Modern history


Return to the Nez Percé

March 23–June 9, 1806

At 1 P.M. we bid a final adieu to Fort Clatsop,” Lewis wrote in his journal the night of March 23. The party had hardly proceeded a mile before it met a Chinook band of twenty or so. The chief said he had heard the expedition wanted to buy a canoe; he had brought with him an elegant one he wished to sell. But, Lewis wrote (whether with satisfaction or shame), “being already supplyed we did not puchase it.” The next day, an Indian guided them among some islands, then claimed the stolen canoe as his. Lewis offered him a dressed elk skin for it. Surrounded by thirty-two riflemen in five canoes, and without a clear title in his possession, the Indian accepted.

Maybe this “payment” assuaged Lewis’s conscience. It didn’t alter his act. The theft of the canoe showed how desperate he was.

As the party set out from Fort Clatsop, it cut a much less impressive figure than it had on April 7, 1805, as it set out from Fort Mandan. In 1805, the canoes were jammed with boxes, canisters, kettles, bales of trade goods, blankets, tobacco, whiskey, flour, salt pork, corn, dried squash and beans, writing desks, tents, scientific instruments, tools of many descriptions, knives, rifles, and more. In 1806, the party set out with canisters of powder, scientific instruments, kettles, dried fish and roots, the clothes on their backs, and rifles. They were only halfway through their journey, but they had spent 95 percent of their budget.

On the other hand, in 1805, they didn’t know what was ahead. In 1806; they did know, and they had put supplies into caches stretching from the Nez Percé country to Great Falls, so they would be able to replenish as they moved east.

Knowing the lay of the land ahead was a mixed blessing, however, for part of that land was the Bitterroots. From the moment the men left Fort Clatsop, the rigors of those mountains were on their minds. “That wretched portion of our journy,” Lewis called it in his June 2 journal entry, “the Rocky Mountain, where hungar and cold in their most rigorous forms assail the waried traveller; not any of us have yet forgotten our sufferings in those mountains in September last, and I think it probable we never shall.”

Going up the Columbia was hard work. The current was always strong; in rapids, the canoes had to be towed; falls had to be portaged. Food was a constant problem, as were the multitudes of curious Indians. On April 1, Lewis learned from some natives along the Columbia that there was a “great scarcity of food” on the river, that the people upstream were starving, and that the salmon run wouldn’t begin for a month.

This news “gave us much uneasiness,” Lewis wrote. In the country above The Dalles, through the plains to the Nez Percé camps at the base of the mountains, there were no deer, pronghorns, or elk. Lewis conferred with Clark. They agreed that to wait for the salmon would keep them from getting onto and down the Missouri River before it froze. Delay would also cost their horse herd, being held by Twisted Hair, because he had told them the Nez Percé would cross the mountains at the beginning of May, and without Nez Percé help Lewis doubted the men could round up the expedition’s horses.

On April 2, the captains decided, not surprisingly, “to loose as little time as possible in geting to the Chopunnish Village.”I They would stay below The Dalles long enough for the hunters to kill and dry sufficient meat to sustain them until they reached the Nez Percé. Lewis figured that the party could live on horse meat as it crossed the Bitterroots. He explained, “we now view the horses as our only certain resource for food, nor do we look forward to it with any detestation or horrow, so soon is the mind which is occupyed with any interesting object reconciled to it’s situation.”

But there were no horses below The Dalles. There were dogs, which were purchased whenever possible and were a favorite food of nearly all the party.

On the 3rd, Indians descending the river in search of food paid a visit. “These poor people appeared to be almost starved,” Lewis noted. “They picked up the bones and little pieces of refuse meat which had been thrown away by the party.”

Clark was off on a side expedition, probing the Willamette River, some ten miles upstream to the site of the present-day city of Portland. Lewis supervised the preparation of the jerky for the trip over the plains. Never one to waste time, while the men kept the fires going under the strips of elk and deer, he looked for and described new plants and animals. “I took a walk today of three miles,” he wrote on April 8, “in the course of which I had an opportunity to correct an errow which I have heretofore made with rispect to the shrub I have hithertoo called the large leafed thorn.” He was referring to the salmonberry, which he had confused with the thimbleberry. He made amends for his error with a remarkably detailed description of the salmonberry,II including an attempt to classify it using the Linnaean system.

On the human side, he had Indians to deal with. They came in from the small villages up and down the river to see and steal from the white men. “These people are constantly hanging about us,” Lewis complained on April 6. “I detected one of them in steeling a peice of lead,” he wrote the next day. Back in Virginia, a plantation owner would have a slave whipped for petty theft, and perhaps Lewis felt the impulse to do just that, but these were Chinookan Indians with whom he wanted good relations. Instead of beating the thief, “I sent him from camp.” But he also inspected the rifles and held a target practice in front of a group of Indians, who shortly “departed for their village.”

