December 7

This Day in History

Old West

Dec 7, 1805:

Lewis and Clark temporarily settle in Fort Clatsop

Having spied the Pacific Ocean for the first time a few weeks earlier, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark cross to the south shore of the Columbia River (near modern-day Portland) and begin building the small fort that would be their winter home.

Lewis, Clark, and their men deserved a rest. During the past year, they had made the difficult trip from the upper Missouri River across the rugged Rockies, and down the Columbia River to the ocean. Though they planned to return home by retracing their steps in the spring, the Corps of Discovery settled in the relatively mild climate of the Pacific Coast while winter raged in the mountain highlands.

For their fort, Lewis and Clark picked a site three miles up Netul Creek (now Lewis and Clark River), because it had a ready supply of elk and deer and convenient access to the ocean, which the men used to make salt. The men finished building a small log fortress by Christmas Eve; they named their new home Fort Clatsop, in honor of the local Indian tribe.

During the three months they spent at Fort Clatsop, Lewis and Clark reworked their journals and began preparing the scientific information they had gathered. Clark labored long hours drawing meticulous maps that proved to be among the most valuable fruits of the expedition. After talking with local Indians, the two men determined that they had taken an unnecessarily difficult path through the Rockies, and planned alternate routes for the return journey. Meanwhile, the enlisted men and fellow travelers hunted and trapped-they killed and ate more than 100 elk and 20 deer during their stay.

While the stay at Fort Clatsop was peaceful, it was not entirely pleasant. The Clatsop Indian tribe was friendly, but Clark noted that the Indians were hard bargainers, which caused the expedition party to rapidly deplete its supply of gifts and trading goods, and eventually caused some resentment on both sides. Most vexing, though, was the damp coastal weather--rain fell all but twelve days of the expedition's three-month stay. The men found it impossible to keep dry, and their damp furs and hides rotted and became infested with vermin. Nearly everyone suffered from persistent colds and rheumatism.

The expedition departed for home from soggy Fort Clatsop on March 23, 1806. The region they explored later became the state of Oregon--Lewis and Clark's journey strengthened the American claim to the northwest and blazed a trail that was followed by thousands of trappers and settlers.

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