Modern history

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Fort Clatsop

December 8, 1805–March 23, 1806

On the morning of December 8, Clark set out to find the best route to the ocean and to find a place for a salt-making camp.I Lewis sent out the hunters and put the remainder of the party to work cutting down trees (probably grand fir) to make huts and a palisade. When Clark returned from a successful reconnaissance three days later, Lewis was still cutting trees. Not until December 14 did he have enough for the men to start splitting logs. They found that the wood split beautifully, even to the width of two feet and more. The first hut they commenced building was a smokehouse; they were finding that the preservation of meat in that rainy climate required extraordinary measures.

The work went slowly. It always rained, sometimes worse than others. On December 16, Clark recorded, “The winds violent. Trees falling in every derection, whorl winds, with gusts of rain Hail & Thunder, this kind of weather lasted all day. Certainly one of the worst days that ever was!”

Many of the men were sick or injured. Some had tumors. Private William Werner had a strained knee. Private Joseph Field had boils. Private George Gibson had dysentery. Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor had a dislocated shoulder. York suffered from “Cholick & gripeing.” And the fleas, picked up from the Indians and inescapable, tormented their nights and prevented a sound sleep.

Entertaining and trading with visiting Indians took time. On December 12, the chief of a neighboring Clatsop village, named Coboway, paid a visit. The captains gave him the usual medal and traded for roots. Lewis purchased two lynx skins, Clark two otter skins. Prices were reasonable one day, outrageous the next. On December 23, Clark purchased a panther skin nearly eight feet long for six small fishhooks, a worn-out file, and some spoiled fish. The next day, a young chief named Cuscalah came with his brother and two women. They wanted to sell a parcel of roots but demanded two files for them, which the captains decided was too high a price.

Cuscalah then offered a woman to each captain, “which we also declined axcpting,” Clark wrote, “which also displeased them. . . . the female part appeared to be highly disgusted at our refuseing of their favours &c.”

Despite the daily interruptions, the work went forward. By December 17, enough of the walls of the huts were up so some of the men could begin filling the chinks between the logs. A week later, they were putting on the roofs. The captains moved into their unfinished hut on December 23; the next day, Private Joseph Field made writing tables for them, and the men moved into their as-yet-unroofed huts.

Fort Clatsop was about fifty feet square. It had two long, facing structures joined on the sides by palisaded walls. There was a main gate at the front and a smaller one at the rear that provided easy access to a spring some thirty yards distant. Between the buildings there was a parade ground about fifty feet by twenty feet. One of the structures was divided into three rooms, or huts, which served as enlisted men’s quarters. The other contained four rooms: one for the captains; one for Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and their son, Jean Baptiste; one to serve as an orderly room; and the fourth the smokehouse.II

At first light on Christmas morning, 1805, the men woke the captains with a volley, a shout, and a song. They exchanged presents—Private Whitehouse gave Captain Clark a pair of moccasins he had made, Private Silas Goodrich gave him a woven basket, Sacagawea gave him two dozen white weasel tails, and Captain Lewis gave him a vest, drawers, and socks. The captains divided the small quantity of tobacco they had left, keeping one part for use with the Indians and dividing the other among the men who smoked. The eight non-smokers each got a handkerchief.

The celebration didn’t last long. It was a wet and disagreeable day, and, as Clark recorded, “We would have Spent this day the nativity of Christ in feasting, had we any thing either to raise our Sperits or even gratify our appetites, our Diner concisted of pore Elk, So much Spoiled that we eate it thro’ mear necessity, Some Spoiled pounded fish and a fiew roots.”

Three days later, the captains decided they could spare a small party of salt-makers. The party left for the camp just south of present-day Seaside, Oregon,III and went to work. On December 29, the Clatsops informed the captains that a whale had foundered on the coast near Tillamook Head. Lewis at once determined to go there by water to get some oil and blubber. He prepared a party to take the canoes to fetch it, but for the next week the wind was too high to risk setting out.

On December 30, the fort was completed. At sunset, the captains told the Clatsops that from now on, when darkness fell, the gates would be shut and they must all get out of the fort. “Those people who are verry foward and disegreeable,” Clark reported, “left the huts with reluctiance.” But on New Year’s Eve, he was happy to record that the Indians were much better behaved. “The Sight of our Sentinal who walks on his post, has made this reform in those people who but yesterday was verry impertenant and disagreeable to all.”

At dawn on New Year’s Day, 1806, the men woke the captains with a volley and shouts of “Happy New Year!” There was no other celebration, and no feast. Lewis wrote that “we were content with eating our boiled Elk and wappetoe [roots], and solacing our thirst with our only bevereage pure water.”

