The Way to the Western Sea Lewis and Clark across the Continent Chapter 4

David Lavender© 2001University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London

FOUR. Trial Run

The agreement whereby the United States obtained "the Colony or Province of Louisiana, with the same extent that it now has in the hands of Spain," was completed on April 30, 1803. Since mail took, on the average, six weeks to travel from Paris to Washington, the first unofficial word of the transfer presumably reached the White House about the middle of June. Its arithmetic was startling. Livingston and Monroe had whittled Napoleon's asking price down from 120 million francs to 80 million—60 for the territory itself plus another 20 million to be paid by the U.S. Treasury to American citizens who held claims against France for damages incurred during the undeclared naval war of 1798–1800.

This amounted, in U.S. money, to about $11,250,000 for Napoleon and $3,750,000 in claims. Total, $15 million, in round figures, for roughly 828,000 square miles—or a little under 3 cents an acre. During the same period the U.S. Land Office was selling off the public domain to settlers and speculators for $2 per acre. (There are 640 acres in one square mile.) So it was a dazzling bargain. Even counting interest payments on the bonds issued to Napoleon in payment for the territory, the full cost for doubling the size of the nation came to only $23,213,567.73. [1]

The extraordinary value of the purchase was, of course, scarcely glimpsed at the time. The Federalists, Jefferson correctly surmised, would argue strenuously that Louisiana was not worth the price. To cast ahead: one disgruntled New Englander complained that $15 million was the equivalent of 433 tons of solid silver; a wagon train capable of moving the mass would stretch out 5⅓ miles. Senator Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts brayed, "I would rather the Mississippi were a running stream of burning lava, over which no human being could pass, than that the treaty should be ratified." [2]

More prescient Northeasterners pointed out that the acquisition could be divided into so many states that political power would shift west and south, to the detriment of the Atlantic seaboard. Of more import to Jefferson, a strict Constitutional constructionist, was the argument that the Constitution nowhere provided for the purchase of foreign territory or its incorporation into the body of the union. Finally, there was Spain, concerned not with the monetary value of the province, but with the loss of a buffer against avaricious Americans. Predictably, the Spanish minister, Jefferson's one-time friend, the Marqués de Casa Yrujo, reiterated over and over that the transfer was illegal: Napoleon had promised not to let any part of Louisiana fall into American hands.

Jefferson sought for and found rebuttals to the contentions. A main part of his political base was in the West and South, and he did not grieve over the New Englanders' discomfiture. Yrujo was brushed aside with the retort that agreements made between France and Spain were of no concern to the United States. (Nevertheless, the possibility that resistance to the transfer might boil up in New Orleans led the administration to ask the governors of Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio to have their militia ready if need be.) [3] Meanwhile Jefferson's cabinet talked away his worries about the Constitution: the right to govern a territory surely implied the right to acquire it, and Jefferson was pragmatic enough not to let philosophic scruples prevent him from securing for the nation a good that might never again be attainable. [4] As for value, he was personally convinced that the West would eventually be peopled by Americans devoted to his style of agrarian democracy. Yet he wanted to justify the purchase by pointing to a more immediate gain. One notion that occurred to him was the possibility of using Louisiana to help solve the stubborn Indian problem in the region north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi.

The Indians there still held title to hundreds of thousands of acres that white tillers of the soil were eyeing with increasing covetousness. He had hoped that once the Native Americans had learned agriculture and such handicrafts as weaving and sewing, they would realize they did not need great expanses of hunting grounds and would be willing to cede part of it, at a fair price, to the nation. Not all the red men were willing to abandon their old ways, however, and they exerted enough influence on the rest to block the signing of the necessary treaties. Louisiana might end this impasse. Let the Indians who wanted to retain their hunting culture swap Eastern lands for others beyond the Mississippi. Jefferson grew so enthralled with the notion that he envisioned the northern reaches of Louisiana as a huge reservation protected from white trespassers by an Indian cavalry patrolling the west bank of the great river. In short, get the East solidly settled first, with both red and white families, and then slowly duplicate the program west of the Mississippi in a wilderness so extensive he thought it could not be filled for centuries. [5]

Before the program could be initiated, all whites—French, Spanish, and Americans—currently living in St. Louis and other towns and farms of the Missouri country would have to be persuaded to vacate their homes and find, with government aid, new dwellings east of the Mississippi. Examining the feasibility of this exchange became yet another chore the president heaped, on the spur of the moment, onto the already overburdened shoulders of Meriwether Lewis—overburdened because what had begun as a reconnaissance had abruptly ballooned into a diplomatic mission charged with carrying word of the shift in sovereignty to every Indian tribe and foreign trader within reach from the Missouri River.

As the president and his secretary grew aware of the expedition's increased significance, they reexamined the paragraph in Lewis's instructions that directed him to appoint a possible successor from his party's ranks, after it was already on the march. Reports from recruiting officers indicated that there might not be anyone among the volunteers qualified for leadership. Would it not be wise to select a suitable second-in-command before the group set out?

Whether Jefferson or Lewis first proposed William Clark cannot be said with certainty. They both knew him. He was the sixth son and ninth child of a family of ten children. [6] Clarks had long farmed and soldiered in Virginia, part of the time in Albemarle County, home of both Jefferson's and Lewis's progenitors. Before William's birth, however, his family had moved close to tidewater on the Rappahannock River. Red-headed William Clark was born there on August 1, 1770, which made him four years and two and a half weeks older than Meriwether Lewis.

