Lewis and Clark's Columbia River
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Lewis & Clark's Columbia River - "200 Years Later"
"Vancouver's Witness Tree, Washington"
Includes ... Vancouver's Witness Tree ...
Image, 2017, Vancouver, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Detail, Panel 7, Witness Tree. Vancouver Tapestry, Vancouver Barracks, Fort Vancouver, Washington. Image taken August 24, 2017.

Vancouver's Witness Tree ...
Vancouver's "Witness Tree" was a cottonwood which stood at the foot of Main Street. The tree was over 75 feet tall. The tree collapsed into the Columbia River on June 27, 1909.

"The witness tree fell into the river in June, 1909, being undermined by high water. Part of the tree was saved, but most of it floated out to sea [in] the high water of June, 1910." ["Morning Oregonian", June 16, 1912]

"Reigning over the booming downtown section of Vancouver, the Witness Tree's trunk grew to be five feet in diameter and 75 feet tall. In 1909, with major portions of the river bank washed away by consecutive spring run-offs, the tree gradually leaned out over the water until it could no longer fully support itself. Anchored to the shore only by a portion of its trunk and root system, it managed to hold on for two more years.

Then on June 29, 1911, the tree tore loose and disappeared downstream. Up until this time, scores of signtseers visited the tree taking away branches and bark as mementoes. Pieces found their way into City Hall, the Public Record Library, the State Historical Society and were even carved into gavels. Many visitors planted branches in the ground that took root. It is assumed that "children" of this hsitoric tree abound throughout Vancouver, bearing true witness to our city's rich historical past."

Source:    City of Vancouver/Urban Forestry, "The Witness Tree Program" brochure.

Information Sign ...
"Surveyors near and far have used witness trees to document land claims and boundaries. Local written records of Vancouver's Witness Tree first appeared in the 1840s with the arrival of American settlers in Clarke County. One such settler, Amos Short, famously used the cottonwood to set boundaries for his land claim, etching his initials into the tree. As time passed, the steadfast tree became one of Clark County's most recognizable and beloved landmarks."

"On July 1, 1909, the citizens of Clarke County awoke to sad news. The Vancouver Independent reported "Disgusted with its surroundings and with the little respect in which it seemed to be held by members of the city council and others, the old Witness Tree ... at four o'clock last Sunday afternoon committed suicide by plunging into the Columbia River ... its death is upon the hands of those who refused to minister to its wants in its old age." Many sentimental residents took souvenirs from the prostrate tree. Two years would pass before the tree slid into the Columbia and "into history" as citizens noted in 1911."

Source:    "The Witness Tree" information sign, Vancouver, Washington, visited December 30, 2017.

Image, 2017, Vancouver, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Vancouver's Witness Tree Information Sign, Vancouver, Washington. Image taken December 30, 2017.

Vancouver's Witness Tree

  • April 1909 ... "To Protect Historic Tree"
  • May 1909 ... "Famous Tree To Be Save"
  • Did Lewis and Clark Really Tie Their Canoe to the Tree ???
  • June 1909 ... "Hundreds Secure Portions Of Old Witness Tree"
  • June 1909 ... "Spike Found In Old Tree"
  • June 1913 ... "Famous Spot To Be Park"

April 1909 ... "Famous Tree To Be Saved"
Waters of Columbia Encroaching on Vancouver Landmark.

"VANCOUVER, Wash., April 19. -- (Special) -- The old witness tree at the foot of Main street, with which are connected many historic associations, is in danger of being undermined by the Columbia River, and steps are being taken by the citizens so to construct a safeguard around the tree that it may be permanently preserved.

This is the balm of giead tree, marking the corner of the Amos Short donation land claim which was surveyed in 1846, and this marked the starting point for all surveys run in this section. It is the southwest corner of the military reservaion and forms the boundary at that point between the city and the garrison grounds. When Lewis and Clark made their trip down the Columbia they tied their canoe to this tree. The Hudson's Bay Company's first trading post in this section was built near the old witness tree."

Source:    "Morning Oregonian, April 20, 1909, courtesy Historic Oregon Newspapers Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, 2018.

May 1909 ... "Famous Tree To Be Saved"
Vancouver High School Pupils Start Subscription Fund.

