Overview of Archaeological Exploration 1957-1958

Excavation 1996
Archeological Excavation, 1996

NPS Photo

Archeological Excavations at Fort Clatsop

November 7, 1805, William Clark made the entry in his journal, "Ocian in view! 0! the joy." Historians note that on this day," They had arrived where they had longed to be." Approximately a month later, near the mouth of the Columbia river, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark polled Expedition members regarding their opinion for the best location for winter quarters. This exercise in democracy resulted in crossing over the Columbia, to the south side, and selecting the site which history recognizes as Fort Clatsop. Roughly three and one half months later, Lewis summarizes their stay with an entry in his journal, "Altho' we have not fared sumptuously this winter and spring at Fort Clatsop. we have lived quite as comfortably as we had any reason to expect we should: and have accomplished every object which induced our remaining at this place except that of meeting with the traders who visit the entrance of this river." Three days later, March 23, 1806 the captains gave the Fort to Coboway, a Clatsop leader, and the Expedition departed for the long trip overland, never to set eyes on Fort Clatsop again.

Today we recognize the Lewis and Clark Expedition as a turning point in the history of the United States. Regarding the Expedition, National Park Service historian John Hussey once remarked, "Its impact on the American mind and imagination is amply demonstrated by the way travelers to the Columbia River area, as early as 1811, went considerable distances out of their way merely to see where Lewis and Clark had wintered at Fort Clatsop." Hussey noted that, as important and compelling as Fort Clatsop is as a historic site, there is no positive proof of the exact location of the Fort. He concluded, "the only way the exact site of Fort Clatsop will be determined is by finding some physical remains of the structure. Although the ground on the top of the bluff has been much disturbed by years of land clearing, agriculture, and domestic habitation, experience at many other frontier post sites proved that buried ends of stockade pickets will nearly always survive such treatment. There is hope, therefore, that the actual remains of Fort Clatsop may yet be discovered."


Sharing that belief, National Park Service archaeologists Louis Caywood conducted exploratory excavations at the Fort Clatsop site in 1948. Caywood was frustrated by the lack of evidence in his limited excavations but concluded that the excavations were done on the site of Fort Clatsop. Less than a decade later, another National Park Service archaeologist, Paul Schumacher, examined the site again. Schumacher, like his predecessor, was puzzled by the lack of evidence of the Lewis and Clark Expedition; but he echoed his colleague's belief that, "remains of the stockade posts should still exist either as rotten wood or a shadow of a trench."

National Park Service researchers John Hussey, Louis Caywood, and Paul Schumacher all arrived at the same conclusion; original documents and local traditions support the belief that the general location of Fort Clatsop is known and lies within what is now land. Equally important, the historical record and reasoned logic suggest that the primary target area for an archaeological search for remnants of Fort Clatsop is only four acres. Nearly a half century after these men brought their search to an end, the National Park Service has reignited the search for conclusive evidence of Fort Clatsop. One reason to renew the archaeological effort is that today's historical archaeologists have many technologies available for data collection and data analysis that had not been invented when Caywood and Schumacher studied the site nearly four or five decades ago. With these technologies, four acres is a manageable size for a study area.


Taking advantage of a renewed and rapidly growing interest in the Lewis and Clark Expedition and building on archaeological efforts elsewhere, the National Park Service called a planning meeting to reexamine the potential for finding evidence of Lewis and Clark's Fort Clatsop. Jim Thomson, senior archaeologist for the National Park Service in the Seattle office, brought together landscape architects, architects, naturalists, historical geographers, park managers and archaeologists for the planning meeting hosted by Fort Clatsop at the invitation of park Superintendent Cindy Orlando. Funding for the planning meeting and the subsequent site mapping, remote sensing, and archaeological testing completed in 1995 and 1996 was provided by the National Park Service.