Five of the Clark boys fought in the Revolution. The one best remembered now was George Rogers Clark, who commanded Virginia's troops in the Kentucky region while Thomas Jefferson was serving as Virginia's governor. In 1784, after the war was over, the entire Clark family crossed the Allegheny Mountains and floated down the Ohio to Mulberry Hill, just outside of Louisville. During and after the migration a strong bond developed between George Rogers and William, with the older training the younger meticulously in natural history and wilderness skills but failing signally to do much about his grammar and spelling.

In 1789, aged nineteen, six feet tall, and heavily muscled, William joined the Kentucky militia. Afterwards he transferred to the regular army. It was a strenuous time. As a lieutenant he drilled his men hard, and learned how to build forts, draw maps, lead pack trains through enemy country, and fight the Indians on their ground. Twice he was sent on secret missions to spy on the Spanish, who during the first half of the 1790s were pushing their fortifications and wooing the Indians as high up the east bank of the Mississippi as they dared go. On his return from the last of these missions, in November 1795, Lieutenant Clark was put in charge of a select company of riflemen at Fort Greenville, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, Ensign Meriwether Lewis, fresh from the lackluster contention known as the Whiskey Rebellion, joined the group.

The two learned to respect each other while keeping their blue-ribbon company smartly drilled. During off-hours they undoubtedly went hunting together and, as dark closed in, swapped stories, revealed ambitions, and on occasion perhaps drank too much in the officers' quarters. But not for long. Peace, boredom, ill health, and his brother George's losing struggles with alcohol and debt led William to resign his commission and rejoin his brother at Clarksville, Indiana, just across the river from Louisville.

Lewis and he kept their contact alive by occasional letters and rare visits while Meriwether was still serving in the Ohio country and later in Washington when Clark dropped by on family business. On one of those visits the Westerner was introduced by Secretary Lewis to President Jefferson. Surely, too, the president remembered receiving, on January 7, 1803, a letter from doughty old George Rogers Clark, answering certain military questions. On closing, George recommended voting William as "well quallified almost for any business of Honor and profit in this [Western] country. . . . I am sure it gives you pleasure to have it in your power to do me a Service . . ."—a remark certain to remind the president of how shamefully the state of Virginia had treated George Rogers by refusing to honor drafts he had signed during the Revolution. So five months later, when the question of a second-in-command arose, the name William Clark was close to both men's tongues.

Whatever the details, Lewis did make an offer to Clark on June 19. The letter's structure is worth noting. [7] After touching first on a personal business matter, he threw out a hook to keep Clark reading: what follows is secret. Congress had sanctioned the exploration of North America, and the president had entrusted him, Meriwether Lewis, with the enterprise. "I have the most ample and hearty support the government can give," plus "liberal passports from the Ministers both of France and England." (Nothing about Spain.) He outlined his personnel needs and urged Clark to keep an eye open for likely recruits. He summarized his travel plans—"I do not calculate on geting further than two or three hundred miles up the Missourie before the commencement of the ensuing winter." He mentioned, again with adjurations of greatest secrecy, the expectation that the United States would obtain the entire western watershed of the Mississippi, including the Missouri, "in less than 12 Months from this date." It was vital, therefore, to achieve "an early friendly and intimate acquaintance with the tribes that inhabit that country, that they should be early impressed with a just idea of the rising importance of the U. States." Scientific goals, he added, were also involved.

And then, having presumably excited Clark with envy over the great good fortune that had befallen him, Lewis came to the point. "If therefore there is anything . . . in this enterprise, which would induce you to participate with me in it's fatiegues, it's dangers and it's honors, believe me there is no man on earth with whom I should feel equal pleasure in sharing them as with yourself." He meant sharing in its fullest sense. The president, he wrote, promised Clark a permanent commission as captain, with all the benefits that went with the rank. "Your situation will in all respects be precisely such as my own."

The guarantee was Lewis's way of handling a ticklish situation. Clark was his friend. Lieutenant Clark had also been his commanding officer at Fort Greenville on the Ohio seven years earlier. It would be awkward for both if Lewis suddenly became his superior during a long journey with a small group of enlisted men who would be quick to notice each nuance of feeling, however small, between the commanders. To obviate the friction before it developed, Lewis won Jefferson's promise to jump Clark a full rank above the one he had held on leaving the army. Precise equality—if Clark accepted. He might not. Therefore, when Jefferson issued Lewis his final draft of instructions on June 20, he let stand the provision about choosing a second-in-command from among the enlisted men. [8] As a matter of collateral interest, it is clear from the president's later letters to the expeditionary force that he never really considered Clark to be Lewis's military equal. This expedition, which he had conceived and put into motion, stayed Lewis's in the president's mind. Just as clearly, Lewis himself never felt the least superiority.

The offer made, Lewis asked Clark to reply to him at Pittsburgh, where a specially built keelboat would be waiting. Using seven or eight soldiers being transferred to the South as crewmen, he would float downstream to the Falls of the Ohio, between Louisville and Clarksville. There he would pick up Clark and whatever recruits for the Northwest his new co-captain had enlisted. He expected to arrive early in August.

