Determined For Oregon in 1843

Snake Indians

Snake Indians

On September 7, 1843, we arrived at the Salmon Falls on Snake River, where we purchased from the Snake Indians dried and fresh salmon, giving one ball and one charge of powder for each dried fish. We found several lodges of Indians here, who were very poorly clad, and who made a business of fishing at the falls. The falls were about eight feet perpendicular at that stage of water, with rapids below for some distance. The stream is divided upon the rapids into various narrow channels, through which the waters pass with a very shallow and rapid current so that the fisherman can wade across them. The salmon are compelled to pass up these channels, and readily fall a prey to the quick, sharp spear of the Indian fisherman. This spear consists of a strong, smooth pole, 10-12 feet long and an inch and a half in diameter, made of hard, tough wood, upon one end of which there is fastened a piece of sharp-pointed buck-horn, about four inches long. The larger end of this piece of buck-horn is hollowed out to the depth of about three inches and fastened on the end of the pole, which is tapered to fit into it. To the middle of this buck-horn, there is securely fastened a thong or string of sinew, the other end of which is firmly attached to the pole about one foot above the buck-horn, leaving a considerable slack in the string. With this spear, the Indian fisherman lies down or sits close to one of these narrow channels, with the point of his spear resting near where the fish must pass. In this position he remains motionless until he sees a fish immediately opposite the point of the spear, as the fish slowly ascends the rapid current; when, with the quick motion of a juggler, he pushes his spear clear through the salmon before this powerful fish can dodge it. The buck-horn at once slips off the end of the pole, on the other side the fish, the first flounce he makes, but he is securely held by the thong attached to the pole. No spear could be more skillfully designed or more effectually used than this.

One of our emigrants, having been informed before he started on the trip that the clear, living waters of the Columbia River and its tributaries were full of salmon, had brought all the way from Missouri a three-pronged harpoon, called a gig. The metallic portion of this fishing instrument was securely riveted on the end of a smooth, strong pole, about ten feet long and two inches by a wonderful instinct, ascend to the upper branches, where they can deposit their numerous spawn in a place secure from enemies. The waters of these mountain-streams are so clear as to remind one of Dryden’s description “Of shallow brooks, that flowed so clear, The bottom did the top appear.”

In the pebbly bottoms of these tributary streams the female salmon hollows out a cavity of sufficient depth to form an eddy, in which she can deposit her spawn without the danger of their being swept away by the current. The one we killed was doubtless in her nest, which she refused to quit.

From all the information I was able to obtain while residing in Oregon, grown salmon which once leave the ocean never return. This was the opinion of Sir James Douglas, which was confirmed by my own observation. But there seems to be a difference of opinion on the question. I have lately conversed with B. B. Redding upon this subject, and it is his opinion that about ten percent. return alive to the ocean, as about that proportion are caught in the Sacramento River on the upper side of the gill-nets used by the fishermen. This may be the more correct opinion.

On the 14th of September, we passed the Boiling Spring, its water is hot enough to cook an egg. It runs out at three different places, forming a large branch, which runs off smoking and foaming. It rises half a mile from a tall range of hills, covered with basaltic rock; and the plains around are covered with round rocks of the same kind. The water is clear and rises at the head of a small ravine.

On September 20th we arrived at Fort Boise, Idaho, then in charge of Mr. Payette, having traveled from Fort Hall, Idaho, 273 miles in 21. Mr. Payette, the manager, was kind and very polite. On the 21st we re-crossed the Snake River by fording, which was deep but safe. On the 24th, we reached Burnt River, so named from the many fires that have occurred there, destroying considerable portions of timber. It hardly deserves to be called a river, being only a creek of fair size. The road up this stream was then a terrible one, as the latter runs between two ranges of tall mountains, through a narrow valley full of timber, which we had not the force or time to remove.

Baker Valley, Oregon

Baker Valley, Oregon

On September 27th we had some rain during the night, and the next morning left Burnt River. On that day, we saw many of the most beautiful objects in nature. In our rear, on our right and left, were ranges of tall mountains, covered on the sides with magnificent forests of pine, the mountain-tops being dressed in a robe of pure snow; and around their summits, the dense masses of black clouds wreathed themselves in fanciful shapes, the sun glancing through the open spaces upon the gleaming mountains. We passed through some most beautiful valleys, and encamped on a branch of the Powder River, at the Lone Pine.

