On December 8, 1805 Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark established their winter quarters at Fort Clatsop. Here the Corps of Discovery lived in preparation for their long journey home.
"We having fixed on this situation as the one best calculated for our winter quarters," Clark wrote, "I determined to go as direct a course as I could to the seacoast..." His main purpose was to locate a route for a salt-making party.
Though Clark was indifferent to salt, the rest of the expedition wanted it as seasoning. As their diet ranged from elk to fish and dog, salt improved the taste of their food and thus their morale.
On December 28, 1805 the captains sent five men to establish a salt camp. Five days later, they found a suitable place on the seacoast fifteen miles southwest of Fort Clatsop. The seawater had a high salt content here, and game and wood were abundant.
Near some houses of the friendly Clatsop and Tillamook Indians, "they commenced the making of salt and found that they could make from three quarts to a gallon a day." Captain Clark pronounced it "excellent white and fine."
Three men were constantly at work. Using five brass kettles, the saltmakers boiled approximately 1,400 gallons of seawater over the next several weeks. Three-and-one-half bushels of salt were produced for the return trip.
On February 20, 1806 the seacoast camp was abandoned. Little remained beyond the stack of fire-blackened rocks which were once the furnace.
In 1900 the long-forgotten site was re-established by the Oregon Historical Society as a memorial to the Corps of Discovery. It was based on the rockpile and the testimony of Jenny Michel, a Clatsop Indian born in 1816. Prior to her death in 1905, she recalled her mother's memory of white men boiling water on that spot. In 1979, the site was donated by the Oregon Historical Society as an addition to Fort Clatsop National Memorial.
What remains today are the only touchstones to the time of Captain Clark's saltmakers. And as for their hospitable Native American neighbors, they too vanished after the death of Jenny Michel -- one of the last full-blooded Clatsops -- whose own story is tied to theirs.
To reach the salt works, drive on U.S. Highway 101 to the town of Seaside. Turn west on Avenue G and follow the green signs to South Beach Drive and Lewis & Clark Way. There you can imagine that winter day in 1805, when five men arrived to replenish a vital supply of salt for the Lewis and Clark expedition.
More Salt Works details
One thing Captains Lewis and Clark intended to achieve during their winter encampment was the production of salt from ocean water. For that purpose, they sent a group of men to the coast. The saltmakers produced a total of about four bushels of salt, which the captains hoped would last them until they reached their caches of supplies along the Missouri River. Having the salt at Fort Clatsop was a benefit nutritionally and helped flavor elk meat that was already spoiling.
On December 28, 1805, Lewis and Clark sent "Jos. Fields, Bratten, Gibson to proceed to the Ocean at Some Convenient place form a camp and commence makeing Salt with 5 of the largest Kittles, and Willard and Wiser to assist them in carrying the Kittles to the Sea Coast"
From December 28 until their return to Fort Clatsop on February 21, 1806, the Salt Works operated continuously. The site was established near a village containing four houses of Clatsops and Tillamooks in what is today the town of Seaside, Oregon. The men camped in tents, near the mouth of the Necanicum River and "100 paces" from the ocean.
From the journals, it is evident that there were always at least three men at the saltworks site, but the personnel did shift as necessary. George Gibson, William Bratton, and Joseph Field were stationed at the site most of that two months. While no description is given of the structure built for boiling ocean water, oral testimony about the site indicates stones were placed in an oven or cairn shape with one end left open. Working through the open end, a fire was built inside the stone oven and five kettles placed on the top. This testimony is derived primarily from stories passed down through the generations by Clatsops living during the expedition's stay and who witnessed the salt making.
The captains report in their journals on January 5, 1806 that the salt makers could produce from three quarts to one gallon of salt a day, which means they were boiling approximately 40 gallons of sea water a day. It was labor-intensive work, keeping the fire hot enough to boil the salt water and keeping up the supply of fire wood. The journals indicate also that the salt camp was extremely short on food most of the time and at least one hunting party was specifically sent out from Fort Clatsop to hunt for the salt camp. Lack of food, the constant labor demands, and more direct exposure to the weather than experienced by the men at the Fort meant that by the beginning of February the salt makers were hit hard by illness. Gibson had to be carried back to the fort he was so ill and Bratton was plagued by lower back pains long after leaving Fort Clatsop for home.