On May 30, the Boston newspapers broke the story of the Louisiana Purchase. The National Intelligencer of Washington followed on July 4, giving a special fillip to that holiday. But newspapers weren't treaties, and until Jefferson held the actual documents in his hands he was not going to move openly. When Lewis left Washington on July 5, there was no fanfare, and he still acted as if he were bound for the upper Mississippi with no more than the dozen men authorized by Secretary of War Dearborn on July 2. But there was another order, also dated July 2, wherein the secretary directed the commanders at Fort Kaskaskia, Illinois, "to furnish a Sergeant and Eight good men who understand rowing" to haul some of Lewis's provisions as high up the Missouri as they could go and still return before the onset of ice. [9] This authorization of an additional boat, even if it went only partway to the Pacific, is the first concrete sign that the administration was beginning to realize that Lewis's assignment was going to demand more muscle than the small reconnaissance party first contemplated could produce.

Lewis's long road West led him first to Harpers Ferry—and a good thing it did. The teamster who was supposed to pick up the iron boat frame, new-model rifles, knives, tomahawks, and other material waiting there had failed to do so. Lewis had to spend two days finding substitute transportation. But there was compensation. During the wait he tested the rifles. They performed beautifully, and he was relaxed as he rode on to Pittsburgh—two hundred and fifty miles in six and a half days, his new, 150-pound, black Newfoundland dog, Seaman, trotting beside his horse. [10]

He approached the town in high anticipation, for Pittsburgh was, in a very real sense, the true start of his journey of exploration. Here the supplies he had ordered in the East would be brought together for embarkation. Here, if he was lucky, he might pick up two or three enlisted men who met the exacting qualifications he had in mind—young, unmarried, enduring men, powerfully muscled for the work of pushing the keelboat upstream with oars, setting poles, and tow rope.

Much depended on that keelboat. Lewis had sent his order to Pittsburgh—the name of the contractor does not appear in the records—as soon as he had decided not to make South West Point, Tennessee, his jumping-off place, and he expected the boat to be all but ready for loading when he reached the headwaters of the Ohio. There is some evidence that he had even specified two masts, a highly unusual feature for a keelboat [11]—just as the iron boat he had ordered at Harpers Ferry was unusual in its way. Otherwise the boat was standard: fifty-five feet long, eight feet, four inches wide. A high cabin in the stern would house some of the men and some of the goods. Another covered hold filled the bow. The rowers would occupy the open space amidships.

After finding his lodgings about 2:00 P.M. on July 15, Lewis dashed off a note to Jefferson and wandered off in search of Lieutenant Moses Hooke, who, as assistant military agent for supplies, was to receive the material from the East and oversee its transfer to the keelboat. A good man, young Hooke. He was a member of Lewis's own regiment, the First Infantry, and the two had grown friendly during Hooke's recent tour of duty in Washington. Quite likely he was the one who told Lewis that the keelboat, ordered for July 20, was nowhere near completion.

Lewis stormed to the boatyard. True enough: only a skeleton stood on the ways. Two rows of timbers curved up a few feet, like a whale's ribs, from the four-by-four beam, the keel, that ran down the boat's center line and was sturdy enough, supposedly, to absorb the shock of hitting submerged rocks and logs. A few planks had been nailed and tied to the ribs on one side. That was all.

The contractor, his breath fetid with whiskey, met him with that impression of mingled candor and offended dignity that habitual drunks know so well how to use. He'd had trouble getting good timber, he said. But depend on it, Lewis would have the boat by the end of the month. The captain silently added five days to the estimate, eyed the dropping levels of the water—1803 was a drought year; no one in town could recall such low water—and settled back to wait as patiently as he could.

Pittsburgh in those days was not conducive to patience. Summer doldrums lay on the brick houses lining the narrow, grubby streets, on the boatyards and warehouses crowded close to the banks of the uniting Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, and on the small inns and dark grogshops that catered to teamsters who hauled in Eastern merchandise for transshipment down the Ohio to the Mississippi. During spring, when the rivers were high, farmers poured in with corn, flour, hams, salted butter, whiskey, and brandy, all in demand at New Orleans. Hammers rang on bar iron of local make, and visitors stopped by to see the town's nail factory, the first in America.

Little of that activity was visible in July. Every morning Lewis visited the boatyard, trying to keep the contractor sober and his workers busy. He made sure each timber destined for the boat was sound, and held forth at length on the need for thorough caulking. When he could no longer endure that, he wandered through the town, yarned with Hooke, climbed a nearby hill to see a prehistoric Indian mound, and read until it was threadbare a copy of The Navigator, a pilot's manual for the Ohio, updated annually by an enterprising Pittsburgh printer, Zodak Cramer. [12]

Glumly he received, on time, the wagonload of supplies from Harpers Ferry and the seven soldiers who were to act as his crew as far as Fort Massac. (Called Fort Massacre by troops for no particular reason except the sound of the word, Massac was located on the Illinois side of the Ohio, and eight miles downstream from the mouth of the Tennessee River, where many years later William Clark would lay out the town of Paducah, Kentucky.) The bitterness caused by the timely arrivals for whom no boat awaited was increased on July 22 by a letter from Jefferson. Copies of the Louisiana Purchase treaty, the president wrote, had reached Washington. [13] The agreement still had to be confirmed by the Senate, and the House still had to authorize bonds enough to pay for the acquisition, but history was marching—and there Lewis sat, the captive of a drunken boatbuilder.

