The Way to the Western Sea Lewis and Clark across the Continent Chapter 6

David Lavender© 2001University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London

SIX. Smoky Water

The same thinning of the ice that let Captain Amos Stoddard's troops reach St. Louis for the ceremonial transfer of Louisiana to the United States also opened the rivers to more distant travel. As expectancy swelled, Lewis and Clark set a departure date, April 18, that would let them tackle the lower part of the Missouri between the peak of high water that came with the melting of snow in the central Midwest and the later surge of runoff from the distant Rockies. [1]

Let's go! Carpenters began whipsawing logs into planks for the lockers and seats in the keelboat. Blacksmiths set up a forge and hammered out hasps, hinges, and other pieces of ironwork. Supplies of all sorts moved in from St. Louis and nearby farms and were segregated, itemized, boxed, and baled. Bushels of corn were parched so that it would keep well, and accounts were settled with the contractors. The final list of permanent crew members was drawn up—twenty-five all told. The men were divided into three squads, each under one of the sergeants, Charles Floyd, John Ordway, and Nathaniel Pryor. [2] Each squad was further divided into two messes. Camp utensils were allocated and sleeping quarters adjusted so the new groups could get used to living together. Soldiers, handpicked for manning one of the two support pirogues, were put under the charge of Corporal Richard Warfington. Experienced French rivermen were hired to handle the second, larger dugout, called the red pirogue from its bright new coat of red paint. Not all of the exuberance was constructive. Most of March 29 was taken up with a court-martial involving John Shields, John Colter, and Robert Frazer.

While Clark oversaw the work at Camp Wood, Meriwether Lewis, helped by Stoddard, who had taken over the reins as military governor of Missouri, confronted the Indian problem. Scores of Native Americans from both sides of the Mississippi were pouring into St. Louis, hoping to discover clues about the future. Every day for several days, the cannon in the stone fort on the bluff boomed out shots to announce to the skeptical that the Spaniards were indeed gone but, in Stoddard's words, "You will be protected and sustained by your new father, the head chief of the United States." As an earnest of the promise, he passed out presents and sips of whiskey and gave medals to the more prominent visitors. If this were not done, he told Lewis, the disgruntled Indians might commit depredations, and enough of them were around for such outbreaks to develop into a serious matter. [3]

For his part, Lewis concentrated on putting onto paper long speeches that would be delivered by surrogates to Indian groups he could not meet in person. The talk, filled with the grandiloquent language favored by whites in formal meetings with Indians, was addressed to the Sauks and Foxes, an alliance of defiant, British-oriented tribes who were drifting, under pressure of the advancing frontier, across the Mississippi to wilderness lands south of the Des Moines River. The oration advised the natives of the agreement whereby the chief of the seventeen nations of America (he meant the seventeen states that made up the Union) replaced the old fathers of the Indians. This great, new father, called president, as powerful as he was wise and benevolent, hereby adopted the Sauks and Foxes as his children. Like any concerned parent, he wanted them to live in peace and behave with discretion. [4]

A Sauk who happened to be in St. Louis at the time carried the message to a gathering of his people. It was read aloud by an English trader who twisted the wording so it was "not much to the advantage of the United States." When information about the happening reached Amos Stoddard, he dispatched a special interpreter to the tribes to rectify matters. [5]

Lewis in the meantime had dispatched a second oration to the Iowas and Sioux. Despite his faith in the power of solemn words, he must have wondered how much impact the messages were really having. (It turned out to be practically nil.) What he wanted was to be able to talk in person, albeit through an interpreter, to the leaders of every Indian nation bordering on the Missouri. The conferences completed, he would urge the men to travel to Washington under military protection, meet Jefferson, and see for themselves the might of the United States. His first real opportunity would be with representatives of the Osage tribe already being sounded out by Pierre Chouteau. Success would please Jefferson, for, as the president said, "they are the great nation South of the Missouri . . . as the Sioux are great North of that river. With these two powerful nations we must stand well, because in this quarter we are miserably weak." [6] Nervously Lewis kept his fingers crossed, hoping the delegation would arrive before the date scheduled for the expedition's departure. It was a contradictory business sometimes, trying to be both an explorer and an ambassador to the Indians.

On April 7, 1804, the two captains, attended by York and an unnamed aide, met in St. Louis to buy last-minute supplies and complete last-minute errands. Not by chance their work coincided with a banquet and ball given by Amos Stoddard as repayment for courtesies extended him earlier by the townspeople. The affair cost $622.75 and he firmly believed the United States government should reimburse him. The participants would have testified it was worth every penny. The gaiety did not end until nine o'clock Sunday morning. "No business to day," Clark noted, heavy-eyed, in his journal. [7]

They spent Monday through Wednesday shopping and packing. The purchases were loaded into a barge belonging to Nathan Rumsey, agent for military procurement in St. Louis, and rowed upstream to Camp Wood. Lewis stayed behind, waiting for Chouteau's Indians. At the camp Clark issued the men lead and powder for the trip, began the final packing, and, yielding to the electric anticipation, passed out an extra ration of whiskey to everyone. Later he may have wished he hadn't. Wanting still more liquor, several troopers visited one of the blind pigs the officers had not been able to keep away from the vicinity, and on April 16 he had to confine them for their derelictions.

Lewis did not appear until the 18th, the day scheduled for departure. He was downcast. Chouteau had not arrived and the start would have to be postponed. The river, Clark noticed, was falling that day—just as they had hoped. And there they sat.

