Townsend's Across the Rockies to the Columbia

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Fort Vancouver - Agricultural and other improvements - Vancouver "camp" - Approach of the rainy season - Expedition to the Wallammet - The falls - A village of Klikatat Indians - Manner of flattening the head - A Flathead infant - Brig "May Dacre" - Preparations for a settlement - Success of the naturalists - Chinook Indians - their appearance and costume - Ague and fever - Superstitious dread of the Indians - Desertion of the Sandwich Islanders from Captain Wyeth's party - Embarkation for a trip to the Islands - George, the Indian pilot - Mount Coffin - A visit to the tombs - Superstition - Visit to an Indian house - Fort George - Site of Astoria - A blind Indian boy - Cruel and unfeeling conduct of the savages - their moral character - Baker's Bay - Cape Disappointment - Dangerous bar at the entrance of the river - The sea beach - Visit of Mr. Ogden - Passage across the bar.

FORT VANCOUVER is situated on the north bank of the Columbia on a large level plain, about a quarter of a mile from the shore. The space comprised within the stoccade is an oblong square, of about one hundred, by two hundred and fifty feet. The houses built of logs and frame-work, to the number of ten or twelve, are ranged around in a quadrangular form, the one occupied by the doctor being in the middle. In front, and enclosed on three sides by the buildings, is a large open space, where all the in-door work of the establishment is done. Here the Indians assemble with their multifarious articles of trade, beaver, otter, venison, and various other game, and here, once a week, several scores of Canadians are employed, beating the furs which have been collected, in order to free them from dust and vermin.

Mr. N. and myself walked over the farm with the doctor, to inspect the various improvements which he has made. He has already several hundred acres fenced in, and under cultivation, and like our own western prairie land, it produces abundant crops, particularly of grain, without requiring any manure. Wheat thrives astonishingly; I never saw better in any country, and the various culinary vegetables, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, &c., are in great profusion, and of the first quality. Indian corn does not flourish so well as at Walla-walla, the soil not being so well adapted to it; melons are well flavored but small; the greatest curiosity, however, is the apples, which grow on small trees, the branches of which would be broken without the support of props. So profuse is the quantity of fruit that the limbs are covered with it and it is actually packed together precisely in the same manner that onions are attached to ropes when they are exposed for sale in our markets.

On the farm is a grist mill, a threshing mill, and a saw mill, the two first, by horse, and the last, by water power; besides many minor improvements in agricultural and other matters, which cannot but astonish the stranger from a civilized land, and which reflect great credit upon the liberal and enlightened chief factor.

In the propagation of domestic cattle, the doctor has been particularly successful. Ten years ago a few head of neat cattle were brought to the fort by some fur traders from California; these have now increased to near seven hundred. They are a large framed, long horned breed, inferior in their milch qualities to those of the United States, but the beef is excellent, and in consequence of the mildness of the climate, it is never necessary to provide them with fodder during the winter, an abundant supply of excellent pasture being always found.

On the farm, in the vicinity of the fort, are thirty or forty log huts, which are occupied by the Canadians, and others attached to the establishment. These huts are placed in rows, with broad lanes or streets between them, and the whole looks like a very neat and beautiful village. The most fastidious cleanliness appears to be observed; the women may be seen sweeping the streets and scrubbing the door-sills as regularly as in our own proverbially cleanly city. [I have given this notice of the suburbs of the fort, as I find it in my journal written at the time; I had reason, subsequently, to change my opinion with regard to the scrupulous cleanliness of the Canadians' Indian wives, and particularly after inspecting the internal economy of the dwellings. What at first struck me as neat and clean, by an involuntary comparison of it with the extreme filthiness to which I had been accustomed amongst the Indians, soon revealed itself in its proper light, and I can freely confess that my first estimate was too high.]

Sunday, September 25th. - Divine service was performed in the fort this morning by Mr. Jason Lee. This gentleman and his nephew had been absent some days in search of a suitable place to establish themselves, in order to fulfil the object of their mission. They returned yesterday, and intend leaving us to-morrow with their suite for the station selected, which is upon the Wallammet river, about sixty miles south of the fort.