Even harder on his nerves was the lack of word from Clark, to whom he had written more than a month earlier. Fearful that some disaster might have befallen his friend, he decided that while there was still time to exchange letters with Washington, he should seek authority to enlist Moses Hooke to take Clark's place. But then the sun brightened. On July 29 in came the letter Clark had written in response to Lewis's offer—a letter that had gone to Washington before overtaking Lewis in Pittsburgh. Another note soon followed. Clark was delighted: "My friend I do assure you no man lives with whome I would perfur to undertake Such a Trip &c as your self." Moreover, he was already recruiting a few men of the caliber he assumed Lewis would want. [14]

On August 3 Lewis responded with equal fulsomeness: "I could neither hope, wish, or expect from a union with any man on earth, more perfect support or further aid . . . than that, which I am confident, I shall have from being associated with yourself." He predicted, overoptimistically, that he would greet Clark at the Falls of the Ohio by the end of the month. [15]

Not a chance—not with that boatbuilder. Balked by the man's apparent immovability, Lewis contemplated buying enough pirogues to float his supplies downstream until he could find another keelboat he could buy. Local merchants dissuaded him; the odds were strongly against a suitable craft being available at that time of year, even in St. Louis. In order to make sure of going up the Missouri at all, he would have to wait on the man he had unfortunately chosen by mail. [16]

The contractor's drinking and constant wrangling with his shifting crew of workers dragged on and on. To make use of his time, Lewis let slip word of his undertaking. (Until then he had been using the fabrication of a trip up the Mississippi.) Volunteers began applying for places. After telling each one that enlistment in the army was a prerequisite—it carried a twelve-dollar bonus with it—Lewis carefully interviewed those who agreed to accept the condition. Finally he chose three to go downriver with him on a trial run—no guarantees attached.

One of the three probably was George Shannon, either sixteen or eighteen years old. (His birth year is given variously as 1785 and 1787; in either event, he turned out to be the youngest member of the expedition.) His father, an Ohioan, had recently died and George seems to have been on his reluctant way to Pennsylvania to join his mother's family when the prospect of adventure in the West diverted him. Another of the Pittsburgh trio may have been that future maker of heroic mountain-man legends, John Colter, then about thirty years old, as strong as and considerably more nimble than an ox. [17] The indefiniteness about these men and the others who would be enlisted later is frustrating, and it reaches to the Pacific and back. Neither Lewis nor Clark wrote much about their men, or, for that matter, about each other, perhaps because they were oppressed by too many other duties.

Lewis's unrelenting persistence finally speeded up the boatmen. Meanwhile water levels dropped and dropped. According to reports from farther downstream, only six inches covered some of the bars he would have to cross, yet his keelboat, when loaded, would draw close to three feet. To lighten it, he hired two wagons to haul part of the cargo as far as Wheeling, where he expected to find better depths. [18] When the wagons proved insufficient, he added a third carrier, a craft he called a "canoe," probably a dugout made from the trunk of a cottonwood tree, but possibly a batteau, an oversized rowboat nailed together from planks.

At 10:00 A.M. on August 31, the travelers cast off for the start of their eleven-hundred-mile journey to the Mississippi. In addition to Lewis, the keelboat and its auxiliary craft carried the three volunteers whose suitability for the larger adventure was being tested, seven soldiers bound via Fort Massac to Fort Adams in Mississippi Territory, and a pilot hired for seventy dollars to take the boat through the river's shallow, shifting channels as far as the Falls of the Ohio, near Louisville. [19]

As Lewis had been warned to expect, the hardest part of the journey was the hundred miles (sixty-five by wagon) to Wheeling. The Ohio is indeed a beautiful river, but its course is serpentine and it is dotted with many islands, some of which in Lewis's day were the sites of prosperous orchards. Immense forests broken by frequent natural clearings covered the banks. Oaks, ash, and a scattering of pines flourished on the upper terraces; willow, honey locust, and hickory filled the bottoms, intermingled here and there with white-barked sycamores as much as sixteen feet in circumference. According to Zodak Cramer's The Navigator, potential feasts abounded: turkeys, partridges, bear, and deer in the forests, ducks, pike, sturgeon, and, notably, catfish weighing up to a hundred pounds each along the river.

The islands were the travelers' bane. They "drew up" sand and small gravel at their heads. These accumulations gathered driftwood; bars began to reach toward the outer banks; during periods of shallow water they often completely blocked the river. On meeting such an obstruction, the entire crew piled out of the boat— fortunately the water was warm—and portaged the cargo to navigable water on the lower side of the bar. Then, lifting and heaving, they skidded the boat across. On one grim day they had to fight their way over five such bars. Sometimes their labors did not suffice. When that happened, Lewis sent men out to find farmers with draft horses or oxen capable of pulling the boat over the hump. The owners of the animals, he discovered, "are generally lazy charge extravegently . . . and have no filanthropy or contience." One even demanded the "exorbitant" price of two dollars for his and his animals' services.

Another obstacle was fog. At night, air temperatures dropped into the sixties, but the water, as Lewis determined by frequently dipping in a thermometer, stayed in the low seventies. "When the air becomes most cool," he noted in his journal, "which is about sunrise the fogg is thickest and appears to rise from the face of the water like steem from a boiling kettle," a phenomenon that delayed each morning's start until the mist burned off about eight o'clock.

The "canoe" he had purchased in Pittsburgh turned out to be leaky and unable to carry as much cargo as necessary. On reaching the small riverbank village of Georgetown, he paid eleven dollars for another canoe, probably, like the first, a dugout or small pirogue. That one leaked, too, and the journey turned into a sequence of struggles to keep his goods dry from the river underneath and the sky above, which every now and then dumped deluges onto them.

