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Annals of work: Catching salmon on the Columbia River
In the autumn of 1805 Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their Corps of Discovery emerged from the mountains that separated the rivers flowing east toward the Atlantic from those running west toward the Pacific. To this point their journey had been slow and wearisome, with gravity their constant enemy. Now gravity became their friend, carrying them swiftly down the Clearwater River, the Snake and the Columbia.
Sometimes gravity got too friendly, pulling the water at precipitous speed over cataracts and falls. At once such place the broad Columbia was compressed by sheer rock walls into a narrow chute through which the snowmelt and runoff from many thousands of square miles hurtled at terrifying velocity. Lewis and Clark prudently ordered the canoes of the party to shore, intending to portage around the narrows.
No such option was afforded salmon swimming up the Columbia from the Pacific toward their spawning grounds in the smaller streams of the Columbia Plateau. The salmon had to fight the current and leap over the falls, often falling back before trying again.
And sometimes being intercepted by the nets and spears of the native peoples who controlled this richest fishing ground on the North American continent. These peoples were an amalgam of the Chinooks of the Lower Columbia and the Sahaptins of the Columbia Plateau. They and their predecessors had occupied this spot for thousands of years; the population density along this portion of the river was greater than anywhere else in the Far West.
The American explorers arrived in late October, after most of the netting and spearing had subsided for the season. They observed the results and inferred the post-catch processing. “Took our baggage and formed a camp below the rapids in a cove on the starboard”—right—“side,” Clark recorded in his journal, “having passed at the upper end of the portage 17 lodges of Indians, below the rapids and above the camp 5 large lodges of Indians, great numbers of baskets of pounded fish on the rock islands and near their lodges. Those are neatly pounded and put in very new baskets of about 90 or 100 pounds weight.”
The explorers continued downstream the next day. “A fine morning calm and fair,” Clark wrote. “We set out at 9 o’clock past a very bad rapid at the head of an island close under the starboard side. Above this rapid on the starboard side is six lodges of natives drying fish. At 9 miles passed a bad rapid at the head of a large island of high, uneven rocks jutting over the water; a small island in a starboard bend opposite the upper point, on which I counted 20 parcels of dried and pounded fish; on the main starboard shore opposite to this island five lodges of Indians are situated. Several Indians in canoes killing fish with gigs”—spears—“and nets.”
They were approaching the largest of the waterfalls, later called Celilo Falls. “On the starboard side is 17 lodges of the natives,” Clark wrote. “We landed and walked down accompanied by an old man to view the falls, and the best route for to make a portage.” Below the falls was another set of rapids. “At the lower part of those rapids we arrived at 5 large lodges of natives drying and preparing fish for market,” Clark recorded.
This was an important observation, implicit in the large scale of the operations they had seen but now acknowledged explicitly. The Indians controlling this stretch of the river caught and processed far more salmon than they could consume; the pounded fish in all those baskets was for sale to customers from up the river and down. The trade network sustained by the salmon industry at this location stretched from the Pacific on the west to the Missouri River on the east.
Clark recorded further details of the operations. He described a place where the basaltic islands in the river served as platforms for fishing and processing. “On those islands of rocks as well as at and about their lodges, I observed great numbers of stacks of pounded salmon beautifully preserved in the following manner: after sufficiently dried, it is pounded between two stones fine, and put into a species of basket neatly made of grass and rushes, of better than two feet long and one foot diameter, which basket is lined with the skin of salmon stretched and dried for the purpose. In these it is pressed down as hard as is possible. When full, they secure the open part with the fish skins across which they fasten, through the loops of the basket, that part very securely. And then on a dry situation they set those baskets, the corded part up. Their common custom is to set 7 as close as they can stand, and 5 on the top of them, and secure them with mats which are draped around them and made fast with cords and covered also with mats. Those 12 baskets of from 90 to 100 weight each form a stack. Thus preserved, those fish may be kept sound and sweet several years, as those people inform me.”
The explorers moved on, reaching the Pacific weeks later. The Indians of Celilo Falls maintained their business of catching and drying salmon for another century and a half, until a dam at the narrows of the river created a lake that submerged the falls.
From William Clark journal, Oct. 22, 1805