Historic Sites and Buildings
Fort Clatsop, the 1805-6 winter camp of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, was its home for more than 3-1/2 months. When the explorers first arrived at the estuary of the Columbia in November 1806, they followed its north bank. But their camps were exposed to ocean gales and hunting was poor. Aware that a location near the ocean would be convenient for making much-needed salt and learning from the Indians that elk were more plentiful on the south side of the river, the men voted to seek a suitable wintering spot there. Rough water made it necessary to move back upstream several miles before making the crossing.
From a temporary camp established late in the month near Tongue Point, just east of present Astoria, Lewis and five men set out and found a suitable site. Located about 3 miles up the present Lewis and Clark River on the west bank, it was near good hunting in the lowlands, where elk wintered in large numbers; stood 30 feet above the river high-water mark; and was close enough to the coast to facilitate contact with any visiting northwest traders. Timber suitable for construction and fresh-water springs were also at hand, and the forest cover and hills provided shelter from the winter gales that lashed the open estuary of the Columbia. The seashore was only a little more than 3 air miles to the west.
Construction of Fort Clatsop, named after a local Indian tribe, began soon after the party arrived on December 7. Although the finishing touches were not completed until December 30, everyone was under roof by Christmascelebrated in the lonely outpost at the western extremity of a vast wilderness. The fort, about 50 feet square, consisted of two long facing buildings joined on the sides by palisades, which created a small "parade ground" between the structures.
During the winter, a saltmaking camp was set up about 15 miles by trail to the southwest at present Seaside, Oreg. Other activities of the complement included: reconnoitering the surrounding area, hunting, servicing of weapons and equipment, making elk hide clothing and moccasins, and completing other preparations for the eastbound trek.
Lewis and Clark reworked their earlier journals; recorded ethnological, zoological, and botanical observations; collected specimens of flora and fauna; and planned the eastward journey. As usual, Lewis concentrated on the accumulation of scientific data, and Clark on cartographic matters. They were disappointed that they encountered no northwest traders, who would have offered a source of supplies and trade goods and possibly even a mode of transportation back to the east coast.
One unusual highlight of the winter was the trip Clark, Sacagawea, her son, Charbonneau, and 11 men made from Fort Clatsop on January 6-10, 1806, to the site of the present city of Cannon Beach, Oreg., at the mouth of what they called Ecola (modern Elk) Creek. It was about 8 miles below the salt camp and the southernmost point on the Pacific reached by the expedition. The lure was an Indian report that a whale had washed ashore at that place. But, by the time the group arrived, Killamuck Indians had stripped all the flesh off the skeleton. Clark was able to purchase only 300 pounds of blubber and some oil.
Except for this diversion, life at the fort was usually monotonous and depressing. Because of the almost constant rain, the men suffered from colds, influenza, and other ailments. The dampness damaged equipment and supplies. Fleas were a major nuisance. Worst of all, a chronic food shortage existed, and the diet was rarely balanced. Procuring and transporting enough meat, especially as the hunters had to travel farther and farther afield, was problem enough. Much of it quickly spoiled. Dry wood was almost impossible to find for smoking the meat, and wet timber was hardly suitable for the purpose. As a result, the scarce trade goods had to be used to purchase dog meat, roots, berries, and fish from the Indians as dietary supplements.
For all these reasons, departure on March 23, 1806, was a joyous occasion. As a goodbye present, Lewis and Clark presented Fort Clatsop and its furnishings to Chief Comowool, a friendly Clatsop. He probably used the fort as a hunting lodge for a few years during the autumn and winter seasons. Over the years, the structure decayed, and had almost completely disappeared by the time U.S. settlers entered the area about 1850. Subsequently, all traces of it vanished.
In 1901 the Oregon Historical Society acquired the Fort Clatsop site. During the Lewis and Clark Sesquicentennial celebration in 1955, local business, civic, patriotic, and historical groups erected a replica of the fort. It faithfully followed the floorplan and room separations as drawn by Clark on the elk hide cover of his field notebook. But in all other respects, in the absence of any contemporary drawing, the reconstruction was generalized to conform with similar structures of the period.
In 1958 the National Park Service acquired the replica, along with 125 acres of surrounding land, and 4 years later established Fort Clatsop National Memorial. Since that time, some repairs and minor changes have been made to the structure to bring it closer to authenticity, and it has been furnished to resemble its 1805-6 appearance. In the 1950's and 1960's National Park Service archeologists dug test trenches in the vicinity, but found no evidence of the original building. They may have missed the exact site, or the construction of several houses in the area during the 19th century may have obliterated any traces that once remained. Yet, all the documentary evidence indicates that the replica is on the site of the original fort or close to it.
A museum in the visitor center of the national memorial interprets the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Trails corresponding to those used by its members lead to the canoe landing, the camp spring, and in the direction of the seacoast. Deer and elk still graze in the park area, as they did in the time of Lewis and Clark.
For major sites and routes of the expedition along the Columbia estuary, see map entitled "Exploring the Mouth of the Columbia and the Pacific Coast."
Part of the route the Clark party followed to the whale site, over lofty Tillamook Head, passes through Ecola State Park, north of Elk Creek. A State highway marker is at a high point on U.S. 101 about a mile from and overlooking the whale site.
Last Updated: 22-Feb-2004