No one was very happy about the course of things, but the soldiers in the crew had to obey orders or face courtmartial. Not so the civilians, additional numbers of whom he had hired for handling the dugouts. The labors irked most of them as much as their attitudes irked Lewis. At the little towns they passed, he fired and hired. Only Shannon and Colter functioned well and so made permanent places for themselves on the expedition.

They spent eight hard days covering the hundred miles to Wheeling. Mercifully the captain decided to lay over there for the better part of two days so that the men could rest, wash their clothes, and trade the flour that had been issued to them for bread already baked by women in the town. He also discovered that the depth of the river had not increased as much as he had hoped. Unable to accommodate in the keelboat the cargo that had come from Pittsburgh by wagon, he bought yet another "canoe." This one was bigger, sounder, and generally more satisfactory than the other two. Though Lewis doesn't describe it, it probably resembled the most common class of pirogues on the river: close to fifty feet long, five feet of beam, and equipped with a mast and sail. It meant another hiring and a reshuffling of assignments for the men. Whether or not Lewis kept one or both of the smaller, leaky vessels does not appear. He had canoes, plural, when he reached the mouth of the Ohio, but they may have been replacements picked up along the way.

The little fleet left Wheeling at three o'clock in the afternoon of September 9 and almost immediately was engulfed in another deluge. Water dashed under and between the boats' oilcloth coverings, and the holds acted like bathtubs. Lewis struggled ahead anyhow—that was his nature, as Attorney General Levi Lincoln had pointed out to Jefferson earlier in the year—and did not land until twilight. Stumbling around with lanterns, they bailed out the boats and readjusted the cargo and coverings. Finally, at midnight, Lewis wrote, "I wrung out my saturated clothes, put on a dry shirt turned into my birth," presumably in the cramped stern cabin of the keelboat.

There were pleasant interludes. On the 11th and again on the 13th, the flotilla ran into numbers of gray squirrels migrating across the river from west to east, swimming lightly and making good speed, Lewis noted. The creatures provided sport for the dog, Seaman, and a treat for Lewis. At his master's bidding the big, black Newfoundland jumped into the water, caught a squirrel, crunched it to death, and brought it back. "They wer fat and thought them when fryed a pleasant food."

More gravel bars stood in the way, but the voyagers were far enough down the river now to breach them with relative ease. The gravel was small and loose, the current brisk. After the men had dug a small trench through the barrier with spades and paddles the water swept through, washing out a channel big enough for the boats. Only twice, when the gravel was intermixed with clay and driftwood, did the captain have to call in draft animals to help.

September 7 dawned sunny and warm. Spotting a clean bar ahead, Lewis decided to land and give his cargo its first thorough check. To his dismay he found some of it in bad shape despite nightly bailings of the boats, oilcloth coverings, and stowage in casks and supposedly waterproof bags. Rusty guns, tomahawks, and trade knives had to be oiled. Clothing was spread out to dry. Some "biscuit," probably hardtack, was damaged beyond salvaging.

At sundown the boats were reloaded. The next day Lewis's journal entries ceased and were not resumed until November 11, when the wayfarers were at Fort Massac—a gap of fifty-four days and 694 miles. Possibly he kept his log in another book that was later lost, though the appearance of the one that survives makes this seem unlikely. Or he may simply have grown bored: what point was there in describing again routines that had grown tedious, and in a well-known land whose natural history he had not been instructed to examine? Or, just possibly, the failure of his hard work to keep things spick and span had triggered another of his deep depressions.

A long letter written to Jefferson in Cincinnati on October 3 helps fill the gap in the journal and demonstrates how remarkably well Lewis, building on his own interest in natural history, had absorbed the paleontology lessons given him during his spring training course in Philadelphia. [20] A natural animal trap called the Big Bone Lick lay near the outskirts of Cincinnati. Animals coming there during many centuries to lick salt sometimes became mired. Dying, they left the mud studded with bones, some quite massive. Though the existence of the lick had been known to whites since 1739, its antiquity wasn't realized until a German visitor recognized some of the bones as akin to those of the extinct Siberian mastodon.

The flurry of interest reached as far as the American Philosophical Society. It also prompted a Cincinnati physician, Dr. William Goforth, to dig in the mud, in the spring of 1803, a pit thirty feet square and eleven deep in the hope of finding the complete skeleton of a mammoth. No luck. He did cart home, however, several huge bones plus some teeth and tusks, one of which was twenty-two inches in circumference at the base and upwards of six feet long. Lewis visited Goforth in Cincinnati, looked over the collection, and obtained permission to have other specimens dug up and shipped to Jefferson via New Orleans. Unhappily the freight was lost in a shipwreck. However, the minute descriptions of tusks and teeth that he put on paper did reach and, he hoped, impressed the president.

It is not hard to believe that the long and carefully crafted letter to Jefferson was intended as a form of compensation for his recent failures. Before starting West he had made much of ascending the Missouri for many hundred miles before winter set in. Because of a drunken boatbuilder whom he, the personal representative of the president of the United States, had not been able to handle, that hope was blasted. He had not been able to go down the Ohio without damaging a part of his cargo. But perhaps he could regain stature in Jefferson's eyes by focusing clearly and cogently on a phase of natural history in which Jefferson was deeply interested.

