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HOMEWARD: IN THE MOUNTAINS

 

Before the end of January, plans were being formed for the homeward journey. The men were dressing skins and making them into clothing and moccasins, and curing such meat as they could get, so as to be able to vary the fish diet of the Columbia. In February Captain Clark completed a map of the country between Fort Mandan and Fort Clatsop, and sketched a plan he had conceived for shortening the route from the mountains east of the Nez Percé villages to the Falls of the Missouri. His sagacity in this was marvelous; when it came to the point, his plan was found to be perfectly practicable, cutting off 580 miles from the most difficult part of the way. He was a born geographer; indeed, his was a catholic, a cosmopolitan genius.

The greatest cause for uneasiness now lay in the depleted condition of the stock of merchandise intended for trade. On March 16th, when preparations for departure were nearing completion, there is this entry in the journals:--

"All the small merchandise we possess might be tied up in a couple of handkerchiefs. The rest of our stock in trade consists of six blue robes, one scarlet ditto, five robes which we have made out of our large United States flag, a few old clothes trimmed with ribbons, and one artillerist's uniform coat and hat, which probably Captain Clark will never wear again. We have to depend entirely upon this meagre outfit for the purchase of such horses and provisions as it will be in our power to obtain,--a scant dependence, indeed, for such a journey as is before us."

It was hard to persuade the coast Indians to sell the canoes that were necessary for the first part of the trip. The canoe afforded these people their chief means for getting a livelihood, and was valued accordingly. A boat and a woman were, by common consent, placed upon an equality of value,--certainly not an overestimate of the worth of the canoe, if one laid aside chivalry and regarded the squaws dispassionately. When Captain Lewis was compelled to give a half-carrot of tobacco and a laced coat in exchange for one of the little craft, he observed that he considered himself defrauded of the coat. No doubt he had in mind the native scale of values.

"Many reasons had determined us to remain at Fort Clatsop until the first of April," says the journal entry of March 22d. "Besides the want of fuel in the Columbian plains, and the impracticability of passing the mountains before the beginning of June, we were anxious to see some of the foreign traders, from whom, by means of our ample letters of credit, we might have recruited our exhausted stores of merchandise. About the middle of March, however, we had become seriously alarmed for the want of food; the elk, our chief dependence, had at length deserted their usual haunts in our neighborhood and retreated to the mountains. We were too poor to purchase other food from the Indians, so that we were sometimes reduced, notwithstanding all the exertions of our hunters, to a single day's provisions in advance. The men, too, whom the constant rains and confinement had rendered unhealthy, might, we hoped, be benefited by leaving the coast and resuming the exercise of travel. We therefore determined to leave Fort Clatsop, ascend the river slowly, consume the month of March in the woody country, where we hoped to find subsistence, and in this way reach the plains about the first of April, before which time it will be impossible to attempt to cross them."

The next day the canoes were loaded, and in the afternoon the party took leave of Fort Clatsop.

Though the return along the Columbia was less fraught with danger than the descent, it was much more toilsome. Going down, the men had taken large chances in shooting the rapids; but coming back, portage had to be made of all such places. For this work horses were absolutely necessary; and to get a few of these from the Indians, who saw their chance for gain, brought the expedition to a state verging upon downright bankruptcy. Enough horses were secured, however, to enable them to pass step by step over the obstructions in their way, until at last the Great Falls were left behind. From that point they meant to proceed by land; and as the canoes were of no further use, they were cut up for firewood, which could not be otherwise obtained on the treeless plains.

Thus far there had been no adventures of note, except such as grew out of the ill-nature and rascality of the Indians, who swarmed upon the banks of the stream, where they were assembled for their annual salmon-fishing. More than once the officers found it necessary to use harsh measures, in dealing with cases of theft. In striking contrast to these experiences was the meeting with the Walla-Wallas, a short distance above the Falls. These people freely gave to the travelers from their own scant supply of firewood and food; and the chief presented to Captain Clark a superb white horse, a kindness which Clark requited by the gift of his artillerist's sword. After leaving this hospitable village, the party was overtaken by three young men, Walla-Wallas, who had come a day's journey in order to restore a steel trap, inadvertently left behind.

