The Way to the Western Sea Lewis and Clark across the Continent Chapter 5

David Lavender© 2001University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London

FIVE. Facing Reality

His first stop on the way north was Fort Kaskaskia, Illinois. Two companies of infantry were stationed there, one under Captain Richard Bissell, brother of Daniel Bissell of Fort Massac, and the other under Captain Amos Stoddard. Though the latter was twelve years older than Meriwether Lewis, they were either already fast friends or soon would be.

Times had been dull for Stoddard. When the Jefferson administration had been preparing for war in 1802, he had been ordered to take his company to the ancient French town of Cahokia, across the Mississippi and four miles downstream from St. Louis, and build a fort there. Before he could start work another message had been rushed to him: Louisiana now belonged to the United States and the fort was no longer needed. Instead he should sit tight at Kaskaskia, ready to receive, as America's representative, Upper Louisiana from the lieutenant governor in St. Louis. Both Stoddard and Bissell welcomed Lewis expansively, hoping he had more recent news than they did. But he had been hoping the same of them.

Bissell, heedful of his orders from the War Department, made no trouble about lending a supply boat, a corporal, and six privates to help the expedition partway up the Missouri during the ensuing summer. The men would report for duty as soon as Lewis knew where his winter quarters would be, a determination that depended on whether or not Lieutenant Governor Delassus would let the Americans enter the Missouri. In any event, Bissell wanted his soldiers back before Christmas, 1804.

How many hands, he may well have asked, did Lewis and Clark have for continuing from the Missouri's headwaters to the Pacific? Meriwether counted them out—the two he had picked up at the start of his trip, the seven Clark had recruited at Louisville, two more from Fort Massac, and eight from South West Point, assuming Drouillard returned with that many acceptable volunteers. Nineteen all told, more than the twelve authorized by Secretary of War Dearborn, more than the fifteen Lewis had bought guns and shirts for at Harpers Ferry. Evidently he had some unrecorded understanding with his superiors about signing on as many permanent recruits as he felt he needed. Or maybe, though it seems reckless even for him, he had the understanding with himself. Anyway, the count at the moment was nineteen, plus himself, Clark, the slave York, and Drouillard, if the interpreter consented to continue with the party. Hardened men all—enough, he thought, to turn back possible Indian attacks, yet not too many to find food for during the final push. And speaking of food, he had his winter camp to consider. Would Captain Bissell be so kind as to introduce him to the contractor who was already supplying Fort Kaskaskia with staples? [1]

He also asked about an interpreter, for he spoke no French and he had learned Delassus understood no English. The man recommended to him, John Hay, was postmaster of Cahokia and part-owner of a prosperous American trading firm doing business along the upper Mississippi. He turned out to be a jewel—thirty-four years old, nimble, loyal, intelligent, and well acquainted in St. Louis. He had entered the North West Company of Canada at the age of fourteen and had traded extensively for furs on the Assiniboine and Red rivers, west and northwest of the headwaters of the Mississippi. [2] He had listened intently to the tales of men who had risked the upper Missouri's snag-filled currents and collapsing banks, and had obtained sketch maps from some of them. He had a broad knowledge of Indian ways and of such unsung but essential arts as the proper loading of keelboats and pirogues.

Accompanied by this redoubtable volunteer and a fellow trader named Nicholas Jarrot, Meriwether Lewis crossed the Mississippi on December 8 to call on Carlos Delassus. From the water the city presented a deceptively fine appearance. Three streets, each about a mile long, ran parallel to the river along the top of a low bluff of yellowish limestone—an important bluff since it resisted erosion by the Mississippi and collected at its base a sandbar on which keelboats could be loaded and unloaded. About two hundred houses, together with their outbuildings, were scattered along the streets. Most were constructed of squared logs eight feet tall set on end and chinked with mud, French fashion, rather than laid horizontally as American log cabins were. The larger dwellings, often built of stone and two stories high, were shaded on two or more sides by wide galleries; kitchen gardens and fruit trees occupied the cluttered areas in the rear. Nearly all buildings, large or small, gleamed with whitewash.

Long years since, the inhabitants had hewn steep troughs into the bluff so that carts and wagons could reach the sandbar. One of the streets, called Tour, continued across the parallel thoroughfares to the top of a second bluff, on which stood a round stone fort built in 1780 to repel a British attack that never came. In 1803 it housed St. Louis's small contingent of troops. The other street, called Bonhomme, led Lewis and his companions up to the Rue Principale, later called Main Street. The government house, where Delassus lived and worked, stood there.

Delassus's round, balding pate was fringed with curly white hair. He had a wide mouth in a round face. Behind his small, wire-rimmed spectacles his eyes, too, looked round. He wore a starched, stand-up collar decorated with a bow tie. Beneath the cherubic appearance lurked a quick temper. According to Lewis, writing Jefferson on December 28, 1803, the lieutenant governor frequently popped some of the wealthiest of his citizens into the "Carrabose" for the slightest of offenses. "This has produced a general dread of him among all classes of people." [3]

After looking at the identifications Lewis offered, the governor asked testily, through the interpreters, why the American did not have a passport from the Spanish minister in Washington. Lewis was prepared for that. Inasmuch as Spain had sold Louisiana to France some time since, he said suavely, he had expected to find French officials installed in St. Louis; therefore he had supposed his French passport would suffice. Moreover, he added, he had been informed while on his way West that the United States had purchased the territory from Napoleon.

