The First Commercial Navigation On The Snake River

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Observing from the broad view of the modern day perspective with all of its conveniences and technology, it seems hardly possible that Columbia and Snake River travel actually occurred using only “arm-strong” manual power to move men, boats, and cargo up or down river in the pioneer days of the inland northwest.  But such was really the case as to how men and supplies moved up and down the thoroughfares of river travel.  Here is a true story as told by the pioneer sailor himself, Mr. Tom Beall.

Thomas J. Beall, revered Lewiston, Idaho, pioneer, claimed to be the first white navigator of the Snake River, with only the possible exception of some of the early trappers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a few missionaries, and some other explorers.  The local newspaper, the Lewiston Tribune, carried a story from the mouth of Mr. Beall on February 13, 1914.  In it Mr. Tom Beall described, in complete detail, the events and activities surrounding his journey upriver from old Fort Walla Walla (in Washington) to Lapwai (in Idaho) in 1860.  In that article, Mr. Beall identified himself as “admiral” of a fleet of two Indian bateaux boats.

“In the summer (July) of 1860,” Beall wrote, “I was ordered by the Indian agent of the Nez Perces at Lapwai to proceed to old Fort Walla Walla, now known as Wallula, and take charge of two bateaux, load them with supplies and bring them to the agency.  I had for my crew 18 Nez Perce Indians and an interpreter, a half-breed Snake Indian by the name of Pier Reise, who was raised by the Nez Perces or adopted by the same.”

“When we arrived at Wallula on the overland route to Old Fort Walla Walla, we found everything we were to pick up in complete readiness for our return voyage up the Columbia and Snake Rivers.  These bateaux were built at Portland for the purpose of transporting supplies from old Fort Walla Walla to the agency at the mouth of Lapwai Creek on the Clearwater River.  You must bear in mind that this was thought to be the cheapest and best means  to get supplies to the agency, as there was not any wagon road from the agency to Walla Walla and no ferry on the Snake River at that time–1860.”

“We launched the bateaux.  They were 32 feet long, pointed or sharp at each end, and about 7 feet of beam.  There was a mast and a square or lug sail in each together with eight sets of oars to be used in crossing or recrossing the river in case there was no wind to use the sail.  I put a Canadian Frenchman in charge of one of the boats as I assumed command of the whole ‘fleet,’ so I was dubbed Commodore “Ina-lul-Ina-lul” Beall.  This has been my Indian name ever since.  I should have retired as a rear admiral.”

“We loaded the boats, seven and half tons in one, and about six and a half tons in the other.  My flagship was the lighter boat and did not draw as much water as the other.  I used it as a feeler and took the lead.  You know you have to have a bell-mare with a pack train.  Well, I was the ‘bell-mare’ on this voyage.”

“We got an early start from Wallula, got over Homily Rapids without any difficulty and camped just below the mouth of Snake River.  That evening I issued the Indians one week’s rations, not knowing the Indian’s appetite for his brother pale-face’s grub, and lo and behold it was devoured in two days.  I saw that I should have to form some different plans in regard to the culinary department so I issued their rations at every mealtime.  We had to ‘line-over’ most of the rapids,…but somewhere the steamers in after days had to ‘line-over’ I had no difficulty in sailing over with a fair wind.”

“Four of my sailors were from Alpowai and two of the same would shirk–that is, when we had to line-over a rapid.  Well, one evening we arrived at a rapid just opposite to Wild-Goose Island at the mouth of Meadow Gulch, just below Hemmingway’s landing.  Two of my old tars thought they would get rid of having to help line-over the rapids ahead so they hid behind a large boulder to take a smoke.  I was watching them and concluded to make an example of them.  So I told the interpreter, after moving upstream a short distance, to tell the crew to come on board of their respective boats and not to say anything to those behind the boulder and we would cross to the other side, which we did and left our strikers enjoying their smoke.”

“We crossed and went into camp, I then issued their rations for their supper.  About an hour after supper my bold two sailors hove into sight and their comrades commenced joshing them, which they did not relish in the least as their humor was not in the best of order.  Their fellow tars having eaten up everything that was issued to them, of course, there was nothing left for my two delinquents and they came to me for something to eat.  I told them to take a ‘smoke,’ it would do them more good, so they had to satisfy themselves with that.”

“The next morning, when I issued grub for breakfast I put in a little extra , but I never had any more trouble after that.  They were all at their posts when there was a rapids to ascend.”

“On the trip, I was camped or came to anchor in a port called Pennawawa (I have been on shore so long I have forgotten my sea phrases), I was sitting by the campfire.  I told those Indians that some time they would see a steamboat (Ollo-hein-li-esh) on this river.  They asked me what that was as they had never seen one.  I told them what it was and how big it would be and how it was propelled, in fact, described to them perfectly.  They looked at me and exclaimed Mu-sham-me (you are a liar).”

“Well sure enough, the little steamer Col. Wright, under the command of Lem White, and our veteran steamboat captain, Eph Baughman, pilot and mate, ascended the Snake River the first of May, 1861.  I should like to have been on her in her maiden trip up the Snake.  They told me when they came in the vicinity of the Indian villages on the river they would blow the whistle and all the Indian men, squaws, and children hunt their holes and the cayuses would break for the high country.  I don’t blame them.  I should have done the same thing myself and hibernated until there was not another ‘fire-boat’ in existence if I had been as ignorant in the matter.”

“I have switched some, or got off the trail on this subject, but will state I made a very successful voyage and came into port at Lapwai just 22 days from old Fort Walla Walla, or Wallula.”

The triple decked rear mounted paddle wheel steamboat was used to ply the waters of the Columbia and Snake Rivers from the beginning of navigation in the 1860s until steamboat navigation was discontinued when the river railroad line was built.

Dry and practical humor was a very big part of the life in the early days of Idaho.  The story is told of an early resident of Lewiston, Idaho Territory.  He had a wonderful saddle horse.  One day a negro friend borrowed the horse, promising to return it the next day.  Ten days passed and no horse.  Then the negro hove in sight.  Taken to task for his delay, the Negro said:  “Shore, Mr. Sol, I done promised to bring him back tomorrow, but I’se better’n my word.  I done brung him back today.”

Such were the throes of life in the initial settling of this remote, dangerous, and difficult land called the unsettled Pacific Northwest.

Peace and Love to All of You…………………..Poppa Bear         

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