The Snake River
© 2003 Airphoto, Jim Wark. All rights reserved. Waypoints recommended by Steve L. Russell.
After an all-night rain, Ordway and his two companions proceeded on, in the rain, at an early hour on the twenty-ninth.
Shortly arived at a fork of the kimooenim or Lewis's river . . . crossed a steep bad hill and descended down a long hill an a run pass a large lodge and descended the worse hills we ever saw a road made down. towards evening we arived at the kimooenim or Lewises river at a fishery at a bad rapid.
In fact, Ordway told Lewis, it was "a very considerable rapid nearly as great . . . as the [rapids] of the Columbia," which had been major challenges to surmount, both going and coming. Ordway's journal continues:
our chief told us to set down and not go in the lodge untill we were invited so we did at length they invited us in. spread robes for us to sit on and Set a roasted Salmon before us and Some of their white bread which they call uppah.
"Uppah" was a cake or bread made of the root of cous (Lomatium cous; lo-may-she-um cowz).
Early that morning Bob Frazer "got 2 Spanish mill dollars from a squaw in return for an old razer," Ordway tells us. It would be interesting to know just how the conversation got started, and who said what, but that must remain one of history's little secrets. Nevertheless, we can entertain some reasonable guesses about the feelings of the two principals.
The woman, most likely, felt it was a good bargain, insofar as she had gotten the better half of the deal. She probably had never seen or heard of a razor before. And even if Frazer's attempt to describe its normal use in her Sahaptian language—with the aid of some supplementary gesticulations, of course—were clear, she may have been either puzzled or amused. Could she imagine any man letting hair grow under his nose and mouth, and then hacking it off with this thing? Why wouldn't he just yank it out one hair at a time like Nim"ipuu men did?1 What really excited her, one supposes, was the contemplation of the ways this strange, shiny instrument might make some of her daily tasks easier. Scraping stems of dogbane, for instance, to make thread and string, preparing animal hides for clothing and moccasins, peeling roots.2
The fact that Robert had a razor with him is a reminder that Army regulations at the time required soldiers to be clean-shaven. That he was prepared to part with it suggests either that the blade was no longer useable for shaving, or else the captains had approved a general exception to the Army's rule. Or both. But why would he trade it for those two foreign coins when there was no place for him to spend them and when, besides, his mission was to buy food for the men back at Camp Chopunnish? Possibly because the razor was his personal property to dispose of, and he recognized the Spanish coins as a windfall that would increase in value precipitously the moment the expedition was over. Those two dollars would equal almost half a month's pay for a lowly private.
In 1776, when the Continental Congress began studying the comparative values of the various gold and silver coins being used in the Colonies, its measuring stick was the Spanish milled dollar, the oldest and and most stable of all. (In Spanish currency it was equal to eight coins called reales, and therefore was dubbed "a piece of eight.") At that time, the value of any coin was determined not by its face value but by its weight, and thus by its gold or silver content. The problem with most other coins at the time was that thieves often scraped or clipped the typically smooth edges and cast counterfeit coins from accumulated shavings. Little by little the intrinsic value of each coin in circulation was reduced. In general, no two were exactly the same size and value. The Spanish dollar, on the other hand, which had been minted in Mexico and Peru for nearly three hundred years, had a milled edge with a pattern that simulated braided rope. That pattern discouraged counterfeiters since any shaving was immediately apparent and obviously devalued the coin. When the U.S. Mint was established in Philadelphia in 1792, its purpose was to issue dollars that would meet the Spanish standard, pursuant to the doctrine espoused by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, and their adherents. Indeed, the Spanish milled dollar remained in circulation throughout the United States until the 1850s.3
Ordway added a pertinent remark to his journal entry: "[W]e expect they got them from the Snake Indians who live near the Spanish country to the South." More of the story unfolded after he, Weiser and Frazer got back to main camp on June 2. Sgt. Gass heard that the Nez Perce had:
got the dollars from about a Snake Indian's neck, they had killed some time ago. There are several dollars among these people which they get in some way. We suppose the Snake Indians, some of whom do not live very far from New Mexico, got them from the Spaniards in that quarter.
1. Meriwether Lewis, May 13, 1806: "In common with other savage nations of America they extract their beards but the men do not uniformly extract the hair below, this is more particularly confined to the females. I observed several men among them whom I am convinced if they had shaved their beards instead of extracting it would have been as well supplyed in this particular as any of my countrymen."
2. James P. Ronda, "Frazer's Razor, The Ethnohistory of a Common Object," We Proceeded On, Vol. 7 (August 1981), 12-13.
3. Edwin Kemmerer, Gold and the Gold Standard: The Story of Gold Money, Past, Present and Future (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1944), 53-71.
Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee