Lewis and Clark, Fort Clatsop and the case of the stolen canoe

Time Before Now – December 1805 President Thomas Jefferson worried  over getting entangled in Europe’s Napoleonic wars while Napoleon had been crowned  king of Italy.    Ludwig van Beethoven was the man of the hour in Vienna after the premier of “Fidalio” and his “Eroica” symphony.   England suffered the loss of two famous war heroes,  the Royal Navy’s Horatio Nelson (right) and Lord Cornwallis, on the losing side in the American Revolution.

December 17, 1805

On this day Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery were hurriedly improving conditions to their winter quarters.  Hit by several days of rain, hail and snow, Fort Clatsop was still a rude affair with daylight between the timbers and lacking doors and chimneys.

The captains had met Coboway, chief of the Clatsop, several days earlier.   The chief  would eventually inherit the fort named in his honor. His descendents would be critical in the effort to permanently fix the site as a national landmark.    

  The captains had sensibly taken the advice of indigenous people for a second time on the location of their winter camp.  The site of the expedition’s cold weather quarters the previous year was selected after consulting with Sheheke (Big White), (left) principal chief of  North Dakota’s Mandan tribe. (See “Sgt. Pryor – One of the 9 young men from Kentucky” for Sheheke’s story.)

 Construction of Fort Mandan  a year prior had commenced more than a month sooner, on November 2, during a rare spell of good weather.  Lewis recorded the sunrise temperature on the banks of the Missouri River at just freezing that day.  The afternoon high was 68.  But December in North Dakota turned brutal.  The sunrise temperature on December 12 at Fort Mandan was minus 38, rising to a high of just 16. 

Winter image of reconstructed Fort Mandan

Unfortunately, the Pacific coast was providing a different sort of misery.  In their journals, both Lewis and Clark had repeatedly complained about soggy conditions.   By the time of Coboway’s visit they had experienced more than a dozen straight days of rain .  “[R]ained all the last night. . . we are all wet,” wrote Clark on December 9.  

Artist rendering of Fort Clatsop

There’s no record of the actual air temperature for the expedition after September 6, 1805.  Thair sixth and last thermometer broke somewhere near the east fork of Montana’s Bitterroot River.  Journal entries after that date merely describe the weather conditions as fair, cloudy or rainy.

 Coboway hadn’t come to meet the captains empty-handed.   He and nine or ten members of the  tribe arrived, according to Lewis, with “Wapitoo root a black root they call Si-ni-tor and a Small Sea orter Skin all of which we purchased for a fiew fishing hooks & Some Snake Indian Tobacco.”   The root, an edible thistle, was prized for its sweet taste.  

Never a large tribe, the 400 or so Clatsop occupied three villages along the southern shore of the Columbia River.  Prosperous and peaceful, Lewis initially  observed, “Those Indians appeare well disposed, I made a Chief of one & gave him a Small medel, his name is Conyear (Coboway).”

 Early images of the  Clatsop 

The chief proved invaluable to the expedition’s well being, advising them on preparations for the Northwest winter along with the best hunting and fishing sites.  The relationship with the Clatsop remained amicable throughout Lewis and Clark’s stay with the exception of an incident over a stolen canoe just six days before the Corps’ departure.  

On March 18, Sgt. John Ordway recorded in his journal the theft of a canoe “which belongd to the Clotsop Indians, as we are in want of it.” It was perhaps a preview of what would become the prevailing Anglo-American attitude toward Native American’s properties. The stolen canoe was “concealed”  near the fort, reported Ordway, “as the chief of the Clatsops (Coboway) is now here.”  

The theft was justified by the captains as “fair payment” for a half-dozen elk the Clatsops had taken earlier.  Clark wrote on March 17, “We yet want another Canoe as the Clatsops will not Sell us one, a proposition has been made by one of our interpt and Sever[al] of the party to take one in lieu of 6 Elk which they Stole from us this winter &c.”

Apparently the dispute didn’t result in lingering hard feelings.  Coboway and a number of Clatsop came to the fort to trade the night before the Corps’ departure.  As a gesture of friendship and perhaps a mia culpa, the captains gave Coboway Fort Clatsop.  He reportedly used it for some purpose for several years despite the fact it was poorly constructed comparison to the Clatsop’s superior dwellings.   Lewis noted in his journal that the chief “has been much more kind an[d] hospitable to us than any other indian in this neighbourhood.” 

Coboway’s influence wouldn’t end with Lewis and Clark’s departure and continued into the 20th century.  His daughter, Celiast, (left) married Solomon Howard Smith, a fur trader and the first teacher of the new school at Fort Vancouver.  Silas Bryant Smith, (left) the couple’s son, born in 1839, became one of the first Native American lawyers on the West Coast.

With a keen interest in history and preserving the legacy of his mother’s people, Smith provided invaluable assistance to George Himes, (right) one of the founders of the Oregon Historical Society.  Identifying the location of the original fort, he  provided an affidavit detailing his family’s occupancy. 

In addition, he filed a number of legal challenges seeking reparations for Northwest tribes for past cessession of their lands.   He did not live to see some of his successes, however.  Smith died of tuberculosis in 1902 at 63.

That same year, the historical society purchased three acres of the Fort Clatsop site for preservation.  A 1955 reconstruction of the fort lasted 50 years but was badly damaged by fire in 2005.  Suspected as a possible arson, the second reconstruction, completed the following year, is equipped with a fire detection system.

Fort Clatsop reconstruction in 1956

In 2004 Fort Clatsop became part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park encompassing a pair of national historic parks and four state parks in Oregon and Washington.  And the region continues to make history.  Much of the 1985 Steven Spielberg movie, ”The Goonies,” (left) was filmed in Oregon’s Ecola State Park,* In 2017 it was named to the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for its cultural, historic or aesthetic significance.  Lewis and Clark would never have guessed. 

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.