During the more than three weeks the party had been building Fort Clatsop, Lewis wrote but two field notes, describing in some detail Steller’s jay. But on January 1, he resumed making daily entries in his journal. He opened with a complaint, that the volley fired by the men to usher in the New Year “was the only mark of rispect which we had it in our power to pay this celebrated day, our repast of this day [was no] better than that of Christmass.”

But after the first sentence, he wrote with a zest that seemed to indicate that a great weight had been lifted from him. It was 1806—he would be home this year. A year wasn’t such a long time.

Evidently not until he began writing about getting home did Lewis realize how much he missed civilization. He had spent 1801–3 living with Thomas Jefferson in the President’s House. His daily conversational fare had ranged from practical politics to the nature of man, from zoology to botany, geography to medicine, literature to history, all in the company of the leading cultural, intellectual, scientific, and political figures in the United States (and not a few from Europe). For two years, he had danced to the best music, dined at the finest table, drunk the choicest wine.

He had spent 1804–5 on the frontier and beyond. His daily conversational fare had been about immediate, practical problems, mostly with enlisted men who had little if any formal education. With Clark he could discuss scientific matters, natural history, geography, and other subjects, but Clark was more a Kentuckian than a Virginian, more a frontier soldier than a polished member of the president’s staff. Even with Clark the flow of the talk had its limits.

Now, with the coming of the New Year, Lewis could dream of returning to Washington, Charlottesville, Philadelphia, civilization. The thought released him from his lethargy. He wrote with enthusiasm about how much he anticipated “the 1st day of January 1807, when in the bosom of our friends we hope to participate in the mirth and hilarity of the day. . . . We shall completely, both mentally and corporally, enjoy the repast which the hand of civilization has prepared for us.” The anticipation was made all the keener by the thought that he would be able to draw on “the recollection of the present” to be the center of attention, telling around the table the story of the crossing of the continent. It was a prospect delicious to dream about.

So, on January 1, 1806, with winter quarters completed, his face and his mind turned east.

But first he had to get through the winter. After recording that the men had given him and Clark fresh elk marrowbone and tongue for a New Year’s dinner, and noting his worry about two missing enlisted men who had apparently lost their way returning from the salt-making site, and with the fortification completed, he wrote out a detailed order “for the more exact and uniform dicipline and government of the garrison.”

The order was precise. It was based on principles established at U.S. Army frontier fortifications over the past thirty years, principles that had been learned by the experience of living as a platoon-sized party in the midst of potentially hostile Indians. First, as was habitual with the expedition, there would be a sergeant-of-the-guard and three privates always on duty in the orderly room. Second, “the centinel shall be posted, both day and night, on the parade [ground] in front of the commanding offercers quarters.” If at any time the sentinel thought it necessary to go to any other part of the fort “in order the better to inform himself of the desighns or approach of any party of savages, he is not only at liberty, but is hereby required to do so.” It was also his duty to inform the sergeant-of-the-guard of the arrival of any party of Indians, and the sergeant’s duty to report the same to the captains immediately.

Lewis ordered the men “to treat the natives in a friendly manner.” Nor were they “permitted at any time, to abuse, assault or strike them,” unless the natives started a fight. The soldiers were allowed to put out of his room “any native who may become troublesome to him.” If the Indian refused to go, or made trouble, the sergeant-of-the-guard should take over. He was authorized to “imploy such coercive measures (not extending to the taking of life) as shall at his discretion be deemed necessary.”

If an Indian was caught stealing, the sergeant should immediately inform the captains, who would take it from there. In this, as elsewhere, Lewis made certain that the lines of authority and the decision-making power were absolutely fixed.

All Indians were to be out of the fort at sunset except those the captains might specially permit to spend the night. Both gates should be shut and secured overnight.

The sergeant-of-the-guard would keep the key to the meat house, and see that regular fires burned as needed. He should visit the canoes each day to make sure they were safely secured. He should report to the captains in person upon being relieved.

The huts had their own cooks, kettles, and fires. The captains furnished each mess with an ax to provide firewood. All other “public tools” deposited in the captains’ quarters could only be taken with their permission, and must be returned immediately after they were used. This was to prevent the men from falling into temptation and trading an awl or a file for sexual favors or furs. Lewis was explicit on the point: “Any individual selling or disposing of any tool or iron or steel instrument, arms, accoutrements or ammunicion, shall be deemed guilty of a breach of this order, and shall be tryed and punished accordingly.” He exempted gunsmith John Shields from the restriction.

