On your arrival on that coast endeavor to learn if there be any port within your reach frequented by the sea-vessels of any nation, and to send two of your trusty people back by sea, in such way as shall appear practicable, with a copy of your notes. and should you be of opinion that the return of your party by the way they went will be eminently dangerous, then ship the whole, & return by sea by way of Cape Horn or the Cape of good Hope, as you shall be able. as you will be without money, clothes or provisions, you must endeavor to use the credit of the U. S. to obtain them…
So wrote Thomas Jefferson in his instructions to Meriwether Lewis at the outset of the Lewis and Clark expedition. If Lewis and his party were successful in reaching the Pacific Ocean, Jefferson instructed, he was hopeful that Lewis could hitch a ride home on a friendly ship, or at least send back a couple of trusted members of his party and his precious journals by sea, if returning by land seemed too dangerous.
How practical a plan was this? The Pacific Coast or “Northwest Coast,” as it was called back in the early 19th century, was well known to ship captains engaged in the fur trade. The first American trading vessels recorded as having been in the area were the Columbia Rediviva and the Lady Washington of Boston, which arrived on the Pacific Coast in September 1788. Under Captain Robert Gray, the Columbia Rediviva made a second voyage from Boston to the Northwest in September 1790, spending the winter of 1791-92 at an encampment just north of Nootka Sound (on present day Vancouver Island). While there, Gray and his fifty crew members explored the area and collected sea-otter furs for sale in China.
Also in the area at that time was British Captain George Vancouver, in the British sloop Discovery. When Gray and Vancouver met, Gray showed Vancouver his map pin-pointing the location of the then-unnamed Columbia River. Although Vancouver had noted “river-colored water” in the sea as the Discovery had passed a spot off the coast just two days earlier, he dismissed Gray’s discovery as the outflow of a few minor streams.
On May 11, 1792, Gray navigated the Columbia Rediviva across the treacherous sand bar at the mouth of the Columbia River and became the first western trading vessel to actually enter the Columbia waterway. Gray and Vancouver are both credited with the “discovery” of the Columbia River, though Vancouver deemed it “not suitable for major commerce.”
The next decade saw an increase in trading ships along the Columbia, with several ships a year visiting the coast to engage in fur trading with the coastal Indians. By the time Lewis and Clark reached the coast in 1805, there was a thriving trade in furs centered at Nootka Sound. Ships sometimes encountered in Pacific Northwest waters included Boston traders, French expeditions, British, Russian, and Spanish explorers and merchantmen, New England whalers, and even an occasional Japanese junk.
So, it was not unreasonable for Jefferson, Lewis and Clark to hope that a ship might happen by to carry the explorers home. In fact several ships were in the area that year. Most notably, the American ship Lydia of Boston, under Captain Samuel Hill, entered the Columbia River in 1805 to acquire timber for spars. The Lydia entered the lore of coastal legend not because it picked up Lewis and Clark, but because it picked up another famous, unlucky passenger. In his book The Way to the Western Sea, historian David Lavender sums up the story:
In the spring of 1803, a trading ship hunting for sea-otter pelts sailed into Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Resentful of several years of mistreatment by white traders, the Indians massacred all the crew except the ship’s twenty-year-old, English-born armorer (blacksmith) John Jewitt, and the sailmaker, John Thompson. Those two languished as prisoners until rescued on July 19, 1805, by Captain Samuel Hill of the brig Lydia, out of Boston. The salvation was effected without bloodshed, and on departing for further trading operations along the Northwest Coast, Captain Hill said he would return to Nootka within a few months to pick up whatever pelts the Indians gathered during his absence.
The Lydia traded along the Pacific Coast until August 1806 before heading for China, so it could have, in theory, been within hailing distance during Lewis and Clark’s time on the coast. On November 6, 1805, Clark reported, “we over took two Canoes of Indians going down to trade one of the Indians Spoke a fiew words of english and Said that the principal man who traded with them was Mr. Haley,and that he had a woman in his Canoe who Mr. Haley was fond of &c. he Showed us a Bow of Iron and Several other things which he Said Mr. Haley gave him.” The “Mr. Haley” the Indians were speaking of was, presumably, Captain Samuel Hill.
As it turned out, “Mr. Haley” was a popular figure along the coast. On November 11, 1805, Clark reports talking with a Cathlama Indian dressed in a “Salors Jacket and Pantiloons,” who reported trading with white people. Sergeant John Ordway wrote balefully, “they tell us that they have Seen vessels in the mouth of this River and one man by the name of Mr. Haily who tradeed among them, but they are all gone.”
On January 1, 1806, Clark made a list of “the names of Sundery persons, who visit this part of the Coast for the purpose of trade &c. &c. in large Vestles; all of which Speake the English language &c.—as the Indians inform us.” He again mentioned Mr. Haley, recording that the Indians said that he “Visits them in a Ship & they expect him back to trade with them in 3 moons to trade — he is the favourite of the Indians (from the number of Presents he givs) and has the trade principaly with all the tribes.”
Captain Hill/Mr. Haley’s well-supplied ship certainly would have been a welcome sight, but unfortunately for Lewis and Clark, he proved to be elusive. But was the Lydia really anywhere near Fort Clatsop? In 1815, when the Lydia‘s rescued sailor John Jewitt’s secret diary of his captivity was published – under the potboiler title Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt – the narrative contained a surprising factoid not in Jewitt’s original diary. According to David Lavender, Jewitt related that “the Lydia had crept about ten miles into the Columbia estuary in search of a convenient stand of timber from which to cut a new mast and spars. While the traders were there, visiting Indians showed the mariners medals given them by Lewis and Clark, who, they said had arrived by land with a small party and then, only a fortnight earlier, had started home, again by land.”
This would seem to have been a heartbreaking miss of an easy ride home. But, the historical record and common sense shows that Jewitt’s recollection of the timeframe, especially almost ten years out, is suspect. Given the talkative nature of the coastal Indians. it is highly unlikely that any ship in the area would have gone unreported by the Indians and unnoticed by Lewis and Clark. Besides, according to Mary Malloy, author of Devil On The Deep Blue Sea: The Notorious Career of Captain Samuel Hill of Boston, Hill’s reputation as a sea captain was decidedly mixed, with murder, rape, kidnapping, and madness among his rumored capabilities. So even if Hill had shown up, it might not have been an easy ride home after all.
In the end, no trading ship appeared during the entire long winter of 1805-1806, captained by “Mr. Haley” or anybody else. There was no way to communicate with anyone back home, no safe passage for the journals, and no new supplies for the Corps of Discovery. Fortunately, Thomas Jefferson had considered just such an eventuality. His instructions provided Lewis with a Plan B:
Should you find it safe to return by the way you go, after sending two of your party round by sea, or with your whole party, if no conveyance by sea can be found, do so; making such observations on your return as may serve to supply, correct or confirm those made on your outward journey.
On March 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery began the long walk home.