The 33-member expedition, led by Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838), had hurried down the Clearwater River in Idaho to its junction with the Snake, at the border between Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Washington, and from there to the Columbia. Their arrival at the fabled "River of the West" made them the first Euro-Americans to see the Columbia east of the Cascades.
The confluence of the Columbia and the Snake was a popular gathering spot for Sahaptin-speaking Indians, members of the extended Nez Perce nation, who came to fish, trade, and socialize. It was spawning season, and the explorers saw salmon by the hundreds of thousands, some still alive and swimming in the crystal clear water, others piled up dead on the banks and in stillwater pools. Clark estimated that there were 10,000 drying on racks in one village alone. But game was scarce, and the explorers wanted meat, so they bought dogs from the Indians -- a total of 26 over the next two days.
The expedition made its presence felt among the dog population up and down the Columbia. The men (Clark a notable exception) didn’t mind eating dog or horse meat, but they never learned to adapt completely to a fish diet.
The party camped at the confluence for two days, repairing equipment, mending clothes, and otherwise preparing for the journey to the mouth of the Columbia. The first night, they were visited by a delegation of about 200 Indians from a nearby village, who formed a half circle around the explorers and entertained them for a while with singing and drumming. The captains gave them small gifts. Lewis delivered what had become his standard speech of diplomacy, using sign language to express "our friendly disposition to all nations, and our joy in Seeing those of our Children around us ..." (Clark, Oct. 16, 1805).
Clark speculated later that the Indians were hospitable largely because of the presence of Sacagawea, the wife of one of the interpreters, and her infant son. A woman and child traveling with a party of men was evidence of peaceful intentions. Recent scholarly research indicates the Shoshone woman’s name was spelled and pronounced with a "g" rather than the previously accepted "j." However, to the federal Works Progress Administration, which developed a state park at the confluence in the late 1930s, she was Sacajawea, and so she remains at least as reflected in the name of Sacajawea State Park today.
Clark noticed that many of the Indians in this area suffered from "Sore and weak Eyes," leading to partial or total blindness, which he attributed to the nearly constant reflection of the sun off water. He also noted that "They have bad teeth, which is not common with indians, maney have worn their teeth down and Some quite into their gums" (Clark, Nov. 1, 1805). He thought that might be due to their habit of eating roots that were still covered with sand and grit from the earth.
The consensus among scholars today is that the eye problems were caused by trachoma, an inflammation of the eye’s mucous membranes, and possibly sometimes by venereal diseases. The teeth were ground down by fine sand borne carried by the high winds on the Columbia Plateau; the sand settled on drying salmon and acted as an inescapable abrasive when the fish was eaten.
As they descended the Columbia, the explorers moved from wooded mountains into treeless plains. Firewood became as scarce as game. They gathered weeds and willow bushes for their cooking fires, bought driftwood from the Indians when they could, and once violated a self-imposed rule and stole part of a pile of split timber that they found stockpiled in an Indian fishing camp.