Oregon: Fort Clatsop Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This unit of the National Park System is the site of the final encampment of the westbound Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806. Fort Clatsop is a 1955 reconstruction of the original fifty-foot-square log stockade, in which two rows of cabins are separated by a parade ground. Near the compound are a freshwater spring probably used by the party, and a site along the Lewis and Clark River where the explorers presumably first landed their canoes.

Site Office

Fort Clatsop National Memorial

92343 Fort Clatsop Road

Astoria, OR 97103

ph.: (503) 861-2471

Web site: www.nps.gov/focl/

In the throes of westward expansion at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the United States had a particularly enlightened president in Thomas Jefferson. His educated sense of curiosity turned toward the continent’s remaining frontiers, where the United States might at the least establish commercial interests, and perhaps some day establish new territory. The nation was only thirty years old, after all, and its economy–and prestige–burgeoned with each land acquisition and subsequent settlement. The Americans–along with the British and anyone else who saw the potential for prosperity in the Far West–were especially interested in determining whether there existed the fabled Northwest Passage, a direct water route to the Pacific Ocean that would expedite river transportation.

Need for Information About the Wilderness Regions

Despite years of exploration and trade in the western wilderness, the Spanish and French were reluctant to release information about territories that they considered strategic. The best sources for details were the British (especially after they acquired Canada from the French in 1763) and an occasional American trader. Among the latter was Jonathan Carver of Massachusetts, who wrote Travels in the Interior Parts of North America about his journey up the Missouri River to the Sioux in 1766–a book Jefferson later read.

When, in 1792, the American Robert Gray approached the continent from the Pacific Ocean, he discovered a major river flowing from the east into the ocean. This bolstered the notion that there existed a continuous water route that, except for a minor portage through the Shining Mountains (the Indian name for the Rockies), would link the transcontinental rivers–in particular the Missouri–to the ocean. Gray was sailing the Columbia at the time, and he named the river accordingly.

Jefferson’s Promotion of Exploration

As secretary of state in 1793, Jefferson began to promote efforts toward exploration of the lands northwest of the Mississippi River, and Meriwether Lewis, a Virginia acquaintance, had shown a keen interest in participating in any such expedition. In 1801, the new president asked Lewis–who by then had become a captain in the U.S. Army–to become his private secretary. Lewis had been assigned a post in the Northwest Territory, and the expansionist president desired access to Lewis’s knowledge of the western United States up to the Mississippi River.

In a way Jefferson thought, like a missionary, of conversion–but cultural rather than religious. He planned to begin with the Indians along the Mississippi River, hoping to assimilate these tribes by inducing them to become farmers and work in peaceful coexistence with their new white neighbors. Jefferson chose his trusted secretary to make the initial foray in an appropriately sensitive manner.

Planning the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Wilderness explorations were actively competitive. In the two-volume work he published in 1801 about his westward trek across Canada nearly a decade earlier, the Scottish trader Alexander Mackenzie advocated a British policy to monopolize the fur and fishing trades in the Far West. He was determined that the Americans should not have access to the Northwest Passage, if such a direct route to the Pacific existed. Jefferson could not ignore such a challenge. Ironically, Mackenzie’s chronicle was a boon for the ambitious Americans: In it, Lewis found an itemized record of all the stores and provisions Mackenzie had taken along, including details about gifts to the Indians. However, Mackenzie’s description of the portage through the Rockies–“eight hundred and seventeen paces in length”–that led to a Pacific-bound river (now the Mackenzie River) on the west did not prepare Lewis and partner William Clark for the grueling portage they were to experience.

Uncertainty about eventual ownership of the Louisiana Territory accelerated Jefferson’s plans. He would risk sending an expedition across Spanish property, but if Spain were to cede the territory to France, as was rumored, the Americans would be trespassing on Napoleon’s property–quite a different matter. For Jefferson, it became crucial that the journey proceed while the territory was still Spanish. However, Spain did indeed cede the Louisiana Territory to France, an act which, contrary to Jefferson’s initial misgivings, enabled the United States to arrange the propitious Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803. With the transaction all of the lands drained by the Missouri River and its tributaries became part of the United States. In practical terms, this meant that Lewis and Clark would be traveling a good deal of the way on U.S. territory after all.

A major contention remained with England, however, over the northern border of the uncharted territory. Jefferson hoped that Lewis and Clark could establish once and for all where the boundary between the western United States and British Canada lay. Jefferson communicated to Congress on January 18, 1803, his intentions concerning the so-called “voyage of discovery.” His message included numerous subterfuges; one reason for secrecy undoubtedly was the fact that the Spanish government, still owner of the territory, would consider such an expedition to be a significant trespass on its territory.