In the evening we were gratified by the arrival of Captain Wyeth from below, who informed us that the brig from Boston, which was sent out by the company to which Wyeth is attached, had entered the river, and was anchored about twenty miles below, at a spot called Warrior's point, near the western entrance of the Wallammet.

Captain W. mentioned his intention to visit the Wallammet country, and seek out a convenient location for a fort which he wishes to establish without delay, and Mr. N. and myself accepted an invitation to accompany him in the morning. He has brought with him one of the brig's boats, and eight oarsmen, five of whom are Sandwich Islanders.

We have experienced for several days past, gloomy, lowering, and showery weather; indeed the sun has scarcely been seen for a week past. This is said to indicate the near approach of the rainy season, which usually sets in about the middle of October, or even earlier. After this time, until December, there is very little clear weather, showers or heavy clouds almost constantly prevailing.

On the 29th, Captain Wyeth, Mr. N., and myself, embarked in the ship's boat for our exploring excursion. We had a good crew of fine robust sailors, and the copper-colored islanders, - or Kanakas, as they are called, - did their duty with great alacrity and good will.

At about five miles below the fort, we entered the upper mouth of the Wallammet. This river is here about half the width of the Columbia, a clear and beautiful stream, and navigable for large vessels to the distance of twenty-five miles. It is covered with numerous islands, the largest of which is that called Wappatoo Island, about twenty miles in length. The vegetation on the main land is good, the timber generally pine and post oak, and the river is margined in many places with a beautiful species of willow with large ob-lanceolate leaves like those of the peach, and white on their under surface. The timber on the islands is chiefly oak, no pine growing there. At about 10 o'clock we overtook three men whom Captain W. had sent ahead in a canoe and we all landed soon after on the beach and dined on a mess of salmon and peas which we had provided. We were under way again in the afternoon, and encamped at about sunset. We have as yet seen no suitable place for an establishment, and to-morrow we proceed to the falls of the river, about fifteen miles further. Almost all the land in the vicinity is excellent and well calculated for cultivation, and several spots which we have visited, would be admirably adapted to the captain's views, but that there is not a sufficient extent unincumbered, or which could be fitted for the purposes of tillage in a space of time short enough to be serviceable; others are at some seasons inundated, which is an insurmountable objection.

We embarked early the next morning, and at 11 o'clock arrived at the falls, after encountering some difficulties from rapids, through which we had to warp our boat. There are here three falls on a line of rocks extending across the river, which forms the bed of the upper channel. The water is precipitated through deep abrazed gorges, and falls perhaps forty feet at an angle of about twenty degrees. It was a beautiful sight when viewed from a distance, but it became grand and almost sublime as we approached it nearer. I mounted the rocks and stood over the highest fall, and although the roar of the cataract was almost deafening, and the rays of the bright sun reflected from the white and glittering foam threatened to deprive me of sight, yet I became so absorbed in the contemplation of the scene, and the reflections which were involuntarily excited, as to forget every thing else for the time, and was only aroused by Captain W. tapping me on the shoulder, and telling me that every thing was arranged for our return. While I visited the falls, the captain and his men had found what they sought for; and the object of our voyage being accomplished, we got on board immediately and shaped our course down the river with a fair wind, and the current in favor.

About two miles below the cataract is a small village of Klikatat Indians. Their situation does not appear different from what we have been accustomed to see in the neighborhood of the fort. They live in the same sort of miserable loose hovels, and are the same wretched, squalid looking people. Although enjoying far more advantages, and having in a much greater degree the means of rendering themselves comfortable, yet their mode of living, their garments, their wigwams, and every thing connected with them, is not much better than the Snakes and Bannecks, and very far inferior to that fine, noble-looking race, the Kayouse, whom we met on the Grand ronde.

A custom prevalent, and almost universal amongst these Indians, is that of flattening, or mashing in the whole front of the skull, from the superciliary ridge to the crown. The appearance produced by this unnatural operation is almost hideous, and one would suppose that the intellect would be materially affected by it. This, however, does not appear to be the case, as I have never seen, (with a single exception, the Kayouse,) a race of people who appeared more shrewd and intelligent. I had a conversation on this subject, a few days since, with a chief who speaks the English language. He said that he had exerted himself to abolish the practice in his own tribe, but although his people would listen patiently to his talk on most subjects, their ears were firmly closed when this was mentioned; "they would leave the council fire, one by one, until none but a few squaws and children were left to drink in the words of the chief." It is even considered among them a degradation to possess a round head, and one whose caput has happened to be neglected in his infancy, can never become even a subordinate chief in his tribe, and is treated with indifference and disdain, as one who is unworthy a place amongst them.

