'a load of old boards'

Page 5 of 9

Figure 5

Clatsop Plankhouse

Fort Stevens State Park

Chinook plankhouse made from weathered cedar boards

Photo © 2010 by Kristopher Townsend, used with permission

Day 10—December 19. Early this morning—under clear skies, for a change—Clark "despatched Sjt. Pryer with 8 men in 2 Canoes across Meriwethers Bay for the boads1 of an Indian house which is vacant."

Multiple Homesteads

Pryor and his companions returned that afternoon with a load of "old boards," but after all they were found to be "verry indifferent." We are left to wonder what that verbal shrug meant. In Noah Webster's 1806 Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, the word "indifferent" could mean either "poor" or "tolerable." In any case, the odds are that the structure they pillaged, like many other seemingly useless dwellings they had seen along the lower Columbia, had not been permanently abandoned, but had been built to serve as temporary residences for one of two reasons: Coastal tribes often lived near the ocean in winter, and moved to alternate homes on nearby rivers during salmon runs, and since the dwelling in question was said to be located near the Netul river, it might have been occupied only during a run that had taken place before the expedition arrived in early December, and would be reoccupied in late March. On the other hand, the house just might have been temporarily vacated by a native family for whom it had been made uninhabitable by a overwhelming infestation of fleas, and its owners would be returning to it within a few weeks or months.

Questions of Private Property

Nowhere is there any indication that the Clatsops complained about the thefts, but they may have learned of it somehow, and discreetly brought the matter to the attention of one of the captains, for ten days later Clark explained, as if it was news to him, that "[t]he flees are So noumerous in this Countrey and difficult to get Cleare of that the Indians have difft. houses & villages to which they remove frequently to get rid of them." In any case, no claims were made and no apologies were tendered. Not even, as far as we can tell, did the Americans consider putting their booty back where they found it before they left for home.

In mid-March the men stole a Clatsop canoe as recompense for Indians' theft of 6 elk carcasses the men had shot, even though the tribe's chief had already made restitution for the elk by giving the captains three free dogs.2 It was a lopsided deal both ways. If the elk meat hadn't spoiled yet, three Indian dogs wasn't fair payment for it. But the canoe was much more valuable than three elk in any case; a Clatsop watercraft was equal to a wife. Moreover, there is abundant evidence that the captains and their men were quick to respond to natives' thefts of Corps property with demands for return or recompense, or at least with sinister threats. Yet across the estuary, back on November 15, Clark had brazenly admitted that his men were "all Comfortable in the . . . Camps they have made of the boards they found at the Town above." At that point, they simply didn't get the picture.

Day 11—December 20 found Sgt. Gass reporting, "We collected all the puncheons or slabs we had made, and some which we got from some Indian huts up the bay, but found we had not enough to cover all our huts." The sergeant neglected to mention that they needed puncheons and planks not only for roofing but also for floors and bunks in all the rooms,3 perhaps except the smokehouse, and for walkways in the parade enclosure to cut down on the mud that would unavoidably be tracked indoors.

Day 12—December 21 saw steady progress in daubing the chinks between logs in the four huts that were roofed, and finishing their puncheon flooring and bunks. On the personal side, Clark "dispatched two men to the open lands near the Ocian for Sackacome, which we make use of to mix with our tobacco to Smoke which has an agreeable flavour." Frustrations were inevitable. On the twelfth day a couple of the men felled "Several trees which would not Split into punchins." The crowns of most of the best trees were so far up the boles that confirming identification from foliage was impossible before they were on the ground.

Day 13—December 22. This day brought another unwelcome lesson: "We discover that part of our last Supply of meat is Spoiling from the womph [warmth] of the weather not withstanding a constant Smoke kept under it day and night." Evidently the wisdom of the day suggested that smoke would counteract any tendency toward spoilage.

Day 14—December 23. The captains moved into their hut today, even though it was not quite finished. Ordway hinted that boredom was setting in. "[N]othing extraordinary hapened more than common this day."

Day 15—December 24. It was Christmas Eve, and the first night in many weeks that all the men could share shelter from the wind and rain, and build fires in an effort to dry out their soggy leather clothes and bedding. Two weeks later, however, (on January 6) Lewis would declare his frustration over that persistent issue: "[W]e have not been able to keep anything dry for many days together since we arrived in this neighbourhood, the humidity of the air has been so excessively great." His commander in chief would have been delighted with that tidbit of climatological information (the only occurrence of the word "humidity" in the journals), but Nicholas Biddle omitted it from his abridgement of the captains' diaries and reports.

  • 1. In parts of 18th-century Britain, and among American Colonists and later immigrants who came from certain places in the British Isles, speakers typically elided the rhotic sound when it occurred before a consonant. In his phonetic spelling of "boards" (boads), William Clark clearly wrote an /a/ in place of an /r/, and probably uttered it as the unstressed neutral vowel now called a schwa (printed as ə; for pronunciation of the symbol see Wikipedia, s.v. Schwa). The substitution of the schwa for an /r/ is still characteristic of the speech of New Englanders from southern Massachusetts to New Hampshire. Dictionary of American Regional English, s.v. "board."
  • 2. On September 24, 2011, belatedly but nonetheless sincerely, descendants of Captain Clark and numerous other volunteer contributors presented the people of the Chinook Tribe a 36-foot symbolic replica of the ocean-going canoe the Corps of Discovery commandeered 205 years before. Seattle Times, September 11, 2011, online.
  • 3. Peter C. Welsh, "Woodworking Tools, 1600-1900," in Contributions from the Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institution, Paper 51. Project Gutenberg EBook #27238; release date, November 12, 2008.