|Published in COLUMBIA Magazine: Summer 2001;
Volume 15, Number 2
"The Great River of the West" was on the maps that
Lewis and Clark brought with them but the cartographic
lore of its upper reach influenced William Clark when he
identified the supposed upper fork as "Tarcouche Tesse."
British explorer Alexander Mackenzie had called the
northern reach of the river "Tacoutche Tesse" in his
1793 journals and map. When the explorers realized they
had reached the Columbia River on October 16, 1805, they
also discerned that they would not discover the source
of the drainage, important as that was for establishing
the future sovereignty of the region. After Lewis &
Clark determined that there was no short portage route
between the Missouri and Columbia rivers, the myth of a
Northwest Passage evaporated. The priority for the
expedition now was to achieve the primary goal of its
mission by reaching the mouth of the Columbia River.
American rights of discovery to the Columbia were
based on Robert Gray's crossing of the bar in 1792 at
the river's discharge into the Pacific. He explored the
waterway's western bay and named it "Columbia's River"
after his ship, Columbia Rediviva. Gray's territorial
claim to the watershed was later disputed by England
after George Vancouver's exploration, but the American's
name for the river was retained, though modified to
The captains tried to record an Indian name for the
Columbia River but were confused by varying translations
and the profusion of names that were spoken in different
Indian dialects by tribes living along the watercourse.
Most names given today as Native American names for the
river can be translated as "the River."
The "Tap teel," also spelled "Tape-tett," river was
observed by Clark when he explored eight miles upriver
from the "Forks of Columbia at its confluence with the
Snake." Clark anglicized a Yakama word for one of the
tribe's villages on the river-"Taptat." "Tapteal,"
meaning "narrow" in the Yakama language, is given as the
origin for that particular name, one of many Indian
names for the river.
British fur traders from Canada recorded the tribal
name, "E-Yakama," given by Salish-speaking Spokane
Indians for their Sahaptian-speaking neighbors.
Divergent meanings for the Indian term, "E-Yak-kah-ma"
or "Yah-ah-ka-ma," persist in the literature today.
"Black bear," translated from "yah-kah," and the plural
ending "ma" is one explanation. Another origin for the
native word is "runaway," after a chief's daughter who
either ran away or was deported to another village.
"Tap-teil," "Nocktosh," "Yahinse," "Eyakama," "Eyakemka,"
"Yakama," and "Skaemena" have been used in the past to
identify the watercourse. The river's name today
commemorates the Yakama Nation of central Washington.
Walla Walla River:
Lewis and Clark observed this river on their
westbound journey but did not name the "Wollah Wollah
River," with various spellings, until their return trip
in 1806. Waterborne in the fall of 1805, the explorers
were not impressed with the river's small drainage; but
when they camped on its bank in the spring, the snowmelt
was considerable. They named the river after the local
inhabitants, who were friendly and hospitable to the
expedition. In the Sahaptian language, "walla" means
"running water" and duplication of a word is the
diminutive form; so Walla Walla is a distortion of the
Indian meaning, "small rapid river."
The mouth of the river was a key crossroad for the
Indians; converging here were numerous trails that
served the region. In 1818 Donald McKenzie, a prominent
fur trader, took advantage of this gathering place and
built a fort for the North West Company. The stockade
was called Fort Nez Perces, Fort Numipu, after the Nez
Perce name for themselves, meaning "The People." The
Hudson's Bay Company later absorbed its competitor and
rebuilt the fort, which had burned down in 1841. The new
trading post, built of adobe and renamed Fort Walla
Walla, was occupied by the British until 1855. The
townsite of Wallula, platted in 1862, became an
important steamboat landing for disembarkation to the
Idaho and Montana goldfields. The place name for the
river is now Walla Walla. More than 20 different forms
of the acceptable place name have been used in print.
Clark observed a rock "resembling a hat" on the
southern shore of the Columbia River and recorded it in
his journal. Other than as a passing note in his daily
course log, this small basalt mesa would not have been a
geographical feature of significance. Though this
observation was not intended to be a definite place
name, today the rock is called Hat Rock, in Hat Rock
State Park, Umatilla County, Oregon.
Lewis and Clark used many names to describe the
rapids they encountered on the Snake and Columbia
rivers. "Rocky rapids" was at the mouth of a small
unnamed stream on the northern bank of the Columbia
River. Rock Creek, in Klickitat County, Washington, is a
place name given for the creek's association with the
rapids that Clark identified on his route map.