Financing the Expedition

As well, Jefferson strictly interpreted the Constitution, and knew that nothing in it would permit the government to sponsor a voyage of discovery in quest of mere knowledge. So he turned to constitutional provisions that allowed appropriations to encourage foreign commerce. Jefferson also set a ludicrously low cost for the expedition, $2,500 to send ten or twelve men on a year-and-a-half journey to cover a round trip of six thousand to eight thousand miles. The unstated fact was that the War Department would be providing, aside from the men, many nonbudgeted provisions. The actual cost of the expedition, never revealed to the public, was somewhere between $40,000 and $60,000. On February 28, 1803, Congress approved with little fanfare Jefferson’s voyage of discovery.

Jefferson arranged for the selection of a special corps of men to undertake this important exploration. He wanted a detailed documentation of the journey, from the terrain to the flora, fauna, and natives. The natives were most important, perhaps, as it was these people who would determine the westward progress of U.S. commerce and settlement. A key difference between this first U.S. exploration and later encroachments was the expedition’s desire to learn about the Indians, to understand their respective cultures and interactions with each other. Though Lewis and Clark no doubt considered themselves superior to the natives, theirs was an exploratory journey, not one of conquest. The white men considered themselves diplomats, in effect, unlike the later missionaries, mercenaries, and military forces who sought at the very least to control or, in some cases, even supplant the Indians. Ever the diplomat, Jefferson approached the Indians as he would any foreign nation. He advised Lewis:

In all your intercourse with the natives treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit. Allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of its innocence, make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable, and commercial dispositions of the U.S., of our wish to be neighborly, friendly, and useful to them, and of our disposition to a commercial intercourse with them. Confer with them on the points most convenient as mutual emporiums and the articles of most desirable interchange for them and us.

Meriwether Lewis left March 15, 1803, for the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where he began ordering provisions. Much of the equipment he chose was standard army fare: shoes, stockings, shirts, coats, woolen overalls, blankets, knapsacks, and hunting shirts. The firearms included flintlock muskets, versatile weapons that could take buckshot, birdshot, or single balls. The rifles he selected were new, short-barreled versions of the legendary Kentucky rifle, and were accurate to at least two hundred yards. He included a heavy blunderbuss for its frightening report.

Finalizing the Expedition’s Plans

On June 20, 1803, Jefferson wrote up an explicit plan for the expedition, requiring meticulous charting of the river and surrounding land, and insisting that the travelers adhere to the Missouri River until they reached its source. Lewis was to serve as the party’s cartographer, mineralogist, ethnologist, botanist, zoologist, meteorologist, and geographer. The immense sum of these duties probably led to Lewis’s invitation to William Clark, younger brother of the Indian fighter George Rogers Clark, to join the expedition as co-captain. In fact, Clark served admirably as resident meteorologist and cartographer. Clark also had the advantage of being well known in the Northwest Territory, whereas Lewis was not. The compatibility of the two personalities ensured the expedition’s success, as unified leadership was essential.

The cartographer Nicholas King drew on all available information to map out the journey. Even so, he could locate with certainty only three features on the prospective river route: the mouth of the Missouri River, the site of Mandan Indian villages (near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota), and, toward the West Coast, the lower Columbia River.

On October 15, 1803, Lewis met up with Clark at Clarksville, in the Indiana Territory below the Falls of the Ohio, where the two began offering prospective recruits twelve dollars each to sign up. In addition to Clark’s slave, York, the first nine enlistees were William E. Bratton, John Colter, Joseph and Reuben Field, Charles Floyd, Jr., George Gibson, Nathaniel H. Pryor, George Shannon, and John Shields. Lewis and Clark continued to recruit from various military posts along the Ohio. A key addition was George Drouillard, son of a Shawnee mother and French Canadian father. Though he was expert at trapping, hunting, and scouting, the expedition hired him as a civilian interpreter: His knowledge of the “language of gesticulation” would be essential for the white men and Indians to communicate with each other.

The Expedition Begins

On March 31, 1804, Lewis and Clark selected the following enlistees to complete their expeditionary force: John Collins, Patrick Gass, Silas Goodrich, Hugh Hall, Thomas P. Howard, Hugh McNeal, John Newman, John Ordway, John Potts, Moses B. Reed, John B. Thompson, William Werner, Joseph Whitehouse, Alexander H. Willard, Richard Windsor, and Peter M. Wiser. The total party thus consisted of Lewis and Clark, York, Drouillard, twenty-two privates and three sergeants; with few adjustments, this was the party that built Fort Clatsop at the westward journey’s end nearly two years later. The corps of discovery departed Camp Wood near St. Louis on May 14, 1804.