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Discipline, order, regularity. Security. Peace with the neighbors if at all possible. These were Lewis’s goals, as they have been the goals of every company commander from the time of the Roman Legions to today.

No orders, however, can guard against all contingencies or accidents or just stupid actions. On the morning of January 11, the sergeant-of-the-guard reported that the Indian canoe was missing. Lewis made inquiry and discovered that the men who had used it the previous evening had been negligent in securing her, and the tide had carried her off. He sent two parties out to search for her, but they came up empty-handed. So too the party he sent out the next morning. “We therefore give her over as lost,” Lewis sadly recorded. Fortunately, on February 5, Sergeant Gass took advantage of a high tide to explore an inlet and found the canoe, “so long lost and much lamented.”

Routine wears down vigilance. The almost daily coming and going of the Clatsops, and sometimes the Chinooks, made an Indian presence inside the fort a familiar sight. More often than not, the captains gave a chief and a small mixed party permission to spend the night. The men had frequent sexual contact with Indian women. The young braves were mild and inoffensive, men who obviously preferred fishing and trading to fighting. Even the captains grew lax.

On February 20, Lewis caught himself up short. A Chinook chief and twenty-five braves paid a visit. Lewis gave the chief a smoke and a medal. At sunset, he told the Chinooks to leave. Evidently they gave him some trouble about the order—they had come from across the estuary and would not be able to return home that night. Lewis insisted. Then he wrote a passage of justification that revealed his deeply rooted fears and suspicions of the Chinooks—indeed, of all Indians. Whatever Jefferson’s hopes for eventually incorporating the Indians into the body politic, Lewis obviously believed that there could be no living with the Indians until they had been civilized or cowed or brought into the American trading empire and thus made dependent on the government.1

“Notwithstanding their apparent friendly disposition,” Lewis wrote, “their great averice and hope of plunder might induce them to be treacherous, at all events we determined allways to be on our guard . . . and never place our selves at the mercy of any savages, we well know, that the treachery of the aborigenes of America and the too great confidence of our countrymen in their sincerity and friendship, has caused the distruction of many hundreds of us.”

But despite the clear lesson of history, Lewis complained, as the men became accustomed to the visiting coastal Indians, “we find it difficult to impress on their minds the necessity of always being on their guard.” Lewis believed that “the well known treachery of the natives by no means entitle them to such confidence,” and caught himself up short with the realization that he too had become lax. So, he told himself, as for confidence in the peaceful intentions of the Indian visitors, “we must check it’s growth in our own minds, as well as those of our men, by recollecting ourselves, and repeating to our men, that our preservation depends on never loosing sight of this trait [treachery] in their character, and being always prepared to meet it in whatever shape it may present itself.”

James Ronda protests that Lewis was too extreme. He writes that Lewis’s attitude, with its familiar themes of native treachery and brutality, was more suited to the Kentucky and Ohio frontier of the 1790s than to the coastal Indians of 1806.2 Perhaps so. And perhaps the captains could have done more to establish good relations with the Chinooks, as Ronda suggests. But had Lewis heard such criticism he could have replied, We encouraged our suspicions, did security by the book, and had no trouble.

As in many frontier fortifications, life at Fort Clatsop was almost unbearably dull. Unlike most frontier garrisons, the fort suffered only one minor breech of discipline. Partly this was because the garrison was so small, partly because the men had been through so much together (and had so much more coming up), partly because they had no whiskey. No fistfights or similar troubles relieved the routine.

“Nothing worthy of note today,” Lewis wrote in his journal, day after day. With one or two exceptions, his entries recorded the comings and goings and successes or failures of the hunters, the health of the men, the diet, trading sessions with the Clatsops—more often than not unsuccessful—and nothing else.

The weather was depressing at best. Fixing latitude and longitude exactly would have provided some diversion and a sense of accomplishment, but it couldn’t be done. For the entire first month in the fort, Lewis was unable to make a single observation. “I am mortifyed,” he wrote on February 25, 1806, “at not having it in my power to make more celestial observations since we have been at Fort Clatsop, but such has been the state of the weather that I have found it utterly impracticable.”

The men had sex for diversion, but from all the evidence the captains did not. The men paid the price for their activity, not only in beads or trinkets but also by contracting venereal disease. Lewis was their doctor. “Goodrich has recovered from the Louis veneri [syphilis] which he contracted from an amorous contact with a Chinnook damsel,” Lewis wrote on January 27. “I cured him as I did Gibson last winter by the uce of murcury.”IV

Lewis was an attentive doctor. When Private Gibson came down with a violent cold, so severe it incapacitated him, Lewis first listed the cause (the constant rain, wading through streams and marshes, always wet), second the patient’s condition (“nearly free from pain”), third the patient’s appearance (“a gooddeel reduced and very languid”), and fourth the drug and physical therapy he prescribed (“broken dozes of diluted nitre [saltpeter] and made him drink plentifully of sage tea, had his feet bathed in warm water and at 9 P.M. gave him 35 drops of laudanum”).

