During the middle decades of the 19th century and extending into the 1880’s, a number of U.S. military expeditions passed through portions of Okanogan County. Most were exploring expeditions: at least two were looking for a railroad route through the tangled North Cascades. None spent more than a month or two in the area, and their collective findings probably fell far short of the knowledge of this country accumulated earlier by the Hudson’s Bay Company’s far-ranging fur traders.
The first to arrive were members of a naval expedition under Lt. Charles Wilkes, which spent the better part of five years in the South Seas and Antarctic region and in 1841, visited the Northwest. From Nisqually Wilkes dispatched Lt. Robert E. Johnson and four other men, ostensibly to take scientific observations but more importantly to help size up the value of the Northwest interior to guide Congress in its dispute with Great Britain. Lt. Johnson had commanded the Sea Gull, a 110-ton tender, during Wilkes’ southern cruise. Wilkes’ account of the Johnson expedition in the Okanogan County area begins on the following page.
In 1853 Capt. George McClellan, later a Civil War general, came through at the head of a large party seeking a northern transcontinental railroad route. He had started from Vancouver barracks but failed to find a satisfactory pass. After probing into the Methow and Twisp River drainages, he headed up the Okanogan for a rendezvous with his superior, Issac Stevens, at Fort Colville. In 1881 Lt Thomas W. Symons investigated the prospects for upper Columbia navigation. Lt. Henry H. Pierce led an expedition from Fort Colville to Puget Sound in 1882. He was searching for a feasible route through the North Cascades, which might, among other purposes, be employed by the military in the event of further hostilities with the Indians. An account of his passage through Okanogan County continues on later in this article.
The following year General of the Army, William Tecumseh Sherman crossed the northern part of the county during a farewell tour preceding his retirement. John Marshall has extensively reported this foray in “General Sherman Passed This Way”. Arriving with General Sherman at Osoyoos Lake, Lt. George B. Backus, who had accompanied Pierce, was ordered to try again for a railroad pass, and up the Methow he went. He was the last of the military exploring parties.
Having left Nesqually May19, 1841, Lt. Johnson’s expedition struggles across Naches Pass and by early June had reached the Columbia near the mouth of the Pischous (Wenatchee) River).
On the 5th of June, by the timely arrival of an Indian in a canoe, they (the Johnson party) were enabled to cross the Pischous and to find out the route they ought to pursue towards Okanogan. With this aid, and without much difficulty, the horses and all the baggage were safely landed on the opposite side, after which their course continued along the Columbia River.
The path was a very rough one for the horses to travel, being frequently over jagged rocks, which approach within a few feet of the water’s edge, and in places so near as to leave but a ledge for the horses to pass on, rendering it booth laborious and dangerous. These rocks are if granite, with veins of white marble, one of which was several feet in width. Many of the rock resemble slate, capable of being split into thin slabs, and of a dark gray color. They met with, during this day, many interesting plants, among which were a cypresses tree and a cruciferous plant on the rocks, which an Indian woman was gathering for food. To the taste they were extremely bitter. Large quantities of wild gooseberries were also to be found growing among the rocks, but proved quite insipid. They encamped on a small sand-flat on the Columbia, having made eleven miles.
On the 6th, after traveling seven miles, they reached the banks of a small stream, called by the Indians Entiyatecoom “Entiat River”, but known by the Canadian voyageurs as Point de Bois. Its course is nearly east and west; it is about one hundred feet wide, and was found at its mouth too deep to ford. They, therefore, continued up the stream for about a mile and a half, in hopes of finding a suitable place. While thus ascending the stream, they were accosted by several Indians, who mentioned to them to return to the mouth of the river, whither a canoe was now brought to transport their baggage, and an Indian was dispatched to a fishing station, who returned with salmon ready cooked.
The chief of the tribe of Okanogan Indians became much dissatisfied at the mode in which payment was offered him, and which he refused to accept, and went un-rewarded for his important services, to the regret of many of the party. They again proceeded on their journey, and came, in the course of a mile, to the camp of the natives from whom the salmon had been sent them. They found them employed in salmon fishing. Including men, women, and children, they were twenty in number.
This is their permanent residence, but they were then living in the usual summer huts, of mats, and near by were the winter habitations, which consisted of two mounds, each of which might contain about ten. Both of these were open towards the river, the door being a round aperture, eighteen inches in diameter. These Indians seem to have little to protect them from the cold of winter, except the grass and their clothing, and do not appear to have any fire in their winter habitation.
The mystery about the cooked salmon was now solved, for it appeared that, as soon as the fish were taken, they are at once roasted, and then exposed to the sun to dry on a shed, after which the meat is pounded and made into balls, which are stored for winter food. They keep a large quantity of it on hand, and it constitutes almost their only food. Their salmon fishery was on the opposite side of the river. Some of the party brought a number of salmon, the smallest of which weighed nearly forty pounds. These Indians had many good horses, which they had no inclination to sell.
About two miles above the Indian village, they unexpectedly found that they were obliged to cross the Columbia. The balsas were, therefore, put in requisition and a raft was constructed, on which, with the assistance of a canoe obtained from the Indians, they succeeded in getting all their baggage safely deposited on the other side, whither the horses were also brought.
In lighting their fires they ignited the grass on the prairie and produced quite a conflagration, which for a time threatened their camp, but they succeeded in extinguishing it. Lieutenant Johnson now engaged an Indian to show them the road to Okanogan, for which they set out at an early hour.
Their course now lie along the Columbia, and, towards the latter part of the day, on the high prairie land, which was somewhat sandy, and seemed likely to be unprofitable for any purpose, except sheep pasture. The guides were quite adverse to entering on the high prairie, alleging that it was destitute of water.
Lieutenant Johnson, however, determined to pass on, after filling the water bags. Ascending two thousand feet, they reached the high plain, where all were much delighted with the magnificent and extensive view. The whole sweep of the prairie burst upon them, uninterrupted by any shrub, but covered by a long grass, clothing the gentle inclinations as well as the hollows. The view was desolate, nothing appearing to relieve the eye, but the very distant dark blue mountains to the northward and eastward, which pointed out the course of the Columbia, or the snow capped tops of Mount Rainier and the ranges they had left.
Over this prairie they had no track to guide them, but proceeded on a course north by east, leaving a remarkable peak, to which the name of Mount St. Pierre was given, to the east of their route. After traveling three miles, they encamped, and were enabled to cook their dinner with a hawk’s nest and a few bushes growing out of a rock. The Indians indulged themselves in a feast on the squab hawks; these birds, from the quantities of down on their legs, have a droll appearance.
This plain, for so it must be called, was found tolerably level, and although it is covered with grass, there is but a slight tint of green over the landscape. This grass is the natural hay before spoken of, which seems to point out this for a grazing country, though there is a large district destitute of water.
On the 8th, at one o’clock, the party reached the banks of the Columbia from across the Columbia; the party had missed both Lake Chelan and the Methow River, opposite to Okanogan, when a canoe was employed to take them over. The post was in charge of a Canadian by the name of Le Pratt; but the whole is now going into a rapid decay, as it is only retained as an entry port for the deposit of supplies, etc., in connection with the posts in New Caledonia, as the northern part of this country is called by the Hudson Bay Company.
Okanogan lies directly on the route thither, and here they change from land to water transportation. Were it not for the convenience it affords, in this respect, it would not be retained. It is inhabited by two Canadian white men and numerous half-breed women and children, the men having gone down the river with Mr. Ogden. Note: (Peter Skene Ogden, one of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s most noted brigade leaders). It has, as usual at the posts, an Indian encampment on the outside, but there is no Indian settlement within eight miles, where there is a salmon-fishery. Few skins are obtained here, and the extreme scarcity of game and fur animals is remarkable throughout all this part of Middle Oregon. This is somewhat difficult to account for, as we are well satisfied that there is an abundance of food, and that all kinds of cattle would thrive exceedingly in this section, where grass is so abundant.
Okanogan and the old Spokane House, on the river of the same name (now abandoned) were the first posts established in this country by the American Company, some thirty-nine years prior to our visit. Falling into the possession of the Northwest Company, they were on the union of that company with the Hudson Bay Company, passed over to the latter. Okanogan is situated on a poor, flat, sandy neck, about two miles above the junction of the river of that name with the Columbia. It is a square, picketed in the sane manner as those already described, but destitute of bastions, and removed sixty yards from the Columbia. Within the pickets there is a large house for the reception of the company’s officers, consisting of several apartments, and from each end of it two rows of low mud huts run towards the entrance; these serve as offices and dwellings for the trappers and their families. In the center there is an open space.
French is the language spoken here, as it is at all the other posts of the company. Half a mile above the mouth of the Okanogan, it was found to be three hundred feet wide; it is dull, turbid stream. The Columbia at this place was found to be sixteen hundred feet wide.
Besides the care of the barges for navigating the river, and the horses for the land journey to the northern post, they collect here what skins they can. The country affords about eighty beaver skins during the year, the price for each of which is usually twenty charges of powder and ball. Some bear, marten, and other skins, are also obtained, for which the prices vary; and it appears to be the practice of the company to buy all the skins that are brought in, in order to encourage the Indians to procure them. At Nisqually, Mr. Anderson informed me that many were brought that was afterwards destroyed, as they were not worth transportation.
At this post they have some goats, and thirty-five head of very fine cattle, which produce abundance of milk and butter. Neither of these are yet permitted to be slaughtered, and the only animal food used, is a species of rat, called “siffleurs”, which burrows among the stones on the hillsides in great numbers. These the Indians catch and sell for a leaden ball; they were found very fat, and considered good food by our party. The soil is too poor for farming operations, and only a few potatoes are grown. There is generally a supply of provisions on hand here for the parties that are passing to and fro. There is also another post, called Fort Thompson, on the Kamloops Lake, which is in charge of an Indian, and is of less importance than Okanogan.
On the morning of the 9th, Mr. Maxwell, one of the company’s of officers, arrived from Colville, with forty horses laden with provisions, for Mr. Ogden’s brigade. He was not a little surprised to find strangers in the country, and in possession of his quarters at the post. He was obliging enough to offer any assistance that he could render, and, in conjunction with Le Pratt, endeavored to supply all the wants of the party. Note: throughout their stay in the Northwest, the Hudson’s Bay Company treated members of the Wilkes expedition with the utmost courtesy, which could hardly have been unaware of the Americans’ interest in the economic potential of the area. On his return, Wilkes recommended that U.S. jurisdiction be extended over the disputed territory.
The Okanogan tribes of Indians are supposed to number about two hundred, and are represented as quiet and peaceably disposed. Their food consists principally of salmon and a small fish which they call the carp; but they are not provident enough to lay up a sufficient supply for their winter’s stock, and are obliged, for the remainder of the year, to make use of roots, and a bread which is made from the moss that grows on the trees. This moss is collected in large quantities, cleaned, and then placed in a hole made in the ground, along with heated stones, which are all covered up closely with earth. In this hole the moss remains for twenty-four hours. When the pit is opened, it is found to have become soft. After this process, it is washed and molded into cakes, which are set out to dry. The seed of the Balsamoriza (Oregon sunflower) is also used here, being pounded into a kind of meal, which they call mielito. To this is added the siffleurs; but with all these articles of food, much suffering is experienced towards the spring.
The company’s servants at the northern posts suffer almost as much at times, although they are provided and attended to by the officers; they live mostly upon salmon. The difficulty of getting provisions to the posts in the interior is very great; all that is consumed at the north is carried twenty four days’ journey on pack horses, and eighteen in barges, before it arrives at its destination; and the amount transported is not more than enough to supply the officers, whose allowance is very limited. The servants of the company receive an increased pay as some recompense for their privations.
The chief amusement of the Okanogan tribes of Indians in the winter, and during the heat of the day in summer, when they are prevented from talking salmon, is a game called by the voyageurs “jeude main,” equivalent to our odd and even.
The latitude, as given by Lieutenant Johnson’s observations, place Fort Okanogan in 48 degrees 12’ N.
In the vicinity are found many wild fruits, consisting of gooseberries, June-berries, and currants, which, at this time, 9th of June, were beginning to be ripe.
On the 10th, at noon, they crossed the Columbia to rejoin their horses, where they had been left to graze, during the two days they had remained at the fort.
Lieutenant Johnson rode on some distance before the party, who lost sight of him in rounding a hill. His horse some time afterwards came galloping towards them, without any saddle; but thinking that he had found a good camping place, they continued on until sunset, when they encamped at a small stream. Supper was prepared and eaten, but Mr. Johnson did not appear. Becoming uneasy, the sergeant and Pierre Charles were sent in search of him, and signal-guns were fired at short intervals till 11p.m. when they returned without any news of him. Early the next morning, a party again left the camp in search of him, and at nine o’clock he was discovered fast asleep, where he had been since the previous afternoon.
The Columbia, in the neighborhood of Okanogan, is very winding in its course, and is interrupted by dale about five miles above. On the 11th, their route lay over the grassy prairie before spoken of, in which they saw a few pools of water. In a salt marsh were found some singular plants, and the crushed salt on the surface had very much the appearance of hoarfrost. In other respects, the route was uninteresting. The distance made this day was fourteen miles, and they encamped in an open plain, within three miles of the Grande Coulee.
On the 12th, they reached the Grand Coulee. The common supposition relative to this remarkable geological phenomenon is, that it has once been the bed of the Columbia, and this is what would strike every one at its first view; but, on consideration, it is seen that it is much too wide, and that its entrance is nearly choked up by the granite hills, that do not leave sufficient space for the river to flow through. The walls of the Coulee consist of basaltic cliffs, similar to those of the Palisades of the Hudson, seven hundred and ninety-eight feet high; and where it was crossed by the party, it was three miles wide; but a few miles farther to the south, it narrowed to two miles. Its direction was nearly north and south, for a distance of at least fifteen miles…From the observations subsequently made at the lower end of the Grande Coulee, there is, however, reason to believe that it was at one period the bed of the Columbia. The fact of there being large boulders of granite at its lower or south end, while there is no rock of similar kind except at its north end, would warrant the conclusion that they had been brought from the upper part of it. There were a great number of stones, having the appearance of being water-worn, lying in its bed at the south end, as if they had been brought down by the current of a rapid stream.
They left the Grande Coulee by passing up the east cliff or bank, at a place where it was accessible for horses, and which was much stained with sulphur. Soon afterwards, Mr. Maxwell, from Okanogan, overtook them, which place, although twenty-five miles distant, he had left in the morning. They rode five miles farther, and encamped at a small pool. Mr. Maxwell was kind enough to supply them with two horses, which enabled all the party to mount again.
On the 13th, they started at an early hour, and passed over a gently rolling prairie country,
affording excellent sheep pasture but entirely destitute of trees. During this day, Lieutenant Johnson met with another untoward accident; on getting off his horse, he neglected to tie him, and the beast ran off to overtake the rest of the party. The consequence was, that the artificial horizon was broken to pieces, with many other articles contained in his saddlebags. On the 15th, at 4p.m., they reached Fort Colville, a post of the Hudson Bay Company, next in importance to Vancouver.
Fort Colville is situated on the east bank of the Columbia River, just above the Kettle Falls. High pickets surround Fort Colville, like all the other posts of the Hudson Bay Company, with bastions forming a formidable defensive work against the Indians. Within the pickets all the dwellings and storehouses of the company are enclosed.
The Kettle Falls are one of the greatest curiosities in this part of the country. They are formed by a tubular bed of quartz that crosses the river, and which, being harder than the rocks either above or below, has of course suffered less by abrasion. The total descent of the water is fifty feet, though the perpendicular fall in no place exceeds fifteen feet. (The rivers) breadth is somewhat narrowed by an island, about midway of which is the first fall, which is almost entirely unbroken. Thence the river forces its way over a rocky bed until it reaches the main fall, where the water is thrown into every variety of shape and form, resembling the boiling of a kettle, from which the falls derive their name.