The following night, April 8, the sentinel detected an old man trying to sneak into the expedition’s campsite. The soldier threatened the intruder with his rifle, and “gave the fellow a few stripes with a switch and sent him off.” As with Lewis, tempers were running high among the men; never before had they whipped an Indian.

But never before had they been so provoked. One party of warriors tried to wrest a tomahawk from Private John Colter, but they had picked the wrong man. “He retained it,” Lewis dryly recorded. Still, as the expedition worked its way upriver, whether dragging the canoes through the rapids or portaging them, the Indians were always there, ready to grab anything left unguarded for an instant. At the Cascades, on April 11, Lewis had to detail guard parties to watch the baggage, because “these are the greatest theives and scoundrels we have met with. . . . One of them had the insolence to cast stones down the bank at two of the men.” Others threatened Shields, who had to pull his knife to drive them off.

In the evening, three Indians stole Lewis’s dog, Seaman, which sent him into a rage. He called three men and snapped out orders to follow and find those theives and “if they made the least resistence or difficulty in surrendering the dog to fire on them.” The soldiers set out; when the thieves realized they were being pursued, they let Seaman go and fled. Lewis may have been ready to kill to get Seaman back, but the Indians weren’t ready to die for the dog.

Back at camp, meanwhile, an Indian stole an ax, got caught, and after a tussle gave it up and fled. Lewis told a group hanging out at the camp that “if they made any further attempts to steal our property or insulted our men we should put them to instant death.”

Lewis and his men were right up to the edge of serious violence. They had no patience left, and the temptation to use their rifles was very strong, especially since they felt surrounded. “I am convinced that no other consideration but our number at this moment protects us,” Lewis wrote.

He and the party were in so foul a mood that they could entertain the thought of a first strike: one quick volley would drive the Indians away. But that was dangerous thinking. Giving in to temper would be risking not just good relations with the natives but the expedition itself. Lewis had to keep a check on himself, without allowing the Indians to pilfer the pantry of the expedition or run off with his dog. He controlled his breathing and began talking, through the sign language, with the chief.

The chief responded to Lewis’s charges about Indian behavior by laying all the trouble at the feet of two bad men in his nation. They alone had been responsible for “these seenes of outradge of which we complained.” The village as a whole wished for peace and good relations. So did Lewis, who concluded his account, “I hope that the friendly interposition of this chief may prevent our being compelled to use some violence with these people; our men seem well disposed to kill a few of them.”

Of course, some young warriors in the Indian village were equally well disposed to kill a few of the whites. Knowing that, and determined to prevent it, Lewis recorded, “We keep ourselves perefectly on our guard.”

The captains decided that, once they got onto the open plain country above The Dalles, they would go overland to the mountains. To do that, they needed as many horses as they could purchase. Clark went ahead beyond The Dalles to set up an advance camp and begin buying horses. Lewis stayed behind to oversee the portage of the baggage. After the first day of haggling, Clark sent a runner to tell Lewis the Indians would not sell at the price being offered. Lewis sent back a note telling Clark to double the price. He wanted at least five horses, and wanted them badly, for he wanted to get out of there, to shake these Indians from his heels. In addition, the longer the expedition stayed in the area, the more chances the Indians would have “to execute any hostile desighn should they meditate any against us.”

The Indians knew a seller’s market when they saw one. They kept saying no to whatever Clark offered, which in truth wasn’t much. What made it so maddening was that the natives beyond The Dalles, as Lewis complained on April 17, “have a great abundance of horses but will not dispose of them.” On April 18 and 19, Lewis broke down and paid the price of two large kettles for four horses. Never before had he been willing to part with a kettle. The expedition was reduced to four small kettles to do its cooking, one per mess.

The night of the 19th, Lewis directed the horses be hobbled and allowed to graze, with orders that the man who was responsible for each horse stay with him and watch him. But Private Willard “was negligent in his attention to his horse and suffered it to ramble off.” Lewis’s temper again flared, this time at one of his men. “This in addition to the other difficulties under which I laboured was truly provoking,” he explained in his journal. “I repremanded [Willard] more severely for this peice of negligence than had been usual with me.”

As Lewis and the men with him made their way up the Columbia, the Indians continued to torment them. Tomahawks and knives disappeared during the night. On April 20, Lewis had once again to warn the local inhabitants “that if I caught them attempting to perloin any article from us I would beat them severely.” That remonstrance had to be repeated at every village.

When the party got above The Dalles, Lewis decided to abandon the canoes—getting them past Celilo Falls appeared to be impossible—join Clark at his upriver camp, obtain as many packhorses as possible, and march to the mountains.

That decision made, on April 21 Lewis had all the spare poles and paddles placed on the canoes. Then he set fire to the pile. He was determined to make certain that “not a particle should be left for the benefit of the indians.”