This noble tree stood in the center of a most lovely valley, about 10 miles from any other timber. It could be seen, at the distance of many miles, rearing its majestic form above the surrounding plain, and constituted a beautiful landmark for the guidance of the traveler. Many teams had passed on before me; and at intervals, as I drove along, I would raise my head and look at that beautiful green pine. At last, on looking up, as usual, the tree was gone. I was perplexed for the moment to know whether I was going in the right direction. There was the plain beaten wagon road before me, and I drove on until I reached the camp just at dark. That brave old pine, which had withstood the storms and snows of centuries, had fallen at last by the vandal hands of men. Some of our inconsiderate people had cut it down for fuel, but it was too green to burn. It was a useless and most unfortunate act. Had I been there in time, I should have begged those woodmen to “spare that tree.”

On the 29th and 30th of September, we passed through rich, beautiful valleys, between ranges of snow-clad mountains, whose sides were covered with noble pine forests. On October 1st we came into and through Grande Ronde, one of the most beautiful valleys in the world, embosomed among the Blue Mountains, which are covered with magnificent pines. It was estimated to be about a hundred miles in circumference. It was generally rich prairie, covered with luxuriant grass, and having numerous beautiful streams passing through it, most of which rise from springs at the foot of the mountains bordering the valley. In this valley, the camasroot abounds, which the Indians dried upon hot rocks. We purchased some from them, and found it quite palatable to our keen appetites.

On October 2nd we ascended the mountain-ridge at the Grande Ronde River and descended on the other side of the ridge to a creek, where we camped. These hills were terrible. From October 3-6 we passed through the Blue Mountains, arriving at their foot on the 6th, and encamping upon a beautiful stream of water. On the morning of the 5th there was a snowstorm on the mountain. During our passage through the Blue Mountains, we had great difficulty in finding our cattle, and the road was very rough in many places. Our camp was about three miles from the Indian village, and from the Indians, we purchased Indian corn, peas, and Irish potatoes, in any desired quantity. I have never tasted a greater luxury than the potatoes we ate on this occasion. We had been so long without fresh vegetables, that we were almost famished; and consequently, we feasted this day excessively. We gave the Indians, in exchange, some articles of clothing, which they were most anxious to purchase. When two parties are both as anxious to barter as were the Indians and ourselves, it is very easy to strike a bargain.

Whitman Mission

Marcus Whitman founded Waiilatpu Mission in southeastern Washington in 1836. The mission is shown in a painting by William.H. Jackson, 1865.

On October 10th we arrived within three miles of Dr. Whitman’s mission and remained in camp until the 14th. The exhausting tedium of such a trip and the attendant vexations have a great effect upon the majority of men, especially upon those of weak minds. Men, under such circumstances, become childish, petulant, and obstinate. I remember that while we were at the mission of Dr. Whitman, who had performed much hard labor for us, and was deserving of our warmest gratitude, he was most ungenerously accused by some of our people of selfish motives in conducting us past his establishment, where we could procure fresh supplies of flour and potatoes. This foolish, false, and ungrateful charge was based upon the fact that he asked us a dollar a bushel for wheat and forty cents for potatoes.

As our people had been accustomed to sell their wheat at from 50-60 cents a bushel, and their potatoes at from 20-25 cents, in the Western States, they thought the prices demanded by the Doctor amounted to something like extortion; not reflecting that he had to pay at least twice as much for his own supplies of merchandise, and could not afford to sell his produce as low as they did theirs at home.

They were somewhat like a certain farmer in Missouri, at an early day, who concluded that twenty cents a bushel was a fair price for corn and that he would not sell for more nor less. But experience soon taught him that when the article was higher than his price he could readily sell, but when it was lower he could not sell at all; and he came to the sensible conclusion that he must avail himself of the rise, in order to compensate him for the fall in prices. So obstinate were some of our people, that they would not purchase from the Doctor. I remember one case particularly, where an intimate friend of mine, whose supplies of food were nearly exhausted, refused to purchase, though urged to do so by me until the wheat was all sold. The consequence was, that I had to divide provisions with him before we reached the end of our journey.