There is an Indian village on the banks of the great falls, inhabited by a few families, who are called “Quiarlpi”, (Basket people) from the circumstances of their using baskets to catch their fish (salmon). The season for the salmon fishery had not yet arrived, so that our gentlemen did not see the manner of taking the fish; but as described to them, the fishing apparatus consists of a large wicker basket, supported by long poles inserted into it, and fixed in the rocks.
The lower part, which is of the basket form, is joined to a broad frame, spreading above, against which the fish, in attempting to jump the falls, strike, and are thrown back into the basket. This basket, during the fishing season, is raised three times in the day (twenty-four hours) and at each haul, not infrequently, contains three hundred fine fish. A division of these takes place at sunset each day, under the direction of one of the chief men of the village, and to each family is allotted the number it may be entitled to; not only the resident Indians, but all who may be there fishing, or by accident, are equally included in the distribution. At the lower end of the falls are large masses of quartz rock, on which the Indians dry their fish. Few of the salmon, even if able to pass the lower fall, ever get by the upper one. A short distance below the Kettle fall, ere the Thompson Rapids, which begin at the mouth of Mill River, and extend for some distance below that point.
The number of Indians actually resident about the falls is one hundred and fifty; but, during the height of the fishing season, there are often nearly a thousand, consisting of all the Spokane tribe, who are generally included under the name of the Flatheads.
They subsist for the most part on roots, fish, berries and game. At the opening of the spring, in March and April, or as soon as the snow disappears, they begin to search for a root resembling the cammass, which they call pox-pox. This lasts them till the beginning of May, when it gives place to a bitter root, termed spatylon. In June the izwa, or cammass, comes in season. This root was thought by many of us to have the taste of boiled chestnuts. Before this fails, the salmon make their appearance. While the men are employed fishing, the women are busy digging the cammass. In September and October, the salmon still claim their attention; although they are, after having deposited their roes, quite exhausted and about to perish, yet these are dried for winter consumption.
In October, they dig an inferior root, somewhat of the shape of a parsnip, which is called by the Indians mesani; it has a peculiar taste, and when baked is of a black color. After this has disappeared, they depend upon their stores of dried food, and game, including bears, deer, badgers, squirrels, and wild fowl. Like all Indians, they are improvident and take no thought whatever for the future. Notwithstanding, in all their usual concerns they are not devoid of sagacity, and frequent their different fishing places and root grounds regularly in the season. They use in general the simple rush mats on poles for their tents in summer, which, with the few accessories they have, are readily moved from place to place on their horses.
Their usual dress is a shirt, leggings of deerskin, and moccasins; all of which are much ornamented with fringes and beads. They wear a cap or handkerchief of some sort on their head; these, with a blanket, form their summer clothing; a buffalo robe is added.
This tribe can scarcely be said to be under any general government. They appear now to roam in small bands, as may best suit their temporary convenience; but these join for mutual support against their more powerful enemies, the Pikani or Blackfeet. In bygone days, these small tribes contended against each other with great bitterness; but by the beneficial influence exercised over them by the Hudson Bay Company, they have been induced to live together in peace, and intermarriages among the tribes now frequently take place.
Note: Lieutenant Johnson’s party visited the missionaries Henry Spalding at Lapwai, Idaho, and Marcus Whitman at “Wallawalla” before returning to Nisqually July 15, 1841, after an absence of two months. Lieutenant Wilkes, the expedition commander, was considerably annoyed with some of Johnson’s mishaps—which he pointedly noted in the Narrative—and with the number of scientific instruments, which had been broken. A few days after Johnson’s return, he was placed under arrest for his alleged refusal to obey orders related to the mounting of another interior expedition.
This account of the 1841 Johnson expedition through Okanogan County area is taken from Lt. Wilkes’ Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842, published by Lea & Blanchard, Philadelphia, in 1845. An original set of Wilkes’ Narrative, in five volumes with an atlas, has been presented to the Okanogan County Historical Society by the Washington State University Library archives, which found the set surplus to its own needs. The account includes an interesting description of Fort Okanogan, though at a time of relative inactivity, since the spring fur brigade had already departed downriver. Comments on local bands of Indians also were noted.