While the fire burned, Lewis caught an Indian stealing an iron socket that had been tossed aside from one of the poles. His pent-up fury burst forth. He caught the man, cursed him, beat him severely, and then “made the men kick him out of camp.”

His blood was hot. He informed the Indians standing around that “I would shoot the first of them that attempted to steal an article from us. That we were not affraid to fight them, that I had it in my power at that moment to kill them all and set fire to their houses. . . .”

The release that came with the physical satisfaction of beating the thief and the psychological pleasure of shouting threats at the young hang-abouts who were gawking at him, drained some of Lewis’s emotion. He breathed deeply and got control of his temper.

He told the Indians “it was not my wish to treat them with severity provided they would let my property alone.” He could easily take some horses, he said, the horses of the men who had stolen knives and tomahawks, but since he did not know who the thieves were he would “reather loose the property altogether than take the hose of an inosent person.” The Indians “hung their heads and said nothing.”

That afternoon, Lewis set off, with nine horses carrying baggage and one being ridden by Private William Bratton, who had a severe back condition and could not walk. Lewis was in a better mood—he always was happiest when proceeding—and looking forward to getting out of the Chinookan country and back in the land of the Nez Percé, where he expected that the natives “will treat us with much more hospitality than those we are now with.”

But the next morning, April 22, local Chinookans stole a saddle and robe. Lewis’s blood rose past a danger point. He swore he would either get the stolen goods back or “birn their houses. they have vexed me in such a manner by such repeated acts of villany that I am quite disposed to treat them with every severyty, their defenseless state pleads forgivness so far as rispects their lives.” He ordered a thorough search of the village and marched there himself, resolved to burn the place down if he didn’t get the saddle and robe back.

That was the closest Lewis came to applying the principle of collective guilt. Fortunately, the men found the stolen goods hidden in a corner of one of the houses before Lewis reached the village.

He had been wonderfully lucky. Had those goods not been recovered, he might have given the order to put the houses to the torch. The resulting conflagration would have been a gross overreaction, unpardonably unjust, and a permanent blot on his honor. It would have turned every Chinookan village on the lower Columbia against the Americans and thus made impossible the fulfillment of the plan Lewis was developing for a transcontinental, American-run trading empire. He had a lot at stake, but he had been ready to allow his anger to override his judgment.

To modern eyes, this looks suspiciously like racism, just as Lewis’s resolve to burn down the village raises images of the U.S. Army in the Indian wars and in Vietnam. But if one means by racism a blind prejudice toward native Americans, based on false but fully believed stereotypes, Lewis was no racist. When he talked about Indian “nations” he meant the word just as he applied it to European peoples. He was keenly aware of differences between tribes, a subject he wrote about at length and with insight. He liked some Indians, admired others extravagantly, pitied some, despised a few.

His response to native Americans was based on what he saw and was completely different from his response to African Americans. With regard to blacks, he made no distinctions between them, made no study of them, had no thought that they could be of benefit to America in any capacity other than slave labor.

But, despite his cold-blooded words and resolutions, and his hatred of the Chinooks, what stands out about his journey up the lower Columbia in the spring of 1806 is that he got through it without ever once ordering a man to put a torch to an Indian home, and no man ever fired a rifle at a native.

He had, however, four times lost his temper and twice threatened to kill. His behavior was erratic and threatening to the future of the expedition. There would be other tribes to encounter, other forms of provocation. Lewis would be tested on his self-control, not his strongest character trait.

On April 24, the expedition marched overland. “Most of the party complain of the soarness of their feet and legs this evening,” Lewis recorded. “My left ankle gives me much pain.” A cold-water footbath helped. By the 27th, the party reached the country of Chief Yellept and the Wallawallas, relatives of the Nez Percé. The chief rode up with six men and was delighted to see the white men, as they were to see him. Yellept was chief of a village of some fifteen lodges, with perhaps 150 men, and many horses. It was currently set up about twelve miles below the junction of the Columbia and the Snake, on the north bank.

The captains had promised Yellept the previous October that they would stay a day or two with him on the return journey. He now invited the captains to bring the expedition to his village, where he promised food and horses.

A three-day visit ensued. Yellept set an example for his people by personally bringing wood and fish to the white men. On the second morning, he presented Clark with “a very eligant white horse,” an act of generosity that lost some of its luster when Yellept indicated he would like a kettle in return. No kettle, the captains said. Then whatever they thought proper, Yellept replied. Clark gave him his sword, plus a hundred balls and powder. Yellept was satisfied.

What Yellept did genuinely give away was information. For the first time since they had left the Shoshones, the captains had an interpretive route that allowed them to go beyond the sign language. There was a captive Shoshone woman with the Wallawallas who could speak to Sacagawea, who could pass it on to Charbonneau, who could communicate with Drouillard or Labiche, who, finally, could speak to the captains in English. “We conversed with them for several hours,” Lewis wrote, “and fully satisfyed all their enquiries with rispect to ourselves and the objects of our pursuit.” In return, Yellept told Lewis of a shortcut to the western end of the Lolo Trail.

