Archaeology’s Contributions to the Lewis and Clark Trail


Archaeology has faced special challenges in identifying campsites on the trail, but has benefited from recent advances in technology. Unlike a Civil War battlefield or a visit to a historic antebellum house, the expedition’s route yields very little physical evidence. Lewis and Clark campsites have been difficult to validate, because the explorers left few traces. In 2004, the authors of Lewis and Clark, Legacies, Memories, and New Perspectives, had a dismal view of archaeology’s role in the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. I

This article will paint a brighter picture by reviewing the literature to date to explore some of the relatively recent developments in archaeology of the trail. It focuses on sites in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and the Columbia River Basin and in Washington at Station Camp. It will also highlight new scientific techniques used to locate campsites and explore how these findings have helped save some of these sites from destruction.

The National Park Service has always supported archaeological investigation and advocated for preservation of the trail. Their website lists efforts by the Lewis and Clark Trail Commission, the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation Inc. and other public and private organizations that have tried to locate and preserve the trail. Modern Americans can see only a few places on the trail as Lewis and Clark saw them. The NPS website has photos that show more pristine views of many of the sites.

NPS lists sites in Montana and other states such as Site 32, Fort Mandan, and Site 34, Fort Clatsop that are archaeologically relevant. ii

Sites in Montana that have had some archaeological investigation include:

Site 3, Lemhi Pass; Site 4, Lolo Trail; Site14, Beaverhead Rock State Park; Site 15, Bozeman Pass; Site 16, Buffalo Jump at Arrow Creek; Site 17, Camp Disappointment; Site 18, Junction of the Marias and Missouri Rivers; Site 19, Gates of The Mountains; Site 20, Great Falls Portage; Site 21, Lewis and Clark Pass; Site 22, Lewis’s fight with the Blackfeet Site; Site 23, Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument; Site 24, Pompey’s Pillar; Site 25, Rattlesnake Cliffs; Site 26, Ross Hole; Site 27, Three Forks of the Missouri; and site 28, Traveler’s Rest. iii

Buffalo Jump, Traveler’s Rest, and the lower Great Falls Portage Site were particularly rewarding for archaeologists.

Buffalo Jump at Arrow Creek

In the beautiful White Cliffs section of the Missouri Breaks, the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition were probably the first U.S. citizens to see and record a buffalo jump site where the dead animals were still in place. On May 29, 1805, on the westbound journey, the Lewis and Clark Expedition came upon such a jump. It was on the north side of the Missouri along the base of a 120-foot-high cliff that came almost to the water’s edge. The men observed and smelled the carcasses of more than 100 dead and rotting buffalo, which wolves were devouring.

The site was identified in 1963 as 24CH240 by a team from the Missouri Basin Inter-Agency Archeological Salvage Program, which surveyed sites in this part of the river. The salvage team found only two pieces of bone fragments, some others of which the private owner had also observed. iv

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Traveler’s Rest

At Traveler’s Rest, in the 1990’s, aerial infrared photography showed evidence of tepee rings. Historical research matched coordinates of latitude and longitude recorded by Lewis and Clark to the same Lolo Creek location. Dan Hall and others used magnetometer equipment to find changes in the magnetic properties of the soils. They also found fire-cracked rock, charcoal, and a solid puddle of lead. These findings indicate that this spot suffered intense heat believed to be the result of a large, military-style cook fire. They knew that the expedition melted down their empty lead powder canisters to make musket balls, thus the puddle of lead.

Sites in other states discussed in this article include Site 32, Fort Mandan, and Site 34, Fort Clatsop. Archaeologists later found signs that a trench had been dug about 300 feet from the fire area, consistent with Army regulations at that time governing the location of latrines. Tests with a mercury vaporizer confirmed the presence of mercury in the trench and not in the surrounding soil. Lewis had noted in his journal that at least two of the men were sick at that point in the journey and received medications, which contained ample amounts of mercury that would pass through the body and remain at the site. v These pills, known as Dr. Rush’s Thunder Clappers were sixty percent mercury, which does not decompose.

