March 23

This Day in History

Old West

Mar 23, 1806:

Lewis and Clark depart Fort Clatsop

After passing a wet and tedious winter near the Pacific Coast, Lewis and Clark happily leave behind Fort Clatsop and head east for home.

The Corps of Discovery arrived at the Pacific the previous November, having made a difficult crossing over the rugged Rocky Mountains. Their winter stay on the south side of the Columbia River-dubbed Fort Clatsop in honor of the local Indians-had been plagued by rainy weather, thieving Indians, and a scarcity of fresh meat. No one in the Corps of Discovery regretted leaving Fort Clatsop behind.

In the days before their departure, Captains Lewis and Clark prepared for the final stage of their journey. Lewis recognized the possibility that some disaster might still prevent them from making it back east and he prudently left a list of the names of all the expedition's men with Chief Coboway of the Clatsops. Lewis asked the chief to give the list to the crew of the next trading vessel that arrived so the world would learn that the expedition did reach the Pacific.

The previous few days had been stormy, but on March 22, the rain began to ease. The captains agreed to depart the next day, and they made a parting gift of Fort Clatsop and its furniture to Chief Coboway.

At 1 p.m. on this day in 1806, the Corps of Expedition set off up the Columbia River in canoes. After nearly a year in the wilderness, they had severely depleted the sizeable cache of supplies with which the expedition had begun--they set off on their return trip with only canisters of gunpowder, some tools, a small cache of dried fish and roots, and their rifles. The expedition had expended almost all of its supplies.

Ahead loomed the high, rugged slopes of the Rocky Mountains that had proved so difficult to cross in the other direction the previous year. This time, however, Lewis and Clark had the advantage of knowing the route they would take. Still, they knew the passage would be difficult, and they were anxious to find the Nez Perce Indians, whose help they would need to cross the mountains.

The months to come would witness some of the most dangerous moments of the journey, including Lewis' violent confrontation with Blackfeet Indians near the Marias River of Montana in July. Nonetheless, seven months later to the day, on September 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery arrived at the docks of St. Louis, where their long journey had begun nearly two and a half years before.

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