Imagining Fort Clatsop

ON OCTOBER 3, 2005, JUST weeks before the bicentennial of the Corps of Discovery’s arrival on the Pacific Coast, fire destroyed the replica of Fort Clatsop. In rebuilding the fort exhibit, the National Park Service faced a problem. Community members had built the 1955 replica using the floor plan sketched out by William Clark on the elkskin cover of his journal. The sketch had served the replica-builders well, since it provided exact dimensions and precise information on the placement of doors and picket lines. Unfortunately, written evidence from the enlisted men’s journals — including one still undiscovered in 1955 — suggests that the fort built by the Expedition members in 1805 may have strayed from Clark’s plan. The fort may have had three buildings on three sides of a parade ground instead of two buildings on either side. Because of this new evidence, National Park Service employees undertook a careful examination of all the journals to see if they provided precise information on the fort constructed by the Corps of Discovery.

The journals do contain a little-noticed passage that provides a very detailed description of one building on the coast that winter. On January 9, 1806, William Clark described the building as “27 foot wide 35 feet long Sunk in the ground 5 feet 2 Dores & 2 fire places dores 29 Ins. high & 14 1/4 wide handsom Steps to decend down a post in the middle Coverede with boards Split thin an 2 feet wide.” Such precise dimensions could serve a reconstructer well — dimensions so precise that they suggest Clark took out his tape measure so he could provide the most accurate picture possible. Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, this passage does not describe Fort Clatsop at all but one of the Nehalem Tillamook houses Clark encountered on the coast between Ecola Creek and the saltworks. While Clark and Lewis provided detailed descriptions of native houses, they wrote down no such precise depictions of their own Fort Clatsop. Why not? we might ask.

Thomas Jefferson had given the captains careful instructions to collect the information needed to catalog the American West. His was an Enlightenment project of using careful observation to describe and understand those distant lands. The explorers were to collect information on native people’s “domestic accomodations,” along with a long list of other aspects of Indians’ physical and moral universe. They were also to make careful note of astronomical observations, dead-reckoning notations, weather observations, and descriptions of flora and fauna.[1] Jefferson had no scientific interest in cataloging standard construction techniques used by the frontiersmen on the Expedition. He did not wait anxiously in Washington, D.C., to learn the dimensions of their seacoast fort.

The Fort Clatsop replica, built in 1955, smolders the morning after it caught fire on October 3, 2005.

Courtesy of Lewis and Clark National Historic Park

Absent detailed portrayals of Fort Clatsop, we are left with imagining a fort that the journals do not precisely describe. One way of imagining the 1805 fort is to pull together scattered clues from the journals — clues from the different journalists about the number of workers in camp each day, the time that specific tasks took, and the tools present at the worksite. This essay attempts such a project of research and imagination, using the information from the journals. Since this effort does not exhaust the evidence available, however, the Park Service hopes it will spur the exploration of additional avenues of research. Others, for instance, could consider the construction techniques and fort layouts the men would have been familiar with given their experiences on the Ohio and Kentucky frontier. The Park Service makes notes of the uncertainty of evidence in referring to the newly rebuilt fort as an “exhibit” rather than a “reconstruction.” Future interpretation of the fort exhibit will encourage visitors to consider this evidence to come up with their own image of the fort.

This essay sorts the evidence from the journals, first chronologically, and then spatially, to provide a portrait of the fort. It lays side-by-side each day’s journal entries and weather observations from all the journal-keepers to construct a narrative of the fort-building process (see sidebars for examples). Then it pulls together scattered evidence from throughout the Expedition’s time at the fort to imagine each part of the structure, as the Clatsop Chief Coboway or any other visitor to the fort might have seen it. By using these scattered clues, a clearer portrait emerges of the fort where Lewis, Clark, and thirty-one others passed that wet winter on the Pacific Coast.