Delassus granted that those things might be so. (Word of the Louisiana Purchase had, in fact, reached St. Louis the preceding August.) But since no instructions had come to him from Spanish sources, he could not allow undocumented foreigners to enter the interior provinces. He promised, however, to write his superiors in New Orleans. Meanwhile, Lewis should return to Cahokia and wait there (if he persisted in going ahead) until a reply arrived. [4]

Lewis would rather have pressed a short distance up the Missouri, but this was not a time to stand on his rights, especially since he hoped to spend much of the winter interviewing knowledgeable sources in St. Louis. Amiably he said that of course his party would stay east of the Mississippi—not at Cahokia, though he might make his own headquarters there, but at a place already recommended by Mr. Hay. This was the mouth of the small Riviêre du Bois (Americanized to Wood River) which ran into the Mississippi directly across from the mouth of the Missouri. The site lay eighteen miles above St. Louis, far enough so that his recruits would not be distracted by the temptations of the town. There they could be drilled and disciplined for what lay ahead.

Delassus, who was interested in protecting his own flanks from attack when administrations changed, agreed to the quid pro quo and even invited the visitors to spend the evening at his home. The next day the trio returned to Cahokia. Clark was waiting there, the keelboat and the two pirogues showing signs of the violent wind and rains they had encountered on the way upstream. [5] The captains swapped accounts of their experiences and talked late into the night, reviewing plans.

The division of responsibilities they worked out was all but preordained by their natures. Clark, the frontiersman, would build the winter camp at Wood River, collect and pack the supplies that came in, train the men, and ready the boats for a spring start. Lewis, the more socially and politically trained of the two, would seek out men who could give him the kinds of information about Upper Louisiana that Jefferson needed for executing his Indian removal plan and that the expedition would require for carrying out its multitude of assignments. The pattern was not rigid, however. Now and then during the coming months the captains would exchange places, Lewis going to the camp and Clark to St. Louis, so that each could become familiar with the entire scene.

Delassus kept his part of the bargain. When Antoine Soulard, the surveyor general of Upper Louisiana, declined, out of fear of the governor, to let Lewis copy the maps and census figures in his office, Delassus cleared the way with a note of permission. [6] Later, after Lewis had won the cooperation of the town's leading merchants and traders, René Auguste Chouteau and his younger half-brother, Jean Pierre Chouteau, the influx of material swelled to a flood.

Lewis sifted it first for information relevant to Jefferson's plan of resettling Upper Louisiana's non-Indian residents somewhere in the East, in order to turn the West into a vast Indian reservation. To this end he collected statistics about the region's handful of Spanish, the deeply entrenched French, the inpouring Americans, and the numerous blacks, both free and enslaved. He sent questionnaires to leading residents about land holding and land use patterns, about the underpinnings of the economy, and about exploitable natural resources.

Did he really believe that a population he estimated at 10,000 including 2,000 slaves and 5,500 American frontiersmen could be shuffled around at will—to say nothing of the Indians? He assured Jefferson that he did. Yet he also seemed to think the process would take a long time, for he suggested that during the radical change-over Upper Louisiana should be divided into three counties and attached to Indiana Territory for the sake of orderly government.

(In the end neither plan was adopted. What eventually happened was the herding, against their will, of Eastern and Southern Indians far enough west not to be a burden, at least for a while, to white settlers. Very few whites were ever relocated during this cruel offspring of Jefferson's original plan.)

While gathering these statistics, Lewis stayed alert to his own needs. The moment the whites took over the territory, it would become his and Clark's duty to impress awareness of the change on as many Indian and foreign traders as they could reach during their ascent of the Missouri River. They had to know what to expect. Exactly where and how did the Missouri turn and twist on its way from the mountains? What sequence of tribes lived along its banks? What alliances existed among them? What enmities? By what routes did traders bring merchandise to them, and how did the Indians respond to those traders? Could they develop a program for turning the Indians away from their old purveyors toward the traders of the United States?

Lewis's probings brought him maps, journals, and gossip from many sources—from President Jefferson and Governor Harrison of Indiana Territory, who mailed him material they had picked up from sources of their own; from Surveyor General Antoine Soulard; from John Hay and the Chouteau brothers; from the dean of the Missouri River traders, James Mackay; and from no one knows how many now-anonymous, semiliterate but shrewdly informed rivermen. [7]

James Mackay soon came to embody, in their minds, the essence of these diffuse sources. The trader visited the Wood River camp on January 10, 1804, and personally handed Clark a packet of documents the captains later carried up the river. Almost as valuable as the papers was a flood of oral data that Clark did not record in his journal, but that he certainly recorded in his orderly mind. Lewis, too, might have met Mackay. An opportunity to do so came late in February or early in March when Clark and he rode with Pierre Chouteau and other influential residents of St. Louis to the St. Charles district beside the lower Missouri, where Mackay lived. There the visitors halted a Kickapoo war party bent on attacking an Osage village farther upstream. [8] From this experience in wilderness diplomacy and from stories of other adventures Mackay may well have told both at Wood River and St. Charles, the captains learned much about the sort of problems they were likely to face along the river—a river not nearly as unknown in the West as they had supposed. [9]

The difficulties of which their informants made much had begun in the fall of 1792, eleven years before, when a naturalized Spanish subject, Jacques D'Église (the Spaniards called him Santiago Leglise), arrived in town with a small, gaunt crew, a meager invoice of pelts, and a cargo of tales that astounded and alarmed Delassus's predecessor, Lieutenant Governor Zenon Trudeau. The trader said he had discovered, far up the Missouri, two related tribes of Indians hitherto unknown to the Spanish. They were the Hidatsas and the Mandans. About five thousand of them, by his estimate, lived in eight or so villages of dome-shaped, earth-covered houses scattered for nearly a dozen miles along the Missouri, both above and below the point where the Knife River flooded into it, in what is now the west-central part of North Dakota.

