Lewis and Clark Expedition 1804-1806

(Click the map to see Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) route larger)

Meriwether Lewis 1774-1809 and William Clark 1770-1838

The Lewis and Clark expedition lasted from 1804 to 1806. With congressional funds of $2,500, the group set out from the mouth of the Missouri River to the mouth of the Columbia River. They were sent by President Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to extend American influence all the way to the west coast so as to compete with the British for the fur trade. The round trip would take them over 8,000 miles by boat, canoe, and horseback. Only one man died on the trip and two deserted. Lewis and Clark kept journals during their adventures and later published over one million words about the flora, fauna, geography, weather, and peoples of the West.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were both soldiers. Lewis was the president's personal secretary. Clark was recruited as Lieutenant though Lewis later promoted him to Captain. Both selected their volunteers carefully. They wanted men that were strong and healthy, that could withstand unbearable conditions, that were good hunters, that were used to the woods, and were unmarried. Some were former soldiers, some were interpreters, and some were sailors. Clark also took along his slave York. Lewis brought his Newfoundland dog Seaman. Lewis and Clark called their expedition the Corps of Discovery.
On May 14, 1804, forty-five men set out up the Missouri River. The main boat was a 55-foot long keel boat. They also brought two canoe-type boats called pirogues. They sailed for five months before stopping for the winter at Fort Mandan in present day North Dakota. There they hired Toussaint Charbonneau, a French fur trader and interpreter. As an added bonus, they got his Shoshone Indian wife Sacajawea. Her presence assured other tribes who might encounter them that they were not a war party, as no war party ever took women with them.
In the spring of 1805, a few members were sent back east with the flora and fauna specimens and reports that they had collected so far. The rest of the men, about 33 total, containued on. They journeyed as far as they could by boat. When they reached the Missouri's headwaters, it was Sacajawea that negotiated a purchase of horses from her people. They would go over the Rocky Mountains by horseback. By September, the party reached the Clearwater River. From there they could sail the rest of the way to the Pacific Ocean. The Clearwater dumped into the Snake River, which fed the Columbia. Many of the men were ill, but they managed to build five dugout canoes for the rest of the journey.
It was smooth sialing the rest of the way. They passed through the dry eastern half of what would later be the states of Washington and Oregon and through the lush and west Cascade Mountains. They noted the peaks of Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens that had been identified by explorer George Vancouver. They made good time, averaging about 30 miles a day. On November 7, 1805, they reached the Pacific Ocean.
Their first night was not a pleasant one. The mouth of the Columbia was jammed with floating logs and the current was turbulent. The sides of the land were steep cliffs so there was nowhere to land. They were forced to sleep on floating logs. There was nothing to eat by the dried fish they had with them and there was no fresh water. It rained all night so they were soaked. But their spirits were not dampened. After five days of this, Clark and 11 other men set out to find a place to land. They finally found a place on the north side of the Columbia that would later be called Fort Columbia. Here the party landed.
The first few days there saw storms with torrential rains and gale force winds. Their food supply was running low and the local Chinook Indians did not have much to trade. They were also having a problem with their clothing; the high humidity was causing their buckskins to rot and mildew. They decided to set up a permanent winter camp on the other side of the Columbia. The Chinooks had advised them that elk were more plentiful there, a good supply of food and hides for their clothing. They also thought they could find a good place to boil salt from the seawater.
But as soon as they set out, high waves almost capsized them. They had to go several miles up the river, away from the tidal pull, to cross over to the south side of the Columbia. The rain was still falling and their clothes and tents were still rotting. The Clatsop Indians would trade but demanded high prices. The forest was very thick, not conducive to hunting. Clark took careful notes of all that he saw, including the habits and customs of the Indians. Clark has been noted for his particularly bad spelling.
On November 29, Lewis and five men set out to find a permanent camping spot. They picked a place of high ground on a river that fed into the Columbia. The Indians called the river Netul, but it was later named the Lewis and Clark River. They built on fort at this spot a few miles up river and about four miles east of the ocean. Tall evergreen trees sheltered it from the wind and rain. There were plenty of elk around too. Once camp was established Clark blazed a trail to the ocean. Their Indians gave them fish, berries, and roots.Soon after they began building the fort. It would have seven buildings, a parade ground, and an enclosing wall. By December 16, they had a smoke house built to hang and smoke the meat from sixteen elk they had killed. By December 22, four cabins were complete. An enlisted man named Joseph Fields built a table and two chairs for their cabin. By Christmas Eve the fort was nearly finished. It was named Fort Clatsop, in honor of the Indians that had helped them. Three cabins were used by the enlisted men. Charbonneau, Sacagawea and their infant so Pomp lived in a hut near the main gate. Another building was occupied by the sergeant of the guard and Clark's servant York. For Christmas they shot their guns and salute and sang a song. They had a nice breakfast and dinner and exchanged gifts. Lewis and Clark gave the men tobacco and silk handkerchiefs.
