Meriweather Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery spent two years exploring the American West. That meant they spent two winters far from home and had to build sturdy shelters to survive the cold months.
Today we’ll explore the two military forts that they built and some “fun facts” about winter on the trail.Fort Mandan – 1804
By the time the weather got chilly, the Corps of Discovery had been traveling for a while. They had left St. Louis, Missouri, in mid-May and had poled, pulled, pushed, and rowed upstream against the current of the mighty Missouri River. By the late autumn, they had reached the land of modern North Dakota and had made friends with the Mandan and Hidasta tribes. It seemed like a perfect place to spend the winter.
On November 2, 1804, they began construction on their triangular shaped fort, complete with a high stockade. The Corps would stay at Fort Mandan until April 7, 1805.
What happened during the six cold months? Here’s a few of the important facts:
- The Captains met a French trapper named Touissant Charbonneau and hired him to go with the expedition. One of his young wives – Sacagawea – would also travel with them.
- They spent a lot of time talk to the native peoples and learning about the land farther west.
- One of the men opened a blacksmith forge to repair items for the corps. The natives wanted their metal tools repairs, and regular trade and barter system was established. Corn and beans were exchanged for forge work.
- It was REALLY cold! 45 degrees BELOW zero.
- On February 11, 1805, Sacagawea’s son – Jean Baptiste Charbonneau – was born at Fort Mandan.
The next winter found the Corps of Discovery on the Pacific Coast! During the year, they had portaged around the Great Falls, found the headwaters of the Missouri River, crossed the Rocky and Bitterroot Mountains, and sped down the Columbia River to the Pacific. However, they discovered that this coast would be a challenging place to spend the winter…it was very rainy, fog, and dreary.
After taking a vote among the members of the expedition to decide the fort’s location (more on that next week), they built their square-shaped shelter on the southern side of the Columbia River, not far from modern day Astoria, Oregon. Construction began on December 7th and by the 23rd they were moving into the still roof-less “shelter”. They stayed at Fort Clatsop until March 22, 1806, when they began their return trip to the east.
A few interesting facts from the winter:
- During the 1805 winter on the coast, the expedition recorded only 12 days that it DIDN”T rain. Of those 12 days, only 6 were sunny!
- Getting salt was one of the unique chores for the corps. They sent groups to the ocean coast to boil the saltwater to get the salt for their return trip provisions.
- They went hunting for elk, tanned the hides, and sewed new “mountain men” clothing.
- The native tribes wanted to trade, but eventually started trying to steal caused some minor disputes.
- Almost everyone got sick…and they couldn’t wait to head east.
The forts built by the Lewis and Clark expedition were “gifted” to the nearby native tribes in the springs as a goodwill gesture. Both forts fell into disrepair, but replicas have been constructed at the locations for educational, research, and living history purposes.
Each winter was different – the weather, the tribes, the challenges, and even the fort designs. Forts Mandan and Clatsop were the first U.S. military “outposts” in this part of the west and were key locations for establishing positive diplomacy with the native tribes.
P.S. Which fort would you have wanted to stay at? Fort Mandan with extreme cold? Fort Clatsop with rainy weather?
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