The flattening of the head is practiced by at least ten or twelve distinct tribes of the lower country, the Klikatats, Kalapooyahs, and Multnomahs, of the Wallammet, and its vicinity; the Chinooks, Klatsaps, Klatstonis, Kowalitsks, Katlammets, Killemooks, and Chekalis of the lower Columbia and its tributaries, and probably by others both north and south. The tribe called Flatheads, or Salish, who reside near the sources of the Oregon, have long since abolished this custom.

The mode by which the flattening is effected, varies considerably with the different tribes. The Wallammet Indians place the infant, soon after birth, upon a board, to the edges of which are attached little loops of hempen cord or leather, and other similar cords are passed across and back, in a zig-zag manner, through these loops, enclosing the child, and binding it firmly down. To the upper edge of this board, in which is a depression to receive the back part of the head, another smaller one is attached by hinges of leather, and made to lie obliquely upon the forehead, the force of the pressure being regulated by several strings attached to its edge, which are passed through holes in the board upon which the infant is lying, and secured there.

The mode of the Chinooks, and others near the sea, differs widely from that of the upper Indians, and appears somewhat less barbarous and cruel. A sort of cradle is formed by excavating a pine log to the depth of eight or ten inches. The child is placed in it on a bed of little grass mats, and bound down in the manner above described. A little boss of tightly plaited and woven grass is then applied to the forehead, and secured by a cord to the loops at the side. The infant is thus suffered to remain from four to eight months, or until the sutures of the skull have in some measure united, and the bone become solid and firm. It is seldom or never taken from the cradle, except in case of severe illness, until the flattening process is completed.

I saw, to-day, a young child from whose head the board had just been removed. It was, without exception, the most frightful and disgusting looking object that I ever beheld. The whole front of the head was completely flattened, and the mass of brain being forced back, caused an enormous projection there. The poor little creature's eyes protruded to the distance of half an inch, and looked inflamed and discolored, as did all the surrounding parts. Although I felt a kind of chill creep over me from the contemplation of such dire deformity, yet there was something so stark-staring, and absolutely queer in the physiognomy, that I could not repress a smile; and when the mother amused the little object and made it laugh, it looked so irresistibly, so terribly ludicrous, that I and those who were with me, burst into a simultaneous roar, which frightened it and made it cry, in which predicament it looked much less horrible than before.

On the 1st of November we arrived at the brig. She was moored, head and stern, to a large rock near the lower mouth of the Wallammet. Captain Lambert with his ship's company, and our own mountain men, were all actively engaged at various employments; carpenters, smiths, coopers, and other artisans were busy in their several vocations; domestic animals, pigs, sheep, goats, poultry, &c., were roaming about as if perfectly at home, and the whole scene looked so like the entrance to a country village, that it was difficult to fancy oneself in a howling wilderness inhabited only by the wild and improvident Indian, and his scarcely more free and fearless neighbors, the bear and the wolf. An excellent temporary storehouse of twigs, thatched with grass, has been erected, in which has been deposited the extensive assortment of goods necessary for the settlement, as well as a number of smaller ones, in which the men reside. It is intended as soon as practicable, to build a large and permanent dwelling of logs, which will also include the store and trading establishment, and form the groundwork for an American fort on the river Columbia.
5th. - Mr. N. and myself are now residing on board the brig, and pursuing with considerable success our scientific researches through the neighborhood. I have shot and prepared here several new species of birds, and two or three undescribed quadrupeds, besides procuring a considerable number, which, though known to naturalists, are rare, and therefore valuable. My companion is of course in his element; the forest, the plain, the rocky hill, and the mossy bank yield him a rich and most abundant supply.