At Fort Mandan, the men’s health had been a minor problem. At Fort Clatsop, the men’s health was a major worry. There was always someone down with a cold or a flu or a venereal-disease attack or a strained muscle. On February 22, Lewis noted that there were five men in the sick bay—17 percent of the total strength—and commented, “We have not had as many sick at any one time since we left Wood River. The general complaint seams to be bad colds and fevers, something I beleive of the influenza.”

On March 20, as the party was preparing to leave, Lewis noted, “many of our men are still complaining of being unwell; [they] remain weak, principally I beleive for the want of proper food.” He rightly figured that, along with the diet, the weather was the cause. Unfortunately, there was nothing that Dr. Lewis could do for his patients to improve their food or the climate.

For the Clatsops and Chinooks, neither the weather nor the diet had an adverse effect. To the contrary. They were thriving tribes before the smallpox hit them, still vibrant when Lewis and Clark came to spend the winter. With few enemies and fewer wars, they were rich, enjoying an abundance of fish and furs and first access to European trade goods. They loved the food and the climate, had perfectly adjusted to them, and rightly thought of the Pacific Northwest as a bountiful provider, almost paradise.

To the captains and the men, it was a miserable place that they couldn’t wait to get out of. Lewis expressed one major reason for that point of view: “I expect when we get under way we shall be much more healthy, it has always had that effect on us heretofore.”

Fort Clatsop was almost more a prison than a fortification. The men not out hunting spent their days at hard labor, scraping elk hides and making moccasins (ten per man for the return trip), keeping the fire going in the smokehouse (difficult at best, because the timber was wet and only smoldered instead of smoking properly), and carrying out other tasks that they regarded as women’s work and resented or even hated.

Lewis supervised the work. He made no recorded excursion from the fort. His boredom is evident in some of his journal entries.

February 2: “Not any occurrence today worthy of notice; but all are pleased, that one month of the time which binds us to Fort Clatsop and which seperates us from our friends has now elapsed.”

March 3: “every thing moves on in the old way and we are counting the days which seperate us from the 1st of April [the scheduled departure date] and which bind us to fort Clatsop.”

The food at Fort Clatsop contributed to the monotony. Getting enough of it was a daily worry for Lewis, getting some variety into the diet almost impossible. The expedition lived on elk. Over their more than three months on the coast the hunters killed 131 elk, along with 20 deer, a few beaver and otter, and a raccoon.3 Drouillard was the most productive, sometimes killing a half-dozen or more elk in a day. On January 12, Lewis wrote that Drouillard had killed seven elk that day and commented, “I scarcely know how we should subsist were it not for the exertions of this excellent hunter.”

Despite Drouillard’s success, not enough game was coming in to feed the party. The captains supplemented the meat with dried fish and roots purchased from the Clatsops. It is odd that the captains, after their experience of doing so well fishing in the Missouri River, seldom if ever sent out fishermen. And apparently, despite the high prices charged by the Indians and the nearly spent supply of trade goods, no man—nor Sacagawea—ever went out to dig roots. Hunters sometimes brought back berries.

Occasionally the captains were able to purchase dogs. A good thing too, Lewis believed: “while we lived principally on the flesh of this anamal we were much more healthy strong and more fleshey than we had been since we left the Buffaloe country.” Fortunately, the men were extremely fond of the dog meat; “for my own part,” Lewis commented, “I have become so perfectly reconciled to the dog that I think it an agreeable food and would prefer it vastly to lean Venison or Elk.”

Within a day of Lewis’s resumption of journal writing, Clark had established a practice of copying Lewis’s journal verbatim. He continued that practice as long as Lewis kept writing. But on this entry, of January 3, Clark made one change: “as for my own part,” he concluded the entry on dog meat, “I have not become reconsiled to the taste of this animal as yet.”

One of the captains’ other differences of opinion also concerned food. On January 5, the salt-makers brought in a sample of their product. “We found it excellent, fine, strong, & white,” Lewis wrote. “This was a great treat to myself and most of the party. . . . I say most of the party, for my friend Capt. Clark declares it to be a mear matter of indifference with him whether he uses it or not; for myself I must confess I felt a considerable inconvenience from the want of it.”

