Native History: Lewis and Clark Depart Fort Clatsop, Head Home

Fort Clatsop National Memorial Collection FOCL 000104 Cat. No. 698 / On 20 November 1805 William Clark wrote in his journal, “…one of the Indians had on a roab made of 2 Sea Otter Skins the fur of them were more butiful than any fur I had ever seen. Both Capt. Lewis and my Self endeavored to purchase the roab with different articles. At length we procured it for a belt of blue beads which [Sacagawea] wore around her waste.” The scene depicted above is from a painting by Newman Myrah entitled “Bartering Blue Beads for Otter Robe”.

Weather conditions forced Lewis and Clark to depart earlier than expected.

This Date in Native History: The Lewis and Clark expedition had reached the Pacific on November 15, 1805 and were to remain in their winter quarters through a long, wet winter until they began their eastward journey back to St. Louis on March 23, 1806.

They planned to begin that journey April 1, but weather conditions made the winter unpleasant despite the friendliness of the local Clatsop Tribe. All were eager to leave and departure was moved up to March 20, then delayed until March 23 due to bad weather.

Even as they approached the coast in November, Captain Clark noted the weather conditions in his diary. “The rainey weather continued without a longer intermition than 2 hours at a time, from the 5th in the morng. until the 16th is eleven days rain, and the most disagreeable time I have experienced … where I can neither git out to hunt, return to a better situation, or proceed on.” [sic]

Day after day their diaries would begin, “a cool, wet, raney [sic] morning,” or “rained all the after part of last night, the rain continues this morning,” or “a cloudy foggy morning. Some rain.”

It was impossible to stay dry. Moccasins and clothing rotted and were infected with insects. Colds were a continual problem. It was a peaceful time and food was reasonably available, but it was also a miserable time.

Patrick Gass, a member of the expedition, also kept a journal and he commented, “From the 4th of November, 1805 to the 25th of March, 1806, there were not more than 12 days in which it did not rain, and of these but six were clear.”

The Lewis and Clark expedition initially established camp on the north side of the Columbia River in what is now Washington, but soon disliked the location and voted whether to stay put or move across the river to what is now Oregon. This was a notable vote. Everybody was allowed to vote, including York, Captain Clark’s African American “manservant”, and Sacajawea, the Indian woman. It was the first election west of the Mississippi and it would be 60 years before the end of slavery and more than a century before women or Indians were allowed to vote.

The vote was in favor of moving across the Columbia where they constructed Fort Clatsop, in recognition of the Clatsop Tribe. They moved into Fort Clatsop on Christmas Day. The area was 50 square feet and contained five buildings, three on one side and two others facing them. This was home for 32 men, a woman, a baby, and a dog, the Newfoundland that accompanied them during the entire expedition.

Courtesy of National Park Service / This is a replica of the outside of Fort Clatsop. It is built on what is believed to be the original site of the fort.

Gass kept count on elk and deer killed—the final total was 131 elk and 20 deer. That was supplemented with some roots and berries, an occasional dog they would buy from the Natives, and whale blubber they also got from the Clatsop or one of the other Chinook speaking tribes nearby.

By March it was getting more difficult to find game and the hunters had to go farther from the fort, sometimes several miles, to find elk or deer. Captain Clark wrote: “[We] have lived as well as we had any right to expect, and we can say we were never one day without 3 meals of some kind a day either pore elk or roots.”

March 23 also was “raney [sic] and uncertain”, Clark wrote, but by noon the rain ceased. “At which time we loaded our canoes and at 1 P.M. left Fort Clatsop on our homeward bound journey.”

Lewis and Clark managed 19 miles that first day before camping for the night. The next month was spent progressing east along the Columbia River, occasionally meeting with Native people they had met earlier. By early May they had again reached the Nez Perce and recovered the horses they had left the previous fall. Winter snows were still deep in the mountains to the east so they remained with the tribe until early June before they continued east.

On September 23, 1806, after being away for two and a half years, the Lewis and Clark Expedition completed their mission by returning to St. Louis, Missouri.

This story was originally published March 23, 2014.