This was Spanish territory. Nevertheless, an old Canadian, Pierre Ménard, lived in one of the earthen towns, as thoroughgoing an Indian in his ways as the Mandans. Other Canadians on occasion came south from their posts beside the Assiniboine and Red rivers (in today's Manitoba) to trade for horses, corn, buffalo robes, wolf skins, and beaver pelts. Moreover, D'Église added, many of the horses in the Indian villages bore Spanish brands, and he had seen Spanish bridles in some of the lodges. Clearly they had come from New Mexico. What then was to prevent English soldiers from following British-Canadian traders to the earthen villages and afterwards continuing along the trail of the Spanish traders to the silver mines of Mexico?

Actually, D'Église had touched on a more complex system of barter than he or Trudeau realized. The Mandan-Hidatsa contact with distant New Mexico was not direct but through a chain of tribes that ranged across the central and southern section of the Great Plains. Those tribes acquired many horses but little armament from the New Mexicans, who did not want European weapons in the hands of the Indians. By contrast, the tribes of the northern plains were fairly well equipped with armament brought them in canoes by British-Canadian traders, who seldom used horses. Northern guns for southern horses and vice versa: it was a trade flow that the Mandans and Hidatsas were well fitted by geography for expediting as middlemen. This far-flung exchange was what D'Église had glimpsed without comprehending it.

D'Église asked for a trading monopoly among the Indians he had "discovered." When it was refused, he found a partner with a little capital, Joseph Garreau, filled two pirogues with goods, and toiled dreadfully back upstream. This time he was blocked by Arikaras (or perhaps Sioux; records are not clear) in what is now the north-central part of South Dakota. They roughed him up a bit, took some of his goods, and paid miserly amounts for more to use in their own dealings. What little was left, Garreau, "inspired by a troublesome and wanton spirit, used . . . for other purposes than those for which they were intended." That is, he had found one or more young women with whom he wished to exchange pleasures. Or so his senior partner reported when he returned to St. Louis in quest of more merchandise and, he hoped, favorable reconsideration of his request for a monopoly.

He simply did not pack enough weight. Lieutenant Governor Trudeau had already written his superior in New Orleans, Baron Francisco Carondolet, that the best hope of keeping the British away from Mexico was to grant the monopoly to a trading company capable of stringing a series of forts along the Missouri and on to the Pacific. The forts would not be primarily for garrisoning soldiers but for housing traders whose goods and good will would wean the Indians from the British merchants and thus cool their desire to move on south. Governor Carondolet not only approved the plan but in addition promised a prize of two thousand pesos to whoever brought back from one of the Russian posts on the distant coast a letter, written in Russian, that said the crossing had been completed. Later he raised the prize to three thousand pesos, which apparently was all the public money Spain was able to afford for a wilderness riposte against the hated British.

The monopoly that resulted was called La Compagne de Commerce pour la Decouverte des Nations du haut du Missouri, generally clipped in everyday usage to the Missouri Company. As field manager the investors hired Jean Baptiste Truteau. He may have been a relative of Governor Trudeau who, for some reason, spelled the last part of his surname with a t instead of a d. For the time and place he was well educated. He had been St. Louis's first schoolteacher, and he had also traded with the Indians along the Des Moines River in Iowa.

In June 1794, Truteau started up the Missouri in two pirogues loaded with goods that cost the company 46,747 pesos. His instructions were explicit. If necessary, he could use half his merchandise to bribe his way past any piratical tribe that tried to stop him; this would be "onerous, but it is proper to make some sacrifice to attain success." On reaching Mandan territory, he was to build, as his headquarters, an English-style log cabin (horizontal logs rather than upright ones) and try to learn, while conducting his trade, the geographic truths about the Rocky Mountains, the Indians that lived on their far side, and the rivers that flowed westward. Above all he should dilute British influence among the Mandans by telling them about the great chief of the Spaniards, "the protector and friend of all red men, who loves the beautiful land, free roads [that is, an open river], and the serene sky." [10] Reinforcements whose duty would be to push on to the Pacific would follow him upstream the next year, 1795.

Alas for plans. The Sioux delayed Truteau so long he could not possibly reach the Mandans before the river froze. To escape his tormentors, he slipped back downstream to an uninhabited stretch of the river valley, where he built a crude winter hut. The Mahas, or Omahas, led by their villainous chief, Parajo Negro (Blackbird), discovered him there and heaped on more indignities. He survived and spent another year roaming the edges of the plains without ever reaching the Mandans. During those wanderings he kept a journal describing the country and people he saw. He bewailed the second-rate goods that had been given him, the high prices he was supposed to charge, and the low esteem in which Spaniards were held because of the violence and licentiousness of their voyageurs, most of whom were French-Canadians. He declared wisely that exploration and commerce did not fit well together, a point that must have interested Lewis and Clark when his journal fell into their hands at about the time Mackay was telling these stories.

In May 1795, while Truteau was still being bullied by Blackbird, his first reinforcement party started up the Missouri with goods worth 96,779 pesos. Their leader is known now simply as Lécuyer. His orders were to join Truteau at the Mandan villages and then continue to the Pacific. In the event, he bogged down among the Poncas in northeastern Nebraska—a total fiasco. The Missouri and its Indians, Lewis and Clark were soberly realizing, were an enormous obstacle.

Before word of Lécuyer's collapse reached St. Louis, the stockholders in the Missouri Company prepared, for launching in August 1795, what was to be the culminating thrust of their westward drive. They loaded four pirogues with a reputed two hundred thousand pesos' worth of merchandise. One pirogue carried placating gifts for the Sioux, "whom it is necessary to flatter in order not to risk being beheaded," one for the Arikaras, one for the Mandans, and the fourth for the still unknown tribes of the Rockies and on beyond to the Pacific.

The commander of the expedition, James Mackay, was carefully chosen. He had emigrated from Scotland to Canada at about the time of the American Revolution and had found employment with the North West Company. For a time he was stationed at Fort Espérance near the junction, in today's Saskatchewan, of the Qu'Appelle and Assiniboine rivers. In 1787 he took a few men and a dab of merchandise due south to the Mandan towns. The arrival of white men was still a novelty then, and the Indians, in their excitement, hoisted the visitors onto buffalo robes and paraded them into the village. They stayed ten days. What Mackay collected other than bits of information is unknown.