On Monday, December 9, 1805, four Clatsops canoed the Netul (today’s Lewis and Clark River) to a spot where it was some hundred yards wide. In the thick grove of trees about two hundred yards west of the river, they saw a party of thirteen whites and one Indian woman (see table, Fort Clatsop Workforce). In a moderate rain, the crew was at work cutting down trees with axes. Much of what they cut was western hemlock, the species that likely made up most of the cabin walls and pickets of Fort Clatsop.[2] During their stay on the coast, Expedition members would also cut down Douglas fir, grand fir, Sitka spruce, and western white pine. Meriwether Lewis carefully noted the qualities of lumber from each species — qualities that the Indians with their expertly designed canoes already knew well. The four Indians spent the night with the tree-cutters as “a violent wind” blew in the early evening, communicating as best they could using English and Clatsop, signs, and the local trade jargon. They left the next morning.[3] In the grove, over the next three weeks, Fort Clatsop would take shape.


Date Workforce Building Activities Notes
In camp Getting boards and lumber Hunting, getting meat, or at salt camp
Dec. 7 32 Clark & majority of party arrive in camp
Sunday, Dec. 8 14 18 Clark & 5 men start salt expedition; Gass & 11 men on hunting expedition
Dec. 9 14 18 clearing land Ordway & 8 men get meat; 3 go after ax
Dec. 10 30 2 cutting trees Clark & 3 return; 2 still hunting
Dec. 11 30 2 walls; cutting trees
Dec. 12 28 2 2 walls; cutting logs; getting board timber 2 dispatched to get board timber
Dec. 13 28 2 2 walls; splitting timber Drouillard & Shannon return in evening; 2 sent out to split timber
Dec. 14 28 4 walls finished; splitting timber 4 leave to hunt; get meat
Sunday, Dec. 15 15 17 finishing officers’ quarters; splitting timbers Clark & 16 men go after meat
Dec. 16 15 17 roofing Clark & 16 return to camp; “several” noted as sick
Dec. 17 25 7 chinking, daubing, cutting out doors; splitting timber; building chimneys 7 go after meat
Dec. 18 23 9? little work; gathering boards “2 canoes” of men go after planks
Dec. 19 23 9 gathering boards, etc. Pryor & 8 men go after planks
Dec. 20 32 roofing, daubing
Dec. 21 32 daubing, chinking, cutting trees
Sunday, Dec. 22 31 1 daubing, flooring, bunks Drouillard goes trapping
Dec. 23 32 roofing, daubing
Dec. 24 32 roofing; moving in
Dec. 25 32 moving in
Dec. 26 32 ?
Dec. 27 30 2 chimneys; bunks, pickets, gates 2 sent to hunt
Dec. 28 22 10 pickets, gates 2 hunters return; 5 sent to hunt; 5 (or 6) sent to salt camp
Sunday, Dec. 29 24 8 pickets, gates 3 sent to hunt
Dec. 30 27 5 pickets, gates
Dec. 31 27 5 latrines, sentry boxes
This table, compiled by the author from the Expedition Journals, shows the approximate number of workers in camp when various building tasks took place. It assumes all the thirty-two adults in the Expedition were engaged in the work. The numbers are approximate because not all the movements of Expedition members were clearly recorded.

Meriwether Lewis and five of his men had first visited the site of Fort Clatsop on November 30, and Clark and the rest of the party had met them there on December 7. It was around this time that Clark drew a sketch of the fort on a piece of paper in his journal (see figures 1 and 2). The floor plan called for two buildings on either side of a parade ground with picketing on the other two sides. One building had three large rooms, approximately eighteen by eighteen feet each, all with doors leading into the parade ground. We might assume these were barracks for the three sergeants and their squadrons. The opposite building had four smaller rooms, ranging approximately from fourteen by twelve to fourteen by fourteen feet. Clark wrote over the sketch with his December 7 journal entry, three days before the Expedition laid the foundation logs for the fort.

Figure 1: Clark’s drawing of Fort Clatsop with journal entry for December 7, 1805.

Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis

Figure 2: Drawing from figure 1 with extraneous material removed. The drawing shows a two-sided structure. It also apparently shows a profile of the log wall and roof. The diagram gives the dimension “18” on the left and “14”(?) on the right. The meaning of “2” is unclear; the number may be “20.” The squares apparently represent chimneys or smokeholes. The room marked “14” is likely the officers’ quarters with a chimney and two windows, but no door, in the wall shared with the parade ground. The dotted line at the back of the room might represent a shelf, cabinets, or bunks. The room in the lower right appears to be the smokehouse, since it has no chimney.

