Location: Hermiston, Oregon, 35 miles south of Kennewick
Hat Rock State Park is one of the few Lewis & Clark sites in eastern Oregon that has not been obliterated by dam construction. This peaceful stop on the shore of Lake Wallula contains a distinctive landmark that Clark noted on October 19, 1805: “a rock in a Lar’d bend resembling a hat.” Today the wildflowers and the pretty creek running through the park make this a beautiful spot to walk or just hang out, and you can go on a great hike around Hat Rock itself, a huge basaltic rock formation formed by ancient lava flows.
The quiet getaway would have been anything but back in 1805. When most people think of Oregon and Washington, they think of the coastal rain forests. Yet huge portions are desert: dry steppe hills and basalt cliffs seemingly devoid of much life. Appearances can be deceiving, though. When Lewis and Clark came here, they found thousands of people living along the eastern portion of the Columbia River, a denser population of Indians than existed anywhere else in North America. Both the banks of the river and islands were home to fishing village after fishing village, busy with ordinary people living in mat lodges and air-drying salmon by the thousands on scaffolds. The sights and smells were unlike anything Lewis and Clark had yet encountered.
As for these Indians of the Upper Columbia, they had heard of white men through their trading network with the Clatsops and Chinooks on the coast, who had been trading with British and Russian sailing ships for some years. But they had never seen any and didn’t really know what to expect. Lewis and Clark were aware that their small party was very vulnerable in this situation. To smooth the way, they had hired two Nez Perce guides, Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky. The Nez Perce acted as advance men, traveling several days ahead of the Corps of Discovery, meeting with chiefs along the way, and explaining that the white men wanted friendship, had fascinating baggage (not to mention beards, a black man, and a gigantic dog), and were willing to trade goods such as tobacco and woven clothing for food.
Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky did a good job, and Indians came out in droves to visit with the white men or just to stare with intense curiosity at these visitors who might as well have been from another planet. Lewis’s journals for this period have been lost (or never existed), but Clark writes of interviewing the people over a friendly pot of salmon stew, learning about the rapids and waterfalls to come and encountering a people with unusual equality between the sexes and a notable respect for the wisdom of the aged. The Indians were friendly and willing to help; one man even made the explorers a charcoal-on-skin map on which he recorded the towns and villages that the Corps could expect to find.
During this period of time, the Corps was meeting Indians on a daily basis, but a few encounters stood out. Near Hat Rock, Lewis and Clark received an early morning visit from Chief Yelleppit of the Walla Wallas (or Walulas). Clark recorded that Yelleppit was “a bold handsom Indian, with a dignified countenance about 35 years of age, about 5 feet 8 inches high and well perpotiond.” Yelleppit had brought a basket of mashed berries as a gesture of friendship, and Lewis and Clark spent several hours with the chief, presenting him with a Jefferson peace medal. The 20 Walla Walla warriors who had accompanied him to the camp got gifts such as handkerchiefs and strings of wampum.
Yelleppit wanted Lewis and Clark to stay longer. Anxious to get on to the Pacific Coast before winter closed in, Lewis and Clark gave the charismatic chief a rain check for the return journey. Within just a few hours, they probably wished they’d taken him up on his offer. The Corps hadn’t gone many miles past Hat Rock when they encountered Umatilla tribesman who responded very differently to them. Clark writes:
with a pipe in my hand entered a lodge which was the nearest to me found 32 persons men, women and a few children Setting permiscuesly in the Lodg, in the greatest agutation, Some crying and ringing there hands, others hanging their heads.
Puzzled and dismayed by the Indians’ terror, Clark handed out tobacco and other small presents to try to win them over. A little later, with the help of Twisted Hair, Tetoharsky, and Sacagawea, the Indians were able to explain that they had witnessed Clark shoot a sandhill crane out of the sky earlier in the day. Never having seen or heard a gun, they thought that Lewis and Clark were sky gods who had come down from the clouds. It must have come as a great relief to learn that they were fellow human beings, however strange. Perhaps a little embarrassed, the Indians gave the Corps a welcome gift of scarce firewood.
