Roger M McCoy
The Corps of Discovery arrived in late October 1804 at the Mandan villages near the present day town of Washburn, North Dakota. They moved downstream about two miles near a grove of trees to begin building a log fort and winter quarters, which they named Fort Mandan.
The Mandan tribe had been trading with English and French traders for nearly 100 years prior to arrival of the Corps of Discovery, so were already familiar with Europeans and the kind of trade goods they carried with them. One of the first exchanges with Lewis and Clark occurred when the Chief of the Mandan villages came with an entourage and exchanged gifts: two bushels of corn for a new suit of western clothes.
During that winter (1804-1805) one of the main activities was providing health remedies to the local villages. These included three Mandan villages in the vicinity of the fort and two Hidatsa villages a few miles upstream. William Clark was the one who usually treated Indians’ ailments, and the sick came to Fort Mandan in large numbers. One morning Clark reported more than forty patients awaiting his attention. Eye problems, which he treated with a zinc sulfate eyewash, were the most common complaint among the Indians but there were many instances of broken bones, many were old breaks that had never been set properly. There were few ailments that could not be made better by a dose of Clark’s charm along with nostrums such as massages, eye drops, and elixirs. Apparently his remedies gave welcome relief as Clark became highly respected among the tribes.
The medical treatments and a reputation for fair trading led to good relations with the Mandans and there was much friendly interaction. The men of the Corps and the Mandans would get together for entertainment involving music, dancing, sharing meals, and athletic contests. Many men of the Corps found female companions, which led to several outbreaks of venereal disease and more patients for Clark’s sick call.
In the autumn of 1804 a French Canadian named Charbonneau arrived at Fort Mandan with his two Shoshone wives, one of whom was Sacagawea. Charbonneau could speak several Indian languages, so Lewis asked him to join the expedition. The seventeen-year-old Sacagawea was also asked to come, along with her infant child, Jean Baptiste. As a Shoshone Sacagawea could interpret when they reached the Rockies, where they needed to acquire horses to help in their portage. Sacagawea’s presence also offered assurance that the Corps of Discovery was peaceful.
In early April 1805 the frozen Missouri River began to thaw and the Corps of Discovery abandoned the fort to continue their upstream trek to the headwaters. Lewis was eager to resume the “darling project of mine for the last ten years,” and declared the day of their departure one of the happiest of his life. The Mandans provided some information of the terrain ahead, but the Corps had little idea what to expect in the mountains or what kind of reception they might get from the Shoshones who lived there.
As it turned out they had an unexpectedly long and arduous struggle through the Rockies. They expected each ridge they climbed would reveal the western slope of the range, but for weeks they saw only more ridges on the horizon…a far cry from Mackenzie’s 800-step portage in Canada.
When Clark first sighted the Pacific from a distant mountain, he wrote, “Ocian in view! O! the Joy.” [Journal readers often comment on Clark’s creative spelling.] Two days later they reached the mouth of the river. The Corps of Discovery arrived at the coast on November 7th, 1805 somewhat later than expected because of difficulties crossing the Rockies. By now their clothes were tattered, the men were exhausted, and the Corps was about out of trade goods. Lewis, Clark, and their men deserved a rest. During the past months, they had made the difficult trip from the upper Missouri River across the rugged Rockies, and down the Columbia River to the ocean, and an accurate map had been produced along the way
William Clark had primary responsibility for surveying and mapping the route as they traveled from Saint Louis to the Pacific. He used chronometers for measuring longitude, sextants for measuring latitude, compasses for measuring direction, and various other surveyor’s equipment. Although Clark must have used instruments at certain points along the way, most of the day-to-day mapping was done by dead reckoning, i.e. keeping track of speed, time, and direction to estimate one’s position. Dead reckoning is prone to cumulative errors, but Clark, using occasional instrument checks, managed the process very well. When they arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River, a place with a known latitude and longitude previously determined by ships traveling in the Pacific, Clark’s estimate of their position was very close. After traveling about 3700 miles Clark’s error was only forty miles, an error of approximately one percent—remarkable for that era over such a distance.
After their initial soggy campsite on the north shore of the Columbia River near the mouth, the Corps moved to a more secure place on the south side well above tide level. The site was three miles up a tributary called Netul Creek, now named Lewis and Clark River. On December 7, 1805 they began construction of winter quarters, which they named Fort Clatsop after the local tribe. It took three weeks for the Corps to build the log fort, and it served as their shelter from January 1, 1806 until their departure on March 23, 1806.
Everyone found it impossible to keep dry, and their damp furs and hides rotted and became infested with vermin. They suffered from persistent colds and rheumatism. Excerpts form Lewis’s journal read: “It continued to rain and blow so violently today that nothing could be done…We have yet several days provision on hand, which we hope will be sufficient to subsist us during the time we are compelled by the weather to remain in this place…Many of our men are still complaining of being unwell.” Their main problem, however, was boredom. “Nothing worthy of notice took place today” was a frequent entry in both their journals. During their three months and two weeks at Fort Clatsop there were only twelve days without rain. Welcome to winter in the Pacific Northwest.
Fortunately hunters found ample game in the area providing more than 100 elk and twenty deer for their meals. Their diet consisted of elk meat, roots and berries, and dried salmon traded from local Clatsop and Chinook tribes. The Clatsops were friendly, Clark wrote, but he noted they were hard bargainers, which caused the Corps to rapidly deplete its supply of gifts and trading goods. This deficiency eventually caused further resentment when some men of the Corps stole an Indian canoe because they had insufficient trade goods. This theft occurred just before departure and was the only breach of trust between the Corps and any of the tribes encountered during the expedition.
After waiting days for the rain and wind-driven waves on the river to subside, Clark wrote, “the rain seased and it became fair about Meridian [noon]…& at 1 P. M. we left Fort Clatsop on our homeward bound journey.” They began their return on March 23, 1806 and arrived in Saint Louis at noon September 23, 1806.
En route home the Corps took an easier route through the Rockies that the Shoshones told them about. After reaching the plains they split into two parties because Lewis wanted to explore the Marias River northward to determine the extent of the new territory. Then Clark’s group split in two smaller units for a short time to explore additional land. This made sense from an explorer’s point of view, but smaller groups made each more vulnerable to unfriendly tribes. As a result they had several hostile encounters with the Blackfeet and Sioux tribes. The men of the Corps themselves were more tense and prone to fight than they had been during the westward trip. None of the men of the Corps were killed. After the groups rejoined travel went more smoothly, and they made good time traveling downstream on the Missouri River. As they approached Saint Louis they joyously fired guns in the air to announce their arrival and crowds came to greet them.
Two days after their arrival a dinner was held for the Corps and eighteen toasts were drunk to their achievements. The last toast was to “Captains Lewis and Clark—their perilous services endear them to every American heart.” This tribute still rings true today as Lewis and Clark remain popular characters in our history.
The full account of the Corps of Discovery is one of the most interesting in American history. There are numerous books, two of which are listed below, and a number of museums along the route that are devoted to the expedition. Two museums of interest on the subject of wintering sites are: the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center operated by the Fort Mandan Foundation in Washburn, North Dakota, and the National Park Service reconstruction of Fort Clatsop on the site near Astoria, Oregon.
DeVoto, Bernard. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1953.
Paton, Bruce C. Lewis and Clark: Doctors in the wilderness. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing. 2001