Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lewis & Clark at Long Camp [otd 5/14]

William Clark and Meriwether Lewis.
Independence National Historical Park,
National Park Service.
On May 14, 1806, the Corps of Discovery rose early on a frosty morning and began packing baggage and gathering horses. Captains Lewis and Clark sent three hunters across to the north side of the Clearwater River as an advance party. By noon, the rest of the Corps had crossed and begun to set up camp.

The Corps left Fort Clatsop on the Oregon coast in late March. They reached Nez Percé country in late April and re-entered Idaho on May 5th.

The captains wanted to recross Lolo Pass as soon as possible. They knew all too well how much rough terrain separated them from the navigable Missouri River. On May 7, the Corps saw that their hope of an early crossing was futile. Lewis wrote, “The spurs of the Rocky Mountains which were in view from the high plain today were perfectly covered with snow.”

A week later they crossed the Clearwater to a campsite recommended by the Nez PercĂ©. They would remain at this campsite – a mile or so north of today’s Kamiah – for nearly a month. Later writers referred to it as “Camp Choppunish” (Choppunish being the Corps’ term for the Nez Perce) or simply the “Long Camp.” The Expedition’s winter encampments had been at Fort Mandan in North Dakota and at Fort Clatsop. Except for those stops, the Corps spent more time at Camp Choppunish than any other spot along their route.

The Americans did not linger willingly. They tried to use the time productively by gathering provisions and more horses for the journey. However, hunting proved difficult and yielded only sparse returns. Unfortunately, by this time, the whites had exhausted their supply of normal trade goods.

Captain Clark’s medical skills, quite effective in a rough-and-ready fashion, provided the Expedition’s most reliable source of foodstuffs and mounts. Also, to their surprise, commonplace items such as brass coat buttons were a worthwhile medium of exchange.

Lolo Trail, Idaho. Montana Historical Society.
When restlessness and boredom began to adversely affect morale, the captains resorted to an age-old formula: athletic events and games. They involved the Indians in many of these activities and most competitions had a normal mix of winner, white and red. There was one exception, however: The Nez Perce were better horsemen than the whites. As Sergeant Patrick Gass wrote, “These Indians are the most active horsemen I ever saw. They will gallop their horses over precipices that I should not think of riding over.”

Finally, on June 10th, the Expedition resumed its journey. They were still too early, however, and the snowdrifts forced a temporary setback. Still, the Corps marched across Lolo Pass and out of Idaho on June 29, 1806.
References: Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, Simon & Shuster, New York (1996).
Patrick Gass, Carol Lynn Macgregor (Ed.), The Journals of Patrick Gass, Mountain Press Publishing Company; Missoula, Montana (1997).
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Gary E. Moulton (Ed.), The Definitive Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (2002).
James P. Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1984).