The expedition’s phenomenal documentation of its travels was the first record, pictorial and written, of the western continent. Lewis was particularly adept at enthusiastically capturing his new discoveries on paper. Page after page of his elk-bound journal documents to the minutest detail animals, plants, and peoples which were exotic to the East. Five journals survive–those of Lewis and Clark, and three by other expedition members. Every day was accounted for by at least one of the journals.

After a testy encounter with the intimidating Teton Sioux, who did not want to let the crew continue up the Missouri, the explorers encountered friendlier peoples. The party met the Mandan, Minitari, and Amahami Indians, a concentrated group of mound-dwelling tribes who occupied five villages on the Missouri River. The party spent a reasonably comfortable winter at Fort Mandan, which they built near the villages. There the party prepared a shipment for Jefferson that shared their discoveries of the first 1,600 miles of their journey, including Clark’s map of the Missouri, which was unprecedented in its detail.

Their key task during the winter, however, was to assemble facts about the territory that lay ahead. They projected a series of a major landmarks, from the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, some 220 miles west of Fort Mandan (and 1,850 miles upriver from St. Louis), through the great falls another 350 miles beyond, then the Rocky Mountains and, finally, the Columbia River to take them to the Pacific coast.

Sacagawea and Her Husband Join the Expedition

While with the Mandan, they met Toussaint Charbonneau, a Frenchman whose young wife, Sacagawea, had been taken captive years before from her native Shoshone Indians on the Pacific coast. Lewis and Clark planned on crucial dealings with those Indians to secure horses necessary for crossing the Rockies, so they let Charbonneau join the party as interpreter; Sacagawea would interpret the Shoshone language for the explorers.

The expedition headed upstream once more on April 7, 1805, with six small canoes and two large pirogues to carry them into the vast, uncharted territory. Persistent headwinds on the Missouri slowed the expedition to an average of fifteen miles a day instead of the twenty to twenty-five Lewis and Clark had hoped to achieve. The party arrived at the Yellowstone River on April 26, 1805, a mere thirty miles from where the Indians had advised them it would be.

Lewis and Clark’s charted course served them well until June 2, 1805–Clark noted that voyage of discovery had by then traveled more than 2,500 miles up the Missouri from St. Louis–when the expedition reached an unexpected fork in the river. It was not apparent whether they should follow the branch flowing in from the southwest or the branch from the northwest. After further probings, the captains decided on the southwest branch, which turned out to be the correct choice.

The Expedition Reaches the Rockies

Once they had negotiated the series of great falls on the Missouri, Lewis and Clark sought out the Shoshone Indians to secure horses to help with the impending mountain crossing. While the expedition was among the Shoshone, their chief, Cameahwait (Sacagawea’s brother), described how the Nez Perce Indians would traverse the mountains from the west to the plains on the east each year to commence their buffalo hunting. Lewis assumed that if the Nez Perce could cross the Rockies so handily, then his men could meet this task. They even had the advantage of an Indian guide who knew the Nez Perce trail. On September 1, the ascent began. What the expedition actually encountered in the Bitterroot Mountains, a chain of the Rockies on the present Montana-Idaho border, was “high rugged mountains in every direction,” freezing temperatures and snow, and near starvation. The party emerged from the mountains three weeks later, on September 20. Fortunately for them, the Nez Perce were in the area to provide food and shelter.

The voyage of discovery left the Indians for the final leg down the Clearwater to the Pacific on October 7, 1805. It was on November 7 that Lewis and Clark and their companions finally achieved their long-sought vision: the ocean (actually the inlet called Gray’s Bay). The men were overjoyed at this first sighting. During the next month, as they looked for a site to build a winter fort, the incessantly inclement weather tempered their enthusiasm. Clark wrote in his journal:

The sea, which is immediately in front, roars like a repeated rolling thunder and have roared in that way since our arrival on its borders, which is now twenty-four days since we arrived in sight of the Great Western Ocean–I can’t say Pacific as since I have seen it, it has been the reverse. Its waters are foaming and perpetually break with immense waves on the sands and rocky coasts, tempestuous and horrible.

