When William Clark and a ragged band of hunters stumbled on to Idaho’s Weippe Prairie on September 20, 1805, they must have been a pitiful sight. For three weeks, the Corps of Discovery had been trekking west through the Bitterroot Mountains, a range of the Rockies. Often lost, trapped in the snow, and finally starving, the Corps was reaching the limits of both physical and mental endurance.
Deliverance was at hand. Along the sparkling Clearwater River, they had found an encampment of Indians Clark described as “portly” and “handsome featured,” drying fish and baking delicious bread from camas roots. They were cautious but hospitable. Soon they were all friends, and Clark and his men were invited to supper. In fact, Clark ate so much he got a stomach ache. He recorded in his journal that he had met the “Chopunnish or Pierced noses.” Today their name is rendered as Nez Perce.
Clark quickly sent back one of the men to bring on Lewis and the rest of the party to set up camp near these friendly people. By the time Lewis caught up, Clark had already made friends with Twisted Hair, one of the most important chiefs, and started to gather maps and information from the Indians about the route further west. As far as he could tell (there was no one who could interpret), the Columbia River was not far away. As tempting as it was to linger in this beautiful valley, he and Lewis needed to press on with their mission to the Pacific Coast. Clark wanted to get started building canoes right away.
As for the Nez Perce, almost none of them had ever encountered a white person before. Most of the Nez Perce were excited by the explorers’ eagerness to trade rare, fashionable items like woven cloth and beads for everyday staples such as camas, dried fish, and berries. (The Nez Perce were and still are renowned for their amazing clothes and breathtaking bead work, and they were eager to obtain rare colors, especially blue.)
Not everyone felt the same. Supposedly, some warriors decided that the prudent course would be to kill Clark and his men. Watkuweis, a Nez Perce woman who had been kidnapped as a young girl, caught wind of the scheme. Declaring, “Do them no harm!”, she dramatically recounted the long-ago kindness of Canadian fur traders who had helped her return home, thus persuading the warriors to spare the lives of the white strangers.
Neither the Nez Perce’s fondness for beads nor Watkuweis’s testimony should give the mistaken impression that the Nez Perce were naive red children of the forest. In fact, these Indians were likely not very surprised to encounter Lewis and Clark, and may even have been on the lookout for them. Some of the warriors had recently returned from a trading mission to the Knife River Villages, near Lewis and Clark’s winter fort in North Dakota. They’d heard about the white men and their spirit quest across the west, and also about the guns and ammunition they were promising to the tribes who agreed to become their allies. The Nez Perce were tired of being bullied by Blackfeet and Atsina with British firearms. It seemed like a good idea to support Lewis and Clark’s mission any way they could.
Disappointingly enough, the Corps of Discovery was fresh out of shock and awe. In fact, within the first day of Lewis’s arrival, he, Clark, and most of the other men were sick with nature’s most ignoble malady: diarrhea. Mostly likely a reaction to a bacteria in the fish to which the Nez Perce were immune, the commanders and men suffered severely, and “Canoe Camp” (in present-day Orofino, Idaho) was a messy, smelly, and altogether miserable place to be.
But in spite of everything, a genuine fondness developed between the Corps and the Nez Perce. Later, during the long winter at Fort Clatsop, the lonely men of the Corps waxed nostalgic about their time with these honest and good-looking people. As for the captains, they wanted to conduct some real diplomacy to bring the Nez Perce into the American orbit. By the time the Corps returned to Nez Perce territory in May of 1806, everyone was excited about renewing and deepening the friendship.
Lewis and Clark had their work cut out for them. As it turned out, their favoritism towards Twisted Hair back in the fall had led to a falling-out among the Nez Perce chiefs. They had to work to repair the damage before they could start the kind of serious diplomacy, trade, and demonstrations of American might that had been impossible on their first visit.
Fortunately, the Nez Perce had their own reasons for wanting to forge a friendship with the Americans. Lewis and Clark set up a base at a place called “the Long Camp” (near present-day Kamiah, Idaho), and spent almost two months getting to know many of the chiefs and their bands and forging alliances in which the Indians agreed to become part of a future American trade system in exchange for guns and ammunition.
Once that was settled, a round of trading began. Lewis and Clark needed horses and guides in order to recross the mountains, and the Indians more or less cleaned them out of their remaining trade goods. Beads might have cut it for dried salmon and camas bread, but for valuable horses and services the Nez Perce wanted knives, kettles, blankets, and metal tools. Lewis and Clark even cut the brass buttons from their own officers’ coats to use as trade items.
Because of the lingering snow in the mountains, the Corps stayed among the Nez Perce from early May to late June, plenty of time for visiting, music and dancing, and romance. Memorably, the captains and the chiefs set up what historian James Ronda calls “the Camp Chopunnish Olympics,” in which the frontiersmen and the Indians competed in foot races, target shooting, and “prisoner base,” a game of chase and tag.
Even more important for both trade and goodwill were the services of one Dr. William Clark. Back in the fall, the fatherly Clark had taken an interest in the eye problems (probably caused by a dietary deficiency) and other maladies common among the Nez Perce. Just as the Corps had dreamed all winter about the Nez Perce ladies, apparently the Indians had dreamed all winter about the red-headed medicine man. Nez Perce from miles around took to their horses and arrived in droves for Dr. Clark’s famous back rubs, eye drops, and elixirs. Clark even performed surgery on a severe abscess and spent days treating the mysterious paralysis of an elderly chief. For decades the Nez Perce would recall how Clark nursed the old man from the expedition medicine kit, fed him broth, and administered sweatbaths. By the time the Corps had to leave, the old man had regained the use of his arms and hands and had sensation again in his legs and toes.
A wonderful summary of Lewis and Clark’s time among the Nez Perce would be recorded by the famous Chief Joseph during a later and less innocent time:
The first white men of your people who came to our country were named Lewis and Clark. They brought many things which our people had never seen. They talked straight and our people gave them a great feast as proof that their hearts were friendly. They made presents to our chiefs and our people made presents to them. We had a great many horses of which we gave them what they needed, and they gave us guns and tobacco in return. All the Nez Perce made friends with Lewis and Clark and agreed to let them pass through their country and never to make war on white men. This promise the Nez Perce have never broken.
Next week, the conclusion to this series: Lewis & Clark among the Clatsops