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Lewis and Clark: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark

 

CHAPTER IX

WINTER ON THE COAST

They had reached the coast in the dismal rainy season, when all the life of the region was at the lowest ebb of the year, and when comfort was hardly to be found. The extreme bitterness of Eastern winters was wanting; but the bracing tonic effect of honest cold was also denied them. Through many months they were to suffer from an uninterrupted downpour of rain, driven before the raw sea-winds, which drenched their ardor and made work of any sort painful.

For a long time they were unable to make further progress, because of the persistent storms. Their canoes had not been designed for service in tempestuous open water; so they were compelled to camp where luck left them, having no shelter from the weather, sodden through and through, hungry, cold, many of them ill with a low fever bred by exposure, and only sustained by the knowledge that they were at last upon the Pacific shore. The neighboring Indians were practically amphibious; no stress of weather could hold them in check. They swarmed about the camp at all times, stealing, begging, worrying the worn spirits of the men into tatters. Here, for the first time since leaving St. Louis, it became necessary to abandon conciliatory friendliness, and to offset the native insolence with sternness. There were no fights, for the Indians were too low-born to possess fighting courage; but the necessity for constant alertness was even more trying than open conflict.

For a fortnight the men were engaged in getting acquainted with their surroundings. The hunters made long trips over the hills and along the coast, and such of the others as could be spared from camp went tramping about on errands of discovery. The establishment of winter quarters was perplexing; but on the 24th of November, after a consultation of the whole party, a site was chosen several miles down the coast, where timber could be got for building huts, and where, the hunters said, game was nearest at hand.

To transport the baggage through the rough breakers was a tedious and dangerous undertaking. The men had to wait with patience for the rare hours of comparative calm, making headway as they could, and in the mean time eating and sleeping on the uncovered earth. Sickness increased, until none of the party was wholly free from it. Although in the midst of plenty, they were suffering from hunger. The Indians were besetting them with offers of trade, having large stores of game, fish, and other provisions; but their cupidity was extreme, and, on account of the low state of the treasury, which must be conserved against many months of the future, but few purchases could be made of even the barest necessities. When their own hunters were unsuccessful, the men often went empty.

The unintentional irony of Mr. Jefferson's letter of credit now became apparent. The trading vessels that were used to making yearly visits to this part of the coast from abroad had gone away for the winter, and no white face was seen through all those weary months. Considerable comment has been passed upon the failure of the government to anticipate this contingency by sending a ship to this point to meet the travelers and relieve their inevitable distress. This failure could hardly have been the result of oversight; most probably it arose from the wish of the government to avoid any appearance of meddling in international affairs. The Louisiana Territory extended only so far west as the Rocky Mountains: so, strictly speaking, the expedition had no defensible right upon the coast under Federal patronage. There might well have been serious consequences had a vessel under our flag appeared in those waters, with such a mission. However that may be, the fact remains that no aid was sent, and the men were thrown entirely upon their ability to care for themselves. The journals show how they managed.

"November 28th. It is now impossible to proceed with so rough a sea. We therefore sent several of the men to hunt, and the rest of us remained during the day in a situation the most cheerless and uncomfortable. On this little neck of land we are exposed, with a miserable covering which does not deserve the name of shelter, to the violence of the winds; all our bedding and stores, as well as our bodies, are completely wet; our clothes are rotting with constant exposure, and we have no food except the dried fish brought from the falls. The hunters all returned hungry and drenched with rain, having seen neither deer nor elk, and the swan and brant were too shy to be approached."

Day after day they subsisted upon this dried fish, mixed with sea-water. Captain Clark nearly lost his admirable poise. On the first day of December he wrote:—

"24 days since we arrived at the Great Western (for I cannot say Pacific) Ocian as I have not seen one pacific day since my arrival in this vicinity, and its waters are forming and petially breake with emence waves on the sands and rockey coasts, tempestous and horiable."