Although neither man speculated about the delay, in the documents that still survive, its cause can be deduced. The transfer of sovereignty had upset the Indians, who were inherently conservative. When a Chouteau trader took word of the change to a band of Osages on the distant Arkansas River, they called the paper a lie and burned it: the Americans had not taken their country. And when one boatload started down the Missouri to learn what was afoot, they were surprised by Sauk warriors who killed some and made prisoners of the others. Those Sauks! "They certainly do not pay that respect to the United States which is entertained by other Indians," Stoddard complained to Secretary of War Dearborn. Chouteau was going to be hard put to calm the confusion. [8]

He managed well. On April 21, a cannon boomed on the Missouri. As the men in Camp Wood ran to the bank of the Mississippi to watch, a bargeful of Osages—twenty-two of them, plus Chouteau and his voyageurs—swung over to the landing place. Adrenalin flowing again, Lewis and Clark ordered a pirogue manned and, leaving Ordway in charge at the camp, dashed downstream with the delegation.

The cats were away—and, besides, the letdown brought on by the delay had hurt morale. In defiance of Ordway's angry orders, the men played rambunctiously. When Clark returned on the 25th, he had to deal with more than the ordinary amount of insolence and drunkenness. To restore order he dredged up chores. He had the keelboat heeled over on its side and made doubly sure every crack in the bottom was watertight. Trader John Hay came up from Cahokia to look over the lading, disliked what he saw, and spent several days directing a systematic rearranging of the bales and barrels to make unpacking and repacking easier at the points where the material would be needed. Then, as the shamefaced men began showing repentance, Clark ordered target practice, which they enjoyed, and fostered more shooting matches with the nearby countrymen. On May 8, he loaded the spick-and-span keelboat, manned it with twenty oars, and rowed it several miles up the Mississippi. The trial went smoothly and spirits lifted. [9] Another boost was Drouillard's arrival on May 11 with engagés who had been hired earlier for handling the big, seven-oared, red pirogue and then, following the postponement, had been released to live with their families to save government money. Surely their reappearance meant something was about to happen.

On the 13th, so Clark wrote in his journal, a courier arrived with letters from Lewis, who was still struggling to organize the Osage delegation and get it started toward Washington. Letters. No further remarks. The omission showed remarkable self-control, for one of the communications contained bitter news. The preceding February Lewis had written Secretary of War Dearborn, asking why the captain's commission he had promised Clark had not yet arrived in St. Louis. Delays could affect his friend's seniority. Dearborn received that letter on March 20. On examining the list of openings, he saw the only appointment available was that of second lieutenant in the Corps of Artillerists. He gave it to Clark and, following standard procedures, passed it on to Jefferson. Incomprehensibly (unless he had private reasons for not overriding Dearborn), the president made no objection and, in violation of his promise to Lewis, sent the belittling appointment to the Senate for confirmation.

Lewis was furious, yet, like the president, he did not remonstrate. Why? Perhaps because he knew no rectification could reach the Corps of Discovery until its return from the Pacific. Or perhaps he felt there was no use bucking the system at that point. "It is not such as I wished or had reason to expect," he wrote Clark, "but such it is. . . . I think it will be best to let none of the party or any other persons know any thing about the grade, you will observe that the grade has no effect upon your compensation, which by G—d, shall be equal to my own." [10] An easy oath, since Dearborn had already promised Clark a captain's pay.

Years later, Clark told Nicholas Biddle, who was editing a narrative of the expedition for publication, "My feelings on this Occasion was as might be expected. I wished the expedition sucksess, and from the assurance of Capt. Lewis that in every respect my situation Command &c, &c, should be equal to his own . . . I proceeded. I do not wish that any thing relative to this Comsn. or appointment should be inserted in my Book, or made known . . . and I do assure you that I have never related as much on this subject to any person before." [11] Certainly he said nothing at Camp Wood that would lower him in the men's estimation. But the hurt may well have lain behind his sudden decision to cross the Mississippi and start up the Missouri toward his appointed rendezvous with Lewis on May 14, a day earlier than they had agreed on. Purposeful activity might keep him from brooding.

Arms were checked—the fifteen short-barreled .54-caliber rifles Lewis had procured at Harpers Ferry and the .44-caliber Kentucky long rifles that the volunteer soldiers they had picked up later had brought with them. Clark gave experimental twists to the swivel guns that had been mounted on all three boats—a small-bore cannon and two blunderbusses on the keelboat, and a single blunderbuss on each of the pirogues. The weapons could be loaded with whatever was handy—musket balls, buckshot, scrap iron, or even stones—and could be devastating at close range. There was a frantic scurrying around as the soldiers struck their tents (heat had caused them to move out of their huts a week or so earlier), packed their personal gear, and scoured the area for mislaid objects. The news of the impending departure spread rapidly through the neighborhood, and although rain fell intermittently throughout the day, a small crowd of country people gathered to cheer the Corps of Discovery on its way.

It is not possible to determine exactly how many men left Camp Wood that dismal spring afternoon—or for that matter how many continued up the river to the Mandan villages. Clark gave one set of figures for those in the keelboat; sergeants Ordway, Floyd, and Pryor, who had been ordered to keep journals to increase the likelihood that some record would survive in the event of catastrophe, gave variants. (Two or three privates also volunteered to keep diaries but only Joseph Whitehouse's has survived.) The following totals are not far askew, however: twenty-five, including York, in the keelboat; nine Frenchmen under their patron, Baptiste Deschamps, in the red pirogue; and seven soldiers, including Corporal Warfington, in the smaller, white-painted pirogue.

At 4:00 P.M., according to Clark (Ordway made it 3:00 P.M.), the cannon of the keelboat roared bravely, the watchers on shore whooped, and the little flotilla started for the Pacific, its members optimistically expecting to be back by the end of the following summer. That first day they traveled four miles and camped at the upper end of the first island in the Missouri at the beginning of a deluge so strong it later doused the cook fires and put everyone to bed with cold suppers and wet blankets.