Clark drew another plan for the fort on a piece of elkskin, whether before or after the paper drawing is unclear (see figure 3). Clark would later use this elkskin to bind together his fieldnotes for the period from September 11 to December 31, 1805.[4] The elkskin floor plan is broadly similar to the paper drawing, the difference being that the rooms in the four-room building were a mirror image of the building in the paper sketch. The entries enlisted men wrote in their journals during the actual construction describe a fort with a very different floor plan than these initial sketches, yet Clark’s sketches do provide clues about the architectural choices the captains preferred. In his drawings, the captains’ quarters and the smokehouse have no doors directly to the parade ground. In the paper drawing, the captains’ room is the only one with windows. Both drawings give the captains a fireplace in the wall near the parade ground. The elkskin drawing seems to show a double gate through the picket wall and perhaps a window next to it.

Figure 3
William Clark’s plan of Fort Clatsop on the cover of his elkskin journal, undated. This presents a slightly different floor plan from figures 1 and 2. The 16-foot room on the lower side is likely the planned officers’ quarters, with a chimney on the outside and no direct door to the parade ground. The room on the lower right is likely the smokehouse. The drawing appears to use squares to represent doors that shut and double lines to represent doorways with no door. The line next to the gate possibly represents a window through the stockade.

OHS neg. OrHi 9590

Construction began in earnest on Tuesday, December 10. Eighteen men had been out hunting on Sunday and Monday; but by Tuesday, almost the full party — thirty workers — was in camp, felling trees in the rain and laying the foundation logs for the fort. The captains apparently called together some of their men to explain the plans for the fort. Clark had just returned from a hunting trip, giving the captains a new opportunity to consult. Whitehouse’s journal entry that day suggests some sort of announcement: “Our officers concluded on to build our huts of logs, & to picket them in from the Corners.”

On Wednesday, December 11, thirty workers were in camp, and they began raising a first “line of huts” in moderate rain. This curious expression, “a line of huts,” appears repeatedly in the journals of Ordway and Whitehouse to mean a log cabin with two or more rooms. On Thursday, the Clatsop Chief Coboway made the first of many visits to the fort, arriving in time to see workers finish raising the walls of the first structure, possibly the three-room cabin containing the captains’ quarters. The twenty-eight workers in camp on Friday raised a second “line of huts” — this one with two rooms. The same day, the crew began raising a third building. On Saturday, workers finished the third “line of huts.” The captains had made certain that a full complement of workers was in camp the four days they were raising the walls, and a workforce of about thirty had raised roughly 412 linear feet of walls during that time.[5]

As the building took shape, Clark and his enlisted men differed in what they chose to record in their journals. For the key period when the Corps was building the fort, from December 9 to December 31, 1805, we have journals from Captain Clark, Sergeants John Ordway and Patrick Gass, and Private Joseph Whitehouse. Captain Lewis wrote almost nothing during this period. In choosing what to include in their journals, the men were influenced by at least two things: first, what their superiors had directed them to record and, second, what items held their particular interest. Clark and Lewis answered to Jefferson, and Clark apparently did not think his commander-in-chief or others would take great interest in the exact form of the fort. His men had much less detailed instructions. In the detachment orders of May 26, 1804, Lewis simply had instructed the men: “The sergts. in addition to those duties are directed each to keep a seperate journal from day to day of all passing occurences, and such other observations on the country &c.; as shall appear to them worthy of notice—”[6] In recording these “passing occurences,” the enlisted men provided much more detail about the fort-building than did Captain Clark. The same had occurred at Fort Mandan, where the most detailed descriptions of the fort came from Whitehouse and Gass.[7]

As the fort took shape on the ground, Clark saw no reason to describe its shape on paper but was more concerned with command decisions, construction problems, and the health of his men. Clark also noted which men he dispatched to collect boards and discussed the problem of finding lumber that split well to make boards. He was concerned both about the effect that lack of shelter had on the Expedition and the injuries that occurred from the work of building log houses. He noted on December 11 that one man had “a Strained Knee” and that Pryor found himself “unwell from haveing his Sholder out of place.” On Wednesday, December 18, when it “rained Snowed and hailed at intervals” until noon, he noted that “the men being but thinly dressed, and no Shoes causes us to doe but little—” He had charge of a military expedition and had particular concern for the health of his men. His soldiers had no such weighty responsibilities, and their journal entries focused almost solely on their daily tasks: chopping trees, splitting boards, building the fort.

