We who reside at the mouth of the Columbia River live in the midst of one of America’s great adventure stories. Between November and March of each year, we may relive the arrival, daring deeds and departure of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Friday, March 23, was the day the expedition put their canoes into the water of what the Chinooks called Netul (our Lewis and Clark River) and headed back upriver.
In the midst of William Clark’s journal entry for that day, these words leap out. “We… left Fort Clatsop on our homeward bound journey.” After nearly five months at the western edge of the continent, the Lewis and Clark Expedition set off back to the United States — its western frontier then defined by Missouri, and St. Louis in particular.
Six of us commemorated this consequential day in our regional history by reading from the journals written by Clark, Capt. Meriwether Lewis, Sgt. John Ordway, Sgt. Patrick Gass and Private Joseph Whitehouse. We also reflected on the differences between our pampered lives and those of the rough and ready explorers.
Our group was led by Jonathon Burpee, superintendent of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. Joining in reading from the journals were Matt Winters of the Chinook Observer, his cousin and fellow Western history enthusiast Bob Bell, Darrell and Merideth Brann of Enterprise, Oregon and Steve Forrester, retired publisher of The Daily Astorian. Of all the Fort Clatsop superintendents of the past three decades, Burpee is one of the most enthusiastic interpreters of this history.
After lunch in the picnic area near the Fort Clatsop Visitors Center, we walked down the hill to Netul Landing, from which the canoes departed on that day 212 years ago.
By the time we reached Netul Landing, the expedition had been waterborne for 10 minutes. Clark had sent elk hunters ahead to Point William, known to us as Tongue Point. (By the date this is in print, the expedition was in the vicinity of modern-day Troutdale east of Portland, stocking up on wild game meat, including an unlucky family of bears.)
In our layers of contemporary outerwear but still feeling the chill of rain and snow, we reflected on how hardy the explorers were — clothed in one layer of buckskins and wearing moccasins of elk hide. Burpee commented that making many dozens of these moccasins for the return journey was one of that winter’s prime activities.
Time travel made easy
At its best, Lewis and Clark National Park presents many such opportunities for a kind of personalized time travel. Aside from our small party, we encountered no one else at Netul. The National Park Service hasn’t erased all evidence of civilization from Fort Clatsop’s viewshed. But as nesting ducks puttered around the quiet wetlands, the rustic setting made it easy to imagine the bustle that would have accompanied departure — men lugging heavy loads through the forest from the little nearby fort and securing supplies in their canoes for the arduous journey home. There was no napping in the backseat for anyone on the homeward leg of that seminal American “road trip.”
Infamously, one of the canoes they departed in was stolen from the Clatsop Indians, after one of the expedition’s own clunkier watercraft drifted away on the tide. By the time the expedition arrived at the mouth of the Columbia, they were running low on barter items. Burpee spoke of how the Chinook/Clatsop people were sophisticated traders and consumers, having run one of the Northwest’s mightiest mercantile empires for centuries. They began trading with European ship crews starting in 1792. By 1805-06, it’s possible to imagine them exclaiming, “We don’t need no stinkin’ blue beads” or more eloquent words to that effect. So unable to buy a canoe, the explorers merely swiped one.
Like the vast majority of the physical culture of Columbia estuary tribes, that richly symbolic canoe wasn’t cherished by its new owners and faded away into anonymous oblivion. You will scour the world’s great museum collections in vain for much tangible evidence of the Chinooks. There is a marvelously carved house post that some passerby found in a tangle of river driftwood in the 19th century. There are a few elegant leaf-shaped Chinook cups and ladles in the collections of the Smithsonian and other major institutions. These probably only survive because some trader plucked them out of context and tucked them away out of reach of the disaster soon to envelop the Chinook. All who see them wish we could step back 200 years and barter for one of our own, perhaps for a big box of deluxe abalone buttons.
Burpee reflected on surviving accounts of the comforts and supreme stylishness of Chinookan plank houses, which were described as cozy works of art. How odd it must have been for local native residents in that long-ago winter to have a strange encampment of hairy, smelly, hungry white transients show up in their neighborhood — carrying big firearms! This considered, the estuary’s original residents responded with remarkable tolerance.
Light and dark
When visiting Fort Clatsop, Dismal Nitch, Station Camp, Cape Disappointment and our area’s several other premier Lewis and Clark sites, our first thoughts may be of the explorers and how they set the stage for U.S. westward expansion. They are unsurpassed in terms of individual tenacity and exciting encounters with the West’s unsullied wonders.
But our most lingering and troubling thoughts are of the horrific losses suffered by the First Peoples of the Columbia estuary. Within 25 years of the expedition’s visit, plagues on the scale of a Stephen King nightmare had turned the lively villages here into fallen ghost towns. By the time Sgt. Gass died in 1870, many civilizations contacted by Lewis and Clark were barely clinging to a kind of hungry, twilight existence. Descendants of the magnificent Chinook and Clatsop were left to scour the mudflats beneath white men’s canneries in search of castoff salmon heads.
Learning of the light and dark sides of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the good people they once met here, is one of greatest privileges of living on this glorious coast. We absolutely should celebrate the past in evocative places like Netul Landing. And we absolutely should be supporting, learning and perfecting what we can of the nearly lost art of living as the Chinook and Clatsop did. People with eloquent hands should still be producing profoundly simple cedar cups here on the Lower Columbia, and we all can be using them, rubbing them smooth with our fingers and lips, imparting to them the rich character that will someday make them truly beautiful.
We must never overlook the plain fact that some of the families who hosted Lewis and Clark live on. More than dead explorers, it is they who deserve our most rapt attention.