As they breasted the current the next day, they began to get an inkling of what lay ahead. The river was high, the current punishing. The banks, composed largely of fine, alluvial soil, were covered with fallen and standing trees, many of them huge and all interlaced with grapevines. Occasionally an undercut section collapsed into the river with a sound like distant cannonading. Cave-ins along two thousand miles of stream had given the water the color of coffee laced with condensed milk, in the eyes of one observer. Another, seeing the river under a different light or with a different sense of color, said it was a thick yellow-green, a hue borrowed from thousands of shifting sandbars. Indians called the stream Smoky Water; Americans, the Big Muddy.

Clark was astonished by the quantities of driftwood, some of it driving at the boats like lances. Frequently these floating logs caught in the branches of toppled trees. Thick silt coated them, more driftwood collected, and gradually the tangled mass, called an embarras by French voyageurs, thrust far out into the river. Or the earth-laden roots of a lone tree might catch on the river bottom; its leafless top, pointing downstream, waited just above the water like a hungry fang. Sawyers were even more worrisome. The North West Company's great explorer, David Thompson, described them thus: "The sawyer is generally a Tree of large dimension broken about the middle of its length, it's roots are in the mud. . . . the strong current bends the tree as much as the play of the roots will permit, the strain of which causes a reaction, and the tree rises with a spring upwards above the water and with such force as will damage or destroy any vessel." [12]

Another hazard was logs so saturated they had lost buoyancy and drifted along under the surface, out of view in the opaque water. During the expedition's first full day on the Missouri, the keelboat banged into three such logs. Timely warnings. The stern of the vessel was loaded too heavily, so that on impact the light bow tended to ride up the obstruction in such a way that any one of the episodes might have torn out the bottom. The men would have to shift more weight forward when they reached the village of St. Charles, where Clark expected to meet Meriwether Lewis.

Drawing on his own army experiences, on talks with boatmen in St. Louis, on the vessel's trial run on the Mississippi, and on his initial contact with the Missouri, Clark worked out a navigational pattern—Lewis reviewed it and signed it on May 26—that would hold as far as the Mandan villages with only temporary adaptations to fit special circumstances. He put one of the sergeants at the bow, a second in the middle, and a third in the stern. The positions rotated regularly. [13]

The sergeant in the bow was to inform the man in charge of the keelboat of anything unusual he saw—obstructions, approaching river craft, Indians lurking on the bank. He would use prearranged signals to communicate with the corps's shore parties and was provided with a setting pole to help the regular bowman ward off floating debris.

The sergeant in the center managed the square sail, which was seldom used because the river kept twisting away from the wind, and saw to it the rowers kept pace with each other. He was the one who decided when halts should be called to rest the men, and how long each pause should last. He posted a sentinel whenever the boat halted. Accompanied by the guard for the day, he reconnoitered for a hundred and fifty yards around each camping place. At night he made sure all three boats were properly beached, and appointed sentinels to watch them until morning.

The sergeant at the rear of the boat managed the big, long-handled rudder that curved down over the stern. He made sure no loose impedimenta obstructed passage on the quarterdeck or along the passe-avants formed by the locker tops. He kept an eye on the compass in order to assist Clark, who was making a detailed map of the river as they traveled, a job that on the first stretches consisted mostly of checking his observations against those of earlier chart makers.

No matter which position Sergeant Ordway held for the day, he was the one who issued rations, in a prescribed order, to supplement whatever game the hunters brought in—salt pork and flour, salt pork and Indian meal, lyed corn (hominy) and grease. No pork was issued when freshly killed wild meat was available.

A little after noon on May 16, the fleet hove to opposite the little string town of St. Charles. Its population, numbering about 450, was almost entirely French; their houses, fields, and small businesses stretched for about a mile along the south bank. Clark fired a cannon salute, and as a crowd came running to the principal dock, he had himself rowed over for conversations. He quickly learned that Lewis had not yet reached town and no one knew when he might.

Preparing the Osages for their trip into what was, to them, as mysterious a region as the River Styx was the primary cause of the captain's delay. The government, worried about runaway costs, had limited to twelve the number of Indians from any one tribe who would be given a free trip to Washington. This meant cutting the group Pierre Chouteau had brought to St. Louis almost in half, outfitting them in proper style, and at the same time softening, with appropriate gifts, the disappointment of those left behind. Considerable mind changing by the Indians slowed the process, but the final delegation was impressive—"the most gigantic men," Jefferson later wrote to Gallatin, "we have ever seen." Two boys accompanied the party, in accord with the president's desire that youngsters be sent East, if possible, for instruction in civilized ways. No women were included. [14]

The head of the Osage delegation was Cheveux Blancs, or White Hairs. Legend says he got the name when he snatched a gray wig off the head of an American with whom he was grappling during an early battle. Ever afterwards he wore the trophy on special occasions. It was said, too, that White Hairs was the creature of Pierre Chouteau, who had helped him usurp the rights of the Osages' legitimate head chief. [15] Pierre Chouteau, opportunist extraordinaire. His firm provided the delegation with supplies that cost the United States $4,749.79. He received another $2,858.50 "on account of public service"—all formally authorized by Meriwether Lewis. [16]

(The Chouteaus, it might be added, also provided the bulk of $3,879.72 worth of Indian gifts Lewis and Clark bought in St. Louis to supplement the meager $669.50 worth Lewis had purchased in the East before starting west. The favoritism so aroused two of Chouteau's rivals in St. Louis, Manuel Lisa and Manuel's fur-trade partner, Francis Benoit, that they threw every block they could in the expedition's way. Lewis, in some respects a very naive young man, grew outraged in his turn. "Damn Manuel and triple damn Mr. B," he exploded by letter to Clark. "I have come to an open rupture with them; I think them both great scoundrels." As for Chouteau, after sizing him up while the delegation was in Washington, Albert Gallatin, the secretary of the treasury, told Jefferson, "What he wants is power and money," more specifically total control of the Indian trade of Louisiana which, incidentally, he did not get. All in all, the fur trade, as carried on by both whites and Indians, was more viciously competitive and far more complex than either Lewis or Clark fully realized throughout their time in the wilderness.) [17]

