Early Exploration

The richness of the fish populations in the rivers of the Columbia Basin was one of the most commonly noted characteristics of the area in the journals of early European explorers. Lewis and Clark were no exception. As their expedition arrived at the fork of the Snake and Columbia Rivers on October 17, 1805 they reported that:

This river is remarkably Clear and Crouded with Salmon in maney places, I observe in assending great numbers of Salmon dead on the Shores, floating on the water and in the Bottoms which can be seen at the debth of 20 feet. the Cause of the emence numbers of dead Salmon I can't account for So it is I must have seen 3 or 400 dead and maney living the Indians, I believe make us[e] of the [illegible, crossed out] fish which is not long dead as, I Struck one nearly dead and left him floating, Some Indians in a canoe behind took the fish on board his canoe.1

Almost to a person early explorers commented extensively on the variety and number of fish and the ways in which the natives made use of them, particularly the salmon. Open the Early Explorers map, and work through the contents exploring for yourself early records of the salmon culture of the Columbia Basin.

Columbia River Explorers
To Start You Thinking

Refer to the information contained in the pop-up windows in the map as you answer each of the following questions:

1) The image by Phillip Dayton of natives fishing at the Falls of the Willamette south of Portland is one of the first such images by a European artist. Describe both the setting and the approach of the Indians in capturing salmon.

2) David Thompson and John Kirk Townsend describe markedly different experiences regarding native villages in the Columbia Basin and regard for salmon. Compare and contrast the descriptions of these men, one on the Columbia River near the Canadian border and the other in eastern Idaho on the Snake River.

3) Native methods of curing salmon for winter storage were different from those brought from New England by American explorers. Compare these methods as described by David Thompson and Nathaniel Wyeth.

4) (Extra) For this activity you will need to open your own copy of the Early Explorers map.

Identify another early explorer to the region whose journal is available on the internet:

  • Search the journal using the Find feature in your browser for references to salmon or the native fishery in the Columbia Basin.
  • Select a short passage describing how the explorers used fish, the native use of fish, and/or the extent and type of the fish found.
  • Determine the location where the journal entry was made.
  • Add a new Explorer's flag and a popup window including your passage to the map similar to the others provided for you.

Use Save as... to save your new map so you can share with your classmates.


1The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition Online, at the University of Nebraska Center for Digital Research in the Humanities and the University of Nebraska Press.

Last modified in November, 2021 by Rick Thomas