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Western History and Americana

 Lewis & Clark Overwinter at Fort Clatsop

A newly discovered map may help solve one of the great mysteries associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition Ė the exact location of their west-coast encampment, Fort Clatsop.

The map was drawn by an unknown member of the 1851 U.S. Coast Survey that mapped the lower Columbia River near Astoria, Oregon.

"I came across the map while doing research on Oregon Indian history at the National Archives in Greenbelt, Maryland," says Scott Byram, a doctoral degree candidate in anthropology at the University of Oregon. "I didnít know whether Fort Clatsop investigators had already seen the map. But I knew they were trying to pinpoint the exact location of the fort, and I had a hunch that if they hadnít seen the map, they would very much want to get a copy."

Byramís hunch paid off.

"I was intrigued when Scott called," says James Thomson, National Parks Service (NPS) regional archaeologist. Thomson directs the Fort Clatsop Project, a joint effort by the NPS, the Museum of the Rockies and the University of Washington to find the fort. "And when I saw a copy of the map, I was impressed with how professional a rendering it was. This gives us a lot of hope."

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, at the end of their arduous trek westward, built Fort Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia River. The fort served as a secure encampment at which the travel-weary explorers would spend the winter of 1805ó06 before making the return journey to the American east.

Because of the historical significance of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Fort Clatsop site is now a National Memorial overseen by the NPS and visited each year by thousands of tourists.

"Yet within the boundaries of the memorial park, the exact location of the fort is not known," Byram explains.

Why? No maps of the fort exist that were drawn by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition. In fact, before Byramís map, historical records reported the location of the encampment somewhere between one-and-one-half and four miles from the mouth of the Lewis & Clark River.


click on map to enlarge

Homesteader recollections of the fort ruins recorded at the turn of the century by the Oregon Historical Society point to a general location, but provide conflicting information about the specific site. Compounding the problem is uncertainty about river changes in the past 200 years.

Archaeological excavations in 1948, 1956, 1957 and 1961, as well as the present Fort Clatsop Project, failed to find a definitive location.

Byramís map, which remains well preserved after nearly 150 years in the U.S. Coast Survey archives, will provide researchers with valuable new information.

For example, the fort (or "hut" as it is labeled on the map) is shown at the very edge of a slope, which descends toward the riverís flood plain. The fortís shape and orientation are also suggested by the small square used to mark the structure.

"The Coast Survey staff were skilled mapmakers, and the 1851 map typifies their attention to detail," Byram notes. "The care that went into producing this map is especially impressive considering that it may have been drawn in a canvas tent on the beach at Youngís Bay, or in the cabin of a schooner in the harbor at Astoria."

Source: University of Oregon

Before Lewis & Clark: Documents Ilustrating the  History of the Missouri, 1785-1804 edited by A.P. Nasatir

"Lewis and Clark were but the ones who fulfilled the dreams of the French and Spanish fur traders and explorers who had spread out over the vast Trans-Mississippi area and had reached the mountains and had perhaps even traveled beyond them before the turn of the eighteenth century," writes Abraham Nasatir in the introduction to his landmark documentary history.

Originally published in 1952 in two thick volumes, Nasatir gathered and carefully annotated 239 mostly forgotten and unpublished documents on this earliest years of Missouri River exploration. He combined these with an introductory narrative that covers the years of French and Spanish rule just prior to the Louisiana Purchase.

"Early explorations of this important region by Spanish, French, and English adventurers, soldiers, fur traders, and missionaries form one of the most fascinating and least known chapters of our country's history." Nasatir explains.

This new edition of Nasatir's work, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, packs the narrative and all the documents into a single paperback volume and includes fold-out reproductions of five  maps of the Missouri River dating from 1728 to 1802. 


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