Cape Disappointment State Park

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 1/09/2006
  • Essay 7602
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Cape Disappointment State Park juts into the Pacific Ocean at the tip of the Long Beach Peninsula, in the southwesternmost corner of Washington state. This is the place where Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Volunteers for Northwestern Discovery ended their long journey to the sea. They carved their names and the date -- November 18, 1805 -- on a tree, pausing to watch the powerful surf breaking on the rocks below. Exactly 200 years later, members of the Chinook Tribe, art patrons, politicians, and community leaders gathered here to dedicate the first phase of the Confluence Project, designed by famed artist and architect Maya Lin (b. 1959) to commemorate the Lewis-Clark Expedition. For Lin, Cape Disappointment is a study in convergence: water and land, river and ocean, white explorers and Native Americans, past and present. "Here is where we hold up a mirror to the Lewis and Clark story," she says. "Our journey begins here" (Confluence Project website).

Crossing the Bar 

The Columbia River is more than four miles wide as it hurries to a wild rendezvous with the sea at Cape Disappointment. It pours into the ocean at an average rate of 1.3 million cubic feet a second -- twice the volume of water carried to the Atlantic by the Mississippi. Sand and silt from the river's 259,000-square-mile drainage area pile up at the mouth of the river, forming the notorious Columbia bar. Treacherous sandbars and unpredictable currents make this one of the most dangerous channels in the maritime world. "Mere description can give little idea of the terrors of the bar of the Columbia," Navy explorer Charles Wilkes told Congress in 1841. "All who have seen it have spoken of the wildness of the scene, and the incessant roar of the waters, representing it as one of the most fearful sights that can possibly meet the eye of the sailor" (Schwantes, 7).

Some of the largest waves on the West Coast slam into the bar, dissipating energy born in distant storms on the open seas. The forces of wind, current, and tide create a seemingly impenetrable wall of white water. Members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition gazed with "estonishment" at waves breaking "with tremendious force in every direction" (William Clark, November 18, 1806). Even today, when protective jetties, periodic dredging, and modern navigational equipment have made the channel less lethal than it once was, mariners still approach the Columbia bar with caution and respect.

Most early sea captains simply looked at the foaming water and passed on. Spanish naval explorer Bruno de Hezeta (also spelled Heceta) identified the inlet as the mouth of a great river in August 1775, and marked it as such on his maps, but an outbreak of scurvy among his crew forced him to leave without further exploration. British Captain John Meares (1756?-1809) searched for Heceta's river in 1788 but couldn't find it. He named the area Cape Disappointment and sailed on. It was not until May 1792 that the first non-Indians crossed the Columbia bar, in a ship commanded by American fur trader Robert Gray (1755-1806). Gray plowed through the breakers despite the fears of his crew, some of whom thought him completely mad. He gave the river its current name, after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva.

The Middlemen of the Columbia

In the Chinookan speech of the Indian peoples who had occupied the area for at least 2,500 years, the Columbia was "Wimahl," meaning "Big River." Chinook legends told of an ancient people, the Taanewatiks, who paddled to the mouth of Wimahl in ocean-going canoes from cold lands far to the north. Strong winds and powerful currents prevented them from entering the river, so they came ashore on the northern edge of the peninsula. From there, they moved down to the river, where they settled and flourished.

The Chinooks were as much at ease in canoes as Plains Indians were on horses. Their seamanship gave them an advantage in the extensive trade network that developed between coastal and inland Indians in the Northwest. Long before Gray opened the Columbia to Euro-Americans in the 1790s, the Chinooks established themselves as the chief brokers of trade on the lower river. Chinook canoes kept the commerce moving. Their language provided the basis for what became known as Chinook Jargon, used to help various tribes and, eventually, white traders communicate with each other.

By the time they encountered Lewis and Clark, the Chinooks were well accustomed to dealing with whites. They were hard bargainers who enjoyed the give-and-take of trade. The explorers, however, were less than appreciative. Co-captain William Clark (1770-1838) complained that the Chinooks were "never Satisfied for that they reive in return if ten time the value of the articles they gave." He thought they were greedy, with a "craveing dispostn" (November 17, 1805). The Chinooks, for their part, must have thought the white strangers were strange indeed. Unlike the traders who had been coming by sea for many years, the new men were not interested in acquiring large quantities of furs, but only in replacing items that had been broken or worn out. The two cultures also clashed over the issue of personal property. For the Chinooks, the theft of small items was simply a friendly game of skill. The captains reacted to petty thievery by threatening to shoot the perpetrators.

Although the explorers disparaged most of what they saw of Chinook culture, they greatly admired the quality of Chinook canoes and the Indians' skill in handling them. They often watched with amazement as Chinooks paddled across waters the Americans (most of them experienced Missouri rivermen) thought were too rough to attempt. "Those Indians are certainly the best Canoe navigaters I ever Saw," Clark wrote, after watching one group negotiate easily through "the highest waves I ever Saw a Small vestles [vessel] ride" (November 11, 1805).

