On November 7, 1805, Captain William Clark wrote, “Ocian in view! O! the joy.” After more than a year on the trail west, the Corps of Discovery had reached its destination. Or so they thought. Actually on that day when he thought they saw the “ocian” Clark and the men traveling with him were actually at the Columbia River estuary. It would take another two weeks of traveling to actually arrive at the Pacific Ocean.
But the place they landed became known as Cape Disappointment. This “end” of the journey, was neither what they expected, nor what they wanted as they prepared to settle in for the winter. It was exposed to the ocean weather and there was a lack of game needed for sustenance. Besides captains William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, they had Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian fur trader, his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea and their infant son, Jean Baptiste; Clark’s slave, York, and the men of the expedition. In deciding to leave Cape Disappointment the entire company of 31 adults had a vote, including Sacajawea and York. All agreed then needed a better location that would be more sheltered and have greater opportunities to kill game for food during the winter.
They scouted for and identified a location on the south side of the Columbia River. Their chosen spot was two miles up the present-day Lewis and Clark River. It had a freshwater spring and was more sheltered from harsh weather than Cape Disappointment, but not too far distant from the coast where they would establish a salt works. They started construction of the log post on December 9, and moved in on Christmas Day, calling their new quarters Fort Clatsop for the local Indians. It was the first American military post constructed west of the Missouri River.
Clark described Fort Clatsop as 50-feet square with parallel cabins. There was space for the Charbonneau family, a cabin that had three rooms for enlisted men’s quarters, and quarters in another cabin for the captains. The structures also included an orderly room, and a storeroom. The two parallel cabins faced each other, with a small parade ground between them and tall gates at both ends.
Today if you visit Fort Clatsop National Historic Site near Astoria, Oregon, you will find what is believed to be an exact replica of the structure. But actually this is a replica of a replica since the earlier recreation burned during a fire in 2005. The site is still populated at times by living historians who replicate the men who were here during that winter of 1805-1806. It was during one of those reenactments that a spark from a fire started in the log structure destroying it.
The three months Lewis and Clark’s expedition spent at Fort Clatsop was critical to the mission. Clark drew maps of the country they had traversed and both captains recorded some of the most important scientific and ethnographic information they had collected. They all rested and prepared for the long journey home, which they would begin in the early spring.
I was at Fort Clatsop a couple of months ago on a rainy day that must have been much like most of the days the Corps of Discovery spent there. (According to company journals, it rained on all but 12 of the 106 days they Corp of Discovery was at Fort Clatsop.) The small visitor center has information about the journey, and the time Lewis, Clark and their expedition were in the region.
At the center you can also see a life-size bronze sculpture, “Arrival,” by Stanley Wanlass, which shows Lewis with arms spread, a Clatsop Indian showing Clark a flounder, Clark with a quill pen sketching the fish, and Clark’s dog Seaman looking on. While the center is interesting, what I enjoyed most about the visit was the opportunity to walk the trail down through the big Pacific trees that were dripping with rain. It was quiet, and because the day was so wet not many other visitors were outside and hiking.
For the Corps of Discovery winter at Fort Clatsop meant constant hunting and gathering. They turned hides into moccasins and coverings to replace items that were worn out. They made salt at their camp near the ocean and traded with the local Clatsop and Chinook people. They departed from Fort Clatsop on March 23, 1806, starting their long journey home.
Upon their departure, they left the structure to the Clatsop leader Caboway. By their accounts they were not too reluctant to leave behind the wet weather, fleas, and illness they had endured while at Fort Clatsop as they set out to travel 4,000 miles back to home. ❖