Christmas Day

Page 6 of 9

Day 16—Christmas Day. "All our party moved into their huts," Lewis wrote. Clark was obviously pleased for them. "All the party Snugly fixed in their huts," he wrote with satisfaction. But there was still more truth to be discovered about life on the northwest Pacific Coast, and much work to be done.

Figure 6

Officers' Quarters

Fort Clatsop Replica

wood table and chairs in a log cabin

Allan McMakin photo, 1999. © VIAs Inc./Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation.

Lewis's desk is in front of the window at left; Clark's is at right; the table Fields made for them both is in left foreground. The photo was taken in the replica of the fort that was built in 1955, which accidentally burned to the ground on the night of October 3, 2005. Within months it was fully rebuilt on the same site.

Joe Field's Gifts to the Captains

From the very beginning of the expedition, Joe Field and his brother Reubin had distinguished themselves as hunters, and that reputation was still unsullied. On 5 February Reubin would shoot six elk all by himself somewhere up the Netul River, reloading after each shot, apparently without ever spooking the herd. But today everyone discovered something about Joe that they might not have known before (assuming he had not done the same deed at Fort Mandan, where none of the journalists mentions any aspect of the job). He presented each of the captains with "a wide Slab hued [hewed] to write on." On the day after Christmas he finished a large table and two benches (foreground in Fig. 6) where Lewis could study and write up his natural history specimens, or Clark could spread out his maps. Clark must have been especially pleased. His portable desk had been demolished when the pack horse bearing it tumbled down a steep mountainside as the company descended into the Lochsa River canyon on 15 September 1805. Lewis had purposely left his in the cache at the portage camp below the Falls of the Missouri. No doubt Joe Fields's presents were a surprise then (and still are), for nothing else we know about him, either from the expedition's journals or any biographical facts otherwise available, gives us any hint that he had possessed those basic skills all along.

Joe Field might have begun but never successfully completed an apprenticeship as a joiner. Otherwise, perhaps he had enough natural ability and latent interest in the craft that he just felt like playing around with it, using one or more of the small tools in the company's kit—hand saw and a set of planes—and some odds and ends of the planks they had rived from western redcedar logs. He may also have had a hand in building a tall sturdy cabinet for each board to rest on, since handwriting was a standup job for gentlemen and officers in those days, and space was at a premium even in the captains' quarters. Lewis's desk as well as the table and benches, which have been recreated by historic anthropologists for the National Park Service's modern replica of the fort, is pictured here beneath the window at left; Clark's desk was under the window to the right of the fireplace.

Figure 7

A Set of Bench Planes

Historical illustration of 7 bench planes described below

Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Excercises, 3rd ed. 1703

Essentially, a bench plane is a chisel locked into a holder or "stock" of a hard wood such as beech. The chisel, or blade, is called the iron. The beveled and sharpened bottom edge of the iron, called the bezel or basil, may be straight, simply curved, or in two linked convex and concave curves for use in shaping moldings around doorways and windows.1

There are six planes in a joiner's basic kit, often used in the following order:

  1. Fore plane or jack plane: Its blade, with flattened thumbnail curve (look at your own thumbs), cuts deeply to remove rough and uneven surface material;
  2. Jointer plane: Flattens the surface;
  3. Strike-block plane: Used for cross-grain cuts;
  4. Smoothing plane: Prepares the surface for finishing;
  5. Rabbet plane: Cuts a groove of controlled width and depth on the edge of a board;
  6. Plow plane: Cuts a narrow channel on the edge of a board, to admit the narrowed edge of another board that has been trimmed with a rabbet plane.
  7. Smoothing plane: Prepares the surface for finishing;2

A full set of planes may consist of as many as 14 different instruments.

Carpenters and Joiners

By the middle of the 18th century the varied disciplines of woodworking, long kept separate by the power of the guilds of artisans or craftsmen guilds that had arisen in the 12th century, were reorganized into two main types of general work, carpentry and joinery. A house carpenter worked on-site outdoors, with hammers, saws and axes; he framed-in houses and shops, and completed exterior work. A joiner was skilled in the shaping of pieces of wood with bench-planes, chisels and augers, and joining them together without metal fasteners to make fittings and furniture of all sorts. A house joiner would have been experienced in interior finish work, including stairways, doorways, and window frames, as well as decorative panelings, moldings, and wainscottings.3

  • 1. James Smith, The Panorama of Science and Art: Embracing . . . the Methods of Working in Wood and Metal. . . . , 2 vols. (Liverpool: Nuttall, fisher and Co., 1815), 1:109-10, 112.
  • 2. Joseph Moxson, Mechanick Exercises, 3rd ed., London, 1703; via Peter C. Welsh, Woodworking Tools 1600-1900, Smithsonian Institution, Contributions from The Museum of History and Technology, Paper 51.
  • 3. Elizabeth A. Davison, The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790-1820: A True North Britain in the Southern Backcountry (Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira Press, 2011), 10-11.