The homeward journey began on March 23, 1806, when the explorers left their soggy winter headquarters at what they called Fort Clatsop, near present-day Astoria, Oregon, and began paddling up the Columbia River. The party of 33 (including Sacagawea and her infant son) traveled in six boats: three heavy dugouts they had made the previous September, with help from Nez Perce Indians in Idaho; two sleek canoes purchased from the Chinooks on the lower Columbia; and one canoe stolen from the Clatsops.
Progress was slow as the expedition made its way upstream, pushing against the current in a river swollen with spring runoff. Captains Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) decided to abandon the river if they could buy enough horses to carry the baggage, the ill, and the injured, expecting that most members of the expedition would walk. By late April, they had accumulated a herd of about 20.
Mixed Relations with the Indians
Traveling east, Lewis and Clark became increasingly frustrated by their encounters with the people who lived along the lower Columbia. The Indians demanded what the captains considered unreasonably high prices for their horses, and they regularly helped themselves to hatchets, knives, and other small items left unattended in the expedition’s camps. Lewis had one Indian beaten for stealing an iron socket, threatened to burn down a village in response to another theft, and told his men to kill three Chinooks who tried to steal his Newfoundland dog, Seaman (the Indians let the dog go before the order could be carried out).
When the party was ready to abandon the canoes, Lewis ordered one to be burned because he was determined that “not a particle should be left for the benefit of the indians” (Lewis, April 21, 1806). The other canoes were sold to a group of Umatillas in present-day Klickitat County, but only after the captains threatened to destroy them if the Indians wouldn’t offer them some kind of payment. They finally settled on a few strands of beads per canoe, a price that seemed to please neither the buyers nor the sellers.
Relations between the travelers and the local inhabitants improved on April 27, 1806, when the expedition reached the village of Chief Yellept and his Walla Wallas (relatives of the Nez Perce) near Wallula, at the mouth of the Walla Walla River. Lewis and Clark had struck up a friendship with Yellept (also spelled Yelleppit) on their westbound journey and had agreed to return for a longer visit in the spring.
Although eager to be on their way, they ended up spending three days with the Walla Wallas, joined at one point by about 100 Yakamas (also spelled Yakimas). One night the whole encampment (550 men, women, and children, by Lewis’s count) danced and sang to the music of Pierre Cruzatte’s fiddle and the Indians’ drums and rattles. Cruzatte was an expert riverman who had joined the expedition in Missouri. One of the captains’ most astute decisions was to make room in the baggage for his fiddle, which delighted both the men and their many Indian hosts.
Lewis and Clark received more than hospitality from the Walla Wallas. They also learned about a shortcut that would shorten their route to the Nez Perce homelands in Idaho by at least 80 miles. This was vital information, since the Nez Perce were holding horses that were needed for the return passage through the Bitterroots and on to the headwaters of the Missouri.
On April 29, the expedition left the Walla Wallas and began cutting through southeastern Washington on a trail that had been used by Native Americans for thousands of years. Two days later, three young men from Yellept’s village caught up with the party, returning a steel trap that had been left behind. “I think we can justly affirm to the honor of these people that they are the most hospitable, honest, and sincere people that we have met with in our voyage,” Lewis wrote (May 1, 1806).
The shortcut took them through the present-day towns of Prescott, Waitsburg, and Dayton. There were enough small streams to provide them with water, but by the time they reached Dayton, on May 2, 1806, they were short of food. The hunters brought in only one deer that day -- limited fodder when divided among the entire party. Yellept’s young men showed them how to supplement their diet with cow parsnips. The toxic outer layer of the stem had to be removed, revealing the succulent, tasty inner stem. Lewis reported that he found the plant “agreeable” and could “eat heartily of it without feeling any inconvenience” (May 2, 1806).
On the morning of May 4, 1806, the expedition stopped for breakfast at a Nez Perce village of six families on the Snake River near what is now the Alopwai Interpretive Center, about eight miles west of Clarkston. They had passed by the same village on their outbound journey. This time both captains described the inhabitants as “miserably poor.” The salmon had not yet returned to spawn in the nearby streams, and game was scarce. With “much difficulty,” the travelers bought two very lean dogs from the villagers, along with some cakes made from a root that Lewis described as similar to sweet potatoes. They quickly ate and pressed on.
That evening, the Corps of Volunteers camped at a site on the north bank of the Snake River in Whitman County, some three miles below Clarkston (approximately opposite Chief Timothy Park). The next morning, they left Washington and “proceeded on” into Idaho.