It is not known, either, why he left Canada for St. Louis and became a naturalized subject of Spain. The reputation he achieved there as a trader was such that the Missouri Company not only agreed to pay him four hundred pesos a year to lead this climactic expedition, but also granted him a share of the profits.

The man Mackay employed as his second-in-command is next to unbelievable. He was John Thomas Evans, aged twenty-five, recently arrived in St. Louis from Wales in quest of a lost group of Welshmen. Pure fable. A standard item of Welsh lore declared that a certain Prince Madoc had led ten shiploads of colonists to America in 1170. They had vanished into the interior. Perhaps they had maintained themselves through the centuries as Christians, or they had lapsed into savagery, though still white of skin. Whatever the truth, they clearly needed redeeming. Given a pittance of seed money by a group of true believers in Wales, Evans made his way west, supporting himself with such jobs as turned up. In St. Louis his hopes leaped when he heard that the Mandans were unusually light-skinned. The lost Welshmen! He also learned that a band of traders under James Mackay was preparing to visit them. Evans promptly asked to go along as one of the thirty-three hands.

Mackay was reasonably sure that no Welsh blood flowed in the veins of any Mandan he had seen, but Evans was husky and, of greater importance, powerfully motivated. He signed him on not as an ordinary voyageur, but as a first mate of sorts. Inasmuch as there was no possibility of reaching the Mandan towns ahead of winter—not with an August start—Mackay halted in northeastern Nebraska, several miles above the mouth of the Platte, close to Blackbird's Omahas; there he built a post he named Fort Charles, after King Carlos IV of Spain.

It was a strategic spot. So that those who followed him could make the most of it he set about establishing sound working relations with the local tribes, which meant outfacing Blackbird. He also wanted reports on the land ahead. To that end he sent young John Evans up the frozen river with a small group of chosen hands. The explorers departed in February 1796. If they were lucky, they were mounted on horses obtained from either the Omahas or the Otos, who resided a little farther south. Horses were expensive, however, and they may well have walked, with only a packhorse or two along for carrying their gear. Whatever the means, they covered some eighty leagues and had reached the mouth of the White River, near today's Chamberlain, South Dakota, when a party of Sioux Indians discovered them. Cat-and-mouse for four days. Then a blizzard whooped across the plains. The whites escaped under its cover and hurried back to Fort Charles. Those Sioux had made it clear that they did not want St. Louis traders cutting in on the commerce they had developed with British interests to the northeast. If Mackay's group hoped to navigate the upper river, they'd better start smoothing the way now—one more item for Lewis and Clark to remember.

Mackay had not yet completed all he wanted to do in the Fort Charles area. Moreover, according to Blackbird, British goods were reaching the river not only through Indian middlemen but directly. British traders with packhorses, so the chief said, had gone up the Platte the year before, and more merchants were gathering on the St. Peters (Minnesota) River for a push southwestward toward the Sioux and Arikara. If true, and Evans's experience made it seem so, this was a serious trespass on Spanish territory. For the sake of the company's trade Mackay wanted to turn it back. This meant that Evans, for whom Mackay had developed considerable respect, would have to press on upriver with a few men, get in touch with Truteau at the Mandan towns, and work out means of continuing to the Western ocean.

Indian messengers invited the principal Sioux chiefs to the Omaha villages for a conference. Mackay greased palms, swore undying brotherhood, and argued that in due time his company would be better able than the British to send them whatever items they most desired. They thought it over. Mackay had an impressive assortment of merchandise on display in Fort Charles and he himself was clearly a cut above the other St. Louis traders they had seen. Very well. They would let a small party carrying a few bundles of goods go through. With that Evans loaded a pirogue and on June 8 started upstream. Quite probably some of his men, including his interpreter, had visited the Mandans with James Mackay in 1787 and then, like him, had chosen to leave Canada for Louisiana. [11]

The party spent two months covering the seven hundred miles to the Arikara villages. [12] They had to live off the country as they went, and undoubtedly they stopped to give a sales talk to every Indian band that showed the least signs of friendliness. Evans, moreover, was making a detailed map of the river that he anticipated would be useful not only for the Missouri Company but also for his countrymen when they followed him West to rescue the Welsh Indians. The Arikaras delayed him for six weeks, but after that progress quickened, and he reached the Mandan towns on September 23, 1796. By that time his map covered seven separate, long sheets. There is no evidence that he ever saw Jean Baptiste Truteau, who may have dropped in on the Arikaras earlier that summer but who had then grown discouraged and returned to St. Louis.

What Evans did find, between a Hidatsa and a Mandan village and about three miles below the mouth of the Knife River, was a "small fort and a hut." Unoccupied at the time, the buildings had been erected two years earlier by a party led to the site by René Jessaume, a rascally trader associated with the North West Company. Appropriating the habitation, Evans ran up a Spanish flag. The act of defiance helped soothe his bitter disappointment: there was nothing about the Mandan Indians to make him suppose they had ever been related to Prince Madoc's legendary Welsh colonists. [13]

No Truteau was around to help point him toward the Pacific. Working on his own, he found the width of the Missouri to be a hefty thirty-two hundred feet and decided its source must be much farther west than had hitherto been imagined. He heard, possibly from old Pierre Ménard, a far wanderer, of the Yellowstone River and of the Missouri's Great Falls, a little west of the central part of today's Montana. Most surprising was the glimmer that came to him about the Rockies. Apparently they were made up not of one ridge, as shown on Arrowsmith's map, but of four or five parallel chains. The Missouri, his informant indicated, headed among them far to the south and then ran north between two of the ridges before breaking out of the mountains, perhaps at the Great Falls. [14] There is no indication that he pictured those ridges as being anything more than normal hills such as he had seen when traveling through Pennsylvania on his way to St. Louis.

