeded in passing. The description given by the Indians of the land route over the mountains was hardly more reassuring. The easiest trail to be found would be rough in the extreme, strewn with rocks; besides, snow would soon fall upon the heights of the mountains, burying the trail many feet deep, and perhaps rendering it impassable. The greatest cause for uneasiness lay in the inevitable scarcity of food. Even should a crossing of the mountains be effected, the men would be obliged to subsist for many days largely or wholly upon such roots as they could dig by the way. Of the provisions brought from St. Louis,—flour and canned stuff,—there remained barely enough to suffice for ten days' emergency rations; and of course they could not hope to find game upon the barren mountains, particularly at that season of the year. They were just entering upon their severest trials.

Captain Clark went ahead to reconnoitre, and found that the Indians had rather understated the difficulties of the water route. To descend the Lemhi was entirely out of the question. Clark dispatched a messenger to Captain Lewis, telling of what he had discovered, and wrote in his journal (August 24th):—

"The plan I stated to Captain Lewis if he agrees with me we shall adopt is to precure as many horses (one for each man) if possable and to hire my present guide who I sent on to him to interegate thro' the Intptr. and proceed on by land to some navagable part of the Columbia river, or to the Ocean, depending on what provisions we can Precure by the gun aded to the small stock we have on hand depending on our horses as the last resort."

While he was writing so calmly of his plan, he and his men were suffering from hunger, having only a meagre supply of fish and dried berries. A day or two later he wrote:—

"These Indians, to whom this life is familiar, seem contented, although they depend for subsistence on the scanty provisions of the fishery. But our men, who are used to hardships, but have been accustomed to have the first wants of Nature regularly supplied, feel very sensibly their wretched situation; their strength is wasting away; they begin to express their apprehensions of being without food in a country perfectly destitute of any means of supporting life, except a few fish."

Horses were purchased from the Shoshones, and the men were employed in making pack-saddles. As there was no timber to be obtained near by, the oars were cut up for boards, and these were fastened into form with thongs of rawhide. With the best provision that could be made, however, it was apparent that a considerable portion of the baggage must be cached and left behind. At a time when the needs of the men would be greatest, they were obliged to provide themselves with least.

The Shoshones were hospitable and kindly folk. Throughout these days of preparation, the women were engaged in making and repairing moccasins and clothing for the men, and the fishermen gave to them a good share of the daily catch. Nor was the kindness all upon the one side. The white hunters, with their guns, had greater success than the Indians, who were armed only with bows and arrows and lances. Share and share alike was the rule in the village. Once when the hunters brought in a deer, Captain Clark directed that it be given to the women and children, who were in an extremity of hunger, and himself went supperless to bed.

One of the older men was induced to accompany them as a guide. By the middle of September they were deep in the mountains, and also deep in peril and suffering. The cold had a depressing effect upon the men, overworked and underfed as they were. For several days they got along somehow, with a few odds and ends of small game; but on the 14th of September, Captain Clark's prevision was fulfilled, and they were reduced to supping upon the flesh of one of their ponies. Then on the next day,—

"September 15th. Camped near an old snow-bank, some of which was melted, in the absence of water; and here the party supped on the remains of the colt killed yesterday. Our only game to-day was two pheasants; the horses, on which we calculated as a last resource, began to fail us, for two of them were so poor and worn out with fatigue that we were obliged to leave them behind.

"September 16th. Three hours before daybreak it began to snow, and continued all day, so that by evening it was six or eight inches deep. This covered the track so completely that we were obliged constantly to halt and examine, lest we should lose the route. In many places we had nothing to guide us, except the branches of the trees, which, being low, had been rubbed by the burdens of the Indian horses.... Wet to the skin, and so cold that we were anxious lest our feet should be frozen, as we had only thin moccasins to defend them.... We camped on a piece of low ground, thickly timbered, but scarcely large enough to permit us to lie level. We had now made thirteen miles. We were all very wet, cold, and hungry.... Were obliged to kill a second colt for our supper."

Of the stock of portable provisions there remained only a few cans of soup and about twenty pounds of bear's oil; and there was "no living creature in these mountains, except a few pheasants, a small species of gray squirrel, and a blue bird of the vulture kind about the size of a turtle-dove or jay; even these are difficult to shoot."

Again Captain Clark went ahead. For several days he suffered extremely from hunger and exposure; but on the 20th he descended into an open valley, where he came upon a band of Nez Percé Indians, who gave him food. But after his long abstinence, when he ate a plentiful meal of fish his stomach revolted, and for several days he was quite ill.

Matters fared badly with Captain Lewis's party, following on Clark's trail. On the day of Clark's departure, they could not leave their night's camp until nearly noon, "because, being obliged in the evening to loosen our horses to enable them to find subsistence, it is always difficult to collect them in the morning.... We were so fortunate as to kill a few pheasants and a prairie wolf, which, with the remainder of the horse, supplied us with one meal, the last of our provisions; our food for the morrow being wholly dependent on the chance of our guns." Bearing heavy burdens, and losing much time with the continued straying of the horses, they made but indifferent progress, and it was not until the 22d that they reached the Nez Percé village and joined Captain Clark. Then they, too, almost to a man, suffered severe illness, caused by the unwonted abundance of food. From the high altitudes and the scant diet of horseflesh to the lower levels of the valley and a plentiful diet of fish and camass-root was too great a change.

