Hat Rock

Hat Rock

Nine miles east of Umatilla, Oregon

dark basalt rock in the shape of a round hat

© 2002 by Scott Sproull

small engraving of the Expedition men shooting at a bear

Courtesy of Missouri Society

Each of the six quaint, primitivistic drawings that publisher Mathew Cary included in Patrick Gass's Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery, (see also "First Accounts") portrays the enlisted men wearing the "round hat" that was official U.S. Army infantry headgear from 1794 until 1810.3 The three cornered Revolutionary-era chapeaus we see in so many old paintings of episodes from the expedition, and even on the official National Historic Trail symbol, were worn only by artillerymen until the War of 1812.

Yes, as an army officer on the expedition, Clark was not restored to the rank of infantry captain as had been promised by President Jefferson, but was officially a lieutenant in the artillery. That affront rankled him for the rest of his days. No, he would not have stooped to wearing an artillerists hat in front of the Corps' enlisted men. Never!

Working hard to stay ahead of the current, on October 19, 1805, the Corps of Discovery paddled an estimated thirty-six miles in four compass courses. The first, starting at their camp near the mouth of the Walla Walla River, was the longest: "S.W. 14 miles to a rock in a Lard."—the larboard, or left side of the river—"resembling a hat." Just a casual nod toward an object that two centuries later would be one of the few Lewis and Clark landmarks left above water, but the enlisted men must have recognized it at a glance, this pile of columnar basalt, its little chunks of chilled lava resembling cans carelessly stacked on a pantry shelf, all together resembling a well-weathered gentleman's hat with a work-worn brim. It was left behind by the shuddering floods from twenty or more emptyings of vast Glacial Lake Missoula a mere fifteen to thirteen thousand years ago.1 It rises a hundred feet above the sagebrush on a low hill by the shore of Lake Walula, the broad slackwater pool backed up behind McNary Dam, seven miles downstream.

But there were more important events to memorialize on that sunny Saturday.

For one, the captains met the Great Chief of the Wallulas, Yellepit, "a bold handsom Indian, with a dignified countenance about 35 years of age, about 5 feet 8 inches high and well perpotiond." They hit it off well, and Yellepit begged them to stay awhile, but with a promise to visit a little longer on their way home, they excused themselves and proceeded on. They kept their word, though, and on April 29, 1806, Yellepit threw a big party for them.

They encountered several rapids that nineteenth of October, including "a verry bad one" about two miles long. While the men cautiously jockeyed the canoes through it, Clark climbed a 200-foot "clift" from which he could see many miles across the high desert. But the sight that arrested his attention was the tip of a snow-capped peak on the western horizon. He figured it was one of the mountains named by Captain George Vancouver on his hundred-mile exploration up the Columbia in 1792. It would be, Clark thought, either Mt. Hood or Mt. St. Helens.

He was wrong. It was a live strato volcano that would soon be named Mount Adams. In 1839, inspired by Lewis and Clark's naming of Mount Jefferson, southeast of Mount Hood, for their commander-in-chief, one Hall J. Kelly would launch a well-intentioned but short-lived scheme to turn the Cascade Range into the Presidential Range.2 Clark estimated the mountain was "destant about 120 miles," then crossed out those figures and wrote 156 miles. He was right the first time.

The high point of the day was an incident that dramatized Sacagawea's real importance to the expedition, surpassing the feeble fiction that she guided the whole trip. It began when Clark bagged a crane and a duck in full view of a couple of Umatilla Indians, who fled and spread an alarm, whereupon all the terrified villagers cowered in their lodges, awaiting certain death. Clark, however, with the help of George Droulliard and the Field brothers, Joe and Reubin, at length cajoled and bribed some men into coming out and smoking with them. Then came the explanation. "They said we came from the clouds &c &c and were not men &c. &c." Later, Nicholas Biddle, after pressing Clark for more details, summarized the situation:

Unperceived by them, captain Clark had shot the white crane, which they had seen fall just before he appeared to their eyes: the duck which he had killed also fell close by him, and as there were a few clouds flying over at the moment, they connected the fall of the birds and his sudden appearance, and believed that he had himself dropped from the clouds; the noise of the rifle, which they had never heard before, being considered merely as the sound to announce so extraordinary an event.4

Sacagawea's timely appearance restored the Indians' courage and congeniality. The cowering villagers "immediately all came out and appeared to assume new life," wrote Clark, continuing, "The sight of This Indian woman, wife to one of our interprs. confirmed those people of our friendly intentions, as no woman ever accompanies a war party of Indians in this quarter."

A tip of the hat to Sacagawea!

To top off the day, there was music, and Clark gave us the one hint in all the journals that there was more than one fiddle player in the Corps: "Two of our party Peter Crusat & Gibson played on the violin which delighted [the Indians] greatly." Maybe Gibson's performance didn't come up to critical standards, for it appears to have been both his first gig and his last.

1. David Alt, Glacial Lake Missoula's Humongous Floods (Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press, 2001), 153.

2. The long, long history of the mountain, and the short story of its name, can be read at U.S. Geological Service's website, http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/Glossary/StratoVolcano/description_ composite_volcano.html/

3. Patrick Gass, A Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery (Pittsburgh: Mathew Carey, 1810).

4. Nicholas Biddle, History of the expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark. . . . (2 vols., 1814; reprint, with an introduction by John Bakeless, New York: Heritage Press, 1962), I:297.

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