Have you ever driven out to the coast, hoping to enjoy a beautiful day, only to find your favorite stretch of beach saturated with a light mist and covered in fog? For those of us who live along the sandy shores of the Pacific Northwest, days like this just roll off our backs. We are used to what many describe as “bad weather,” even going so far as to embrace the rainy, windy winter days. Decked out with rainproof clothes and able to retreat into our warm houses and cars, the dreary weather rarely fazes us, and we wear our raincoats like a badge of honor.
Over two hundred years ago, the Lewis and Clark Expedition wasn’t as lucky, dealing with a gully washer of a winter without modern amenities.
We all know the story of Lewis and Clark, traveling across the country from 1804 to 1806 and eventually reaching the mouth of the mighty Columbia River. Driving anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, you have probably seen signs marking their journey and even learned about the trip in school. While their exploits are widely known, we tend to gloss over the more difficult parts of their trip.
One of those difficult times came during the winter of 1805 and 1806 along the mouth of the Columbia River. Chosen through a democratic vote, the crew with Lewis and Clark picked a location just five miles south of present day Astoria to be their winter home. The region was chosen for the numerous elk herds scattered around the foothills and the proximity to the river and ocean.
The crew built a fort, naming it Fort Clatsop after the local tribe they had encountered. The fort wasn’t extremely large, but it still took three weeks to build. The wind and the rain damped the spirits and the progress of the fort builders, but, by December 23, some of the men started moving in. The fort didn’t have a completed roof at the time, but, by Christmas Eve of 1805, all of the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition had moved in. The fort consisted of two buildings — one for Lewis and Clark, as well as Sacagawea, her son and husband. The rest of the expedition moved into the other building.
Those of us that live here through the winter are accustomed to the wet and gray weather, but for these adventurers from the East Coast, the cold, wet weather was nearly insufferable. The members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition were being attacked by the elements. The men in the party found it nearly impossible to keep dry, indoors or out. Their clothes and boots became damp and rotted, also becoming infested with vermin. It is said that nearly everyone in the group suffered from cold or flu during their stay at Fort Clatsop, most likely from the cool air and seemingly endless rain.
In fact, the winter was so bad that, according to the journals of the crew, it rained all but 12 days during the time that the Lewis and Clark Expedition was making camp along the Columbia. Without warm clothes and dependable cover, the endless rain must have been extremely difficult to endure. However, the crew had no other option but to do their best to stay dry and in good spirits.
“Over the winter, members of the Expedition fell into a routine of chores that helped pass the time and prepare them for the journey home,” staff at Fort Clatsop shared. “They traded for dried fish and root vegetables. Each day hunters searched for meat, killing 131 elk over the course of the winter, according to calculations. Groups went to the ocean and boiled sea water for salt. The men stitched more than 300 pair of moccasins made from elk hide. Through it all, the rain fell.”
By March, Lewis and Clark were ready to return home. It had been a long winter, and the elk and deer meat had spoiled quickly. Toward the end of February, both herds had become more difficult to find. The deer and elk hides did help them stay relatively dry, but the endless rain was too much. While the group was planning to leave on April 1, 1806, Lewis and Clark decided to set the date of heading back east for March 20, 1806. As if they needed one more reminder that the Pacific Coast was wild and unpredictable, bad weather forced them to delay their departure until March 22, 1806.
Upon leaving, the fort was given to Coboway, the chief of the Clatsop Tribe, as they no longer needed it. By the middle of that century, weather rotted the original fort, and traces of the structure vanished over time. In 1955, a new fort in the same style as the original was built in the area where the original fort was believed to have stood. In October of 2005, a fire broke out in this fort and it burned to the ground. By 2006 a new fort, compete with a fire detection system, was built and can now be explored when visiting the Fort Clatsop National and State Historical Parks.