Clark copied the passage, then added as an explanation, “I care but little [about salt] . . . haveing from habit become entirely cearless about my diat.”

Lewis remarked that he didn’t care what kind of meat he got, whether elk or dog or horse or wolf, so long as it was fat. “I have learned to think,” he wrote, “that if the chord be sufficiently strong, which binds the soul and body together, it does not so much matter about the materials which compose it.”

The cord that bound body and soul together at Fort Clatsop was made of elk. At breakfast and supper, day after day, it was boiled elk, dried and jerked elk, leftover elk from the previous meal, more elk. When there was fresh elk that could be roasted, the men gorged themselves.

But the meat was seldom fresh, because the hunters had to extend their range though the winter, and by mid-January the kills were taking place miles from the fort. Men had to go out to bring in the meat, which sometimes took days.

There often wasn’t enough meat at all. Because the men devoured the fresh meat so prodigiously, Lewis worried about a steady supply. He ordered that all the meat would hereafter be jerked, then was surprised when it turned out they ate the jerky at a prodigious rate also. On January 20, there was only three days’ supply on hand. But, he wrote, “no one seems much concerned about the state of the stores; so much for habit, we have latterly so frequently had our stock of provisions reduced to a minimum and sometimes taken a small touch of fasting that three days full allowance excites no concern.”

Anyway, Lewis wrote, “our skill as hunters afford us some consolation, for if there is any game of any discription in our neighbourhood we can track it up and kill it.”

Lewis tried to be charitable to elk. He noted on January 29 that he was enjoying “the most perfect health . . . on this food.” And after all it wasn’t so bad: “a keen appetite supplys in a great degree the want of more luxurious sauses or dishes, and still render my ordinary meals not uninteresting to me, for I find myself sometimes enquiring of the cook whether dinner or breakfast is ready.”

One welcome change in diet came on January 10. Four days earlier, Clark had set out in canoes with a party of eleven to find the whale that had washed ashore south of the salt camp. (Lewis had proposed to lead a party himself, earlier; why Clark took over, Lewis doesn’t say.) Among the party was Sacagawea. In a charming passage, Lewis explained how she got to go along: “The Indian woman was very impotunate to be permited to go, and was therefore indulged; she observed that she had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it very hard she could not be permitted to see either. . . .”

When Clark returned, he brought back three hundred pounds of blubber and a few gallons of rendered oil. He had hoped for much more, but the carcass had been stripped by the time he arrived, and he had to buy what he got from the natives.

Despite Clark’s disappointment, Lewis was more than satisfied. After eating, he felt so good he ventured a small joke.

“Small as the store is,” he wrote, “we prize it highly, and thank the hand of providence for directing the whale to us, and think him much more kind to us than he was to jonah, having sent this monster to be swallowed by us in stead of swallowing of us as jona’s did.”

But soon the whale blubber and oil were gone. It was back to elk. Lewis wrote on February 7: “This evening we had what I call an excellent supper it consisted of a marrowbone a piece and a brisket of boiled Elk that had the appearance of a little fat on it. this for Fort Clatsop is living in high stile.”

Toward the end of February, the eulachon, or candlefish, began to run in immense numbers. The Clatsops netted them and sold them to the expedition, after showing them how to prepare the fish (which Lewis called “anchovy”). Each eulachon was about seven inches long; the Clatsop method was to string them together on a wooden spit and roast them. “They are so fat,” Lewis found, “they require no additional sauce, and I think them superior to any fish I ever tasted.” From then until they left, the captains bought all the eulachon they could afford.

Supervising the men’s work and trading with the Indians took up only a part of Lewis’s time. He spent much of each day at his desk, in his damp, chilly, smoky quarters, with only a candle for illumination, writing in his journal. It was an almost monklike existence. But he thrived on scholarship, and most of what he wrote was scientific. The subjects were botany, zoology, geography, and ethnology. Lewis’s great outpouring during the Fort Clatsop winter constituted an invaluable contribution to knowledge.

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Lewis’s sketch of a eulachon, in his journal. (Courtesy American Philosophical Society)

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Lewis’s sketch of a maple leaf, in his journal. (Courtesy American Philosophical Society)

Botany was the subject he wrote the most about, partly because of the astonishing growth of trees and plants on the Northwest Pacific Coast, partly because it was Jefferson’s favorite scientific study.