He estimated by dead reckoning how far west he had come from the Missouri city, whose longitude he knew. From this he deduced that the Mandan villages were located at 107°48' west of Greenwich, England. (Mackay, basing his estimates on his 1787 trip, had come up with 110°–111°.) Actually the Mandan villages lay at 101°27'. Since degrees of longitude are separated, at that latitude, by about 41 miles, Evans placed the towns roughly 260 miles (and Mackay 370 miles) too far west. These figures led Evans to believe he was closer to the Pacific than was actually the case.

He was never able to test the theory. René Jessaume, the fort builder, showed up with a party of Canadian traders. Evans brusquely ordered them off: this was Spanish land. Angered but not wishing to embroil their principals in an international incident, they withdrew. After a few stiffly polite letters had been carried back and forth by Indian messengers, Jessaume reappeared. According to Evans, the Canadian tried to hire a few Mandans to violate the tribe's deeply felt laws of hospitality by killing their guest. The chiefs, discovering the plot, "shuddered at the thought of such a horrid Design and came and informed me of the whole." Jessaume then decided to do the work himself and "came to my house with a number of his Men, and seizing the moment that my Back was turned to him, tried to discharge a Pistol at my head loaded with Deer Shot but my interpreter having perceived his design hindered the Execution—the Indians immediately dragged him out of my house and would have killed him, had not I prevented them." [15]

Pyrrhic victory. The Canadian companies decided that no one really knew which side of the international boundary the villages were on and that they could drive Evans away with a flood of cheap goods. This they proceeded to do. Later that year, the North West Company sent its great astronomer, David Thompson, to the Missouri to determine the exact location of the towns. They were indeed in Spanish territory, but by then the point was moot. Evans had given up and had gone back down the river. At Fort Charles he discovered that Mackay too had decided that carrying out the Missouri Company's plans was not worth the risk and labor involved, and had gone to St. Louis to tell the investors so. He had arrived there in May 1797; Evans followed in July.

Thus Lewis and Clark learned, with more than a little somberness, that Spain's only determined effort to reach the Pacific, with an expedition larger than and as well financed as theirs, had ended in failure. Could they do any better?

When collated, the maps, journals, and oral accounts obtained in St. Louis and at Camp Wood gave the trail blazers a remarkably full directory of the many tribes that inhabited the banks of the Missouri as far north as the Mandan and Hidatsa towns. [16] They knew which groups were powerful enough to require special attention, which might be helpful, and which dangerous. From this emerged a more comprehensive understanding of the preparations that would have to be completed before the corps's departure in the spring. The physical side of the task fell to William Clark under circumstances that were, to state it mildly, taxing.

Immediately after reaching the mouth of the Wood River on December 12, 1803, he had put his men to work clearing a site for the camp on the south bank of the little stream. [17] That done, they had chopped down trees and cut them into logs for eight or nine cabins, including one for Clark. The men also hauled the unwieldy keelboat partway up the bank and stabilized it with wedges against the fluctuations of the rivers. More heavy ax work was required to break a road about a mile and a half long through the timbered bottomland to an adjacent prairie so that supplies could be brought in by wagon from nearby farms and from Cahokia, for floating ice in the Mississippi would make the river route unusable much of the time. Fat turkeys, grouse, opossums, rabbits, and occasional deer furnished the basis of the meals turned out by soldiers assigned to do the camp cooking.

Though formal drilling is almost never mentioned in the records, Clark, as a seasoned professional, may well have believed that routine parade-ground maneuvers were necessary for knitting the group into a team. Periodic breaches of discipline—drunkenness, insubordination, absence without leave, and fighting whether for sheer joy or for proving one's manhood—were often followed by courts-martial, their members chosen from the ranks by Clark, that at times decreed floggings for the culprits. At other times Clark was more ingenious: when privates John Potts and William Werner got into a bloody fistfight, he had them work off their excess energy by building a cabin for a local woman who had offered to serve as the camp laundress. [18] On the positive side he rewarded good shooting and commendable actions during duty with extra rations of grog. He also put up prize money, generally a dollar, for the winners of shooting matches with local "countrymen," as he called their civilian neighbors. The troopers generally won.

On December 16 George Drouillard arrived with the eight men he had been directed to bring in from South West Point, Tennessee. It had been a fast trip and since he was not an army man he had controlled his charges with the strength of his character and, on occasion perhaps, with his bare knuckles. They were not a choice bunch. Lewis, disappointed that none was a hunter, interviewed them carefully, found only four suitable, and asked Clark to check the decisions. Clark concurred entirely. Meanwhile they again urged Drouillard, who had been on temporary assignment while shepherding the men, to join the expedition as hunter and interpreter for the standard pay of twenty-five dollars a month. After wavering for a time he agreed, provided he was given time to straighten out his personal affairs. The request granted, he disappeared from the records until the following May. He and York were the only nonmilitary persons to travel the entire distance from St. Louis to the Pacific and back.

On January 9, while hiking through snow squalls to examine a nearby Indian mound, Clark broke through the ice of a slough. On returning to camp he found his feet frozen into his shoes, "which rendered precautions necessary to prevent frost bite." By the next day—the day he welcomed James Mackay to the camp—he was very ill. He blamed the indisposition on his wetting and the "excessive cold." Probably, though, it was a flare-up of his familiar digestive disorders, for he kept complaining about being sick for a month and eventually tried to cure himself with pills made from walnut bark, an ancient folk remedy. Throughout much of this time the thermometer never rose above freezing. Yet Clark could write on January 25 in his field notes, "a verry Clear mone Shiney night . . . Trees and small groth ar Gilded with ice from the frost of last night, which affords one of the most magnificent appearances in nature, the river began smoking at 8 o'Clock and the thermometer stood at 2° below 0." [19]

He kept himself busy practicing with the astronomical instruments Lewis had left with him, and recording meteorological data—wind, snowfall, ice conditions in the river, temperatures, and so on. He also worked hard at things he could do inside his cabin. He drew plans for reconstructing the keelboat and began making a map of the lower Missouri, using material gleaned from Mackay and, presumably, from notes sent him by Lewis. He also tried to read the future. How much time would reaching the Pacific require? How many men; how many boats?

