Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their Corps of Discovery entered what is now Washington State on October 10, 1805, following a grueling trek over the Bitterroot Mountains. Battling cold, hunger and fatigue, the expedition made the arduous crossing, coming into the state on the Snake River at what is now Clarkston. From there they moved quickly down the Snake, into the Columbia, near the city of Pasco, making as much as 4o miles a day. Swift waters and enthusiasm carried them a gracious welcome: On October 14th, Clark successfully hunted some ducks and recorded that for the first time in three weeks he had enjoyed a good dinner.
The party passed numerous Indian villages – often on trails the natives had used as trade routes for 9.000 years – and found the inhabitants to be hospitable, in large part because of the presence and interpretive skills of Sacagawea. Her enormous contribution to the expedition has not been exaggerated.
As the Corps of Discovery’s boats moved down the Columbia, Indians traded with the party, hired on to help with portages, and provided food. The vastness of the Columbia and the fact that it teemed with a rather complex tapestry of human life amazed the explorers. Approached by the first of the coastal Indians in a flotilla of four different sizes canoes. Clark was so impressed with one of the boats that he made a sketch of it. On the bow was the image of a bear. The stern bore the likeness of a man. All this did little to compensate for what the group considered disagreeable weather. The chilly, relentlessly wet winter of the Pacific Northwest had set in, exaggerated by the stiff winds of the Columbia Gorge, and the explorers were ill equipped, physically and mentally, to deal with it.
November 7, 1805 started off with a heavy fog, which lifted slowly. The party set off and by afternoon the sky was clear. It was an auspicious day. The party sited the Pacific and a great cheer rose up. William Clark penned the famous line in his field notes, “Ocean (sic) in view. O! The joy.” And it was here, around the mount of the Columbia River that the Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1805 – 1806.
Washington state is sprinkled with sites where any imaginative traveler can reach back and touch these events of nearly two centuries past. The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Fort Canby State Park near Ilwaco, walks the visitor through the journey from St Louis to the Pacific. The gift shop brims with interesting books about the expedition. And up in the center you’ll get an excellent view of the entire mouth of the Columbia. It was up river a bit, near Chinook, where an astounding moment in American history took place. Trying to decide where the expedition should search for a suitable site to camp, Lewis and Clark held a vote. All members of the party voted, including York, a black slave, and Sacagawea, a woman and an Indian. It was a first on three counts. The city of Vancouver offers an opportunity to actually stroll through one of the earliest ramifications of the Lewis and Clark legacy. Fort Vancouver National Historic Site became the Hudson’s Bay Company’s outpost in 1825. By 1849, the fort was a United States Army Post. Some of the stately buildings on the grounds date back to the mid 19th century. Walk along Officer’s Row for a glimpse of how quickly and elegantly America settled into its newly acquired territory.
Heading on east, the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center at Stevenson presents an overview of the geology and natural history that created the Columbia Gorge, allowing the Corps of Discovery to make its swift passage to the Pacific once they entered Washington.
In the Tri-Cities, the 22 mile Sacagawea Trail loops around the Columbia River, touching all three towns – Richland, Pasco and Kennewick. And from here it’s a short trip to Sacagawea State Park and its Interpretive Center.
By late April 1806, the expedition was well on its way back east and was traveling overland near what is now Walla Walla. They were met by Yellept, often referred to as a chief, but actually a headman of the Walla Walla Band, relatives of the Nez Perce. The party stayed with these friendly and generous Indians for three days. A life-size diorama at the Fort Walla Walla Museum depicts this event and early in June, each year, Lewis and Clark Days celebrate these times and events with a festival that includes costumed re-enactment.
In all, the pieces of the Lewis and Clark Expedition add up to a treasure trove of experiences in the state of Washington. Ours is a nation that grew quickly and exuberantly. We embraced and assimilated a mix of cultures in a way that no other collection of people ever has. And we are an enormous country, stretching across a continent, from sea to shining sea. It is rare to find a place where we can actually follow in the wake of history or walk in its footsteps. But in Washington, the ripples are still in the water and the impressions in the earth.