Lewis and Clark's Columbia River
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Lewis & Clark's Columbia River - "200 Years Later"
"'Tea Prairie', Washington"
Includes ... Tea Prairie ... Prairie du The ... Tea Prairie River ... Washougal ... Washougal River ... Steigerwald Lake NWR ...
Image, 2006, Steigerwald Lake, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Steigerwald Lake NWR, Washington, as seen from Crown Point, Oregon. Early explorers and traders called the area of Washougal and Steigerwald Lake "Tea Prairie". Image taken October 21, 2006.

"Tea Prairie" ...
Early fur traders called the Washougal and Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge area "La Prairie du The", or, "Tea Prairie". The traders use to stop to pick a form of wild mint that became a substitute for tea.

"... We encamped at dusk about five miles above La Prairie du The, so called by the Canadians from a species of mint which grows in it, and which they are fond of using as a substitute for tea. ... " [Ross Cox, April 21, 1817, published 1832]

"... Early explorers and fur traders who passed through the Steigerwald Lake area often described it as a prairie. In 1805 and 1806, Lewis and Clark mapped the area as 'prairie'. In his journal, Lewis described the diversity of trees and evergreen shrubs in the bottomlands and the 'sand rush which are luxuriant and abundant in the river bottoms.'

Over the following two decades, the bottomlands at Steigerwald Lake became known as the 'Tea Prairie", perhaps because of the abundance of wild mint growing in the area. Land surveyor notes from 1856 described the river bottom as prairie that was 'unfit for cultivation due to inundation'. Early settlers attempted to farm the area, but annual spring flooding by the Columbia River and Gibbons Creek made farming difficult, if not impossible. By 1880 the agricultural emphasis switched from farming to dairying. Drainage and diking efforts between 1920 and 1950 made possible the planting of some row crops and small orchards. Annual freshets persisted until the major dam building projects of the 1950s. The bottomlands were diked in 1966 and expulsion pumps were installed in preparation for the development of the Washougal Industrial Park at the western margin of Steigerwald Lake. ..."

Source:    U.S. Department Fish and Wildlife, Steigerwald Lake, Franz Lake, and Pierce National Wildlife Refuges Comprehensive Conservation Plan

"Tea Prairie River" ...
Presumably John C. Fremont's "Tea Prairie river" is the Washougal River.

"... In the course of a few hours, and opposite to small stream coming in from the north, called the Tea Prairie river, the highlands on the left declined to the plains, and three or four miles below disappeared entirely on both sides, and the river entered the low country. ..." [J.C. Fremont, November 7, 1843]

Early Maps ...

Map detail, Fremont, 1843-44, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Map detail, 1843-1844, showing Fort Vancouver, the Hudson's Bay Company's "mill" and "sawmill", and the location of the "Tea Prairie". Original map: "Map of an Exploring Expedition to the ... Oregon & North California in the Years 1843-44" by Brevet Capt. J.C. Fremont of the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Original map courtesy U.S. Library of Congress, 2005.

Journal Entries

  • 1805 and 1806, Lewis and Clark ...
  • 1817, Ross Cox ...
  • 1831, Chief Factor Peter Warren Dease ...
  • 1833, Nathaniel Wyeth ...
  • 1834, Nathaniel Wyeth ...
  • 1836, John Kirk Townsend ...
  • 1840, Oregon Trail (published 1877) ...
  • 1843, Captain John C. Fremont ...
  • 1908, Sunset Magazine ...

1805 and 1806, Lewis and Clark ...
Lewis and Clark first passed the prairie of what would become "La Prairie du The" or "Tea Prairie" on November 3, 1805, on their way to the Pacific. Clark wrote about the prairie while near the mouth of the Sandy River. On their route maps [Moulton, vol.1, map#79 and map#88] they label the area of today's Steigerwald Lake NWR as "Prairie".

"... Passed a Small Prarie on the Stard. Side above, a large Creek opposit qk Sand River on the Stard. Side, extensive bottoms and low hilley Countrey on each Side (good wintering Place) ..." [Clark, November 3, 1805, first draft, while near the mouth of the Sandy River]

"... on the Opposit Side of the Columbia a large creek [NB: Small river called Seal river]   falls in above this Creek   on the Same Side is a Small prarie.   extensive low country on each Side thickly timbered. ..." [Clark, November 3, 1805, while near the mouth of the Sandy River]

On their return the men camp for six days on this prairie, a camp now known as Cottonwood Beach. The "Seacalf river" is today's Washougal River. The route maps show their camp to be on the east side of the area they labeled "Prairie".

