It may have ascended from history to legend, but the complete story of Lewis and Clark’s epic expedition to the Pacific Ocean has never been told.
Especially neglected is the final leg of the Corps of Discovery’s westward journey in late 1805, as the 31-member group inched toward the mouth of the Columbia River, nearly starved and thoroughly soaked by raging rainstorms that went on for weeks.
“They passed the Portland area on Nov. 3, but they didn’t get to Clatsop until Dec. 7. That’s the most undertold part of the story, and the most intriguing to me,” said Michael Perry of Kelso, the author of a new book called “Dispatches from the Discovery Trail.”
Perry is an unlikely amateur historian. His fascination with the Lewis and Clark journey only grew after he drew an assignment from his sister, Susan Piper, the publisher of Longview’s monthly Columbia River Reader newspaper.
The Lewis and Clark expedition’s bicentennial was approaching when Piper bought that paper in 2003, and she sensed a great opportunity to provide readers a fresh, detailed look at crucial but still unfamiliar local history, she said. Her brother, recently retired from writing regular reports as environmental technician at Weyerhaeuser, accepted the job.
“I always had an interest in local history, but I was a little shocked to realize I didn’t know anything about Lewis and Clark, other than they were the key to westward expansion,” Perry said.
Perry said he has always had an ambivalent relationship with history as a subject. What seems like it should be exciting tends to turn out dry and dense, he said. Most of the history books he’s started reading still hold bookmarks indicating where he bailed out, he admitted.
Perry started delving into the surviving journals of the explorers themselves and visiting local sites where the Corps of Discovery camped.
He wound up retracing the Corps of Discovery’s journey in 33 monthly columns for The Columbia River Reader. Those columns have been collected, annotated and illustrated (with woodcut art by Debby Neely as well as photos and historical paintings) in “Dispatches from the Discovery Trail.”
When they were pushed along by rushing rivers, the Corps of Discovery barely had time to record more than notes about the landscape whizzing by, Perry said. But when things slowed down near the ocean, their writings got more personal and descriptive.
“That’s the aspect I was most interested in, the people’s experiences,” Perry said. “Let’s try to pull out what the men were actually going through, the hardships they endured, the things they saw and felt.”
“Musquetors,” “mosquitors,” “misqutors”: The fact that expedition co-leader William Clark’s journal contains at least 26 different misspellings indicates that he was writing about biting a lot more than he wanted to.
Clark also made some telling (and carelessly spelled) observations about our local stretch of the Columbia River.
“I could not sleep for the noise kept by the Swans, geese … ducks,” Clark wrote when the expedition camped near the future Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. “They were emensely numerous and their noise horrid.”
On the return, upriver journey, Clark briefly explored the south side (now Portland) with a guide, but it didn’t pique his interest like the north side (Vancouver and Clark County), which was flat, verdant and inviting. The county would eventually be named for him, but Clark didn’t know that when he sang the land’s praises and predicted its future:
“I took a walk of a few miles through the prarie … this valley would be copetent to the mantainance of 40 or 50 thousands souls if properly cultivated and indeed is the only desirable situation for a settlement which I have seen on the West side of the Rocky mountains.”
None of this land was uninhabited when Lewis and Clark explored it. Perry describes Indigenous fishing and farming villages, plankhouses and other settlements that were so frequent and busy, they sometimes resembled urban sprawl. The Corps established friendly contact with dozens of different Indigenous nations, he writes, and likely never would have made it without their assistance.
“They helped us, and what did we do? We rounded them up and put them on reservations and tried to kill them off,” Perry said. “They lived here for thousands of years before us. They had a lifestyle that was self-supporting. We came along and changed all that.”
Corps of Misery
Strangely enough, the achievements of the Corps of Discovery have been plenty celebrated but never carefully documented. Detailed field notes and hand-drawn maps went untouched for years, and Perry credits the late Martin Plamondon II of Vancouver for enriching the historical record with his unfinished, multi-volume project, “Lewis and Clark Trail Maps.”
“A grand narrative of the Lewis and Clark journey has never been written,” said Columbia River Reader project editor Hal Calbom, who worked with Perry to turn his columns from 2004-2006 into a book. “It’s a hard thing to get your mind around because it’s so lengthy and convoluted.”
Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage” is considered the authoritative popular history book about Lewis and Clark, he said, but it still misses most of what happened as the Corps of Discovery approached the Pacific Coast.
“It turns out that Stephen Ambrose and a bevy of other historians, they neglected what happened at the isolated, antipodal mouth of the Columbia River,” Calbom said. “That’s the most harrowing part of the story.”
Seasoned Pacific Northwesterners know a little about the Corps of Discovery’s misery while struggling to reach the delta and build a winter fort.
“The men were trapped for six days along the narrow shore as rocks pelted down from the steep bank above,” Perry writes about a river shoreline near Cathlamet, where the ebbing, flowing tide periodically submerged the helpless party’s supplies. “They were on death’s door.”
“Waves breaking with great violence against the Shore throwing the water into our Camp … all wet and Confined to our Shelters,” Clark wrote. The wind “blew with Such violence that I expected every moment to See trees taken up by the roots, maney were blown down.”
“During that time, it rained continuously,” Perry writes. “It snowed and hailed. Lightning and strong winds added to the dismal conditions. … During their four-month stay at the mouth of the Columbia River, only 12 days were without rain.”
Hooked on history
“Dispatches from the Discovery Trail” is appropriately subtitled “A Layman’s Lewis and Clark.” It seems just right for non-academic history buffs and students — readers like Perry, who might leave bookmarks behind as they bail on heavy historical tomes.
But “Dispatches” has gotten noticed by history buffs all over the country, Perry added. He doesn’t know how people are finding it, since it’s brand new and not available from big purveyors like Amazon, but he’s thrilled. Copies are available for $25 via crreader.com or at Vancouver’s independent bookstore, Vintage Books (6613 E. Mill Plain Blvd.). (Also available at Vintage is the Columbia River Reader’s first book publication, “The Tidewater Reach,” with poetry by Robert Michael Pyle and photographs by Judy VanderMaten.)
“My fondest dream is that it gets into school libraries and helps get kids hooked on history,” Perry said.