His desire to wash away the stigma of failure emerges still more explicitly in the last paragraph of that long letter. Congress was about to meet to consider the treaties implementing the Louisiana Purchase. And what would those august men think of Lewis's progress so far? To keep them in "good humor" (Lewis's words) "I have concluded to make a tour this winter on horseback of some hundred miles through the most interesting country adjoining my winter establishment; perhaps . . . towards Santafee." And would Jefferson please send him official copies of the treaties; they might induce Spanish officials in St. Louis to give him more information about the Western country than might otherwise be the case.

To anticipate: Jefferson's reply was delayed until the treaties, confirmed by the Senate on October 20, 1803, could be put into print. What he said then was crisp. Lewis should not undertake the proposed excursion. It might be more dangerous than the expedition up the Missouri "& would, by an accident to you, hazard our main object . . . [finding] the direct water communication from sea to sea formed by the bed of the Missouri & perhaps the Oregon." His time would be better spent and his stores conserved if he made his headquarters in American territory near St. Louis and did what he could in that city to learn what awaited in the land ahead. [21]

So much for that rash notion of a long winter trip toward New Mexico, a proposal that confirmed again Levi Lincoln's estimate of Lewis's headstrong nature.

Because of the gap in the 1803 journal we know nothing of how the boats were run down the Falls of the Ohio, a two-mile-long series of cascades formed by water foaming grandly over limestone ledges. The usual route ran close to the north (Indiana) side, where Clarksville lay near the bottom of the turbulence. Louisville stood opposite, in Kentucky. Lewis's fleet arrived at one or the other of the towns on October 14, but just where or under what circumstances the co-captains came together is also unknown, which is a cause for regret.

In some ways they were much alike. Both were over six feet tall and in superb physical condition, except that Clark suffered intermittently and painfully throughout his life from some obscure digestive ailment. Lewis was leaner, Clark more heavily set. Both were fiercely loyal. Army discipline was deeply ingrained in them, yet they were flexible enough to improvise as frontier conditions necessitated.

There were striking differences as well. Lewis had a better formal education, though when he wrote rapidly his spelling was almost as unrestrained as Clark's, and his sentences were even more convoluted. Lewis was moody, intense, and speculative; his nature seemed to require occasional times of solitude. When the occasion arose, he could be charming socially. Unlike Clark, who was accompanied west by a devoted black slave, York, he took no personal servant along on the trip. He frequently sought the company of young women and seemed, especially after his return from the expedition, eager to marry. He never did.

It would be a mistake to assume Lewis was the more intelligent. Clark's bent was simply more practical, given to dealing with things to which he could put his hands. He was bluff, hearty, and gregarious. As far as we know, his eye for girls was not as quick as Lewis's, but shortly after the expedition ended, when he was thirty-five, he married sixteen-year-old Julia (sometimes called Judy) Hancock. He named his first child Meriwether Lewis Clark, a compliment Lewis probably would have returned if circumstances had allowed.

The pause in Clarksville lasted nearly two weeks. Many farewell parties must have held sway there and across the river in Louisville, for the Clarks were a large, prominent, and well-liked family, and the upcoming expedition was one to attract attention. By day there were chores. The larder had to be replenished, the keelboat spruced up. Because the river remained low and there were more men to transport, the captains decided to keep the big pirogue Lewis had purchased in Wheeling. They may also have replaced the small, leaky pair with one or two sounder craft.

Although Clark had interviewed many volunteers while waiting for Lewis, he had selected—and only tentatively—no more than seven: William Bratton, the brothers Joseph and Reuben Field, Charles Floyd, Jr., George Gibson, Nathaniel Pryor, and John Shields. Shields, aged thirty-five, turned out to be the oldest man on the trip. He was married and had at least one child. This ran contrary to Lewis's instructions about signing on only bachelors, but Clark had made an exception because of Shields's known talents as a blacksmith and gunsmith, and Lewis let the enlistment stand. [22] Charles Floyd was an inheritance of sorts. His father had served under George Rogers Clark during the Revolution, and his son was enough like him that the captains later called on him to be one of the group's sergeants. Another sergeant-to-be was Floyd's cousin, Nathaniel Pryor, who, after the expedition was disbanded, would embark on a fruitful and adventurous career in the army and as an Indian trader. The Field brothers seemed to turn up whenever trouble threatened and distinguished themselves in what followed. So Clark had picked well, even though Bratton and Gibson were accorded no special remarks when Lewis summarized the merits of the party's men in a letter to the secretary of war on January 15, 1807. [23] The two were not alone in this; only six of the twenty-nine men Lewis listed drew particular praise. But everyone, the captain said, deserved "warmest approbation and thanks."

The reinforced party left Clarksville on October 26. On November 11, at Fort Massac, Lewis's river journal picks up again as abruptly as it left off. The post, occupied that fall by seventy-three soldiers and three officers, had a reputation as a sickly place. Perhaps this took some of the spirit out of the garrison. Although the post commander, Captain Daniel Bissell, had been ordered by the War Department to recruit volunteers for the Corps of Discovery, as the party had been named by Jefferson, he had managed to sign up only Joseph Whitehouse and John Newman—and the latter would be cashiered later on for insubordination. Another, greater disappointment was the failure of Major McRae to send from South West Point, Tennessee, to Fort Massac the six to eight volunteers he had been instructed to provide.