During the delay caused by readying the delegation for the trip, Lewis found time to turn to other of the numerous duties Jefferson had assigned him. In March, he had forwarded to the president cuttings and lengthy descriptions of two characteristic, fruit-bearing shrubs of western Missouri and adjacent regions—the Osage plum and the Osage orange. Now he added to the list specimens of lead and silver ore, a rubberlike ball of hair taken from the stomach of a buffalo, and a horned toad. He wrote a long account of salines in the Osage country and sent a sample of salt with the letter, for the availability of good, readily obtainable salt was an important consideration to pioneer settlers. He also sent along a map of the lower Missouri, the first of many maps he and Clark prepared. That done, he appointed Amos Stoddard his agent in St. Louis and at last was ready to join the Missouri fleet. [18] Accompanied by an escort of army officers and influential civilians, he rode overland, through heavy rain, to St. Charles on Sunday, May 20, 1804.

During the five days of waiting among the limited but tempting fleshpots of St. Charles, Clark had maintained firm control of the men. The first breach of discipline had drawn a quick court-martial followed by an order of the day that bluntly stated he would move camp out of the reach of town if the men did not show a "true respect for their own dignity." They hadn't even grumbled much when he had set them to reloading the boats in order to put more weight in the bows. And they had welcomed with considerable interest two professional Creole voyageurs, Pierre Cruzatte and François Labiche, who had enlisted as army privates in order to see what the other side of the continent was like. [19] They were the only true rivermen in the permanent detachment—except George Drouillard, and he was not a soldier.

River wisdom was only part of what the pair brought the expedition. Both had spent several winters trading as far up the Missouri, on occasion, as the Platte River. Both spoke at least bits of several Indian tongues, Labiche rather the more, and both were acquainted with sign language, with Cruzatte holding ascendancy in that field. Cruzatte's mother was from the Omaha tribe; Labiche, like most Creole rivermen, probably had Indian blood in his veins, too, but the details have been lost. Because of their experience both were given crucial assignments in the keelboat. Cruzatte became bowman. Labiche handled the front oar on the port side; the other rowers would key their strokes to his. Cruzatte's peculiarities have left him better remembered than Labiche. He was small, wiry, an exuberant fiddle player, and blind in one eye. His remaining eye is said to have been nearsighted, but a bowman needed to be farsighted and the oft-reheated tale of his myopia may have risen, mythlike, out of his greatest claim to immortality: during the return trip he accidentally shot Meriwether Lewis in the behind. [20]

The trip did not begin auspiciously. Though the captains had hoped to be under way shortly after noon on May 21, the festivities being staged in their honor by the excited townspeople held them until after four. They had scarcely started when another blustery spring rainstorm pelted them head on. They fought it and the current for three miles, gave up, and made wet camp on one of the river's many islands. They were still in sight of settlements on either bank. [21]

The next day the wind favored and they covered eighteen miles. If the easy progress bred smugness, it was dashed by Cruzatte or Labiche or Drouillard or the Frenchmen in the red pirogue, most of whom had traveled this section before. Wait for the Devil's Race Ground! But before they got there Lewis himself almost created catastrophe. It was May 23. Sandstone cliffs three hundred feet high crowded close to the water along this stretch of the southern bank. At their base gaped a huge cave one hundred and twenty feet wide, forty feet deep, and twenty high. Many names decorated the walls inside, some carved into the stone and some written on it with charred sticks. The place was called the Tavern, perhaps because it really had served as a rest stop for travelers in the forgotten past.

The top of the cliff, its outer edge weathered into points Clark called "peninsulers," overhung the water. [22] The challenge was too much for Lewis. While Clark was adding his name to the register inside the cavern, Meriwether found a break in the precipice, ascended it, and began working his way along the edge. A foothold crumbled. He slid and bounced downward about twenty feet. Just short of disaster, Clark wrote in his journal, "He saved himself by the assistance of his knife," driving it wildly, one assumes, into some crevice that held. Just how he extricated himself from his dizzy perch does not appear.

No mention of the incident appears in the narrative of the expedition that Lewis was preparing at the time of his death in 1809 and that was finished by editors with whom Clark worked closely. Why was it omitted? Irrelevance? The fact that it made Lewis appear foolhardy? Or because it might trigger speculation? What would have happened to the Corps of Discovery if Jefferson's handpicked leader had died from an unnecessary fall within sight of the settlements along the Missouri? Would Clark, the mapmaker, the estimator of distances, the old Indian hand, the degraded second lieutenant of artillerists who had been pressed into service to handle just such contingencies—would he have been allowed to continue with what history would then have remembered as the Clark Expedition? Would he have consented? Under what terms?

The Missouri is a much swifter river than the Mississippi, for obvious reasons. The latter falls only 1,478 feet between its source in the Minnesota hills and the Gulf of Mexico, 2,552 miles away—an average drop of a little more than half a foot a mile. By contrast the Missouri, 2,950 miles long, falls 6,560 feet between its beginning in southwestern Montana and its junction with the Mississippi—an average drop of about two and a quarter feet per mile, almost four times the fall of the Mississippi. Rather than buck such currents head-on, Missouri River boatmen tried to pick up eddies created when the curving streambanks deflected fast water from one side of the sinuous river to the other. A strong back eddy would sometimes carry a keelboat several hundred yards upstream with no effort on the part of the crew. (Some eddies were hard to break out of, too.) One hallmark of a good bowman—Cruzatte, for instance—was his ability to spot the right place for cutting across the river in order to pick up a usable eddy.

There were other tricks. Occasionally a boat could creep along in slack water close to the bank. While the men on the water side used their oars, those next to the bank seized branches and bushes and pulled the boat forward. If the bottom was solid and the water not too deep, a line of men on the passe-avant could put the padded ends of setting poles in their armpits and shove the boat ahead, walking as they pushed until they reached the end of the line and then ran back to their original places to repeat the maneuver. But the main reliance, when the force of twenty long-sweep oars proved insufficient, was the tow rope.