Most rapids were later renamed and recorded on maps
with names familiar to the river steamboat era. Eight
dams built on the Columbia and Snake rivers have
impounded the water to create an inland waterway for
shipping all the way to Lewiston, Idaho. The rapids have
disappeared, along with appropriate designations for the
location of these restrictions to water travel. The
river rapids named by Lewis and Clark will not be
included here since they have disappeared beneath the
John Day River:
"River La Page" was named to honor Private Jean
Baptiste LePage, who enlisted in the corps after the
court martial of John Newman at Fort Mandan on the
Missouri River. LePage, a French Canadian, was an
independent fur trader living with the Mandan Indians.
He was probably recruited by the captains because of his
familiarity with the Upper Missouri River. There is no
other historical record of LePage-he disappeared in the
mists of time along with many other place names
commemorating corps members.
There are two rivers in Oregon honoring John Day, a
backwoodsman who joined Wilson Price Hunt's Astorian
overland expedition, 1811-12. The name of the eastern
Oregon river commemorates the hardships Hunt's group
experienced while trying to reach Astoria via the Snake
River through Hell's Canyon. John Day and his companions
were robbed by Indians and managed to reach a friendly
tribe where they were rescued by a passing fur brigade
This river was first called "Clark's River" and
appears on the route map as such. To avoid confusion
with the previously named "Clark's Fork" (Pend Oreille
River), it was later changed to "Towarnahiooks," which
with its various other spellings is the Chinook term for
"enemies," referring to a river coming from southern
Paiute Indian territory.
In the fur trading period the French Canadians called
the drainage "Riviere des Chutes," French for "river of
the falls," because of its close proximity to the "La
Grand Dalle de la Columbia." The tendency to simplify
place names with local usage has shortened the name to
The large island was given a descriptive name, "Rock
Island," as the waterborne corps was swept toward the
"Great Falls of the Columbia" and their first portage of
Columbia River rapids. Known today as Miller Island, in
Klickitat County, Washington, the island was probably
named after an early pioneer in the region. Many islands
were noted by the explorers; however, today the
physiography of the river has changed because of the
impoundment of the river behind the dams that control
the water's level. Many islands noted on Clark's maps
are now inundated.
The "Great Falls of the Columbia" was first recorded
by Euro-Americans with the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The river cut into basalt rock to create a constriction
of the river with a twenty-foot falls followed by a mile
of narrow, channeled rapids with a drop of eight feet in
There are several suggested meanings for the
aboriginal origin of "Celilo"; one is "floating sand
cloud," from the sand storms that occur when high winds
sweep through the Columbia River Gorge. The Celilo Canal
was completed in 1915, creating a short-lived steamboat
waterway to Lewiston, Idaho. Lake Celilo behind The
Dalles Dam, which was built in 1956-57, has inundated
the falls. The flooding also eliminated important
fishing grounds for many Indian tribes that relied upon
the salmon caught at the falls.
The Dalles of the Columbia:
"Short Narrows" and "Long Narrows" described two
locations where the river contracted to form furious
rapids, which the corps "shot" with dugout canoes at
this locale. Returning eastbound in 1806, the captains
made a switch from waterborne craft to horse
transportation here. Since the spring snow melt made
rapids in the narrows impossible to pass, the party
portaged overland on an ancient Indian trail that points
French Canadian boatmen for the British fur trading
companies called the two narrow channels of the river
"La Grand Dalle de la Columbia" and "Les Petites Dalles."
"Dalle" meant "flagstones" or "slabs" in French, for the
large, smooth slabs of basalt rock that formed the
channels in the river. The polished stones reminded them
of stones used for paving roads and streets in eastern
Canada. Other early names used by explorers and fur
traders were "Columbia Falls," "Great Falls of the
Columbia," "Big Chutes," and "The Narrows."
The Dalles of the Columbia, or simply The Dalles, was
a name used by American pioneers to describe the narrow
river channels. A post office was established in Oregon
Territory with the name Dalles in 1851 but was changed
to The Dalles in 1860.
During the steamboat era on the Columbia, the narrows
were called "Ten Mile Rapids" and "Five Mile Rapids,"
representing their distance east from the boat landing
at The Dalles. The creation of Lake Celilo behind The
Dalles Dam flooded these features.
Lewis and Clark acquired the name "Que-neet Creek,"
also spelled "Que-nett," meaning "salmon trout," from
the local Indians and applied it to a small stream on
the southern shore of the Columbia. Seeking a defensive
position for an encampment, they ascended the stream and
found a natural rock formation for their security. Mill
Creek, the present place name, derived from the
establishment of a sawmill on the stream during the
military occupation at Fort Dalles, Oregon Territory.
The fort was an important military post during the
Indian wars era.
