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Highlight of American History

by Rex Ziak


On Nov. 24, 1805, while Lewis and Clark were encamped at McGowan, on the Washington side of the Columbia River just east of the modern Chinook Tunnel, several unexpected events coincided which changed the entire course of their expedition.

Not much has been said about this in past decades but now it's becoming a topic of conversations, speeches and essays across this land. Since so much attention has been given to this history, I thought it would be helpful to explain exactly what occurred right here in Pacific County. But first, a little background information so everything makes sense.

We'll pick up the Lewis and Clark story just after they cross the Rocky Mountains in September. As they made their way down into the foothills they were certain of one thing; they would not be able to return over those frozen mountains until next summer after the snow melted. They had not planned to winter on the western side of the Rockies, but now they had no other choice.

Many books will tell you that Lewis and Clark intended to camp near the ocean, however this appears to be merely an assumption created after the fact because there is not a single word in any of the explorer's journals which supports this. The truth is, as they were traveling down the Columbia the captains began to look for some site where they could make a winter camp to safely pass time until spring. All they really needed were friendly Indian neighbors, a source of food and a supply of wood for cookfires and shelters.

Apparently, the first place that caught their attention was in the vicinity of Celilo Falls where extremely friendly Indians possessed enough dried fish to feed a small army. On Oct. 24 Clark writes:
"I counted 107 stacks of dried pounded fish in different places on those rocks which must have contained 10,000 lb of neet fish,..."

Another possible site further down river was in the vicinity of The Dalles and Hood River, Ore. On Oct. 29 Clark writes:
"a good situation for winter quarters if game can be had is just below Sepulchar rock on the Lar Side, high & pine and oake timber the rocks ruged above good hunting Country back"

The third possible site was the Sandy River near present day Camas. The captains were so impressed with the area they explored up the Sandy River for a distance of 1 1/2 miles. On Nov 3, Clark writes:
"...opposit Qk Sand River on the Star. Side, extensive bottoms and low hilley Country of each side (good wintering Place) a high peeked..."
As we know, Lewis and Clark continued down river and finally arrived at their ultimate destination within "full view of the ocean." From this base camp at McGowan they explored the region and made maps. Since they failed to encounter fur trading ships and the cunning Chinooks charged maximum prices for food, Lewis and Clark decided to depart from the coast, return up river and make a winter camp.

As they prepared to paddle back up river a fierce offshore storm began to stir up the Columbia's waters. Rather than risk a mishap Lewis and Clark postponed their departure from the coast. On Nov. 21 Clark writes:
"Some wind from the S.E., waves too high for us to proceed on our homeward bound journey."

Sgt. Patrick Gass' journal gives us a more complete explanation on this same day: "The wind blew so violent today, and the waves ran so high, that we could not set out on our return, which is our intention to do as soon as weather and water will permit. The season being so far advanced, we wish to extablish our winter quarters as soon as possible."

The following day the storm arrived in is full fury. Clark writes on Nov. 22:
"O! how horriable is the day waves breaking with great violence against the Shore throwing the Water into our Camp..."
Gass confirms what Clark describes:
"This is a rainy and stormy morning; and we were not yet able to set out"

This storm was one of those typical November gales with wind probably gusting to 70 mph and rain blowing sideways. Clark says the men were confined to camp and Sgt. Gass reports one canoe was damaged when waves tossed it upon some rocks.

So the following morning the canoe is repaired and their wet baggage is dried and repacked. As the men busied themselves preparing for their departure, local Indians began to arrive with furs for trade, including 10 Clatsop Indians from Point Adams. By evening everything was put back in order and they were finally ready to depart from the coast and begin their journey up river.

The next day, Nov. 24 1805, is one of the most interesting days of the entire expedition. It's filled with unexpected events which cause these men to change their plans several times. In fact, by nighttime the entire direction of the expedition changed course.

It all begins with the weather. Instead of the usual rain, clouds and wind, this morning dawns with calm, clear skies. Patrick Gass writes:
"The morning was fine with some white frost."

Up until now, cloudy weather had prevented the captains from using their sextant to find the latitude of the mouth of the Columbia. The unexpected clear weather convinced them to postpone their departure one more day so they could calculate this important data. Again, Gass tell us what occured:
"As this was a fine clear day, it was thought proper to remain here in order to take some observations, which the bad weather had before rendered impossible."

Now Clark begins to discuss in his journals the urgency of moving into a winter camp. Perhaps the frosty weather and shivering men reminded him that half of their clothing was rotted. In order to provide themselves with buckskins as soon as possible, Clark concludes they must immediately go to wherever the most animals can be found. The Indians around camp were questioned about the best hunting. Clark says:
"This certinly enduces every individual of the party of make diligent enquiries to the nativs the part of the Countrey in which the wild Animals are most plenty."

Now comes a completely unexpected reply. The Indians, possibly those Clatsops who had crossed over the day before, reported that many elk could be found at Point Adams in what is now Oregon. This must have been almost unbelievable news, especially since no elk had been seen and only a few deer killed since they arrived in the lower Columbia.
Point Adams was in plain view directly across the river from the men's camp, a distance of merely five miles. However, in order to cross the river their heavy dugouts would be exposed broadside to the ocean's surge, making it an extremely hazardous trip. In order to examine Point Adams they would have to cross the Columbia further up river, travel an additional 40 miles and invest another two weeks of time into the venture.