It was several hundred feet long. One end was tied to the very tip of the bow. The crew carried the other end onto the bank. Separated from each other by short intervals, they floundered ahead, pulling as they went, through brush, nettles, grapevines, prickly wild roses, and boggy spots, over downed logs and boulders, along the steep sides of gravelly banks, pausing now and then to cut a leaning tree out of the way. Using a long rope reduced the tendency of the bow to nose in against the bank. Even so, the bowman and his helper had to be constantly using their poles to keep the boat clear.

A device for reducing entanglements was the cordelle, wherein the tow rope was tied high up the mast and then run through a ring attached to an auxiliary rope affixed to the bow. The cordelle lifted the tow rope above some of the obstructions along the way and reduced still further the thrust of the bow toward the shore. There is no direct evidence in the journals that the Corps of Discovery resorted to cordelles—but, then, the diary writers seldom wasted words describing processes that were, to them, everyday occurrences. [23]

Even less is said about the handling of the two pirogues. (No one in them was required to keep a diary.) Pirogues in general were paddled as often as they were rowed, and that may explain why Lewis so often referred to pirogues as canoes. The journals, however, regularly speak of oars and it is necessary to assume them. (Oars do provide more force than paddles.) The pirogues were big enough and stable enough for crewmen to stand in them and pole forward. But eventually, when the river grew really boisterous, the tow rope was their ultimate resort, too.

The day after Lewis's fall they reached the Devil's Race Ground, hissing water rushing down a narrow chute between an island and bank-crowding rocks. Some of the men were put ashore to heave on the tow rope while the rest set their young strength against the oars. At times the boat seemed to hang motionless; occasionally it slipped backward. The captains veiled encouragement; the men quite probably took to shouting, in unison, the beat of the oar strokes. Slowly they pulled past the projecting rocks and thought they were clear.

Up ahead, the bank formed a concave bend, its upper part curving to the right. Part of the current that had plagued them in the Devil's Race Ground slammed across the river into the curve. Even as they watched, great chunks of undermined earth collapsed into the flood. The men with the tow rope scrambled for safety, meanwhile casting horrified glances backward as the bank peeled off toward the keelboat. Clark bawled for the helmsman to steer for the island. Frying pan into fire: the boat ran into a sandbar and stuck fast. The towers tried to heave her free, but the rope broke and the craft swung broadside to the current.

As it heeled over, everyone aboard "high-sided." They threw their weight against the upper rim, and when that did not suffice, they went over into the water, bending like hairpins as they clutched the gunwale with their hands and braced their feet against the precariously tilted side of the boat. The current toyed with them. It washed the sand out from under the vessel, which slowly came back to even keel. No rowers were aboard to hold it in place, however. It wheeled end for end downstream, hung up broadside again, listed, washed free, and wheeled once more. Swimmers—York, as powerful in the water as on land, was probably one of them—carried a rope to the men on shore, and they managed to drag the errant craft to safety. By that time the collapsing bank that had driven them into this trouble had stabilized, and they toiled up beside it in perfect safety. Clark was still dry-mouthed when they found shelter for the night in an abandoned cabin. "The worst I ever saw," he told his diary. But he hadn't reached the Pacific yet.

Nearly every day brought fresh difficulties: dragging the tow rope through the jungle growth on the banks; struggling with the oars against water hammering around the point of an embarras; breaking the mast against a leaning tree; hanging up on a snag while "immens large trees were Drifting down and we lay immediately in their Course"; riding out squalls that dashed waves clear over the boat. And, more blessedly, being pinned down by the wind for an enforced rest. Joseph Whitehouse got lost while exploring a cave. Drouillard and Shields, who were bringing up four horses for the hunters to use, failed to make contact with the river group for a week and emerged from their trek as gaunt as dry cornstalks.

Rain gave way to such stifling heat that the men, sweating copiously, had to take off their heavy shirts. (Clark blamed the excessive perspiration on the peculiarities of the Missouri's turbid water. As an experiment they let a pint of it stand overnight; half a wineglass of sand settled out.) Mosquitos drove them wild. Searching for a repellent, they bought three hundred pounds of animal grease from a trader bound downstream and smeared it on their bloody skins. They developed suppurating boils, the result, they thought, of that muddy river water coming into contact with the numerous cuts and scratches they all had. There were occasional disciplinary problems. While standing guard one night at the mouth of the Kansas River, John Collins tapped the whiskey barrel, became thoroughly soused, and encouraged Hugh Hall to join him. Both were found guilty by a court-martial of their peers and painfully flogged, as was Alexander Willard for falling asleep while on guard duty. These were not beatings with leather whips, but stinging—and humiliating—lashes from ramrods or willow branches; after all, the captains could not afford to have good oarsmen incapacitated.

There were compensations amid the toil. Some stroke of foresight had led Meriwether Lewis to purchase mosquito netting, which made sleep possible. Venison was so plentiful some of the excess was jerked so that when the meat was thoroughly dry it could be pounded with parched corn, mixed with bear oil, and boiled into a savory stew. A carefully measured ration of whiskey was issued each evening, and doubled if the day had been particularly trying. Cruzatte's fiddle was a godsend and often stirred the men to dancing reels with each other around the campfire. Undoubtedly there was a good deal of horseplay and storytelling, and constant speculation about the Indian women they hoped they would soon be meeting. And always there was the lush beauty of the untouched wilderness. Phrases like "butifull beyond description," "delightful prospect," "rich and well timbered," "one of the most beautiful places I ever saw in my life" (Ordway) keep popping up in the diaries. These men were of pioneer farming stock and were looking at the kind of fertile land that was a major component of the American dream of their era. [24] They knew the significance of their errand, and it kept them enthralled. Clark remarked more than once in his journal about their general good health, high spirits, and quick responses to whatever demands were put on them. "I can say with Confidence that our party is not inferior to any that was ever on the waters of the Missoppie," the last word being an extraordinary orthographic mix even for him. [25]