May 5th they came again to the lower villages of the Nez Percés, where they had stopped in the preceding October to make their dugout canoes. By this time they were practically destitute of all resources save those of the mind. To secure food, they were obliged to resort to the practice of medicine! Luckily, the scheme worked. Their patients were almost legion; their fame spread like a prairie fire. Nor was this mere quackery. All of the Indians of the Western slope were more or less afflicted with rheumatism, inflammation of the eyes, and other ills incident to an outdoor life in a humid climate; and the two officers, in the course of preparing themselves for their errand across the continent, had learned to use some of the simple remedies of the day. In some cases they gave relief to the sufferers; in others, wrote Captain Lewis, "we conscientiously abstained from giving them any but harmless medicines; and as we cannot possibly do harm, our prescriptions, though unsanctioned by the faculty, may be useful, and are entitled to some remuneration." They were thus enabled to secure the day's food, and to provide a little against the morrow. But severe trials yet remained.

"May 6th [after taking up the trail].... It was now so difficult to procure anything to eat that our chief dependence was on the horse which we received yesterday for medicine; but to our great disappointment he broke the rope by which he was confined, made his escape, and left us supperless in the rain."

Upon falling in again (on May 8th) with the band of Nez Percés in whose care they had left their horses in the autumn, they found the animals to be now much scattered over the plain, where they had been turned out to graze; but the chief promised to have them collected at once. He said further that his people had been made aware of the approach of the travelers, and of their being without provisions, and that he had a few days before dispatched several of his men to meet them, bearing supplies; but this relief party had taken another trail, and so missed a meeting.

This old chief and his people showed themselves to be genuine friends. After two or three days, when their guests had explained their situation, and offered to exchange a horse in poor flesh for one that was fatter and more fit to be eaten, the chief was deeply offended by this conception of his hospitality, remarking that his tribe had an abundance of young horses, of which the men might use as many as they chose; and some of the warriors soon brought up two young and fat animals, for which they would accept nothing in return.

To hold speech with this tribe was awkward. "In the first place," wrote Captain Lewis, "we spoke in English to one of our men, who translated it into French to Chaboneau; he interpreted it to his wife in the Minnetaree language; she then put it into Shoshone, and a young Shoshone prisoner explained it to the Chopunnish in their own dialect." But the common impulses of humanity found expression in more direct ways, without need for interpretation. Whether as friends or foes, the Nez Percés have always been celebrated for their generosity; and in those hard days they seemed to be just in their element. They could not do enough to show their good will.

The expedition went into camp at a little distance from this village, waiting for their horses to be assembled, and waiting for the melting of the mountain snows, which now rendered further progress impossible. In this camp they remained until June 10, unwilling to impose upon their hosts, and hence were in sore straits most of the time.

"May 21st. On parceling out the stores, the stock of each man was found to consist of only one awl and one knitting-pin, one half ounce of vermilion, two needles, and about a yard of ribbon--a slender means of bartering for our subsistence; but the men have been so much accustomed to privations that now neither the want of meat nor the scanty funds of the party excites the least anxiety among them."

Again they were reduced to a diet of wild roots; but the amiable old chief discovered their situation, paid them a visit, and informed them that most of the horses running at large upon the surrounding plain belonged to the people of his village, insisting that if the party stood in want of meat, they would use these animals as their own. Surely the noble Nez Percés deserved better at the hands of our government than they got in later years. The benefits they were so ready to confer in time of need were shamelessly forgotten.

June 1st two of the men, who had been sent to trade with the Indians for a supply of roots, and who carried all that remained of the merchandise, had the misfortune to lose it in the river. Then, says the journal, "we created a new fund, by cutting off the buttons from our clothes and preparing some eye-water and basilicon, to which were added some phials and small tin boxes in which we had once kept phosphorus. With this cargo two men set out in the morning to trade, and brought home three bushels of roots and some bread, which, in our situation, was as important as the return of an East India ship."

"June 8th.... Several foot-races were run between our men and the Indians; the latter, who are very active and fond of these races, proved themselves very expert, and one of them was as fleet as our swiftest runners. After the races were over, the men divided themselves into two parties and played prison base, an exercise which we are desirous of encouraging, before we begin the passage over the mountains, as several of the men are becoming lazy from inaction."

