Archaeologists follow trail back to 1806 Lewis-Clark camp 6-18-07

HELLS CANYON, Idaho (AP) - Archeologists have uncovered a Nez Perce Indian village believed to be the site where three members of the Lewis and Clark expedition spent time on an ill-fated fishing trip.

Historians have speculated for years about the route that Sgt. John Ordway and Pvts. Robert Frazer and Peter Weise took when they were sent to fetch salmon for the expedition in the spring of 1806.

The rest of the expedition was camped along the Clearwater River waiting for mountain snows to melt when the three men descended into the lower Salmon River gorge and Hells Canyon. Based on Ordway's journal, historians have suspected the men left Long Camp near Kamiah and climbed a steep ridge to the Camas Prairie before reaching the Nez Perce village on the Salmon River.

The men arrived ahead of the spring salmon run, so they headed for another site on the Snake River, guided by Chief Twisted Hair. The men stayed there a few days, trading for salmon at the new site before making the three-day journey back to the main camp. But for some reason, they forgot to cook the fish before making the return trip, and the meat spoiled before they got back.

Steve Russell, a now-retired electrical engineering professor from the University of Iowa and an expert on historic trails, started searching for the route taken by the men several years ago. He realized that the topography along Wapshilla and Cottonwood creeks and the Big Cougar Bar match that described by Ordway in his journal.

This year, a team of archeologists led by Ken Reid of the Idaho Historical Preservation Office began excavating the site. They found clues that a longhouse - as described by Ordway - did stand there, during the same period that Ordway would have been in the vicinity.

“The dimensions match what Ordway described and the context fits what he said about it,” Reid said. “All circumstantial evidence points to it.”

So far, a handful of artifacts have been found at the site, including a small bead like those Lewis and Clark used as trade currency with the Indians. They found the head of a tack that early explorers used to decorate their tools and weapons. And they found the lid of a tea canister, dated roughly 18 years after Ordway's presumed visit. The canister lid shows that the longhouse likely persisted - and was visited by white people - until about 1863, when the tribe signed its second treaty with the federal government and most Indians were moved to the reservation at Lapwai.

“The first 20 years after Ordway would have been the height of the fur trade and a lot of people came through here,” said Skip Miller, an archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Nothing found at the site can be directly linked to Ordway, however. The three explorers are believed to have spent two nights and one day there, and the men were likely wearing deerskin pants and tunics at the time, Reid said.

“There were no uniform pieces or buttons to lose,” he said.

The archeologists used special equipment to detect where the ground had been disturbed, where the soil had been heated from fire, and where the earth had been piled. The data allowed them to produce maps that showed the outline of the longhouse and where some artifacts were hidden.

“We've been able to keep our excavation very low and disturb as little as possible,” said Travis Pitkin, an archaeologist with the historic preservation office.