Lewis was out of the boat more often than in, examining the growth in the bottomlands, especially the huge cottonwood trees, and hiking or riding one of the hunting horses up the bluffs for more distant views. He collected, in Clark's words, "many curious Plants and Srubs," but not, for the first few hundred miles, any that were new to science. (Still, it was useful to extend the known range of familiar species.) Signs of changing biotic environments were appearing, however. The thick forests on the uplands were thinning out. Prairies broader than those of Illinois and Kentucky stretched between the groves, hints of the Great Plains, of which he had read without yet grasping their overwhelming magnitude. When the hunters returned to camp at day's end, he always asked them for descriptions of the soil and vegetation they had seen and about the navigability of the side streams.

If he kept a journal on this leg of the trip, it has been lost, though some rough notes have turned up. It is hard to believe he did not heed Jefferson's adjurations about records—and yet other lapses occurred, notably during Lewis's descent of the Ohio, which we have already noted, and again from August 27 through December, 1805, with two minor exceptions. The blanks are unfortunate, for Lewis's handling of the technical information they gathered was superior to Clark's. Also, we have, at many critical junctures, only Clark's observations to go on, plus the bare-bones accounts kept by a few untrained enlisted personnel, and different men do see things differently. [26]

Clark, being the better riverman, generally stayed close to the keelboat. He kept a compass reading for every shift in the stream's direction and made eyeball guesses of the distances between prominent points and curves. From these fragments he calculated the length of each day's travel and kept a running total of those sums. [27] His eyes were good. When the expedition reached the mouth of the Platte, he announced they had come 600 miles from the mouth of the Missouri. Instrument measures made several years later gave a total of 611. Distances were only part of the geographic study. They determined the latitude and longitude of every prominent river junction and hill, even when they had to chop trees out of the way to get a sighting on the polestar, as happened at the mouth of the Osage.

The sergeants soon caught on to the dead-reckoning process, and Clark occasionally turned the work over to them in order to go hunting with Lewis or Drouillard, or even by himself. On June 23, exactly one month after Lewis's misadventure on the Tavern cliffs, he suffered an embarrassment of his own. He had a good day with his gun—one fat bear and two deer, which he left where they fell. Drouillard would pick them up with his packhorse and take them to the river, skin them, and hang the carcasses where the boatmen would find them. Clark wandered on and at evening dropped down to the river. A high wind had sprung up. The keelboat, he sensed correctly, would be pinned to the bank and he would have to bivouac until morning, when it could move again.

He peeled bark off a tree and spread it on the damp ground as a mattress. He gathered punky wood to create a smoke to drive away mosquitos. He was hungry and there might be game on a nearby, brushy island. He waded out, mired down in bottomless muck, and with a little stab of fear actually wondered, as he heaved on one leg and then the other, whether he was going to pull free. When he did, he was layered with mud from head to foot. He scraped it off, stripped down, and, blackened by mosquitos, washed himself and his clothes. Hunting relief, he crouched for awhile in the smudge he had built and then fired his gun to let anyone in hearing know where he was. Shortly Drouillard appeared. He had picked up Clark's game and was searching for the captain when the gunshot gave him guidance.

To keep the fresh meat away from predators, they hung it to a low branch that reached out over the water—so low that the hind-quarters of the carcasses dangled just above the surface. During the moonlit night, Clark awoke and saw a huge snake rising like a small Loch Ness monster out of the water toward one of the hanging deer. It was a doe, its udder tight with milk. Its orphaned fawn was probably wandering lost somewhere in the hills—unfortunate, but there were forty-six men on the boats to be fed. Clark assumed the snake was after the milk in its udder. Not wanting to wake Drouillard, he threw sticks to drive the serpent away. When it persisted, he killed it. He doesn't say how. One likes to imagine a gunshot that brought Drouillard out from under the saddle blanket that covered him like a cork from a bottle. Indians!—though they had not yet seen a trace of a wild Indian.

A night in the life of a hunter. Clark summarized it in his field notes, but omitted the mudhole from the "official" journal he put together later, during the winter. [28] As with Lewis on the Tavern cliffs, there was no use reminding posterity of every foolish misstep.

They ushered in the Fourth of July by firing one of the swivel guns on the keelboat. Joseph Field added to the excitement by being bitten on the heel by still another snake. Lewis did not see the creature. Uncertain whether it was poisonous, he slapped on a poultice made of Peruvian bark mixed with gunpowder. A few days later he relieved Robert Frazer's sunstroke with saltpeter, a known diuretic. A Creole riverman was treated for a venereal complaint, details unrecorded, and nearly always someone had a thundering headache brought on by the heat or a painful boil that needed the pus squeezed out before a poultice of elm bark or Indian meal could be applied.

Again there were compensations. Wild grapes, plums, berries, and sand cherries were ripening. The men poured heaping handfuls of the latter into the whiskey barrels, though whether they were flavoring the fruit or the liquor remains unsaid. They began catching big catfish and whitefish, pleasing variants for their meals. (As was true with the fur brigades, the cooks, who were relieved of other camp duties, prepared only one big meal a day, in the evening; leftovers did for breakfast and lunch. Time was too important to be wasted among pots and pans.) Bits of excitement enlivened the toil. The Field brothers brought in a young wolf they hoped to tame—this happened near the Kansas River—but three nights later the animal chewed through the rope that held it and escaped. One man who had gone out hunting claimed he had seen a buffalo. Elk became numerous. Lewis's big Newfoundland dog dived into a beaver house and chased its terrified inhabitants out.