These discoveries were significant because this area was surrounded by a rapidly developing residential area, and the campsite was designated one of the nation’s most endangered historic places in 1999. That notoriety helped attract a grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, allowing purchase of 15 acres believed to be the heart of the campsite. vi

Lower Portage Site of the Great Falls

Also in the 1990’s, at the Lower Portage Site of the Great Falls of the Missouri River in Montana, Dr. Ken Karsmizki studied one of the areas, marked by the remains of 12 fires. The explorers’ journals tell of 12 days spent at this camp. Three of the fires were found equally spaced in a line, suggesting an organized campsite. Archaeomagnetic dates from the charred remains are consistent with a Lewis and Clark occupation. They also radiocarbon dated a broken-off wooden stake uncovered upright in the soil to 1810 ± 40, and bison bones from the site to 1810 ± 50. Members of the C of D party prepared a large quantity of dried fish, meat, and pemmican (dried bison meat mixed with fat), while camping at Great Falls. Karsmizki added a fifth site, one that he hoped would yield remains of a collapsible iron-frame boat that the party abandoned at the Upper Portage of the Great Falls because they lacked materials–pine pitch and needles for sewing hides together–necessary for making the vessel watertight. vii

Articles about archaeology of campsites in We Proceeded On include the search for the elusive Iron Boat, the Yellowstone Canoe Camp, the Fort Mandan Site in North Dakota, and the search for Camp Wood/ Camp Dubois, just outside of St. Louis. While the search for the Iron Boat by Ken Karsmizki is fascinating and received letters to the editor, it is much too involved for this article. The help received at Great Falls from NASA will be discussed later.

The Yellowstone Canoe Camp is worth revisiting because of recent developments. The article by Ken Karsmizki, in WPO, vol. 21 no. 4, “Searching for the Invisible, Some Efforts to Find Expedition Camps,” is a convincing discussion of the difficulties archaeologists have encountered as late as 1995. It is also an excellent review of the archaeology to that point. The lack of specific facts in the notebooks, the changing course of rivers, historical fires and floods, poorly drawn maps, and erosion, recent intrusions on the land, and the unreliability of local informants were problems at all the excavation sites, not to mention resources and funding.

Despite the problems encountered, the author remains optimistic that archaeology will eventually take the historical facts out of the realm of history and folklore and ground them in material reality.viii

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Yellowstone Canoe Camp

The camp on Yellowstone River Island is a place being investigated as the possible site of Clark’s July 1806 canoe camp. Archaeologist Tom Rust began research on the island in 2011 when historian and cartographer Ralph Saunders convinced Rust that he had located the canoe site. His study of the original maps, historical surveys and aerial photography made him sure that his calculations had found the site although eight other sites had been considered for the camp along a 12-mile stretch of the river between Columbus and Park City.

Rust investigated the island with a magnetometer and soil resistance meter to assess soil disturbances and compaction. The hope was that the surveying could reveal old campfire sites, a latrine, butchering area and even pathways packed down as the men moved around the campsite. Their efforts were rewarded when they had several metal detector hits and found a perfectly round lead ball believed to be buckshot. Isotope analysis matched an artifact from Traveler’s Rest. They also found mercury deposits in latrine pits, which matched what had been found at Traveler’s Rest. A belt buckle and a bone discovered in the same area at the same depth and some lead next to what looked like a fire pit, which tested with a an acceptable date range, were further evidence that this was the Canoe Camp.

This site is environmentally interesting because Yellowstone River had moved considerably. Luckily, when the river moved, even forming a new channel and then jumping back again, the island seems to have been spared from damaging floodwaters that could have washed away any evidence of the expedition. ix

Cougar Rapids Bar

On their way back home in May of 1806, the Lewis and Clark expedition camped near Kamiah waiting for the snow to melt in the Bitterroot Mountains. Meriwether Lewis sent Sergeant John Ordway and two other men to the Snake River on this route to trade for salmon with the Nez Perce – food needed for their mountain crossing. Ordway wrote about the side trip in his journals. “We passed a large lodge and descended the worst hills we ever saw a road made down,” the journals read. And of their arrival in the village, “At length they invited us in, spread robes for us to sit on, and set roasted salmon before us and some of their white bread which they called ‘uppah’. This lodge is a hundred feet long and twenty feet wide and all in one.”