"Cataract River" was named by the captains based on
information they received from the local inhabitants
regarding "the large number of falls which the Indians
say is on it." They never saw the falls that formed a
natural fishing place in the narrow gorge, created as
the river cut its way through solid basalt to reach the
Columbia. By concentrating salmon runs, the falls
provided a location for dip netting, an old-style of
salmon fishing that continues today.
Klickitat is an anglicized version of the Indian name
for a permanent village set at the mouth of the river.
The village may have been the "Friendly Village"
described by Clark on the westbound journey in 1805.
"Sepulchar Island" was one of several islands noted
by the corps as containing burial vaults for the Indian
tribes that lived along the river. Several islands in
the Columbia were named Memaloose, accepted spelling
adopted by the United States Board of Geographic Names (USBGN).
The name derived from "Memaloose Ilahee," Chinook jargon
words for "land of the dead." Lower Memaloose Island,
the one named by Clark, is downstream from the mouth of
the Klickitat and overlooked by parks on both sides of
the river. A prominent obelisk on the island marks the
grave of Victor Trevitt, a pioneer who wished to be
buried with his Indian friends.
"River Labiche" was named to honor expedition member
Private François Labiche. Recruited by the captains, he
enlisted in the corps at St. Charles on the Missouri
River. Half French and half Omaha Indian, he was chosen
as a permanent member of the party for his experience as
a river boatman and Indian trader. His skills in
translating native languages extended to accompanying
Lewis to Washington, D.C., to interpret for Jefferson
and visiting Indian chiefs.
An early name for the drainage was "Dog River." While
camping on the river, a party of early settlers ate dog
meat in preference to starving. The unpopular name was
changed to Hood River, after Mount Hood, the source of
White Salmon River:
"Canoe Creek" was named by the captains because
several native fishing canoes were observed at the mouth
of the stream. The corps passed and noted its size, then
continued downstream, holding to the northern shore of
the Columbia. The Lewis and Clark journals frequently
mention the "white salmon trout," but the origin of the
present place name is less attractive. Migrating salmon
have a change in flesh color, from red to pinkish white.
After spawning in the river, the salmon die and decay on
the river bank. This river's name originated with the
dead fish that were known to float downstream and
collect at the mouth of the river.
Little White Salmon River:
The captains did not observe this drainage but marked
its course on the route map, based on conjectural
information obtained from the local inhabitants. "Little
Lake Creek" was a description and not intended as a
place name for the unseen drainage. The corps camped the
evening of October 29, 1805, near a "Pond" close to the
northern shore and marked the little lake on their route
map. The present place name derived from its association
to the larger upstream drainage in the same region. This
body of water is now known as Drano Lake, but the
physiography has been changed by backwaters from
Bonneville Dam and highway construction.
"New Timber River" was later changed to "Crusats
River," after a member of the corps, Pierre Cruzatte.
Detecting a change in climate zones and vegetative
growth, the captains first named the drainage after
observing for the first time the broad leaf maple. At
Fort Clatsop, Clark realized that Cruzatte was the only
member of the corps who had not been honored with a
place name on the westbound journey. He changed the name
on the route map and course distance log, correcting the
oversight. Cruzatte, half French and half Omaha Indian,
was recruited by the captains and enlisted in the corps
at St. Charles on the Missouri River. The experienced
voyageur and Indian trader added to the complement of
seasoned frontiersmen that comprised the party. The
one-eyed French boatman had another skill that benefited
the expedition-he played the fiddle.
The present descriptive name was given by Isaac
Stevens in 1853. Factors influencing the climate in the
region are the Columbia River Gorge and the prevailing
moisture-laden, westerly winds from the Pacific Ocean.
Strong winds surge and ebb through the narrow gap in the
Clark's phonetic form of spelling created some
interesting variations of the English language. In an
era before the publication of Webster's Dictionary,
1814, Clark had no unified standards to refer to when he
attempted to name many geographical features along the
expedition route. His spelling, "Beaton Rock," for "a
remarkable high detached rock" was later corrected by
Lewis and the print editor of the journals, Nicholas
In 1811 Alexander Ross, of the John Jacob Astor
expedition, called the eroded vent plug of a volcano
after a European castle, "Inshoack Castle." Known as
"Castle Rock" until 1916, the USBGN officially restored
the title bestowed on the prominent basalt rock by the
Corps of Discovery. This monolith, second in size only
to the Rock of Gibraltar, was purchased by an heir of
Nicholas Biddle to preserve the landmark. The famous
800-foot-high lava monolith stands at the head of
tidewater on the river in Washington's Beacon Rock State