Today, ocean-going barges and excursion ships travel 465 miles up and down the Columbia and Snake rivers to a bustling seaport in Idaho that Lewis and Clark visited in 1805 when only Indians lived there. Later it became Idaho’s capital until the state seal and papers were whisked away in the middle of the night and taken to Boise, which was then declared the new capital.
It’s also where 34 Chinese gold prospectors were murdered 65 miles south; and an elephant named Mary was shot to death in the middle of town because she was thirsty and looking for water
That’s just part of the story of Lewiston and its neighbor city Clarkston.
On Aug. 13, 1805, Lewis and Clark met the Shoshone Indians in Montana and Sacagawea had a happy reunion with Chief Cameahwait — her brother. A month later, the party passed through the Lolo Pass into Idaho and soon faced the Bitterroot Range that one source called “the most unforgiving terrain on the continent.”
An old Shoshone called “Old Toby” and his son guided them westward. The ensuing weeks were a nightmare of rugged country, dense forests, rough water on the rivers, and worst of all — snowstorms, hunger and sickness.
However the Nez Perce Indians on the Weippe Prairie gave them shelter, fed them and helped them recuperate and taught them how to use fire to hollow out tree trunks into canoes.
On Oct. 10, 1805, Toby and his son deserted without warning and without demanding pay owed them for their services. The next day, the Corps of Discovery arrived at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, in the heart of Nez Perce country — today site of Lewiston and Clarkston. They thought the Snake was the Columbia.
In his journal, Captain Clark said, “Pierced Nose Indians are Stout likeley men, handsom women, and verry dressey in their way.”
They left their horses in the care of the Nez Perce, who were excellent horsemen and breeders, obtaining their first horses from the Shoshones and developing from them the American Appaloosa — known for their strength, intelligence and beauty.
The explorers then sailed down the Snake into the Columbia and from there to the Pacific. After building Fort Clatsop and wintering near the mouth of the Columbia, they headed back the following spring. They picked up their horses from the Nez Perce and continued east, arriving in St. Louis at noon on Sept. 23, 1806 — welcomed by the whole town.
Beaver trapping in the Northwest opened the door to white settlers, and increased as trapping began declining in the 1830s and the Oregon Trail opened up to wagon traffic.
First of the early settlers in the Lewiston area were Presbyterian missionaries Henry Harmon Spalding and wife Eliza in 1836. They founded the Nez Perce Indian Mission at Lapwai Valley just east of Lewiston. It was Idaho’s first white settlement, the first school, first irrigation system, and where they planted Idaho’s first potatoes — and later brought in the Northwest’s first printing press.
Eliza worked well with the Indians, but Henry was a hard taskmaster and relations were strained. Because of increasing Indian unrest and the massacre of their fellow missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman near Walla Walla in 1847, the Spaldings left and moved to the Willamette Valley, Ore.
In the years that followed, the 1860 gold discovery on Nez Perce lands near Orofino by Elias D. Pierce and Wilbur F. Bassett would bring more whites, and the U.S. Army that would build Fort Lapwai to keep the peace while trying to persuade the Indians to move onto reservations.
By the 1870s, relations between whites and Indians were at their lowest. For the Nez Perce near Lewiston it was a time of anguish as the Army captured their Chief Joseph and his people in Montana in 1876 after a long a chase. Chief Joseph would be exiled to the Colville Reservation in Eastern Washington and never see his beloved Lapwai homeland again.
Lewiston attracted settlers, who liked its mild “banana belt” climate, water and fertile soil — ideal for growing fruit, vegetables, and grain nearby.
Then some bad things began to happen.
Abraham Lincoln appointed Caleb Lyon as second governor of Idaho Territory in 1864 when Lewiston was the territorial capital. Lyon preferred the bigger Boise as the capital, but the people in Lewiston and North Idaho strongly opposed that idea. A judge issued a temporary order not to move the archives and territorial seal to Boise, and the sheriff set up an armed guard to prevent it.
Escaping Lewiston anger, Lyon then took off for Washington, D.C., and Idaho had no governor for several months. But Clinton DeWitt Smith, the newly arrived Territorial Secretary named himself acting governor and took matters into his own hands.
With a contingent of soldiers he broke into the state capital building in Lewiston and stole the State Seal and other government documents. He stuffed them into saddlebags and headed for Boise — the trip taking 16 days due to bad weather — arriving the same day that Lincoln was shot.
Then Lyon came back but got into trouble with just about everyone and skipped town again in 1866, taking with him $46,418.40 in federal funds intended for the Nez Perce — and he got away with it.
One writer described him as “a conceited, peculiar man, who made many enemies and misappropriated much of the public funds.”
The 1860 gold discovery brought many Chinese to the area who signed contracts to come to America and work for 25 years, hoping one day to return with enough money to provide a better life for their families. Few ever made it.
