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UW-Eau Claire Researchers Work to Find
Lost Native Village Visited by Lewis and Clark

 MAILED:  Dec. 1, 2003

EAU CLAIRE — A team of students and faculty from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire are celebrating the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial by trying to find a lost Native American encampment the explorers visited during their three-year expedition 200 years ago.

This fall 11 UW-Eau Claire students spent a week on the West Coast studying the Washington and Oregon coastlines and searching for the Clatsop Indian village that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark visited during the winter of 1805. The students are part of a capstone geography class taught by Dr. Harry Jol, associate professor of geography and anthropology.

“I’ve had an interest in the Lewis and Clark expedition since I was a child when my parents took me to some historical Lewis and Clark sites while on a family vacation,” said student researcher Jeremy Treague, a senior geology and computer science major from Danbury. “I never imagined I would be trying to discover one of these historic sites and help reconstruct the environment that these early explorers saw along the West Coast.”

“We know Lewis and Clark spent time at the Clatsop village because they describe in their diaries visiting a Native encampment in the coastal sand dunes along the shore of the Clatsop River,” Jol said, noting the explorers also describe trading with the Clatsop Indians who once occupied the coastal area. “According to Lewis and Clark journal entries from 1805, the village was located along the southwest bank of the Clatsop River as it entered the Pacific Ocean.”

UW-Eau Claire researchers did not find the village but they did locate the mouth of the Clatsop River, which had disappeared beneath the sand dunes, Jol said. Researchers discovered the river mouth on the western shore of what is now Slusher Lake, which sits on the grounds of Camp Rilea Armed Forces Training Facility for the Oregon National Guard.

“Finding the mouth of the Clatsop River is a major discovery,” Jol said. “This is as close as anyone has come to finding the village.”

Treague said researchers found the river outlet by studying subsurface imagery they collected using ground penetrating radar at the site.

“We compared the imagery that we collected on site with Lewis and Clark’s map and journal records in which they described the location of the Clatsop Indian village,” Treague said. “Lewis and Clark mapped the location of the village just south of the outlet, and the discovery of this outlet has narrowed down the location of the village and has provided a foundation from which to base future archeological investigations.”

The area where UW-Eau Claire researchers believe the Clatsop village is located has changed dramatically over the years, primarily because of increased sedimentation after jetty construction along the mouth of the nearby Columbia River in the early 1900s, Jol said. Huge sand dunes now fill the area, causing the nearby Clatsop River to disappear, he said, adding that the modern coastline is no longer visible from the study site.

In their preliminary site work this fall, UW-Eau Claire researchers could find no soil or cultural remains dating to the Lewis and Clark era, which suggests the village is now buried more than 6 meters below ground, Jol said.

The next phase of the project will involve securing grant dollars so researchers can continue to investigate the area using ground penetrating radar and to bring in hydraulic coring machines to sample soils more than 6 meters deep, Jol said. Ground penetrating radar equipment is a non-invasive technique that allows scientists to investigate sites.

“Finding the village would be significant,” Jol said. “The work we’ve done already is creating excitement. The data we collected and the maps we’re creating will help us better understand this historic site and will provide us with the tools we need to find the village that Lewis and Clark mapped nearly 200 years ago.”

In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson won Congressional approval for what would become one of America’s greatest adventure stories — an expedition to explore the uncharted West. Lewis and Clark led the expedition, a 33-person team instructed to find and map a transcontinental water route to the Pacific Ocean. By successfully completing the overland journey between the Missouri and Columbia River systems, Lewis and Clark opened the unknown West for development.

President George Bush designated the years 2003-2006 as the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, encouraging Americans to celebrate the explorers’ many accomplishments.

“There was a lot of excitement and motivation among all of us working on the project, especially given the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial,” Treague said.

The work to find the Clatsop village has been a collaborative effort among students, archeologists, historians, physical geographers, coastal engineers, residents of the region and Curt Peterson of Portland State University, Jol said, emphasizing that UW-Eau Claire students played a significant role in the project.

“Our students did everything from literary searches to personal interviews, as well as field investigations with ground penetrating radar, global positioning systems, augering and laser leveling,” Jol said. “It was a great opportunity for them to develop their skills, and to contribute to an important archeological project.”

Treague will be among the students presenting the researchers’ findings at the Association of American Geographers conference in Philadelphia in March 2004. This will be the third time Treague has presented scholarly research at the national level as an undergraduate student at UW-Eau Claire.

Students created a Web site diary of their trip, which includes photos.

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Updated: November 26, 2003