Those of us who have grown up on the coast have heard the story of Lewis, Clark, and the Corps of Discovery. Lewis and Clark set out in 1804 with a score of companions, commissioned as the Corps of Discovery, to explore the vast wilderness of the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase. It took them just over a year to reach the Pacific Ocean.
As we tip our toes into another Oregon Coast winter and the anniversary of the Corps of Discovery’s arrival to the Pacific Ocean in November of 1805, it is a perfect time to delve deeper into what life was like for the Corps of Discovery during time spent on the coast.
After traveling thirty-four miles down the Columbia River, braving over 940 yards of treacherous rapids and rocks, the Corps reached the Washington side of Pillar rock. Here they set up camp in the rain while listening to the Pacific Ocean thrum against the shore. Though everyone was soaked to the bone Clark wrote, that there was “joy in the camp” for having reached the Ocean.
The next day Sacagawea and several members of the Corps of Discovery attempted to cross the treacherous Columbia River, they consequently became seasick. The wind, the rain, and the changing tides toyed with Lewis and Clark. Over the coming days they attempted to cross the river several times only to be forced back. Wet, desolate, and eating nothing, but dried salmon, the Corps of Discovery found themselves stuck in an uncomfortable camp at the mercy of thunder and lightning. With the rations of water running low the men attempt to drink saltwater and became ill.
Finally, on November 15th the wind began to calm and the Corps of Discovery was able to change campsites to a spot at Baker Bay. It is at this time that they truly see the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
A few days later Lewis meets Chief Comcomly of the Chinooks, who gives the men cooked roots. A much needed change from dried salmon boiled in saltwater! Chief Comcomly was not only an important contact for the Corps of Discovery, but an important part of North Western history in his own right. Chief Comcomly was a trader and a well-known navigator of the Columbia River. Comcomly played a pivotal role in Astoria’s history, so much so that he appears in Washington Irving’s narrative of 1811 Astoria, which was published in 1836.
The Corps of Discovery spent the entire month of November moving from one camp to another, navigating, and trying to keep dry. On November 26th they were finally able to cross the Columbia River to the Oregon side, landing in what is now Knappa. Here they found an Indian village and traded fishhooks for Wapato roots.
The Corps continued their journey up the Columbia River, passing the Youngs River and the Lewis and Clark River (known as the “Netul” to the Corps). They made several stops to send men ashore, looking for a place to winter. Drouillard, not the most well known member of the Corps Discovery accompanied these groups. Drouillard also led many hunting parties into the forests, bringing deer, elk, and beaver back with him. Throughout their journey Drouillard had established himself as an accomplished hunter and scout. In 1804 a well-aimed shot by Drouillard saved Charbonneau, Sacagawea’s husband, from a bear.
Finally, at the beginning of December, Lewis and his search party found a place to winter. As soon as the weather allowed, Fort Clatsop was underway. The wet weather made construction difficult. Food spoiled, wood rotted, and members of the Corps of Discovery became ill with colds, skin infections, and bruises. They suffered badly from fleas and the cold, but by the end of December most of the Fort was complete. While at this location the Corps of Discovery traded with local tribes, documented flora and fauna, and kept detailed documentation of it all. The Corps even traversed southward to Cannon Beach in January of 1806. Weiser and Willard returned to Fort Clatsop with blubber and tales of a large creature on the coast. Upon hearing this Clark took twelve men and Sacagawea to go in search of this goliath. What they found was a large skeleton of a whale, already butchered by the Tillamook tribe there. Clark estimated it was 105 feet long. He and his party then traded for 300 pounds of blubber. Captain Clark’s understanding of the native word for whale was, Ecola, which he then named the nearby creek.
The Corps of Discovery settled into a routine of exploration, hunting, and trade. They began to cure their own meats and celebrate the holidays with gunfire and singing. Despite our coastal weather, fleas, and mosquitoes Lewis and Clark were able to document many species, and map the Columbia River and the coast.
Though many of us may have grown up with this information floating around in our heads, some of us have forgotten that a majority of the Corps of Discovery’s time on the coast was during our winter. When torrential downpours, flooding, and high winds are everyday. It’s no wonder they gave some places names like, Dismal Nitch, but they also saw the beauty that was here. In January of 1806 Captain William Clark wrote, “From this point I be held the grandest and most pleasing prospects which my eyes ever surveyed.”
For more information about the Corps of Discovery visit the Cannon Beach History Center & Museum, we are open Thursday through Monday from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m.