On the 16th of October we arrived at Fort Walla Walla, Washington, then under the charge of Mr. McKinley; having traveled from Fort Boise, Idaho, 202 miles in 24 days, and from the rendezvous, 1,691 miles, between May 22nd and October 16th, being 147 days. Average distance per day, eleven and a half miles.

Fort Vancouver, Washington by Gustave Sohon, 1850

Fort Vancouver, Washington by Gustave Sohon, 1850

A portion of our emigrants left their wagons and cattle at Walla Walla, and descended the Columbia River in boats; while another, and the larger portion, made their way with their wagons and teams to the Dalles, where they descended to the Cascades on rafts, and thence to Fort Vancouver, Washington in boats and canoes. William Beagle and I had agreed at the rendezvous not to separate until we reached the end of our journey. We procured from Mr. McKinley, at Walla Walla, an old Hudson’s Bay Company’s boat, constructed expressly for the navigation of the Columbia River and its tributaries. These boats are very light, yet strong. They are open, about 40 feet long, five feet wide, and three feet deep, made of light, tough materials, and clinker-built. They are made in this manner so that they may be carried around the falls of the Columbia River and let down over the Cascades. When taken out of the water and carried over the portage, it requires the united exertions of 40-50 Indians, who take the vessel on their shoulders, amid shouts and hurrahs, and thus carry it sometimes three-fourths of a mile, without once letting it down. At the Cascades, it is let down by means of ropes in the hands of the Canadian boatmen.

We employed an Indian pilot, who stood with a stout, long, broad paddle in the bow of the boat, while William Beagle stood at the stern, holding a long steering-oar, such as were used upon flat-bottoms and keel-boats in the Western States. I remember that my friend Beagle, before we left Walla Walla, expressed great confidence in his skill in steering, as he had often passed the Ohio rapids at Louisville. But these rapids were nothing to those on the Columbia River. I have seen Beagle turn as pale as a corpse when passing through the terrible rapids on this river.

Our Indian pilot was very cool, determined, and intrepid; and Beagle always obeyed him, right or wrong. On one occasion, I remember, we were passing down a terrible rapid, with almost the speed of a race-horse, when a huge rock rose above the water before us, against which the swift and mighty volume of the river furiously dashed in vain, and then suddenly turned to the right, almost at right angles. The Indian told Beagle to hold the bow of the boat directly toward that rock as if intending to run plump upon it, while the rest of us pulled upon our oars with all our might, so as to give her such a velocity as not to be much affected by the surging waves. The Indian stood calm and motionless in the bow, paddle in hand, with his features set as if prepared to meet immediate death; and, when we were within from 20-30 feet of that terrible rock, as quick almost as though he plunged his long, broad paddle perpendicularly into the water on the left side of the bow, and with it gave a sudden wrench, and the boat instantly turned upon its center to the right, and we passed the rock in safety.

While passing through these dangers I was not much alarmed, but after they were passed I could never think of them without a sense of fear. Three of our emigrants were drowned just above the Dalles, but we reached them in safety, sending our boat through them, while the families walked around them on dry land. These Dalles are a great natural curiosity, but they have been so often described that I deem it unnecessary to attempt any description myself.

The Dalles

The Dalles

When we arrived at the Methodist mission, located at the foot of the Dalles, I saw at once that there must someday grow up a town there, as that was the head of safe steam navigation. From there to the Cascades, a distance of about 50 miles, the river is entirely smooth and without a rapid. At the Cascades there is a portage to be made; but, once below them, and there is nothing but smooth water to the ocean. I determined at once to settle at the Dalles; and, after consultation with Mr. Perkins, the minister in charge, I left my family there and proceeded to Vancouver, where I arrived about November 7, 1843.

At Fort Vancouver I found Governor John C. Fremont, then Lieutenant Fremont, who had been there a few days. He had left his men and animals at the Dalles and had descended the river to the fort for the purpose of purchasing supplies, to enable him to make the trip overland to California during that winter. The preceding year, he had made an exploring trip to the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains; but, this was his first journey to Oregon and California.

