LONG BEACH, Wash. — After completing their journey west and spending a wet and wretched winter at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1806, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis prepared to head home. There was just one problem: They were short a canoe.
So they stole one from the Native Americans who had kept them alive all winter.
It has long been a sore subject with Chinook Indians in the Pacific Northwest, who perceived the theft as a major insult. Canoes were a sacred part of their culture and an important mode of transportation.
More than 200 years later, William Clark’s descendants will make amends by presenting a 36-foot replica of the canoe to the Chinook Indian Nation during a ceremony here Saturday.
“We talked about what happened 205 years ago, and we believed that things could be restored if something like this were done,” said Carlota Clark Holton of St. Louis, Mo., seven generations removed from William Clark.
“I think everyone acknowledges that it was wrong, and we wanted to right a wrong,” she said. “The family was very much behind it.”
The Lewis and Clark expedition arrived at the Columbia River’s estuary in late 1805. They built a fortification outside present-day Astoria and called it Fort Clatsop, after a tribe that is part of the Chinook Nation.
Though they braved the previous winter in North Dakota, the explorers found the rainy season on the northern Pacific Coast far worse.
“The winds violent,” a grumpy Clark wrote. “Trees falling in every (direction), (whirl) winds, with gust of rain, hail and thunder, this kind of weather lasted all day, certainly one of the worst days that ever was.”
The expedition couldn’t find any elk and was running low on tobacco and goods to trade with Native Americans.
The captains decided to head home that spring but found they were also short on boats. So they took one from the Chinook.
The expedition then whitewashed the theft by saying the tribe owed them for six stolen elk, a debt the Native Americans — and historians — say was repaid by delivering three dogs to Fort Clatsop.
Historian James Ronda, an expert on the Corps of Discovery’s dealings with American Indians, said the theft was significant because it violated the explorers’ code of ethical conduct.
“The captains were abandoning a two-year tradition of never stealing from the Indians,” Ronda wrote in his book “Lewis and Clark Among The Indians.”
Ronda told The AP in a phone interview from Tulsa, Okla., “It was theft, and a malicious thing to do.”
The expedition left Fort Clatsop on March 23, bound for home.
Two hundred years later, Clark Holton was working at a Washington, D.C., nonprofit when she was introduced to Ray Gardner, chairman of the Chinook Nation’s tribal council. The two worked on a project to bring down dams in the area, and on a trip paddling down a Virginia river, they talked about the canoe theft and its consequences to the Chinook.
Some of Clark’s descendants and a few friendly donors eventually stepped forward to pay for the canoe, which was custom built in Veneta, Ore.
The Chinook Indian Nation is not formally recognized by the U.S. government. Federal recognition would make the tribe eligible for economic assistance, land, housing grants and other government benefits.
Whatever happens with the Chinook’s continued efforts for recognition, the tribe is looking forward to the Saturday ceremony with Clark’s descendants.
The canoe will be cleansed, blessed and named, Gardner said. Then, it becomes a living member of the tribe.
“Once it’s named, then we’ll take it down and put it in the Columbia River,” Gardner said. “I know I’m going to be skippering it.”