PROCESS OF DISCOVERY: The Exploratory Excavation of Fort Clatsop
Louis R. Caywood
The site of Old Fort Clatsop is located approximately eight miles from Astoria and only seven-tenths of a mile off U.S. Highway 101. Highway markers have been placed so that the area may easily be reached by visitors.
In November of 1805 the Lewis and Clark Expedition, eighteen months after their start, completed their long journey over land from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia River. They were the first party to explore an overland route to the Pacific Northwest, were well equipped and under the ablest of leadership.
After eighteen months of travel by horse, on foot and by canoe their supplies were exhausted and they were living off the country. To make matters worse, the Chinook Indians on the north bank of the Columbia River were overcharging them for supplies. Rain and reports from the Indians to the effect that hunting was good to the south of the Columbia, led them to cross over to locate a site for a winter camp. On December 5, Captain Lewis decided on a promontory overlooking a small river (now the Lewis and Clark River), as an excellent place to erect quarters for the party of thirty-three persons. Here Fort Clatsop, which was named after the natives of the vicinity, was built and occupied until March 23, 1806. The thirty-three persons who reached the west coast included Captains Lewis and Clark and twenty-seven enlisted personnel. In addition, there were Toussaint Charboneau, his wife Sacajawea and baby Baptiste, and York, Captain Clark's negro servant.1
The fort, according to a rough diagram made by Captain Clark, consisted of an enclosure of seven rooms and a small parade ground. The exact orientation of the fort is not known, but presumably it faced south and overlooked the river. From Captain Lewis' Orderly Book we learn that there were two gates. The main gate was shut and secured at sunset. The water gate was kept under guard all night, but could be used by anyone so desiring. Since the spring was to the north it is believed that the fort was on a north-south axis.
The spring which was used by the expedition, is not more than seventy-five yards from the site of the fort. It flows only during the winter months.
Using this fort as a headquarters, the party explored the surrounding country and also made preparations for the return trip. A small group was occupied for two months at the site now known as Seaside, in boiling down sea water for their salt supply.
The actual method of construction of the fort is not known. Mention is made of "putting up pickets and making the gates of the fort,"2 but whether the construction was all of pickets or horizontal logs is not clear. Carlos W. Shane states in his affidavit that he located a donation land claim in 1850 on a tract of land which included the site of Fort Clatsop. He further adds:
"A few feet from where I built my house there were at that time the remains of two of the Lewis and Clark cabins. They lay east and west, parallel with each other, and ten or fifteen feet apart. Each cabin was sixteen by thirty feet; three rounds of the south cabin and two rounds of the north cabin were then standing."3 From Shane's observation, it would appear that the construction of the cabins was of horizontal logs. Possibly the ends of the parade ground were of pickets in addition to the gate posts.
Since the expedition was traveling light, it would be expected that nothing was left behind unless by accident. However, from the orders issued by Captain Lewis, it was unlikely that any accidental misplacement of tools was probable. This portion of the Orderly Book very forcefully delegates the responsibility of anyone using tools belonging to the expedition.
"Each mess being furnished with an ax, they are directed to deposit it in the room of the commanding officers (with) all other public tools of which they are possessed; nor shall the same at any time hereafter be taken from the said deposit without the knowledge and permission of the commanding officers; and any individual so borrowing the tools are strictly required to bring the same back the moment he has ceased to use them, and (in) no case shall they be permitted to keep them out all night..."4
We know that the salt makers at Seaside were using five of the largest "kittles" during most of the time spent on the Pacific Coast. This would mean that the cooks at Fort Clatsop had to prepare most of the food for the remainder of the party over open fires, or by using the native cooking utensils.
The site of the fort has been determined approximately for many years. However, positive proof that remains of the camp were still extant has long been an unanswered question. The problem was to definitely determine whether or not there was evidence of the old fort on the site.
The entire area was covered with a dense growth of ferns reaching an average of five feet in height. These were cut by using a hand scythe.