The result of the initial planning meeting in May of 1995 was selection of Ken Karsmizki, an historical archaeologist at the Museum of the Rockies, Montana State University-Bozeman, as the Principal Investigator for the Fort Clatsop Archaeological Project. This planning meeting also developed a strategy for the historical archaeology project which would first produce a layered composite map of the Fort Clatsop site. Keith Garnett, a historical geographer led this project and was assisted by Bryn Thomas, an Eastern Washington University archaeologist, and David Ek, the NPS chief naturalist at Fort Clatsop. The purpose of the mapping effort was to produce a computerized base map of the overall contours of the site which could be used for all cartographic reconstruction and site analysis. Subsequent layers included the park's trail network, the Visitors' Center, the parking areas, and the fort reconstruction, historic survey data including work conducted in 1856, 1882, 1905. 1923, and 1993, and finally, the location of previous archaeological excavations by Caywood and Schumacher were added to the computerized cartographic data. With this data in the computer, researchers could see all layers or select single or multiple layers for analysis.

Preliminary analysis of this data was conducted by Keith Garnett, Jim Thomson, and Ken Karsmizki. Based on the location of modern features, the probable location of historic features and previous archaeological work, and the locations of undisturbed areas, it was determined that remote sensing would be conducted at Fort Clatsop in 1996. This remote sensing was conducted in two phases. First, Jim Bell, a geoarchaeologist from Linn-Benton Community College, covered a portion of the site with a ground penetrating radar. Later Ken Karsmizki conducted a survey using a gradiometer over some of the same areas of the site. Dr. John Weymouth, a geophysicist from University of Nebraska, monitored the data collection and completed the analysis of the magnetic data. Several anomalies were identified by the radar and gradiometer suggesting possible cultural features. Keith Garnett added both sets of data to the computerized composite map.

In mid-August of 1996 a small crew of archaeologists including Jim Thomson, Bryn Thomas, Ray De Puydt and Shannon Welch from Coulee Darn National Recreation area, and Ken Karsmizki excavated three test units in an attempt to locate evidence of the Caywood/Schumacher archaeological work, any historic cultural material, and to get a look at the soil stratigraphy at the site. They were assisted at various times by Lynne Johnson, a NPS staff member at Fort Clatsop, Brian Harrison, from Clatsop Community College, and Stephanie Toothman from the NPS Seattle office.

The excavations, although very limited, were productive. The first unit excavated yielded burned bone, charcoal, and soil stratigraphy that suggested that back dirt from previous archaeological excavations may have been deposited in this area. A second unit also produced a very interesting soil feature. In the 15 inch to 18 inch level a dark loamy clay was exposed in the northwest corner of the excavation unit. This dark soil feature continued to a depth of 27 inches below the modern surface. In the level from 27 inches to 30 inches below the surface the dark soil formed a very distinct right angle. This type of soil feature is what one would expect at the corner of a pit structure. Below the 30 inch level the dark soil feature became more rounded and maintained this shape to a depth of 45 inches below the modern surface. This soil was processed by Nancy Stenholm at Botana Labs in Seattle, Washington. She believes that the material indicates a "long-burning fire constructed for heat or light" but mature wood and bark common in such a fire is absent. In addition, these samples "do not appear to be from a domestic hearth or midden associated with diverse human activity" since "there is too little archaeobotanical tissue present. And there are no other artifacts common to historic or prehistoric flotation samples such as, iron, glass. lithic flakes, bone, shell, FCR, or burned earth." Two possible explanations are a privy pit or a trash pit, if not both.

A third test unit was immediately adjacent to and west of the first. This unit was also abandoned because the crew ran out of time. However, before the excavation had ended two very important artifacts were recovered. The first artifact is a cast brass bead. The bead was examined by Dr. Charles Knowles, College of Mines and Earth Resources at the University of Idaho, using a scanning electron microscope and x-ray fluorescence with energy dispersive analysis. The bead was found to be 80% copper and 20% zinc, a material known as low brass. Cast brass beads are typically associated with the period after 1793 and before 1820.

