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Mouth of the Columbia
Mouth of the Columbia.—The Native Tribes.—Their
Fishing.— Their Canoes.—Bold Navigators—Equestrian Indians and
Piscatory Indians, Difference in Their Physical Organization.—Search
for a Trading Site.—Expedition of M'Dougal and David Stuart-Comcomly,
the One-Eyed Chieftain.— Influence of Wealth in Savage Life.—Slavery
Among the Natives.-An Aristocracy of Flatheads.-Hospitality Among
the Chinooks—Comcomly's Daughter.—Her Conquest.
THE Columbia, or Oregon, for the distance of thirty
or forty miles from its entrance into the sea, is, properly
speaking, a mere estuary, indented by deep bays so as to vary from
three to seven miles in width; and is rendered extremely intricate
and dangerous by shoals reaching nearly from shore to shore, on
which, at times, the winds and currents produce foaming and
tumultuous breakers. The mouth of the river proper is but about half
a mile wide, formed by the contracting shores of the estuary. The
entrance from the sea, as we have already observed, is bounded on
the south side by a flat sandy spit of land, stretching in to the
ocean. This is commonly called Point Adams. The opposite, or
northern side, is Cape Disappointment; a kind of peninsula,
terminating in a steep knoll or promontory crowned with a forest of
pine-trees, and connected with the mainland by a low and narrow
neck. Immediately within this cape is a wide, open bay, terminating
at Chinook Point, so called from a neighboring tribe of Indians.
This was called Baker's Bay, and here the Tonquin was anchored.
The natives inhabiting the lower part of the river, and with whom
the company was likely to have the most frequent intercourse, were
divided at this time into four tribes, the Chinooks, Clatsops,
Wahkiacums, and Cathlamahs. They resembled each other in person,
dress, language, and manner; and were probably from the same stock,
but broken into tribes, or rather hordes, by those feuds and schisms
frequent among Indians.
These people generally live by fishing. It is true they occasionally
hunt the elk and deer, and ensnare the water-fowl of their ponds and
rivers, but these are casual luxuries. Their chief subsistence is
derived from the salmon and other fish which abound in the Columbia
and its tributary streams, aided by roots and herbs, especially the
wappatoo, which is found on the islands of the river.
As the Indians of the plains who depend upon the chase are bold and
expert riders, and pride themselves upon their horses, so these
piscatory tribes of the coast excel in the management of canoes, and
are never more at home than when riding upon the waves. Their canoes
vary in form and size. Some are upwards of fifty feet long, cut out
of a single tree, either fir or white cedar, and capable of carrying
thirty persons. They have thwart pieces from side to side about
three inches thick, and their gunwales flare outwards, so as to cast
off the surges of the waves. The bow and stern are decorated with
grotesque figures of men and animals, sometimes five feet in height.
In managing their canoes they kneel two and two along the bottom,
sitting on their heels, and wielding paddles from four to five feet
long, while one sits on the stern and steers with a paddle of the
same kind. The women are equally expert with the men in managing the
canoe, and generally take the helm.
It is surprising to see with what fearless unconcern these savages
venture in their light barks upon the roughest and most tempestuous
seas. They seem to ride upon the waves like sea-fowl. Should a surge
throw the canoe upon its side and endanger its overturn, those to
windward lean over the upper gunwale, thrust their paddles deep into
the wave, apparently catch the water and force it under the canoe,
and by this action not merely regain III an equilibrium, but give
their bark a vigorous impulse forward.
The effect of different modes of life upon the human frame and human
character is strikingly instanced in the contrast between the
hunting Indians of the prairies, and the piscatory Indians of the
sea-coast. The former, continually on horseback scouring the plains,
gaining their food by hardy exercise, and subsisting chiefly on
flesh, are generally tall, sinewy, meagre, but well formed, and of
bold and fierce deportment: the latter, lounging about the river
banks, or squatting and curved up in their canoes, are generally low
in stature, ill-shaped, with crooked legs, thick ankles, and broad
flat feet. They are inferior also in muscular power and activity,
and in game qualities and appearance, to their hard-riding brethren
of the prairies.
Having premised these few particulars concerning the neighboring
Indians, we will return to the immediate concerns of the Tonquin and
Further search was made for Mr. Fox and his party, but with no
better success, and they were at length given up as lost. In the
meantime, the captain and some of the partners explored the river
for some distance in a large boat, to select a suitable place for
the trading post. Their old jealousies and differences continued;
they never could coincide in their choice, and the captain objected
altogether to any site so high up the river. They all returned,
therefore, to Baker's Bay in no very good humor. The partners
proposed to examine the opposite shore, but the captain was
impatient of any further delay. His eagerness to "get on" had
increased upon him. He thought all these excursions a sheer loss of
time, and was resolved to land at once, build a shelter for the
reception of that part of his cargo destined for the use of the
settlement, and, having cleared his ship of it and of his irksome
shipmates, to depart upon the prosecution of his coasting voyage,
according to orders.
