Closest look yet at Fort Clatsop leaves mystery

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Lewis and Clark – An excavation turns up no physical evidence of the
explorers’ stay at Ft. Clatsop. A 200-year-old mystery remains unsolved.

 

A three-week archaeological excavation at Fort Clatsop near Astoria ends
today with no physical evidence that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark spent
106 dreary days there in 1805-06. Despite decades of searching, the precise fort
site is uncertain. 

“The search continues,” said Doug Wilson, an archaeologist with the National
Park Service who led the most complete excavation of the site where a
50-year-old fort replica stood until a fire Oct. 3. 

Although the dig didn’t uncover any signs of the 33-member Corps of
Discovery’s camp, the work found artifacts from Clatsop people who used the site
before Lewis and Clark’s winter stay and from early settlers who arrived in the
decades after the explorers, Wilson said. 

About a dozen archaeologists scrutinizing the site found stone chips left by
Native American tool-making; fragments of ironstone china linked to the W.H.
Smith house built in the 1870s; and a bottle fragment from a house built by
Carlos Shane in the 1850s. Parts of a doll, marbles, square nails and broken
glass also point to the 19th-century pioneers. 

“The research helps to tell the long land-use history of this important site
and will help guide future investigations,” Wilson said. 

Other excavations near the fort replica in the past 50 years also failed to
uncover artifacts conclusively tied to Lewis and Clark. Archaeologists in the
late 1990s found a blue glass bead, a brass bead and a flattened musket ball,
but the source of those items could not be determined. 

The Corps of Discovery arrived at the site on Dec. 7, 1805, and began
construction of their 50-by-50-foot fort Dec. 10. They were under shelter by
Christmas. They left on March 23, 1806, to return to St. Louis. Although a few logs
from the original fort remained in the 1850s, the last remnants succumbed to
the wet climate as well as to farming, logging, mining and other human
activities. 

In 1899 and 1900, research by the Oregon Historical Society placed the fort
on the Lewis and Clark River about two miles south of its mouth at Youngs Bay.
Community groups built the fort replica in 1955 at the site, which became a
national park in 1958. It’s now part of the Lewis and Clark National
Historical Park. 

Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins said the accidental fire that destroyed the
log replica just a few weeks before the start of bicentennial events “was
unfortunate, but it gave us the opportunity to finally look.” 

A new, more rugged-looking fort replica will open to the public by June. A
groundbreaking and flag-raising ceremony will be held Dec. 10, the 200th
anniversary of when Lewis and Clark began building Fort Clatsop. 

More archaeological projects will be planned after a report is compiled of
research findings and to determine other areas that might be promising for an
excavation, Jenkins said. 

Although the current excavation didn’t find features tied to Lewis and Clark,
Jenkins said, “we were able to finally determine whether there was anything
beneath the replica. What we found was tantalizing, but the mystery remains
— and we all like a good mystery.”

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Richard L. Hill: 503-221-8238; [email protected]

©2005 The Oregonian