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The Lewis & Clark Journals

The Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery brought forth one of the most important American written documents. The original seven volumes of the journals gave numerous accounts of the botany, ecology, geography, and anthropology of the new American west. The double-voiced record has given the Journals their intimate and thorough notoriety. Sometimes called the first American epic the Journals have become a part of American popular culture, especially on this eve of the bicentennial. Perhaps at no other time in American history have two men taken Presidential orders so majestically. Besides writing one of the most brilliant tales of curiosity, perserverence, sadness, exploration, and triumph, Lewis & Clark discovered for the rest of America the definitive nature of the land.


When Bernard DeVoto edited the Journals in 1953 he had hoped of opening them to a wider audience by omitting scientific details, but noted in the introduction that his version could not be relied upon for scholarship. Since then many versions of the Journals have appeared, each with its own purpose, and perhaps most famed is Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage, a biography of Meriwether Lewis.

As one of the earliest and most complete English histories of the area, it is necessary to find a place for Lewis & Clark's vision in this history of Grand Coulee Dam. DeVoto introduces, "Everywhere the party saw evidence of the salmon economy, around which the life of these river tribes was organized: weirs, spears, nets (made of fiber), caches of dried fish, etc. Everybody was heartily bored by living on fish" (DeVoto, 249). The importance of the river to the Native Americans was certainly noted when Clark continued to take reports on the fishing and preserving processes. On Thursday October 17th, 1805 William Clark recorded a cultural tradition during the height of a salmon run.

"I took two men in a Small canoe and assended the Columbia river 10 miles to an Island near the Stard. Shore on which two large Mat Lodges of Indians were drying Salmon, The number of dead Salmon on the Shores & floating in the river is incrediable to say - and at this Season they have only to collect the fish Split them open and dry them on their Scaffolds on which they have great numbers, how far they have to raft their timber they make their scaffolds of I could not lern; but there is no timber of any sort except Small willow bushes in sight in any direction. on the Lard. Side opposite of this rapid is a fishing place 3 Mat Lodges, and great quants. of Salmon on scaffolds drying. Saw great numbers of Dead Salmon on the Shores and floating in the water, great number of Indians on the banks viewing me and 18 canoes accompanied me from the point. The waters of this river is clear, and a Salmon may be seen at the deabth of 15 or 20 feet" (DeVoto, 251-252).

drying fish
Women drying salmon during the Ceremony of Tears

He also goes into detail on the living quarters of the river's inhabitants saying, "The Houses or Lodges of the tribes of the main Columbia river is of large Mats made of rushes, those houses are from 15 to 60 feet in length generally of an Oblong squar form, Supported by poles on forks in the in[n]er Side, Six feet high, the top is covered also with mats leaveing a Seperation in the whole length of about 12 to 15 inches wide, left for the purpose of admitting light and for the Smok of the fire to pass which is made in the middle of the house" (DeVoto, 253-254).

They reported to encounter lodges of Native Americans that dressed similarly to the Nez Perce near the Celilo Falls, all drying and pounding fish. Here Clark wrote that "Several Indiand [sat] in canoes killing fish with gigs &c" (DeVoto, 261). Clark details the drying process when he wrote:

"on those Islands of rocks as well as at and about their Lodges I observe great numbers of Stacks of pounded Salmon neetly preserved in the following manner, i. e. after being suffi[ci]ently Dried it is pounded between two Stones fine, and put in a speces of basket neetly made of grass and rushes better than two feet long and one foot Diamiter, which basket is lined with the Skin of Salmon Stretched and dried for the purpose, in this it is pressed down as hard as possible, when full they Secure the loops of the basket that part very securely, and then on a Dry Situation they Set those baskets the corded part up, their common custome is to Set 7 as close as they can Stand and 5 on the top of them, and secure them with mats which is raped around them and made fast with cords and covered also with mats, those 12 baskets of from 90 to 100 lbs. each form a Stack. thus preserved those fish may be kept Sound and sweet Several years, as those people inform me, Great quantities as they inform us are sold to the whites people who visit the mouth of this river as well as to the nativs below" (DeVoto, 262).

A salmon sketch from the Lewis & Clark journals.

The descriptions of the river itself depicted what must have been an awesome fear. Near the Long Narrows the two men take off alone to explore the channels. During the dry run canoeing through, Clark exclaims, "the unfortunated Canoe which filled crossing the bad place above, run against a rock and was in great danger of being lost; this Chanel is through a hard rough black rock, from 50 to 100 yards wide, swelling and boiling in a most tremendous maner" (DeVoto, 266). Eating mostly roots and fish, they traveled through heavy rains causing unmerciful tides through November 1805. Among the Chinook, Cowlitzes, and Chehalises, (the latter two were Chinook-speaking tribes), Clark reports that not seeing sexuality eds an evil, they are covered by sexually transmitted diseases describing them as having "Venerious and pustelus disorders. one woman whome I saw at the Creek appeared all over in Scabs and ulsers &c" (DeVoto, 290).

After having spent some time at Fort Clatsop with little exciting news, illness struck many of the men, and heavy rains returned in March 1806. They moved slowly and tragically to the Dalles, after having difficulty bartering with the Native Americans, experiencing high winds, and losing a perogue, the tone of the writing is significantly less enthusiastic. On Wednesday, April 16th, 1806 Clark proclaimed of the Villages near the Dalles, "This is the great mart of all this country. ten different tribes visit those people for the purpose of purchaseing their fish, and the Indians on the Columbia and Lewis's river quite to the Chopunnish Nation [Nez Perces] visit them for the purpose of tradeing horses buffalow robes for beeds, and such articles as they have not" (DeVoto, 353). And the following Saturday Clark described another fishing ritual:

"there was great joy with the nativs last night in consequence of the arrival of the Salmon; one of those fish was cought, this was the harbenger of good news to them. They informed us that those fish would arive in great quantities in the course of about 5 days. this fish was dressed and being divided into small pieces was given to each child in the village. this custom in founded on a supersticious opinion that it will hasten the arrival of the Salmon. We were oblige[d] to dispence with two of our kittles in order to acquire two of the horses purchased to day. we now have only one small kittle to a mess of 8 men. There people are very fa[i]theless in contracts; they frequently recive the merchindize in exchange for their horses and after some hours insist on some additional article being given them or revoke the exchange" (DeVoto, 358).

Clark's words in the above passage indicate a clash of mindset as he calls the annual fishing ritual a superstition. Moreover, the so-called faithlessness in contractual agreement was likely no more than a lack of precedent in European contract. Despite these cultural inaccuracies and misrepresentations, the importance of the coming of the salmon is no doubt declared. To the white explorers, who not only bring their own biases against hunting and fishing and hail the American farmer, but also, express a tired palate for the salmon; the fanfare must appear foolish. However, the symbolic gestures of the ritual were still made clear: the feeding of the children represents the rebirth of the river.

Daughter of Ice Jeffersonian Imagination Native Understanding Lewis & Clark Journals Early Explorers Private Property

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