One major element was missing, however—Indians. Jefferson had insisted that as many tribes as possible be contacted, studied, informed of the change in Louisiana's sovereignty, and told what America was expecting of the land's natives and what they could expect from the Americans. The captains had worked hard in St. Louis and at Camp Wood to familiarize themselves with what lay ahead, and they conscientiously gathered more information from each boatload of traders—at least eight—they encountered bound downstream with their winter harvests of fur, deerskins, and animal fat. Regis Loisel, head of the frequently reorganized Missouri River Fur Company, for which James Mackay and John Evans had worked, was particularly accommodating, at least on the face of things. [29] In addition to data he gave them, Clark said, "letters"—presumably introductions to employees who were stationed among different tribes along the river.

One of Loisel's hired hands, Pierre Dorion, was floating downstream a few days behind his employer. A shrewd, hard-twisted, semiliterate half-breed, Dorion had lived intermittently with the Yankton band of Sioux for twenty years. After several hours of earnest talk, the captains persuaded him to leave his party for theirs and act as their guide and interpreter as far as the Sioux country, where they hoped to enlist another delegation to visit Washington. Dorion exacted a high price: the Americans would not only pay him an interpreter's salary but would also buy supplies and Indian gifts from him. [30]

Like Loisel before him, Dorion told gruesome tales about a smallpox epidemic that in 1802 had decimated the earth-lodge villages of the once-powerful Missouris, Otos, Poncas, Pawnees, and Omahas, or Mahars, as the captains pronounced the last word. Almost as terrifying to the Indians as the plague were new fears of the Sioux. Being nomads, those Indians had not suffered as much from the epidemic as had the river tribes, who lived in densely packed villages. Their raids could now devastate the tribes. As a safety measure, Dorion speculated, the weakened river people were probably combining into new units capable of fighting off their ancient enemies.

The Sioux. That was the tribe, made up of many far-ranging bands, that Jefferson most wanted to pull into the American orbit. It would not be easy. Except for the Yankton Sioux, whom Dorion had helped woo toward Spanish St. Louis, the tribes were oriented toward the British posts on tributaries of the Red River of the North, which led to Hudson Bay, and tributaries of the upper Mississippi, outlets to Montreal. Consequently, the Sioux, as principal carriers for the Missouri River and High Plains trade, would want to keep the commerce flowing eastward. Because of the epidemic, their dominance over the river tribes might be harder than ever to break—unless the river peoples' amalgamations were restoring their strength. More than ever, therefore, it was important to contact all the tribes along the Missouri, assay their vitality, promise peace and protection, and then try to win the cooperation of the Sioux. [31]

Eager to hold their first Indian council, the Corps of Discovery pressed on as fast as wind and water allowed. On July 21, 1804, while rain squalls hissed along the surface of the Missouri, they came to the mouth of the Platte. It was a many-braided stream, freckled with islands and sandbars, swift flowing and thick with silt. Tantalizing promises clung to it, for it was believed to head far west in high mountains near legendary Santa Fe. Many tribes lived and hunted along its banks, the nearest of them being the remnants of the Otos and Missouris and perhaps one or two bands of Pawnees. Supposedly those tribes could not be visited by water, but that was another bit of campfire gossip the captains were determined to test.

They made the effort in the red pirogue, manned by its experienced French voyageurs. They turned the boat into what seemed to be the Platte's main channel and were straightway buffeted by a current that Clark, overawed, estimated at eight miles an hour. The water was pallid with loads of fine white sand in suspension. Obstructed, the mass would build quickly into a tremulous dam, then break loose and rush on, giving a boiling, rolling look to the surface. Channels kept intertwining. After little more than a mile of strenuous effort, the captains gave up and let the pirogue drift back. Gossip was right. If the tribes of the lower Platte were to see the American offerings and hear their harangues, they would have to be lured to the Missouri by emissaries traveling overland. [32]

Searching for a suitable camping place, the expedition moved ten miles up the Missouri to a place named White Catfish Camp for an albino catfish one of the men caught there. George Drouillard and Pierre Cruzatte, equipped with sausage-shaped bundles of twisted tobacco called carrots, rode off west to find whatever Indians they could. While waiting for the messengers' return, the rest of the crew continued their perpetual hunting—forty-odd empty bellies to fill every day—made new oars and setting poles, dried provisions that had become wet during the struggle with the Platte, raised a flagstaff, and checked their arms. Lewis worked on his field notes and Clark on a map to send to Jefferson when the soldiers in Corporal Warfington's squad went back to Kaskaskia at the end of the summer. Gusts of wind rolled the boat so heavily they could not accomplish much in the cramped cabin, and yet if they went outside they were attacked by mosquitos "about the sise," Clark declared, "of house flais [flies]." [33]

On July 25, Drouillard and Cruzatte returned. They had found the Otos' principal village and had seen fresh tracks, but had not located a single person. Having planted their corn and squash, the villagers evidently had moved en masse onto the plains on their annual buffalo hunt.

Considerably deflated, the explorers crept on—into luck. On the 28th Drouillard came in with a Missouri Indian he had found skinning an elk with two Otos. The fellow said that about twenty lodges—perhaps a hundred men, women, and children—were camped about four miles away. Off at some distance was the habitation of a French trader who had lived with the Otos long enough to win their trust. What now?