Jefferson considered Lewis a better zoologist than botanist. Lewis agreed with that judgment. On February 4, 1806, writing about the fir trees in the vicinity of Fort Clatsop, he apologized by saying, “I shall discribe [them] as well as my slender botanicall skil will enable me.” But he was skillful enough in both fields to provide descriptions of dozens of previously unknown plants and animals so accurate and complete that modern-day botanists and zoologists have little difficulty in recognizing the species.

Only rarely did Lewis use Latin-derived taxonomic botanical words, but his range of knowledge included at least two hundred technical botanical terms in English. At Fort Clatsop, he discovered and described in great detail (often hundreds of words) ten new plants and trees, including the magnificent Sitka spruce. He collected, labeled, and preserved to bring home to Jefferson dozens of plants, leaves, and cones. He demonstrated familiarity with their eastern counterparts by consistently comparing what he was seeing on the West Coast with what he remembered from the East Coast.4

Jefferson had ordered Lewis to observe “the animals of the country generally, & especially those not known in the U.S.” Lewis faithfully obeyed. During that winter, he wrote about some hundred animals altogether—thirty-five mammals, fifty birds, ten reptiles and fish, and five invertebrates. Of these, eleven birds, two fish, and eleven mammals were new to science. In his classic study Lewis and Clark: Pioneering Naturalists, Paul Russell Cutright points out that, though Lewis used a minimum of technical words in his description of new birds, “he nevertheless supplied adequate data on color, shape of wings, number and length of tail feathers, color of iris, and note.”5

Lewis also provided detailed descriptions of how things were done, ranging from Indian methods of preparing fish and roots to the making of canoes. On January 7, when Drouillard brought in a fat beaver (most welcome as food), Lewis asked him how the castor, or bait, was prepared for the traps. He used over five hundred words to describe the process as Drouillard explained it to him. You could prepare castor and place it correctly on a trap today from Lewis’s description.

Some of Lewis’s portraits were of animals he had encountered in the mountains, not native to the lower Columbia; for example, he wrote about Franklin’s grouse, which, he said, he had not seen since leaving the mountains. This was another indication that he had not written in his journal while crossing the Nez Percé trail.

Jefferson has been criticized for not sending a trained naturalist on the expedition. Donald Jackson will have none of that. “If a botanist,” he asks, “why not also a zoologist and perhaps a geologist? Later the government could send out such specialists; now the problem was to get a few men to the Pacific and back, encumbered no more than necessary by equipment, and intelligent enough to recognize and collect—but not necessarily to evaluate—the natural resources of the region.”6

Cutright goes further. “Lewis was blessed with capabilities often missing in naturalists, particularly an outstanding, inherent observational competence, an all-inclusive interest, and an objective, systematic, philosophical approach to understanding the natural world. Nothing refutes Lewis’s self-appraisal [as a botanist], and deprecating remarks of others, more eloquently than his own abundant writing. . . . In the context of the day, Lewis was an unusually capable naturalist, one with an attitude more consistent with scientists of the twentieth century than with those of his own.”7

While Lewis described birds, plants, animals, and methods, Clark worked on his map, covering the country from Fort Mandan to Fort Clatsop. On February 11, he finished the work, an invaluable contribution to the world’s knowledge. Together with his previous map of the lower Missouri, it brought the American West together for the first time.

The map was Clark’s work, but the implications of it were a subject of intense discussion between the captains. For two months, they talked about what they had seen for themselves and learned from the Indians. The result, in the opinion of geographer John Logan Allen, was “the most important product of their winter on the Pacific.”8

“We now discover,” Lewis wrote on February 14, after three days of going over the completed map with Clark, “that we have found the most practicable and navigable passage across the Continent of North America.”

That note, almost triumphant, hid a deep disappointment. The real headline news from the Lewis and Clark Expedition was that there was no all-water route across the continent. The short portage from the Missouri to the Columbia did not exist. “This negation of the Passage to India,” Allen writes, “the feature of all images of the American Northwest since Marquette, was the greatest single transformation of geographical lore for which the journey of Lewis and Clark was responsible.”9

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Lewis’s sketch of, clockwise, a trout, a vulture, a brant, and a gull, in his journal. (Courtesy American Philosophical Society)

The best route fell far short of Jefferson’s hopes. That was the answer Lewis was going to have to give to the first question Jefferson would ask when they met next year.

Beyond his personal feelings, Jefferson would have to pay a political price. With the Sioux blocking the Missouri, and with no all-water route across the continent, the Federalists would have a peg upon which to ridicule the Louisiana Purchase.

