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Lewis & Clark's Columbia River - "200 Years Later"
"Camas ('Camassia quamash')"
Includes ... Camas ... Camassia quamash ... Camas Root ...
Image, 2007, Camas, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Camas field. View from east of Lacamas Lake and Round Lake, Washington. Image taken April 28, 2007.


"... The com-mas grows in great abundance on this plain; and at this time looks beautiful, being in full bloom with flowers of a pale blue colour ..."
[Gass, June 10, 1806, at Weippe Prairie, Idaho]


"Camas quamash" ...
The Camas plant ("Camassia quamash") is a member of the lily family and was unknown to science before the Lewis and Clark journey. The flower grows in clearings along the Columbia River. Camas, Washington and Lacamas Lake, located just upstream of Vancouver, were named after the Camas plant.

"... The com-mas grows in great abundance on this plain; and at this time looks beautiful, being in full bloom with flowers of a pale blue colour ... [Gass, June 10, 1806, at Weippe Prairie, Idaho]

"... resembles a lake of fine clear water ..."
Lewis and Clark wrote elegantly about the blue Camas flower on their return journey home, as they camp at Weippe Prairie, Idaho, on Jim Ford Creek near the Clearwater River. Their mention of the plant along the Columbia River was more restricted to the root being used as a staple food item (see below).

"... our camp is agreeable Situated in a point of timbered land on the eastern borders of an extensive leavel and butifull prarie which is intersected by Several Small branches near the bank of one of which our Camp is placed. the quawmash is now in blume at a Short distance it resemhles a lake of fine clear water, So complete is this deseption that on first Sight I could have Sworn it was water. ..." [Clark, June 12, 1806, at Weippe Prairie, Idaho]

Image, 2007, Camas
, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Camas flowers -- "resembles a lake of fine clear water". Taken from moving car while on highway. View from north of Camas, Washington. Image taken April 28, 2007.


"... the quawmash is now in blume at a Short distance it resemhles a lake of fine clear water, So complete is this deseption that on first Sight I could have Sworn it was water. ..."
[Clark, June 12, 1806, at Weippe Prairie, Idaho]


Camas Fields, Lacamas Lake, Washington ...
Spring brings out the Camas flowers around Lacamas Lake and Round Lake, just north of Camas, Washington.

Image, 2007, Camas, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Camas field. Gene, Genna, and Riley. View from east of Lacamas Lake and Round Lake, Washington. Image taken April 28, 2007.
Image, 2007, Camas, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Camas flower. Image taken April 28, 2007.
Image, 2007, Camas, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Camas fields. View from east of Lacamas Lake and Round Lake, Washington. Image taken April 28, 2007.
Image, 2007, Camas, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Camas fields, with basalt outcrops. View from east of Lacamas Lake and Round Lake, Washington. Image taken April 28, 2007.


Lewis and Clark and the Camas Root ...
Lewis and Clark learn about the Camas ("Camassia quamash") while in Idaho, on their journey to the Columbia River. On September 20, 1806, they were offered bread made of the Camas root.

"... they ... gave us a Small piece of Buffalow meat, Some dried Salmon beries & roots in different States, Some round and much like an onion which they call <Pas she co> quamash the Bread or Cake is called Passhe-co Sweet, of this they make bread & Supe     they also gave us the bread made of this root all of which we eate hartily, ..." [Clark, September 20, 1805]

"... we met Reuben fields who Capt. Clark Sent back to meet us, with a bag of Sammon and excelent root bread ... we halted about one hour and a half eat hearty of the Sammon and bread, and let our horses feed. ..." [Ordway, September 22, 1805]

Native populations along the Columbia River also made use of the Camas root.

"... We continued our voyage at an early hour, and had a fine morning. At 10, we came to the lodges of some of the natives, and halted with them about 2 hours. Here we got some bread, made of a small white root, which grows in this part of the country. ..." [Gass, October 21, 1805]

"... rained last night as usial and the greater part of this day. In the evening Co-mo wool the Chief and 4 men of the Clat Sop nation the[y] presented us a root which resembles the licquirish in Size and taste, which they roste like a potato which they Call Cul ho-mo ..." [Clark, December 27, 1805]

"... the white bulb or pash she quo, qua-mosh ..." {Clark, January 21, 1806]

Lewis and Clark used many spellings for the Camas - scientifically known as "Camsassia quamash" - such as "qua-mosh", "quamash", "quawmash", as well as "pashaquaw". On June 10, 1806 Ordway spells it "Commass" and Sergeant Gass spells it "Com-mas".