There was one marked gain—George Drouillard, about twenty-eight, the son of a French-Canadian father and a Shawnee Indian mother. When Bissell recommended him as an expert hunter with a good knowledge of the Indians' character and their "hand talk," Lewis promptly offered him twenty-five dollars a month if he would join the expedition as a civilian interpreter. Drouillard, whose name was consistently given the phonetic spelling Drewyer in the trip journals, hesitated. But he did agree to go to South West Point, about three hundred miles away, to pick up the volunteers there and bring them to St. Louis. For this he drew a thirty-dollar advance. Meanwhile the seven soldiers who had come down the Ohio with Lewis dropped out, to continue to their own destination, Fort Adams. The nine volunteers Lewis and Clark had signed up took their places at the oars.

The captains wound up their work at Massac late in the afternoon on November 13. Though Bissell surely pressed them to stay, enough was enough. After sailing and rowing three miles, they camped on the riverbank. That night Lewis came down with a violent "ague"—what else could be expected of a place like Massac? He dosed himself with some of Rush's thunderbolt pills, probably spent the next day in and out of the boat, and by the time they reached the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi he was able to move about more normally, though "extreemly week."

His sense of duty was still haunting him, and the party spent six days at the confluence, making up chores for themselves. Lewis, still very shaky, passed on some of his recently acquired knowledge of surveying techniques to Clark, who calculated the width of the rivers: the Ohio, 1,274 yards; the Mississippi, 1,435. Below the junction the Mississippi spread out to 2,002 yards, somewhat more than a mile. The junction was a prominent geographic spot, of course, and noting the geography of the expanding nation was one of Lewis's assignments. Still, neither the river statistics nor the sketches they made of bars and islands in the vicinity proved very much, for the rivers were exceptionally low. High-water marks on the banks showed that the Mississippi at times reached an extraordinary fifty-two feet above the point where they stood when measuring it. Lewis must have wondered what would happen if he met water like that when the boats started up the Missouri in the spring.

To add to his sense of usefulness he practiced being an emissary. One way and another—rowing, walking—part of the group visited a few Shawnee and Delaware hunting camps, some on the west bank of the Mississippi. Lewis informed the Indians that the great father of all the tribes now lived in a city bigger than St. Louis, one called Washington. It is unlikely that this talk of distant and unknown rulers impressed the Indians. Lewis's big black dog, Seaman, was far more interesting. One Shawnee offered three beaver skins for him. Lewis shook his head.

At some point along the way, Clark was stricken with one of his stomach disorders. In spite of that he rowed with the others, going along with a small group that traveled down the Mississippi in search of a key fort that William's brother, George Rogers, had built in 1780 and named Jefferson for the then newly inaugurated governor of Virginia. It had stood near the eastern shore atop a bluff on an island called Iron Banks. [24] Not a trace remained in 1803. The disappearance was the sort of thing moody Lewis might well have brooded about; how long did any work of man last?

On November 20, with Clark still ailing, they started up the Mississippi. Concerned for his friend, Lewis went out of his way to kill a grouse and make a broth he hoped Clark could keep in his stomach. It did not help. The invalid was still laid up on the 23d when the boats swung to at the Cape Girardeau landing and Lewis set forth on what can be regarded, in spite of the extemporized visits with the Shawnees and Delawares, as his first official errand in newly acquired Louisiana.

Before Jefferson turned the northern part of the territory into a huge Indian reservation, he needed to know how many whites and, in particular, how many Americans would have to be relocated on the eastern side of the Mississippi. The obvious source of information about the number of those living in the Cape Girardeau region was the man who governed them for the Spanish—a man named Louis Lorimier.

Lewis was not sure how Lorimier would receive him. The fellow, who was George Drouillard's uncle, had fought for the British in the Ohio country during the Revolution. This had made him fair game for a detachment of George Rogers Clark's men. They fell on his trading post, just missed capturing Lorimier himself, and then looted his establishment of two hundred packhorse-loads of goods. What they couldn't carry they burned; losses were estimated at twenty thousand dollars. Disliking the American jurisdiction that spread over the trans-Allegheny region after the war, he moved to Cape Girardeau about 1793 and somehow managed to be appointed its commander by the lieutenant governor in St. Louis. He had continued in that post under France and would continue to hold it until the territory was formally transferred to the United States. He might not relish hearing of the change from an associate of William Clark. [25]

Lewis need not have worried. He reached Lorimier's settlement at the close of a horse-racing celebration during which the winners took possession of the losers' animals. It was a wild scene—yelling, drinking, fighting, cavorting. The frontier Americans, who were in the majority, struck the somewhat supercilious emissary from the United States as "dissolute and abandoned . . . of desperate fortunes [with] but little to loose either character or property." Though Lorimier had lost four horses during the meet, he greeted Lewis cheerfully and invited him to dinner with his family, away from the disorders.

Two things about the man struck the explorer. One was Lorimier's hair. He wore it in a queue that reached down his back as low as his knees and was held in place by a broad belt. (He was about five feet eight inches tall.) When he unbraided it, it touched the ground. There was not a gray strand in it, though Lewis guessed him to be sixty years old. (Actually he was fifty-five.) The other notable attraction was his daughter, "much the most descent looking feemale I have seen since I left the settlement in Kentuckey a little below Louisville." In addition to thoroughly enjoying the family gathering, he picked up useful census figures from "a young man," probably Lorimier's son; the comandante himself could neither read nor write. The district, which had been in existence for only ten years, already held 1,111 souls. During 1802 and the first ten months of 1803, 406 persons had arrived, some of them Americans. This headlong immigration, coupled with a high birthrate, was likely to increase the figure rapidly. Could so many people be readily uprooted and moved out of the country for the sake of the Indians? Was it his business to make suggestions after collecting more data?