"... "... we proceed on about 2 miles above the enterance of this Seacalf river and imedeately opposit the upper mouth of the quick Sand river we formed a Camp in a Small Prarie on the North Side of the Columbia where we intend to delay one or two days to make Some Selestial observations, to examine quick sand river, and kill Some meat to last us through the Western Mountains which Commences a fiew miles above us and runs in a N.N.W. & S.S.E. derection. ..." [Clark, March 31, 1806]

1817, Ross Cox ...
The first use of the name "Prairie du The" or "Tea Prairie" that this web author could find was in explorer Ross Cox's journel entry of April 21, 1817 (published 1832).

"... On the 21st we arose with the dawn, and embarked. Some of the canoes having struck on sunken trees, we were obliged to put ashore for a couple of hours to repair the damage and dry the goods. We encamped at dusk about five miles above La Prairie du The, so called by the Canadians from a species of mint which grows in it, and which they are fond of using as a substitute for tea ..."

Source:    Ross Cox, April 21, 1817, published 1832.

1831, Chief Factor Peter Warren Dease ...
"Thursd 30   This Morning Mess. Black & Annance Came back with Thomas & Crew with 14 Ps of the property picked up from the confined Eddy at the Portage a great intermixture of baggages took place the Whole baggages were Examined to ascertain the Pieces lost with an account of which M' Annance with 16 men will be dispatched to Vancouver -- will take the Boat which was found below Tea Meadow [Prairie du The] also in order to come up lighter & mor Expeditiously -- Wrote to C.F. McLoughlin informing him of the sad events and requesting that the Pieces of which a list is sent May be replaced as it would bear very hard upon the Posts for the trade during the season ..."

Source:    Chief Factor Peter Warren Dease, June 30, 1831, Journal of the Brigade from New Caledonia to Fort Vancouver and Return, 7 May - 13 September 1831, IN: James R. Gibson, 1997, The Lifeline of the Oregon Country: The Fraser-Columbia Brigade System, 1811-47, in reference to a boat being damaged while trying to navigate the Cascades.

1833, Nathaniel Wyeth ...
Nathaniel Wyeth organized and led two expeditions to the fur country, hoping to establish a good trade. He spent time in the Columbia River area between 1832 and 1836. In 1834 Wyeth established Fort Hall (the location of today's Pocatello, Idaho), and in the spring of 1835 he briefly established Fort William, a trading post on Sauvie Island, Oregon. In Wyeth's two journals, one from his first expedition in 1832 to 1833, and the other from his second expedition from 1834 to 1835, Wyeth mentions "Prairie du Li", "Lea Prairie", and "Tea Prairie".

"... 31st to the 3rd. Feb. we had warm and wet weather on the 3rd at 10 ock. we started for Wallah Walla I had with me two men and am in company with Mr Emmatinger of the H.B. Co. who has in charge 3 boats with 120 pieces of goods and 21 men. I parted with feelings of sorrow from the gentlemen of Fort Vancouver their unremitted kindness to me while there much endeared them to me more so than it would seem possible during so short a time Doct McGlaucland the Gov. of the place is a man distinguished as much for his kindness and humanity as his good sense and information and to whom I am so much indebted as that he will never be forgotten by me this day we came to the Prarie Du Li[s] 15 miles raining most of the day.

4th Left the prairie Du Li on the lower end of it this prairie is about 3 miles long and through it the River Du Li a small creek enters the Columbia we made but 2 miles when one of our boats ran foul of a rock and was stove it landed its cargo without wetting much this accident detained us till 1/4 before 12 ock when we started and kept on till 2 ock and stopped 20 minutes to dine then kept on till 1/2 past 5 ock making 17 mils this day this River is at medium water the rivers banks high precipitous and rocky from the Lea prairie in one place the bank on the N. side rises to 200 feet perpendicular I saw a hawk light on a projecting crag about half way up which gave me a good idea of the height of the rock from this rock a small stream casts itself into the Com. w[h]ether a permanent one or not cannot say but should think not there are here many white headed Eagles one skunk we saw today the timber appears much smaller than below no rain but cloudy this day wind west and Ther. about 40 deg. now at 8 ock at night the full moon is looking down calmly upon us aparently thinking that the cares of us humble individuals concern her little.

5th We left camp at 7 ock and made 4 miles to breakfast and in 7 mils more the foot of the Cascades our breakfast was made on a small island abreast of a rock rising perpendicular from the bed of the river as I should think 400 feet high Lewis & Clark call it I think 700 feet this rock is nearly surrounded by the waters of the river

Source:    Nathaniel Wyeth, January 31 to February 5, 1833.

1834, Nathaniel Wyeth ...
"17th. Took the gig and went up to Tea Prairie to see about a location but found none."

Source:    Nathaniel Wyeth, September 17, 1834.

1836, John Kirk Townsend ...
"... At 11 o'clock next day we arrived at the cascades, where we made the long portage, and at nine in the evening encamped in an ash grove, six miles above Prairie de The.

