On November 4, 1805, the Corps of Discovery led by Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) camps on the Columbia River in what is now Clark County, beside a Chinookan Indian house near the entrance of Salmon Creek. The expedition has come nearly 4,000 miles from the mouth of the Missouri River, and is nearing its goal — the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River.
In November 1805, for the first time since the previous April, the Lewis and Clark expedition was traveling a route that had been explored by other non-Indians. On November 2, 1805, they had passed Point Vancouver, about four miles east of present day Washougal, Clark County. The point, named by British Royal Navy Lieutenant William Broughton (1762-1821) for Captain George Vancouver, was the farthest upriver that the 1792 Vancouver expedition reached.
By November 3, 1805, the Corps of Discovery was camped on an island they called Diamond Island (now Government Island in Multnomah County, Oregon), about three miles west of the present location of Camas, Clark County. Continuing down the Columbia River on November 4, they reached a substantial village on the Oregon side, with 25 houses and 52 carved wooden canoes out front. The villagers, a Chinookan people the explorers called the “Skil-loot nation” (Journals, v. 6, 17), gave them their first taste of wapato roots, a staple of the Indians who lived along Wimahl (“Big River”).
“A Fine Open Prairie”
Seven miles below the village, on the Washington side, the expedition reached a “Small Prairie in which there is a pond” (Journals, v. 6, 17). This “pond,” now called Vancouver Lake, is just west of the present city of Vancouver, Clark County. Clark described the future site of Vancouver in his distinctively non-standard spelling and punctuation:
“here I landed and walked on Shore, about 3 miles a fine open Prairie for about 1 mile, back of which the countrey rises gradually and wood land comencies Such as white oake, pine of different kinds, wild crabs [crabapples] with the taste and flavour of the common crab … Saw some Elk and Deer Sign and joined Capt. Lewis at a place he had landed with the party for Diner” (Journals, v. 6, 17).
As the men ate, several canoes from the large village came down the river for a visit that the explorers did not fully appreciate. Clark wrote:
“Dureing the time we were at dinner those fellows Stold my pipe Tomahawk which they were smoking with, I immediately Serched every man and the canoes, but Could find nothing of my Tomahawk, while Serching for the Tomahawk one of those Scoundals Stole a Cappoe [capote or blanket coat] . . . we became much displeased with those fellows, which they discovered and moved off on their return home” (Journals, v. 6, 17-18).
After this contentious dinner on November 4, 1805, the expedition “proceeded on untill one hour after dark with a view to get clear of the nativs who was constantly about us, and troublesom” (Journals, v. 6, 18). However, they found “that we could not get Shut of those people for one night” (Journals, v. 6, 18). Soon after they camped near a house on the Washington side, two canoes arrived and sold the expedition some roots. The campsite was near the entrance of what is now called Salmon Creek in Clark County northwest of Vancouver.
There is an irony behind the fact, reflected in these journal entries, that Lewis and Clark formed a low opinion of the Columbia River Indians, who spoke several related Chinookan languages: Those groups had had much more contact with white people and culture than the Mandan and Nez Perce Indians whom the captains admired as generous and friendly. Long before the coming of Europeans, the Chinookan peoples, situated on a major trade route and possessing abundant natural wealth, were great traders who relished hard bargaining. In the sea captains who offered the products of Euro-American technology in return for their furs they found kindred spirits. Unlike the sea-going fur traders who visited the mouth of the Columbia, the Corps of Discovery was often dependent on the generosity of Indian hosts for their subsistence, and felt the hard bargaining Chinookans were taking advantage of their situation.
The explorers also failed to appreciate Chinookan ethics and social mores. Petty thievery of small items, like Clark’s tomahawk, was seen as a friendly game pitting the guest’s skill against the host’s alertness. Theft of large valuables, on the other hand, was virtually unknown among the Chinookans. Canoes were safely left untended, and indeed if one floated off it was returned to its owners. Houses full of goods were left unlocked, and trade goods could be stored for the winter in someone else’s house and retrieved untouched. Failing to make this distinction, Lewis and Clark used their irritation at the theft of small items, which the Chinookans intended as a friendly challenge, to justify stealing Indian house boards and later a canoe.
Clark did not sleep well at the Salmon Creek camp the night of November 4, 1805, because of the noise made by swans, geese, ducks, and other birds on a small nearby island — “they were emensely numerous and their noise horrid” (Journals, v. 6, 21). The next day the expedition set out at sunrise and soon passed a large village at the mouth of the Lewis River. By the end of the day, they had proceeded 32 miles, leaving the future Clark County behind until the following spring, when they spent a week near the present site of Washougal, making observations, exploring, and preparing food for the journey back up the Columbia River.
The area that William Clark first explored on November 4, 1805, was eventually named for him. Clark County, the first county created in what is now Washington, was founded as Vancouver County, Oregon Territory, in 1845. In 1849, it was renamed Clark County in honor of Capt. Clark (an adjoining county was named for Lewis). Perhaps fittingly, given Clark’s own spelling habits, the name was misspelled Clarke County by the first Washington Territorial Legislature in 1854, and the “e” remained until corrected by the state legislature in 1925.