Roy I. Rochon Commentary: The Yakama Guide Who Led the First Rainier Ascent


The historic expedition of Gen. Hazard Stevens and Philemon Beecher Van Trump to climb Mount Rainier in August 1870 has its connections with the Cowlitz country and its people.

They began their expedition on Aug. 8. On Aug. 13, James Longmire, who participated in the early stages of the expedition, and Stevens went down Skate Creek to its junction with the Cowlitz Valley to locate Poniah’s band of Upper Cowlitz Indians from whom he had hoped to obtain a guide. Though the toilsome journey brought them to a deserted camp, their effort was not wasted because of the chance of finding a single family living in a rude shelter nearby while awaiting the ripening of the berries.

It was the lodge of that same Sluiskin, a Yakama Indian, who had fled wounded from the battle of Grand Ronde. Rather than submit to reservation life, he had slipped away to the mountains to live with the Upper Cowlitz, appearing at the camp of Poniah with hawk bells and finery to pass himself off as a chief. A marriage with one of Poniah’s daughters was easily arranged and Sluiskin began the isolated existence in the Upper Cowlitz and Cispus Valleys, which thereafter was his way of life.

He was a friendly fellow, this Sluiskin, welcoming Longmire and Stevens with dignified hospitality. With much handshaking, they were seated beneath the little shelter of hides to be served cakes of dried huckleberries by his wife; then there was talk through the medium of the Chinook jargon. Longmire soon explained the purpose of their visit, obtaining Sluiskin’s service as a guide, with the understanding that he would present himself at their camp the following day. Late in the evening, Longmire and Stevens returned to the camp on Bear Prairie, weary but with good news.

The next day was begun with industrious preparations for the assault on Mount Rainier. The mountaineers sorted equipment and supplies, put spikes in their shoes and fought off the mosquitos and gnats that paid so little attention to their smudge fires. Sluiskin arrived about noon, true to his word.

His entry was impressive; he rode up on an Indian pony with his young son behind him, while his wife followed afoot carrying an infant on her back. He was dressed for the occasion. A blanket, belted at the waist into a loose cloak, partly covered a buckskin shirt and a breechcloth of striped woolen stuff, with buckskin leggings down to his moccasins. But Sluiskin’s headgear was really the distinctive part of his regalia. It was made from an old army forage cap with the small round crown replaced by the perforated brass base which once held the chimney of a coal-oil lamp. Brass nails had been driven through the visor until they projected about an inch below, creating a spiny barrier before his eyes, the whole crested with eagle feathers. Stevens called the effect fierce and martial.

The new guide sat himself down to an ample dinner, while Longmire began his homeward journey, for he had completed his leg of the expedition. He took his mules with him and left the climbers with a packhorse for the transportation of their camp gear. Sluiskin’s bargain with the white men called for him to guide them to the base of Mount Rainier for a wage of one dollar per day, with his wife receiving an allowance of rations for looking after the camp and the horse.

Sluiskin was quite sharp and knew it would be to his advantage to prolong the trip — more days, more dollars! So he quickly vetoed Steven’s suggestion that they make the approach by the way of the Nisqually River, insisting in his fluent Chinook jargon, reinforced with pantomime, that the only practicable route lay along the summit of the Tatoosh Range, northeasterly from camp. However, he made it plain that he did not believe they could climb the mountain and he obviously considered the venture highly ridiculous.


Next week: The journey proves too much for one climber, but the others are greeted with unbelievable sights.


Roy I. Rochon Wilson was an elected leader of the Cowlitz Tribe for three decades and is the author of more than 30 books, including several histories of the Cowlitz Tribe. He is a retired ordained Methodist minister and current spiritual leader of the tribe. Wilson lives near Winlock.