On the following day, therefore, without troubling himself to
consult the partners, he landed in Baker's Bay, and proceeded to
erect a shed for the reception of the rigging, equipments, and
stores of the schooner that was to be built for the use of the
This dogged determination on the part of the sturdy captain gave
high offense to Mr. M'Dougal, who now considered himself at the head
of the concern, as Mr. Astor's representative and proxy. He set off
the same day, (April 5th) accompanied by David Stuart, for the
southern shore, intending to be back by the seventh. Not having the
captain to contend with, they soon pitched upon a spot which
appeared to them favorable for the intended establishment. It was on
a point of land called Point George, having a very good harbor,
where vessels, not exceeding two hundred tons burden, might anchor
within fifty yards of the shore.
After a day thus profitably spent, they recrossed the river, but
landed on the northern shore several miles above the anchoring
ground of the Tonquin, in the neighborhood of Chinooks, and visited
the village of that tribe. Here they were received with great
hospitality by the chief, who was named Comcomly, a shrewd old
savage, with but one eye, who will occasionally figure in this
narrative. Each village forms a petty sovereignty, governed by its
own chief, who, however, possesses but little authority, unless he
be a man of wealth and substance; that is to say, possessed of
canoe, slaves, and wives. The greater the number of these, the
greater is the chief. How many wives this one-eyed potentate
maintained we are not told, but he certainly possessed great sway,
not merely over his own tribe, but over the neighborhood.
Having mentioned slaves, we would observe that slavery exists among
several of the tribes beyond the Rocky Mountains. The slaves are
well treated while in good health, but occupied in all kinds of
drudgery. Should they become useless, however, by sickness or old
age, they are totally neglected, and left to perish; nor is any
respect paid to their bodies after death.
A singular custom prevails, not merely among the Chinooks, but among
most of the tribes about this part of the coast, which is the
flattening of the forehead. The process by which this deformity is
effected commences immediately after birth. The infant is laid in a
wooden trough, by way of cradle. The end on which the head reposes
is higher than the rest. A padding is placed on the forehead of the
infant, with a piece of bark above it, and is pressed down by cords,
which pass through holes on each side of the trough. As the
tightening of the padding and the pressing of the head to the board
is gradual, the process is said not to be attended with much pain.
The appearance of the infant, however, while in this state of
compression, is whimsically hideous, and "its little black eyes," we
are told, "being forced out by the tightness of the bandages,
resemble those of a mouse choked in a trap."
About a year's pressure is sufficient to produce the desired effect,
at the end of which time the child emerges from its bandages a
complete flathead, and continues so through life. It must be noted
that this flattening of the head has something in it of
aristocratical significancy, like the crippling of the feet among
the Chinese ladies of quality. At any rate, it is a sign of freedom.
No slave is permitted to bestow this enviable deformity upon his
child; all the slaves, therefore, are roundheads.
With this worthy tribe of Chinooks the two partners passed a part of
the day very agreeably. M'Dougal, who was somewhat vain of his
official rank, had given it to be understood that they were two
chiefs of a great trading company, about to be established here, and
the quick-sighted, though one-eyed chief, who was somewhat practiced
in traffic with white men, immediately perceived the policy of
cultivating the friendship of two such important visitors. He
regaled them, therefore, to the best of his ability, with abundance
of salmon and wappatoo. The next morning, April 7th, they prepared
to return to the vessel, according to promise. They had eleven miles
of open bay to traverse; the wind was fresh, the waves ran high.
Comcomly remonstrated with them on the hazard to which they would be
exposed. They were resolute, however, and launched their boat, while
the wary chieftain followed at some short distance in his canoe.
Scarce had they rowed a mile, when a wave broke over their boat and
upset it. They were in imminent peril of drowning, especially Mr.
M'Dougal, who could not swim. Comcomly, however, came bounding over
the waves in his light canoe, and snatched them from a watery grave.
They were taken on shore and a fire made, at which they dried their
clothes, after which Comcomly conducted them back to his village.
Here everything was done that could be devised for their
entertainment during three days that they were detained by bad
weather. Comcomly made his people perform antics before them; and
his wives and daughters endeavored, by all the soothing and
endearing arts of women, to find favor in their eyes. Some even
painted their bodies with red clay, and anointed themselves with
fish oil, to give additional lustre to their charms. Mr. M'Dougal
seems to have had a heart susceptible to the influence of the
gentler sex. Whether or no it was first touched on this occasion we
do not learn; but it will be found, in the course of this work, that
one of the daughters of the hospitable Comcomly eventually made a
conquest of the great eri of the American Fur Company.
When the weather had moderated and the sea became tranquil, the
one-eyed chief of the Chinooks manned his state canoe, and conducted
his guests in safety to the ship, where they were welcomed with joy,
for apprehensions had been felt for their safety. Comcomly and his
people were then entertained on board of the Tonquin, and liberally
rewarded for their hospitality and services. They returned home
highly satisfied, promising to remain faithful friends and allies of
the white men.
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Astoria; Or Anecdotes Of An Enterprise Beyond The