They had made it. Down the Ohio River, up the Mississippi, all the way up the Missouri, over the mountains, and then down the Columbia to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the Corps of Discovery had crossed almost the entire continent and had seen more of it than any other people on the planet.
They had found that there was no Northwest Passage, but they had also found a country that had captured them with its beauty and with its challenges.
It was mid-November, 1805, and now that they had reached their destination, Lewis & Clark’s main concern was finding a home for the winter. They were still on the north side of the Columbia at Cape Disappointment in present-day Washington state. Lewis went out scouting, looking for a possible ship or other signs of white civilization, such as a fort or trading post. None existed. When he returned to camp, he told Clark that he had carved his name on a tree. A few days later Clark carved his name on the same tree, adding the words, “By Land from the U. States in 1804 & 1805″.
Winter quarters could either be built where they were, or they could cross to the south side of the Columbia (present-day Oregon), or the group could make a start on their return trip and find a site inland. Lewis and Clark both favored establishing a base south of the Columbia. The Clatsop Indians were friendlier and less greedy than the Chinooks. There was an abundance of elk, which would provide food through the winter and skins that could be used for making clothes. Lewis also wanted to be near the sea so that they could set up a salt works and, most importantly, continue to look for a ship that could provide them with supplies and even take some or all of them home.
As they were all in this situation together, Lewis and Clark allowed each member of the party to have a vote as to where they would winter. This historic moment included the first vote by a black slave and by a woman. With one lone exception (Private John Shields), all voted to move to the south side of the Columbia.
Lewis found the site he was looking for on a river than they named the Lewis and Clark and was located just a few miles from both the mouth of the Columbia and from the Pacific. A small fort was built and, as had been the case the previous winter, named in honor of their closest Indian neighbors. It was called Fort Clatsop.
Despite the cold of the previous winter, the time spent with the Mandans in North Dakota had generally been a pleasant experience for the Corps of Discovery. They had enjoyed the time spent with their new native friends while preparing for their continued journey west.
The winter at Fort Clatsop, near present-day Astoria, Oregon, was quite another thing. The weather was miserable and so were the men. The rain was unrelenting. While there was certainly no lack of wood for building the fort, getting the work done was difficult. Clark wrote in his journal on December 16: “The winds violent. Trees falling in every derection, whorl winds, with gusts of rain Hail & Thunder, this kind of weather lasted all day. Certainly one of the worst days that ever was!”
Many of the men were also suffering from assorted ailments and injuries. Their clothing was rotten and shredded. Their supplies were low. The first building built for winter quarters was the smokehouse because of the difficulty in preserving meat in the wet conditions. After two years on the trail, there was also some homesickness.
While Fort Clatsop still wasn’t totally finished, Lewis and Clark, the Charbonneau family and the rest of the men moved into their new quarters for Christmas of 1805. There was a brief celebration that morning, but it didn’t last long. It was a typical day – wet, cold, dreary. Clark wrote, “We could have Spent this day the nativity of Christ in feasting, had we any thing either to raise our Sperits or even gratify our appetites, our Diner concisted of pore Elk, So much Spoiled that we eate it thro mear necessity, Some Spoiled pounded fish and a fiew roots”.
Although Clark viewed salt water “as an evil in as much as it is not helthy,” Lewis and the other men craved salt for their meat and other foods. A few men were sent to a site on the ocean to establish a salt works. Five kettles were used to boil sea water until it evaporated. The salt that was left behind was scraped from the kettles and the process started again. (A replica of the salt works has been built at its original site in the popular tourist town of Seaside, Oregon.)
For those at Fort Clatsop, there was much to do. On New Year’s Day, 1806 Lewis once gain started writing in his journal and writing would take up much of his winter, covering many of the scientific aspects of the expedition. Clark worked on his maps. The rest of the men hunted, made clothing and moccasins out of elk and deer hides and prepared their equipment for the return trip.
In early January, Clark took some of the men down the coast to where a whale had beached. Sakakawea asked to come with them, saying that she “had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it very hard she could not be permitted to see either”.
The party came over Tillamook Head into what is now the small coastal town of Cannon Beach. Clark wrote of the incredible view: “From this point I beheld the grandest and most pleasant prospect which my eyes ever surveyed”. All that was left of the whale was a 105-foot skeleton. Nearby the Tillamook Indians were boiling blubber. Clark purchased three hundred pounds, as well as a few gallons of oil.
Throughout the winter there was constant interaction between the Corps of Discovery and the native tribes, particularly the Clatsop and Chinook. Through the winter, Lewis continued to distrust and dislike the Chinooks, who drove a hard bargain in their trades and would happily steal from the Americans if the opportunity arose.
As time drew near for the white men to start their trip back east, it was their turn to take something from the Indians. Lewis had been trying to trade for Indian canoes, writing, “We yet want another canoe, and as the Clatsops will not sell us one at a price which we can afford to give we will take one from them in lue of the six elk which they stole from us in the winter”. The Clatsops had made what they felt was adequate restitution for the elk meat. However, on March 18, Lewis instructed four of the men to take a canoe while Coboway, the Clatsop chief, was visiting the fort. All of their other dealings with the natives along the way had been honest. This was the one black mark.
While obtained illegally, the canoe would be needed. No ship had appeared on the coast of the Pacific during that wet winter, so the Corps would have to return home the way that they had come. On the day that the canoe was stolen, Lewis gave Coboway a list of the men in the Corps and also posted a similar list in Fort Clatsop so that any white man coming there would know that the expedition had made it this far.
A departure date of April 1 had been set, but all were ready to leave their miserable winter camp early and they headed out in their canoes on March 23. They were on the Columbia and were once again going against the current. But this time they knew how to get where they were going – this time they were going home.