Townsend's Across the Rockies to the Columbia


CHAPTER XIII

Passage up the Columbia - Birds - A trip to the Wallammet - Methodist missionaries - their prospects - Fort William - Band-tail pigeons - Wretched condition of the Indians at the falls - A Kallapooyah village - Indian cemetery - Superstitions - Treatment of diseases - Method of steaming - "Making medicine" - Indian sorcerers - An interruption of festivities - Death of Thornburg - An inquest - Verdict of the jury - Inordinate appetite for ardent spirits - Misfortunes of the American Company - Eight men drowned - Murder of two trappers by the Banneck Indians - Arrival of Captain Thing - His meeting and skirmish with the Blackfeet Indians - Massacre - A narrow escape.

On the 16th, we anchored abreast of Oak point. Our decks were almost immediately crowded with Indians to welcome us, and among them we recognised many faces with which we were familiar. Chinamus, the Chinook chief, was the principal of these, who, with his wife, Aillapust, or Sally, as she is called at the fort, paid us an early visit, and brought us red deer and sturgeon to regale upon after our voyage.

On the afternoon of the next day, we ran up to Warrior's Point. the brig's old mooring ground.

The people here had been anxious to see us; extensive preparations had been made to prosecute the salmon fishery, and the coopers have been engaged the whole winter in making barrels to accommodate them. Mr. Walker, the missionaries' quondam associate, was in charge of the post, and he informed us that Captain Wyeth had returned only a few weeks since from the upper country, where he had been spending the winter, engaged in the arduous business of trapping, in the prosecution of which he had endured great and various hardships.

May 12th.' The rainy season is not yet over; we have had almost constant showers since we arrived, but now the weather appears settled. Birds are numerous, particularly the warblers, (Sylvia.) Many of these are migratory, remaining but a few weeks: others breed here, and reside during the greater part of the summer. I have already procured several new species.

20th.' Mr. Wyeth, came down from Walla-walla yesterday, and this morning I embarked with him in a large canoe, manned by Kanakas, for a trip to the Wallammet falls in order to procure salmon. We visited fort William, (Wyeth's new settlement upon Wappatoo island,) which is about fifteen miles from the lower mouth of the Wallammet. We found here the missionaries, Messrs. Lee and Edwards, who arrived to-day from their station, sixty miles above. They give flattering accounts of their prospects here; they are surrounded by a considerable number of Indians who are friendly to the introduction of civilization and religious light, and who treat them with the greatest hospitality and kindness. They have built several comfortable log houses, and the soil in their vicinity they represent as unusually rich and productive. They have, I think, a good prospect of being serviceable to this miserable and degraded people; and if they commence their operations judiciously and pursue a steady, unwavering course, the Indians in this section of country may yet be redeemed from the thraldom of vice, superstition, and indolence, to which they have so long submitted, and above which their energies have not enabled them to rise.

The spot chosen by Captain W. for his fort is on a high piece of land, which will probably not be overflown by the periodical freshets, and the soil is the rich black loam so plentifully distributed through this section of country. The men now live in tents and temporary huts, but several log houses are constructing which, when finished, will vie in durability and comfort with Vancouver itself.

21st.'The large band-tail pigeon (Colomba fasciata) is very abundant near the river, found in flocks of from fifty to sixty, and perching upon the dead trees along the margin of the stream. They are feeding upon the buds of the balsam poplar; are very fat, and excellent eating. In the course of the morning, and without leaving the canoe, I killed enough to supply our people with provision for two days.

24th.'We visited the falls to-day, and while Captain W. was inspecting the vicinity to decide upon the practicability of drawing his seine here, I strolled into the Indian lodges on the bank of the river. The poor creatures were all living miserably, and some appeared to be suffering absolute want. Those who were the best supplied, had nothing more than the fragments of a few sturgeons and lamprey eels, kamas bread, &c. To the roofs of the lodges were hung a number of crooked bladders, filled with rancid seal oil, used as a sort of condiment with the dry and unsavory sturgeon.

On the Klakamas river, about a mile below, we found a few lodges belonging to Indians of the Kalapooyah tribe. We addressed them in Chinook, (the language spoken by all those inhabiting the Columbia below the cascades,)but they evidently did not comprehend a word, answering in a peculiarly harsh and gutteral language, with which we were entirely unacquainted. However, we easily made them understand by signs that we wanted salmon, and being assured in the same significant manner that they had none to sell, we decamped as soon as possible, to escape the fleas and other vermin with which the interior of their wretched habitations were plentifully supplied. We saw here a large Indian cemetery. The bodies had been buried under the ground, and each tomb had a board at its head, upon which was rudely painted some strange, uncouth figure. The pans, kettles, clothing, &c., of the deceased, were all suspended upon sticks, driven into the ground near the head board.

