The Lewis and Clark Expedition’s Winter Stay on the Northwest Coast

I have not seen one pacific day

William Clark. December 1st, 1805
A black and white sketch of the front of Fort Clatsop.
Fort Clatsop

As we are now in the season in which Lewis and Clark’s crew stayed here on the Northwest coast it’s only fitting we give a quick recount of their ventures. Their time at Fort Clatsop is one that is often not more than a few pages in books that account for the entire expedition, but there are notable events that take place here on a day-to-day basis.

On Dec. 7th, 1805, the party would arrive at a site scouted earlier by Captain Lewis. Here, 200 yards from and 30 feet above the river, covered in “lofty pines,” and featuring a nearby fresh water spring, would be the site of Fort Clatsop. Clark, impressed, immediately writes “this is certainly the most eligable Situation for our purposes of any in its neighbourhood.”

The Corps stayed 106 days, from December 7th 1805 to March 23rd 1806. Ninety-four of these days would be raining or snowing, six would be cloudy, and only six days would be sunny. The expedition wasn’t used to this sort of winter, a winter where rather than everything freezing and preserving meat rotted quickly.

A winter where the constant wet conditions meant their clothes rotted off their backs and the fleas never died. For all intents and purposes it would be a much more miserable winter than their winter in North Dakota where the temperature went frequently below zero. The Corps had to get quickly build the fort for shelter to survive, and by New Years Day Lewis would write that their “fourtification” was now complete.

Their winter here was more surviving than thriving, but through the efforts of their teamwork they would manage to keep themselves going. Even this far out, the expedition never lost its sense of military coordination and discipline. There were drills to be performed and a chain of command to follow. Orders would be posted for what each squad of men would be doing, whether it was hunting, gathering firewood, or performing some of the members’ more specialized tasks. Men like John Shields wouldn’t have hunted or gathered firewood as much, but instead would be busy repairing armaments and tools. Joseph Whitehouse was an excellent tailor, and would’ve been one of the main members to work on clothing. Everyone though would be making moccasins during their stay here when they had downtime, and in total they’d make somewhere in the range of 338 pairs of moccasins for the winter and their return journey. One final specialized team would be dedicated to the creation of salt at current day Seaside, a necessary ingredient for meat preservation.

The local Clatsop people would visit often to trade and talk with the Corps members. Wapato, a root vegetable resembling a small potato, preserved berries, dried fish, and whale fat were valuable food assets to trade, and supplemented the diet of about 130 elk and 20 deer the expedition shot and ate during their stay. 

Although the expedition would complain of high prices for trade deals this had come about not so much due to avarice on the Clatsop’s part but instead on the part of the many trade ships that had been coming for decades prior to the expedition’s arrival. Fur trading vessels were frequent here on the coast, and the expedition even had brought a letter of credit with them in hopes of trading with any ships that arrived during their stay. Unfortunately for the now low-on-trade-goods expedition, the trading ships had already been setting a standard for what goods were worth and further unlucky was the fact they had missed the last trading ship of the season by but a few weeks – for no trading vessel would want to be here at the mouth of the Columbia in the winter.

Throughout the stay there was much illness in camp, hard labor and poor diet no doubt being a big contributing factor. Injuries ranged from cuts and bruises to back injuries that caused members to be bedridden for days on end. And then there was the aforementioned rain, the constant drizzles and downpours that dampened spirits and extinguished fires. This led to a sentiment I believe was shared by much of the camp when on New Years Day Captain Lewis writes in his journal:

“our repast of this day tho’ better than that of Christmass, consisted principally in the anticipation of 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, and when with the zest given by the recollection of the present, we shall completely, both mentally and corporally, enjoy the repast which the hand of civilization has prepared for us.” (Meriwether Lewis, January 1st, 1806)

The Captains knew of the Rocky Mountain snow that blocked their return trip from Fort Clatsop, and originally had written on Jan. 16th, 1806 “it would be madness for us to attempt to proceede untill April” (Lewis). And yet despite their own knowledge and advice, the Pacific Northwest weather had won, and on March 23rd the expedition gave a final farewell to Fort Clatsop and began its voyage back upriver. The Fort, and lists of names of the expedition members, was entrusted to the local Clatsops. The fort was reportedly used for a few years while one of the lists of names made its way back to the United States through trading vessels on their way to China.

Their time and experience on the coast can perhaps best be summarized by what William Clark wrote on December 1st, 1805: “…Since we arrived in Sight of the Great Western; (for I cannot Say Pacific) Ocian as I have not Seen one pacific day…” And considering the rain, the snow, the gusts of 65 MPH winds, and the days we’ve already had below 30 degrees in December alone I am very inclined to agree. There is often nothing pacific about a winter on the coast.

To read more about the expedition’s time on the Columbia River, check out David Nicandri’s River of Promise which gives a great look at their journey and the people they meet right here in the Pacific Northwest. This book and many others are available at the Fort Clatsop Bookstore inside the visitor center, and online at FortClatsopBookstore.com.