State Archaeologist Dr. Ken Reid with the Idaho State Historical Society headed the project to investigate a site at Cougar Rapids Bar. They found the depression of the lodge and the slope where they were probably waiting while the fish were prepared. Using high-tech instruments to look below the surface, Dr. Reid’s team mapped the rim of the multi-family home and the hearths, or fireplaces, running down the middle. Dr. Reid and his team dug small test pits in the hearth and the raised mound on one side of the house, and found artifacts – with carbon dates back to the early 1800s. They also found half of a blue glass bead, two brass tacks, and a tiny arrowhead. This evidence combined with Ordway’s journal descriptions of the village, plus other research on the possible routes to the Snake River, make Dr. Reid very confident this is where Ordway and his men stayed two nights trading for salmon. x

The sites of Rock Fort and Station Camp, and Fort Clatsop on the far west portion of the trail also have had new have developments. Karsmizki’s proven methodology is a lengthy painstaking process of map and journal analysis, geophysical survey and interpretation, test excavation and if warranted extensive excavation, and laboratory analysis. This analysis includes dendrochronology, radiocarbon dating, archaeomagnetic dating, lead isotope analysis, and faunal analysis at numerous laboratories in the United States and Canada. NASA and the United States Air Force have helped in this search.

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Rock Fort

In an interview with an Oregon reporter, John Compton in July of 2010, Ken Karsmizki talked about his research at Rock Fort and NASA’s help with the project. He noted that the Corps of Discovery’s calculations of latitude were not accurate, and maps of the same area were different. He said, “They (C of D) wrote about a million words in their journals, but nine journalists would see things in different ways especially distances. People changed their mind mid-stream as to environmental features. The same thing happened everywhere they went.” Karsmizki had to see the progression of the maps and look at the details. NASA offered to help with four satellites to use sensors to make maps of The Dalles now, which they could superimpose over Lewis, and Clark’s map. What matched up was Mill Creek and the bank of the Columbia River. They then used ground-penetrating radar and put thirty-six holes in a grid in the area they thought was the site. When nothing was located, they moved their efforts into three depressions, because Clark had written that they were in an artificial fort made by rock walls and they feared attack. The area was graveled and had seven feet of fill on top of the historic surface. Sill they were able to find a dog skull and strips of leather.

Unfortunately, the Columbia River has only one site, Rock Fort, which is not now underwater because of dams. It is located in The Dalles, near Union Street underpass and is in public hands. It was a good location because it did not have any building on it, and the fill covering may have preserved it for excavation. xi

NASA combined precision satellite imagery with detailed historic maps to help Karsmizki locate campsites. In some cases, the technology can reduce a potential dig site from several square miles to a matter of acres. NASA’s Earth Science Applications Directorate provided the images to Karsmizki and his team. Marco Giardino, ESAD’s acting deputy director at Stennis, said NASA scientists could create a 360-degree view of the area where the explorers traveled and archaeologists could get the same view as they would from an airplane. Color is extremely important in locating historic sites. For example, a slight difference in the shade of wheat in a large field may indicate the location of an outpost. xii

Station Camp Fort Vancouver

The Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery spent just 10 days here in 1805. Historians called the spot “Station Camp” because it was Lieutenant William Clark’s primary survey station to produce a detailed and accurate map of the mouth of the Columbia River and surrounding area. Dr. Wilson, as the principal investigator incorporated a variety of scientific techniques into the research design in order to establish the site’s chronology and get additional data from the artifacts, including Carbon-14 dating, ground penetrating radar, magnetometer analysis, and isotope analyses. Dr. Wilson is an archaeologist for the Pacific West Regional Office of the National Park Service, based at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. He was also the main liaison with the Native American tribes who have ancestral claims to the site of Middle Village. He received the John Cotter award for his work. John Cotter was one of the founding fathers of historical archaeology in the United States. xiii

His work was environmentally significant to the trail because his research was the basis for park interpretive developments at Station Camp / Middle Villages and a project, which involved the Chinook Nation, the State of Washington, and the National Park Service. He also involved students and the public, thus increasing awareness of the importance of the site to history.

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Fort Clatsop

Fort Clatsop, near the Columbia River about five miles south of present-day Astoria, was the 1805 winter encampment of the 33-member Corps of Discovery and the first physical evidence of the U.S. on the Pacific coast according to Stephen Beckham, a historian at Lewis and Clark College. The fort went on to become critical to the U.S. claims on the region.