CLARK: we are all employed putting up huts or Cabins for our winters quarters. Sergant Pryor unwell from a dislocation of his Sholder

ORDWAY: we began raiseing one line of our huts.

GASS: we continued at our hut-building.

WHITEHOUSE: the party continued on cutting logs, Pickets &ca.; We raised one line of our huts this day.

Lewis’s weather observations: rained moderately all last night and to day

Here’s what Clark’s soldiers had to say about the fort after they had raised all the cabin walls. Using the word “square” — with its old meaning of “a side of a square, rectangle, or polygon” — Ordway noted on Friday, December 13, that the lines of huts formed “three Square and 7 rooms 16 by 18 feet large.”[8] Whitehouse added on the same day: “the three lines composed 3 squares, & the other square we intend picketting in, & to have 2 Gates at the two Corners.” On Saturday, the carpenter Gass provided an even briefer description: “We completed the building of our huts, 7 in number.” Over three months later, as they left the fort for the last time on March 23, 1806, Whitehouse provided one last description of the fort: “The fort was built in the form of an oblong Square, & the front of it facing the River, was picketed in, & had a Gate on the North & one on the South side of it.”[9] Since all the journalists who discuss the fort agree there were seven rooms and three buildings and since the second cabin had two rooms, simple mathematics and geometry suggest there were one three-room cabin and two two-room cabins. The three-room cabin would have been at the back, lest the fort be lopsided. The enlisted men as well as Lewis also agree that the fort had two gates. Unfortunately, we can derive no exact floor plan from these general statements. The best we can do is to imagine a myriad of possible floor plans. Figures 5 and 6 provide two such possibilities. The basic footprint of each of these floor plans could give rise to dozens of variations, with alternative placements of doors, gates, and picketing. Given this uncertainty, the National Park Service relied on Clark’s elkskin drawing, which does provide an exact floor plan, to create the new fort exhibit at Fort Clatsop.

The Expedition brought only a limited set of tools to build their fort — fewer than they had at Fort Mandan. Before the Expedition began, Lewis purchased an extensive set of woodworking tools and materials, including saws, chisels, adzes, axes, and nails, but the men had cached much of that equipment on the Marias River in June 1805.[10] The journals provide evidence only of axes, a malet, and a froe (a cleaving tool) at Fort Clatsop. The journals also refer to “tools loaned to John Shields” (presumably blacksmith tools) and to “carpenter’s tools” at Fort Clatsop without specifying what those are. They also indicate the Expedition fashioned wedges out of wood. By building the new fort exhibit in a more rustic style than the 1955 replica, the latest version of Fort Clatsop takes note of this limited tool set.

From December 15 to December 24, the Expedition split planks and gathered boards to cover the cabins. Expedition members also engaged in a number of other tasks: chinking and daubing the walls from December 16 to December 23, cutting out doors on December 17, putting in flooring on December 22, and installing bunks on December 22 and December 27.

At first, the Expedition had trouble finding timber that split easily into boards. On Saturday, December 14, however, the carpenter Patrick Gass exulted: “we have found a kind of timber in plenty, which splits freely, and makes the finest puncheons I have ever seen. They can be split 10 feet long and two broad, not more than an inch and a half thick.” The species they found may have been Sitka spruce, which Lewis later described as one that “rives better than any other species which we have tryed.”[11] Given the damp climate, the Expedition turned its attention first to the smokehouse, which they had covered by December 16. Relying on the meat in their smokehouse, almost the full Expedition was able to work on the fort from the 18th to the 27th. Roofing trouble re-emerged, however, on Tuesday, December 17. Clark remarked: “The trees which our men have fallen latterly Split verry badly into boards.”

Given the difficulty in splitting these boards, the Expedition stole many of the boards from nearby houses — temporarily vacant structures that Clatsops occupied on a seasonal basis. On December 12, 18, and 19, the journals refer to visiting nearby houses to gather boards. As Clatsops visited the fort, they surely would have noted that the fort roofs contained newly split boards and older boards that could only have come from those houses. Any objections they raised were not recorded in the Expedition’s journals. Given the variety of sources they came from, the roofs likely had boards of varying length and thickness. They apparently did their job, however. Among all the complaints that long, damp winter, no one complained about leaking roofs.