At Fort Clatsop, Lewis started practicing how he would present the news. That business about the best route made for a positive start. He went on to claim that, just as Jefferson had anticipated, the best route was up the Missouri and down the Columbia, the route the expedition had followed (except for the two shortcuts from the Missouri, at the Gates of the Mountains and at the Great Falls, which the Shoshones and Nez Percé had told the captains about; these they intended to explore on the return trip). As for crossing the Bitterroot Mountains, Lewis explained that Indian information convinced him it would not be possible to go north or south to find a better passage than the Nez Percé trail. He recorded without comment that it was a distance of 184 miles.

Not much of a best route, but the reality of geography could not be wished away. In a little-known letter dated September 29, 1806,v Lewis came a bit closer to recognizing that reality than he had in his Fort Clatsop entry. In it he wrote that he had “no hesitation to say & declar” that the expedition had been “completely successful” in discovering “the most practicable Route,” but then added the crucial qualifier, “such as Nature has permitted.”10

For the men of the Enlightenment, there was no arguing with nature. Surely Jefferson would be unhappy with the end of his dream, but still glad to know the truth. And the truth was that Jefferson would have to put out of his mind forever any comparison between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians.

Sitting on his rough-hewn stool at his rough-hewn desk at Fort Clatsop, Lewis could imagine sitting in the drawing room at the President’s House, reporting to Jefferson. He could imagine Jefferson taking in the news, nodding, accepting the fact, and already beginning to think of how to deal with the newly discovered reality.

Lewis could suppose that, after getting some details, Jefferson might well ask about the commercial possibilities. Could Americans establish a trading post at the mouth of the Columbia and take over from the British the fabulously profitable fur trade with the Orient? Lewis was working on a plan to bring that about, but it had not yet matured. He revealed one part of it, however, by noting that the abundance and cheapness of horses among the natives on both sides of the mountains “will be extremely advantageous to those who may hereafter attemt the fir trade to the East Indies by way of the Columbia river and the Pacific Ocean.”

The length and difficulty of the portage over that route could be overcome with readily available horses from tribes that had no contact with the British. He gave a census of the horse holdings of the Shoshone, the Nez Percé, and other tribes, “all of whom enjoy the bennefit of that docile, generous and valuable anamal the horse.”

The British had to take their furs out the St. Lawrence and on to London before they could begin the voyage to the Indies. If only a man could figure out how to get a trading post established on the Columbia, and a way to get the furs from the Canadian and the American Great Plains to it, American businessmen would have a one-year advantage over their British rivals. Lewis continued to think about that larger problem.

But there would be no person-to-person report to Jefferson if Lewis did not get himself and his party home. He prepared accordingly. He checked the supplies, especially the rifles and ammunition, “now our only hope for subsistence and defence in a rout of 4000 miles through a country exclusively inhabited by savages.” He found there was more than enough and congratulated himself on having come up with “that happy expedient which I devised of securing the powder by means of the lead.” The lead canisters had been through many adventures but were “little dammaged.” The powder was dry. Moccasins were being made. The rifles were all in order, thanks to John Shields’s skills.

Lewis had determined to stay at Fort Clatsop until April 1, but on March 5 he indicated he wanted to move the date forward. For one thing, like everyone else, he wanted to get out of the place. For another, the elk were farther away than ever, making life even more difficult.

By mid-March, Lewis had fixed March 20 as departure day. It came and went—the wind blew so violently the Americans dared not attempt the river in their canoes. Still, Lewis used the occasion to say goodbye to Fort Clatsop. His statement was objective and philosophical, and had just a bit of nostalgia to it: “Altho’ we have not fared sumptuously this winter 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. . . .”

In making the preparations for departure, Lewis set out to purchase a couple of native canoes to use in going up the river as far as the lowest falls. On March 14, he bargained with a Clatsop over “an indifferent canoe,” but Lewis thought the price was “more than our stock of merchandize would lisence us. I offered him my laced uniform coat but he would not exchange.”

The expedition was desperately poor, almost broke. “Two handkercheifs would not contain all the small articles of merchandize which we possess,” Lewis lamented on March 16. “The ballance of the stock consists of 6 blue robes . . . one uniform artillerists’s coat and hat, five robes made of our large flag,” and a bit of ribbon.

“On this stock,” he realized, “we have wholy to depend for the purchase of horses and such portion of our subsistence from the Indians as it will be in our powers to obtain.”

Thinking it over, he added, “A scant dependence indeed, for a tour of the distance of that before us.”

But there wouldn’t be any crossing of the mountains if the party couldn’t get to the falls of the Columbia first, and to get there Lewis needed Indian canoes. On March 17, he sent Drouillard with his prized coat to pay the price demanded by the Indian owner of the canoe he wanted. He complained in his journal that the Indians valued their canoes too highly, and noted, “I think the U’ States are indebted to me another Uniform coat, for that of which I have disposed on this occasion was but little woarn.”

