SEASIDE — Salt was not only a critical part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. “I’m going to say it saved them,” historian and retired National Park Service ranger Tom Wilson said.
The Corps of Discovery’s harrowing expedition more than 200 years ago was the focus of Wilson’s presentation, “A Convenient Situation,” during the Seaside Museum and Historical Society’s History and Hops event Thursday at Seaside Brewery.
The story would not be complete, according to Wilson, without the mention of salt-making in present day Seaside.
“This expedition and these saltmakers did change the course of American history, and world history,” said Wilson, who draws most of his information from “The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition,” as printed by the University of Nebraska Press.
Wilson, dressed in period garb, opened his presentation by sharing different ways salt has contributed to human history and survival.
In ancient Greece, slaves were traded for salt, which gave rise to the phrase “worth one’s weight in salt.”
The word “salary” also is derived from the Latin word “salarium,” which has the root “sal,” or salt, in reference to the allotment paid to Roman soldiers to purchase the commodity. Salt also played an important role in both the Revolutionary and Civil wars.
Before the 1860s, Wilson said, salt wasn’t mined in the United States; rather, it was harvested from the ocean and natural salt deposits and salt licks.
As the Corps of Discovery prepared for its westward journey, they gathered supplies, including three bushels — or about seven barrels — of salt, leaving Wood River, Illinois, with more than 64,000 pounds of supplies.
For the expedition, Capt. Meriwether Lewis assembled “arguably the best team,” including what Wilson calls “The Fab Five”: Lewis, Second Lt. William Clark, Clark’s slave York, Sacagawea and Lewis’s dog Seaman.
The expedition also included three dozen hand-selected noncommissioned officers and privates, and “yeah, they were worth their weight in salt,” Wilson said.
One of President Thomas Jefferson’s purposes in commissioning the expedition was to establish trade with the Native Americans and partners to the east, particularly capitalizing on sea otters as a trade good. In order to be successful, Wilson pointed out, “they have to survive. They have to get here and get back.”
After crossing the Rocky Mountains, the expedition began running low on supplies, including food, trade goods and salt. By the time they were at the station camp at the mouth of the Columbia River, the situation was dire.
Unable to rely on trade with the Native Americans to get provisions, officers had to make an important decision.
According to the journal of Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse, the officers “had our whole party assemble in order to consult which place would be best for us to take up our winter quarters.”
During the winter of December 1805, the expedition set up their winter camp at Fort Clatsop.
On Dec. 8, Clark set out to find a direct route to the ocean. On Dec. 28, Joseph Field, William Bratton and George Gibson followed, making their way to the coast near a Clatsop village about 15 miles south of Fort Clatsop, bearing five large kettles.
The salt-making began, as the explorers harvested about 3 quarts to a gallon per day and operated three kettles day and night. The operation continued through Feb. 21. Gibson and Bratton, at least, were at the salt works the entire time.
In all, the Corps harvested about 28 gallons of salt.
They left for the return journey with approximately 20 gallons — enough for a large part of their return voyage. They knew once they reached the east side of the Rockies, they would have access to salt stashed there before, as well as plains of roaming buffalo.
Wilson concluded his presentation by discussing how they know for certain The Salt Works site, now run by the National Park Service, is the correct location. The answer is Tsin-is-tum, also known by her English name Jennie Michel, a member of the Clatsop tribe. Although she was born about 1818, her mother witnessed the expedition’s salt-making endeavors and showed her the site.
In the early 1900s, the Oregon Historical Society traveled to find where the original salt works was located. They relied on the information from Michel.
The Cartwright family gave the land to the society, which started the process of maintaining the site, including the original rock structure. In the 1950s, the Lions Club, wanting to maintain the site, did more work, installing the monument and a salt cairn replica.
Wilson said he likes to think “the rocks you see there now are the original charred rocks of the expedition,” but there is no evidence to confirm that.
The National Park Service took over in 1979 and continues to strategize how to best portray and interpret the site.