"VANCOUVER, Wash., May 27. -- (Special) -- A subscription list to raise #200 with which to preserve the old witness tree at the foot of Main street, was started today. The money will be solicited by a committee of High school students. The plan has the approval of the City Council and the public in general and there is no doubt the fund will be raised. James B. Kerr, of Portland, has subscribed #35.

The work of fixing the old Balm of Gilead tree so as to stop the waters of the Columbia from washing away the earth from the tree's roots will be done under the supervision of the City Engineer. It is planned to drive piling in the river a little beyond the tree and then fill in the space between the tree and the piling.

The old witness tree is one of the oldest landmarks in or around Vancovuer. All surveys started from this point. A century or more ago, beneath its branches, the Indians oft'times smoked the pipe of peace. It was to this tree that Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition to the Coast, tied their canoe."

Source:    "Morning Oregonian, May 28, 1909, courtesy Historic Oregon Newspapers Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, 2018.

Did Lewis and Clark Really Tie Their Canoe to the Tree ???
Lewis and Clark first came through the Vancouver area in November 1805, on their journey to the Pacific Ocean. On November 4, 1805, Captain Clark walked on the "Small Prarie" which someday would become Pearson Airpark.

"... a Small Prarie in which there is a pond opposit on the Stard.    here I landed and walked on Shore, about 3 miles a fine open Prarie for about 1 mile, back of which the countrey rises gradually and wood land comencies ...    a few Cottonwood trees & the Ash of this countrey grow Scattered on the river bank ..." [Clark, November 4, 1805]

Heading back home in 1806, Lewis and Clark's campsite of March 30, 1806, was on that "beautifull prarie".

"... we encamped a little before sunset in a beautifull prarie above a large pond ... " [Lewis, March 30, 1806]

June 1909 ... "Hundreds Secure Portions Of Old Witness Tree"
Hundreds Secure Portions of Old Witness Tree as Souvenirs.

"VANCOUVER, Wash., June 28. -- (Special) -- There has been a constant pilgrimage today by citizens of Vancouver to the old "Witness Tree" that fell into the river Sunday afternoon, and there will be few people in the city who will not have in their possession some part large or small, of the historic tree.

The Woodmen of the World have sawed six blocks from the trunk of the tree and these blocks will be polished and used in the lodge rooms. It is likely that a block from the trunk will be preserved in the City Hall, in the park and in the Public Library, and part of the tree will be sent to the State Historical Society.

There is universal regret on the part of the people at the loss of the old witness tree."

Image, 1909, Vancouver, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
NEWSPAPER IMAGE: Vancouver's "Witness Tree". "Morning Oregonian", June 29, 1909, courtesy Historic Oregon Newspapers Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, 2018.

Source:    "Morning Oregonian, June 29, 1909, courtesy Historic Oregon Newspapers Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, 2018.

June 1909 ... "Spike Found In Old Tree"
Early Surveyor's Mark Will Be Preserved by Historical Society.

"VANCOUVER, Wash., June 29. -- (Special) -- The relic hunters and souvenir collectors are still cutting and sawing at old witness tree which fell into the Columbia last Sunday. The old historic tree is now practically striped of all its boughs and limbs and part of the trunk has been cut up and carried off.

Today, embedded beneath the bark and at a point about ten feet above the ground in the trunk of the tree was found a bridge spike, supposed to be the spike driven into the tree by the surveyors when the first surveying lines were run from the old witness tree as a starting point.

A block was cut off about five feet long to be sent to the Clark County booth at the A-Y-P Exposition.

A block was cut today and arrangements were being made to send it to the British Museum in London, England. This is being done, as the old witness tree marked the landing point of the fur traders of the Hudson Bay Company in 1824, that company being an English corporation."

Source:    "Morning Oregonian, June 30, 1909, courtesy Historic Oregon Newspapers Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, 2018.

June 1913 ... "Famous Spot To Be Park"
Railroads Lease Property to Vancouver for $1 a Year Each.

"VANCOUVER, Wash., June 4. -- (Special) -- The spot where the famous old balm of Gilead witness tree grew, at the foot of Main street, is to be made into a park -- a beauty spot -- by the Vancouver Woman's Club. All surveys in the northwest started here.

