The Work of a Nation: Richard D. Cutts and the Coast Survey Map of Fort Clatsop

By Byram, R. Scott | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

The Work of a Nation: Richard D. Cutts and the Coast Survey Map of Fort Clatsop


Byram, R. Scott, Oregon Historical Quarterly


ON JULY 27, 1805, Meriwether Lewis climbed to the top of a limestone cliff and looked out across the valley of the Missouri River. Within this valley of "extensive and beatifull plains and meadows which appear to be surrounded in every direction with distant and lofty mountains," he saw that three forks of the river flowed into one. (1) Lewis decided to name the Missouri forks after Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Albert Gallatin, honoring the three government leaders who had made his expedition possible.

Forty-seven years later, the nephew of James Madison stood on the banks of a tributary of the Columbia River near the Pacific Coast and drew a map that memorialized Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the other members of the Corps of Discovery. Richard D. Cutts, west coast chief of an internationally acclaimed team of surveyors and scientists, was completing the first triangulation of the lower Columbia River for the United States Coast Survey. His measurements and monuments would set the foundation for the accurate charting of the channels and landmarks of this waterway. Cutts's 1852 map of the Lewis and Clark River Station brings together the work of two preeminent teams of surveyors established by Thomas Jefferson: the Corps of Discovery and the U.S. Coast Survey. (2)

Long before he became president in 1801, Thomas Jefferson took a serious interest in the mapping of North America. An experienced surveyor himself, he helped organize several expeditions to the West in search of a water route to the Pacific. After Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traced routes through the interior, Jefferson looked to the task of mapping the coasts, rivers, and harbors of the United States in order to expand commerce and industry. On February 10, 1807, Jefferson signed a bill creating what was to be known as the U.S. Coast Survey. (3)

In 1852, Richard Cutts may not have realized that few maps depicted the location of Lewis and Clark's Fort Clatsop. As he mapped the Lewis and Clark River Station on the lower Columbia, he carefully recorded details, following the high standards set by the U.S. Coast Survey. (4) Along with recording diverse observations of natural science, Cutts and others with the Coast Survey were tasked with documenting the history of exploration on the Pacific Coast and assessing locations of fortifications in California and the Oregon Territory. (5) Fort Clatsop--the first land-based presence of the United States on the Northwest coast and the first U.S. fortification on the Columbia River--would have been a key structure for the Cutts survey to map.

In a recent article on the Cutts map ("Cartographic Representations: A Controversy in Mapping Lewis and Clark's Fort Clatsop," OHQ, Winter 2004), Kenneth W Karsmizki argues that Cutts did not depict the actual location of remains of Fort Clatsop in the 1852 map. He indicates that Cutts's map legend is ambiguous and argues that Cutts plotted what locals referred to as the site of the fort rather than the remains of the fort itself. Karsmizki concludes that the "Log Hut" marked on the map referred to a settler's house, not the log remains of Fort Clatsop that nearby residents observed before and after the Cutts map was made. (6)

I came across the original Cutts map at the National Archives in March 1999 while researching Coast Survey documents relating to Native American history in Oregon. Although I thought it likely that researchers had already examined these records as part of ongoing investigations at Fort Clatsop National Memorial, I electronically scanned the map. On returning to Oregon, I initially shared the map with Jim Thomson, director of archaeological investigations at Fort Clatsop, who recognized it as a new addition to evidence locating the fort. (7) Subsequently, Karsmizki, who had been researching the history of the fort for the National Park Service (NPS), did follow-up research at the National Archives. …

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