Leaving a Neighborly Gift

The Corps of Discovery lived in Fort Clatsop from December 25, 1805, until March 23, 1806. On the day before their departure, the explorers left their "houses and furniture" to the Clatsop chief, Coboway, who had, Lewis wrote, "been much more kind an hospitable to us than any other indian in this neighbourhood."

One wonders just how grateful Coboway could have been, for the Americans' hastily-built structures were little more than rickety shacks compared with the sturdy, spacious plank houses he was accustomed to. And the Indians built theirs without benefit of steel axes or knives.

On January 18, 1806, Lewis wrote a 645-word description of a typical Indian house. A few highlights will suffice:

  • The Clatsops Chinnooks &c construct their houses of timber altogether . . . they are from 14 to 20 feet wide and from 20 to 60 feet in length, and accommodate one or more families sometimes three or four . . . in the same room . . . .
  • two or more posts of split timber . . . are sunk in the ground at one end and rise perpendicularly to the hight of 14 or 18 feet, the tops of them are hollowed in such a manner as to receive the ends of a round beam of timber which reaches from one to the other, most commonly the whole length of the building . . . .
  • two other sets of posts and poles are now placed at proper distances on either side of the first . . . . these last rise to the intended hight of the eves, which is usually about 5 feet.
  • smaller sticks of timber are now provided and are placed by pares in the form of rafters, resting on, and reaching from the lower to the upper horizontal beam, to both of which they are attatched at either end with the cedar bark . . . .
  • the rough [roof] is then covered with a double range of thin boards, and an aperture of 2 by 3 feet left in the center of the roof to permit the smoke to pass.
  • these houses are sometimes sunk to the debth of 4 or 5 feet in which cace the eve of the house comes nearly to the surface of the earth.
  • in the center of each room a space of six by eight feet square is sunk about twelve inches lower than the floor having it's sides secured with four sticks of squar timber, in this space they make their fire.

Clark added that they generally burned dry pine, split small, "which they perform with a piece of an Elks horn Sharpened at one end [d]rove into the wood with a Stone."

Coboway's good manners would have compelled him accept the gift gratefully, although in comparison with his own homes it may have been a white elephant.