Exploratory trenches and test pits brought out the fact that about ten inches of fern roots and overburden were above a well defined, hard packed ground level.
On this ground level there began to appear charcoal, thin layers of orange-red burned earth and burned stones of about the size of baseballs and larger. By carefully working this area with a trowel soft areas of charcoal were noted. When tested and cleaned out, these proved to be fire pits containing charcoal and fragments of burned bones. Four of these pits were found. Each was ten inches below the present ground level. Pit number one (see diagram) measured sixteen inches in diameter and nine inches in depth. Pit number two measured eleven inches in diameter and six inches in depth. Pit number three was eighteen inches in diameter and sixteen inches in depth, and pit number four measured fourteen inches in diameter and twelve inches in depth. Pit number three contained the greatest amount of charcoal and burned bone. The walls of the pit were burned to a reddish color showing that it had been used for a considerable period of time. In the top few inches of the charcoal, a whittled stick was found. The markings on the stick were left by a sharp instrument, probably a hunting knife. One can easily imagine a member of the expedition sitting cross-legged before this small fire on the night before the expedition was to leave on the return trip. As he sat, he probably was thinking of the long trek home ward. Just before he turned in for the night, he carelessly tossed the whittled stick into the site of the firepit. Here it had rested these many years, unburned, to remind us of the last night the group spent at Fort Clatsop.
To the south of the firepits a large barbecue pit was uncovered. It measured twelve feet, six inches in length and from three to four feet in width. In the central area of this pit were found burned rocks, charcoal, wood, burned earth, ashes and several unburned animal bones. One piece of unburned wood showed evidence of having been cut by a saw. When cleaned out the pit measured about fourteen inches in depth. At the north end were two small well-defined holes. This could indicate that a frame work for barbecuing had been in existence when the pit was in use. However, similar holes were not found in the sides of the opposite end of the pit.
A flat stone was found by Mr. Johnson near the depression at the north end of the excavations which had some markings on it. One of the marks looks roughly like the number "2."
The only other objects found during the entire excavation consisted of a flat piece of chipped basalt and a piece of red coloring material such as might be traded to Indians. Many burned rocks were found in connection with the firepits and in the barbecue pit. Many fragments of knots from fire-wood were found which had not burned. Some of these were in very good condition.
Indians are notoriously untidy. This camp apparently had been thoroughly policed as if by a military group, and all refuse hauled away to a garbage pit.
The firepits could have been used by the party since they had by necessity to live as the natives did. The barbecue pit was undoubtedly not aboriginal.
The site has been identified by many early settlers and Indians as that used by the Lewis and Clark party.
The absence of any objects of the American period of occupation would prove that it was not a camp or house site of that period. Since the Lewis and Clark expedition had such a small amount of tools, equipment and trade goods with them, they would not knowingly have left anything at the site. If they had by chance left any object of iron, it would have been appropriated by the local Indians when the group departed.
The finding of two pieces of wood showing marks made by metal tools, is the most conclusive evidence that the site was used by men equipped with then "modern" tools, The piece of wood found in firepit number three appears to be the hard core of a knot, or a piece of very hard wood. The sawed piece found in the barbecue pit is a section of a knot.
From the above evidence and in some cases lack of evidence, it can be safely stated that the excavations were done on the Lewis and Clark site of Fort Clatsop. Additional excavations might bring to light some architectural details which will further verify this statement. Because of the limited time allowed and the lack of labor for digging, the exploration was not as comprehensive as had been hoped.
Although no trace of a fort structure was encountered during the excavation, evidence is positive that white men at one time occupied this site. The following reasons are cited:
1. Clarke, Charles G., "The Roster of the Expedition of Lewis and Clark", Oregon Historical Quarterly, XLV (December, 1944), 299-300.
2. Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806 (New York, 1905), 111:293.
3. Proceedings of the Oregon Historical Society, Supplement to the Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society, Appendix A, (Salem, Oregon, 1901), 30.
4. Thwaites, op. cit., III:304.