History & Culture: Places: Fort Clatsop
“At this place we had wintered”
Within 10 days of arriving on the coast, the Corps of Discovery decided to leave their storm–bound camp on the north shore of the Columbia River and explore the area to the south where elk were reported to be plentiful. Lewis, with a small party, scouted ahead and found a “most eligible” site for winter quarters. On December 10, 1805, the men began to build a fort about two miles up the Netul River (now Lewis and Clark River). By Christmas Day they were under shelter. They named the fort for the friendly local Indian tribe, the Clatsop. It would be their home for the next three months.
The Corps of Discovery remained at Fort Clatsop from December 7, 1805, until March 23, 1806. During that time, Clatsop and Chinook Indians, whom Clark described as close bargainers, came to the fort almost daily to visit and trade. The captains wrote often in their journals of these tribes’ appearances, habits, living conditions, lodges and abilities as hunters and fishermen.
Throughout the winter Lewis and Clark maintained a strict military routine. A sentinel was constantly posted, and at sundown each day the fort was cleared of visitors and the gates locked for the night. Of the 106 days the explorers spent at the fort, it rained every day but 12, and the men suffered from colds, influenza, rheumatism, and other ailments that the captains treated. Clothing rotted, and fleas infested the blankets and hides of the bedding to such a degree that a full night’s sleep was often impossible.
With little food in reserve, hunting for meat was all important. The men killed more than 130 elk, 20 deer, and many small animals, including fowl, during the winter. Whale was later added to their diet. For vegetables the men had to be content with various roots, including the wapato, which resembled a small potato. These root foods were brought by the Clatsop to the fort for trade.
Due to the rain the men often stayed indoors engaged in a variety of tasks, from servicing their weapons and preparing elk-hide clothing for the homeward journey to making elk fat candles as light for journal writing. The captains brought their journals up to date, making copious notes on the trees, plants, fish, and wildlife around Fort Clatsop, and drew excellent sketches. Many such descriptions were the first identification of important flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest. Clark, the cartographer of the party, spent most of his time refining and updating maps of the country through which they had traveled.
Drawing by Rolf Klep, Astoria Artist
University of Washington Archaeological Dig, November, 2006
Fort Clatsop, built and occupied by the Lewis and Clark expedition, served as the expedition’s winter encampment in 1805-1806, following their long cross-country journey. Upon the group’s departure in March, 1806, the fort rapidly decayed in the wet coastal forest of western Oregon. The National Park Service maintains a replica fort within the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park that is believed to sit on or near the site of the original fort. The original fort, however, has not been seen since the mid-19th century and, despite efforts, remains of the fort continue to elude archaeologists. Archaeologists working at the site over the past six decades have described myriad subsurface “pit” and “lens” features, variously interpreted as fire hearths and trash or privy pits, and sometimes interpreted as evidence of Lewis and Clark. The ubiquity of such features on the landscape and the absence of corroborative artifactual evidence call into question their anthropogenic origin, and archaeologists have often failed to consider the full range of site formation processes acting on the site.
In this geoarchaeological study, several methods of investigation were employed to examine subsurface profiles and purported features, and to test the various hypotheses for the origins of the pits at Fort Clatsop. Geoarchaeological investigations consisted of controlled excavations, including re-examinations of units dug by previous researchers in hopes of observing identified features.
One excavation unit was placed at distance from the fort reconstruction and served as a control; the location of this unit was chosen in an attempt to reveal relatively undisturbed litho-and pedo-stratigraphic sequences (in other words, sediments that had not been disturbed by farming, road construction, brick making, or other activities). Soil descriptions, granulometry, loss-on-ignition tests, and micromorphological analyses were done to characterize and compare “pits” with surrounding deposits. Phosphorous analysis was conducted to test the hypothesis that features were trash or privy pits. Polished sections were created to characterize one of the red lenses so common in excavation profiles. These investigations, informed by principles of forest ecology, document natural and cultural disturbances to the landform, and suggest several alternative explanations for the formation of subsurface features. There is no data to suggest an early 19th-century Lewis and Clark origin for any of these features.