On January 20 he began estimating distances. Using Evans's and Mackay's charts and perhaps their notes as well, he came within six percent of accuracy in gauging the miles from Camp Wood to the Mandan villages—fifteen hundred miles instead of the correct sixteen hundred. But as a guideline for the stretch from the villages to the ocean he used the King and Arrowsmith maps he and Lewis had brought with them. One reason for the choice may be that he felt sure David Thompson's instrument readings for the Mandans' location, as shown on the Arrowsmith-King charts, were reliable, whereas the Evans dead-reckoning estimates contained too much room for error. On top of that was the force of tradition. The King map showed the main branch of the Missouri running almost due west from the villages; Evans's map, by contrast, showed a long dip to the south, and theoretical geography allowed for no such aberration. The Missouri, as shown by King, also allowed for a direct, short portage to a presumed south fork of the Columbia. That Clark was thinking, in his estimates, of a very short, traditional portage across the "Rock Mountains," as he called them, is indicated by his failure to allow extra time for surmounting the divide. [20]

Using a distance of 41 miles between parallels of longitude and allowing generously for windings in the rivers, he came up with 1,550 miles from the Mandan towns to the Pacific. (The actual distance the expedition traveled turned out to be, for that stretch, 2,550 miles.) On the basis of these estimates, he figured that if the party left Camp Wood on May 1 and traveled 12 miles a day, it would reach the foot of the mountains about September 5. A rate of 10 miles a day, which took into consideration pauses for Indian councils, would bring the expedition to the Rockies late in September. In either event, the explorers would camp at the headwaters of the Missouri throughout the winter. Then they would cross the Rock Mountains on Indian horses if possible, make new dugouts, and triumphantly gain the ocean by early summer, 1805.

His concept of the party's size wavered between twenty-five and fifty men. "Those numbers will Depend on the probabillity of an oppisition from roving parties of Bad Indians, which it is probable may be in the [name blotted] R." One suspects the "R" he was thinking of was the Bad River in central South Dakota, where the most belligerent band of the Sioux tribe often sought to assert their dominance over any trade moving along the Missouri. If the number of men needed to challenge them rose, so would the number of craft needed for transportation—perhaps as many as three: the keelboat and two pirogues. Clearly the idea of a dozen men skimping along on the twenty-five hundred dollars authorized by Congress had long since been abandoned.

Dissatisfied with the keelboat, he planned to reconstruct it, beginning with a single new mast thirty-two feet tall and jointed at the bottom so it could be lowered. He decided on twenty oars, ten to a side. [21] The rowers would occupy cramped quarters, each pair sitting elbow to elbow on benches three feet wide. Between them and the sides of the boats he would construct lockers 2 feet wide and 1½ feet deep. Their hinged tops could be raised in case of attack by Bad Indians. When the lids were lowered, they would form passe-avants from which the men could set their poles when propelling the craft by thrusting hard against the river bottom. About ten feet of the bow would be decked over to protect goods and perhaps a few beds from the weather. The high cabin in the stern, clearly shown in his working sketches, contained more lockers and was an inheritance from the original builder in Pittsburgh. A final bit of ingenuity was pure Clark: an awning held by three removable, fork-topped poles to protect the rowers from the sun.

The support boats were pirogues. One had six oars and was called the white; the other, of seven oars, was called the red. Whoever sat in the stern of the red pirogue would manipulate the seventh oar as a rudder. The boats may have been the ones Lewis had purchased in Pittsburgh and Wheeling to lighten his load while descending the Ohio. Or one may have come from Fort Kaskaskia. Or both may have been purchased in St. Louis. There is no way of telling, though several people have tried.

At the end of January 1804, Lewis put in his first appearance at the camp, accompanied by John Hay and one of Hay's employees, to talk over developments. Realizing quickly that Clark needed a rest, Lewis suggested they change places for a few weeks, and on February 9 or thereabouts, the older of the two leaders went downriver to St. Louis. He walked into a highly pleasant situation created by Lewis with the adroit cooperation of the town's social leaders René Auguste Chouteau, then fifty-five, and his half-brother, Jean Pierre Chouteau, nine years younger.

Though René Auguste had helped found the city in 1764, when he was fourteen, and Pierre had begun trading with the Osage Indians in the 1780s, they were not pioneers in the American sense, but were urban gentlemen of grace and polish. Like the other prominent French inhabitants of the town, they lived in imposing stone houses with polished wooden floors, elegantly crafted furniture, fine china and silverware. They sent their children to Montreal or Quebec or sometimes to France for a few years of schooling. Their dinners, Captain Amos Stoddard wrote, were "sumptuous . . . almost every sort of food dressed in all manner of ways . . . the best wines and other liquors." The women were pretty and danced well, although, in Stoddard's opinion, somewhat theatrically. [22]

As handlers of most of the furs brought out of the interior and as owners of prosperous farms, a gristmill, and a distillery, the Chouteaus were the dominant economic, political, and social figures of St. Louis. Wary even before the Louisiana Purchase of the bumptious Americans who were elbowing across the Mississippi, they were profoundly shocked when word arrived from Governor Harrison of Indiana Territory that the United States had acquired the trans-Mississippi region. But they, and most of the other leading traders of the city, were too intelligent simply to withdraw and sulk. Eager to maintain their positions under the new government, they had welcomed Lewis effusively and they were equally considerate of Clark. Quite naturally but not very diplomatically, the American officers responded with a favoritism for the Chouteaus that created cankering jealousies among their rival traders.