That evening, Yellept’s relatives and neighbors the Yakimas came in at his invitation to see the white men and have a party. There were about one hundred men and a few women. Together with the Wallawallas, they surrounded the white men and waited patiently to see them dance. Cruzatte brought out the fiddle and for an hour the men danced, to the delight of the Indians. Then the Indians, some 550 men, women, and children, “sung and danced at the same time. most of them stood in the same place and merely jumped up to the time of their music,” but the bravest men went into the center of the circle “and danced in a circular manner sidewise.” To the Indians’ gratification, some of the white men joined in the dance. This was much different from evenings on the lower Columbia.

On the morning of April 29, two inferior chiefs presented each of the captains with a horse. The gift was welcome, but the return present was expensive. Lewis wrote, “we gave them sundry articles and among others one of my case pistols and several hundred rounds of ammunition.” That pistol was a highest-quality, custom-made weapon, a so-called dueling pistol, kept in a case with accessories, and it was Lewis’s personal property, not government issue.1

The following day, “we took leave of these friendly honest people the Wollahwollahs and departed at 11 A.M.” The shortcut Yellept told them about took them across the base of the northern bend of the Snake, saving some eighty miles. Thanks to the Wallawallas, the party had twenty-three horses, “most of them excellent young horses, but much the greater portion of them have soar backs. These indians are cruell horse-masters; they ride hard, and their saddles are so ill constructed. . . . reguardless of this they ride them when the backs of those poor annimals are in a horrid condition.”

The second night out, three teen-age Wallawalla boys rode into camp. They were returning a steel trap that “had been neglegently left behind.” Lewis called this “an act of integrity rarely witnessed among indians” (without adding that it was also rare among whites), but he praised the Wallawallas for returning knives “carelessly lossed by the men.”

Lewis paid a final tribute to the Wallawallas: “I think we can justly affirm to the honor of these people that they are the most hospitable, honest, and sincere people that we have met with in our voyage.”

The march the next two days was god-awful. The weather was miserable: rain, hail, and snow with high winds. At dinner on May 3, the captains divided the last of the dried meat and the balance of the dogs. “We made but a scant supper and had not anything for tomorrow.”

Their luck held. The next day, the party encountered a band of roving Nez Percé, led by Chief Tetoharsky, the man who had helped Twisted Hair as a guide the previous autumn. He offered to take them to Twisted Hair’s village and sold them some roots and fuel. They set off together in the morning. When they reached a village, they tried to purchase provisions, without much success. But they discovered that Captain Clark had quite a reputation with these natives as a doctor.

It seemed that the previous fall Clark had washed and then rubbed some liniment on an old Indian man’s sore knee and thigh, accompanying the doctoring with what Clark called “much seremony.” The man had not walked for months, but recovered with Clark’s therapy. Since then, Lewis wrote, this band “has never ceased to extol the virtues of our medecines.” Together with the effectiveness of the eye-water, the Nez Percé had “an exalted opinion of our medicine. my friend Capt. C. is their favorite phisician and has already received many applications.”

The captains could pay for their keep by establishing a hospital. Lewis was a bit disturbed at thus fooling the Indians. He doubted there was much that could be done for most of the complaints, and he was embarrassed to be practicing psychosomatic medicine. He rationalized his way to a justification: “In our present situation I think it pardonable to continue this deseption for they will not give us any provision without compensation. . . . we take care to give them no article which can possibly oinjure them.”

In fact, Clark did much good for the Nez Percé. The Indians kept coming because they were benefiting from his therapy; there was no need for Lewis to feel embarrassment. The Indians paid for the therapy with roots and dogs.

The dogs were another source of potential embarrassment. The Nez Percé ate horsemeat only to ward off starvation, and never ate dog. On May 3, Lewis related a dog-meat anecdote in a piece of concise storytelling: “While at dinner an indian fellow verry impertinently threw a poor half starved puppy nearly into my plait by way of derision for our eating dogs and laughed very heartily at his own impertinence; I was so provoked at his insolence that I caught the puppy and threw it with great violence at him and struk him in the breast and face, siezed my tomahawk and shewed him by signs if he repeated his insolence I would tommahawk him, the fellow withdrew apparently much mortifyed and I continued my repast on dog without further molestation.”

Generally, relations with the Nez Percé were excellent. On May 7, an Indian rode in with two canisters of powder. His dog had dug them up at the cache the expedition had made in October. The captains rewarded his honesty with a piece of fire-making steel.