The decision was to gain a little time by sailing up the Missouri for two more days while a voyageur called La Liberté, who knew the Oto language, traveled overland with Drouillard's Missouri Indian as guide, to lure the French trader and as many warriors as possible to a meeting. Forty miles above White Catfish Camp, on the west bank of the river, the boat people found a delectable, easily reached spot. They named it, in anticipation, Council Bluff. (Later, after Fort Atkinson had been built on the site, the name spread to the entire region, including the city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, about fifteen miles downstream from the scheduled meeting place.) Tiers of prairies and bluffs led Lewis and Clark, who climbed the rise together, to a stupendous view of "one Continued Plain as fur as Can be seen"—the heart of prairie America. Below them the Missouri meandered through lush groves of willow, cottonwood, elm, sycamore, hickory, walnut "& Oake in addition." All about, Clark wrote, were fruits, berries, nuts, and "a great Variety of Plants and flowers not common to the United States. What a field for a Botents [botanist] and natiriless [naturalist]." [34]

August 1 was a day of mixed emotions. Clark busied himself for a time preparing what he called a "verry flashey peace pipe" for the Indian conference. Then, because it was his thirty-fourth birthday, the camp was treated to a special feast of fat venison, elk, and beavertail, finished off with a medley of fruits and, probably, a dram of grog. Joseph Field killed a new animal, a badger, and then, while out hunting deer with his brother, Reuben, got lost, settled down for the night in a rough bivouac—and awoke to find that the expedition's two horses, essential for packing meat, had strayed. Meanwhile neither the Indians nor La Liberté had appeared. "we fear," Clark wrote, "Something amiss." [35]

The suspense ended the next day. Drouillard and Colter found the horses, and at sunset the trader, whose name Clark rendered as Fairfong, arrived with fourteen male Indians, six of them minor chiefs. All, probably, were on horseback. There was no sign of La Liberté, though the Indians said he had left their camp a day ahead of them.

The captains sent food and presents to the visitors and suggested they gather the next morning under an awning made from the keelboat's sail. Lewis, with Clark at his elbow, stayed up late that night, writing out what they hoped would be an epochal speech, forerunner of many more to come. The soldiers unpacked and brushed off their uniforms for a dress parade. At the assigned time the two groups came together, each with totally different expectations of what was going to emerge from the encounter.


1. The date, April 18, comes from Ordway's letter to his parents (Jackson, Letters, 176–77): "... we are to Start in ten days up the Missouri River." The quickened activity that gripped Camp Dubois during the last days of March and the early ones of April also supports conjectures that April 18 or so was the original starting date. See Osgood, Field Notes, 27–31. (back)
2. The orders concerning the division of the "permanent detachment" are in Thwaites I, 11–12. His list of men in the detachment is reproduced in Appendix II. (back)
3. Scharf, 265. (back)
4. I borrow the phrasing of this message and of later ones to the Iowas and Sioux from a speech Lewis later delivered to the Otos, a Missouri River tribe. (Jackson Letters, 203–8.) (back)
5. Ibid., 196–98. (back)
6. Ibid., 199. (back)
7. Osgood, Field Notes, 30. McDermott, 335. (back)
8. I, 36–37. Jackson, Letters, 197, 200. (back)
9. Osgood, Field Notes, 37. (back)
10. Jackson, Letters, 172–73, 179. (back)
11. Clark to Biddle, ibid., II, 571–72. (back)
12. Appleman, 67–68, 74–75. (back)
13. I, 30–34. (back)
14. See Lewis to Stoddard, May 16, 1804 (Jackson, Letters, 189–90), concerning the twelve-man limit, and ibid., 199, for Jefferson's remark. (back)
15. Foley and Rice, 55, 107–08. (back)
16. Grace Lewis, 480. Compare her figures with Jackson, Letters, II, 420–30. (back)
17. Jackson, Letters, 180, 209n. (back)
18. Ibid., 170–71, 180–83, 189–95. (back)
19. Appleman, 79. (back)
20. Lewis on the wounding: "I instantly supposed that Cruzatte had shot me by mistake. . . . I was dressed in brown and he cannot see very well." (DeVoto, Journals, 445.) True, a one-eyed man cannot see as well as one with two. The remark does not have to be taken as an indication of myopia, however. (back)
21. My account of the trip is compounded from Thwaites, Clark's "River Journal" as it appears in Osgood's Field Notes, and the Biddle narrative, with addenda from Ordway's and Whitehouse's journals. There seems no gain in noting each source except where discrepancies appear or points of emphasis vary. Lewis, incidentally, seems not to have kept a journal between St. Charles and the Mandan towns. See note 26 below. (back)
22. Osgood, Field Notes, 45. (back)
23. DeVoto, Course, 613–14. (back)
24. Allen, 187–91. (back)
25. Osgood, Field Notes, 53. (back)
26. The vexing problem of Lewis's missing journals (he left big gaps all the way to the Pacific and back) is discussed in Jackson, "Some Advice"; Cutright, History of Journals; and Osgood's introduction to Clark's Field Notes. However, Clark often copied the rough field notes Lewis did make (Moulton, Journals, II, 19–21) and so the record is probably quite complete in spite of Lewis's lapses. (back)
27. Moulton, Atlas, 4, describes Clark's mapping procedures. Osgood, Field Notes, and/or Thwaites print the daily compass readings and estimates of distances between sighting points. (back)
28. Osgood, Field Notes, 61. I, 56–57. (back)
29. Though Lewis and Clark were unaware of it, Loisel wanted to draw the boundary of Louisiana along the Missouri River in order to protect the trade his men conducted south and west of that stream. On reaching St. Louis, he sent an offer to Spanish officials to act as an agent in countering American activities in the critical region, which, he asserted, would open easy routes to Santa Fe. Meanwhile Spanish officials in Florida, Cuba, and Mexico had grown alarmed about the threat to New Mexico, and letters flew back and forth about stopping the expedition either by sending out troops or stirring up the Indians. The efforts failed. A useful summary is in Cook, 458–83, passim. For Loisel, see the introduction in Abel's Narrative. (back)
30. Jackson, Letters, 262–63. (back)
31. DeVoto, Course, 367, 375–76. Appleman, 93–94. (back)
32. Moulton, Journals, II, 405–16. Osgood, Field Notes, 88ff. (back)
33. Moulton, Journals, II, 429–33. (back)
34. I, 96–97. Ronda, 17–18. (back)
35. Moulton, Journals, II, 433. (back)