June 6th.'The Indians frequently bring us salmon, and we observe that, invariably, before they part with them, they are careful to remove the hearts. This superstition, is religiously adhered to by all the Chinook tribe. Before the fish is split and prepared for eating, a small hole is made in the breast, the heart taken out, roasted, and eaten in silence, and with great gravity. This practice is continued only during the first month in which the salmon make their appearance, and is intended as a kind of pro- pitiation to the particular deity or spirit who presides over the finny tribes. Superstition in all its absurd and most revolting aspects is rife among this people. They believe in "black spirits, and white, blue spirits, and grey," and to each grizzly monster some peculiar virtue or ghastly terror is attributed. When a chief goes on a hunting or fishing excursion, he puts himself under the care of one of these good spirits, and if his expedition is unsuccessful, he affirms that the antagonist evil principle has gained the victory; but this belief does not prevent his making another, and another attempt, in the hope, each time, that his guardian genius will have the ascendancy.

In their treatment of diseases, they employ but few remedies, and these are generally simple and inefficacious. Wounds are treated with an application of green leaves, and bound with strips of pine bark, and in some febrile cases, a sweat is administered. This is effected by digging a hole two or three feet deep in the ground, and placing within it some hemlock or spruce boughs moistened with water; hot stones are then thrown in, and a frame work of twigs is erected over the opening, and covered closely with blankets to prevent the escape of the steam. Under this contrivance, the patient is placed; and after remaining fifteen or twenty minutes, he is removed, and plunged into cold water.

Their mode of "making medicine," to use their own term, is, however, very different from this. The sick man is laid upon a bed of mats and blankets, elevated from the ground, and surrounded by a raised frame work of hewn boards. Upon this frame two "medicine men" (sorcerers) place themselves, and commence chaunting, in a low voice, a kind of long drawn, sighing song. Each holds a stout stick, of about four feet long, in his hand, with which he beats upon the frame work, and keeps accurate time with the music. After a few minutes, the song begins to increase in loudness and quickness, (a corresponding force and celerity being given to the stick,) until in a short time the noise becomes almost deafening, and may well serve, in many instances, to accelerate the exit of him whom it is their intention to benefit.

During the administration of the medicine, the relations and friends of the patient are often employed in their usual avocations in the same house with him, and by his bedside; the women making mats, moccasins, baskets, &c., and the men lolling around, smoking or conversing upon general subjects. No appearance of sorrow or concern is manifested for the brother, husband, or father, expiring beside them, and but for the presence and ear-astounding din of the medicine men, you would not know that anything unusual had occurred to disturb the tranquillity of the family circle.

These medicine men are, of course, all impostors, their object being simply the acquisition of property; and in case of the recovery of the patient, they make the most exorbitant demands of his relations; but when the sick man dies, they are often compelled to fly, in order to escape the vengeance of the survivors, who generally attribute the fatal termination to the evil influence of the practitioner.

July 4th.' This morning was ushered in by the firing of cannon on board our brig, and we had made preparations for spending the day in festivity, when, at about 9 o'clock, a letter was received from Mr. Walker, who has charge of the fort on Wappatoo island, stating that the tailor, Thornburg, had been killed this morning by Hubbard, the gunsmith, and requesting our presence immediately, to investigate the case, and direct him how to act.

Our boat was manned without loss of time, and Captain L. and myself repaired to the fort, where we found every thing in confusion. Poor Thornburg, whom I had seen but two days previously, full of health and vigor, was now a lifeless corpse; and Hubbard, who was more to be pitied, was walking up and down the beach, with a countenance pale and haggard, from the feelings at war within.

We held an inquest over the body, and examined all the men of the fort severally, for the purpose of eliciting the facts of the case, and, if warranted by the evidence, to exculpate Hubbard from blame in the commission of the act. It appeared that, several weeks since, a dispute arose between Hubbard and Thornburg, and the latter menaced the life of the former, and had since been frequently heard to declare that he would carry the threat into effect on the first favorable opportunity. This morning, before daylight, he entered the apartment of Hubbard, armed with a loaded gun, and a large knife, and after making the most deliberate preparations for an instant departure from the room, as soon as the deed should be committed, cocked his gun, and prepared to shoot at his victim. Hubbard, who was awakened by the noise of Thornburg's entrance, and was therefore on the alert, waited quietly until this crisis, when cocking his pistol, without noise, he took deliberate aim at the assassin, and fired. Thornburg staggered back, his gun fell from his grasp, and the two combatants struggled hand to hand. The tailor, being wounded, was easily overcome, and was thrown violently out of the house, when he fell to the ground, and died in a few minutes. Upon examining the body, we found that the two balls from the pistol had entered the arm below the shoulder, and escaping the bone, had passed into the cavity of the chest. The verdict of the jury was "justifiable homicide," and a properly attested certificate, containing a full account of the proceedings, was given to Hubbard, as well for his satisfaction, as to prevent future difficulty, if the subject should ever be investigated by a judicial tribunal.