We are visited daily by considerable numbers of Chinook and Klikatat Indians, many of whom bring us provisions of various kinds, salmon, deer, ducks, &c., and receive in return, powder and shot, knives, paint, and Indian rum, i. e. rum and water in the proportion of one part of the former to two of the latter. Some of these Indians would be handsome were it not for the abominable practice, which, as I have said, is almost universal amongst them, of destroying the form of the head. The features of many are regular though often devoid of expression, and the persons of the men generally are rather symmetrical; their stature is low, with light sinewy limbs, and remarkably small delicate hands. The women are usually more rotund, and, in some instances, even approach obesity. The principal clothing worn by them is a sort of short petticoat made of strands of pine bark or twisted hempen strings, tied around the loins like a marro. This article they call a kalaquarte; and is often their only dress; some, however, cover the shoulders with a blanket, or robe made of muskrat or hare skins sewed together.

A disease of a very fatal character is prevalent among these Indians; many of them have died of it; even some of those in the neighborhood of the fort, where medical assistance was always at hand. The symptoms are a general coldness, soreness and stiffness of the limbs and body, with violent tertian ague. Its fatal termination is attributable to its tendency to attack the liver, which is generally affected in a few days after the first symptoms are developed. Several of the white people attached to the fort have been ill with it, but no deaths have occurred amongst them, the disease in their case having yielded to the simple tonic remedies usually employed at home. This I have no doubt would be equally the case with the Indians, were they willing to submit to proper restrictions during the time of administering medicine.

Captain Lambert informs me that on his first landing here the Indians studiously avoided his vessel, and all kind of intercourse with his crew, from the supposition, (which they have since acknowledged) that the malady which they dread so much was thus conveyed. As in a short time it became desirable, on account of procuring supplies of provision, to remove this impression, some pains were taken to convince the Indians of their error, and they soon visited the ship without fear.

Mr. N. and myself have been anxious to escape the wet and disagreeable winter of this region, and visit some other portion of the country, where the inclemency of the season will not interfere with the prosecution of our respective pursuits. After some reflection and consultation, we concluded to take passage in the brig, which will sail in a few weeks for the Sandwich Islands. We shall remain there about three months, and return to the river in time to commence our peregrinations in the spring.

23d. - At Fort Vancouver. A letter was received yesterday by Dr. McLoughlin, from Captain Wyeth, dated Walla-walla, stating that the twelve Sandwich Islanders whom he took with him a week since for a journey to Fort Hall, had deserted, each taking a horse. They had no doubt heard from some of their countrymen, whom they met at the fort, of the difficulties of the route before them, which were probably very much exaggerated. Captain W. is on the alert to find them, and is sending men on their trail in every direction, but it is more than probable that they will not be overtaken, and the consequence will then be, that the expedition must be abandoned, and the captain return to the fort to spend the winter.

December 3d. - Yesterday Mr. N. and myself went down the river to the brig, and this morning early the vessel left her moorings, and with her sails unloosed stood out into the channel way. The weather was overcast, and we had but little wind, so that our progress during the morning was necessarily slow. In the afternoon we ran aground in one and a half fathoms water, but as the tide was low, we were enabled to get her clear in the evening. The navigation of this river is particularly difficult in consequence of numerous shoals and sand bars, and good pilots are scarce, the Indians alone officiating in that capacity. Towards noon the next day, a Kowalitsk Indian with but one eye, who said his name was George, boarded us, and showed a letter which he carried, written by Captain McNeall, in the Hudson's Bay service, recommending said George as a capable and experienced pilot. We accepted his services gladly, and made a bargain with him to take us into Baker's bay near the cape, for four bottles of rum; with the understanding, however, that every time the brig ran aground, one bottle of the precious liquor was to be forfeited. George agreed to the terms, and taking his station at the bow, gave his orders to the man at the wheel like one having authority, pointing with his finger when he wished a deviation from the common course, and pronouncing in a loud voice the single word ookook, (here.)

On the afternoon of the 4th, we passed along a bold precipitous shore, near which we observed a large isolated rock, and on it a great number of canoes, deposited above the reach of the tides. This spot is called Mount Coffin, and the canoes contain the dead bodies of Indians. They are carefully wrapped in blankets, and all the personal property of the deceased, bows and arrows, guns, salmon spears, ornaments, &c., are placed within, and around his canoe. The vicinity of this, and all other cemeteries, is held so sacred by the Indians, that they never approach it, except to make similar deposites; they will often even travel a considerable distance out of their course, in order to avoid intruding upon the sanctuary of their dead.

