In early 2000 Ralph Saunders took on the daunting task of finding the canoe camp. His plan was to use the most current technology available along with all the evidence from previous canoe camp investigations. A general description of the land provided by Clark’s journal entries served as his starting point. His resulting book “Clark’s Journey Through Stillwater County, Montana” describes what he did to locate Canoe Camp.
His methodology was unique in that his analysis went far beyond reading the journal entries and matching them to the land. He says that Clark’s log notes and descriptions are of sufficient detail and precision to enable mapping experts to follow his route the entire length of the Trail. His distance estimates were consistent (but a little long) and he was very thorough in his note taking. These were the two basic requirements for developing an understanding of what he wrote.
Saunders had to consider many things that we normally never consider when studying the Expedition mapping. Such as change in magnetic north location, and change of stream channel of the Yellowstone River. But maybe the hardest of all was learning Clark’s habits to see how he made his abbreviated notes so he could understand what Clark actually meant.
A careful examination of Clark’s mapping shows his map scale was not always the same. He was more accurate when he was in a canoe compared to when he was on a horse. He also had to learn differences in Clark’s map drawings and his survey readings. He discovered the drawings were sketches so they did not have the accuracy of the written descriptions. (After returning to St. Louis Clark used these sketches and his notes to create a final map that was extremely accurate.)
After Saunders found the location of Canoe Camp, he tested his location to see if it fit other journal entry documented activities. Example of this would be if it fit with a certain number of miles traveled by someone.
A subsequent archaeological dig in the location of Canoe Camp has shown old activity in the area that could be consistent with Clark’s time, but it could also be others and some other time. Example is they found a musket ball. But nothing to tie it to Clark’s party. Thirteen people spent four days working in a small area, but they left little, if anything, as lasting evidence of their time there.
It is relatively easy to understand that Clark traveled overland from Traveler’s Rest to where he reached the Yellowstone River. From there he went downriver until he found trees large enough to made dugout canoes. From that location they made the rest of the trip on the waters of the Yellowstone and then the Missouri River.
It is much more difficult, if even possible at all, to prove conclusively exactly where that camp is where they made the two canoes on the Yellowstone.