The land is owned by the North Bank and the Northern Pacific, which companies have consented to lease the land to the city for $1 a year for each company. It is triangular in shape and contains three and one-eigth square feet. Mrs. F.E. Vaughan, president, and Mrs. Nellie Lambson, secreatry of the Vancouver Woman's Club, appeared before the Council tonight and secured assurance that the Council would lease the property."

Source:    "Morning Oregonian, June 5, 1913, courtesy Historic Oregon Newspapers Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, 2018.

From the Journals of Lewis and Clark ...

Clark, November 4, 1805 ...
A cloudy cool morning wind from the West we Set out at 1/2 past 8 oClock [from their camp on the north side of Government Island, approximately across from Fisher's Landing], one man Shannon Set out early to walk on the Island [Government Island] to kill Something, he joined us at the lower point with a Buck. This island is 6 miles long and near 3 miles wide thinly timbered     (Tide rose last night 18 inches perpndicular at Camp) near the lower point of this diamond Island [Government Island] is The head of a large Island Seperated from a Small one by a narrow chanel [Lewis and Clark show two large islands on their maps, both in today's Government Island area], and both Situated nearest the Lard Side, those Islands [even today the Government Island reach is a complex of many islands] as also the bottoms are thickly Covered with Pine &c. river wide, Country low on both Sides; [since 1983 the Interstate 205 bridge crosses Government Island connecting Oregon to Washington]     on the Main Lard Shore a Short distance below the last Island we landed at a village of 25 Houses: [near Portland International Airport]; ...     This village contains about 200 men of the Skil-loot nation ...

at 7 miles below this village passed the upper point of a large Island [Hayden Island] nearest the Lard Side, a Small Prarie [Jolie Prairie, today the location of Fort Vancouver and Pearson Airpark. Lewis and Clark camp on this prairie on their return] in which there is a pond [one of the many ponds which use to dot this area] opposit on the Stard. here I landed and walked on Shore, about 3 miles a fine open Prarie for about 1 mile, back of which the countrey rises gradually and wood land comencies Such as white oake, pine of different kinds, wild crabs with the taste and flavour of the common crab and Several Species of undergroth of which I am not acquainted, a few Cottonwood trees & the Ash of this countrey grow Scattered on the river bank, ...     joined Capt. Lewis at a place he had landed with the party for Diner. ...

dureing the time we were at dinner those fellows Stold my pipe Tomahawk which They were Smoking with [Tomahawk pipe, thus giving rise to the name Tomahawk Island] ...    we proceeded on

[The men have passed through the area which, 20 years later, Dr. John McLoughlin would choose for a trading post of the Hudson's Bay Company, later to become Fort Vancouver and eventually the city of Vancouver, Washington.]

met a large & a Small Canoe from below, with 12 men the large Canoe was ornimented with Images carved in wood the figures of <man &> a Bear in front & a man in Stern, Painted & fixed verry netely on the <bow & Stern> of the Canoe, rising to near the hight of a man [Lewis and Clark then named Hayden Island "Image Canoe Island"]     two Indians verry finely Dressed & with hats on was in this canoe passed the lower point of the Island [Hayden Island] which is nine miles in length haveing passed 2 Islands on the Stard Side of this large Island [the location of Vancouver Landing and since 1917 the Interstate 5 Bridge connecting Oregon to Washington State], three Small Islands at its lower point [The downstream end of Hayden Island was at one time composed of small islands. One of these, Pearcy Island, would become today's Kelley Point.]. the Indians make Signs that a village is Situated back of those Islands on the Lard. Side and I believe that a Chanel is Still on the Lrd. Side [it wasn't until Lewis and Clark's return trip they would discover the mouth of the Willamette River] as a Canoe passed in between the Small Islands, and made Signs that way, probably to traffick with Some of the nativs liveing on another Chanel, at 3 miles lower [Sauvie Island is located at this stretch, but it is not until the return that Lewis and Clark recognize it as a separate island], and 12 Leagues below quick Sand river [Sandy River] passed a village of four large houses on The Lard. Side [on Sauvie Island], near which we had a full view of Mt. Helien [Mount St. Helens, Washington] which is perhaps the highest pinical in America from their base it bears N. 25 E about 90 miles- This is the mountain I Saw from the Muscle Shell rapid [Umatilla Rapids, Captain Clark actually saw Mount Adams] on the 19th of October last Covered with Snow, it rises Something in the form of a Sugar lofe- about a mile lower passed a Single house on the Lard. Side, and one on the Stard. Side, passed a village on each Side and Camped near a house on the Stard. Side [Post Office Lake vicinity, today within the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge] we proceeded on untill one hour after dark with a view to get clear of the nativs who was constantly about us, and troublesom, finding that we could not get Shut of those people for one night, we landed and Encamped on the Stard. Side ...

