Ever since Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage hit the best-seller lists in 1996, Americans have been reveling in a Lewis and Clark love fest that has achieved a variety of expressions, from plying part of the famed captains' route aboard a 70-passenger cruise ship to schlepping dugouts over the few rapids that have survived the hydroelectric dams. This month near the Oregon coast, however, an archaeologist at the University of Washington hopes to resurrect a Corps of Discovery chapter that, some might argue, ought to stay buried. "The great thing about this," says professor Julie Stein, "is that guides will be able to point to the very spot where Lewis and Clark answered the call of nature."
Stein, 46, is hunting for evidence of a 19th-century privy that could offer a crucial clue to the location of Fort Clatsop, the long-vanished encampment where Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their men sat out the cold and rainy winter of 1805-1806. Last September she spent a week collecting more than 70 soil samples, which are now being analyzed for traces of mercury. That's because whenever the men complained of stomach aches or showed symptoms of syphilis, Lewis administered a dose of Dr. Rush's Bilious Pills — powerful purgatives that sent the men racing for the outhouse. The evidence they deposited (the pills contained an insoluble form of mercury) could enable Stein to pinpoint the privy itself and, by extension, the elusive fort: Army regulations dictated that latrines be dug exactly 90 paces away.
While awaiting lab-test results, which should be available this month, L&C devotees can scarcely contain themselves. "For the enthusiast," declares John L. Allen, a University of Connecticut geographer, "the real Fort Clatsop is like the fingerbone of a saint."