By DEAN BAKER, Columbian staff writer
July 16, 2001
Government Island once had a beautiful name, and someday it might again.
Briefly, 196 years ago when 32 members of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery camped there, it was Diamond Island.
Today a regional committee working on the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial wants to give the island back its original name.
It was christened as a jewel of a place in 1805 by Lt. William Clark.
Setting off from today’s Sandy River in “fog so thick we could not see a man 50 steps off,” Clark and the other explorers paddled to the island, which looked to them like a diamond in the middle of the Columbia River.
In his journal, Nov. 3, 1805, William Clark christened the place “Dimond Island,” leaving out the letter “a.”
The explorers spent the night on the island about three miles west of modern Camas.
But the name Clark gave the island didn’t stick.
Within 50 years, folks on both sides of the river were calling it Government Island, and today it carries the same dull moniker.
“It was because the government raised hay for their animals over there and ran some cattle over there as well,” said Vancouver Councilwoman Pat Jollota, an amateur historian.
“It’s been flooded out a couple times, and they raised dairy cows on it, too,” said Jollota. “I don’t know how the government got the cows over there; maybe they swam across. I try to ignore it; it’s in Oregon, you know.”
But today, Government Island is a favorite recreation spot as well as grazing land, a wetland and a possible location for a runway for Portland International Airport.
The Portland-based Lewis and Clark 2005 Committee wants to resurrect the name “Diamond Island” in honor of the coming bicentennial. The committee also wants to expand boat access and improve interpretive signs on the island.
The project is part of a $2 million Oregon state parks plan for Lewis-and-Clark-connected upgrades between Troutdale and Biggs.
Government Island was one of Lewis and Clark’s 14 landing sites in the Vancouver-Portland area.
A little wilderness
Government Island is a wild place in the middle of a growing metropolitan area.
Just to the south is today’s PDX.
In 1805, today’s airport site was the location of a Chinook Indian village, Nerchokioo, a temporary residence used when gathering wapato, a food plant sometimes called “the Indian potato” that grows at the bottom of shallow lakes.
Nerchokioo was a good-sized Indian town, with 24 straw huts and a single 50-foot-long wooden house. In 1806, on their second pass through the area, Lewis and Clark counted 50 canoes pulled up on the beach where the big jets now land near the Interstate 205 Bridge.
Diamond Island was a busy place already when the 32 members of the Lewis and Clark expedition visited it in 1805.
“River wide and emence numbers of fowls, flying in every direction,” wrote Clark, the intrepid journal keeper who, like Lewis, made up his own spellings.
“Saw (Trumper and Whistling) swans, geese, Brants, (Sandhill) Cranes, (Wood) Stalks (storks), white guls, (double-breasted) comerant &c., also great numbers of Sea Otter in the river,” wrote Clark.
“Capt. L walked out with his gun on the Island, sent out hunters & fowlers.
“Here we met 15 Indn. men in 2 canoes from below,” wrote Clark.
“The men were dressed with a variety of articles of European manufactory. The large Canoe had emeges on the bow & Stern handsomly Carved in wood & painted with the figur of a Bear in front & man in a Stern.”
“We landed on the North side of this Dimond Island and Encamped, a canoe arrived from the village below the last rapid with a man his wife and 3 children from the village below, and a woman whome had been taken prisoner from the Snake Inds. on Clarks River.”
Clark said he sent “the interpreters wife” (Sacagawea, a Shoshone from the Snake River country and wife of Charbonneau, the interpreter) to talk with the prisoner, who probably was a Paiute. They couldn’t understand each other, Clark reported.
But the Indians lent Capt. Lewis a small canoe, and four men from the expedition used it to cross a small lake (Jewit Lake) on the island.
Lewis killed a swan and several ducks, Clark reported, “which made our number of fowls this evening to 3 Swan, 8 brant and 5 Ducks, on which we made a Sumpteous supper.”
They gave a brant to the Indian who lent them the canoe and some meat to some other Indians.
“One of the Indians, the man from the vilage near the Lower Rapids has a gun with a brass barrel & cock of which he prises highly,” Clark wrote.
The explorers’ guns weren’t the first in the area. Trade was well established up and down the river and with ships at the mouth of the Columbia.
With that, the explorers, usually in a hurry, went on their way to the coast, not spending any more ink on the island: Diamond or not.