It's an important and intriguing discoverydeep in the heart of Hell's Canyon. Archaeologists believe they found a tangible link to the Lewis and Clark expedition. Along a stunningly beautiful stretch of the Snake River sit the ruins of a centuries old Nez Perce fishing village.
Archaeologists discovered something there that concerns just two days in May of 1806, and a visit by three members of the Lewis and Clark expedition. As we found out, one house in the village may have served as the first ever bed and breakfast in Hell's Canyon. The Nez Perce tribe lived here - thrived here - for centuries. "You're living within an area that provides you your life from the water and the fish on up to the top of the ridges, all of your food is on the hills," said ranger/interpreter Kevin Peters. The Nez Perce had everything they needed, and the Lewis and Clark expedition needed what the Nez Perce had... salmon.
On their way back home in May of 1806, the Lewis and Clark expedition camped near Kamiah waiting for the snow to melt in the Bitterroot Mountains. Meriwether Lewis sent Sergeant John Ordway and two other men to the Snake River on this route to trade for salmon with the Nez Perce - food needed for their mountain crossing. Ordway wrote about the side trip in his journals. "We passed a large lodge and descended the worst hills we ever saw a road made down," the journals read. And their arrival in the village. "At length they invited us in, spread robes for us to sit on, and set roasted salmon before us and some of their white bread which they call uppah. This lodge isa hundred feet long and 20 feet wide and all in one.”
State Archaeologist Dr. Ken Reid with the Idaho State Historical Society headed the project to investigate this site at Cougar Rapids Bar. "This is the depression of the lodge right in front of us, and this is the slope where they were probably waiting while the fish was being prepared," said Dr. Ken Reid. Using high-tech instruments to look below the surface, Dr. Reid's team mapped the rim of the multi-family home and the hearths, or fireplaces, running down the middle. Dr. Reid and his team dug small test pits in the hearth and the raised mound on one side of the house, and found artifacts – with carbon dates back to the early 1800s.
They found half of a blue glass bead, two brass tacks, and a tiny arrowhead. This evidence combined with Ordway's journal descriptions of the village, plus other research on the possible routes to the Snake River, make Dr. Reid very confident this is where Ordway and his men stayed two nights trading for salmon.
Dr. Reid says they know of Lewis and Clark campsites in Idaho, but nothing remains of them - no physical traces. Thisis the only place that has a structure associated with it - a footprint left behind. "We did nothave until this project any actual sites that we could pinpoint to specific days and specific people of the Lewis and Clark expedition,” Reid said. “It's a double pleasure to find an archaeological site that is still pretty muchintact in a setting that's intact.”
Hell's Canyon... a harsh place, a bountifulplace, for the Nez Perce hundreds of years ago... and for modern day archaeologists. Despite the importance of the trip to Idaho history, its importance to the Lewis and Clark expedition ended up being pretty minor. That's because most the 17 salmon the Ordway party traded for spoiled before they got back to the main camp.