"... the natives appeared extreemly hospitable, gave us dryed Anchovies, Sturgeon, wappetoe, quamash ..." [Lewis, March 27, 1806]

"... here we were very friendly receved by the natives who gave all our party as much fish as they Could eate, they also gave us Wappato and pashaquaw roots to eate prepared in their own way ..." [Clark, March 27, 1806]

Moulton states:

"... The term pasigoo (Clark's "Pas-she-co") is the Shoshone designation for the camas and its edible bulb, historically a staple food. The word literally means "water sego," in reference to the sego lily, a common food in the region. Lewis and Clark wrote this word together with "quamash," that is, qé'mes, the Nez Perce term for camas, from which the Latin and English designations derive. ..."

The Camas plant was unknown to the scientific world prior to the Lewis and Clark expedition. Captain Lewis painstakingly entered a description of the Camas in his journal dated June 11, 1806, while in camp on the Clearwater River (see full description below).

"... we have never met with this plant but in or adjacent to a piny or fir timbered country, and there always in the open grounds and glades; in the Columbian vally and near the coast it is to be found in small quantities and inferior in size to that found in this neighbourhood and in the high rich flatts and vallees within the rocky mountains. ..." [Lewis, June 11, 1806]

Moulton states:

"... Lewis's detailed description of the plant's morphology, floral development, and ecology—clearly the result of several hours of study—illustrates his strong command of botanical terminology and his impressive powers of observation. Despite the quality of this academic exercise, it was the specimen of camas he collected on June 23 [1806] that was needed for Pursh to describe it as a new species. The outstanding documentation of camas ethnobotany was Lewis's most valuable achievement of the day. ..."

Image, 2008, Camas, Nisqually NWR, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Camas flower. Image from Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Nisqually, Washington. Image taken June 8, 2008.


Charles Wilkes, 1841 ...
In May 1841 Charles Wilke of the U.S. Exploring Expedition commented on the Camas Root while along the Chehelis River, north of the Columbia.

"... These Indians had a quantity of the cammass-root, which they had stored in baskets. It is a kind of sweet squills, and about the size of a small onion. It is extremely abundant on the open prairies, and particularly on those which are overflowed by small streams. ..." [Wilkes, May 20, 1841]

Camas at Bridal Veil, Oregon ...

Image, 2006, Camas at Bridal Veil Overlook, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Camas at Bridal Veil Overlook, Bridal Veil, Oregon. The upper trail at the Bridal Veil Overlook traverses the cliff overlooking the Columbia River Gorge, offering great views of the Columbia. Native wild plants such as camas, lupine, bead lilly, trillium and bleeding heart line both sides of the pathway along the cliff. Image taken May 10, 2006.
Image, 2006, Camas flowers, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Camas flowers, from Bridal Veil Overlook, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. Image taken May 10, 2006.


From the Journals of Lewis and Clark ...

Clark, June 10, 1806 ...
... we assended the hills which are very high and about three miles in extent our course being N. 22° E, thence N. 15° W 2 ms: to Collins Creek. Thence North 5 Miles to the Eastern boarders of the Quawmash flatts where we encamped near the place I first met with the Chopunnish Nation last fall ...


Lewis, June 10, 1806 ...
... we ascended the river hills which are very high and about three miles in extent our sourse being N. 22° E. thence N. 15 W. 2 m to Collins's creek. thence due North 5 m. to the Eastern border of the quawmash flatts where we encamped near the place we first met with the Chopunnish last fall. ...