That day, the Bitterroot Mountains came into view. They “were perfectly covered with snow.” The Nez Percé gave the captains unfortunate news: the winter snows had been heavy, the snow was yet deep in the mountains, so no passage was possible until early June, at best. “To men confined to a diet of horsebeef and roots,” Lewis wrote, “and who are as anxious as we are to return to the fat plains of the Missouri and thence to our native homes,” this was “unwelcom inteligence.”

The party hated to be stopped. Every day, other than those in winter camp, the men tried to make some progress. Furthermore, beyond those mountains there was tobacco, tools, kettles. On the Missouri Plains there were the calves, providing unlimited quantities of tender veal, supplemented by buffalo hump and buffalo tongue, with sausage made by Charbonneau. The captains and their men had been thinking about the upcoming feast for weeks. Now they learned that they would have to stay where they were for three weeks, possibly longer, with nothing to eat but dried fish and roots and, when they were lucky, lean elk and deer, or horsemeat, or dog.

Morale sank. On the morning of May 8, some of the men ordered out to hunt instead lay about the camp, “without our permission or knoledge.” The captains found it necessary to “chid them severely for their indolence and inattention.”

That day, the Americans chanced on Chief Cut Nose with a party of six. Cut Nose had been off on a raid the previous fall, but Lewis had heard of him and knew he was regarded as a greater chief than Twisted Hair. The Indians and white men rode on together, and soon encountered Twisted Hair with a half-dozen warriors.

It was Twisted Hair who had agreed to keep the Americans’ horses through the winter—he had been promised two guns and ammunition as his reward—and guided the expedition as far down the Snake-Columbia as The Dalles. The captains were naturally delighted to see him. But he greeted the white men very coolly. Lewis found this “as unexpected as it was unaccountable.”

Twisted Hair turned to Cut Nose and began shouting and making angry gestures.

Cut Nose answered in kind. This continued for some twenty minutes.

The captains had no idea what was going on, but clearly they had to break it up. They needed the friendship of both chiefs if they were to get through the next three weeks, and they needed their horses if they were to have any chance of getting over the mountains. They informed the chiefs that the expedition was proceeding.

The Indians fell in behind, keeping a distance from each other. When the expedition made camp, “the two chiefs with their little bands formed seperate camps at a short distance, they all appeared to be in an ill humour.”

The captains called for a council. They relied on a Shoshone boy with Cut Nose to interpret for them, but he “refused to speak, he aledged it was a quarrel between two Cheifs and that he had no business with it.” For the next hour, the captains could make no sense out of the “violet quarrel.” They were in an agony of suspense, anxious to reunite with their horses and to keep the Nez Percé as friends.

The captains pleaded with the Shoshone boy, but “he remained obstenately silent.” The chiefs departed for their respective camps, still angry with each other. An hour later, Drouillard returned from hunting. The captains invited Twisted Hair for a smoke. He accepted, and through Drouillard explained that when he had returned from The Dalles the previous fall he had collected the expedition’s horses and taken charge of them. Cut Nose then returned from his war party and, according to Twisted Hair, asserted his primacy among the Nez Percé. He said Twisted Hair shouldn’t have accepted the responsibility, that it was he, Cut Nose, who should be in charge. Twisted Hair said he got so sick of hearing this stuff that he paid no further attention to the horses, who consequently scattered. But most of them were around, many of them with Chief Broken Arm, who lived upriver and was “a Cheif of great emenence.”

The captains invited Cut Nose to join the campfire. He came and “told us in the presents of the Twisted hair that he the twisted hair was a bad old man that he woar two faces.” Cut Nose charged that Twisted Hair had never taken care of the horses but had allowed his young men to ride them and misuse them, and that was the reason Cut Nose and Broken Arm had forbidden him to retain responsibility for the animals.

The captains said they would proceed to Broken Arm’s camp in the morning, and see how many horses and saddles they could collect. This was satisfactory to Twisted Hair and Cut Nose, who had calmed down considerably after being allowed to tell their sides of the story.

The next day, everyone moved to Broken Arm’s lodge, which was some 150 feet long, built of sticks, mats, and grass. There the expedition recovered twenty-one horses, about half the saddles, and some ammunition that had been cached. Lewis paid Twisted Hair one gun, a hundred balls, and two pounds of powder for his services, and said the other promised gun would be delivered when the balance of the horses were brought in. The gun he gave Twisted Hair was an old, beat-up British trading musket, for which he had paid a Chinook two elk skins.

When the captains explained their supply situation, and asked if the Indians would exchange a good but lean horse of theirs for a fat young horse, with a view to slaughter the colt for food, Broken Arm said he was “revolted at the aydea of an exchange.” His people had a great abundance of colts, however, and the white men could have as many as they wanted. He soon produced two fat colts and demanded nothing in return. Lewis commented that this was “the only act which deserves the appellation of hospitallity which we have witnessed in this quarter.”III

Over the next couple of days, various other chiefs joined Cut Nose and Twisted Hair at Broken Arm’s lodge. All together, the Nez Percé were some four thousand strong, living in their separate bands, and had by far the largest horse herd on the continent. These chiefs had a constituency that demanded attention.

