By Rick Schwertfeger, Captain, Frontier Partisans Southern Command
My Frontier Partisan Summer ’21 scouting mission moved from Montana into an extended stay in Oregon. The first objective was near Astoria, where the mighty Columbia River flows into the Pacific Ocean. My wife Marcia and I were seeking Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1805-06 after reaching the Pacific, the outbound objective of their extraordinary journey.
We were graced with several beautiful late summer days. But the Corps was handed typical Northwest coastal winter weather. Lewis and Clark were rushing in an attempt to meet the last trading ship of the season for supplies and to send journals back. But on November 10, in canoes barely adequate for the rough tidal waters upstream from the mouth of the huge river, they were driven by a massive storm onto the north shore and marooned in a “cove consisting of little more than jagged rocks and steep hillside. William Clark named the dreary spot ‘that dismal little nitch.’ For six days, the group was trapped by fierce wind and high waves at the rocky shoreline.”
This spot is now known as the Dismal Nitch.
Fortunate to survive, they realized that to make it through the coming winter they had to find a more sheltered place. When other north shore spots proved unsatisfactory, the Corps crossed to the south shore and set up on lands of the native Clatsop people on December 8th. The fort was completed on December 24th. Lewis and Clark named it for the local tribe that they had chosen to live among.
However, this is when the clash of cultural perspectives arose. It has long been the common history that moving to the south shore followed the advice of local Indigenous people. But a movie shown at Lewis & Clark National Park presented from the Clatsop perspective asserts that Lewis and Clark did not ask for permission from the Clatsops to occupy the land where they built the fort. At the remove of over two centuries it may be impossible to know exactly what was said by each side, and what was understood through interpretations. But the movie certainly claims that Lewis & Clark simply moved to a desirable location and started building.
There were other impacts on the Clatsops. Perhaps most significantly, the corps of 45 members needed food. Over three months, Corps hunters put a dent in the available supply, and had to travel farther and farther afield to find game. Ultimately, they ate 100 elk and 20 deer. The Clatsops also provided the Corps with needed food via trade.
Despite knowing that Lewis and Clark were U.S. Army officers, I had not realized that they ran the expedition, and especially the three months in barracks, as a military operation. Despite almost daily, friendly trading interactions with the Clatsops, Lewis and Clark chose to maintain military protocol. At 6 p.m. each night, all visitors had to leave, the gate was closed, and sentries posted. The film indicates that the Clatsops thought this strange, as they in no way threatened the Corps.
Today’s Fort Clatsop, on the site of the original, is a second reconstruction, the first having burned down in 1955. It is small, approximately 50 feet square. Lewis and Clark had their own room, the men each had a bunk in one of several rooms, and Clark’s slave York may have slept in the orderly room. These were rustic accommodations. Bedbugs became a big problem, guaranteeing less than a full night’s sleep for all. Most significant: the weather! The Corps spent about 106 days in the area. Patrick Gass’ logs indicate that it rained on 94 of those days! And of the twelve rain free days, only six were clear. The oppressive rain kept the men inside for long stretches of time.
Fort Clatsop lies on a timbered rise above Netul Creek, now called the Lewis and Clark River. This provided canoe access to the Columbia River to the north. The Pacific Ocean is seven miles to the west. Rotating crews of three men were assigned to a site on the shore – now in the town of Seaside – to make salt for the return journey. Upper Netul Creek near the Fort was a saltwater marsh in 1805-06. Later in the 19th century loggers used it as a staging area before floating the logs down the creek to the Columbia. We hiked to this area on a mile-long, treed dike. And now, in order to turn the river into a more healthy freshwater one, gates are raised to allow freshwater to flow out and lowered to prevent tidal saltwater from entering.
As winter waned in March 1806, the Corps organized for the return journey east. During preparations, the men realized that they were one canoe short. As a final demonstration of the mindset of the Americans vis-a-vis the natives, men of the Corps stole a Clatsop canoe, using it in their flotilla as they headed up the mighty Columbia.
The theft “has long been a sore subject with tribes in the Pacific Northwest, who considered it a major insult. Canoes were an important mode of transportation and, therefore, a sacred part of their culture.”
The story has a better ending. For in 2011, descendants of William Clark – including Lotsie Clark Holton and Rick Holton — plus a few other contributors, donated to the tribe a 36-foot replica canoe, custom built in Veneta, Oregon. A five-hour ceremony on September 24 included songs, gift exchanges, and the maiden voyage of the canoe. Lotsie Clark Holton said she was overwhelmed by the ceremony.
“It’s been a wonderful experience. The tribal people totally accepted us. After 205 years, it was overdue.”
© Rick Schwertfeger firstname.lastname@example.org September 2021