The End of the Lewis and Clark Trail

Posted by Nick Amato on

Scanty-clad vixens serve crab cocktails to an interested crowd on the Astoria waterfront in the post-World War II era.


Ocean in View! 0! The joy in Camp!" scribbled Captain William Clark in his leather-bound journal on the wet and blustery afternoon of November 7, 1805. Captain Clark, his co-commander Meriwether Lewis, and the twenty-nine members of their Corps of Discovery had trekked over four thousand miles to reach this point, the fulfillment of their western exploration. In their haste to see the long-awaited Pacific, the Corps had traveled some thirty-four miles down the Columbia River that day before pitching camp near Pillar Rock, a bastion of basalt jutting out of the river. That misera­ble day, as the captain cast his gaze westward to view the ocean breakers crashing into the river's mouth, he oversaw a broad sheet of water, the Columbia River Estuary.


Bold seafarers have called upon the Columbia River since Robert Gray first crossed the bar in 1792.


After tumbling some eleven hundred miles out of the Canadian Rockies, sweeping through the Palouse sage lands, and cutting swiftly through its awe-inspiring gorge, the Columbia River crashes into the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. As Captain Clark beheld this last great expanse of the Columbia he could hardly have imagined the scope of enter­prise and commerce that would one day flourish along its heavily timbered banks. Indeed, this estuary would be, for a time, the hub of the Pacific Coast fur trade as well as home to the most renowned salmon fishery in the world. This tidal estuary would carry the ships full of grain and lumber to nourish peoples in myriad regions and build the economic structure for civilization along all reaches of the river. 


The British bark Galena went ashore on Clatsop Beach on the dark, blustery night of November 13, 1906 inbound from Chile. The 292-foot vessel had been lying off the Columbia River Bar waiting for a pilot when heavy seas carried her onto the beach.


Thirteen years prior to the arrival of the Corps of Discovery, Captain Robert Gray, an American trader from Boston pilot­ing the ship Columbia Rediviva, became the first skipper to guide his ship across the bar of the river to be named for his vessel. The Columbia Bar had long been sighted by both Spanish and British mariners, many of whom believed it to be little more than a broad inlet of minimal significance. British navigators had tried unsuccessfully to enter this treacherous waterway, naming its northern entrance Cape Disappointment to echo their sentiments. But, on May 11, 1792, only weeks after the most recent British attempt, Captain Gray crossed the bar and found safe anchorage and fresh water. As the Columbia Rediviva, a mere eighty-three feet in length, came to rest along the river's north shore a flo­tilla of Chinook Indian canoes rushed to greet the new arriv­als.


During the depression, small logging firms, known as gypos, began harvesting timber along the Lower Columbia. Using log trucks and bulldozers as an alternative to high-cost railroad operations. Gypos soon became prevalent.


Captain Gray graciously welcomed the Native Americans for they possessed the very articles he sought: sea otter furs. Since the 1778 voyage of British Captain James Cook, dar­ing seafarers had trafficked in the highly lucrative sea otter pelts. The Pacific fur trade began with the collection of furs from Pacific Northwest Indian tribes which were shipped across the ocean to China. In China the furs were traded for silk, spices, tea, and porcelain, which were in turn sold in western markets for extraordinary prices. Gray, a relative late-comer to the Pacific fur trade, was rewarded handsomely for his boldness in crossing the Columbia Bar. The crew of the Columbia Rediviva vigorously engaged in trade with the Native Peoples collecting one hundred-fifty sea otter pelts as well as three hundred beaver skins. More of a practical man than an explorer, Gray ventured upriver only fifteen rrliles before leaving the newly christened Columbia River.


Coastal red cedar grew to immense diameters.


The Native inhabitants of the Lower Columbia River that Robert Gray first encountered on that fateful spring day in 1 792 were a dynamic and vibrant people. They were the Lower Chinooks—four independent groups linked by a com­mon language and culture: The Wahkiakums inhabiting much of what is now Wahkiakum County, Washington; the Cathlamets living along Cathlamet Bay on the Columbia River's south bank; the Clatsops who dwelt along the south bank of the river's mouth around Young's Bay; and the Shoalwater Chinook who occupied the north bank as far north as today's Willapa Bay.


The Astoria Regatta's celebrated water events including all sorts of races from the half-pint speedboats to sailing boats to gillnet boats. Originated in the 1890s, the Regatta is considered by many to be the oldest festival in the Pacific Northwest.


The Chinookian people were short and brawny with dark, alert eyes, their narrow, high noses offset by a wide and expressive mouth. Their skin was lighter than that of most Native Americans as was their hair which possessed a red­dish-brown hue. A common practice among free Chinooks was the flattening of the forehead. The deformation of the skull began when the newborn infant was tied in the cradle­board and a hinged cedar board laced firmly over the fore­head. As the child grew the forehead became elongated, emphasizing the facial features. The process lasted for as long as a year. The flattened forehead became an unequivocal sign of both beauty and freedom in traditional Chinook soci­ety. The process certainly did not harm the infant's brain for the Chinooks were noted by early fur traders and explorers for their intelligence and power of memory.

The Chinooks lived in long, rectangular homes built of split cedar planks and posts, some as long as ninety feet. Entire families dwelt in the same long house heated by a fire burning in the center of the floor. Inside these lodges, oral traditions were passed from elders to the young with exact retellings. The bonds between Chinook families proved to be an unyielding and critical facet of their culture.


Chinook Indian boats were often very long to accomodate a large passender count. This photograph was taken just upstream of the Columbia River near The Dalles, Oregon, about 200 miles upstream from Astoria.


They had a highly stratified societal structure. The four basic social classes were upper class, commoners, free persons, and slaves. Slavery was a common practice among north ...



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