We came to anchor near this rock in the evening, and Captain Lambert Mr. N. and myself visited the tombs. We were especially careful not to touch or disarrange any of the fabrics, and it was well we were so, for as we turned to leave the place, we found that we had been narrowly watched by about twenty Indians, whom we had not seen when we landed from our boat. After we embarked, we observed an old withered crone with a long stick or wand in her hand, who approached, and walked over the ground which we had defiled with our sacrilegious tread, waving her enchanted rod over the mouldering bones, as if to purify the atmosphere around, and exorcise the evil spirits which we had called up.

I have been very anxious to procure the skulls of some of these Indians, and should have been willing, so far as I alone was concerned, to encounter some risk to effect my object, but I have refrained on account of the difficulty in which the ship and crew would be involved, if the sacrilege should be discovered; a prejudice might thus be excited against our little colony which would not soon be overcome, and might prove a serious injury.

6th. - The weather is almost constantly rainy and squally, making it unpleasant to be on deck; we are therefore confined closely to the cabin, and are anxious to get out to sea as soon as possible, if only to escape this.

In the afternoon, the captain and myself went ashore in the long-boat, and visited several Indian houses upon the beach. These are built of roughly hewn boards and logs, usually covered with pine bark, or matting of their own manufacture, and open at the top, to allow the smoke to escape. In one of these houses we found men, women, and children, to the number of fifty-two, seated as usual, upon the ground, around numerous fires, the smoke from which filled every cranny of the building, and to us was almost stifling, although the Indians did not appear to suffer any inconvenience from it. Although living in a state of the most abject poverty, deprived of most of the absolute necessaries of life, and frequently enduring the pangs of protracted starvation, yet these poor people appear happy and contented. They are scarcely qualified to enjoy the common comforts of life, even if their indolence did not prevent the attempt to procure them.

On the afternoon of the 8th, we anchored off Fort George, as it is called, although perhaps it scarcely deserves the name of a fort, being composed of but one principal house of hewn boards, and a number of small Indian huts surrounding it, presenting the appearance, from a distance, of an ordinary small farm house with its appropriate outbuildings. There is but one white man residing here, the superintendent of the fort; but there is probably no necessity for more, as the business done is not very considerable, most of the furs being taken by the Indians to Vancouver. The establishment is, however, of importance, independent of its utility as a trading post, as it is situated within view of the dangerous cape, and intelligence of the arrival of vessels can be communicated to the authorities at Vancouver in time for them to render adequate assistance to such vessels by supplying them with pilots, &c. This is the spot where once stood the fort established by the direction of our honored countryman, John Jacob Astor. One of the chimneys of old Fort Astoria is still standing, a melancholy monument of American enterprise and domestic misrule. The spot where once the fine parterre overlooked the river, and the bold stoccade enclosed the neat and substantial fort, is now overgrown with weeds and bushes, and can scarce be distinguished from the primeval forest which surrounds it on every side.

Captain Lambert, Mr. N. and myself visited the Indian houses in the neighborhood. In one of them we saw a poor little boy about three years of age who had been blind from his birth. He was sitting on the ground near the fire, surrounded by a quantity of fish bones which he had been picking. Our sympathy was very much excited for the poor little unfortunate, particularly as he was made a subject for the taunting jibes and laughter of a number of men and women, squatting around, and his mother sat by with the most cruel apathy and unconcern, and only smiled at the commiseration which we expressed for her innocent and peculiarly unhappy offspring. It seems difficult to believe that those who possess the form and countenance of human creatures, should so debase the natural good feelings which God has implanted in them: but these ignorant and gross wretches seemed to take credit to themselves in rendering this afflicted being unhappy, and smiled and looked at each other when we endeavored to infuse a little pity into them. The child had evidently been very much neglected, and almost starved, and the little articles which we presented it, (in the hope, that the Indians on seeing us manifest an interest in it, would treat it more tenderly,) it put to its mouth eagerly, but finding them not eatable, threw them aside in disgust. Oh! how I wished at that moment for a morsel of bread to give this little famished and neglected creature. We soon left the place, and returned to the brig, but I could think of nothing during the remainder of the evening but the little blind child, and at night I dreamed I saw it, and it raised its dim and sightless orbs, and stretched out its little emaciated arms towards me, as if begging for a crumb to prevent its starving.

