All Hands Employed

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Figure 2

Fort Clatsop Floor Plan

To see labels, point to the image.

sketch from elkskin covered journal

Above is a copy of the floor plan for Fort Clatsop that was drawn on the outside back cover of Clark's field journal, which he had covered with elk skin to keep its contents clean and dry. He drew another, slightly different layout elsewhere, but evidence clearly shows that this is the one that was used.

Building Fort Clatsop

Day 1—December 10 marked the beginning of work on the Corps' third winter garrison. That was the day Clark returned from supervising the placement of the salt-makers' camp on the beach, to find all hands–those who weren't too sick to work–clearing the ground and staking out the plan of the structure. They worked as fast as they could, and the daily, mostly intermittent rain showers punctuated by gale-lashed torrents, strengthened their resolve.

Day 2—On the 11th they raised the log walls of one line of huts. There was no need to take time to peel the logs. In fact, the mud daubing they were to apply to keep out the wind would adhere better to rough bark than to bare wood.

Day 3—December 12 brought satisfying progress, and their first major challenge: "In the forenoon we finished 3 rooms of our cabins," Sgt. Gass reported, "all but the covering; which I expect will be a difficult part of the business, as we have not yet found any timber which splits well; two men went out to make some boards, if possible, for our roofs."

Day 4—On December 13, everyone's spirits got a boost. Their two unnamed loggers found exactly what was needed—western redcedar (Thuja plicata Donn ex D. Don). Now they could rive (split) boards from those tree trunks to roof their huts in order to keep out wind and rain, and the wood would exude its clean, stimulating balsamic aroma to comfort the occupants and allay some of the stress of living in close quarters during the endless days of semi-confinement.

 

Tree of Life

Surely they had all noticed those trees whose split tops towered above the rest of the forest, as the Salish trail led them among the sources and upper reaches of the Lochsa River, beginning but a day or two after they descended from Packer Meadows on the Bitterroot Divide. They would have found them in small, widely separated groves covering two or three acres at most, or as isolated giants lifting their crowns above the tops of less imposing trees. Somewhat surprisingly, it was not the captains but Sergeant Ordway and Private Whitehouse who, on 15 September 1805, were the first of the journalists to record those "tall Strait Siprass [cypress], or white ceeder" trees, that they saw downstream from Killed Colt Camp, and soon farther along in "swampey places." Up on the main stem of K'useyneiskit, a six-man advance party of hunters led by Capt. Clark camped on the 19th, in a grove of western redcedar and western white pine to which history has since given the name "Lewis and Clark Grove."1 Whitehouse was a member of Lewis's party, which camped in that grove the next day, observed "considerable of Strait handsome timber . . . which resembles [northern] white ceeder but is called Arbervity."2 We cannot say whether the private took his cue from Lewis, or vice versa, or whether he recognized the similarity from his own experience. In any case, everyone in the company must have been awestruck by those majestic trees. But Lewis used the same nickname in his journal entry for the day: "the Arborvitae," he wrote—undoubtedly with the pronunciation AR-ber-VY-tee in mind, "grows to an immence size, being from 2 to 6 feet in diameter."

Whitehouse's likening of western redcedar to northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis L. 1753)—ironically, the specific epithet occidentalis is Latin for "western"—was appropriate inasmuch as both the foliage and the sapwood of each species are almost identical. Also, both have the same small, plaited or scale-like, evergreen leaves in flat sprays—except that those of the eastern species turn to yellowish green in winter. Moreover, both are easily split for boards, shingles and shakes, although the eastern species is considerably smaller in diameter than T, plicata. From his ground-level perspective, however, Whitehouse could easily have missed the two species' main distinction: the eastern species rarely grows more than half as tall as the western.3 However, no one could have overlooked the exhilarating aroma emanating from the tree, but it was Clark who first and fittingly called it "balsom pine."4

Day 5—December 14 was a benchmark day. "We completed the building of our huts, 7 in number," Sgt. Gass reported hopefully, "all but the covering, which I now find will not be so difficult as I expected; as we have found a kind of timber in plenty, which splits freely, and makes the finest puncheons [planks] I have ever seen. They can be split 10 feet long and two broad, not more than an inch and an half thick." It is not clear whether the sergeant's remark should be read as evidence that the Corps did indeed have a froe (Fig. 3) with them, and that its head was a little over two feet long.

That day also brought a discovery that boded ill for them, although it took them another week or more to come to the full realization of it. "[A]ll our last Supply of Elk," Clark lamented, "has Spoiled in the repeeted rains which has been fallen ever Since our arrival at this place, and for a long time before." Throughout November and December there were several days when the sun shone through for a few hours, but seldom long enough to draw much moisture from anything beneath it.

  • 1. Ralph Space, The Lolo Trail: A History and a Guide to the Trail of Lewis and Clark (2nd ed., Missoula, Montana: Historic Montana Publishing, 2001), 35-36. One of the best known historic cedar groves in the Northwest is the Bernard DeVoto Memorial Cedar Grove, which is on U.S. Highway 12. It is a little over 2 miles up Crooked Fork Creek from the expedition's "Killed Colt Camp" site, so none of the Corps of Discovery got to see its exceptionally large, buttressed trees. Professor DeVoto (1897-1955) was among the most prominent historians of the American West during his career, his reputation built largely on his popular histories of the West: The Year of Decision: 1846 (1943), the Pulitzer Prize winning Across the Wide Missouri (1947), and The Course of Empire (1952) His one-volume abridgement of The journals of Lewis and Clark (1953), remains one of the most readable books of its kind.
  • 2. Also commonly known as northern white cedar or eastern arborvitae, its native range is from southeastern Canada and northeastern U.S., south to North Carolina and as far west as Minnesota and Wisconsin. It was introduced into Europe by French explorers beginning in 1536. The ethnobotany of the northern white cedar is similar to that of the western species. In Ojibwe Indian culture of the northeast it is known as the "Grandmother Cedar."
  • 3. In contrast to the western redcedar, the maximum height of a mature (50-year-old) northern redcedar (Thuja occidentalis L.) is 55 to 60 feet, with a maximum dbh–diameter at breast height–of about 48 inches. George B. Sudworth, "Miscellaneous Conifers of the Rocky Mountain Region," United States Department of Agriculture, Bulletin No. 680 (Washington, D.C.: Professional Paper, August 14, 1918), "Eastern Redcedar: An American Wood," United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, 260 eredc.pdf. USDA Plants Profile, Thuja occidentalis L; USFS Silvics of North America.
  • 4. Noah Webster, in his 1806 Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, defined balsam as "an oily, arom[at]ic substance flowing from trees[;] that which gives ease." He defined the adjective balsamic as "healing, mitigating, unctuous, soft," and the nominative case of the same word as "a healing softening medicine." Indeed it was medicinal as an inhalant if not as a topical. Lewis included two forms of balsamic oil among the medicaments he purchased in Philadelphia for the expedition's medicine chest: Bals[amic] Copaiboe and Bals[amic] Traumaticum. Clark's "balsom pine" is properly called balsam fir (Abies balsamea), which was first officially described in 1768, and has long since become the archetypal Christmas tree. It may reach 66 ft (20 m) or more in height at maturity.