Winter in the Northwest

Unfortunately for the group, it was already winter; they had just spent a year and a half traveling through thousands of miles of wilderness, and their reward was to experience several months of Pacific Northwest winter. They were soggy and disenchanted, and the journals were filled with daily laments about rain, chilly weather, and lack of sunshine. The party diligently sought a site for a winter camp, finally settling on a high, protected site on the south side of Gray’s Bay about three miles from the ocean and where they thought elk grazed. There was plenty of timber available, and the men began building Fort Clatsop on December 7, 1805, and were settled in by Christmas.

The Fort Clatsop compound comprised two parallel rows of cabins with a twenty-foot-wide parade ground between. On one side were three cabins for the enlisted men; facing these were four cabins housing the captains’ quarters, a guardroom, a meat locker, and a room for Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and their infant son. The whole ensemble was about fifty feet square, with gated, log palisades at each end of the parade ground.

The expedition endured increasingly dismal weather at Fort Clatsop. There were only twelve days when it did not rain, the party was reduced to a diet mostly of lean elk and boiled roots, and there was no tobacco or alcohol left for diversion. There was bountiful game, for despite the rain that ruined gunpowder, the hunting parties shot at least 131 elk and 20 deer during the winter. One major task was collecting water from the Pacific and boiling it to extract salt for preserving the game, which otherwise spoiled quickly. The nearby natives, the friendly Clatsop Indians, also traded fish, berries, and roots to the Fort Clatsop residents for other commodities. While the captains refined their maps and diaries, other members replaced ruined clothing by tanning hides and sewing new garments–including 350 pairs of moccasins alone–boiled the seawater for salt, hunted, and fixed broken weapons and tools.

The Expedition Completes Its Work

Though the physical circumstances at the fort were barely tolerable (most of the party fell ill at one point or another), the explorers remained mindful of their scientific mission, venturing out to chart the nearby coastal region and its exotic flora, fauna, and peoples. In all, Lewis and Clark’s geographical, ethnological, mineralogical, zoological, botanical, agronomical, and ornithological studies yielded the discovery of 24 Indian tribes, 178 plants, and 122 animals then unknown to the United States and Europe.

The expedition bade farewell to Fort Clatsop on March 23, 1806, nearly two years after its departure from St. Louis. The homeward-bound crew had few regrets about leaving the dreary Pacific coast; six months later they were back in St. Louis.

After Lewis and Clark abandoned Fort Clatsop, the wood buildings quickly began to rot; by the time a homesteader built a house on the site in 1850, only a few logs remained. Local historians had kept an eye on the site, and in 1901 the Oregon Historical Society purchased three acres there. By then, the overgrown area hid all traces of the buildings that had been Fort Clatsop. Historians’ continued efforts resulted in the 1955 reconstruction of Fort Clatsop, and in 1958 Congress designated the Fort Clatsop National Memorial on the site. The historical recreation of the fort–including a series of popular “living history” programs enacted by rangers who have studied the expedition journals–could not compensate for the multiple loggings that had cleared the site of vegetation, however; it will take about two hundred more years for the National Park Service’s relatively recent plantings to achieve the forested state of the site as Lewis and Clark knew it.

For Further Information
  • Clark, Ella E., and Margot Edmonds. Sacagawea of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Focuses on one of the peripheral but legendary characters of the expedition, the Native American woman who joined Lewis and Clark when they sojourned with the Mandan villagers.
  • Dillon, Richard. Meriwether Lewis: A Biography. Reprint. Santa Cruz, Calif.: Western Tanager Press, 1988. A lively account of one of the expedition’s dominant–and ultimately tragic–personalities; a major enigma about Lewis concerns his violent, mysterious death in 1809, and this author opts for murder over suicide.
  • Fanselow, Julie. Traveling the Lewis and Clark Trail. 2d ed. Helena, Mont.: Falcon, 2000. This guidebook is a revised edition of 1994’s A Traveler’s Guide to the Lewis and Clark Trail.
  • Hawke, David Freeman. Those Tremendous Mountains: The Story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980. A well-documented and compelling account, full of anecdotes and passages from the expedition’s journal entries. Illustrations include selections from Lewis’s journal, later artists’ interpretations of the expedition’s botanical and zoological discoveries, and renderings by nineteenth century artists of the encountered landscapes and Indian life and lore.
  • Lavender, David. The Way to the Western Sea: Lewis and Clark Across the Continent. Reprint. New York: Anchor Books, 1990. Provides an evenhanded, authoritative, and detailed narrative with fascinating insights into the many personalities involved with the venture.
  • Snyder, Gerald S. In the Footsteps of Lewis and Clark. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1970. Documents the author’s personal experience of Lewis and Clark’s route. Facts about the original expedition are interspersed with conjecture by the author, his family, and current sources met along the way.
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