These people, as I have already said, do not appear to possess a particle of natural good feeling, and in their moral character, they are little better than brutes. In the case of the blind boy, they seemed to take pride in tormenting it, and rendering it miserable, and vied with each other in the skill and dexterity with which they applied to it the most degrading and insulting epithets. These circumstances, with others, in regard to their moral character, which I shall not even mention, have tended very considerably to lower the estimation in which I have always held the red man of the forest, and serve to strengthen the opinion which I had long since formed, that nothing but the introduction of civilization, with its good and wholesome laws, can ever render the Indian of service to himself, or raise him from the state of wretchedness which has so long characterized his expiring race.

The next morning, we ran down into Baker's bay, and anchored within gunshot of the cape, when Captain Lambert and myself went on shore in the boat, to examine the channel, and decide upon the prospect of getting out to sea. This passage is a very dangerous one, and is with reason dreaded by mariners. A wide bar of sand extends from Cape Disappointment to the opposite shore, - called Point Adams, - and with the exception of a space, comprehending about half a mile, the sea at all times breaks furiously, the surges dashing to the height of the mast head of a ship, and with the most terrific roaring. Sometimes the water in the channel is agitated equally with that which covers the whole length of the bar, and it is then a matter of imminent risk to attempt a passage. Vessels have occasionally been compelled to lie in under the cape for several weeks, in momentary expectation of the subsidence of the dangerous breakers, and they have not unfrequently been required to stand off shore, from without, until the crews have suffered extremely for food and water. This circumstance must ever form a barrier to a permanent settlement here; the sands, which compose the bar, are constantly shifting, and changing the course and depth of the channel, so that none but the small coasting vessels in the service of the company can, with much safety, pass back and forth.

Mr. N. and myself visited the sea beach, outside the cape, in the hope of finding peculiar marine shells, but although we searched assiduously during the morning, we had but little success. We saw several deer in the thick forest on the side of the cape, and a great number of black shags, or cormorants, flying over the breakers, and resting upon the surf-washed rocks.

On the morning of the 11th, Mr. Hanson, the mate, returned from the shore, and reported that the channel was smooth; it was therefore deemed safe to attempt the passage immediately. While we were weighing our anchor, we descried a brig steering towards us, which soon crossed the bar, and ran up to within speaking distance. It was one of the Hudson's Bay Company's coasters, and, as we were getting under way, a boat put off from her, and we were boarded by Mr. Ogden, a chief factor from one of the Company's forts on the coast. He informed us that the brig left Naas about the first of October, but had been delayed by contrary winds, and rough, boisterous weather. Thus the voyage which usually requires but about eight days for its performance, occupied upwards of two months. They had been on an allowance of a pint of water per day, and had suffered considerably for fresh provision. Mr. Ogden remained with us but a short time, and we stood out past the cape.

When we entered the channel, the water which had before been so smooth, became suddenly very much agitated, swelling, and roaring, and foaming around us, as if the surges were upheaved from the very bottom, and as [if] our vessel would fall in the trough of the sea, pitching down like a huge leviathan seeking its native depths, I could not but feel positive, that the enormous wave, which hung like a judgment over our heads, would inevitably engulph us; but the good ship, like a creature instinct with life, as though she knew her danger, gallantly rose upon it, and but dipped her bows into its crest, as if in scorn of its mighty and irresistible power. This is my first sea voyage, and every thing upon the great deep is of course novel and interesting to me. During the scene which I have just described, although I was aware of our imminent peril, and the tales that I had frequently heard of vessels perishing in this very spot, and in precisely such a sea, recurred to my mind with some force, yet I could not but feel a kind of secret and wild joy at finding myself in a situation of such awful and magnificent grandeur. I thought of the lines of Shelley, and repeated them to myself in a kind of ecstasy.

"And see'st thou, and hear'st thou,
And fear'st thou, and fear'st thou,
And ride we not free
O'er the terrible sea,
I and thou ?"

In about twenty minutes we had escaped all the danger, and found ourselves riding easily in a beautiful placid sea. We set the sails, which had been shortened on the bar, and the gallant vessel feeling the impulse of the wind, rushed ahead as if exulting in the victory she had achieved.