This Thornburg was an unusually bold and determined man, fruitful in inventing mischief, as he was reckless and daring in its prosecution. His appetite for ardent spirits was of the most inordinate kind. During the journey across the country, I constantly carried a large two-gallon bottle of whiskey, in which I deposited various kinds of lizards and serpents and when we arrived at the Columbia the vessel was almost full of these crawling creatures. I left the bottle on board the brig when I paid my first visit to the Wallammet falls, and on my return found that Thornburg had decanted the liquor from the precious reptiles which I had destined for immortality, and he and one of his pot companions had been "happy" upon it for a whole day. This appeared to me almost as bad as the "tapping of the Admiral," practiced with such success by the British seamen; but unlike their commander, I did not discover the theft until too late to save my specimens, which were in consequence all destroyed.

11th.' Mr. Nuttall, who has just returned from the dalles, where he has been spending some weeks, brings distressing intelligence from above. It really seems that the "Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company" is devoted to destruction; disasters meet them at every turn, and as yet none of their schemes have prospered. This has not been for want of energy or exertion. Captain W. has pursued the plans which seemed to him best adapted for insuring success, with the most indefatigable perseverance and industry, and has endured hardships without murmuring, which would have prostrated many a more robust man; nevertheless, he has not succeeded in making the business of fishing and trapping productive, and as we cannot divine the cause, we must attribute it to the Providence that rules the destinies of men and controls all human enterprises.

Two evenings since, eight Sandwich Islanders, a white man and an Indian woman, left the cascades in a large canoe laden with salmon, for the brig. The river was as usual rough and tempestuous, the wind blew a heavy gale, the canoe was capsized, and eight out of the ten sank to rise no more. The two who escaped, islanders, have taken refuge among the Indians at the village below, and will probably join us in a few days.

Intelligence has also been received of the murder of one of Wyeth's principal trappers, named Abbot, and another white man who accompanied him, by the Banneck Indians. The two men were on their way to the Columbia with a large load of beaver, and had stopped at the lodge of the Banneck chief, by whom they had been hospitably entertained. After they left, the chief, with several of his young men, concealed themselves in a thicket, near which the unsuspicious trappers passed, and shot and scalped them both.

These Indians have been heretofore harmless, and have always appeared to wish to cultivate the friendship of the white people. The only reason that can be conceived for this change in their sentiments, is that some of their number may lately have received injury from the white traders, and, with true Indian animosity, they determined to wreak their vengeance upon the whole race. Thus it is always unsafe to travel among Indians, as no one knows at what moment a tribe which has always been friendly, may receive ill treatment from thoughtless, or evil-designing men, and the innocent suffer for the deeds of the guilty.

August 19th.' This morning, Captain Thing (Wyeth's partner) arrived from the interior. Poor man! he looks very much worn by fatigue and hardships, and seven years older than when I last saw him. He passed through the Snake country from Fort Hall, without knowing of the hostile disposition of the Bannecks, but, luckily for him, only met small parties of them, who feared to attack his camp. He remarked symptoms of distrust and coolness in their manner, for which he was, at the time, unable to account. As I have yet been only an hour in his company, and as a large portion of this time was consumed in his business affairs, I have not been able to obtain a very particular account of his meeting and skirmish with the Blackfeet last spring, a rumor of which we heard several weeks since. From what I have been enabled to gather, amid the hurry and bustle consequent upon his arrival, the circumstances appear to be briefly these. He had made a camp on Salmon river, and, as usual, piled up his goods in front of it, and put his horses in a pen erected temporarily for the purpose, when, at about daybreak, one of his sentries heard a gun discharged near. He went immediately to Captain T.'s tent to inform him of it, and at that instant a yell sounded from an adjacent thicket, and about five hundred Indians,' three hundred horse and two hundred foot,' rushed out into the open space in front. The mounted savages were dashing to and fro across the line of the camp, discharging their pieces with frightful rapidity, while those who had not horses, crawled around to take them in the rear.

Nothwithstanding the galling fire which the Indians were constantly pouring into them, Captain T. succeeded in driving his horses into the thicket behind, and securing them there, placing over them a guard of three men as a check to the savages who were approaching from that quarter. He then threw himself with the remainder of his little band, behind the bales of goods, and returned the fire of the enemy. He states that occasionally he was gratified by the sight of an Indian tumbling from his horse, and at such times a dismal, savage yell was uttered by the rest, who then always fell back a little, but returned immediately to the charge with more than their former fury.