Clark's health improved, and as the cold, weary miles of bucking the current dragged past, Lewis's restlessness increased. He disliked being cramped in a boat under the best of circumstances. As the number of settlements on both banks of the river increased, he could no longer contain himself. Surely he could find a horse and cover ground that way much faster than by following the winding river in a cranky vessel. Clark's army experiences had involved boats; he could manage the flotilla better than Lewis could. So why not ride ahead, check in at Fort Kaskaskia about personnel and an extra boat for carrying supplies to the upper Missouri, as authorized by the War Department, and afterwards continue to St. Louis to confront the region's lieutenant governor, Carlos Dehault Delassus?

Delassus. It was not a Spanish name. But as Lewis knew by then, many enterprising French had entered Spanish service during the closing decades of the past century. Delassus was one. He might try to end his tenure at St. Louis by being resistant. As far as Lewis knew, no copies of the treaties had reached Missouri, and anyway the Spanish were vociferously insisting the sale of Louisiana to the United States had no legal standing. Lewis did not even have a Spanish passport to use for gaining entrance to St. Louis in the event Delassus chose to keep him out.

It could be a serious block. None of the maps he had studied in Washington had been based on the knowledge of people who had actually been in most of the country he and Clark proposed to enter. If such maps existed, they would be in St. Louis. If traders who knew the upper Missouri River could be run down, it would be in St. Louis. He had to determine, by drawing on the wisdom of such people, how many men he would need and then enlist them; he was already sure the roster would exceed the fifteen for whom he had bought guns and shirts in the East. He would need to recalculate and then buy and package the additional supplies he would need for his own party and as Indian gifts to be used as he urged the tribes to shift their allegiance from old friends to new. Those tedious shopping chores could be completed only in St. Louis and vicinity. Finally, he hoped desperately he could establish winter quarters along the lowest reaches of the Missouri, not just for convenience, but for face saving. It would be humiliating, after a year's work on the project, to have to admit to the world that he had not even crossed the old boundary into the new acquisition. The sooner he confronted Delassus the better.

At 8:00 A.M. on November 28 he wrote in his journal that he was turning the boat over to Captain Clark. [26] Handing the journal to his partner, who would keep it until the site of the wintering was reached, he departed. The separation would last intermittently for the next five and a half months.


1. DeVoto, Course, 397. (back)
2. McMaster, II, 638–40. (back)
3. Malone, IV, 324, 335. DeConde, 201–4. (back)
4. Jefferson to Breckinridge, August 12, 1803, quoted in Sprague, 315. (back)
5. Indian removal: Jackson, Jefferson and Stony Mountains, 112–13, and Letters, 152–54; Esarcy, 69–73; Prucha, 213–17, 226. (back)
6. Steffen. Bakcicss, Lewis and Clark. Appleman, 52–55. (back)
7. Lewis to Clark, in Jackson, Letters, 57–60. (back)
8. The actual commission, a lieutenancy, contained a blank wherein Lewis could enter any name he chose. (Jackson, Letters, 104.) In Pittsburgh, as we will see, he came close to naming a regimental friend, Moses Hooke, rather than Clark. (back)
9. Jackson, Letters, 103–4. (back)
10. Lewis's dog was long called Scammon or Scannon because of errors made by Coues, Thwaites, Osgood, and others in reading the manuscript journals. The mistake was corrected by Jackson, "Call Him Good Old Dog." I assume, as do Osgood in "Our Dog Scannon" and many others, that Lewis bought the dog somewhere on the East Coast, paying twenty dollars. However, I have found no mention of him before the start of the trip down the Ohio, and Lewis may have picked him up in Pittsburgh. (back)
11. Drawings made by Clark of a keelboat resting in a cove of the Mississippi show a high stern cabin and two masts. (Moulton, Atlas, maps 3a, 3b.) Later, near Cahokia, December 7, Clark reported that a violent wind blew down one of the masts. (Quaife, entry for December 7.) This suggests the unusual second mast was another of Lewis's innovations. (back)
12. Extracts from Cramer's The Navigator appear in Hulbert. See also Havighurst, Long Horizons, 165–70, and River, 135–36. (back)
13. Jackson, Letters, 109. (back)
14. Ibid., 110–15. (back)
15. Ibid., 115–17. (back)
16. Appleman, 49. (back)
17. Lange, "Shannon." Colter may not have joined the expedition at Pittsburgh but at Old Limestone, now Maysville, Kentucky. See biographies of him: Burton Harris and the Dictionary of American Biography. (back)
18. Lewis to Jefferson, from Wheeling, September 8, 1803, speaks of having hired "a waggon." Moses Hooke, the military agent who had to pay for the vehicles, says two. I follow Hooke. See Jackson, Letters, 119, 122. (back)
19. I reconstruct the trip down the Ohio from Lewis's journal in Quaife and his letters to Jefferson, September 8 and 13 and October 3. Jackson, Letters, 121–31. (back)
20. Jackson, Letters, 126–31. Havighurst, River, 131–32. (back)
21. Havighurst, River, 136–38. (back)
22. Lange, "Shields." Clarke, 53–54. (back)
23. Jackson, Letters, 364–73. (back)
24. Bakeless, Background to Glory, 242–48. (back)
25. Ibid., 295. Quaife, 59–62. Jackson, Letters, 152. (back)
26. Quaife, 169. (back)