This was a tough decision. Should they continue with their previous plans of wintering up river near the Cascade Mountains, or should they take the time to examine Point Adams? The men's buckskin clothing apparently was so tattered and rotted that Clark refers to them as "...our Naked party dressed as they are altogether in leather." What if the Indians were exaggerating about the elk. What if snow began to fall?

In order to resolve this issue, Lewis and Clark gathered the entire party together. Clark doesn't tell us what was said, but we can imagine they discussed the various options and the pros and cons of each. Then, one by one, the captains gave each member of the party the opportunity to express their own opinion. Private Whitehouse descripes this moment in his journal: "In the Evening our Officers had the whole party assembled in order to consult which place would be the best, for us to take up our Winter Quarters at."

Captain Clark wrote down each individual's name and their response. Two answers are given by each man, so perhaps the question was something like, "What do you think we should do next ... and if that doesn't work ... what is your second choice?"

The Vote
===========================

Sergt J. Ordway cross & examine S
Serjt N. Pryor do do S
Sgt P. Gass do do S
Jo. Shields Proceed to Sandy R
G. Shannon examn cross, falls
T.P. Howard do do falls
P. Wiser do do S.R.
J. Collins do do S.R.
Jo. Fields do do R
A. Willard do do up
R. Willard do do up
R. Frasure do do falls
W. Bratten do do up
R. Fields do do falls
J.B. Thompson do do up
J. Colter do do up
H. Hall do do S.R.
Labeech do do S.R.
Peter Crusatte do do S.R.
J.P. Depage do do up
Shabono -- -- --
S. Guterich do do falls
W. Werner do do up
Go. Gibson do do up
Jo. Whitehouse do do up
Geo. Drewyer do do falls
Mc. Neal do do up
York do do up

falls Sandy River lookout up
5 10 12

Janey in favor of a place where there is
plenty of Pota
============================

This vote is quite interesting so we should take a moment to examine what occured. You'll notice the captains first consulted their three sergeants, all of whom expressed identical opinions. Their first choice was to cross the Columbia and examine the other side for elk. If none were found, they wanted to proceed to "S", which represented the Sandy River.) Clark's frequent use of "do" is shorthand for ditto)
The next man to comment is Joshph Shields. Instead of following the example of the sergeants, his opinion is to go immediately up to the Sandy River. Obviously he didn't want to camp near the ocean. However, after this single contrary vote every other member of the party elected to cross the Columbia and search for elk. Their second choices vary between the "S" (Sandy River), the "falls" (Celilo Falls) or "up" (somewhere in between). Toussaint Charbonneau ("Shabono") has no vote recorded alongside his name.

This simple vote is now attracting considerable attention. What is most unique is the final name found at the bottom of the list. "York" was Clark's personal slave and as we all know, back in 1805 slaves did not vote. But here, in this remarkable moment, Lewis and Clark looked past the color of his skin - - looked past his bondage - - and saw the man who shared with them every grueling mile of this expedition. So they asked this man the same question they had asked the other men - - and York replied.

In addition to this, at the bottom of the page we find the name "Janey" followed by a curious remark. It is assumed Clark wrote "Janey" as a nickname for Sacajawea, and the comment is her reply when asked the same question presented to the men. Her response of wanting to camp near plenty of "Pota" refers to the wappato root gathered up river near present-day Portland which Clark said "are equal to the Irish potato."
At first this may appear like a cute reply, but in fact is was an extremely intelligent response. Sacajawea undoubtably knew hunting animals all winter was difficult and often unsuccessful. (In fact, that same day six hunters had been sent out to shoot for the party's meals, but they returned with only one duck.) Perhaps her experience taught her to realize camping near edible nutritious roots would give them a guaranteed source of food and might save them from starving if the hunters couldn't find enough game.

To us it seems perfectly natural for the captains to ask everyone their opinion, however, we must realize in 1805 it would be considered quite radical to ask the opinion of a black man, especially when the response could affect the future of white men. And to ask the opinion of a woman was ridiculous, especially and Indian woman.

Some people want to romanticize this moment, or speculate about Lewis and Clark's enlightened view of equality and democracy. That sort of interpretation I'll leave for the philisophers to decide. All I can say for sure is what the men's journals describe - - they asked everyone's opinion and everyone, except Charbonneau, replied. But here again, I have been told that this single vote is the first ever recorded by a black man in the history of this nation. If this is true, you'll be hearing more about McGowan and this historical moment in the coming years.

Clark writes that everyone, except one member of their party, agreed to cross the Columbia and examine the other shore for the availability of elk. The following day they paddled 20 miles up river, eventually crossed over to the southern shore, and within two weeks arrived at a site, surrounded by elk, where they built a winter camp they named Fort Clatsop.

Author Rex Ziak is a two-timed Emmy-award winning film maker, lifelong Naselle Washington resident, and Lewis and Clark historian.