This evening we Saw vines much resembling the raspberry which is verry thick in the bottoms. A range of high hills at about 5 miles on the Lard Side [Portland's West Hills'] which runs S. E. & N W. Covered with tall timber the bottoms below in this range of hills and the river is rich and leavel, Saw White geese with a part of their wings black. The river here is 1 miles wide, and current jentle. opposite to our camp on a Small Sandy Island [one of the small sandy islands prevelent in this stretch of the Columbia. Today the Willow Bar Islands on the east side of Sauvie Island lie across from Post Office Lake.] the brant & geese make Such a noise that it will be impossible for me to Sleap. we made 29 miles to day

Clark, March 30, 1806 ...
we got under way verry early [from their camp near Wapato Portage] and had not proceeded to the head of the island [Bachelor Island] before we met with the three men of the Clan-nar-min-a-mon's who met us yesterday brackfast at the upper point of the Island [Bachelor Island] we met Several of the Clackstar and Cath-lah-cum-up in two canoes. Soon after we were overtaken by Several Canoes of different tribes who reside on each Side of the river the three above Tribes and the Clh-in-na-ta cathy-lah-nah-qui-up & Cath-lah-com-mah-tup reside on each Side of Wappato inlet [Multnomah Channel] and back of Wappato Island [Sauvie Island] which Island is formed by a Small Chanel which passes from the Lower part of Image Canoe Island [Hayden Island] into an inlet which makes in from the S W. Side, and receves the water of a Creek which heads with the Kil a mox River. this wappato Island [Sauvie Island] is about 18 or 20 Miles long and in places from 6 to 10 miles wide high & furtile with ponds on different parts of it in which the nativs geather Wappato. nearly opposit the upper point of the Isld. behing which we encamped last night, or on the Wappato Isld. is Several Camps of the nativs catching Sturgion. about 5 miles Still higher up and on the N E. Side we halted for brackfast at the place which We had encamped the 4th of November last [near Post Office Lake, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge]. here we were visited by several canoes of Indians from two Towns a Short distance above on the Wappato Island [Sauvie Island]. the 1st of those Tribes Call themselves Clan-nah-quah and Situated about 2 miles above us, the other about a mile above Call themselves Mult-no-mah ...     at 10 a. m. we Set out and had not proceeded far before we came to a landing place where there was Several large canoes hauled up, and Sitting in a canoe, appearantly waiting our arival with a view to join the fleet indian who was then along Side of us. this man informed he was a Shoto and that his nation resided a little distance from the river. we landed and one of the indians pointed to the Shoto village which is Situated back of Pond [Vancouver Lake] which lies parrelal with the river on the N E. Side nearly opposit the Clan-nah quah village. here we were also joined by Several Canoes loaded with the natives from the Island who Continued to accompany us untill about 4 oClock when they all returned and we proceeded on to the place the Indians Stole my Tomahawk 4th Novr. last [Hayden Island] and Encamped in a Small Prarie ["Jolie Prairie" where Fort Vancouver and Pearson Airpark would some day be located] above a large Pond on N. E and opposit the Center of image Canoe Island [Hayden Island]. capt Lewis walked out and Saw Several deer. Jo. Field Shot at Elk he killed and brought in a fine duck. ...     we made 22 Miles only to day the wind and a Strong current being against us all day, with rain. discovered a high mountain S E. Covered with Snow which we call Mt. Jefferson [Mount Jefferson, Oregon]

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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

  • City of Vancouver/Urban Forestry, "The Witness Tree Program" brochure, downloaded 2018;
  • Historic Oregon Newspapers Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, 2018;

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.
© 2019, Lyn Topinka, "ColumbiaRiverImages.com", All rights reserved.
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September 2017