Clark stayed busy while his health mended. With Chouteau's help, he distributed a long questionnaire designed to elicit detailed information about the characteristics of the Western Indians: their traditions, warfare, hunting and farming practices, medicines, morals, amusements, and so on—a list originally drawn up the year before for Lewis by Dr. Benjamin Rush and his other tutors, in Philadelphia. [23] And Clark, apparently, was the one who opened negotiations with Pierre Chouteau about escorting a delegation of Osage chiefs to Washington to visit the president.

Punctilious about outward forms, however much he might contrive in private, Jefferson had refrained from meddling with the Indians of Louisiana until the physical transfer of the territories was completed in both New Orleans and St. Louis. As soon as he learned by special courier that the New Orleans formalities were ended and that those in St. Louis would soon begin, he rushed word to Lewis to start advising the Western Indians of the change of sovereignty and to discuss with them the establishment of government trading posts in their country. Implicit in the letter was a charge given Lewis in the first set of instructions handed him shortly before his departure from Washington: "If a few of their influential chiefs, within practicable distance, wish to visit us, arrange such a visit . . . at the public expense. . . . If any of them should wish to have some of their young people brought up with us, & taught such arts as may be useful to them, we will receive, instruct, and take care of them." [24]

The practice of taking Indians to the seat of government so they would be impressed with the might of the whites was almost as old as the New World. In 1804 the long-tested strategy seemed particularly important in dealing with the Indians of Louisiana. Most of them had scarcely heard of the United States. Many a chief considered himself more powerful than the cowering Spaniards who came to his people begging for trade; the only rivals they worried about were other natives desirous of contending with them for control of the commerce that trickled up the rivers and across the plains. Jefferson mentioned the Sioux as a nation on which he hoped the explorers would make an especially strong and friendly impression, a directive that would have, as we shall see, almost fatal consequences.

For the time being, however, the Sioux were out of reach. Closer by were the Osages, about five thousand of them, most of them living in what is now southwestern Missouri and northeastern Oklahoma. The Chouteaus exerted a persuasive influence over the tribe, and when the American captains suggested that certain chiefs be selected for a pilgrimage to Washington, Pierre jumped at the chance—provided his role was kept secret lest this new evidence of partiality make his St. Louis rivals more jealous than they already were. [25]

Before the Washington visit could be arranged, a new excitement arose—the ceremonies transferring Upper Louisiana to the United States. By means of a letter dated New Orleans, January 12, 1804, Napoleon's representative in charge of the transfers, Pierre Clement de Laussat, had written Captain Amos Stoddard at Fort Kaskaskia, appointing him the French representative to receive the territory from Governor Delassus. Laussat also named Meriwether Lewis, Antoine Soulard, the surveyor general, and the trader Charles Gratiot, a brother-in-law of the Chouteaus, to witness the correctness of the ceremonies. Stoddard in turn wrote both Delassus and Lewis from Fort Kaskaskia on February 18, saying he would shortly dispatch a contingent of troops under Lieutenant Stephen Worrell upstream to Cahokia by boat and that he would cross the river on or about the 24th to confer with Delassus about details.

The letter prompted Lewis to make arrangements for leaving Camp Wood. He placed command in the hands of John Ordway, who had been a sergeant at the time he volunteered to join the expedition. He named twenty-year-old Charles Floyd, son of a friend of the Clark family and, in Lewis's words, "a young man of merit," to be Ordway's assistant. To give Floyd weight in the eyes of the somewhat older and considerably more obstreperous troopers, he raised the young man to a sergeant's rank.

By the 24th of February, both Lewis and Stoddard were in St. Louis. Delassus, completely gracious now, entertained them, along with Clark and many of the town's leading socialites, at a regal banquet in Government House. On the 29th, the American troops necessary for lending stature to the occasion landed at Cahokia. And there they stayed, immobilized by clots of ice along the Illinois shore.

Nervous about affairs at Camp Wood, Lewis hurried back. (How he crossed the river that chained Stoddard's troops does not appear.) He found his sergeants frantic with frustration. Reuben Field had refused to stand guard when his turn came, and John Shields had backed the insubordination. John Colter, John Boley, John Robertson, and Peter Wiser had visited a local grogshop in defiance of orders.

A grim Lewis ordered the entire contingent to attention in the camp compound while he excoriated the delinquents for failing to measure up to the opportunity that was being presented to them. He outlined the importance of the expedition, said that there would be times when neither Clark nor he could be in camp, and warned that on such occasions the directives of duly appointed sergeants had the same authority as the captains'. He then confined the offenders to the camp area for the next ten days. [26] On March 3, after keeping the kind of eye on affairs that made the troopers squirm, he returned to St. Louis to attend to his duties there.

Gradually the ice that had immobilized the soldiers at Cahokia began to thin. Allowing a safe margin of time for further improvement, the men in charge of the two-day ceremony scheduled the first event, the transfer of the territory from Spain to France, for noon, March 9, 1804. On the dot of the hour, the dignitaries who had taken position in Government House stepped outside, resplendent in dress uniforms or impeccable black civilian garb—Delassus, Soulard, Gratiot; Stoddard, Lewis, and Lieutenant Stephen Worrell. If Worrell's soldiers were in St. Louis at all, they kept a low profile; tomorrow would be their day. And nothing is said anywhere about Clark, though he was certainly in attendance.

