After their two-year journey from St. Louis to the Pacific and back shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left behind volumes of notes, maps and scientific descriptions of new plants and animals that they identified on their voyage of discovery.
What they apparently did not leave behind, however, was much physical evidence of their passage. Try as they might, archeologists have been unable to find any traces of their 600 campsites or the two forts they built for wintering over. The lack of evidence seemed so total that a handful of extremist critics charged that the expedition never occurred.
That situation changed dramatically this summer when a team from the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., led by archeologist Kenneth W. Karsmizki, reported that it had discovered the campsite used by the expedition when it portaged around the Great Falls of the Missouri River.
Karsmizki believes he also has evidence of the site of Ft. Clatsop at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon, where the explorers spent the winter of 1805-06.
The discoveries “make the Lewis and Clark expedition more real than it has ever been before,” Karsmizki said. “Finding a campsite allows us to move from imagination to something very tangible.” Among the items they have found are the remains of campfires, butchered bison bones, a broken gun flint, a push pin and a tent stake.
“It’s just great fun,” added David Borlaug, president of the Lewis and Clark Foundation. “We know [the expedition] took place, we can follow in their footsteps, literally, but there has never been that physical evidence. . . . Now here’s a direct link where you can finally say, here’s the pit where they hunched over this fire and talked about what happened that day.”
One thing the researchers have already learned is that the expedition, though formally a military excursion, did not adhere religiously to military codes of behavior in matters such as laying out their campsites. In fact, they seem to have acted more casually--like the scientists they were.
Lewis and Clark were chosen by President Thomas Jefferson to survey the uncharted territories newly acquired from France, to find a water route to the Pacific Coast, to establish relations with Native Americans in the region and to stake a claim on Oregon.
11 Seasons of Excavations
The explorers left St. Louis in May 1804 with a crew of 50 men in a keelboat and two pirogues (dugout canoes). They traveled more than 8,000 miles along the Missouri, Snake and Columbia rivers from Missouri to the Pacific and back again, spending the first winter at Ft. Mandan in Montana and the second at Ft. Clatsop in Oregon. They returned to St. Louis 863 days later in September 1806.
On June 15, 1804, Clark and the main body of the party arrived at a rapids near the end of the day and set up a temporary camp on the west side of the Missouri River. That night, a messenger from Lewis, who was scouting ahead, brought word of the discovery of the Great Falls and the news that the expedition would have to portage around them.
When Lewis rejoined the party the next day, he told them the east side of the river was best for the portage and the camp was moved across the water. But here the trail becomes confused. Lewis and Clark’s journals show five different maps of this section of the river, each placing the camp at a different site.
Eleven seasons of excavations at the site eventually revealed evidence of the campground on a terrace immediately above the Missouri’s high-water mark. The site allowed the group to camp on a level plain, put its back to the river in case they had to defend themselves against potentially hostile Indians, and have a clear view up and down the river.
Among Karsmizki’s first discoveries were a sharpened wooden stake driven into the ground and a buffalo bone, both of which were dated to about 1810. Subsequent magnetic studies revealed 18 fire sites, three of which were associated with the campsite. These three, about 50 feet apart, form a line parallel to the river.
At one fire, Karsmizki found an impression the size and shape of the leg of an iron kettle. The weight of a full kettle caused it to sink into the soil, while the heat of the campfire baked the molded dirt.
Other artifacts collected from the site included a metal push pin, a gun flint and lots of buffalo bones showing marks from butchering with metal tools. Since the artifacts were clearly not Indian in origin, and no other white men were in the area at the time, the finds must have come from the expedition.
“We now know that the expedition bent military regulations when they placed their primary butchering site closer than 150 paces from the camp,” Karsmizki said. “We also know that they ignored military regulations that required all refuse, including butchered bone, to be removed from the site on a daily basis.”
Evidence Left in Trash
Karsmizki is also searching for traces of the two forts, especially the 50-foot-by-50-foot Ft. Clatsop erected near Warrenton, Ore. No obvious physical traces of the fort remain, but the team has identified a small area where they believe the fort was located. Magnetic surveys have revealed more than 100 soil disturbances that could be the remains of privies, or outhouses.
Privies are repositories of trash, such as broken bottles and utensils, and often reveal valuable insights about their users. Unfortunately, expedition members had already used up most of their supplies by the winter of 1805-06 and were unlikely to have discarded much manufactured trash.
But the team expects to be able to identify the fort’s privies, according to archeologist Julie Stein of the University of Washington. The sites should be heavily contaminated with mercury, which was used by the expedition for medical treatment, but was not used by later settlers.
“We know that Lewis and Clark were administering mercury as a cure for venereal disease” contracted from Indian women, Stein said. “It was also a component of Rush’s pills, which were administered to men for all kinds of symptoms--flu, colds, aches and pains. They were very fortunate that this form of mercury was so stable that it passed through their intestinal systems and right into the privies.”
Stein said she hopes to have results from the mercury tests by early next year. The team will then excavate the privies and look for further traces of the soldiers.