Ordway's Route to the Salmon River

Ordway's Route to Tommanamah and Back

May 27–June 2, 1806

map of Ordway's route to the salmon fisheries

TOPO!® © 2003 National Geographic

The rickety bridge of language between the two cultures had collapsed somewhere between the Sahaptian tongue of the Nez Perce and the English ears of the captains, but evidently nobody realized it for several days. At seven a.m. on that cloudy Tuesday morning, May 27, 1806, Sergeant John Ordway, accompanied by Privates Robert Frazer and Peter Weiser, left Camp Chopunnish under orders to ride over to "the East branch of Lewis's river"—the Salmon River, or Tommanamah, as the Nez Perce called it. The spring run of chinooks had not yet appeared on the Clearwater, so the three were to buy some fresh fish, "which the indians inform us may be procured in abundance at that place." As the captains understood it, the trip would be "but half a days ride, nearly south."

We haven't a single clue as to where or when the error had occurred, or whose face was red. Neither captain expressed any concerns until six days had passed, when Lewis mused, "we begin to feel some anxiety with rispect to Sergt Ordway and party; . . . we have received no inteligence of them since they set out." But of course Lewis had been immersed in his natural history studies, examining one specimen after another, and writing a description of each. Woodpecker, nutcracker, squirrel, hoot-owl, horned lizard. Chokecherry, clarkia, various grasses. Insects such as the yellow jacket. Puzzling over the local distinctions between white bear and black bear. All of the party were growing impatient to head home. By the last day of May they owned a remuda of 65 horses. Maybe they were too busy to worry about the three tardy men. Or, more likely, they had enough confidence in them to assume they would return safely in due time.

Indeed they did. At noon on June 2 the three rode back into camp, bringing 17 salmon and some cous ("cows") roots. Unfortunately, most of the fish had already crossed the line into garbage class, although Lewis, always inclined to accentuate the positive, allowed that:

these fish were as fat as any I ever saw; sufficiently so to cook themselves without the addition of grease; those which were sound were extreemly delicious; their flesh is of a fine rose colour with a small admixture of yellow.

By the very shortest route, the Salmon River was about 35 miles southwest of Camp Chopunnish, which would have made it at least a two-day trip. Lewis was inclined to blame the Indians for the extension. The three Americans:

did not reach the place at which they obtained their fish untill the evening of the 29th having travelled by their estimate near 70 miles. the route they had taken however was not a direct one; the Indians conducted them in the first instance to the East branch of Lewis's river [the Salmon] about 20 miles above it's junction with the South branch [the Snake River], a distance of about 50 Ms. where they informed them they might obtain fish; but on their arrival at that place finding that the salmon had not yet arrived or were not taken, they were conducted down that river to a fishery a few miles below the junction of the forks of Lewis's river about 20 Ms. further, here with some difficulty and remaining one day they purchased the salmon which they brought with them.

It is regrettable that Sgt. Ordway neglected to record the courses and distances they traveled, for his descriptions have challenged a number of students and scholars to make sense out of them on the ground. The map shown above represents a rough summary of the conclusions of Steve F. Russell, of Iowa State University, who also provided the coordinates that aerial photographer Jim Wark used to shoot the following pictures featured in the next four pages: Ordway's Camp, Deer Creek, the Snake River, and South Fork of the Clearwater River.

Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee