December on the Oregon coast. It’s rainy, it’s windy, and it can be downright maddening if you don’t have a stack of good books, an art project or two, or any other past time to get you through the darkest month of the year. It is hard to believe that the Corps of Discovery spent most of their time on the Oregon coast during the winter.
The Corps of Discovery, or Lewis and Clark expedition, left on May 14, 1804 from Camp River Dubois under the command of Clark. The score of companions were commissioned to explore the vast wilderness of the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase.
It took the expedition just over a year to reach the Pacific Ocean. 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 in November of 1805. 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 reach the Ocean.
The next day Sacagawea and several members of the Corps of Discovery attempted to cross the treacherous Columbia River, not an easy feat as you can imagine. The unruly current caused them to become seasick and they returned to shore. 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 a thunder and lightning. With the rations of water running low the men attempted to drink saltwater and became ill.
Finally on Nov. 15, the wind begins 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. And oh what a sight to behold!
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 is one of my favorite people from our local history. Not only was he an important contact for the Corps of Discovery, but an important part of Columbia River maritime history as well. Chief Comcomly was a trader and one of a few navigators of the Columbia River. He appears in Washington Irving’s narrative of 1811 Astoria, which was published in 1836. If you ever visit the Astor Column you will find a canoe and honorium for this unique coastal man.
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 find an Indian village and trade fishhooks for Wapato roots. Wapato roots were an important staple for many tribes in the Pacific Northwest. The Wapato root is a starchy edible tuber, often noted as being “potato like.” The tubers are gathered from wet swampy areas across the United States, although due to habitat destruction they are harder to find now.
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 accompanies these groups. Throughout their journey he had established himself as an accomplished hunter and scout, often leading many of the hunting parties. 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. Can you imagine trying to get a fire going when the wood was wet, you were wet, and even the tinder was wet? They suffered badly from fleas and the cold, but by the end of December most of the Fort is complete.
While at this location the Corps of Discovery traded with local tribes, documented flora and fauna, and kept detailed documentation of it all. Even coming 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 and went in search for the goliath. What they found was a large skeleton of a whale, already butchered by the Tillamook tribe there. Clark estimated that the creature was 105-feet long. Clark and his party, after several attempts, traded for 300 pounds of blubber. Clark’s understanding of the native word for whale was, Ecola, which he then named the creek he had crossed to see the creature.
The Corps of Discovery settled into a routine of exploration, hunting, and trade. They begin to cure their own meats and celebrate the holidays with gunshot 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 their arrival on the coast was not necessarily well timed, weather wise, they still accomplished a lot and even had the opportunity to marvel at the coastal beauty. 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.”
Learn about this and more at the Cannon Beach History Center & Museum, we are open Thursday through Monday from 1 to 5 p.m.