Occupied for only a little more than three months, the original fort was probably burned in the 1850s to make way for a pioneer’s garden. In 1955, the local community built a replica of Fort Clatsop (named after a local tribe) to celebrate the expedition’s 150th anniversary. In 2005 Fort Clatsop, burned to the ground again just a month before Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebrations were scheduled to begin at the site.

A federal arson investigation found that the reconstructed Fort Clatsop was the victim of an accidental fire started by a stray ember from a working hearth. The investigators may be forgiven for momentarily considering archaeologists as suspects. Though some excavation was performed at the site of the encampment in the 1950s, the destruction of the replica has now given National Park Service archaeologist Doug Wilson a chance to properly excavate the site using modern methods, including remote sensing. His crew has already pinpointed about 20 percent of the site not disturbed by the concrete foundation of the reconstructed fort, including several deep pits filled with charcoal, the possible remains of holes dug for the fort’s stockade. “We turned this tragedy into a real opportunity,” says Wilson. xiv

NASA was also involved with this site. Satellite data included 30-meter Landsat Thematic Mapper and 1-meter Space Imaging IKONOS data xv

NASA Changing the Face of the West and Archaeological Research

The goal of the NASA scientists and other researchers working on a special project for the bicentennial was to piece together satellite and aircraft remote sensing imagery in order to create precision 3-D maps and visualizations of the Lewis and Clark trail and stopover campsites and to produce a collection of satellite imagery available on the Internet. In addition to archaeological investigations, landscape management objectives include evaluating the effects of wildland fire disturbance regimes on ecosystems, monitoring wetlands change, measuring urban expansion, tracking noxious and invasive weeds, and mapping vegetative mosaics for key Lewis and Clark encampments such as Fort Clatsop (winter 1805-1806).

The trail project was developed through a NASA Space Act Agreement, engaging the talents of GCS Research, a geospatial information technology company in Missoula, Montana and the Montana State University (MSU) TechLink Center. “The lasting value of the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery expedition is in the journals and maps that they created. They represent a snapshot in the natural history of North America, two hundred years ago. The NASA remote sensing data sets represent another snapshot in time,” said Weston, Technology Manager of the MSU TechLink Center. xvi

In 2003, NASA, GCS Research and its technology partners were building phase one of the Lewis and Clark Geosystem, which includes a remote sensing geodatabase of combined assets from a variety of existing geospatial resources for the Lewis and Clark Trail. DigitalGlobe’s QuickBird imagery was included in the raster catalogue of the Lewis and and Clark. xvii

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Another product developed during the Lewis and Clark project was the virtual and accurate rendering of several historic Corps of Discovery sites, especially Fort Clatsop. These virtual products enhanced scientific research and served to educate and inform the public about the project and its results. By the conclusion of the project, thirty different NASA space borne remote sensing datasets were processed. Hyperspectral data offers new opportunities for future archaeological discoveries. Hyperspectral imaging divides the spectrum into many more bands than the human eye can detect. The goal of hyperspectral imaging is to obtain the spectrum for each pixel in the image of a scene, with the purpose of finding objects, identifying materials, or detecting processes.

Remote sensing technology and image analysis are currently undergoing a profound shift in emphasis from broad classification to detection, identification and condition of specific materials, both organic and inorganic.

These new technologies offer archaeologists even more opportunities for research and analysis. One possible area where hyperspectral data can be very valuable is phytoarchaeology, which is defined as the analysis of relationship between vegetation and archaeology. Three specific areas of phytoarchaeology can greatly benefit from hyperspectral imagery:

1) The identification of specific plant species that are associated with archaeological sites;

2) Comparative plant physiology or the determination of plant stress or vigor; and

3) Creation of a vegetation variability index.xviii

Travelers following the Corps of Discovery are searching for the experience. Fresonke and Spence in Lewis and Clark, Legacies, Memories, and New Perspectives express this perfectly. “They are not arriving at a single tourist destination; instead they are encountering an entirely new landscape not visible from jets or four-lane highways… Following the captains’ route is a personal voyage of discovery, a tourist odyssey linking landscape and history as described by the Lewis and Clark journals.”xix

Now many years later the trail is again being appreciated for the beauty and wonder that Lewis and Clark saw in it. As Ken Karsmizki hoped in his 1995 article for We Proceeded On, archaeological research has played an important role in preserving the trail by identifying campsites and providing scientific proof for their material existence. Archaeologists have not only advanced the profession of historical archaeology with the aid of recent technology and NASA, but have helped the National Park Service and many other public and private organizations to reclaim the trail for future generations of trail explorers.