The Hudson’s Bay Company furnished him, on the credit of the United States, all the supplies he required, and sent them up the river in one of their boats, such as I have already described, and three Chinook canoes. These canoes are substantially of the same model as the clipper-ship, and most probably suggested the idea of such a form of marine architecture. They are made out of a solid piece of white-cedar timber, which is usually one-quarter of the first cut of a large tree. It is a softwood, but very tough. This timber grows upon the banks of the Columbia River, below Vancouver, to a very large size. It is easily split with wedges. The Indians manage to cut and burn down the tree, and then cut and burn off a part of the trunk, and split it into quarters. Then they hollow out the inside of the canoe, mostly by burning. For this purpose they kindle small fires along the whole length of the canoe, which they keep steadily burning; and, by careful and constant watching, they cause the fires to burn when and how they please. The outside they shape with their tomahawks; and, before these were introduced, they used sharp flint-stones for axes. These canoes are usually about thirty feet long, three feet wide, and two feet deep, and are sharp at both ends, with a gradual taper from near the center. No craft could have a more handsome model, or run more swiftly. They are light, strong, elastic, and durable, and are propelled by paddles. The boat was navigated by Canadian French, and the canoes by Indians.

Dr. McLoughlin and Mr. Douglas, then chief factors at the fort, advised me to go for my family, and settle in the lower portion of Oregon, and kindly offered me a passage up and down on their boat. We left the fort about the 11th of November in the evening, while it was raining. It came down gently but steadily. We reached the foot of the rapids, three miles below the Cascades, before sundown on the third day. We found that the Indians could propel their canoes with paddles much faster than we could our boat with oars. We ascended the river to the distance of about one mile above the foot of the rapids; and just before dark, we encamped upon a sand-beach, the only spot where we could do so without ascending higher up the rapids.

The Indians, with the three canoes, had passed on farther up the river; and, although we fired signal shots, they could not be induced to return. They had with them the sugar and tea, and the Indian lodge, composed of buffalo-skins, neatly dressed and sewed together. This lodge was in a conical form, about fourteen feet in diameter at the base and eighteen feet high, with a hole at the base of about two by three feet for a door, and one in the top for the escape of the smoke. A deer-skin formed the door-shutter, and the fire was built in the center, around which we sat with our backs to the lodge; and when we lay down we put our feet to the fire and our heads from it. In this way, we could be warm and comfortable, and free from the effects of the wind and rain, without being at all incommoded by the smoke from our small fire, as it rose straight up and passed out through the hole in the top of the lodge. The lodge was supported by long, strong, smooth poles, over which it was tightly stretched. It was far superior to any cloth tent I ever saw.

John C. Fremont by Ehrgott, Forbriger and Co

John C. Fremont by Ehrgott, Forbriger and Co

When we encamped, it was cloudy but not raining, and we were very hungry after our day’s hard work; but our bill of fare consisted of salt salmon and cold bread. We knew, from the appearance of the thickening but smooth clouds, that we should most likely have a rainy night. The lower portion of Oregon lies between the tall Cascade range of mountains and the ocean. This range runs almost parallel with the Pacific Ocean, and about 125 miles from it. The clouds in the rainy season break upon this range and the Cascades are at the point where the mighty Columbia cuts at right angles through it. We had been told that it rained oftener and harder at the Cascades than at almost any other point in Oregon; and, to our injury, we found it true.

Supper being ended, we laid ourselves down before a large fire. Governor Fremont wrapped himself in his cloak, keeping on all his clothes, and lay down upon a blanket. For myself, I had with me two pairs of large, heavy blankets, one pair of which I put folded under me, and covered myself with the other pair. Soon after we had lain down the rain began to fall gently, but continued steadily to increase. At first, I thought it might rain as much as it pleased, without wetting through my blankets; but before day it came down in torrents, and I found the water running under me, and into the pockets of my pantaloons and the tops of my boots. It was a cold rain, and the fire was extinguished. I could not endure all this, and I sat up during most of the remaining portion of the night upon a log of wood, with one pair of blankets thrown over my head, so as to fall all around me. In this way, I managed to keep warm, but the weight of the wet blankets was great, and my neck, at last, rebelled against the oppression. I finally became so fatigued and sleepy that just before day, when the rain had ceased, I threw myself down across some logs of wood, and in that condition slept until daylight. As for Governor Fremont, he never moved, but lay and slept as well as if in comfortable quarters. My position was in a lower place on the beach than his, and this was the reason why the water ran under me, and not under him.

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