The next day they finished some final work on the fort. They completed some fireplaces and chimneys for the men. They built a stockade fencing and gates. Five men were sent to the ocean to boil seawater to extract salt. The site they went to is near the present day town of Seaside. There were fresh water, game, firewood, and friendly Indians there. Near the end of the year they also built "sinks" as toilets and a lookout tower.
After the first of the year the salt making party sent back some blubber from a beached whale that they had found. Clark decided to take some men to the coast to see the huge mammal. Sacajawea insisted on coming along, since she had come all this way, she wanted to see the ocean and the big fish. Clark allowed her to come along and they were all amazed all the beautiful view from Tillamook Head. By the time they reached the whale, the Tillamook Indians had already stripped it of everything useful and only the skeleton remained. However, Clark was able to trade for a few gallons of oil and three hundred pounds of blubber. Since they were vastly outnumbered by the Indians, Lewis and Clark made a few rules to ensure peace. They ruled that all men would treat the natives fairly and that they would not assault an Indian unless it was in self-defense. Everyone would take turns in a 24-hour a day guard duty. There would always be a sentinel at the officer's quarters. Privates would announce the arrival of Indian parties. Indians would not be allowed inside the fort after sunset. The gate would be locked at night and all provisions, tools, and weapons would be secured.
At first they had great success hunting elk and soon their stocks of food and clothing were replenished. They also used sea otter pelts for clothing. But after awhile they had to venture further and further from the fort to find them. Soon they had to drag the carcasses as far as nine miles away from the fort. They did not find much else in the way of meat as bears were hibernating, deer were scarce, and beaver were hard to find. Their diet was very monotonous. Fortunately Chief Coboway of the Clatsops often traded the white men for fish, whale blubber, roots, berries, and other wild fruits.
All during the winter Lewis also took careful notes about the flora and fauna, geography, and ecology. He described how the Indians used plants for food, clothing, and tools. He noted how the western red cedar provided everything for the Chinook Indians. His descriptions of the Indian customs were especially important because within two decades the tribe would be wiped out by malaria. He used such excellent descriptions and botanical terms that later botanists had no difficulty finding the plants he described. Ten of these plants had been unknown to science before Lewis wrote them down. He described several plants they used for food such as the rush, the wappato, evergreen huckleberry, salal berries, and bearberries. The leaves of the bearberry bush were used as a tobacco substitute. Many of the specimens he collected are still preserved at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.
Lewis also described the many birds and animals he saw. Dozens of those were new to science and he described them in meticulous detail. He noted their anatomy, habits, and range. He also discussed how Indians used them. He also described the marine mammals, shellfish, amphibians, and fish. He was especially impressed with the sea otter and its beautiful fur. Three fish he described that had not been known to science were the sturgeon, the steelhead trout, and the candlefish or eulachon. He described 50 birds, 11 of which had been unknown to science. Some of his descriptions were of known birds but helped scientists discover the extended range of these birds.
At the same time Clark made numerous maps and geographical notes. He drew the first map of the region they had traveled. He showed their route across North America. He used the stars to pinpoint longitude and latitude. They used this map to explore a new route on the return trip. Lewis would go northeast and explore the marias River in northern Montana while Clark would go southeast and look for the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. They would eventually rendezvous at the place where the Yellowstone empties into the Missouri, some 700 miles away. Clark left a copy of his map and some notes with the Indians to give to the next white men they saw, as evidence that Lewis and Clark had succeeded in their mission. This was in case they did not survive the return journey.
They left the fort on March 23, 1806, a few days earlier than their expected departure. This was because the elk herd had retreated into the mountains, making food scarce. Six months and 4,000 miles later they reached St. Louis.
Fort Clatsop had been the first military post west of the Rockies and the first habitation built by Americans on the Pacific coast. The original fort crumbled to the ground almost immediately. In just 50 years only a few logs were left. On the 100-year anniversary of the expedition, the Oregon Historical Society re-established the exact location of the fort and set about to build a reconstruction. They purchased three acres of land which contained the site of the fort. The fort was not re-built until 1955 on the 150-year anniversary. The fort was established Fort Clatsop National Memorial on May 29, 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

-copyright 2005 by Beth Gibson