How to Use
Reading 3: Wintering on the West Coast
Some rain all day at intervals, we are all wet and disagreeable, as we have been for Several days past, and our present Situation a verry disagreeable one in as much, as we have not leavel land Sufficient for an encampment and for our baggage to lie cleare of the tide, the High hills jutting in so close and steep that we cannot retreat back, and the water of the river too Salt to be used, added to this the waves are increasing to Such a hight that we cannot move from this place, in this Situation we are compelled to form our camp between the hite of the Ebb and flood tides, and rase our baggage on logs.1
Having reached the Pacific Ocean over a year and a half after departing from Camp River DuBois, the Corps of Discovery realized that the rough and miserable winter months would, once again, have to be spent thousands of miles from the warmth and comfort of their homes. Resigned to this reality, Lewis and Clark consulted their crew about where the camp should be located, either north or south of the Columbia River. Writing in his journal that evening, Patrick Gass, a member of the corps, noted:
At night the party were consulted by the Commanding Officers, as to the place most proper for winter quarters; and the most of them were of opinion, that it would be best, in the first place, to go over to the south side of the river and ascertain whether good hunting ground could be found there. Should that be the case, it would be a more eligible place than higher up the river, on account of getting salt, as that is a very scarce article with us. 2
Over the next few weeks, the expedition members ventured across the Columbia to the south side, into an area where the Clatsop Indians said there were elk and where there would be a higher probability of contacting trade vessels coming into the mouth of the Columbia. The corps hoped to replenish their supplies and equipment, and procure a fresh supply of trade goods to purchase provisions from the Indians for the trip home. Setting to work on the construction of a temporary structure, designed for habitation and basic defense, the corps spent the early days of December rushing to complete the fort. By Christmas, almost all work was concluded and the crew moved into Fort Clatsop, named after the Clatsop nation inhabiting the area. This is where they would spend the following three months.
When complete, the fort consisted of two parallel rows of huts, separated by a 20-foot parade ground and connected at either end by stockades with gates. The three huts on the south side are thought to have housed all of the enlisted men. On the north side lay the quarters of the expedition's leaders, Charbonneau and his family's quarters, an orderly room, and a makeshift storage room.
During the next three months members of the corps set about a number of tasks in preparation for their long journey home: hunting elk and deer, establishing a salt-making operation, cultivating neighboring Indian relations, and refining scientific documentation, to name a few. The procurement of salt was a necessary task for the crew because salt was needed to cure meat. That being the case, five men set out to establish a salt-making camp some 15 miles to the southwest, on the ocean. After camp's launch in early January, the saltmakers boiled approximately 1,400 gallons of seawater using brass kettles. Three-and-one-half bushels of salt were produced for the return trip.
While the work on the salt-making front was very beneficial, the most significant advance was in the development of associations with the indigenous population. The Clatsop nation, one of the many coastal tribes, was forward in its interactions with the American explorers, paddling over to the fort in canoes in hopes of trading goods and wares. Observing these people, Clark noted:
[I]n the evening two Canoes of Clat Sops Visit us they brought with them Wappato [a root resembling a potato]. I can readily discover that they are close deelers, & Stickle for a verry little, never close a bargin except they think they have the advantage Value Blue beeds highly, white they also prise but no other Colour do they Value in the least. the Wap pa to they Sell high, this root the[y] purchase at a high price from the nativs above.3
Local Indian tribes, including the Clatsops and Chinooks, became regular visitors. They came to observe and to trade skins, roots, dried fish and berries for fish hooks, bits of cloth--anything the captains could muster from their meager store of goods. Blue and white beads were the highest prized articles.
Lewis and Clark spent the rest of their time at Ft. Clatsop carefully reviewing their notes and calculations. Revising maps, organizing for the quickly approaching return trip, and continuing to carefully document all observations of flora, fauna, and indigenous people, they both were consistently occupied throughout the winter season.
However productive they were, the three months at Fort Clatsop were difficult for the members of the expedition. Their hopes of meeting a trade ship never realized. Game was hard to locate, and with only a few days rations on hand, regular hunting parties were kept out constantly. The miserable, rainy weather played havoc with black powder and flintlock weapons. The jerking of meat never met with complete success in the moist coastal environment and spoiled quickly. The weather and poor diet complicated the men's health. Colds, fevers and rheumatism joined the multitude of fleas as their constant companions. These disagreeable conditions hastened the departure of the corps. Before setting out on March 23, 1806, Clark wrote:
[A]t this place we had wintered and remained from the 7th of Decr. 1805 to this day and have lived as well as we had any right to expect, and we can say that we were never one day without 3 meals of some kind a day either pore Elk meat or roots, notwithstanding the repeated fall of rain which has fallen almost constantly since we passed the long narrows.4
The winter was drawing to a close. Fort Clatsop had served its purpose. It had protected the Corps of Discovery allowing them to prepare for the six-month journey home. The expedition's presence in this area strengthened the United States' claim to the northwestern Oregon Country, and paved the way for the first American settlement--the Pacific Fur Company Post, established at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811 by John Jacob Astor.
Questions for Reading 3
1. What factors went into choosing the location of the winter camp? Describe the fort they built. Why do you think they included a parade ground?
2. The Corps of Discovery made good use of their time while wintering at Fort Clatsop. What sorts of tasks occupied their time? Why was it important for Ft. Clatsop to be located near the water?
3. Why were the salt-making operations important to the corps?
4. What difficulties did the members of the expedition encounter during their stay at Fort Clatsop? What do you think would be the most frustrating problem to deal with?
5. Despite these hardships, how did the expedition's stay at Fort Clatsop help it achieve the goals set out in Reading 1?
Reading 3 was compiled from Robert G. Ferris, ed., Lewis and Clark: Historic Places Associated with Their Transcontinental Exploration (1804-06) (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1975); Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (New York: Antiquarian Press LTD, 1959); James Kendall Hosmer, ed., Gass's Journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1904); and Stephanie Toothman, Fort Clatsop, Salt Works (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1986).
1 Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Vol 3. (New York: Antiquarian Press LTD, 1959), 212.