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Along the Columbia
Along the Columbia

The Chinook Indians, relatives to the Clatsop tribe, lived in the Northwest along the banks of the Columbia River and the coast of the Pacific Ocean. The Chinooks were superb canoe builders and navigators, masterful traders, skillful fishermen and planters. They lived in large wooden plank houses and slept on reed mats over raised boards.

Short in stature, the Chinooks also were characterized by flat foreheads and pointed craniums. William Clark wrote of their attire: “all go litely dressed ware nothing below the waist in the coldest weather, a pice of fur around their bodies and a short robe composes the sum total of their dress, except a fiew hats, and beads about their necks arms and lets.”

In late 1805, as the Corps of Discovery began to make its way down the Columbia River after crossing the Rocky Mountains, they were told by the Nez Perce Indians that the Chinooks living down the river had a different culture and language than anything the Corps had encountered. The Nez Perce chiefs also warned the captains of a rumor that the Chinooks intended to kill the Americans when the expedition arrived. Clark, however, commented, “as we are at all times & places on our guard, [we] are under no greater apprehention than is common.”

The Chinooks were accustomed to European goods and white traders, so their first encounters with the expedition were peaceful. On October 26, 1805, two Chinook chiefs and several men came to the expedition’s camp to offer gifts of deer meat and root bread cakes. The captains responded by presenting the chiefs with medals and the men with trinkets. Other Chinook villages along the banks of the river offered similar receptions to the Americans as they approached the Pacific Ocean and the mouth of the Columbia River.

During these encounters, however, the Corps struggled with what Clark termed “the protection of our Stores from thieft.” This became such a problem with the Chinooks in the area that the captains had to restrain some of the men from instigating fights with the Indians. As Clark noted, “it [is] necessary at this time to treat those people verry friendly & ingratiate our Selves with them, to insure us a kind & friendly reception on our return.”

The Chinooks on the Upper Columbia were a factor in the Corps’ decision of where to spend the winter of 1806. Wary of their neighbors and mindful of the more plentiful game to the south, the Corps decided to spend the winter on the south side of the river, where the Clatsops lived, rather than on the north bank among the lower Chinookan bands.

During their stay at Fort Clatsop, the Corps depended on the local Indians for food. But the Chinooks and the Clatsops charged what Lewis and Clark considered unreasonable prices, and the captains were unhappy with this practice, along with the thefts. Visits by the Chinooks to Fort Clatsop were limited, and the Indians were not allowed to stay in the fort overnight. Both captains’ journals noted low opinions of the Chinookan customs and appearance.

Lewis met with one of the Chinook chiefs, who blamed the trouble on a select few and reassured the captain that on the whole, his village wished for peace. After the meeting, Lewis wrote, “I hope that the friendly interposition of this chief may prevent our being compelled to use some violence with these people; our men seem well disposed to kill a few of them.”

Tensions were eased only temporarily, however, when a couple of weeks later some Chinooks further up the river stole a saddle and a robe from the Corps. After Lewis ordered a search of the village, the stolen goods were found, and the Corps passed the falls of The Dalles and returned to Nez Perce country without having fired at a native.