The captains seized their opportunity and held a conference of all the leading men of the Nez Percé. Lewis made a speech. It took nearly half a day for him to get his main points across, because the interpretation had to pass through French, Hidatsa, and Shoshone to get to Nez Percé.

The main points were: peace and harmony among the natives on each side of the Rocky Mountains; the strength and power of the United States; the trading posts that were coming. The captains did not refer to the Nez Percé as their children, or to Jefferson as the Indians’ new father, but, as James Ronda writes, “thoughts of sovereignty were not far from the Americans’ minds.”2

Beyond the American claim to lands west of the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark had other goals. One was to persuade the Nez Percé to send some guides and diplomats with the expedition to the Blackfoot country. The captains said they would make a peace between the two tribes, so that the Nez Percé could come live on the buffalo side of the Continental Divide and, not incidentally, bring all those horses with them. The captains also wanted one, two, or three chiefs to accompany them back to Washington, to meet the president.

The chiefs “appeared highly pleased” with the presentation, but said that they would have to consult among themselves before replying.

After the conference, the captains held a magic show, displaying the latest in European and American technology, including a magnet, a spy glass, a compass, a watch, and “sundry other articles equally novel and incomprehensible to them.” Lewis shot his air gun. The Nez Percé were astonished and impressed. The chiefs then withdrew for their consultation.

The next morning, May 12, the chiefs informed the captains that they had “resolved to pusue our advise.” To get the power of the people behind the decision, Broken Arm held a sort of plebiscite. He made up a dish of pounded roots and soup, then gave a speech. He announced the decision to do as the Americans wished, then asked all those who were ready to abide by that decision to come forward and eat; those who opposed would show their sentiments by not eating. “There was not a dissenting voice on this great national question,” Lewis wrote, “but all swallowed their objections if any they had, very cheerfully with their mush.”

It turned out, however, that what the Nez Percé nation had agreed to do was far short of what the captains had asked. The chiefs said the people were willing to move east of the mountains, but only after the United States Army had a fort on the Missouri, where they could trade for arms and ammunition to defend themselves. As for a delegate to the Blackfeet, they rather thought not. And as for a delegate to the president, perhaps, maybe, sometime, later.

The Nez Percé concluded by warning the captains it was too early even to think about crossing the mountains. The captains could think of little else. “We are anxious to procure some guides to accompany us on the different routs we mean to take from Travellers rest,” Lewis wrote.IV

Lewis did most of the smoking and talking with the chiefs, while Clark practiced medicine. Every morning, his patients lined up for treatment. He used eyewash, hot rubdowns, and simples for sore eyes, scrofula (tuberculosis of the lymph glands), ulcers, rheumatism, and other ailments. One case was particularly difficult. An old chief had been suffering from paralysis for three years. He was “incapable of moving a single limb,” Lewis reported, “but lies like a corps in whatever position he is placed, yet he eats heartily, digests his food perfectly, injoys his understanding, his pulse are good, and has retained his flesh almost perfectly.” Nothing Clark tried on him seemed to do any good.

Among the party, Bratton was still suffering from his bad back; Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste, in addition to teething, had a high fever and a swollen neck and throat. The captains gave him some tartar and sulphur and applied a poultice of boiled onions to his neck, as hot as he could stand it.V The therapy did no good; a few days later, Lewis wrote that the boy “was very wrestless last night; it’s jaw and the back of it’s neck are much more swolen. . . . we gave it a doze of creem of tartar and applyed a fresh poltice of onions.”

Clark had better results with Bratton. At Private John Shields’s suggestion, Clark prescribed a sweat bath for Bratton. A sweat lodge was built, stones were heated up and placed inside, Bratton went in naked with a vessel of water to sprinkle on the stones to make steam, and after twenty minutes he was taken out and plunged into cold water. Then back to the sweat lodge. Within a day, Bratton was walking, free from pain for the first time in months.

Sacagawea’s boy slowly recovered, but the paralyzed chief showed no improvement. Lewis regretted that he was not back in Philadelphia, where Benjamin Franklin had experimented with electricity to treat paralytic cases. “I am confident that this [chief] would be an excellent subject for electricity,” Lewis wrote on May 27.

Instead of shock therapy, the captains decided on heat therapy. They built a sweat lodge for the chief and put him in, fortified with thirty drops of laudanum for relaxation. It worked. The chief regained the use of his hands and arms, and soon his leg and toes. “He seems highly delighted with his recovery,” Lewis wrote on May 30. “I begin to entertain strong hope of his restoration by these sweats.”