I Kris Fresonke and Mark Spence, Lewis and Clark, Legacies, Memories, and New Perspectives, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2004) 247.

ii Lewis and Clark, Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings, National Park Service

iii Montana Archaeology: A Public Book Project on the Archaeology of Montana, Lewis and Clark and Archaeology, Feb. 7, 2009. (Source: Dr. Dee Taylor’s Lectures; Vol. 3, no. 2 Archaeology in Montana “Short History of Montana Archaeology,”)

iv Ibid.

v Kathleen A. Dahl, “The Archaeology of Traveler’s Rest,” Trail Watch, An academic weblog exploring the interpretation of the Lewis and Clark expedition and bicentennial in museums, historic sites, interpretive centers, and popular media.

vi Sherry Devlin, “Researchers Pinpoint Exact Location of Traveler’s Rest – Lewis and Clark Campsite was incorrectly mapped years ago,” Missoulian, Jan26, 2004.

vii Jessica E. Saraceni, “Searching for Lewis and Clark,” Archaeology 51 no. 1, (Jan./Feb. 1998)

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viii Kenneth W. Karsmizki, “Searching for the Invisible: Some Efforts to Find Expedition Camps,” We Proceeded On 21, no. 4 (Nov. 1995): 4-12.

ix Brett French, “Evidence Builds that Yellowstone Island was Clark’s 1806 Canoe Camp,” Billings Gazette, April 27, 2014. ind First Physical Link in Idaho to Lewis & Clark in Hell’s Canyon,” Courtesy of, May 6, 2008.

xi Kenneth W. Karsmizki, “Lewis and Clark Rock Fort,” Localite (part 3 of 3) July, 2010.

xii “Nasa Satellite will search for Lewis and Clark Stops,” USA Today Health and Science, 9/20/2001

xiii”Dr. Wilson receives 2011 Cotter Award,” Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, April 4, 2011,

xiv “Insider: Fortunate Fire,” Archaeology 59 no. 1, (Jan./Feb. 2006)

xv Kenneth W. Karsmizki, Joe Spruce, Marco Giardino, “Archaeological Remote Sensing: Searching for Fort Clatsop from Space” July 30, 2002, Nasa Technical Reports Server.

xvi Leonard David, “Lewis & Clark Revisited: Satellite Archeology Digs Out The Past,” GeoCommunity, Jan 2002,

xvii Alex Philip, “GCS Research and DigitalGlobe Partner on Lewis and Clark Geosystem Project,” Directions Magazine,April 23, 2003.

xviii Marco J. Giardino, “A history of NASA remote sensing contributions to archaeology,” Journal of Archaeological Science, 38 (2011) 2003-2009.

xix Fresonke and,Spence, 240.

Possible pictures that could be included at various points in the article.

Landsat 5 and black and white historical aerial photo with Lewis and Clark trail line. Blend of images show changes in Missouri River near Desoto National Wildlife Refuge North of Omaha. IMAGE CREDIT: GCS Research

One of the earliest extant photographs of Rainbow Falls, which was second in height only to the Great Falls in the series of five in this part of the river. This view captures the untamed aspect of the country, as it must have appeared in 1805-6. (Montana Historical Society.)

This picture of Rainbow Falls, taken in 1944, contrasts sharply with the one above. Just upstream from the falls is the Montana Power Company dam. In the summer and dry months of the year, far less water comes over the falls than is shown here and large portions of the rock ledge of the falls are bare and devoid of the beauty of white, falling water. (Montana Power Company (1944).)

When little water is released by Ryan Dam, in the background, the Great Falls dwindles to a trickle. (National Park Service (Appleman, 1964).)

Lewis and Clark, Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings, National Park Service