Sheer Misery

Page 4 of 9

Figure 4

Netul Landing

Lewis & Clark River

a wet and miserable day on a coastal reiver

Photo ©2008 by Kristopher Townsend, used with permission

This is a typical wet and miserable winter day on the Pacific Northwest coast. Fort Clatsop was located on the hill in the far background.

Sheer misery

Day 7—December 16, Clark: "[W]e had a house Covered with Punchen & our meat hung up."

That was the best that could be said about December 16. Conditions were almost beyond tolerance. They had been without any night-time shelter to speak of since last July 7, at least, when they were still at the upper portage camp above the Falls of the Missouri. That was the day Lewis had reported: "[W]e have no tents; the men are therefore obliged to have recourse to the sails for shelter from the weather and we have not more skins than are sufficient to cover our baggage when stoed away in bulk on land." And what were those pieces of canvas like after six more months of wear and tear? Did they shed any of the precipitation that fell day and night? The situation was no less depressing with regard to clothing. "[T]heir leather cloathes soon become rotton as they are much exposed to the water and frequently wet." As we read of all the surprising and often exciting discoveries the journalists recorded in the Corps' general behalf, it is easy to overlook those dismal deprivations. Who among us could have endured them with optimism and good cheer?

They were still sleeping under tattered pieces of sail, and it would be another week before all the rest of the huts could be roofed. Somehow, Clark managed to shelter himself from the rain long enough to document last night's deluge: "I as also the party with me experienced a most dreadfull night rain and wet without any Couvering, indeed we Set up the greater part of the Night, when we lay down the water Soon Came under us and obliged us to rise." So, he wrote, "we Covered our Selves as well as we Could with Elk Skins, & Set up the greater part of the night, all wet     I lay in the water verry Cold." The next morning, the storm took a turn for the worse. While the wind lashed them with torrential rain, Clark and a few of the men doggedly endured both adversities and slogged through the dense, thoroughly drenched undergrowth to retrieve the meat of several elk that had been shot the day before. Worst of all, mortal danger was literally in the air: "Trees falling in every derection, whorl winds, with gusts of rain Hail & Thunder." The captain was almost at a loss for words. September 16 was "Certainly one of the worst days that ever was!" Still, he wrapped up his memories of the day with a ho-hum postscript: "Several men Complaining of hurting themselves Carry meet, &c."

Day 8—December 17. It must have been frustrating to have to chop down a tall tree, the identity of which couldn't be confirmed until the crown foliage was on the ground. Clark noted that "the trees which our men have fallen latterly Split verry badly into boards." So much for that plan. Moreover, sleeping conditions kept worsening: "our Leather Lodge has become So rotten that the Smallest thing tares it into holes and it is now Scrcely Sufficent to keep . . . the rain off a Spot Sufficiently large for our bead [i.e., bed, which Clark may have pronounced as a two-syllable word, bay-ud]." Think of young Sacagawea, and of ten-month-old Jean Baptiste.

Day 9—December 18. Weatherwise, this morning wasn't any better. In fact, it was much worse. It snowed, but they had to keep at it, and they were nearing the end of their endurance. "The men being thinly Dressed," Clark sympathized, "and mockersons without Socks is the reason that but little can be done at the Houses to day." At noon, however, "the Hail & Snow Seased and rain Suckceeded for the latter part of the day." Thanks for small blessings.

Figure 5

A Froe (Frow, Frower)

To see labels, point to the image.

photograph of a frow

John Fisher Collection of the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation

The etymology of this unusual word is too vague to recount here, but one form or another—frower, frow, fromward, frommard, etc.—has been in the woodworker's lexicon since at least the latter half of the 16th century. It was especially common in the U.S. throughout the 19th century, and is still known to most professional carpenters. Basically, it denotes a tool consisting of a blade about 2" to 3" wide, 7" to 12" or more in length, and from ¼" to ⅜" in thickness. One end is bent into an eye to receive a 48" wooden haft (handle); the upper corner of the opposite end is bevelled. The frow is used for cleaving or riving planks, shingles, and slats or laths from clear, solid logs, for use in the construction of dwellings and furniture.

A froe is used first to square up a log by removing four successive segments of the circumference. The blade is carefully placed across the end of the standing log and tapped with light, evenly spaced strokes of a wooden mallet until the blade is fully embedded in the log. The riving continues with mallet strokes against the exposed, beveled end of the blade, accompanied by twisting pressure with the hand holding the haft. When planks are needed, successively larger wooden wedges may be inserted into the rift to facilitate continued splitting as the blade is driven down the log.

From the fact that Israel Whelan, the U.S. Army's Purveyor of Public Supplies in Philadelphia, purchased two "shingling hatchets" for the expedition, it is clear that Lewis anticipated the construction of log fortifications for their winter garrisons, but there is no evidence that he ordered any froes. Nevertheless, they must have carried at least one, for we know they made a futile attempt to rive cottonwood logs for puncheons (boards) to roof their huts at Fort Mandan. Sgt. Ordway wrote, on 8 November 1804: "[W]e found that the C. W. [cottonwood] will rive well So that we are in hopes to make enofe to cover our buildings    but afterwards found it difficult and Gave up the idea." Their dilemma was inevitable; cottonwood splits poorly because of its uneven, stringy, sometimes curly grain. Nevertheless, they must have taken at least one froe along when they headed west in the spring, since a list of supplies in the Elkskin-bound journal for December 7—the day Clark and his party paddled from Tongue Point to "Lewis's Bay"—lists 1 "Frow" and 1 "malet," without further remarks.

The native people who had lived along the Pacific Coast for thousands of years had evolved a technology that enabled the construction of "plank houses" without the need of metal tools such as froes. Lewis encountered the evidence of that, having noticed the very hard wood of the Oregon crab apple tree, Malus fusca (Rafinesque), and observed how the natives used it:

[T]he natives make great uce of it to form their wedges with which they split their boards of [western redcedar] for the purpose of building houses. these wedges they also employ in spliting their firewood and in hollowing out their canoes. I have seen the natives drive the wedges of this wood into solid dry [redcedar] which it cleft without fracturing or injuring the wedge in the smallest degree.

He continued: "[W]e have also found this wood usefull to us for ax handles as well as glutts [gluts] or wedges."