The medical practice was critical to maintaining a continuing food supply, but by itself insufficient: the men needed more food than Clark’s fees could provide. They had nothing in the way of trade goods, so it was down to the clothes off their backs, the buttons off their coats and pants. When the men discovered that brass buttons were “an article of which these people are tolerably fond,” the men cut off all their buttons to trade for roots.

Never ask your men to do something you won’t do yourself, is time-honored advice to company commanders. In this case, the captains cut the buttons from their dress coats a few days later, which brought in three bushels of roots. “A successful voyage,” Lewis said of the trading venture, “not much less pleasing to us than the return of a good cargo to an East India Merchant.”

On May 21, the captains took a drastic step. They decided that each man should make his own deal for roots sufficient to get him over the Bitterroots. Each man got “one awl, one Kniting pin, a half an ounce of vermillion, two nedles, a few scanes of thead and about a yard of ribbon.” Lewis called it “a slender stock indeed with which to lay in a store of provision for that dreary wilderness.” He comforted himself with the thought that they could fall back on horsemeat. The expedition’s herd was growing, thanks to Clark’s doctoring, and by the beginning of June was up to sixty-five horses.

The long wait with the Nez Percé gave Lewis an opportunity to do more ethnography. He described the tribes’ dress and ornaments at some length. He judged the Nez Percé to be “cheerfull but not gay.”

Their young men were fond of gambling and games. So were Lewis’s young men. In addition, Lewis had the problem of idle hands. Like most company commanders with that problem, he turned to athletics as a way to keep up morale and strength and reach out to the natives.

The result was a tournament. There was a shooting match, which Lewis won with two hits of a mark at a distance of 220 yards, something even more impressive to the Indians than his air gun. On horseback, the Nez Percé put the American soldiers to shame. Lewis was amazed at how accurate they were with the arrow, even when firing at a rolling target from the back of a galloping horse.

There were frequent horse races, among the Indians or between Indians and whites. Lewis remarked, “several of those horses would be thought fleet in the U States.” The Indians could do feats that the whites could only watch: “It is astonishing,” Lewis wrote, “to see these people ride down those steep hills which they do at full speed.”

The stallions in the expedition’s herd were so troublesome the captains offered to trade two of them for one of the Indians’ geldings. The Indians refused. The captains decided they would have to take the risk of castration and began the operation. A young man interrupted to show the whites how the Indians did it. His method was to let the wound bleed, rather than tying off the scrotum. As an experiment, the captains had him operate on two stallions in the Indian way, while Drouillard gelded two in the white way. Two weeks later, Lewis wrote, “I have no hesitation in declaring my beleif that the indian method of gelding is preferable to that practiced by ourselves.”

Horse care, horse trading, horse racing brought the white and red men together. On the evening of May 13, “we tryed the speed of several of our horses,” in races against one another and Indians. It is an irresistible scene: the young braves, red and white, racing from point to point over that beautiful valley with the snow-topped mountains looming behind, whooping and whipping their horses, digging in their heels, while crowds of onlookers, also mounted and also a mix of red and white, cheered them on. Wherever one looked, there were horses, Appaloosas mostly, selectively bred, “active strong and well formed,” according to Lewis.

They were present in “immence numbers,” a phrase Lewis hadn’t used to describe a herd of animals since he left the buffalo country. “50, 60 or a hundred hed is not unusual for an individual to possess.”

That herd was by far the Nez Percés’ greatest asset. It also represented a potential solution to one of the major transportation problems facing the proposed American trading empire stretching from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia. The trick would be to get the Nez Percé herd over to the other side of the mountains, which in turn depended on making a peace between the Blackfeet and the Nez Percé, which was hardly likely as long as the Blackfeet had guns and the Nez Percé did not.

Still, Lewis was resolved to try. As he gazed at the magnificent herd, he began to imagine two long strings of Indian packhorses passing each other on this prairie. One was headed east, carrying spices and other fabulous goods from the Indies; the other headed west, carrying furs from the Missouri River country and trade goods from Europe. In the image, Nez Percé horses would make up for the lack of an all-water route across the continent.

It was an idea Lewis had started working on back at Fort Clatsop. His first attempts to begin creating the conditions that would make the plan workable had failed—he couldn’t get a Nez Percé delegate to go with him to meet with the Blackfeet, or a chief to come to Washington with him. But he stayed with the idea, and continued to try to think it through.

There were frequent footraces. Lewis was impressed by one Indian who proved to be as fleet as the expedition’s best runners, Drouillard and Reubin Field. There were games of prison base (an Indian game in which each side tries to make prisoners of those who run out of their base area), and pitching quoits (a white man’s game of throwing flattened rings at a pin).3 Lewis encouraged the games, for they gave the men who were not hunters some badly needed exercise. They “have had so little to do that they are geting reather lazy and slouthfull.”

Mainly what they did was look at the Bitterroots to see how much snow was left. The expedition’s energy was as tight as a coiled spring, ready to vault itself over those mountains, in an agony of anticipation of being released.