CLARK: all the men at work about the houses, Some Chinking, Dobbing Cutting out dores &c.; &c.; [. . .] Cause a Small fire & Smoke to be made under the meat which is hung up in Small peaces: The trees which our men have fallen latterly Split verry badly into boards.

ORDWAY: we went at chinking up our huts and Splitting plan &C.; cut out meat & hung it in the meat house &C;

GASS: We still continued working at our huts.

WHITEHOUSE: We were all employed in building Chimneys in our huts, & splitting out planks to cover our huts with. We cut up the Meat, & hung it up in the Meat house, in Order to save it.

weather: rained all last night and to day untill 9 am when we had a Shower of hail for an hour and Cleared off.

Once they covered the smokehouse, it took the Expedition four more days, until December 20, to cover three more of the rooms. By December 23, the captains were moving into their unfinished quarters on a day punctuated by hail, thunder, and lightning. The next day, the Clatsop Chief Cuscalar came with his younger brother and two women. The Clatsops saw the full complement of workers engaged in roofing and moving into their cabins. They witnessed the celebrations on Christmas Day, as the soldiers greeted their officers in the morning with a round of arms fire, “a Shout and a Song.” The Clatsops even joined in by giving Clark a present of some roots. The Expedition did little work beyond moving into their quarters that day. Cuscalar and the others left in the evening.

That night and the next day, the soldiers and civilians of the Corps were pounded with violent wind, rain, thunder, and lightning. The weather proved the inadequacy of the soldiers’ quarters. The quarters apparently only had firepits with smokeholes in the roofs — no chimneys — and the men found that in windy conditions smoke filled their rooms. On December 27, the men added chimneys to their quarters. While Clark’s preliminary drawings showed firepits in the middle of the rooms, the men may well have chosen to build the chimneys back against the walls.

From December 27 to December 30, Expedition members worked at erecting the pickets and gates that would make the cabins a “defensive fort.”[12] The journals suggest that the pickets were a fairly substantial structure, as a workforce averaging about twenty-five labored for four days to build them — an amount of labor almost equal to that expended building the cabin walls. They built two gates — a main gate and a water gate. The Clatsop Chief Coboway paid his second visit to the fort on Friday evening, December 27, with four other men. As five Expedition members were hunting and five left for the salt camp that day, the Clatsops only saw twenty-two adults at work the next morning, chopping down trees and building pickets. Coboway could have carefully inspected the defensive measures the Expedition was taking. Fort Clatsop would suffer no Indian attacks that winter. According to his descendants, this was due largely to Coboway’s efforts to discourage such attacks.[13]

CLARK: Joseph Fields finish a Table & 2 Seats for us. we dry our wet articles

ORDWAY: we found that our huts Smoaked by the high winds and hard Storms

GASS: (no entry)

WHITEHOUSE: We found that our huts smoaked occasion’d by the hard wind; & find that we cannot live in them without building Chimneys.—

weather: raind with violent wind all last night and to day with Hard Claps of thunder & Sharp Lightning.

On December 30, four Wahkiakum Indians came with roots to trade, apparently the first Indian visitors from north of the Columbia. They saw some twenty-seven workers finishing the gates and pickets. Lewis had issued the company orders that called for Indians to be put out of the fort in the evening, and the Wahkiakums learned that they would not be allowed to spend the night in the now-completed fort. With the completion of the two sentry boxes and two latrines on that last day of 1805, the Corps of Discovery finished the construction of its winter quarters.


Throughout the three weeks of construction, Indians had been almost daily visitors to the fort and had seen it slowly rise from the ground. In all, the Corps of Discovery received visits from ten different groups of Clatsops, Wahkiakums, and Watlalas during this time, many of them sleeping the night at or near the construction site. Indians were at the worksite during sixteen of the twenty-three days of construction, from December 9 when Expedition members started clearing the land to December 31 when they built sentry boxes and dug latrines.[14] Even though the Corps of Discovery had a much more distant relationship with local peoples than it had at Fort Mandan, through the course of the winter dozens of people came to see the newcomers and their fort and to trade. Much like Clark, who carefully described the Clatsop house, indigenous people no doubt made note of all that was familiar and strange in the foreigners’ fort. What follows is an imaginary walk through Fort Clatsop — a reconstruction of what Clatsop Chief Coboway, the most regular visitor, might have seen on a typical visit. Imagining what Coboway saw at the fort serves not only as a device to pull together a description of the fort, but it also reminds us that just as the Corps of Discovery was exploring the American West and its peoples, the people of the West were sizing up the foreigners. They were, to use historian James P. Ronda’s phrase, “exploring the explorers.”[15]

As he walked up from the river to the fort on this imagined visit, Coboway saw the Expedition’s canoes beached or tied with ropes made of elkskin. Through most of March 1806, soldiers were busy corking, pitching, and repairing those canoes for the journey up the Columbia. As Coboway approached the fort, he saw the picketed side of the structure, which faced the river (see figure 4). Thick logs with pointed tips had been upended into holes along the front side of the fort, making a defensive wall. Coboway saw two gates as he approached the fort, a large main gate open only during the day, and a smaller water-gate used to leave the fort at night.

Figure 4
Detail, Clark’s map of the Oregon coast showing Fort Clatsop and the Lewis and Clark River. This shows a fort closer to figure 5 than figure 6.

OHS neg., OrHi 96341

As he neared the gate, he cried out “No Chinook!” With this password, Clatsops made clear there were not members of the less-trusted tribe from north of the Columbia.[16] On the parade ground, he noted the sentry on duty in one of the two sentry boxes. Within the parade ground, he could see more closely the cabin walls — logs stacked horizontally with mud or clay, supplemented by grass, moss, sticks, or pebbles used to fill the gaps between them. On rainy days, he noted water dripping off the eaves. In all likelihood, the roofs slanted in toward the parade ground, like the roofs at Fort Mandan and at many frontier forts.[17] Coboway saw Seaman, Lewis’s Newfoundland dog. He also saw less favored dogs that the Expedition was preparing to eat. He noted men outside preparing elk or deer leather and stitching it into moccasins, shirts, and trousers. Some of the men also fashioned the elkskin sack the captains would use to protect their papers on the voyage home.

Coboway would have entered Captains Clark and Lewis’s quarters through the orderly room, since their sleeping quarters had no direct door to the parade ground. The rooms had a large fireplace and windows. The captains slept on bunks under blankets and robes, their rest often disturbed by the fleas that infested their bedding. Some or all of the rooms in the fort had floors made of boards or half-split logs. The captains’ rooms surely had such flooring. In the room next to the captains was the Charbonneau family, which likely formed a mess with the captains.[18] The space the captains reserved for themselves and their proximity to the Charbonneaus makes it likely that Lewis and Clark occupied the three-room cabin at the back of the fort (see figures 5 and 6).

As Coboway entered the captains’ rooms, he saw much that was familiar to him: native hats, mats, and baskets. Lewis and Clark and many of their men seemed especially taken with the headgear coastal peoples made, and both captains had hats made to order. Coboway might have seen some of the many skins the captains had bought from Indians: sea otter skins, a cougar skin, the two bobcat skins with which Clark planned to make a capot (a cloak or cap), or the two lynx skins Lewis bought for the same purpose.

Coboway also saw much that he had only recently come to know, through trade with European and U.S. sailing vessels that arrived on the Oregon coast in the 1790s: guns, ammunition, metal tools, and fishing hooks. He saw the furniture that Joseph Field had fashioned for the captains, perhaps reminding him of items on trading vessels — a table, two chairs, and two writing slabs. He may have seen the captains’ sextant and chronometer, the same instruments visiting trade vessels used to locate themselves on a global grid of longitude and latitude. When Coboway spent the night in the fort, he saw Lewis and Clark bent over those writing slabs at work on their journals by candlelight.

Figure 5. Conjectural floor plan of fort based on enlisted men’s journal entries. The journal entries indicate that the fort had three buildings forming three sides of a square, with the fourth side facing the river picketed and with seven rooms total. Ordway said that each room was sixteen by eighteen feet and that the fort had gates “at the 2 corners.” The exact placement of buildings, specific rooms, doors, windows, gates, and guard boxes is conjectural. Boxes marked “G” represent guard boxes. The circle marked “C” represents a chimney between the officers’ quarters and the parade ground. All the other rooms, except the smokehouse, had chimneys. The circle marked “S” represents the stump leveled off to make a table.

Diagrams by Michael Hankinson and Frederick L. Brown; not to scale

Figure 6: Alternative conjectural drawing of fort based on journal entries. A variation on this floor plan would picket straight between the corners of the north and south buildings.

On this imagined visit, Coboway saw the locked door to the smokehouse — large enough for a two-week supply of meat. Inside, venison hung on scaffolds or individual sticks. Both of Clark’s drawings (figures 2 and 3) show a room with no chimney and no door to the parade ground, and the meat room may have had no door to the parade ground. The men on duty had the responsibility to keep the smokehouse fire burning. In some ways, it was the most important room in the fort and was the first the captains had the men cover with a roof.

The three sergeants — Gass, Pryor, and Ordway — each had a room where they slept on bunks with their respective squadrons of about eight men each. Perhaps it was one of these rooms that contained the tree stump “cut off square at the top and used as a table.” Coboway’s daughter Celiast remembered seeing that stump, and she told her son Silas B. Smith about it.[19] In several of the rooms, men had carved their names into the walls.[20] In all the barracks, Coboway saw the chimneys the men had built in late December. As in the captains’ quarters, he would have seen many familiar objects and many items similar to those that trading ships brought. Each squadron formed a mess. At meal time, Coboway saw foodstuffs that local Clatsops had traded to the visitors: roots such as wapatos, dried berries, whale blubber and whale oil, dogs, or fish such as eulachons, sturgeon, and anchovies. He also saw them preparing game the men hunted and trapped — primarily elk and deer, but occasionally beaver or otter.

The fort probably did not have a separate storehouse, but stored in the captains’ quarters or the barracks were the supplies the Expedition was laying in for the trip back to the United States. The party had thirty-five lead canisters of gunpowder and twenty pounds of salt, twelve pounds of which were stored in iron-bound kegs. By the Expedition’s departure, they had 338 pairs of moccasins, as well as “Shirts Overalls Capoes of dressed Elk skins.”[21] They also had a dwindling supply of trading goods, such as ribbons, beads, knives, brass armbands, fishing hooks, razors, files, robes, satin breeches, and thread.

When the Expedition left the Oregon coast to return to the United States on March 23, 1806, Lewis and Clark gave Coboway the fort and its furniture, and he continued to return there for years during the winter hunting season.[22] Coboway and other Clatsops were only the first of many visitors to Fort Clatsop. For the employees of John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company and later the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company who occupied a fort at Astoria (Fort George to the British) from 1811 to 1848, the captains’ “wintering quarters” was a site that visitors were expected to see.[23] In July 1813, for example, Pacific Fur Company partner Donald McKenzie “with four S[andwich]. Islanders in a canoe went round to Fort Clatsop, Captns Lewis & Clarke’s wintering place, having never been there.”[24] On December 14, 1813, Alexander Henry of the North West Company walked to the fort and described it as “in total ruins.”[25] Yet, it was still visible in 1836, the year naturalist John Kirk Townsend walked along the beach to Fort Clatsop and reported: “The logs of which it is composed, are still perfect, but the roof of bark has disappeared, and the whole vicinity is overgrown with thorn and wild currant bushes.”[26] The last trace of the fort reportedly disappeared in 1851, when Carlos W. Shane, who saw the remains of the fort near the house he was building on his claim, burned the last logs.[27] The last physical traces of the fort went up in smoke.

The journals that Clark and his men penned at the fort allow us to imagine their fort — the fort that Clatsop Indians saw the soldiers build those three weeks in December. While we can only have partial knowledge of the historic fort, we can say with reasonable certainty that the fort had three buildings, seven rooms, and log walls built with a limited tool set, but we cannot determine the precise floor plan. Further research into frontier construction techniques may point up certain floor plans as more likely than others, but absent new archeological or documentary evidence we will never know the exact placement of walls, roofs, chimneys, doors, pickets, and gates. While Lewis and Clark were, in historian Donald Jackson’s phrase, the “writingest explorers of their time,” they wrote to fulfill the Enlightenment goals of their commander-in-chief, not to allow a precise reconstruction of their winter quarters.[28] The journals reveal much, but they also leave much to conjecture as we seek to imagine the fort where the Corps of Discovery passed an uncomfortable winter, anxious for their return to the United States.