Two of the men in particular had cause to remember those days. They had been sent back to find and bring on some of the horses that were lost. Failing to find the animals, after a long search, they started to overtake their companions. They had no provisions, nor could they find game of any kind. Death by starvation was close upon them, when they found the head of one of the horses that had been killed by their mates. The head had been thrown aside as worthless; but to these two it was a veritable godsend. It was at once roasted, and from the flesh and gristle of the lips, ears, and cheeks they made a meal which saved their lives.

The Nez Percé villages were situated upon a stream called the Kooskooskee, or Clearwater, which the Indians said was navigable for canoes throughout its lower lengths; so, on September 26th, the party established itself at a point upon the river where a supply of timber could be had, and began canoe-making. In this they adopted the Indian method of hollowing large logs into form by means of fire; and in ten days' time they had made five serviceable boats, and were ready for departure. Meanwhile, they had relied upon the Indians for a daily supply of food, and this had made a considerable reduction of their stock of merchandise for barter. The Nez Percés of that and neighboring villages kept a large number of dogs, which were used as beasts of burden and otherwise, but were not eaten. The travelers bought some of these for food, and found them palatable and nutritious; but this practice excited the ridicule of the savages, who gave to the whites the name Dog-Eaters,—an odd reversal of the condition of to-day. The men were proof against scorn, however, so long as the supply of dog-meat held out; and when they were ready to embark, they bought as many dogs as they could carry, to be eaten on the voyage.

There was no reason to complain of the Nez Percés. There was a noticeable difference, though, between the people of the several villages. Some were generous and high-minded to a degree rarely equaled by the members of any race, while others were shrewd tradesmen only. All seemed worthy of confidence, which was well; for it was necessary to put confidence in them. The horses that had been bought from the Shoshones and brought across the mountains had now to be left behind, and they were surrendered to the care of one of the principal chiefs, to be kept by him until they should be reclaimed upon the return from the coast, at some indefinite time in the future. He discharged this trust with perfect fidelity. Had he failed, the consequences would have been disastrous.

On October 16th, after a rapid passage of the Kooskooskee, the party entered the Columbia; and from that point to the Pacific the journey was without particular adventure, save for the difficulty of passing numerous rapids and cascades. Indian villages were everywhere upon the banks; but their people were of a very low order,—very jackals of humanity; dirty, flea-bitten packs, whose physical and moral constitutions plainly showed the debilitating effects of unnumbered generations of fish-eating, purposeless life. Physical and moral decency usually go hand in hand, even in a state of nature. The Columbia tribes had no conception of either; they were in the same condition then as now, mean-spirited, and strangers to all those little delicacies of behavior that had distinguished the mountain tribes.

The passage of the Narrows, above the Falls of the Columbia, trusting to their fire-hollowed logs, demanded much daring and self-possession. Captain Clark wrote:—

"As the portage of our canoes over this high rock would be impossible with our Strength, and the only danger in passing thro those narrows was the whorls and swills arriseing from the compression of the water, and which I thought (as also our principal waterman Peter Crusat) by good stearing we could pass down safe, accordingly I deturmined to pass through this place, not with standing the horred appearance of this agitated gut swelling, boiling & whorling in every direction which from the top of the rock did not appear as bad as when I was in it; however we passed safe to the astonishment of the Inds."

At other times they were not so successful in this sort of undertaking. The canoes were often overset in the swift water, by being caught in whirlpools or colliding with rocks, causing great inconvenience and resulting in some serious losses of baggage. And the men were performing this arduous labor upon a diet of dog-meat, and almost nothing besides.

No matter what difficulties presented themselves from day to day, the officers never lost sight of the chief purpose of their toils. The journals of those days are replete with keen notes upon the country, its resources, and its people. Soon after passing the Falls, there were to be seen occasional signs of previous intercourse between the Indians and the white traders who had visited the coast,—the squaws would display a bit of colored cloth in their costumes; a few of the men carried ancient guns, and occasionally one was decorated with a ruinous old hat or the remains of a sailor's pea-jacket. These poor people had touched the hem of the garment of civilization, and had felt some of its meaner virtue pass into them. They showed daily less and less of barbaric manliness; they were becoming from day to day more vicious, thievish, and beggarly. The whites had as yet given them nothing worth having, and had taught them nothing worth knowing. This was but natural, considering the character of those who had visited the Columbia region. They were not missionaries nor philanthropists, actuated by high desires, but traders pure and simple, with no thought but gain, and no scruples about means. They were not different from the pioneers of trade in all times and all places.

November 6th there was a meeting with an Indian who spoke a few scrappy words of English; and on the 7th, a day of rain and fog, the men caught a far glimpse of the Pacific, ... "that ocean, the object of all our labors, the reward of all our anxieties. This cheering view exhilarated the spirits of all the party, who were still more delighted on hearing the distant roar of the breakers." The following day, as the boats proceeded upon the waters of the inlet, the waves ran so high that several of the men were made sea-sick.

After eighteen months of unparalleled perseverance, the westward journey was done.


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