Waiting for snow to melt is rather like watching grass grow. The first discernible sign of progress is greeted with the greatest joy. Thus Lewis on May 17: “I am pleased at finding the river rise so rapidly, it no doubt is attributeable to the meting snows of the mountains.”

Still they had to wait. The mountains remained: “That icy barier which seperates me from my friends and Country, from all which makes life esteemable.”

“Patience, patience,” Lewis advised himself as he concluded his journal entry and closed the elk-skin-covered volume.

Not until May 26 did he let a little optimism into his journal. “The river still rising fast and snows of the mountains visibly diminish,” he wrote.

Ethnography and nature studies helped him get his mind off the snow. On May 27, one of the men brought him a “black woodpecker,” which Lewis had already seen and noted but not held in his hand. He now gave it a five-hundred-word description (“the throat is of a fine crimson red,” “the belly and breast is a curious mixture of white and blood red,” “wings and tail are of a sooty black,” “top of the head black . . . with a glossey tint of green in a certain exposure,” and so on).

The bird is now named Lewis’s woodpecker. Lewis preserved the skin, which ended up at Harvard University. It is his only surviving zoological specimen.4

On June 6, “we meet with a beautifull little bird,” also described in charming detail. It was the western tanager.

Lewis also collected, described, and preserved close to fifty new plants, including camas, yellow bells, Lewis’s syringa, purple trillium, ragged robin, and mariposa lily. Paul Cutright calls this his most productive period as a botanist.5

Every day, the Nez Percé told the captains they would have to wait. As May turned into June, the waiting got harder. Twisted Hair had told them that the tribe would cross the mountains in May, but that was before the winter snows began. It had snowed and snowed and snowed, far beyond an average year, to such an extent that some of the Indians were warning the captains they would have to wait until July.

But on June 3, Lewis was surprised and pleased to learn that “today the Indians dispatched an express over the mountains to travellers rest.” The “express” was a teen-age boy who went seeking information from the Flatheads about “the occurrences that have taken place on the East side of the mountains” during the winter.

If the Indians could send a boy over the Lolo Trail just to pick up some gossip, Lewis “thought it probable that we could also pass.” He told the Nez Percé he was going to try, but they replied that, although their boys could make the trip, Lewis’s men could not: the creeks were too high, there was no grass, and the snow was deep over the roads, which were extremely slippery. They told Lewis to have patience. In twelve to fourteen days, he could set out.

On June 4, Lewis met with some of the chiefs. He repeated his request for guides to accompany his party to the falls of the Missouri, then up to the Blackfoot country in search of a truce. The chiefs stalled.

Lewis checked the men’s packs and was pleased to “find that our whole party have an ample store of bread and roots for our voyage.” All around the campsite, the men were “much engaged in preparing their saddles arranging their loads provisions &c for our departure.”

The captains planned to move camp eastward, from the banks of the Clearwater to higher ground at the western terminus of the Lolo Trail, on the southern end of Weippe Prairie, where they had first met the Nez Percé the preceding September. There they would make camp and begin the final preparations for the assault on the mountains.

On June 8, two days before the move, there was a sort of farewell party at the campsite they had occupied on the banks of the Clearwater for nearly a month. The afternoon featured horse- and footracing and game-playing. In the evening, Cruzatte brought out the fiddle and dancing began.

But as the festivities went on, an Indian told the captains that the snow was still deep and they would not be able to cross until the beginning of July. He warned that if they tried it sooner the horses would be at least three days without food.

“This information is disagreable,” Lewis admitted. “It causes some doubt as to the time at which it will be most proper for us to set out.” But not enough doubt to deter the captains. Lewis explained, “as we have no time to loose we will wrisk the chanches and set out as early as the indians generally think it practicable or the middle of this month.”

By midday, June 9, everything was in readiness for the move to Weippe Prairie. The mood was exuberant. “Our party seem much elated with the idea of moving on towards their friends and country,” Lewis happily noted. “They all seem allirt in their movements today.” Notwithstanding the thoughts of what lay ahead, they were “amusing themselves very merrily today in runing footraces pitching quites, prison basse &c.”

The expedition was about to resume its march.

I. Chopunnish was the captains’ name for the Nez Percé.

II. A sample: “Of the stamens the filaments are subulate, inserted into the recepticle, unequal and bent inwards concealing the pistillum.” His description covers most of a printed page.

III. Clark later commented that those Indians who had had no contact with whites until the expedition arrived were much more hospitable than those who had, such as the Chinooks (Moulton, ed., Journals, vol. 7, p. 241).

IV. This was his first mention of a decision he and Clark had made sometime earlier, probably at Fort Clatsop.

V. It has been suggested that the boy had mumps, or perhaps it was tonsillitis. Dr. Chuinard thinks it was an external abscess on the neck. (Only One Man Died, pp. 370–75.)

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