Demographic Catastrophe

The contact with whites proved to be deadly for the Chinooks. Lewis and Clark counted about 400 Chinooks living around Cape Disappointment in 1805. By 1830, only about 30 or 40 were still left. Most of the others were dead, victims of infectious diseases introduced by whites.

The lower Columbia River valley was one of the most densely populated areas in aboriginal North America. At the time of initial contact with whites in the 1790s, an estimated 16,000 Chinookan-speaking people lived along the 200 miles of river between Cape Disappointment and The Dalles, including the Chinook on the north (Washington) bank and the Clatsop on the south (Oregon) side. Forty years later, the population numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands.

As the first of the Columbia River tribes to have contact with whites, the Chinook were the first to feel the effects of European-introduced diseases such as gonorrhea, syphilis, and smallpox. But it was an 1829 epidemic of what was probably malaria that had the most devastating impact on the tribe. Called "ague fever" in historical accounts, malaria was brought up from California by fur traders working for the Hudson's Bay Company. The disease “catastrophically rearranged the human geography of the river” (White, 26). Four-fifths of the native population died in a single summer. Whole villages disappeared. Many others were so reduced that they consolidated. Ethnographer James G. Swan found 112 Indians living near the mouth of the river in 1834, but most were Chehalis.

Quest for Recognition

In 1855, the federal government lumped the Chinooks in with five other tribes, offering them land on the Quinault Reservation -- 100 miles north of the Chinook lands -- but refusing to recognize their sovereignty as a separate nation. In the eyes of the government, the Chinooks had ceased to exist as a tribe. Some tribal members, however, continued to live in their traditional homelands and to engage in traditional activities, including fishing, hunting, and woodcarving. In 1979, their descendants filed the first of several petitions to gain federal recognition, and the health, education, housing, and other benefits that come with it.

The tribe won an apparent victory in January 2001, when officials in the outgoing Clinton Administration granted formal recognition. However, in July 2002, the Bush Administration revoked that status. Representatives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs said the Chinooks did not qualify for recognition because there was a long gap in their history, from about 1880 to 1930, when they did not act as a tribe.

The revocation came just two days after a White House luncheon during which President Bush called upon tribal and governmental officials to cooperate in celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Among those invited to hear the president speak was Chinook tribal chairman Gary Johnson. Stunned and angered by the reversal, he pledged that the tribe, now with about 2,000 members, would continue fighting for recognition. "If the government thinks we're going away because they have made this decision, they're absolutely wrong," he said (The Seattle Times, 2002).

The Chinooks have yet to gain federal recognition (as of 2006), but they have gained status with state officials. In January 2005, the Washington Department of Transportation announced that it was stopping work on a highway project because of the discovery of the remains of a Chinook village at a Lewis and Clark campsite called Station Camp, near Cape Disappointment. Crews were rerouting a section of Highway 101 to make room for a new national park at the site when they unearthed part of an ancient Chinook plank house. Archaeologists soon found a treasure trove of artifacts from the earliest days of the fur trade, including Chinese coins, English ceramics, Hungarian beads, gunflints, musket balls, fragments of mirror glass, and nails from ships. In September 2005, they inadvertently uncovered a burial ground. The remains of 10 individuals have since been reburied under Chinook direction.

Tribal officials are cooperating with the continuing excavations. Meanwhile, plans for the highway relocation and the national park are on hold. “Our main goal continues to be caring for our ancestors in a careful and deliberate manner,” said Tribal Chairman Johnson, in a statement posted on the tribe's website. David L. Nicandri, director of the Washington State Historical Society, expressed confidence that the archaeological work will allow the Chinook people, the state of Washington, and the National Park Service to tell a broader story about the 18 days that Lewis and Clark spent near the mouth of the Pacific in November 1805. "In 15 or 20 years, no one will care whether full development took place in 2005," he said. "We are taking the long view of things. Sometimes being a historian has occupational benefits" (The Seattle Times, 2005).

From Fort to Park

There were few traces of either the Chinooks, the explorers, or the fur traders when the ownership of what is now Cape Disappointment State Park was transferred to the state of Washington in the early 1950s. The tree where members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition carved their initials (along with the notation "by land from the U. States") was long gone. The Cape itself, however, looked much the same as it did when fur trader Alexander Ross described it in 1811: confined by a 500-foot cliff on the north side, with misty forests reaching almost to the water's edge, and a "terrific chain of breakers ... rolling one after another in awful succession" on the Columbia bar (Ross, 58).

The federal government installed several smoothbore cannons in batteries at the Cape in 1862, during the Civil War, on the off chance that Confederate ships might attack. The batteries were expanded to become Fort Canby in 1875. The fort was named after General Edward R. Canby, who was killed fighting Modoc Indians in California in 1873. It remained in use until the end of World War II. Part of the land was then transferred to the Coast Guard and the rest to the state.

