[[L A N D M A R K S]] * There’s some sad news coming out of Oregon today. A community-built replica of Fort Clatsop, where the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition camped during the winter of 1805-06, after trekking west across the United States’ newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and all the way to the Pacific Ocean--a distance of 3,700 miles--was destroyed by fire on Monday night. The conflagration’s cause has yet to be determined. Most unfortunately, perhaps, it occurred “just 40 days before a Lewis and Clark Bicentennial event was scheduled to be held at the fort, the culmination of a two-year, national celebration of the explorers’ journey west,” the Associated Press reports.
Anyone who had the chance over the half-century to pay a call on Fort Clatsop, located about six miles southwest of Astoria, will remember it as surprisingly small, given its significance to U.S. history and expansion. My own first trip there was with my parents, when I was still a boy. I remember peering into the dimly lit, unheated log structures that made up the stockade and wondering how in the world people could have lived there for any length of time. Only much later did I come to appreciate what had happened in that confining coastal fortification at the start of the 19th century. Here’s a piece I wrote about Fort Clatsop some years ago for a special “Top 25 [U.S.] Historic Sites” edition of the late, lamented Historic Traveler magazine:
It is not the most impressive-looking stockade ever built on the American frontier: Set low amidst a huddle of towering pines, only about 50 feet square and containing seven rooms, it’s basically two log cabins hitched together by short palisades. Even the people who bunked there during the winter of 1805-06 described it as less of a sanctuary than a purgatory, a place where they endured vicious contagions, flea-infested bedding, and near-incessant rain showers.In 2004, Fort Clatsop National Memorial Park was officially incorporated into the nation’s 59th national park, the 560-acre Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, which also includes the historic Salt Cairnes in Seaside, Oregon, as well as Cape Disappointment State Park and the Megler Rest Area, both in Washington state.
Yet if measured by the yardstick of historical significance, Fort Clatsop looms large. For it was on that windy bluff in what’s now northwestern Oregon where Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, along with other members of the Corps of Discovery, made their farthest camp during an expedition that would prove pivotal in the opening of the West.
President Thomas Jefferson conceived of this mission--which in its day was as extraordinary as the Apollo 11 moon landing more than a century and a half later. Jefferson hoped that Lewis and Clark would greatly expand knowledge of the 800,000 square miles of new territory he’d recently convinced Congress to buy from France (the Louisiana Purchase) and at the same time challenge British influence over the fur-rich Pacific Northwest. The original 45-man Corps was instructed to navigate the Missouri River to its source, find the most direct route from there to the Pacific Ocean, and along the way discover whatever they could about Indian tribes who might subsequently confront migrating Americans.
Aboard a trio of boats, the Corps embarked from the mouth of the Missouri River near St. Louis on May 14, 1804. In five months they reached present-day North Dakota, where they constructed winter quarters and obtained the services of an interpreter: French fur trader Touissant Charbonneau, who joined the expedition with his young Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, and their infant son. The following April, several of the trekkers reported back to St. Louis, while a core party of 33 (as well as Lewis’ dog, Seaman) continued west, finally reaching the Pacific in early November 1805.
By Christmas, they’d erected a crude compound on the Netul River (now the Lewis and Clark River), just south of modern Astoria, Oregon, and named it for a congenial local Indian tribe, the Clatsops. Until March 1806, Clark wrote in his journal, the party “lived as well as we had a right to expect” at that fort, dining often on spoiled meat, trading with nearby Indian villages, and studying the area’s flora and fauna. Then they headed back to St. Louis, completing a journey of some 8,000 miles that did much to fill in the maps of North America and incite westward expansion of the United States.
Abandoned to the Northwest’s damp climate, Fort Clatsop slowly decayed. But in 1955, as part of the Lewis and Clark Sesquicentennial celebration, it was reconstructed using a floor plan drawn on the elk hide cover of Clark’s field book. It is now part of a 125-acre national memorial to the Corps of Discovery’s heroism.
“We will rebuild,” declared park superintendent Chip Jenkins in the wake of the blaze that leveled the fort replica. In the meantime, he added, “The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial events will go on through the winter.” Just the sort of spirit that members of the Corps of Discovery might have recognized.
READ MORE: “Fort Clatsop Fire Kindles Emotions,” by Katy Muldoon (The Oregonian); “‘We’ve All Pledged to Work Together to Rebuild This Facility,’” by Tom Bennett (The Daily Astorian).
LEARN MORE: To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Smithsonian magazine has been publishing a series of journal entries from Corps of Discovery members, which follow the course of their trek. An index of those entries can be found here. And in association with Ken Burns’ excellent 1997 TV presentation, Lewis & Clark--The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, PBS created and has maintained a Web site filled with background, maps, and classroom resources related to the 1804-06 expedition. You’ll find that here.