Home Smithsonian: National Museum of Natural History Home
Lewis & Clark as Naturalists
The Journals Lewis and Clark as Naturalists

Harbor Seal

Although there is only one line in the long passage below addressing the harbor seal (Clark's sea otter) a more extensive excerpt is provided for both the description of Clark descending the Columbia River, and for the state of relations with Indians, and between Indian tribes.  This first passage is written at a distance of about 100 miles from the mouth of the Columbia.

Cpt. Clark, October 23, 1805--a fine morning, I with the greater part of the men crossed in the canoes to opposit side above the falls and hauled them across the portage of 457 yards which is on the Lard. Side and certainly the best side to pass the canoes, I then decended through a narrow chanel of about 150 yards wide forming a kind of half circle in it[s] course of a mile to a pitch of 8 feet in which the chanel is divided by 2 large rocks, at this place we were obliged to let the Canoes down by strong ropes of Elk Skin which we had for the purpose, one Canoe in passing this place got loose by the cords breaking, and was cought by the Indians below.  I accomplished this necessary business and landed Safe with all the canoes at our Camp below the falls by 3 oClock P.M. nearly covered with flees which were so thick amongst the Straw and fish Skins at the upper part of the portage at which place the nativs had been Camped not long since; that every man of the party was obliged to Strip naked dureing the time of takeing over the canoes, that they might have an oppertunity of brushing the flees of[f] their legs and bodies.  Great numbers of Sea Otters in the river below the falls, I shot one in the narrow chanel to day which I could not get.  Great numbers of Indians visit us both from above and below.  one of the old Chiefs who had accompanied us from the head of the river, informed us that he herd the Indians Say that the nation below intended to kill us.  we examined all the arms &c. complete the ammunition to 100 rounds.  The nativs leave us earlyer this evening than usial, which gives a Shadow of confermation to the information of our old Chief, as we are at all times & Places on our guard, are under no greater apprehention than is common.

     we purchase 8 Small fat dogs for the party to eate; the nativs not being fond of Selling their good fish, compells us to make use of Dog meat for food, the flesh of which the most of the party have become fond of from the habits of useing it for Some time past.  The altitude of this day 66 degrees 27 minutes 30 seconds gave for Latd. 45 Degrees 42 minutes 57 3/10 seconds N.

 

Capt. Clark, October 25, 1805--A cold morning we deturmined to attempt the chanel after brackfast I took down all the party below the bad places with a load & one canoe passed well,  a 2d. passed well.  I had men on the shore with ropes to throw in in case any accidence happened at the whirl &c  The Inds on the rocks viewing us the 3rd. canoe nearly filled with water    we got her safe to shore.  the last canoe came over well which to me was truly gratifying set out and had not passed 2 miles before 3 canoes run against a rock in the river with great force no damage    met with a 2d. Chief of the nation from hunting,    we smoked with him and his party and gave a medal of the small size & set out passed great numbers of rocks, good water and came to at a high point of rocks below the mouth of a creek which falls in on the Lard Side and head up towards the high snow mountain to the SW.    this creek is 20 yards wide and has some beaver signs at its mouth    river about 1/2 mile wide and crouded with sea otters, & Drum was seen this evening, we took possession of a high Point of rocks to defend our selves in case of the threts of those Indians below should be put in execution against us.  Sent out some hunter to look if any signs of game, one man killed a small deer & several others seen    I killed a goose and suped hartily on venison & goose    Camped on the rock.  guard under the hill

 

Proceeding down river and setting camp below present day Mill Creek at Dalles City . . .

 

we proceeded on down    the water fine, rocks in every derection for a fiew miles when the river widens and becoms a butifull jentle Stream of about half a mile wide, Great numbers of the Sea orter about those narrows and both below and above.  we came too, under a high point of rocks on the Lard. Side below a creek of 20 yards wide and much water, as it was necessary to make Some Selestial ovservations we formed our camp on the top of a high point of rocks, which forms a kind of fortification in the Point between the river & creek, with a boat guard,

 

Cpt. Clark, November 1, 1805--A verry cool morning wind hard from the N.E.  The Indians who arrrived last evening took their Canoes on ther Sholders and carried them below the Great Shute,  we Set about takeing our Small canoe and all the baggage by land 940 yards of bad slippery and rockey way.  The Indians er discovered took ther loading the whole length of the portage 2-1/2 miles to avoid a second Shute which appears verry bad to pass, and thro' which they passed with their empty canoes.  Great numbers of sea otters, they are so cautious that I with deficuelty got a Shot at one today, which I must have killed, but could not get him as he Sunk.

 

Below Lewis and Clark correct their mistaking the harbor seal for the sea otter, and Clark makes the correct observation that the sea otter is never found beyond salt water habitat, whereas the seal may be seen far up coastal rivers.

 

Capt. Lewis, February 23, 1806--the seal are found here in great numbers, and as far up the Columbia river as the great falls, above which there are none.  I have reason to beleive from the information of the men that there are several species of the seal on this coast and in the river but what the difference is I am unable to state not having seen them myself suficiently near for minute inspection nor obtained the different kinds to make a comparison.  the skins of such as I have seen are covered with a short coarse stiff and glossey hair of a reddish bey brown colour.  tho' the anamal while in the water or as we saw them frequently in the river appear to be black and spoted with white sometimes.  when we first saw those animals at the great falls and untill our arrival at this place we conseived they were the Sea Otter.  but the indians here have undeceived us.  I am not much acquainted with the Seal but suppose that they are the same common also to the Atlantic Ocean in the same parallel of latitude.  the skins I have seen are precisely such as our trunks are frequently covered with.

 

Cpt. Clark, February 23, 1806--The Sea Otter is found only on the sea coast and in the salt water.  Those animals which I took to be the sea otter from the Great Falls of the Columbia to the mouth, proves to be the Phosia or Seal which at a little distance has every appearance of the sea otters. 

 

The Seal or Phoca are found here in great numbers, and as far up the Columbia as the great Falls, above which there are none.  I have reasons to believe from the information of the men that there are several species of the Phoca on this coast and in the river, but what the difference is I am unable to state not haveing seen them myself sufficiently near for manute inspection nor obtain the different kinds to make a comparison.  the skins of such as I have seen are covered with a short thick coarse glossy hair of a redish bey brown colour.  tho' the animal while in the water, or as we saw them frequently in the river appear to be black and spoted with white sometimes.  I am not much acquainted with the seal but suppose that they are the same common also to the atlantic Ocian in the same parrelal of Latitude.  the skins, or those which I have seen are presisely such as trunks are frequently covered with.  the flesh of this animal is highly prized by the nativs who swinge the hair off and then roste the flesh on sticks before the fire.

 

The following month while on an excursion from Fort Clatsop, in Columbia County, Oregon, around Clatskine Creek . . .

 

Cpt. Lewis, March 25, 1806--we found the entrance of a small creek which afforded us a safe harbour from the wind, and encamped.  the ground was low and moist tho' we obtained a tolerable encampment.  here we found another party of Cathlahmahs about 10 in number who had established a temperary residence for the purpose of fishing and taking seal.  they gave us some of the fleese of the seal which I found a great improvement to the poor Elk.

 
Smithsonian Institution
Copyright Notice
Privacy Notice