Two days later one of the hunters killed an elk—the first to be secured on the western side of the mountains; and that was a holiday in consequence, though the animal was lean and poor enough, and hardly fit to be eaten.

Curiously, the greatest trial of that life was the absence of real hazard. Adventure and danger, which make discomfort tolerable to such men as they, were altogether wanting; in their place was nothing but a dull, dead level of endurance, an expenditure of time and strength to no apparent end.

But by the middle of December the site of winter quarters was gained, and then the log huts began to take form. The men needed this consolation. Under date of the 14th, the journal says:—

"Notwithstanding that scarcely a man has been dry for many days, the sick are recovering.... It had been cloudy all day, at night began to rain, and as we had no cover we were obliged to sit up the greater part of the night; for as soon as we lay down the rain would come under us and compel us to rise."

"December 17th. It rained all night, and this morning there was a high wind; hail as well as rain fell; and on the top of a mountain about ten miles to the southeast of us we observed some snow. The greater part of our stores is wet; our leathern tent is so rotten that the slightest touch makes a rent in it, and it will now scarcely shelter a spot large enough for our beds. We were all busy in finishing the insides of the huts. The after part of the day was cool and fair. But this respite was of very short duration; for all night it continued raining and snowing alternately, and in the morning, December 18th, we had snow and hail till twelve o'clock, after which it changed to rain. The air now became cool and disagreeable, the wind high and unsettled; so that, being thinly dressed in leather, we were able to do very little on the houses."

"December 20th. A succession of rain and hail during the night. At 10 o'clock it cleared off for a short time, but the rain soon recommenced. We now covered in four of our huts. Three Indians came in a canoe with mats, roots, and the berries of the sacacommis. These people proceed with a dexterity and finesse in their bargains which, if they have not learned it from their foreign visitors, may show how nearly allied is the cunning of savages to the little arts of traffic. They begin by asking double or treble the value of what they have to sell, and lower their demand in proportion to the greater or less degree of ardor or knowledge of the purchaser, who, with all his management, is not able to procure an article for less than its real value, which the Indians perfectly understand."

"December 24th. The whole stock of meat being now spoiled, our pounded fish became again our chief dependence. It rained constantly all day, but we still continued working, and at last moved into our huts."

"December 25th. We were awaked at daylight by a discharge of firearms, which was followed by a song from the men, as a compliment to us on the return of Christmas, which we have always been accustomed to observe as a day of rejoicing. After breakfast we divided our remaining stock of tobacco, which amounted to twelve carrots, into two parts; one of which we distributed among such of the men as make use of it, making a present of a handkerchief to the others. The remainder of the day was passed in good spirits, though there was nothing in our situation to excite much gaiety. The rain confined us to the house, and our only luxuries in honor of the season were some poor elk, a few roots, and some spoiled pounded fish."

The first of January witnessed the completion of the rude fortification, which was named Fort Clatsop, in honor of one of the better of the tribes near by,—a tribe whose members, according to Captain Clark, "sometimes washed their hands and faces." Then, the labor of building at an end, life settled into mere routine. The hunters were constantly engaged. No matter what fortune they had, they could not abate their industry, for the persistent moisture made it impossible to keep the meat from spoiling. Other men moved down to the shore, where they employed themselves in boiling sea-water, to obtain a supply of salt; and others were busy hobnobbing with the natives, practicing such wiles as they were masters of, in the effort to obtain small supplies of edible roots.

The officers were engaged, as at Fort Mandan the previous winter, bringing up their journals and copying them out, and in collecting data for a report upon the natural history, ethnology, and trade of the coast. All were living by chance. Sometimes they had plenty; at other times they were reduced to extremities. Once they thought themselves very fortunate in being able to trade for a quantity of whale blubber which the Indians had taken from a dead carcass washed ashore near by. Captain Clark wrote that he "thanked providence for driving the whale to us; and think him much more kind to us than he was to Jonah having sent this monster to be swallowed by us, in sted of swallowing of us as jonah's did."


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