In addition to the bead a small piece of lead was found in this unit. The lead has a rounded surface on one side and a flat surface on the opposite side. It appears to be a "musket ball" which has been flattened as a result of impact. The size of this ball is small, 4.2 g, and the diameter is .467 inches. One possibility was that the musket ball was flattened as a result of hitting some game animal. If this were the case there could be some blood residue left on the ball. To test this idea, the ball was sent to Margaret Newman, at Bioarch, Inc., Cochrane, Alberta who did an immunological analysis of the musket ball and determined that there was an "absence of identifiable proteins on the artifact" and that it was, therefore, unlikely to have hit an animal as a result of hunting. Lead isotope analysis by Dragan Krstic, Geospec Consultants, Edmonton, Alberta, has resulted in preliminary identification of the source as the southeast Missouri lead-zinc region, and possibly the Buick Mine. Research regarding the period when the Buick mine was active is underway in an attempt to match that source for musket ball production with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Research is ongoing on both the cast brass bead and the musket ball.


Although these results are not conclusive, archaeologists were encouraged by the fact that such limited testing could result in three artifacts and a complex soil feature. Fort Clatsop Superintendent Cynthia Orlando and Senior Archaeologist Jim Thomson of the National Park Service committed additional funding for 1997. The 1997 work consisted of additional magnetic survey and additional limited archaeological testing conducted the first week in August, followed by additional archival research. The magnetic survey covered a 0.2 acre area known to be associated with an 1848 settler, Carlos Shane. Shane reportedly saw remnants of Fort Clatsop within "a few feet of his home" when he settled on the land, making a precise location of his dwelling an important piece of the puzzle. The most important artifact recovered in the 1997 season's test excavations was a blue bead. This molded glass bead was found by NPS archaeologist Ray De Puydt. It is a multifaceted sphere about a 1/4 in diameter made in what is now Czechoslovakia. After the 1997 archaeological work, the National Park Service made a commitment to three-years of additional funding to continue the historical archaeology research, 1998 through 2000.

The 1998 archaeological work has included test excavations in February. In these test excavations Ken Karsmizki, Brian Harrison, and Jennelle Varila exposed another "pit feature." The age and purpose of the feature was not determined at that time. It was also determined in February that Julie Stein, Curator of Archaeology at the Burke Museum, University of Washington would collaborate in the archaeological research by initiating a coring program within the study area. The purpose of the coring program is to test locations that may have served as a dumping ground for the the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Coring will also provide a rapid test of anomalies identified in the magnetic survey.

In June, 0.13 acres of additional magnetic survey were completed. This survey covered an area know to be associated with the Smith home, an 1870s structure that was reportedly built in the vicinity of remnants of Fort Clatsop. By surveying the areas associated with both the Shane and Smith houses the area of Fort Clatsop should be bracketed to the north and south. The magnetic survey will continue in 1998, 1999, and 2000 with the objective of covering the entire four acres study area.

The September historical archaeology work includes additional test excavations, including further examination of the pit feature exposed in February, and initiation of the coring program by Julie Stein. At present, these test excavations suggest that the maximum depth of the surface artifacts associated with the 1870s-1880s occupation is 15 inches below today's surface. Excavations have also exposed areas of disturbed soil that reach depths of four feet below the surface.

The project presently underway is designed to use standard historical archaeology techniques and the best technology available to achieve a very specific objective. That objective is to find artifacts associated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition and, more importantly, conclusive evidence of the location of Fort Clatsop. The timetable for the project is based on the beginning of the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 2003. Although the clock is ticking, we are all hopeful that the effort will pay off and the renewed interest in historical archaeology at Fort Clatsop will result in exciting discoveries to usher in the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.


Last updated: February 28, 2015

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park
92343 Fort Clatsop Road

Astoria , OR 97103


503 861-2471
Rangers are available to answer your calls between the hours of 9 - 5 PST.

Contact Us

Stay Connected