On the 8th, reached Vancouver ..."

Source:    John Kirk Townsend, September 7, 1836, IN: Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains, published 1839

1840, Oregon Trail (published 1877) ...
"... To return to our immigrants. On leaving the Dalles they proceeded on down the south side of the river as far as practicable, or opposite to the Wind Mountain. At this point the Indians assisted to cross them over to the north side, when they again made their way along the river as far as Tea Prairie above Vancouver. ..."

Source:    Francis Fuller Victor, published 1877, Eleven Years in the Rocky Mountains and life on the frontier, "Down the Columbia", Columbian Book Company, Hartford, Conn., writing about September 1840, Robert Newell and Joseph L. Meek wagons journeying to the Willamette Valley.

1843, Captain John C. Fremont ...
In 1843 Captain John C. Fremont, of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, led his men down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver. His goal was to link his survey of the west with that of Captain Charles Wilkes, who reached the Columbia in 1841.

"... Being now upon the ground explored by the South Sea expedition under Captain Wilkes, and having accomplished the object of uniting my survey with his, and thus presenting a connected exploration from the Mississippi to the Pacific, and the winter being at hand, I deemed it necessary to economize time by voyaging in the night, as is customary here, to avoid the high winds, which rise with the morning and decline with the day. ..." [Fremont, November 6, 1843]

While Fremont doesn't mention "Tea Prairie" in his text he does mention the "Tea Prairie river", presumably today's Washougal River. Fremont's map of the expedition however has "Tea Prairie" labeled over an area stretching from today's Camas and Washougal on the west to the eastern end of the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Fremont shows a river entering the Columbia just behind an unnamed island. This matches the location of the Washoughal River and Lady Island.

"As we advanced, the hills on both sides grew constantly lower; on the right, retreating from the shore, and forming a somewhat extensive bottom of intermingled prairie and wooded land. In the course of a few hours, and opposite to small stream coming in from the north, called the Tea Prairie river, the highlands on the left declined to the plains, and three or four miles below disappeared entirely on both sides, and the river entered the low country."

Source:    J.C. Fremont, November 7, 1843.

1908, Sunset Magazine ...
"... As the employes of the fur companies completed their terms of service or grew too old for the strenuous life of the mountain and portage, they set up house-keeping in semi-Indian style on some spot the trapper had selected during his time of service. Tea Prairie, French Prairie, Tualatin and Clatsop Plains were cheerful openings in the pervading forest, and selected as homes by settlers as early as 1830. ..."

Source:    John Gill, 1908, "On Clatsop Plains", IN: Sunset Magazine, vol.20, no.3, January 1908.

From the Journals of Lewis and Clark ...

Clark, November 3, 1805 ...
The Fog So thick [typical of the Pacific Northwest in the fall and spring] this morning that we could not See a man 50 Steps off, this fog detained us untill 10 oClock at which time we Set out [from their camp at Rooster Rock], ...    I walked on the Sand beech Lard. Side, opposit the canoes as they passed allong. The under groth rushes, vines &c. in the bottoms too thick to pass through, at 3 miles I arrived at the enterance of a river [Sandy River] which appeared to Scatter over a Sand bar, the bottom of which I could See quite across and did not appear to be 4 Inches deep in any part; I attempted to wade this Stream and to my astonishment found the bottom a quick Sand, and impassable- I called to the Canoes to put to Shore, I got into the Canoe and landed below the mouth, & Capt Lewis and my Self walked up this river about 1½ miles to examine this river which we found to be a verry Considerable Stream Dischargeing its waters through 2 Chanels which forms an Island [Sandy River Delta, which has had various names throughout history] of about 3 miles in length on the river and 1½ miles wide, composed of Corse Sand which is thrown out of this quick Sand river Compressing the waters of the Columbia and throwing the whole Current of its waters against its Northern banks, within a Chanel of ½ a mile wide, Several Small Islands 1 mile up this river, This Stream has much the appearance of the River Platt: roleing its quick Sands into the bottoms with great velocity after which it is divided into 2 Chanels by a large Sand bar before mentioned, the narrowest part of this River is 120 yards-on the Opposit Side of the Columbia a <large Creek> falls in [Washougal River]     above this Creek on the Same Side is a Small prarie [location of Washougal, Washington, Cottonwood Beach, now the home of Captain William Clark Park, and the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge]. extensive low country on each Side thickly timbered [low area upstream of Cottonwood Beach and Captain William Clark Park is the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge].