His poverty and his great need for another canoe put him in a foul and desperate mood. He made a decision and came up with a rationalization to justify it: “We yet want another canoe, and as the Clatsops will not sell us one at a price which we can afford to give we will take one of them in lue of the six Elk which they stole from us in the winter.” He did not point out that the Clatsops had paid for the stolen elk, with dogs.

On March 18, the deed was done. Lewis did not record it, but Sergeant Ordway noted in his journal that four men went “over to the prarie near the coast” and took a canoe, “as we are in want of it.” When they got it back to the fort, they found that Chief Coboway was visiting, so they hid it. Lewis admitted that the deception of Coboway “set a little awkward,” but he covered his crime by giving the chief “a cirtificate of his good conduct and the friendly intercourse which he has maintained with us during our residence at this place.”

James Ronda rightly characterizes this as “a particularly sordid tale of deception and friendship betrayed . . . at worst criminal and at best a terrible lapse of judgment. . . . The essential honesty that distinguished Lewis and Clark from explorers like Hernando DeSoto and Francisco Pizarro had been tarnished.”11

Lewis felt he had no choice. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps the expedition’s poverty did preclude purchase. Surely the Clatsops would have taken a rifle and some ammunition and powder for a canoe, but giving a rifle to a native would have involved a violation of an absolute rule—just as stealing a canoe did. Lewis chose to steal.

During Coboway’s March 18 visit, Lewis had given him (with copies to other chiefs who visited that day) a list of the names of the men in the Corps of Discovery. He posted another copy in his quarters, explaining in a preamble that “the object of this list is, that through the medium of some civilized person who may see the same, it may be made known to the informed world, that the party consisting of the persons [named], and who were sent out by the government of the U’ States in May 1804 to explore the interior of the Continent of North America, did penetrate the same . . . [to] the Pacific Ocean.” On the back of the lists Clark added a sketched map of the Missouri and Columbia.

Lewis felt that the chances that a copy of the journals would get from the Clatsops to a trading vessel and then on to Washington were too small to take the risk. Likewise Jefferson’s idea of sending one or two men home on a trading vessel with a copy of the journals and reports. “Our party are also too small to think of leaving any of them to return to the U’States by sea,” Lewis wrote, “particularly as we shall be necessarily divided into three or four parties on our return in order to accomplish the objects [exploration of alternative routes] we have in view.” Anyway, it was highly unlikely that a trader who had to go around the world to reach the East Coast of the United States could get there before the captains arrived. And there were no ships in the area; leaving two men to wait on the chance that one would arrive soon was not practical.

On March 22, the storm began to slack off, and the party prepared to push off in the morning. That day, Coboway paid a parting visit. Lewis gave him “our houses and funiture,” a generous gesture even if he had no other option. He wrote of Coboway, in whose canoe he was about to depart, “He has been much more kind an hospitable to us than any other indian in this neighbourhood.”

Then came the last words he wrote during his long wet winter at Fort Clatsop. Appropriately, they were botanical: “The leafing of the hucklebury riminds us of spring.” Spring in Virginia, that is, where he intended to be when the leaves started to come out in 1807.


I. The method was to boil seawater in five large kettles until it evaporated, then scrape the sides for the salt. The requirements were a place where the salt-makers had ready access to saltwater and to wood for the fires, as well as enough game in the area to sustain them.

II. The fort has been re-created today by the National Park Service, on the site.

III. The camp today has a small marker and a replica of the kettles and fireplaces. It usually had a three-man crew and over the winter produced three or four bushels of salt.

IV. Gary Moulton points out that Lewis’s apparent cure was temporary only. Six months later, Goodrich and McNeal were exhibiting symptoms of the secondary stage of the disease. Both men died young, as did many of the expedition veterans. It is possible that Lewis’s heroic doses of mercury, dispensed so freely at the first sign of venereal disease, contributed to or even caused those early deaths—although Moulton declares it would be “unwise” to make such a conclusion. (Journals, vol. 6, p. 242.)

V. Written by Lewis in the form of a summary report, apparently given by Lewis to Mr. John Hay for copying and distribution. Hay was a businessman and minor civil official in St. Louis who had been of considerable help in packing for the expedition. Lewis liked and respected him and later recommended him for a federal post. It appears that Hay made several copies of the long document, and they got a wide distribution. For details, see Jackson, Letters, vol. I, pp. 156–57, 343.

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