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Lewis and Clark: "We send from this place with dispatches"


Through the often dreary winter the explorers successfully established a facility for deriving salt from seawater, traveled south to obtain oil and blubber from a whale carcass beached on the Oregon coast, hunted, traded with the wily Clatsops and other nearby Indians, and sewed replacements for their worn and moldy buckskin clothing.

Lewis spent much time studying and writing about geography, the plant and animal inhabitants of the area, and Indian culture. Clark's vitally important contribution was the completion of his map covering the territory from Fort Mandan to the Pacific. This, combined with his earlier map of the lower Missouri, provided an unprecedented view of western America. The captains' respective endeavors were marked by collaborative, lengthy discussions of what they had seen and learned from the numerous Indian tribes and from the lands and waters they had traversed.

As the winter days lengthened, every resident of Fort Clatsop became impatient for the melting snows and the hour when the journey to the East would begin. Waiting for the spring salmon run expected in May would lessen concerns about food for the return trip, but that delay could lead to ice in the Missouri when the expedition reached the river the following fall. Lewis decided to advance the departure date to late March.

The Corps of Discovery left Fort Clatsop and headed up the Columbia on March 27, 1806, its enthusiasm dampened by thoughts of a second encounter with the rapids, cascades, and the Bitterroot Mountains. The course upriver with laborious portages was made more difficult by numerous skirmishes with Indians intent upon stealing supplies and equipment, including in one instance Lewis's dog Seaman.

Beyond the rapids Lewis decided to abandon the canoes. He obtained a few Indian horses at the expense of the steadily dwindling supply of trade items and by April 27 reached the home of the Wallawalla Indians, relatives of the Nez Perce, who provided friendship, food, and additional horses. The Nez Perce territory was not far beyond. Here, on the westward journey, Clark had gained a reputation for medical knowledge, and his skills were again in demand.

The Bitterroots appeared on the horizon in early May along with the bad news from the Nez Perce of a difficult winter and of unlikely passage over the mountains for at least a month. Again, the delay in proceeding east tried the explorers' patience, but the Nez Perce were hospitable, most of the horses left with them were retrieved and others were available, as was food for the trek through the mountains.

After a five-week involuntary respite, Lewis's usual good judgment gave way to his eagerness to head for home. On June 15, 1806, the party set out for the mountains; by the second day the snows were ten feet deep. The prospect of getting lost plus many days without grass for the horses led to the captains' decision to turn back - their first retreat ever. Two men returned to the Nez Perce village where they succeeded in bargaining for guides with knowledge of the least perilous route through the mountains. The second attempt to cross the Bitterroots on June 24 brought the party to the Travellers' Rest camp six days later.

Here the captains put into place plans apparently made at Fort Clatsop. On July 3, 1806, the Corps of Discovery divided to undertake two separate explorations and to pursue different routes to the junction of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers.*

Lewis with a small party rode to the north, exploring the watershed of the Marias River to determine its northern reaches and meeting a small band of Blackfoot Indians, nemesis of numerous other tribes. After some initial apprehension, the encounter began amicably with gifts of tobacco and other tokens from the white men, smoking around the campfire, and shelter provided by the Blackfeet. Lewis lost no time in promoting the limitless benefits of alliance and trade with the United States.

*The complicated arrangements required the deployment of several "splinter parties" to assist with portages, movement of equipment, and coordination between the two major groups.


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