Fort Clatsop

Retreat from a Dismal Nitch

December 6, 2022

Entry sign to Fort Clatsop

I think I can trace my interest in – and love of – history back to this place which was identified as the location where the Lewis & Clark Expedition would spend the winter of 1805-06. It was on December 6, 1805 when the various scribes for the expedition reported being flooded out by a particularly high tide. The next day, they moved their camp to what would become Fort Clatsop.

For anyone who lives in the Pacific Northwest, you know that winters tend to be wet, miserable, and cold. I often joke (well, sort of) that winter in Seattle is forty degrees and rain.

And so it was for the L&C Expedition. When they arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River in November 1805, they set up camp on the north – in what would become the state of Washington – side of the river in a spot which, according to the Infallible Wikipedia was described as follows:

“On November 10, 1805, a severe winter storm struck the area, forcing them off the river for six days and preventing them from meeting the supply ships. The group landed in a cove on the north bank of the river that Captain William Clark called in his journals ‘that dismal little nitch’. With no more fresh food and their soaked clothes literally rotting away, he wrote that ‘A feeling person would be distressed by our situation’ and was concerned for the Corps safety for just the second time in the expedition, in danger of foundering just a few miles short. Upon the arrival of calm weather, the company left in great haste and moved to Station Camp on the west side of Point Ellice (referred to by Clark as ‘blustering point’, ‘Stormey point’, and ‘Point Distress.’), and camped at that location for 10 days before relocating for the winter to what would become Fort Clatsop.”

View of Fort Clatsop front entry

It is apparent that the explorers were treated to a pretty typical northwest winter. When they arrived at their final destination, they went right to work building the Fort. Also from the Infallible Wikipedia:

“Construction of the fort was slow, due to the incessant precipitation and unyielding wind that made working conditions less than ideal. On December 23, people started to move into the dwelling, even though it didn’t yet have a roof. The next day, Christmas Eve, everyone moved in. On Christmas Day it was named ‘Fort Clatsop’ in reference to the local Indian tribe.”

Firefighters putting out the last of the October 2005 fire which destroyed the 50 year old structure

Now, I don’t know about all of you, but for them to get the fort completed in 15 days doesn’t sound particularly slow what with all the permits they no doubt needed. Or not.

Regardless, it does seem that the weather affected them at every turn. They endured a long and rainy winter. The elk they killed for food would spoil quickly and many in the expedition were dealing with chronic maladies, made worse by the conditions.

Although they originally planned to stay until April 1, 1806, that date was moved up to March 20 and then delayed for three days due… to the weather.

After they departed, the rough hewn fort fell into disrepair and by the middle of the 19th century had rotted away. Then to mark the 150th anniversary of Fort Clatsop’s founding, a replica of the original structure was built using William Clark’s drawings as a guide.

For 50 years that fort stood and then, on October 3, 2005, a fire destroyed it, a mere two months before the planned celebration of the 200th year since Fort Clatsop’s founding.

Yet, in the spirit of the Corps of Discovery, a team of volunteers sprang into action:

“A new replica, more rustic and rough-hewn, was built by about 700 volunteers in 2006; it opened with a dedication ceremony that took place on December 9. The site is currently operated by the National Park Service.”

It speaks volumes to think that the original Corps of Discovery had 36 men who managed to build Fort Clatsop in 15 days and then 200 years later it took 700 to do the same.

My sister and her daughters along with my son and daughter at Fort Clatsop 1999

Now, if you are wondering how it is that Fort Clatsop inspired my love of history, we have to go back to a few short years after the original replica was built. My first trip to Long Beach, Washington, was – from what I have gathered based on home movies – was likely the summer of 1961 or 1962. There is footage of our family along with another family, vacationing on the Washington coast. It is possible we went to Fort Clatsop for the first time that trip.

What I do know is that the ONLY vacation my family took every year was always to the Long Beach Peninsula. And one of the favorite days of the vacation was when we ventured across the Columbia River to explore Astoria and visit Fort Clatsop.

The author with her sister and mother in a dugout canoe at Fort Clatsop. Image taken from home movies circa 1967. My grandmother DeVore is to the left.
The author with her own daughter in a dugout canoe at Fort Clatsop 1997

For a child still in single digits as far as her age, Fort Clatsop inspired the imagination. I was awed by the thought of Lewis and Clark and their adventures; inspired by the young mother, Sacagawea, the only woman in their troop, caring for a baby in the wilderness.

Each summer – and NOT in the rain and wind and certainly warmer than 40 degrees – we would sprint from room to room, examining the wooden bunk beds where the men slept. Looked at the tiny bed where Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, only 10 months old when Fort Clatsop was built, spent his first year.

My grandmother and our history teacher Dad at Fort Clatsop. Image captured from home movie footage. Circa 1967

We would walk the trail to the stream where they had to go to get water each day. We’d hike down to the Lewis and Clark River (the original name of the river was the Netul River. It was renamed in 1925) and pretend to row in the dugout canoes displayed there. For one afternoon, we’d imagine we were pioneers, living in a wilderness just like Lewis and Clark.

My father went back to school in 1962 to get his education degree and a couple years later became a Washington State History teacher at Franklin Junior High in Yakima.

My siblings and I were, in many ways, his first students as our summer trip to the beach was chock full of historical tidbits mostly about Lewis and Clark. And each year there was ALWAYS the trip to Fort Clatsop.

With the arrival of my own children, the annual trips to the beach resumed and for most of those years the obligatory visit to Fort Clatsop was included.

My son and niece dressing up in fun early 19th century style costumes circa 1997

October 2005’s fire left me feeling shocked and sad. Fort Clatsop was gone. And yet it rose again quickly and we visited the next summer. Of course the structure was not exactly the same but in one way it was much better. It felt more historically accurate.

The Fort Clatsop of my day was dank and seemed old. And it smelled musty. In the summer of 2006 I was struck by the aroma of the newly hewn cedar and how bright the wood looked, not yet wet and stinky. This, I thought, was how it must have looked to the Corps of Discovery when they occupied it, perhaps not quite as dark and miserable as the replica of the 1960’s and 70’s portrayed.

I like to think that my children also think about their many visits to Fort Clatsop and remember them as a wonderful family tradition. Just not in the month of December. Although that would be historically accurate.

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