Gass, June 10, 1806 ...
We collected all our horses, but one, and set out accompanied by several of the natives, travelled about twelve miles and arrived at what we call the Com-mas flat, where we first met the natives after crossing the Rocky mountains last fall. Here we encamped and some hunters went out. The com-mas grows in great abundance on this plain; and at this time looks beautiful, being in full bloom with flowers of a pale blue colour.— At night our hunters came in and had killed one deer.





Lewis, June 11, 1806 ...
(giving a detailed description of the plant)
... As I have had frequent occasion to mention the plant which the Choppunish call quawmash I shall here give a more particular discription of that plant and the mode of preparing it for food as practiced by the Chopunnish and others in the vicinity of the Rocky Mountains with whom it forms much the greatest portion of their subsistence.     we have never met with this plant but in or adjacent to a piny or fir timbered country, and there always in the open grounds and glades; in the Columbian vally and near the coast it is to be found in small quantities and inferior in size to that found in this neighbourhood and in the high rich flatts and vallees within the rocky mountains.     it delights in a black rich moist soil, and even grows most luxuriantly where the land remains from 6 to nine inches under water untill the seed are nearly perfect which in this neighbourhood or on these flats is about the last of this month.     neare the river where I had an opportunity of observing it the seed were begining to ripen on the 9th inst. and the soil was nearly dry. it seems devoted to it's particular soil and situation, and you will seldom find it more than a few feet from the inundated soil tho' within it's limits it grows very closely in short almost as much so as the bulbs will permit;     the radix is a tunicated bulb, much the consistence shape and appearance of the onion, glutanous or somewhat <slymy> when chewed and almost tasteless and without smell in it's unprepared state; it is white except the thin or outer tunicated scales which are few black and not succulent;     this bulb is from the size of a nutmeg to that of a hens egg and most commonly of an intermediate size or about as large as an onion of one years growth from the seed.     the radicles are numerous, reather large, white, flexable, succulent and diverging.     the foliage consists of from one to four seldom five radicale, linear sessile and revolute pointed leaves; they are from 12 to 18 inches in length and from 1 to ¾ of an inch in widest part which is near the middle; the uper disk is somewhat groved of a pale green and marked it's whole length with a number of small longitudinal channels; the under disk is a deep glossy green and smooth.     the leaves sheath the peduncle and each other as high as the surface of the earth or about 2 inches; they are more succulent than the grasses and less so than most of the lillies hyesinths &c.—     the peduncle is soletary, proceeds from the root, is columner, smooth leafless and rises to the hight of 2 or 2½ feet.     it supports from 10 to forty flowers which are each supported by seperate footstalk of ½ an inch in length scattered without order on the upper portion of the peduncle.     the calix is a partial involucret situated at the base of the footstalk of each flower on the peduncle; it is long thin and begins to decline as soon as the corolla expands.     the corolla consists of six long oval, obtusly pointed skye blue or water coloured petals, each about 1 inch in length; the corolla is regular as to the form and size of the petals but irregular as to their position, five of them are placed near ech other pointing upward while one stands horizantally or pointing downwards, they are inserted with a short claw on the extremity of the footstalk at the base of the germ; the corolla is of course inferior; it is also shriveling, and continues untill the seeds are perfect.     The stamens are perfect, six in number; the filaments each elivate an anther, near their base are flat on the inside and rounded on the outer terminate in a subulate point, are bowed or bent upwards, inserted on the inner side and on the base of the claws of the petals, below the germ, are equal both with rispect to themselves and the corolla, smooth & membraneous.     the Anther is oblong, obtusely pointed, 2 horned or forked at one end and furrowed longitudinally with four channels, the upper and lower of which seem almost to divide it into two loabs, incumbent patent, membranous, very short, naked, two valved and fertile with pollen, which last is of a yellow colour—.     the anther in a few hours after the corolla unfoalds, bursts, discharges it's pollen and becomes very minute and shrivled; the above discription of the anther is therefore to be understood of it at the moment of it's first appearance.     the pistillum is only one, of which, the germ is triangular reather swolen on the sides, smooth superior, sessile, pedicelled, short in proportion to the corolla atho' wide or bulky; the style is very long or longer than the stamens, simple, cilindrical, bowed or bent upwards, placed on the top of the germ, membranous shrivels and falls off when the pericarp has obtained its full size.     the stigma is three cleft very minute, & pubescent. the pericarp is a capsule, triangular, oblong, obtuse, and trilocular with three longitudinal valves. the seed so far as I could judge are numerous not very minute and globelar.