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« Blue Highways: Astoria, Oregon | Main | Blue Highways: Fort Stevens, Oregon »

Blue Highways: Fort Clatsop, Oregon

Unfolding the Map

William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) reflects on Lewis and Clark's wet, dreary Christmas at Fort Clatsop, while I reflect on the gifts that were given and the presence of Sacagawea.  To see where the second winter camp of the Corps of Discovery is located, here's the map.

Book Quote

"Inland some distance from Seaside, near the base of the northwestern prong of Oregon that sticks into the Columbia estuary, Lewis and Clark made winter camp, their last outpost before returning home.  Here at Fort Clatsop they celebrated the first American Christmas in the Northwest.  The men who smoked received a gift of tobacco, the others handkerchiefs; Sacagawea gave Clark two dozen weasel tails, and Lewis gave him a pair of socks.  Their dinner on that 'showery, wet and disagreeable' Christmas, Clark said, was 'poor elk so much spoiled that we ate it through mere necessity, some spoiled pounded fish, and a few roots.'  All without salt.  Despite the pester of fleas and mosquitoes, the group was 'cheerful all the morning.'"

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 5

Fort Clatsop, Oregon. Site of the second winter camp of Lewis and Clark. Photo by Glenn Scofield Williams and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to site.

Fort Clatsop, Oregon

When I grew up in Northern California, I used to look forward to Christmas.  I got excited for all the usual reasons kids got excited - I would get lots of cool stuff to play with.  I remember that each Christmas the weather was usually cold, many times it was overcast or foggy, and sometimes it was rainy.  As an adult going back to visit my mother and sister during the holidays, I think that more often than not we had rainy holidays, and a couple of times I would even worry about getting stuck there.  My hometown was served by only two two-lane roads (Highway 20, and Highway 1) and a third road that was an alternative way to the east (Highway 128) but getting to which meant taking Highway 1 for a few miles.  When a landslide or flooding would occur, I would have to stay until the roads could be cleared.  Since rain is a part of life in the Pacific Northwest, you just live with it.

I used to look forward to the great toys I would get.  I wouldn't say that I was overly spoiled at Christmas - I remember always being envious of my cousins because they would get all the really good stuff like race car sets and Pong in the first year that Pong came out and an air hockey table.  Back in the 70s those were really big hauls.  I never got stuff like that but I got cool things to mess around with.

Occasionally I would hear about the Christmas hardships that families like my parents' dealt with, especially during the Depression.  I heard how families would make do with what they had.  About how togetherness was most important at Christmas time rather than the gifts, which were just the expression of family love.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah was my attitude.  Just give me the stuff.

I imagine a lot of kids are like that in our hyper-consumerism driven culture.  But now that I'm older, I actually discourage people from getting me gifts for Christmas.  My wife and I often have a rule, which we break usually but we try to observe, to not get each other Christmas gifts but to just do something together.  Usually we are at one of our families places, either in Florida or California (though a not so secret dream of mine is to someday celebrate Christmas in a foreign country).  My family has started doing the same thing.  One of my sisters steadfastly refuses to stop buying Christmas gifts, but my mom and other sister, as well as myself, observe the rule.  My wife's family has started giving donations to each others' favorite charity in lieu of gifts.

I think that giving Christmas gifts has become so expected, with stores beginning to promote and advertise Christmas just after Halloween, that the meaning of what a gift really symbolizes has been lost.  Think about it this way.  Out of the blue, you get a compliment on your hair or the shirt you are wearing.  Because it is a surprise it is a gift to you and it is special.  If you wake up every morning expecting a compliment on your hair or clothes, and you get one, it ceases to become special.  It becomes part of a routine.  Christmas is complex, because it comes one time a year and we are expected to give and to get.  So how do we keep the magic and specialness in Christmas giving given all the pressures and expectations.

I like the description of Christmas, as quoted by LHM, of the Lewis and Clark expedition.  It was the first Christmas in the American Northwest.  It was dreary and raining, but that didn't stop the men of the Corps of Discovery from celebrating with a "Selute, shouts and a song which the whol party joined under our windows."  The gifts were simple and utilitarian based on what the people liked and needed.  Tobacco.  Socks.  Weasel tails.  I'm not sure what the weasel tails were used for - most likely their fur which could be traded but I don't know.  However, from what Lewis and Clark recorded these appeared to received gladly.  According to the Lewis and Clark Trail's online timeline, besides Sacagawea, some other Indians gave the Corps some black root before they left that evening.

In other words, Christmas was simple and yet meaningful and the group seems to have been thankful for what they received.  It was also inclusive, celebrated with Christian and non-Christian alike.  I'm sure that, as he smoked his tobacco, the average man on the Lewis and Clark expedition didn't bemoan his gift but was thankful for it.  It met his need, and it made him happy.

Musical Interlude

Sacagewea comes up repeatedly in the Lewis and Clark accounts.  She was the wife of a French scout, and was used mostly as an interpreter, but also loaned her services occasionally as a guide.  She was essential to the expedition, and Clark, as he was returning home from the journey, wrote this to her husband Toussaint Charbonneaum according to Wikipedia:  "...your woman who accompanied you that long dangerous and fatigueing rout to the Pacific Ocian and back diserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that rout than we had in our power to give her at the Mandans."  Written history suggests she died young at the age of 25 a few years after the expedition, while oral history claims she lived to be an old woman and died in Wyoming.  She was taken as a symbol of the women's suffrage movement, and is one of only three women honored on circulating US coinage (Susan B. Anthony and Helen Keller are the others). The only song I could find referencing Sacagawea was, interestingly enough, Stevie Wonder's Black Man from Songs in the Key of Life.  There are two lyrics.  The first reads:

Scout who used no chart
Helped lead Lewis and Clark
Was a red woman

and later, in a shouted question and answer between adult teacher and students:

Who was the first American
heroine who aided the Lewis
and Clark expedition?
Sacagawea, a red woman

Sacagewea was an American hero, fit to be put alongside all other American heroes.

If you want to know more about Fort Clatsop

Fort Clatsop National Memorial
Fort Clatsop Travel Photos by Galen R. Frysinger
Great Oregon Vacations: Fort Clatsop
Lewis and Clark National Historical Park
Wikipedia: Fort Clatsop

Next up: Astoria, Oregon

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