On the 10th they left this camp and moved eastward, drawing slowly toward the mountains, and keeping an anxious lookout for hunting grounds. In this quest they were not successful; all the wild creatures round about had suffered much in the long winter, and the few they were able to secure were so much reduced in flesh as to be unfit for food. They could only push forward. On the 15th they came to the foothills of the Bitter Root Range; and on the 17th they were well into its heart, ascending the main ridges. But here they soon discovered the impossibility of proceeding in their situation. The snow lay everywhere to a depth of twelve or fifteen feet, completely hiding the trail. To delay until the snow melted would defeat the intention of getting to St. Louis before another winter. To go on was to risk losing themselves altogether. As they stated the question to themselves, frankly, it seemed like a game of tossing pennies, with Fate imposing the familiar catch, "Heads, I win; tails, you lose."

"We halted at the sight of this new difficulty," says Captain Lewis. "... We now found that as the snow bore our horses very well, traveling was infinitely easier than it was last fall, when the rocks and fallen timber had so much obstructed our march." But with the best of fortune, at least five days must be spent in getting through this dreadful fastness. Unfamiliar as they were with the route, the chances against getting through at all were tenfold. "During these five days, too, we have no chance of finding either grass or underwood for our horses, the snow being so deep. To proceed, therefore, under such circumstances, would be to hazard our being bewildered in the mountains, and to insure the loss of our horses; even should we be so fortunate as to escape with our lives, we might be obliged to abandon our papers and collections. It was, therefore, decided not to venture any further; to deposit here all the baggage and provisions for which we had no immediate use; and, reserving only subsistence for a few days, to return while our horses were yet strong to some spot where we might live by hunting, till a guide could be procured to conduct us across the mountains."

Just at that moment they were almost in despair. The next day two of the best men turned back to the Nez Percé villages, to endeavor to procure a guide, while the main party moved down toward the plains, supporting life meagrely, waiting for something to turn up. They were quite powerless until help of some kind should come to them.

To their infinite relief, the messengers returned in a few days, bringing guides, who undertook to conduct the party to the Falls of the Missouri, for which service they were to be recompensed by two guns. Under their care a fresh start was made, and by nightfall of the 26th, passing over a perilous trail, they had found a small bit of ground from which the snow had melted, leaving exposed a growth of young grass, where the horses had pasturage for the night.

"June 27th.... From this lofty spot we have a commanding view of the surrounding mountains, which so completely enclose us that, though we have once passed them [in the preceding September], we almost despair of ever escaping from them without the assistance of the Indians.... Our guides traverse this trackless region with a kind of instinctive sagacity; they never hesitate, they are never embarrassed; and so undeviating is their step, that wherever the snow has disappeared, for even a hundred paces, we find the summer road."

On the 29th they descended from the snowy mountains to the main branch of the Kooskooskee, where they found the body of a deer that had been left for them by the hunters, who were working in advance,--"a very seasonable addition to our food; for having neither meat nor oil, we were reduced to a diet of roots, without salt or any other addition."

The first day of July found them encamped at the mouth of Traveler's Rest Creek, where all mountain trails converged. It was from this place that Captain Clark's plan for a shorter route to the Falls of the Missouri was to be put into execution. But that was not all that lay in their minds.

"We now formed the following plan of operations: Captain Lewis, with nine men, is to pursue the most direct route to the Falls of the Missouri, where three of his party are to be left to prepare carriages for transporting the baggage and canoes across the portage. With the remaining six, he will ascend Maria's River to explore the country and ascertain whether any branch of it reaches as far north as latitude 50°, after which he will descend that river to its mouth. The rest of the men will accompany Captain Clark to the head of Jefferson River, which Sergeant Ordway and a party of nine men will descend, with the canoes and other articles deposited there. Captain Clark's party, which will then be reduced to ten, will proceed to the Yellowstone, at its nearest approach to the Three Forks of the Missouri. There he will build canoes, go down that river with seven of his party, and wait at its mouth till the rest of the party join him. Sergeant Pryor, with two others, will then take the horses by land to the Mandans. From that nation he will go to the British posts on the Assiniboin with a letter to Mr. Henry, to procure his endeavors to prevail on some of the Sioux chiefs to accompany him to Washington."

It is hard to understand that indomitable humor. Here they were, just freed from imminent disaster, worn, half-starved, beggared, yet bobbing up like corks from the depths, and forthwith making calm preparations for fresh labors of a grave kind.