In April 1806, on the way back, the Corps met up again with Yelleppit, and the chief finally had the chance to show off some good old-fashioned Walla Walla hospitality. The explorers had spent a fairly miserable winter on the Pacific coast, trapped inside their fort by rain, alienated from the coastal Indians, and bored out of their skulls. They were glad to be on the road again and glad to see friendly faces.
For his part, Yelleppit seemed determined to get a good review on TripAdvisor. He brought out firewood and roasted fish, presented Clark with a beautiful white horse, and offered food, horses, and canoes for trade. When a hundred Yakima Indians showed up ready to party, Lewis and Clark realized that Yelleppit had staked a good deal of his own political capital on being the man who brought the region into the American trade network that was sure to follow in the wake of the explorers.
In other words, European goods were scarce and extremely valuable; like any good mayor, Yelleppit was prepared to offer incentives to get the business. With Sacagawea and a female Shoshone prisoner of the Walla Wallas acting as interpreters, Lewis and Clark took the time to hear the chief out, and promised that he would not be left out of the bounty to follow. Unable to spare the copper kettle Yelleppit asked for to cement the deal, Clark presented the chief with his own sword, along with gunpowder and a hundred musket balls.
Then, as a gesture of goodwill, Clark opened his soon-to-be famous medical clinic and treated the Indians for ulcers, broken bones, and sore eyes, a problem thoughout the region. And Yelleppit must have been happy about the evening’s party, which by all accounts was epic:
the Indians Sent their women to gether wood or Sticks to See us dance this evening. about 300 of the natives assembled to our Camp we played the fiddle and danced a while the head chief told our officers that they Should be lonesome when we left them and they wished to hear once of our meddicine Songs and try to learn it and wished us to learn one of theirs and it would make them glad. So our men Sang 2 Songs which appeared to take great affect on them. they tryed to learn Singing with us with a low voice. the head chief then made a Speech & it was repeated by a warrier that all might hear. then all the Savages men women and children of any Size danced forming a circle round a fire & jumping up nearly as other Indians, & keep time verry well they wished our men to dance with them So we danced among them and they were much pleased, and Said that they would dance day and night untill we return. everry fiew minutes one of their warries made a Speech pointing towards the enimy and towards the moon &C. &C which was all repeated by another meddison man with a louder voice as all might hear. the dance continued untill about midnight then the most of them went away peaceable & have behaved verry clever and honest with us as yet, and appear to have a Sincere wish to be at peace and to git acquaintance with us &C &C— Sergeant John Ordway, April 28, 1806
Not much is known about Yelleppit outside of the Lewis and Clark journals, not even his name. As it turns out, “Yelept” means blood brother in Nez Perce and was probably the nickname given the chief by Lewis and Clark’s Nez Perce guides. But the evidence of his friendship with Lewis & Clark survives. In the 1890s, railroad men working near Wallula were poking through Indian graves on an island and found a broken, battered Jefferson peace medal with one of the bodies. It seems all but certain that this was Yelleppit’s medal. It can be seen today at the Oregon Historical Society.
Yelleppit’s dream of friendship and prosperity was never to be. Terrible epidemics would decimate the people of the Upper Columbia, and under the terms of an 1855 treaty the Walla Walla, Umatilla, and Cayuse people moved to a reservation, opening their native lands up for settlement by whites. The dismal litany of injustices and cultural and economic devastation ensued. One of the unique rights that these people had to constantly fight for was the right to fish in their traditional places. In the 1970s, the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission was formed to deal with the major issues that continued regarding Indian treaties and fishing rights. When we were in the Hat Rock area, we saw some Indians fishing along the banks of the river, undoubtedly the descendants of those who helped Lewis and Clark.