The state began developing Cape Disappointment as a park in the 1960s. All the garrison structures were removed, except for the gun batteries, which remain in place on a promontory overlooking the Cape. A Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center was built near the parapet of one of the batteries in the 1980s. The center was remodeled and expanded in preparation for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. Its glassed-in observation deck offers sweeping views of the river, headlands, and sea that marked the end of the explorers' journey to the west.

Cape Disappointment is now the most visited of Washington's 112 state parks. It includes two lighthouses, 27 miles of shoreline, and five miles of hiking trails, winding through 1,882 acres of parkland.

Confluence Project

On November 18, 2005 -- 200 years to the day after the arrival of the Corps of Discovery -- artist Maya Lin stood in front of a fish-cleaning table crafted from a 12-ton chunk of Columbia basalt and talked about her vision for the Confluence Project. The occasion was the dedication of the first of seven sites to be developed in an ambitious project to commemorate the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the Northwest. The goal, Lin said, is not celebration as much as understanding. At each site, she hopes to encourage visitors to look at the land not just as it is today, but as it was in the past, from differing points of view, as well as what it might be in the future.

The Vancouver-based Confluence Project was launched in 2000 by a small group of art patrons, politicians, and tribal leaders. The group doggedly recruited Lin, whose early success as the designer of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. has given her a freedom that few architects enjoy. She has turned down commissions for dozens of other monuments since designing the Vietnam Memorial in 1981, accepting only two (one for civil rights and the other for women's rights), and focusing instead on sculpture and small architectural projects. She says she surprised even herself when she agreed to take on the Confluence Project. Former Governor Gary Locke (a friend, fellow Yale University graduate and, like Lin, one of the country's most prominent Chinese Americans), helped persuade her.

At each of the seven sites (five in Washington, two in Oregon), Lin is working with landscape architects to restore natural environments. Artworks will incorporate excerpts from the explorers' journals or stories that show the perspective of native peoples. "Every site tells us a story of what the place is, from an ecological point of view, from a Native American point of view and also, using Lewis and Clark's words, to see this place as it was 200 years ago," she says (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2005).

At Cape Disappointment, the fish-cleaning table demonstrates the subtlety and nuance of Lin's work. The table, with a sink at one end, is carved from a 16-foot long block of basalt, which Lin herself selected from a quarry in Eastern Washington. It replaces a battered, rusty industrial sink near the boat launch on Baker Bay. The new table is both beautiful and functional. But it also carries a message. Engraved on the surface is a Chinook creation myth. The etching will help grip the slippery fish while they're being cleaned. It's also a reminder that Chinook fishermen were catching salmon here thousands of years before white men came. "It's subtle," says Lin. "I hate to preach. But we can give insight" (Smithsonian).

A pathway just north of the table leads to a viewing platform overlooking Baker Bay. Another path takes visitors to a grove of alders on the edge of Waikiki Beach (named after a group of shipwrecked sailors from Hawaii), on the ocean side of the peninsula. Signposts will illustrate the entire 4,100-mile journey of Lewis and Clark from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Cape, through many lands and past many Native Americans. The walkway will end in a circle of seven large pieces of cedar driftwood, gathered from the beach. The circle reflects the seven directions of Native American culture: north, south, east, west, up, down, and in.

The installation at Cape Disappointment is expected to be completed in April 2006. Organizers hope to have the entire Confluence Project completed by 2007, but that may be overly optimistic, since designs for several of the locations have yet to be finalized and only about two-thirds of the overall budget of $22.8 million has been raised (as of January 2006). Each of the seven sites has its own challenges, from gaining access to railroad right-of-way for a land bridge at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site to getting consensus from six separate tribes on a compass design at Sacajawea State Park at Pasco.

Lin is less concerned about getting it done on time than about getting it right. "I'm making decisions as to what sides of history get laid down," she says. "I hope I see clearly" (The Oregonian).

Sources: "Cape Disappointment State Park," Confluence Project website accessed December 2005 (; Carlos A. Schwantes, Columbia River: Gateway to the West (Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 2000); "The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition," ed. by Gary E. Moulton, University of Nebraska website, (; Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995); "Chinook Indians," Indian Tribal Records website accessed January 2006 (; Linda Shaw, "Chinooks at White House Party, Then Lose Their Federal Recognition," The Seattle Times, July 8, 2002, p. B-1; Lynda V. Mapes, "Artifacts Halt State Road Work," The Seattle Times, January 26, 2005; "Inadvertent Discovery of Human Remains," press release dated October 4, 2005, Chinook Nation website (; Lynda V. Mapes, "Help for Hungry Explorers Now a Painful Irony," The Seattle Times, November 18, 2005; Alexander Ross, Ross's Adventures of the first settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, 1810-1813 (London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1849), available on Mountain Men and the Fur Trade Virtual Research Center Project website (; Joseph B. Frazier, Associated Press, "Confluence Project Is 'Art in Progress,' " Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 16, 2005, p. J-3; Michael Parfit, "35 Who Made a Difference: Maya Lin," Smithsonian Magazine, November 2005; Randy Gragg, "Maya Lin's Confluence with the Columbia," The Oregonian, November 13, 2005, p. O-11.

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