The worst massacre of Chinese in American history — a story little told until 1995 when a Wallowa County clerk uncovered a collection of long forgotten court documents locked in an old county safe that revealed new information about the crime.
It happened in May 1887, when five men — Bruce Evans, J. Titus Canfield, Frank Vaughn, Hezekiah Hughes, Hiram Maynard, Homer LaRue and a 15-year old schoolboy named Robert McMillan plotted to kill Chinese miners digging in Hells Canyon and steal their gold. Hughes plotted but didn’t participate.
The murders were committed at a cove on Deep Creek just south of the confluence of the Imnaha and Snake rivers. From the surrounding cliffs, the killers picket off their victims with high-powered rifles, stole $50,000 of their gold and dumped their bodies into the river.
According to Gregory R. Nokes of the Oregon Historical Society, “The documents (found in the safe) included a copy of the 1888 grand jury indictment; details of an escape from jail by the leader of the gang, Bruce Evans; a lengthy deposition by Frank Vaughan giving his version of how the murders occurred, and notes from the trial itself.
“Although the Vaughan deposition was self-serving — he pinned all the blame on Evans and the two others who fled prosecution — he acknowledged witnessing the shooting and provided additional important detail on what actually happened.”
Two culprits disappeared; the others were caught and tried in a three-day trial.
None were ever convicted.
On a triple-digit hot Aug. 9, 1928, the Sells Floto Circus was in Lewiston. Suffering from thirst was a huge Asian elephant named Mary. She broke away from her trainers and dashed down Main Street looking for water. She thought the glistening store windows were water and crashed into them.
Then she smelled water in a garage where someone was washing a car and trundled in. The mayor — who was also a doctor and a big-game hunter — was alerted. Mary happily found the water. Then the mayor arrived with his big gun and shot Mary dead.
A small metal plaque on that historic site says at the bottom, “She was only trying to find a drink of water.”
Today, multiple dams block the rivers between Lewiston and the Pacific but locks allow ships to travel the scenic route. Excursion boats from Astoria bring tourists upriver to Lewiston and Clarkston, while ocean barges carry containers, and more than 20 million bushels of grain a year down to the ocean, destined for buyers around the world.
Mary would have liked a few buckets full herself.
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Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hells Canyon today…
“On an overnight tour, visitors can ride in big, bus-like mail boats while the mail is delivered to residents in the canyon, then dine and stay overnight at a comfortable lodge. Smaller jet boats offer a thrilling ride into the spectacular canyon with intermittent stops for fishing. Whitewater rafts provide an opportunity to soak in the scenery at one’s own pace.”
Clark about the Nez Perce…
“Pierced Nose Indians are Stout likeley men, handsom women, and verry dressey in their way, the dress of the men are a white Buffalow robe or Elk Skin dressed with Beeds which are generally white, Sea Shells — i e the Mother of Pirl hung to ther hair & on a pice of otter Skin about their necks hair Cewed in two parsels hanging forward over their Sholders, feathers, and different Coloured Paints which they find in their Countrey Generally white, Green & light Blue. Some fiew were a Shirt of Dressed Skins and long legins, & Mockersons Painted, which appears to be their winters dress, with a plat of twisted grass about their necks.”
Horses would change the Nez Perce culture from fishing to hunting and they became famous throughout the Northwest for their skills. Hunting buffalo became much more efficient on horseback — as did warfare.
The American Indian Horse Registry says, “The acquisition of the horse completely changed the Plains Indians’ way of life, transforming them from plodding pedestrians to nomadic hunters and warriors.
“Horse stealing between the tribes became the number one sport on the plains and was considered an honorable way for a young warrior to gain experience and fame. Horses meant wealth to the Plains tribes and were used extensively for barter and gifts.”
Promoting Hells Canyon…
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says Hells Canyon is “The deepest river gorge in North America. Scenic vistas that rival any on the continent. World-class whitewater boating. Spectacular mountain peaks. Vast reaches of remote wilderness for hiking or horseback riding. Diverse and abundant wildlife. Artifacts from prehistoric tribes and rustic remains of early miners and settlers.”
“While serving as a frontier army officer in 1795, a young Meriwether Lewis was court-martialed for allegedly challenging a lieutenant to a duel during a drunken dispute. The 21-year-old was found not guilty of the charges, but his superiors decided to transfer him to a different rifle company to avoid any future incidents. His new commander turned out to be William Clark — the man who would later join him on his journey to the West.”
— History Channel
Lewis liked Appaloosas…
Meriwether Lewis wrote about the Nez Perce’s Appaloosas in his journal, “Their horses appear to be of an excellent race; they are lofty, eligantly formed, active and durable: in short many of them look like fine English coarsers and would make a figure in any country.”