At length the Indians, apparently wearied by their unsuccessful attempts to dislodge the white men, changed their mode of attack and rode upon the slight fortification, rapidly and steadily. Although they lost a man or two by this (for them) unusually bold proceeding, yet they succeeded in driving the brave little band of whites to the cover of the bushes. They then took possession of the goods, &c., which had been used as a defence, and retired to a considerable distance, where they were soon joined by their comrades on foot, who had utterly failed in their attempt to obtain the horses. In a short time, a man was seen advancing from the main body of Indians towards the scene of combat, holding up his hand as a sign of amity, and an intimation of the suspension of hostilities, and requested a "talk" with the white people. Captain T., with difficulty repressing his inclination to shoot the savage herald down, was induced, in consideration of the safety of his party, to dispatch an interpreter towards him. The only information that the Blackfeet wished to communicate was, that having obtained all the goods of the white people, they were now willing that they should continue their journey in peace, and that they should not again be molested. The Indians then departed, and the white men struck back on their trail, towards Fort Hall. Captain Thing lost every thing he had with him, all his clothing, papers, journals, &c. But he should probably be thankful that he escaped with his life, for it is known to be very unusual for these hostile Indians to spare the lives of white men, when in their power, the acquisition of property being generally with them only a secondary consideration.

Captain T. had two men severely, but not mortally, wounded. The Indians had seven killed, and a considerable number wounded.

20th.' Several days since a poor man came here in a most deplorable condition, having been gashed, stabbed, and bruised in a manner truly frightful. He had been travelling on foot constantly for fifteen days, exposed to the broiling sun, with nothing to eat during the whole of this time, except the very few roots which he had been able to find. He was immediately put in the hospital here, and furnished with every thing necessary for his comfort, as well as surgical attendance. He states that he left Monterey, in California, in the spring, in company with seven men, for the purpose of coming to the Wallammet to join Mr. Young, an American, who is now settled in that country. They met with no accident until they arrived at a village of Potameos Indians [Called by the inhabitants of this country, the "rascally Indians," from their uniformly evil disposition, and hostility to white people], about ten days journey south of this. Not knowing the character of these Indians, they were not on their guard, allowing them to enter their camp, and finally to obtain possession of their weapons. The Indians then fell upon the defenceless little band with their tomahawks and knives, (having no fire arms themselves, and not knowing the use of those they had taken,) and, ere the white men had recovered from the panic which the sudden and unexpected attack occasioned killed four of them. The remaining four fought with their knives as long as they were able, but were finally overpowered, and this poor fellow left upon the ground, covered with wounds, and in a state of insensibility. How long he remained in this situation, he has no means of ascertaining; but upon recovering, the place was vacated by all the actors in the bloody scene, except his three dead companions, who were lying stark and stiff where they fell. By considerable exertion, he was enabled to drag himself into a thicket near, for the purpose of concealment, as he rightly conjectured that their captors would soon return to secure the trophies of their treacherous victory, and bury the corpses. This happened almost immediately after; the scalps were torn from the heads of the slain, and the man- gled bodies removed for interment. After the most dreadful and excruciating sufferings, as we can well believe, the poor man arrived here, and is doing well under the excellent and skilful care of Doctor Gairdner. I examined most of his wounds yesterday. He is literally covered with them, but one upon the lower part of his face is the most frightful. It was made by a single blow of a tomahawk, the point of which entered the upper lip, just below the nose, cutting entirely through both the upper and lower jaws and chin, and passing deep into the side of the neck, narrowly missing the large jugular vein. He says he perfectly recollects receiving this wound. It was inflicted by a powerful savage, who at the same time tripped him with his foot, accelerating his fall. He also remembers distinctly feeling the Indian's long knife pass five separate times into his body; of what occurred after this he knows nothing. This is certainly by far the most horrible looking wound I ever saw, rendered so, however, by injudicious treatment and entire want of care in the proper apposition of the sundered parts; he simply bound it up as well as he could with his handkerchief, and his extreme anguish caused him to forget the necessity of ac- curacy in this respect. The consequence is, that the lower part of his face is dreadfully contorted, one side being considerably lower than the other. A union by the first intention has been formed, and the ill-arranged parts are uniting.

This case has produced considerable excitement in our little circle. The Potameos have more than once been guilty of acts of this kind, and some of the gentlemen of the fort have proposed fitting out an expedition to destroy the whole nation, but this scheme will probably not be carried into effect.