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Lewis and Clark and the Corp of Discovery: Fort Clatsop

August 3rd, 2004 · 2 Comments

For months, ever since we saw Ken Burns’ documentary on Lewis and Clark, I’ve wanted to take the girls to Fort Clatsop, where the Corp of Discovery wintered in 1805. The history and fun of the adventure appealed to me. The opportunity for hands-on and feet-on learning. Make it a family vacation. Tack it onto Ted’s annual trip to Portland. And so we did.

more below….


Fort Clatsop, on first impression, seemed smaller than I thought. But it also looked like what I had seen in paintings from childhood, such as the controversial one by John F. Clymer entitled Visitors at Fort Clatsop. The fort is fifty feet square, smaller than our home, given than a good part of the space is courtyard between the two wings. It is a replica built in 1955 on the orginal site. The surrounding forest was planted at that time as well. Like Bainbridge Island, it seems the Astoria area was also logged and stripped.

The privates slept 8 to a small room. Most of what they ate was elk, sometimes spoiled, and it rained all but 12 days of their winter stay. Members of the Corp of Discovery became infested with fleas and ill with colds and rheumatism.

the inside of the fort

We heard a presentation on the diet the army enjoyed, a talk given by a ranger in period dress. The men preferred elk to salmon after having a bad experience the first time they tried it (spending six days on their backs recovering from gorging on the Nez Pierce dinner of reconstituted dried fish) They also liked dog meat, purchasing 40 at one time.

Both Ted and I were surprised by the small size of the visitor center. Artifacts from beavers to birds to rifles are on display behind glass cases. We watched a 30 minute film. Then the kids got restless and we decided to go.

Despite what I had read on the website, the place was not filled with throngs of tourists. Despite the warnings about reservations, I overheard others buying tickets at the park.

As the day progressed, the place became busier. But we had the bus from the Astoria Transit Center to the fort all to ourselves, a private tour with the driver, each way. Connecting to the Fort required two free bus rides, complicated, but for we island ferry riders, not too difficult to coordinate.

The film was good but the Ken Burns documentary we saw last fall was richer…and longer! It was good to see the fort, to sit in a canoe, to touch beaver hair and coon skin caps and a papoose. To see the spring where they got water.


To see how these explorers lived for that one dreary Northwest winter, spent making 338 pairs of moccasins and eating jerky.

I did wish that the exhibit at the fort had emphasized how Lewis and Clark allowed the entire party to decide where to winter. The vote where York and Sacagawea participated along with the rest of the Army Corp was historic. But I did not see much mention of it in the film or in the visitor center.

There was a sculpture of Clark’s dog, Seaman, whom the girls adore.


We had checked out a book written from Seaman’s perspective, and although the vocabulary was a bit beyond them, they still enjoyed it. I think he was the girls’ favorite member of the crew!

I wanted to take the girls to the Fort because of the bicentennial and because it is one of the few places within reasonable driving distance that dates back two centuries on the West Coast. I might like to take them back when they are older and can absorb more. There were a few demonstrations I would have liked to see, but the girls needed naps. But for a family vacation it was fun discovery.

For the girls I hope it was the entrance into further explorations and a deeper love of learning….

the wetlands of the canoe landing where Lewis and Clark arrived in 1805

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kris Hasson-Jones // Aug 3, 2004 at 11:11 am

    I like the fort (many school field trips long ago), but what always brings home to me the privations and hard work of their journey is the salt kiln in Seaside. It’s a replica of what they used to make salt for the homeward journey.

  • 2 Julie // Aug 3, 2004 at 11:49 pm

    Especialy after reading your comment, Kris, I’d like to go see the salt kiln sometime. We didn’t make it there on this trip…