Historic site confirmed
Just south of Park City sits a historic landmark that until relatively recently, most people didn’t know existed.
The Lewis & Clark Expedition canoe camp on the Yellowstone River has been confirmed by experts, with archeological digs turning up artifacts with the same mercury and lead that was found at Travelers’ Rest — making the two the only confirmed camp locations.
Last weekend, during Park City Days, an official marker was unveiled, explaining how the site was discovered, the methods used to confirm that it was in fact the Lewis & Clark canoe camp and a brief history of the camp.
On hand were Billings author/ cartographer and hydrologist Ralph Saunders whose research pinpointed the camp’s location, as well as Park City residents Marty Moore and Tia Kober, who were interviewed for the study and the archeological activities.
ONLY TWO CONFIRMED CAMPS
The other confirmed expedition camp is Travelers’ Rest, which is a National Historic Landmark located in an undisturbed area of meadows along a branch of the Bitteroot River, according to the National Park Service (NPS). The site was pivotal to the expedition as it camped for two days after failing to find a water route from the Shoshone village to the Pacific Ocean. After that two-day rest, the expedition launched the most difficult part of the journey over the Lolo Trail, according to the NPS.
On July 3, 1806, Capt. William Clark and 12 members of the “Corps of Discovery” left Travelers’ Rest to explore the Yellowstone River. Clark’s intention was to travel the entire length by canoe, but altered that plan when he found no timber large enough to do so. It was on July 19, 1806, that Clark and the expedition stopped south of Park City and constructed two small dugout canoes, and continued their journey six days later.
CONNECTING THE TWO
During archaeology studies, several factors led to the positive identification of the canoe campsite. Key artifacts found were mercury and lead, which “conforms to military camp layout of the fire pit, latrine, and distance from the river,” according to the new marker.
Mercury was was used for medical purposes and only by the Corps of Discovery, making that positive evidence as well.
FINDING THE SPOT
Interest in the canoe camp is long-standing and efforts to pinpoint its exact location started more than 100 years ago. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), the Bureau of Land Management and the Western Heritage Center all estimated the canoe camp to be located between Park City and Columbus.
FWP placed the camp there based on the assumption that the scale of Clark’s map (between the Stillwater River and the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River) was consistent for that entire section of river, according to an article published by Ralph Saunders, a Billings cartographer and hydrologist.
Saunders, along with Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology’s Robert Bergantino and the University of Nebraska’s Dr. Gary Moulton, located the campsite further east and closer to Park City.
Saunders first made an independent study in 2006, using Clark’s 1806 map, a Government Land Office (GLO) cadastral map and modern technology regarding river flows.
“Clark’s mapping was accurate enough to place that camp marker on the ground,” Saunders told the News this week.
The biggest obstacle in locating the camp was erosion, which is currently about 25 feet from the site, said Saunders.
Saunders is also a certified aerial photogrammetrist who performs hydrographic surveys and historic river channel studies and is the author of publications involving Clark’s journey and survey methodology.
In 2010, Tom Rust, assistant professor of history at Montana State University-Billings, taught a class on one of Saunders’ publications and conducted an archeological study of the site Saunders had identified as being the canoe camp. The artifacts were found on digs in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
In 2015, the final report was released. The Lewis & Clark Heritage Foundation funded the marker at Park City.