Cape Disappointment and the Corp of Discovery
I’ve been coming out to Cape Disappointment for as long as I’ve lived here in the Pacific Northwest which is over thirty years now. It wasn’t until my most recent visit that it sort of hit me just how much history this one dot on the map actually hosts. Capt. Robert Gray, Capt. Cook, Capt. Vancouver and John Jacob Astor are just some of the historical figures that have links to this area.
But probably the most significant, or at least recognizable, is the 1805 visit by the Corp of Discovery. They had already been on the trail for a year and a half but reaching their objective, the Pacific Ocean, was no easier even if they were only a stone’s throw away.
Landing at the highest spot they could find on the northern (Washington) side of the Columbia River estuary, they established what they called “Station Camp.” The site is commemorated by Lewis and Clark Campsite State Park, a tiny roadside attraction two miles southeast of what is now the town of Chinook, on U.S. Route 101. The location of the actual campsite is a matter of conjecture since the shoreline has shifted by several hundred feet since Lewis and Clark passed through.
The Corps spent 10 days at Station Camp — their longest encampment in what is now Washington state — exploring, hunting, and visiting with the Chinook and Clatsop Indians who came to inspect and trade with the newcomers.
At the cape, one of the men killed a “remarkably large buzzard” that had been feeding on the remains of a whale. This was a California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus), a carrion bird with a wingspan of more than nine feet (compared to five feet for the bald eagle). Condors, now an endangered species, were common on the shores of the Columbia until the mid-nineteenth century. The Port of Ilwaco commemorates the event with a life-size sculpture of the California Condor.
Cape Disappointment State Park also has a very informative Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center that is a must-see if you’re in the area. The center stands high on a 200’ cliff above the pounding Pacific surf. A series of mural-sized timeline panels guide visitors through the westward journey of using sketches, paintings, photographs, and the words of Corps members themselves.
Columbia River and the United States Exploring Expedition
Far less known to today’s public but no less significant with the United States Exploring Expedition and it’s scandalous leader Capt. Charles Wilkes.
The expedition was shaped by both commercial and scientific concerns and a desire to expand American influence and interests in the Pacific Northwest. Secretary of the Navy James Paulding wanted “to extend the bounds of science, and promote the acquisition of knowledge.”
However, it can be argued that concerns in Congress about British hegemony in the Pacific Northwest helped to shape what historian Philip Lundeberg called “the Expedition’s most significant geopolitical undertaking, a comprehensive survey of the Oregon territory, extending from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Columbia River valley.” This show of force was to let all know that the US intended to claim and settle the Pacific Northwest.
On April 28, 1841, Wilkes arrived off the Columbia River bar but was unable to cross because of hazardous conditions. He proceeded to Puget Sound and Fort Nisqually. His negative impression of the accessibility of the river to a possible port (“Mere description can give little idea of the terrors of the bar of the Columbia”) was reinforced by the later loss of the USS Peacock on the bar on July 18, 1841.
The list of accomplishments of the expedition while in this area is long and impressive but perhaps it has taken a back seat in the history books due to the scandal revolving around Capt. Wilkes and his leadership. Accusations by Wilkes of incompetence and contempt against several junior officers led to countercharges against Wilkes. A court-martial resulted in a reprimand of Wilkes on a charge of illegal punishment.
As we road portions of the Discovery Corp trail on our Rad Power Bikes, reading commemorative signs posted along the way, the historian in me reeled trying to grasp that such a small area could have so much history. Ghosts are everywhere.
There are a couple of books I can recommend for anyone who would like to dive deeper in these two historical expeditions; Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 by Nathaniel Philbrick and Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West: Meriwether Lewis Thomas Jefferson and the Opening by Stephen Ambrose. Both are excellent reads.