The author wishes to acknowledge his National Park Service colleagues at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park at the Pacific West Regional Office, Seattle, whose comments on earlier drafts were invaluable in the preparation of this article.

1. Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, June 20, 1803, in Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents 1783–1854 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:61–66.

2. We can infer this, since Lewis later described western hemlock as “much the most common species” in the vicinity. Lewis, February 5, 1806, in Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition vol. 6 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983–2002).

3. This account is based on the journals of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Patrick Gass, John Ordway, and Joseph Whitehouse for December 1805 to March 1806 in Moulton, ed., Journals. I generally cite precise sources only when quoting directly. Readers can use the search function of the online version of these journals to find the source of individual statements. Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, et. al., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, ed. Gary Moulton (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press/University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries-Electronic Text Center, 2005), Estimates of numbers of Expedition members in camp were derived by compiling journal entries about the comings and goings of individuals. Statements about the weather are based on “[Weather, December 1805],” Moulton, ed., Journals, 6:148–51.

4. Ibid., 2:23–27; 2:538; 6:145n1.

5. Ordway, December 13, 1805, in ibid., 9:260. This calculation is based on Ordway’s statement that the three buildings had seven rooms, each sixteen by eighteen feet.

6. Detachment Orders, Lewis, May 26, 1804, in ibid., 2:257.

7. Gass, November 3, 1804, in ibid., 10:62; Whitehouse, December 31, 1804, in ibid., 11:114.

8. Oxford English Dictionary(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) [subscription database accessed August 30, 2006].

9. Whitehouse, March 23, 1806, in Moulton, ed., Journals, 11:431.

10. Jackson, ed., Letters, 1:70–71, 83–84.

11. Lewis, February 4, 1806, in Moulton, ed., Journals, 6:276.

12. Ordway, December 13, 1805, in ibid., 9:260.

13. Testimony of Silas B. Smith, June 15, 1900, recorded in Proceedings of the Oregon Historical Society (Salem, Ore.: W.H. Leeds, 1901), 20 [hereafter Smith testimony].

14. Indians were at Fort Clatsop on December 9, 10, 13, 14, 16, 19–21, 23–25, and 27–31. Moulton, ed., The Journals.

15. James P. Ronda, “Exploring the Explorers: Great Plains Peoples and the Lewis and Clark Expedition,” in Voyages of Discovery: Essays on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, ed. James P. Ronda, (Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 1998), 183–99.

16. Nicholas Biddle, “The Nicholas Biddle Notes,” in Jackson, ed., Letters, 2:541.

17. Nancy O’Malley, “Stockading Up”: A Study of Pioneer Stations in the Inner Bluegrass Region of Kentucky Archaeological Report 127 (Frankfort: Kentucky Heritage Council, 1987), 25–27. Clark’s paper drawing (figure 2) shows a slanted, not a gabled, roof.

18. Biddle, “Notes,” 2:503.

19. Smith testimony; Sunday (Portland) Oregonian, June 17, 1900, 8; Olin D. Wheeler, The Trail of Lewis and Clark, 1804–1904 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), 2:197.

20. Ross Cox, Adventures on the Columbia River . . . with a journey across the American continent (New York: J.&J.; Harper, 1832), 71.

21. Clark, March 12, 1806, in Moulton, ed., Journals, 6:407.

22. Smith testimony.

23. Duncan McDougall, Annals of Astoria: The Headquarters Log of the Pacific Fur Company on the Columbia River, 1811–1813 (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999), 21–22, 26, 91, 136, 143, 145, 204.

24. McDougall, Annals of Astoria, 204.

25. Quoted in Olin D. Wheeler, The Trail of Lewis and Clark (1904; reprint, Scituate, Mass.: Digital Scanning, 2002), 2:198.

26. John Kirk Townsend, Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River Across the Rockies to the Columbia (Philadelphia: H. Perkins, 1839), available at, (accessed August 30, 2006).

27. Proceedings of the Oregon Historical Society (Salem, Ore.: W.H. Leeds, 1900), 20–21.

28. Jackson, ed., Letters, 1:vii.

Figure 7
Workers build the new Fort Clatsop exhibit in the winter of 2006.

Courtesy of Lewis and Clark National Historic Park