William Clark called the Palouse River “little” when he first observed it on October 13, 1805 as he and other members of the Corps of Northwest Discovery canoed down Lewis’s River, a watercourse he had earlier named for his co-commander, Meriwether Lewis. Together the captains decided to name the new tributary “drewyers River” for George Drouillard, the son of a French-Canadian father and a Native American mother who served the expedition as a civilian hunter, tracker, horse trader, messenger and occasional interpreter of sign language.
Inasmuch as the new stream intercepted Lewis’s River—soon to be renamed the Snake River—between two sets of churning rapids the Lewis and Clark Expedition considered it too dangerous to land their six canoes and explore the outlet. This was disappointing inasmuch they could see parts of an Indian home and a “Picketed grave yard.” The onset of fall weather forced the captains to reluctantly move on. More than 17 months and 3,600 miles earlier the expedition had left the vicinity of St. Louis near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and they planned to reach the shores of the Pacific Ocean before the winter of 1805 set in.
Had the Lewis and Clark Expedition delayed their journey to explore Palouse River Canyon they would have been surprised. The picketed graveyard they glimpsed ultimately led twentieth century scientists to 24 caves holding 270 Native bodies, some as old as 10,000 years. And the house the explorers glimpsed has subsequently been identified as part of a once prosperous Native village called Paulus. More importantly, had any of the thirty-odd members of the expedition proceeded 6 miles up the canyon they would have discovered a spectacular falls. But none did.
In the years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition the confluence of the Palouse and Snake rivers was visited by a virtual Who’s Who of Pacific Northwest luminaries: David Thompson (1811), the Overland Astorians (1812), David Douglas (1830), and Marcus Whitman (1839). Yet, none of these otherwise curious characters ventured up the canyon! It was the philologist of the United States Exploring Expedition (aka Charles Wilkes Expedition, 1838-1842), Haratio Emmons Hale, who, in June of 1841, became the first Euro-American to view both the stark upper canyon and the dramatic falls.
The falls, Hale recorded in his report, “are of some note. . . as the river pours down, in a cataract of foam, through a perpendicular descent of one hundred feet, and is received in a basin, surrounded by basaltic walls, between two and three hundred feet in height.” He predicted that the falls “will hereafter be an object of interest to travellers in this country.”
In addition to their visual attributes Hale wrote that the falls “are celebrated in Indian mythology.”
. . . it is related that a woman of gigantic size lived in that part of the country, with four brothers of equal stature. She became very desirous of obtaining some beaver’s fat, but whether for a delicacy or cosmetic is not known. At this time there was only one beaver, and that of enormous dimensions, inhabiting the banks of the Snake river. The brothers hunted him for a long time without success; many places along the river, in which he would harbor, were searched, but without finding his hiding-places. Finally, the animal was surprised at the mouth of the Peluse, which was then a peaceful stream, winding through an even channel. As the beaver retreated up the stream, he was pursued and overtaken, two miles from its mouth. At first they pinned him to the earth with their spears, but by a violent effort he broke loose and fled. This struggle produced the first rapids of the Peluse. A little farther up they again overtook the beaver, who again made his escape, by producing the second rapids; and lastly, where he was secured, his dying struggles gave rise to the great falls of the Aputaput [Falling Water]. After killing him, and taking his skin and fat, they cut up the body and threw the pieces in various directions, from which has arisen the various tribes in the region; among them the Cayuse, the Nez Perce, Wallawalla, etc.
Hale had no idea that the canyon and falls he visited had been shaped some 12,800 years earlier when a series of 40 or more Ice Age floods swept out of ancient Lake Missoula and rampaged across the central part of Washington creating waterfalls, canyons, and what geologists now call channeled scablands. Nor did he have inkling that the cascading river at the falls had already been flowing for 165 miles from its source or that it had already dropped some 4,800’ in elevation. Hale did, however, understand that the entire region of gently sloping hills drained by the river was commonly referred to as the Palouse. French fur traders crossing the region decades earlier used the word pelouse, meaning grasslands or lawn, to describe the bunchgrass hills that swayed in the wind. It took until June 11, 1855, for federal government documents to catch up with local lore and formally give names to the Palouse River and region, something Washington Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens did when he formalized a treaty with the Nez Perce tribe of Indians.
The first artist to portray Palouse Falls in a sketch-book was Paul Kane. In mid-July of 1847, Kane drew a portrait of a Native who was so pleased with the result that “He told me that there was a fall
up the Pelouse that no white man had ever seen, and that he would conduct me up the bed of the river, as it was sufficiently shallow for our horses. I accepted his proposal, . . .” (Kane, of course, did not know that Horatio Hale had been to the falls a half-dozen years earlier.) Remaining several days at a camp Kane made sketches of the falls and the landscape.
Kane’s sketch of Palouse Falls is to be believed (with adjustments for artistic license!) but his book, Wanderings of An Artist Among the Indians of North America (1859) is not. Two editors with lively imaginations turned Kane’s journal entries into publishable material after his return to Canada and under their guidance the Palouse Canyon became eight or ten miles long, basaltic rocks were “heaped in confusion one upon another to the height of 1000 or 1500 feet” and one strata even assumed the “circular form and the appearance of the Colosseum in Rome.” Kane was said to have marveled at water falling “in one perpendicular sheet of about 600 feet in height. . .” Did Kane really express himself thusly? No. The most revealing entry in his daybook while at the falls reads that he was “sorrey to leve such a piceresk countrye.”
Frontier guide, interpreter and self-taught artist Gustavus Sohon accompanied the construction crews building the transmontane Military Road (aka Mullan Road, 1858-1862) and his images, including a depiction of Palouse Falls, appeared in the Reports.
John Mix Stanley, a survey artist accompanying the Pacific Railroad Survey of 1853 created what is probably the most enduring artistic image of “Peluse Falls,” a lithograph that was published in 1860.
The main Palouse Falls—there is an upper falls with a slope of of less than 20-feet—has a drop officially calculated by the State of Washington in 1945 at 198-feet. The exact measurement became an issue in 2009 when a daredevil kayak paddler ran the falls during the April runoff and he claimed a world record for the highest waterfall drop at 186-feet. A Whitman College geology professor and a team of students made calculations to confirm or deny the claim, but the facts, it seems, change with the seasons and the corresponding river flow that influences the water level at both the lip of the plunge and in the plunge pool. For example, spring rains annually fill the Palouse River with chocolate brown water that has been infused with topsoil from Palouse fields, an amount in some years that has been estimated to be the equivalent of 160 acres of soil 80-feet deep.
Using lands donated by the Baker-Boyer National Bank of Walla Walla, the McGregor Land and Livestock Company, and Mrs. Agnes Sells the Washington State Legislature established Palouse Falls State Park in 1951. In 2014, the state legislature named Palouse Falls the Washington State Waterfall.