When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark together with the 31 other members of their “Corps of Discovery” finally reached the Pacific Ocean on the 7th of November, 1805, a 4000-mile, 18 month long trek across the North American continent lay behind them, and a fast-approaching winter in a strange land lay ahead. For all practical purposes, they had “disappeared” from off the surface of the earth in the eyes of the anxiously waiting leaders and citizens of the country in whose service they had been dispatched; they couldn’t have been more “alone” as they contemplated the challenge of their return journey.
After deciding that their chances of finding food sources were better to the south, across the mouth of the Columbia River in what is now Oregon, they surveyed and selected a site accessible to the sea, but protected by heavily-forested game-rich surroundings. Their greatest asset turned out to be the friendly native Clatsop people who had occupied that corner of the continent for hundreds of years, and whose knowledge of land and sea would prove invaluable to the expedition. Not only were they of a welcoming nature, but they had had prior experience trading with white visitors from sailing ships, and were quick to bridge language differences.
With the leadership of their two Captains, the men soon built log living quarters, a smoke house for preserving meat and salmon, and defensive picket walls. Reflecting their appreciation for their native friends who initially shared with them large pieces of blubber from a beached whale, they named it Fort Clatsop. The hunting of elk and deer became a winter-long enterprise for the Corps. members as they worked to prepare everything they would need before undertaking their long return journey of 1806.
The essential preserving element whose supply had been long exhausted was salt, and so Capt. Lewis, on December 28th, according to his journal, sent a small group consisting of Jos. Fields, William Bratton and George Gibson to find a convenient place near the sea at which they could begin making salt. After they had found such a place - presently in a restored condition in the town of Seaside - the operation required five iron kettles and the round-the-clock attendance of five men tending the fires, carrying buckets from the sea, and then transporting the finished product to camp 15 miles to the northeast. By February 15th, and despite illness and injuries, the men had produced just over three bushels of high grade “white salt”, and the salt-making camp by the sea was abandoned. (This is a story of special interest to the author who has visited the site, has a collection of salt from all over the world, and on whose wall hangs an artist’s rendering of the Lewis & Clark salt works.)
Sacagawea, the Shoshone wife of Tousant Charbonneau was an ever-present asset to the expedition, especially in searching out berries & edible roots and in “gentling” sometimes prickly relations with the Clatsop people. If there is an unfortunate side to what was basically a peaceful co-existence between the two cultures, it was a notion on the part of Capt. Lewis that the natives were untrustworthy and “given to theft”. I believe that he was mistaken, and in a future article called “The Story of a Canoe”, I will explain why.
In 1955 – on the 150th anniversary of the event, the Fort was initially rebuilt by the people of Oregon. After a fire intervened just prior to the bicentennial celebration in 2005, it burned to the ground and was rebuilt bigger and better by 700 volunteers for a 2006 dedication. The following year, Fort Clatsop became part of one of our nation’s newest additions to the National Park system to be known as “Lewis & Clark National Historic Park”.
A replica of the original Lewis & Clark winter quarters as built in 1805. Nat. Park. Svc. Photo
The interior of the Ft. Clatsop quarters were Spartan at best, and smoky at worst. Al Cooper photo
A Park employee dressed as a “Corps. of Discovery” Private demonstrates use of a smooth-bore musket like those expedition hunters used to hunt deer and elk. Cindy Cooper Bagley photo