Tribal peoples had an encyclopedic knowledge of their land and that of the neighboring tribes who were their relatives and longtime trading partners. Some tribal people would travel very far from their home villages to trade for the choicest resources. Trading hubs like Celilo and Willamette Falls attracted tribes from far upriver enabling tribal people to learn much about their river highways, including the names of landmarks and peoples. The tribes were knowledgeable enough about their regions that when Lewis and Clark explored the Columbia River, the explorers used information gleaned from local tribes to navigate their path and draw their charts and maps. The Lewis and Clark journals include many examples of Tribal headmen and elders drawing maps of the river path ahead, with accurate landmarks in the sand, on hides, on the side of a tree or through narration.
[Clark] “… one of the Indians drew me a sketch of the river, in this sketch he makes the 1st large Southerly fork of Lewis’s river much the longest and on which great numbers of the Snake Indians reside…” (Lewis, et al. 1969e:9).
Clark on the Multnomah River
On their return trip eastward in 1806, Lewis and Clark encountered the Multnomah tribe after the explorers missed the Willamette River in 1805. During this period they called the Willamette River the Multnomah and Clark was guided some distance up the river by a Clowewalla (Oregon City) Indian, a member of the Cash-hooks nation. There the expedition learned of the existence of Willamette Falls, the Clackamas River, and information about Mt. Hood and the Kalapuya Indians in the valley. The expedition never reached the falls. This is the first time non-native people travel the Willamette River.
“… I provaled on an old Indian to mark the Multnomah R down on the sand which [he did] and perfectly corisponded with the sketch given me by sundry others, with the addition of a circular mountain which passes this river at the falls and which connects with the mountains of the Seacoast. He also laid down the Clackamos passing a high conical mountain near its mouth on the lower side and heads in Mount Jefferson which he lais down by raising the Sand as a very high mountain and covered with eternal snow. The high mountain which this Indian lais down near the enterance of Clarkamos river, we have not seen as the hills in it’s direction from this valley is high and obscures the sight of it from us…. This Indian also informed me that Multnomah above the falls was crouded with rapids and thickly inhabited by Indians of the Cal-leh-po-e-wah Nation” (Lewis, et al. 1969d:254-255).
Lewis and Clark on the Oregon Coast
Not usually noted in discussions of the expedition is their mapping of the northern Portion of the Oregon Coast. The expedition remained in their fort in the Clatsop area over the winter and kept fairly close to their encampment. Here they map a portion of the Washington Coast.
They mapped a portion of the coast which concerned the Tillamook and Clatsop tribes, the first to do so.
Lewis and Clark Expedition Mission
The Lewis and Clark Expedition is an honored part of American history. As the young nation began to expand, notions of the need to claim the continent all the way to the Pacific Coast became a part of American life. Visions of the expansion of the nation included Manifest Destiny, the notion that Americans were destined to possess an expansive country regardless of the original inhabitants or previous claimants. The expedition was to native peoples an advance scouting of our lands. President Thomas Jefferson desired to know what sorts of resources there were on the northwest coast and the expedition was to collect that information. On the journey the expedition collected samples of plants and animals and searched for evidence of great wealth. Previously, stories received in the Great Lakes from Native people who had traveled to the Pacific were of the region possessing a great wealth. This captured the attention of President Jefferson.
Lewis and Clark were first and foremost military leaders. They collected information about the populations of each tribe, their ability to mobilize for war using canoes, their resources, fish, deer, the advantages of the Columbia River, its tributaries and the place names of everything they could. The information obtained set the destiny of the American nation to claim the Columbia River from the British who sought to claim the region for their fur trade. We see this in their journals, their collections of examples of wildlife, and in their maps where information about tribal populations and village locations are noted.
Tribal Interpretations of the Impact of the Expedition
The tribes in the region were barely a consideration. Lewis and Clark’s population estimates may have caused a bit of alarm, but a few decades later when diseases decimated the majority of tribes, the region was ripe for claims by the expansionist American government. It is the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the journals published a few years later, describing the wealth of resources of the Northwest Coast that draws tens of thousands of settlers, ranchers and explorers to capture that wealth for themselves. In addition, the expedition’s close contact with the tribes on their route likely caused diseases to be passed among the tribal nations. The expedition’s mission constitutes one of the most massive ethnographic expeditions in history, an event that directly and indirectly caused the decline of native populations, the colonization of hundreds of tribal homelands, and impacts to hundreds of tribal cultures in the next 200 years.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.