Clark’s Canoe Camp has Smithsonian #24ST0720

Montana is enriched with the history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Our Montana is committed to ensure that history is documented and its stories are told. The newest chapter is the assignment of a Smithsonian number for the campsite where Captain Clark and the Corps camped and constructed canoes; July 19-24, 1806, along the banks of the Yellowstone River. Word on the assigned number was recently received from the Montana State Historic Preservation Office in Helena. Ralph said “It can’t get much better than that,” but Dr. Rust said, “There will always be naysayers.”

The project began with a site proposal study by Ralph Saunders, a L&C enthusiast. That study was followed up by Dr. Thomas Rust, Associate Professor of History, MSU Billings. Ralph, an Our Montana Board member, is probably better known for his mapping of the Absaroka-Beartooths but he did produce a 2011 article on this campsite in a National Magazine as well as two short publications involving Clark on the Yellowstone. His background is hydrographic surveying and aerial photogrammetry. That background was ideal for performing the initial phase of these historic studies. Of course the prerequisite source data was Clark’s journals, maps and survey logs but detailed channel migration mapping was invaluable in geo-referencing Clark’s camp symbol to the real world.

clarks campAfter the proposed site was identified, financial assistance was provided by the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Trail Foundation, and local L&C Chapters and MSU-B. After careful study and excavations, significant remains were uncovered. The conclusive presence of mercury about 300 feet from a fire pit that produced charcoal with an acceptable carbon date range of 1725-1825 was convincing. But, the other significant discovery was a lead ball found near the latrine that isotope tested as the same lead found at Travelers Rest and the mine in which the Expedition acquired its lead. All of the remains, approximately 30 cm below ground level, matched the location recorded in Clark’s survey logs, maps and journal, as well as their camp protocol requirements. Numerous other bone and metal objects were also uncovered.

A Letter from Ralph Saunders

In the last 120 years there have been numerous attempts to locate Wm. Clark’s Canoe Camp on the Yellowstone. The first known account was by Elliott Coues in 1893. In 1904 Olin Wheeler specifically stated that he “made a special effort to locate correctly this particular camp.” Unfortunately he was off by about 12 miles based on the evidence found by Dr. Thomas Rust, and the confidence of the Smithsonian and State Historic Preservation Office. Local enthusiasts had searched for years to no avail, but finally, the mystery appears to have been solved.

Archaeology is an interesting science and the process of confirming historical locations is definitely complex. Thank you Capt. Clark for your relentless documentation. Without your amazing surveying and mapping skills the camp symbol could never have been geo-referenced to the earth and the discovery of any remains would have been impossible. The recent four year study south of Park City has brought a lot of attention to our area in regard to Lewis and Clark, in fact Richard Fichtler, Board member of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation believes it is the best thing that has happened since the bicentennial. Thank you Mr. Fichtler, we take that as a compliment and look forward to seeing you and other L&C enthusiasts in Billings at the 2017 annual meeting of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, where programs on the studies and a field trip to the site will be conducted.

Read more: Evidence builds that Yellowstone island was Clark’s Canoe Camp.

Read more: Digging Into History