On a rainy afternoon around 4:00pm on May 14, 1804, Captains William Clark and Meriwether Lewis left Camp River Dubois on the east side of the Mississippi River. It was the start of their epic journey in search of an inland waterway to the Pacific. They recruited the last of the 48 men who would start the journey – men selected for their ability to do strenuous labor with skills in hunting, fishing, carpentry, blacksmithing, tailoring, or soldiering. In addition to the 48 and the two Captains, was Clark’s personal slave, York, and Lewis’ Newfoundland dog, Seaman.
We are following as much of the Corps trail as we can in preparation for our month of volunteering in Washington state’s Cape Disappointment State Park. I’m going to focus here on some of the highlights of what have learned. First, Camp Dubois is part of Lewis and Clark Historic Site in Hartford, IL. Here we saw a full-scale model of the keelboat that was the workhorse of the first part of the Corp’s expedition. It carried the bulk of the supplies that the Corps relied on at the start of the trip. The keelboat (measuring 55’ long and 8’4’ wide) carried 12 to 15 tons and was basically a barge-like structure with a mast, 22 oars, and a sail. The keelboat could be powered in 4 ways which was necessary since the Missouri had strong currents, unpredictable depths, eddies, unstable river banks and hidden snags. Whether under sail, or by rowing the 22 oars, or poling it up the river, or towing it with ropes, the work was painfully slow and on a good day, the Corps made 14 miles.
We learned that the Captains had planned to take the keelboat as far as the Mandan Villages in North Dakota and then send it back downriver to St. Louis in the spring of 1805 with a small crew and an abundance of plant, mineral samples, and animal specimens (including a live prairie dog) for President Thomas Jefferson. This was what actually happened. In addition to the keelboat, the Corp traveled with two pirogues, or flat-bottom boats, which measured 41 feet, had a single mast and a square sail and 7 oars. Each carried a crew of 8 and 9 tons of supplies. All three were part of the original fleet that left St. Charles on the Missouri on May 24, 1804.
Our second stop was the Boathouse in St. Charles, Missouri. There, I became interested in the medicine chest that Lewis carried with him as the guardian of the Corps’ health. In preparation for the journey, President Jefferson had sent Lewis to study with the leading physician of the day, Dr. Benjamin Rush. Lewis went to Philadelphia for several months and then stocked his medicine chest with the remedies of the day, augmented with treatments he had learned from his mother, who was an herbalist. The resulting display (at the boathouse and again in other places) confirmed treatments that would today be seen as progressive (herbal treatments using creme of tartar, calamine ointment, Peruvian bark), barbaric (bleeding) and completely dangerous (mercury). Along the way west, Lewis amended his medical protocols with treatments from the indigenous people he met. For example, rattlesnake rattle was used to speed up a slow labor, a treatment he employed with his only known obstetric patient, Sakakawea. While Lewis was notoriously self-critical, his skill as the medical officer was pretty evident since in the entire 2 + years of the expedition, Lewis lost only one member, Charles Floyd, from illness that Lewis could not cure. Floyd died from what experts today surmise was an infection caused by a ruptured appendix.
From St. Charles, we journeyed up the Missouri and camped in Lewis and Clark State Park in Buchanan County, Missouri on July 1. This was interesting because it was near here that the Corps celebrated the first July 4th by shooting off their cannon. It was the first recorded celebration of Independence Day west of the Mississippi. Each man was rationed a shot of whiskey and the Captains named a nearby creek Independence Creek in honor of the occasion. Just before leaving the next morning, Peter and I walked to an outdoor exhibit area and down to the lake that lies where an oxbow of the Missouri once flowed. We looked out on the open prairies, imagining what the explorers must have been feeling.
On one July morning, 1804, Clark wrote (spelling as he wrote the entry), “Capt. Lewis and my Self walked in the Prarie on the top of the Bluff and observed the most butifull prospects imaginable, this Prarie is Covered with grass about 10 or 12 Inch high… under those high Lands…the river is butifull Bottom interspersed with Groves of timber, the River may be Seen for a great Distance”.
As we journeyed further up the Missouri, I wanted to make a stop at the grave of Charles Floyd, the man who Lewis could not save. Floyd died on August 20, 1804 and was buried with military honors in a grave which has since been moved a few times up and off the ever-changing Missouri in present-day Sioux City, Iowa. When Floyd died, just months into the start of their journey, the Corps must have wondered how many more of them would succumb to illness or injury and never make it back. We learned that on their return trip two years later, the Corp made a solemn stop to pay homage to Floyd at his gravesite. They discovered that Floyd’s gravesite had been disturbed and Clark ordered it properly filled in with soil before they returned down river, now with the realization, remarkably, that Floyd had been the only casualty of the expedition. Later, this National Park Service monument was erected on the site.
We experienced the lush green hills and open prairies changing into the open sky and vast expanses of the Dakotas. Near present-day Pierre, South Dakota we spent three days exploring the site of the first open confrontation between the Corps and the Brule band of the Teton Sioux. The Corps met with three chiefs over a series of days holding council, feasting and celebrating. They offered them the usual trinkets and gifts that they had planned to exchange. What they failed to fully comprehend was that the Brule had established themselves as successful traders along this section of the Missouri. Defending their established routes was an economic imperative and the Corps was not prepared for the rigor of their negotiations. The chiefs demanded more that the medals and gifts the Captains offered. One chief seized the mast of the pirogue in which he had been riding and a skirmish nearly turned violent as warriors on the shore drew their bows. Clark drew his sword. The Corps loaded their weapons. One of the other chiefs, Black Buffalo, managed to restore order and avoid serious violence in one of the most tense meetings of the entire expedition.
