This series has been about the relationships that developed between Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery and the Native Americans with whom they spent the most time: the Mandans, the Shoshones, the Nez Perce, and in today’s final installment, the Clatsops of the Pacific Coast.
In November of 1805, Lewis and Clark reached their ultimate destination as their canoes came within site of the Pacific Ocean. As Thomas Jefferson had dreamed for decades, an American expedition had explored and traversed the continent from coast to coast. But although Clark recorded the moment with the ebullient, “Ocian in view! O the joy!”, the actual mood of the captains and the crew was far from giddy. The skies never stopped pouring. Their clothing was rotten and the river Indians had robbed them blind during their journey down the Columbia. After eighteen months of adventure, everyone was physically and emotionally exhausted.
The captains built a solid and sturdy fort amidst the firs near present-day Astoria, Oregon. As they had during their Mandan winter, they named their fort after their neighbors, the Clatsops, who shared the coast along with the Chinooks and the Kathlamets. But any hopes of recreating the fellowship and goodwill of Fort Mandan soon faded. The constant wind, fog, and rain of the Pacific winter actually made the men nostalgic for the subzero temperatures of North Dakota. And as for the local people, the truth is that the Corps of Discovery just didn’t like the Clatsops very much.
Lewis and Clark were used to the charity-minded Plains Indians, who were almost always willing to share their food and shelter with ragged, hungry strangers. Instead, the Clatsops saw a business opportunity. These sharp traders had been supplying British and Russian trading vessels along the coast for more than ten years–as evidenced by some of the English words they showed off, which included phrases like damned rascal and sonofabitch. “Cloth men” were nothing special to the Clatsops anymore, and they treated Lewis and Clark accordingly.
In fact, they couldn’t understand why Lewis and Clark had showed up at all. These whites didn’t have much to trade, and they hadn’t brought a boat to carry away furs. Moreover, they were terribly naive. People who left awls, pipes, and copper kettles lying around, the Clatsops figured, shouldn’t be surprised if someone walked off with them. People who were foolish enough to travel without their own women shouldn’t be offended when the local ladies demanded payment for services rendered.
If the Indians thought Lewis and Clark were dumb pigeons, the explorers thought they were ugly and alien. Like most white people today, Lewis and Clark had the image of the Plains Indian — tall and regal, beautifully dressed, with long hair and strong Roman features — firmly fixed in their minds as the way that an Indian ought to look. But the Clatsops didn’t look anything like that. They were short. They were fat. Since it rained almost all the time, they didn’t bother much with clothes. They wore bowl haircuts. Their teeth were worn down from the grit in their staple food, dried salmon. Lewis went so far was to describe the women as “the most disgusting sight I have ever beheld.” Even the more tolerant Clark noted that the women were “handsome” but “lude and carry on sport publickly.”
Though the Clatsops certainly weren’t perfect, it was Lewis and Clark’s loss that they developed such a case against them. These Indians were expert watermen and fishermen who went everywhere in their beautiful and sophisticated canoes. They were also fun-loving, with a great storytelling tradition. A friendship with them might have helped Lewis and Clark address the biggest problem the Corps faced at Fort Clatsop — namely, they were bored out of their skulls. Day after day, there was little to do but sit inside, kill fleas, and marvel over the terrible weather:
The rain continues, with Tremendious gusts of wind, which is Tremendious. The winds violent Trees falling in every direction, whorl winds, with gusts of rain Hail & Thunder, This kind of weather lasted all day, Certainly one of the worst days that ever was! — William Clark, December 16, 1805
The two enterprising peoples found common ground at the marketplace, meeting up about once a week to trade. By this time, the Corps had only the paltry remains of the vast store of trade goods they had packed back in St. Louis. With a few fish hooks, beads, and moccasin awls, they haggled with the shrewd Indians for roots, berries, and fish. Once, Lewis placed a custom order to buy the entire Corps a set of the amazing rain-shedding hats woven by Clatsop women from cedar strips and bear grass. Sex was also part of the exchange. Despite the disappointment in the Clatsop women’s looks, boys were still bound to be boys, and Lewis and Clark tolerated the visits of an “old baud” who brought nine girls to Fort Clatsop on a regular basis.
In spite of his prejudice, Meriwether Lewis still worked hard to record an impressive amount of ethnographic information. He wrote detailed essays about the people, their canoes, their houses, their always-practical and often beautiful implements of everday living, and their cultural practices such as trade routes, hunting techniques, and burial customs. Both he and Clark drew illustrations of many of the things and people they observed, compiling a record of native life that is as fascinating as it is incomplete.
The fun parties and social visits that had made time fly at Fort Mandan never took off at Fort Clatsop, and neither, for the most part, did diplomatic negotiations between the captains and local chiefs. Part of Lewis and Clark’s reluctance to meet may have been jurisdictional; after all, they had left the Louisiana Purchase behind when they had crossed the Rocky Mountains. But sometimes, the burned-out explorers sound downright spiteful:
This forenoon we were visited by Tâh-cum, a principal Chief of the Chinnooks and 25 men of his nation. we had never seen this cheif before he is a good looking man of about 50 years of age reather larger in statue than most of his nation; as he came on a friendly visit we gave himself and party some thing to eat and plyed them plentifully with smoke. we gave this cheif a small medal with which he semed much gratifyed. in the evening at sunset we desired them to depart as is our custom and closed our gates. we never suffer parties of such number to remain within the fort all night; for notwithstanding their apparent friendly disposition, their great averice and hope of plunder might induce them to be treacherous. at all events we determined allways to be on our guard as much as the nature of our situation will permit us, and never place our selves at the mercy of any savages. we well know, that the treachery of the aborigenes of America and the too great confidence of our countrymen in their sincerity and friendship, has caused the distruction of many hundreds of us. … our preservation depends on never loosing sight of this trait in their character, and being always prepared to meet it in whatever shape it may present itself.—Meriwether Lewis, February 20, 1806
The final act of Lewis and Clark’s Clatsop winter could be described as “an eye for an eye,” or at least, “a canoe for an elk.” In the two years the Expedition had been on the trail, they had never once stolen from the Indians. But the soldiers felt a growing bitterness towards the Indians, among whom thievery was common. Everything from small items to the grand theft of six elk at a time from a hunters’ cache had disappeared into the quick hands of canny Clatsops. Even Clark was threatening to shoot Indians who strayed too near the baggage.
As the Corps prepared to leave Fort Clatsop in March 1805, Lewis desperately haggled with them for a canoe. Clatsop canoes were extremely valuable, and the Indians refused to entertain any offers from the impoverished white man. It must have killed Lewis to offer his cherished blue and red laced officers’ coat, only to have it refused. On March 18, Lewis changed tactics. He entertained a chief named Coboway in the fort, while four of the men performed a good old Army liberation of one of Coboway’s canoes. Five days later, they plucked the canoe from its hiding place, left the gates of Fort Clatsop open, and put out into the Columbia. They were going home.