A Spanish soldier stationed on the Government House second-floor veranda leaned out and waved his hat as a signal to a sentry watching from the tower-fort at the top end of Rue Tour. Orders rang out, drums rolled, and Spanish infantrymen in parade dress with knapsacks on their backs marched double time down the street. Silence fell on the close-pressed crowd of French Creoles, many in tears, on lounging American newcomers, on staring Indians, on roughly clad rivermen and field hands, and on the numerous blacks, who, being slaves, were the lowliest of all. The Spanish sergeant barked his men into line and snapped for shoulder arms. The officers drew their swords. Drums rolled again, then stopped. The governor made a farewell speech in French and Spanish. Gratiot translated it into English. Stoddard, acting for the moment as an agent for Napoleonic France, answered formally, and again Gratiot interpreted. Papers changed hands; the Spanish flag slowly sank from the staff in front of Government House. As Stoddard received it, the battery in the stone fort on the hill fired eleven salutes. The dignitaries vanished inside the house, and the crowd slowly dispersed, uncertain of their own emotions. [27]

That night Delassus was host at a lavish public dinner and ball in Government House. The next morning, March 10, the same crowd gathered for the symbolic ceremony transferring French Louisiana to the United States. Worrell's troops landed below the bluff and marched up Bonhomme Street (now Walnut) to stand at attention where the Spanish soldiers had stood the day before. At 10:00 A.M. the same officials, with Clark added this time, stepped outside, Stoddard carrying the Stars and Stripes. Meriwether Lewis and his fellow witnesses stepped forward to testify to the actuality of the transfer, and the little cannon up on the hill boomed out another series of salutes.

Upper Louisiana was now legally American. As soon as travel was possible, the Corps of Discovery, its status long anomalous, could openly enter the lands of the West. Both Lewis, who was sometimes a prey to his emotions, and the more placid Clark must have keenly felt the impact of the moment. From now on every move they made would be imbued with the full majesty of their nation. With that must have come a new sense of dignity and a heightened determination not to fail. Yet neither of them, as far as is known, ever left a written word about their reactions to that magic moment.


1. On December 19, 1803, Lewis wrote Jefferson that during his pause at Kaskaskia he had filled the expedition's roster. He was including the seven-man crew of the supply boat when he said that. (Actually, the boat crew lifted the count to twenty-six.) Jackson, Letters, 142, 145. (back)
2. Ibid., 155. Innis, 254–55, outlines the travels of a trader named John Hay through the borderlands between central Canada and the United States in 1794–95. I suspect this is the same John Hay Lewis met in Cahokia. In any event, the Hay of Cahokia was able to make valuable corrections to that part of King's map depicting the regions west and northwest of the Mississippi's headwaters. (back)
3. Jackson, Letters, 151. (back)
4. Ibid., 142–43, 145–47. (back)
5. Ibid., 147. Quaife, 63. (back)
6. Jackson, Letters, 150–51. (back)
7. Ibid., 148–55. (back)
8. Osgood, Field Notes, 28. (back)
9. My summary of events on the Missouri River preceding the arrival of Lewis and Clark in St. Louis rests on four works by the indefatigable Abraham P. Nasatir, two by Abel, and one each by Houck (vol. II) and Williams. See bibliography for titles. See also Quaife, 186ff.: Ewers, "Indian Trade"; scattered references in Wood and Thiessen (consult index under "Evans," "Mackay," "Menard," "Jessaume," "Truteau," "Mandans"); and DeVoto, Course, 355–79. (back)
10. Houck, II, 171. (back)
11. Wood and Thiessen, 50. (back)
12. DeVoto, Course, calls this "a lot of time." Lewis and Clark, however, spent about ten days more on the same stretch. (back)
13. For Clark on Evans's sad realization: Jackson, Letters, II, 515. (back)
14. For Evans's map: Allen, 143. For Ménard's wanderings: Wood and Thiessen, 30, 44–45. (back)
15. Quaife, 197. (back)
16. Scholars have spent years trying to determine just what maps Lewis and Clark drew on in St. Louis—a subject too complex to detail in my narrative. To pursue the matter further, start with Diller, Friis, and Allen, 68, 73—180. Evans died before Lewis and Clark reached St. Louis, but much of his material may have fallen into Hay's hands and have been passed on by him. (Osgood, Field Notes, 16; Jackson, Letters, 156–57.) For a fine summary incorporating the latest speculation, Moulton, Journals, I, 6–7. (back)
17. "Because of subsequent changes in the channel of the Mississippi, this site is now on its west side.... The mouth of the Missouri has also shifted and is presently some [four miles] farther to the south." Appleman, 287–90, 366 n. 2. (back)
18. Osgood, Field Notes, under date January 3, 1804. (back)
19. Ibid., 16–27. Although Clark hardly sounds well in his field notes, he kept a stiff upper lip when writing his brother-in-law, William Grogan, on January 15. "I am in tolerable health.... My situation is as could be expected in the woods and on the frontier." (Jackson, Letters, 164.) (back)
20. Osgood, Field Notes, 21. Allen, 160–67. (back)
21. Biddle, 2, flatly states the keelboat had twenty-two oars. Clark's sketch of the boat clearly shows twenty. (Osgood, Field Notes, 37, 41.) Completely conclusive, it seems to me, is a mention of twenty oars by a Canadian trader, Charles McKenzie, who saw the keelboat at Fort Mandan. (Wood and Thiessen, 238.) (back)
22. For early St. Louis, the Chouteaus, and the transfer of flags see McDermott, Scharf, and Foley and Rice. (back)
23. Jackson, Letters, 157–61. (back)
24. Ibid., 64, 165–66. (back)
25. Ibid., 167–68. (back)
26. Dillon, 93–94. (back)
27. Details of this and the following transfer come from Scharf, 250ff., and articles by Shoemaker and McDermott. Legend attests that after the Spanish flag was lowered in St. Louis, the French tricolor replaced it briefly, as had happened in New Orleans. However, the tale did not pop up until 1876 and is open to doubt. (back)