Lewis and Clark finally at the Pacific after a year and a half trek

Time Before Now – November 1805After getting a real estate deal for the ages with his Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson spent most of his time keeping America out of Europe’s Napoleonic wars.  Meanwhile, Napoleon got himself crowned the king of Italy.  Ludwig van Beethoven was the man of the hour in Vienna after the premier of his “Eroica” symphony.  And Philadelphia engineer Oliver Evans developed the “Oruktor Amphibolos,” (right) an amphibious digger.  Believed to be the first land and water vehicle, it was used to dredge the Philadelphia dockyard.

November 15, 1805

On this day, the 550th since leaving St. Louis, the Corps of Discovery arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

William Clark and Meriwether Lewis 

Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had succeeded in mapping an overland route to the West Coast but they may have considered it a bit of Pyrrhic victory.   For decades it was believed the great river systems of the east could reach the rivers of the Pacific Coast with little or no interruption.  Early maps suggested the Missouri and its tributaries were separated from the western rivers by “a ridge of hills,” a mere half a day’s journey to cross.

What they found was the Continental Divide, the backbone of two continents from the Arctic Ocean to the tip of South America.  Their first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains was May 26, a prelude to a number of hungry and perilous days crossing  the rugged terrain.  

On the Columbia, Charles Russell, 1905

The Columbia River itself was no less harrowing.  Unlike the flatland’s prairie rivers, rapids and waterfalls tumbled between steep canyons, testing the courage and competence of the expedition.

They put in at the highest point they could find, about ten miles west of present-day Astoria, Washington. The captains established “Station Camp” on a sandy strip of beach near “Middle Village,” a sizeable village of the Chinook people.  The 36 dwellings were “inhabited only by flees,” Clark wrote, unaware of the seasonal migration of the inhabitants already departed to their winter lodges.

Lewis and Clark were not the first Americans to visit the area.   Captain Robert Gray, (right) sailing the “Columbia Rediviva” under the American flag mapped the area during his second voyage n 1792.  Serendipidously he met up with George Vancouver , British captain of the “HMS Discovery” and described the large river he’d attempted to enter.  Vancouver (left) doubted the existence of a large river so far north, leaving Gray  to sail into Gray’s Harbor, Washington, and name the great river “Columbia” for his ship.

Lewis and Clark didn’t stay long at Station Camp but long enough to encounter one of the most important chiefs of the Chinook, Comcomly.  Described by those who knew him as a skilled diplomat and a savvy trader, he was friendly with both the Americans and the English.  

In addition to the vital connection with the Chinook, the Corps decided on where to locate their winter quarters.  Putting it to a vote, Lewis and Clark inadvertently held America’s first democratic election west of the Mississippi.   Every member of the party cast their vote, save Sacagawea’s infant son, Jean Baptiste, including Sacagawea and Clark’s enslaved man, York. It would be more than a century before other women and African Americans would be included in the electorate. 

Early rendering of Fort Clatsop

Having chosen to cross over to the Oregon side of the river, they selected a site and moved in to the hastily built Fort Clatsop on Christmas Day, 1805, following several week of constant rain.  While located just seven miles from a principle Clatsop village, the explorers conducted limited trade with the tribe, unlike their more sociable relationship with North Dakota’s Mandan the previous winter  .

 A notable exception was Chief Coboway.  While the captains considered the Clatsop to be sharp traders and  not entirely trustworthy, likely due to a close relationship with the British, Coboway frequented the fort and was well received.  

Upon the departure of the Corps in the Spring of 1806, Coboway was given Fort Clatsop.  Suffering by comparison to his own well-built dwelling, the gift of the  makeshift fort may have more or less a symbolic gesture. There is little or no evidence that the chief ever made use of it.

Both Middle Village and Station Compare overseen by the National Park Service and are open during daylight hours, year-round and are part of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park.

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, headquartered in Astoria, Oregon, divides the sites between two states.  The Fort Clatsop Visitor Center and Fort Clatsop replica.  Located near the Corps’ 1805-06 winter quarters, it was rebuilt based on the expedition’s journals.  Admittedly, imperfect in recreating an actual duplicate, it was designed to provide an idea of life there in the early 1800s.  Originally constructed in haste, the replica was crafted to last decades safely with low milled pickets, paved access and  groomed walkways. 

Open winter hours daily from 9 to 5 and in summer, daily, 9 to 6., closed on Christmas Eve Day and Christmas Day. The park also includes Middle Village and Station Camp, Salt Works and the popular six-mile Fort to Sea Trail near Warrenton, Oregon.  Visitors can walk, hike or jog and wildlife bird watching.  It’s pet friendly as long as they are leashed be kept on leash. All are open day light hours, all year. 

A seven-day pass is $10 for 16 and older, under 16 are free.  For fee information on a number of annual passes, go to the National Parks and Federal Lands Passes website.  For more information on Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, go to www.nps.gov/lewi, call 503 861-2471* or write Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, 92343 Fort Clatsop Road , Astoria , OR 97103.  *Rangers are available to answer questions 9 to 5 Pacific Standard Time.

Masks are required regardless of location or vaccination status, in all NPS buildings, crowded outdoor spaces, and all forms of enclosed public transportation. For more information go to www.nps.gov/coronavirus and check the park website to determine its operating status. 

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.