When members of the King City Travel Club visited Fort Clatsop on June 22, the trip in an air-conditioned bus (complete with restroom) was a lot plusher than what Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery endured during its 1804-1806 expedition.
When Capt. William Clark and Capt. Meriwether Lewis finally spotted the Pacific Ocean in November 1805, they had traveled more than 4,000 miles across the North American continent with 31 other explorers.
President Thomas Jefferson was curious to know more about the land west of the Mississippi River and in June 1803 announced plans to send a party to explore the Missouri River to its source and then establish a direct water route to the Pacific. Jefferson wanted the Corps to make scientific and geographic observations on the way as well as to learn about the Indian tribes they encountered.
The explorers left a site near St. Louis on May 14, 1804, and after traveling for five months, wintered 1,600 miles up the Missouri River. Here, near the Mandan Indian villages, they hired Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trader, as an interpreter, who was accompanied by his Shoshone wife Sacagawea and their infant son Jean Baptiste.
Leaving the area in April 1805, the Corps followed the Missouri and its upper branches into an "unmapped world," when arriving in Idaho, Sacagawea's relatives provided the Corps with horses and a guide for the trip over the Continental Divide. In mid-November 1805, the Corps finally reached the Pacific Ocean, setting up a temporary camp on a beach on the north shore of the Columbia River. The explorers had traveled 600 miles on the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers, and the immediate task was finding a site for a winter encampment.
They finally settled on the south side of the Columbia two miles up the Netual River, which is now called the Lewis and Clark River, and started building a fort on Dec. 10, naming it Clatsop for the local Indian tribe, and finishing it by Christmas Day.
Especially on a sunny day like the one when the travel club visited, the rooms in the fort replica appear rustic and cozy with neatly made beds and wool blankets carefully folded over them, but life in the original fort in the dead of winter was a different story.
The Corps spent 106 days at the fort, and it rained every day but 12. The men endured colds, flu, rheumatism and other conditions while their clothing rotted, and fleas infested their bedding. With little food in reserve, the men had to hunt to survive, killing more than 130 elk, 20 deer and many small animals, and later whale became part of their diet; their vegetables consisted mostly of roots.
By the time of their arrival, they had nearly depleted their salt supply used for preserving and flavoring food, so the men rotated in groups to a camp on the beach where they continuously boiled kettles of seawater to collect salt. After they got an efficient system going, they produced three quarts of salt a day, accumulating enough by Feb. 21, 1806, for the trip home.
Confined inside the fort much of the time, the men who were not on salt duty worked on various projects such as servicing weapons, making elk-fat candles, preparing elk-hide clothing for the journey home, and bringing their journals and maps up to date.
The Corps left the fort March 23, 1806, for the long trip home, arriving in St. Louis on Sept. 23, after a total journey of two years, four months and 10 days.
The first replica of Fort Clatsop was built in 1955 based on a floor plan that William Clark drew on the elk-skin cover of one of his journals. The replica was destroyed by fire in October 2005 and rebuilt, with a museum and gift shop added more recently.
Most of the information above was taken from a brochure published by the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior that is available to visitors at Fort Clatsop.