—     soon after the seeds are mature the peduncle and foliage of this plant perishes, the grownd becomes dry or nearly so and the root encreases in size and shortly becomes fit for use; this happens about the middle of July when the natives begin to collect it for use which they continue untill the leaves of the plant attain some size in the spring of the year.     when they have collected a considerable quantity of these roots or 20 30 bushels which they readily do by means of stick sharpened at one end, they dig away the surface of the earth forming a circular concavity of 2½ feet in the center and 10 feet in diameter; they next collect a parsel of split dry wood with which they cover this bason in the grown perhaps a foot thick, they next collect a large parsel of stones of about 4 or 6 lbs. weight which are placed on the dry wood; fire is then set to the wood which birning heats the stones; when the fire has subsided and the stones are sufficiently heated which are nearly a red heat, they are adjusted in such manner in the whole as to form as level a surface as pissible, a small quantity of earth is sprinkled over the stones and a layer of grass about an inch thick is put over the stones; the roots, which have been previously devested of the black or outer coat and radicles which rub off easily with the fingers, are now laid on in a conical pile, are then covered with a layer of grass about 2 or 3 inches thick; water is now thrown on the summit of the pile and passes through the roots and to the hot stones at bottom; some water is allso poared arround the edges of the hole and also finds its way to the hot stones; as soon as they discover from the quantity of steem which issues that the water has found its way generally to the hot stones, they cover the roots and grass over with earth to the debth of four inches and then build a fire of dry wood all over the conincal mound which they continue to renew through the course of the night or for ten or 12 hours after which it is suffered to cool two or three hours when the earth and grass are removed and the roots thus sweated and cooked with steam are taken out, and most commonly exposed to the sun on scaffoalds untill they become dry, when they are black and of a sweet agreeable flavor.     these roots are fit for use when first taken from the pitt, are soft of a sweetish tast and much the consistency of a roasted onion; but if they are suffered to remain in bulk 24 hour after being cooked they spoil.     if the design is to make bread or cakes of these roots they undergo a second process of baking being previously pounded after the fist baking between two stones untill they are reduced to the consistency of dough and then rolled in grass in cakes of eight or ten lbs are returned to the sweat intermixed with fresh roots in order that the steam may get freely to these loaves of bread.     when taken out the second time the women make up this dough into cakes of various shapes and sizes usually from ½ to ¾ of an inch thick and expose it on sticks to dry in the sun, or place it over the smoke of their fires.— the bread this prepared if kept free from moisture will keep sound for a great length of time. this bread or the dryed roots are frequently eaten alone by the natives without further preparation, and when they have them in abundance they form an ingredient in almost every dish they prepared. this root is palateable but disagrees with me in every shape I have ever used it.— ...





Clark, June 12, 1806 ...
... our camp is agreeable Situated in a point of timbered land on the eastern borders of an extensive leavel and butifull prarie which is intersected by Several Small branches near the bank of one of which our Camp is placed. the quawmash is now in blume at a Short distance it resemhles a lake of fine clear water, So complete is this deseption that on first Sight I could have Sworn it was water. ...


Lewis, June 12, 1806 ...
... our camp is agreeably situated in a point of timbered land on the eastern border of an extensive level and beautifull prarie which is intersected by several small branches near the bank of one of which our camp is placed. the quawmash is now in blume and from the colour of its bloom at a short distance it resembles lakes of fine clear water, so complete is this deseption that on first sight I could have swoarn it was water. ...




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*River Miles [RM] are approximate, in statute miles, and were determined from USGS topo maps, obtained from NOAA nautical charts, or obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website, 2003

Sources:

All Lewis and Clark quotations from Gary Moulton editions of the Lewis and Clark Journals, University of Nebraska Press, all attempts have been made to type the quotations exactly as in the Moulton editions, however typing errors introduced by this web author cannot be ruled out; location interpretation from variety of sources, including this website author.
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June 2008