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Fort Clatsop Excavations

H istorical archaeologists from the Museum of the Rockies (Montana State University, Bozeman, MT), under the leadership of Ken Karsmizki (Associate Curator of Historical Archaeology), in conjunction with and funded by the National Park Service, have continued their excavations at Fort Clatsop, near Astoria, Oregon. Historical archaeologists combine digging with research using documents such as period maps, journals, deeds and photographs. These archaeologists are attempting to locate the site of the original fort as well as trying to find artifacts that can be confirmed as being attributed to occupation of the site by members of the Corps of Discovery during the winter of 1805-1806. A replica fort was built in 1955 but likely does not lie on the exact site of the original fort. Although the journals of Lewis and Clark describe the overall size of the fort (50 feet square) and the layout of the rooms, the orientation of the walls with respect to the cardinal directions and the actual site remain a mystery.

P revious archaeological examinations (Caywood in 1948 and Schumacher in 1956, 1957 and 1961) failed to turn up any solid evidence of the fort or the expedition. The site was frequented by the Clatsop Indians (who likely already had contact with sea-faring Europeans) both before and after the winter of 1805-1806. In addition there were a number of white settlers including two that built houses; Shane in the 1850's, NE of the reconstructed fort and Smith in the 1870's or 1880's, SW of the replica. The area was logged almost entirely free of trees, was plowed and farmed and was the site of a brick-making operation. These occupations as well as the extensive trenching of the earlier archaeologists complicate today's archaeological analysis of this area.

T he latest round of archaeological examination, a five year effort, is being funded by the National Park Service. It started with a planning meeting in 1995. This was followed by a magnetometry survey in 1996 (and 1997). Magnetometry is a wonderful, non-intrusive technique that can be used to survey large areas without disturbing them. Digging was also started in 1996 with the opening of two 5'x5' pits.

T est Unit Q1 (1996.1) lies east of the reconstructed fort. It yielded, at a depth of 15" to 18", a pre-1820's cast brass bead, likely manufactured in England, and a piece of lead, flattened on one side and rounded on the other that is suspected to be a musket ball. The lead piece was examined and found to be free of any blood residue. In addition, an isotopic analysis of the lead has pointed to the Buick Mine in Missouri as the likely source. Further research on the operation of the mine may yield dates of operation and lists of customers to which it supplied lead commercially. This, in turn, may support or deny an association of this artifact to the Lewis and Clark expedition. Although the piece is badly flattened (0.467 inch diameter), the weight of the artifact, which is 4.2g, is consistent with a .35 to .36 caliber musket ball. William Clark himself carried a "Small rifle" ... "the Size of the ball which was 100 to the pound" (Clark: December 10, 1805). This could be a candidate since lead balls of .36 inches in diameter weigh in at 100 balls to the pound, and some size allowance must be made for the wadding. See my table of calculations for further information regarding the size and weight of various caliber lead balls and Firearms of the Lewis & Clark Expedition for further information on the armaments carried by the Corps of Discovery.

T est Unit Q2 (1996.2), also east of the reconstructed fort, but north and little east of Q1, yielded a sharpened stick and a soil feature, detected in the 1996 magnetometry survey, that has the appearance of being a trench .

T he 1997 season began the end of July with another magnetometry survey that encompassed 0.2 acres, mainly the area inside the National Monument loop trail that provides access to the spring. This survey detected a number of interesting anomalies that will likely receive attention in future digging seasons. One anomaly is a large metallic object that lies just a foot or so beyond the end of Schumacher's Trench #4 (December 1956). Another anomaly shows a large rectangular shape. Digging this year started with the removal of the fill sand from Test Unit Q2. The Q2 Unit was deepened by Ken Karsmizki in an attempt to determine how far down the trench feature extends. The feature begins at a depth of about 15" and extends as far as was reached (approximately 42" to 45" below the surface). This trench feature is also being examined by Dr. Christopher Hill (Associate Curator of Prehistory and Geology), a geomorphologist who is an expert on soil features. In addition, a new small hole was opened by Annalies Corbin with the help of Crystal Bauer at the northwest corner of the Q2 Unit to see if the trench feature extends in that direction.

A ll of the excavation team members were very, very nice and extremely patient (a virtue that goes well with the job). They were never too busy to answer a question and answered many of the same questions over and over but with equally exuberant enthusiasm each time.

A lso on-going, though not with the team from the Museum of the Rockies, is an archaeologically sensitive excavation on the west side of the reconstructed fort. The purpose of this effort is to provide an underground route to supply electricity to the fort. The area in close proximity to the replica is intersected with a number of the earlier trenches that were back- filled. A small (0.254" x 0.268") light-blue glass bead, classified as a Bohemian multifaceted sphere was found within one of these back-filled areas. No accurate date has been determined for this artifact. It is interesting to note that in the approximately 40 years since the previous excavations, an additional six inches of top-soil has accumulated in this area.

T hree other Lewis & Clark related sites, all on private land, are also under investigation by the team from the Museum of the Rockies:

A rchaeological excavation is a slow and careful process, but constantly exciting since one never knows what the next scrape of the trowel will reveal. However, with regards to Lewis and Clark campsites, this process is hampered by small crew sizes and the fact that this modern day "Corps of Discovery" necessarily spends more time digging up money (funding) than they do digging up artifacts. I urge all interested parties to support these efforts by donating to the Museum of the Rockies.

Some other miscellaneous photos:
Lewis & Clark Archaeological Project Sign
Photo of the group at work
Photo of site map
Closeup of 1996 magnetometry section of the site map
Photo of Unit 10S0W at Level 4
Photo of Unit 5S0W at Level 1

Be sure and visit the following web sites as well:
Abstract : The Search for Chemical Traces of Lewis and Clark.
Burke Museum Archaeology Research : Fort Clatsop
Current Projects : Searching for Chemical Traces of Lewis and Clark
Fort Clatsop National Memorial Archaeology

Fort Clatsop Archaeological Excavations
Jay Rasmussen

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Original Posting: 08/27/97
Updated: 10/08/99

Send Questions, Comments and Corrections to Jay Rasmussen