The Billings Outpost

Mystery of Clark’s Camp

Canoe Camp
By CAL CUMIN - For The Outpost

It is a 200-year-old mystery – the location of Capt. William Clark’s Canoe Camp known to be located somewhere between Columbus and Park City. Over the decades, since 1890, various historians have posited their ideas as to where the Voyage of Discovery camp had been.

It was the camp from which Sgt. Nathaniel Pryor made his ill-fated attempt to move the party’s horses down to Arrow Creek. The site where George Gibson fell from his deer-laden horse and seriously injured himself. The first place coming down-river that Clark found cottonwood trees big enough to make two dugout canoes to carry his adventurers all the way to within shouting distance of St. Louis, Mo., and home. The place they spent the time from July 19-23, 1806.

For two and a half hours on a recent Thursday evening, two professional and experienced researchers shared their expertise and findings with a rapt audience of 30 people in the Montana State University Billings Library. The effort took someone with a detailed understanding of the fluvial geomorphology of this section of the Yellowstone River in all its dynamic vagaries and the many drainages that feed it (including the Clark-named Rosebud River — now known as the Stillwater). It had to be someone who knows the river as it is today and as it has been in recorded time based on old maps and archives, especially those of Gary Moulton and Martin Plamondon, and Clark’s notes, journals, and diary, and — more recently — aerial photography.

The person with such specialized knowledge is Ralph Saunders, longtime engineer with the local firm of HKM and author (with the cartography of William A. Johnson) of the definitive “Clark’s Journey Through Stillwater County, Montana July 18–24, 1806.” Mr. Saunders estimates he’s spent 20,000 hours poring over maps and stereoscopic aerial photography.

This research reflects the Yellowstone in all its unrestrained power and glory, wandering across its ancient valley at will, accretion and avulsion, the creation of islands, the impact of ice jams, the sluicing of new channels, as well as those features that haven’t changed, such as the high hills of Countryman’s Bluff above the river east of Columbus. Importantly, it also requires an understanding of the art and science of surveying as had been used by Clark.

President Jefferson had given Capt. Clark, an experienced surveyor, a specific military order — prepare, with longitude and latitude, bearings and distances, and compass readings with time of day taken, a detailed map of the land explored. Mr. Saunders says Clark did more than meet the standards required by Jefferson, and he appreciates the meticulous accuracy of Clark’s surveys and his traverse distances, the inclusion of magnetic declinations used, and the noting of major land features along the river that still are recognizable today.

He notes that Clark sometimes for unknown reasons reversed his east-west bearing directions, leading to no end of confusion for subsequent researchers. Mr. Saunders says that the latter have tended to undervalue Clark’s detailed surveying, and perhaps that is why there are eight other sites on that stretch of river - places where someone was certain the Canoe Camp was located.

Combine the research conducted by Saunders with the knowledge of archeological procedures of MSU Billings history Assistant Professor Thomas Rust (a winner of the Outstanding Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching), and the structure of analyses needed to research the possible site comes together.

Dr. Rust notes that four things affect the success — measured in knowledge gained — of an archeological investigation: the methods used, the time available for the investigation, available budget and ethics. As to the last, ethics, he notes that the best way to preserve such sites is to leave them alone — “to excavate is to destroy.”

The site where Saunders believes Clark pinpointed the camp site has already been flooded numerous times by the Yellowstone since that summer of 1806, and now a new main channel of the river is slicing away at the edge of the area, i.e., the site is being destroyed.

Rust started his work last summer with a thorough surface investigation using infrared aerial photography, careful surface survey, magnetometer, metal detectors, and – very expensive — mercury vapor analysis before even touching the ground itself, plus MSU Billings students and Boy Scout volunteers. 

During the three short months they were able to work the site, carbon layers have been found as were possible privy pits in the right military position, a musket ball, as well as flakes of an unknown, malleable, metal-like substance. Carbon-14 dating is also encouraging.

Dr. Rust says, I want it to be the site!” but he emphasizes he still doesn’t know. “It’s a large site and we’ve just scratched the surface of what could be there.” He hopes that what could be there will eventually prove it is the Canoe Camp and solve the hundreds-year old mystery.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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