The Quick Sand river [Sandy River] appears to pass through the low countrey at the foot of those high range of mountains in a Southerly direction,- The large Creeks which fall into the Columbia on the Stard. Side [Washougal River] rise in the Same range of mountains to the N. N. E. and pass through Some ridgey land- A Mountain which we Suppose to be Mt. Hood [Mount Hood, Oregon] is S. 85° E about 47 miles distant from the mouth of quick sand river [Sandy River]     This mtn. is Covered with Snow and in the range of mountains which we have passed through and is of a Conical form but rugid- after takeing dinner at the mouth of this river [Sandy River]  we proceeded on passed the head of a Island [Lady Island] near the lard Side [???] back of which on the Same Side and near the head a large Creek falls in [Washougal River, today the town of Camas, Washington, lies between Lady Island and the Washougal River], and nearly opposit & 3 miles below the upper mouth of quick Sand river is the lower mouth, [for?] This Island [Lady Island] is 3 1/2 miles long, has rocks at the upper point, Some timber on the borders of this Island in the middle open and ponney. Some rugid rocks in the middle of the Stream opposit this Island.   <proceeded in> to Center of a large Island in the middle of the river which we call Dimond Isld. [Government Island] from its appearance, here we met 15 Indn men in 2 canoes from below, they informed us they Saw 3 vestles below &c. &c. we landed on the North Side of this Dimond Island and Encamped [on the north side of Government Island, perhaps opposite Fishers Landing],     Capt. L walked out with his gun on the Island, Sent out hunters & fowlers- below quick Sand River [Sandy River] the Countrey is low rich and thickly timbered on each Side of the river  [on the Oregon side this area is the eastern end of the Columbia Slough, located on the floodplain of the Willamette River with the Columbia River],   the Islands open & Some ponds river wide and emence numbers of fowls flying in every direction Such as Swan, geese, Brants, Cranes, Stalks, white guls, comerants & plevers &c. also great numbers of Sea Otter in the river [Harbor Seals] -     a Canoe arrived from the village below the last rapid ...     Capt Lewis borrowed a Small Canoe of those Indians & 4 men took her across to a Small lake in the Isld. [Government Island] ...    ...  :  note the mountain we Saw from near the forks proves to be Mount Hood [Mount Hood, Oregon]

Clark, March 31, 1806 ...
we Set out this morning [from their camp at "Jolie Prairie", today the location of Fort Vancouver and Pearson Airpark ... also in this area are Wintler Park and Ryan Point] and proceeded untill 8 oClock when we landed on the N. Side opposit one large House of the Shah-ha-la Nation near this house at the time we passed on the 4th of November last was Situated 25 houses, 24 of them were built of Straw & Covered with bark as before mentioned. those [of] that description are all distroyed, the one built of wood only remains and is inhabited [vicinity of today's Portland International Airport]. ...     at 10 A. M we proceeded on accompanied by one Canoe and three men, one of them appeared to be a man of Some note, ...     passed up on the N. Side of White brant Island [Lady Island] near the upper point of Which a Small river falls in about 80 yards wide and at this time discharges a great quantity of water [Washougal River]. the nativs inform us that this river is very Short and heads in the range of mountains to the N E of its enterance into the Columbia the nativs haveing no name which we could learn for this little river we Call it Seal river [Washougal River] from the great number of those Animals which frequents its mouth. this river forks into two nearly equal branches about 1 mile up and each branch is crouded with rapids & falls. we proceeded on about 2 miles above the enterance of this Seacalf river [Washougal River] and imedeately opposit the upper mouth of the quick Sand river [Sandy River] we formed a Camp in a Small Prarie on the North Side of the Columbia [Cottonwood Beach] where we intend to delay one or two days to make Some Selestial observations, to examine quick sand river [Sandy River], and kill Some meat to last us through the Western Mountains which Commences a fiew miles above us [Cascade Mountain Range] and runs in a N. N. W. & S. S. E. derection. The three Indians encamped near us and visited our fire we entered into a kind of a Conversation by signs, of the Country and Situation of the rivers. they informed us that Seal river [Washougal River] headed in the mountains at no great distance. quick Sand river [Sandy River] was Short only headed in Mt. Hood [Mount Hood, Oregon] which is in view and to which he pointed. this is a circumstance we did not expect as we had heretofore deemed a comsiderable river. Mount Hood bears East from this place and is distant from this place about 40 miles. this information if true will render it necessary to examine the river below on the South Side behind the image canoe [Hayden Island] and Wappato islands [Sauvie Island] for some river which must water the Country [Willamette River] weste of the western mountains to the Waters of California. The Columbia is at present on a Stand and we with dificuelty made 25 miles to day—.

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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

  • Cox, Ross, 1832, Adventures on the Columbia River ..., J&J Harper publishers;
  • U.S. Department Fish and Wildlife, Steigerwald Lake, Franz Lake, and Pierce National Wildlife Refuges Comprehensive Conservation Plan;
  • U.S. Library of Congress website, 2005.

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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September 2016