This encounter is a detail from history that we didn’t learn in school. In fact, the Corps was stumbling into an economic system that had been well-established between and among the indigenous tribes and later with the Europeans who, for about 100 years, ventured up and down the major rivers. The British and French had set up some trading posts along the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri in the mid-1700s but the Americans, after the Louisiana Purchase, traveled with the intent on exploring the rivers, looking for the passage to the Pacific, and establishing their superior position over previous European traders. In addition, the Corps announced that all the land which the tribes lived on now belonged to the “Great Father” in Washington, DC and that he would tend to “his children”, a detail that was often misunderstood in translation. Certainly, the challenge of the different languages these 50 tribes spoke contributed to the problem. However, of even greater significance was the concept of the ownership of the land. For example, the land and all creation, for the Oglala Sioux, “are the works of the Great Spirit.” All creation enjoyed a relationship that was intimate and interchangeable and required constant attention and reverence. For the Chinook along the Columbia River, occupancy and use of land was managed by key leaders who regulated access, prohibiting trespassing and charging a “tribute” for others to use prized Chinook fishing grounds. Both the fluidity and the variability of the tribal beliefs were incompatible with what President Jefferson believed. For him, the economic future of the now-expanded country lay in the civic virtues of the yeoman farmer who owned his own land and therefore, had a stake in the nation. This significant ideological conflict, along with many others, would prove disastrous for the indigenous people as the settling of the West unfolded, a realization too profound for this blog.
Next, we journeyed into North Dakota and the Knife River Villages. These five villages included two Mandan and three Hidatsa settlements who lived in earth lodges (see below). We learned that the Corps arrived there in December 1804 after following maps that had been developed by French trappers and traders. The most reliable one had been created between 1795-1797 by John Evans and James Mackay. Mackay had actually met with Clark in January 1804 to discuss his findings and the map. Clark relied on its accuracy and landed in the Knife River Villages, spending 156 days there. Clark created his own map of the villages which appears below.
Upon arriving at Knife River, the Corps was told that they would need to build a fort for themselves quickly in preparation for the imminent winter. This information made it very clear that the survival of the Corps was deeply tied to the guidance and instructions from the tribes they met. We discovered that the journals of Clark and Lewis are full of dozens of names of chiefs from the tribes they met who helped and instructed them along the way. Here in Mandan Village the chief, Sheheke, promised the captains that through the winter, “if we eat, you eat; if we starve, you starve”. It was as good as it was going to get as the men built Fort Mandan a couple of miles from Villages. That winter saw temperatures the men had never before experienced. On December 17, 1804, Clark wrote, “about 8:00, pm, the thermometer fell to 74 below the freezing point.” The snow and bitter cold led them to hunker down some days with temperatures too cold to even hunt. They relied on trading for squash, corn, sunflower cakes, and dried squash, shown above. This was the winter they hired Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trader who lived among the Hidatsa and could speak both Hidatsa and French. His second wife, Sakakewa, was delivered of a son, Jean-Baptiste in February (Lewis acted as the midwife in the difficult delivery) and their presence on the journey the spring of 1806 had remarkable effects on the success and the survival of the expedition. We learned that when tribes realized that a woman and a baby were traveling with the Corps, it signified the strangers came in peace since war parties never traveled with women and children.
By April 1805, the Corps was ready to head west once again. They were now entering interior territory virtually unexplored by any white people and this time, there were no reliable maps to follow. They relied on the information from the indigenous people whose trade routes were long-standing. From them, they were told of some great falls further up the Missouri which they would have to portage. This portage is a stunning example of the complexity of the journey. The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls, Montana is one of the best we have encountered. Here we learned that Lewis had set out in advance to scope out what the falls were all about. He was completely in awe of the majesty of the sight of the five waterfalls that he encountered, each more stunning and majestic than the next. Upon returning to camp, he told Clark that this was not going to be one half-day portage. Instead it would require a grueling 18-mile trek around the falls lasting nearly one month.
Clark wrote on June 20, 1805, “we all believe we are about to enter on the most perilous and difficult part of our voyage”. It was an understatement. From June 22 to July 2, the Corps was stretched to the limits pushing and dragging the heavy loads uphill from the river over gullies and up steep hills to the prairies. The life-size diorama in the Center is fabulous. Their moccasins were punctured by cactus, the blazing heat and then downpours of rain were intermingled with a sudden hailstorm with hail the size of golf balls which pelted the men as they labored. The schedule for their progress was seriously impacted by the challenges of the geography for which they were ill-prepared. The test of their endurance led Clark to write, “all appear perfectly to have made up they minds, to Succeed in the expedition or perish in the attempt”. When the once again reached the Missouri, the Captains realized the delay meant they would not reach the Pacific in 1805. There was not enough time and the other challenge the Knife River people mentioned still lay ahead.
They had been told of a range of “shining mountains” and crossing them would be only possible with horses which the Shoshone had and they would have to trade with them. Plans were made to hire guides and translators to facilitate this. Here’s a surprising detail we learned about the complexities of the communications issues the Corps faced. Here is the way it worked in one simple example of Clark asking the Shoshone to trade for some horses. First, Clark would make a statement in English. One of the interpreters who spoke English would then translate it to French. A French-speaker would then translate it into Hidatsa so a fourth translation could go from Hidatsa to Shoshone, the language that the horse-owners spoke. Then, the entire process reversed when the Shoshone made their response: Shoshone-Hidatsa-French-English. Not an easy task and no wonder the nuances of language and customs got sticky in the process.
The divergence in the cultures of the indigenous people is evident in these historic photos taken a century after the Corps visited. They were not a monolithic people who could be generalized. Lewis and Clark were ill-prepared for the complexity of this reality since their military timeline allowed them a pre-eminent focus – attempt to find the inland waterway to the Pacific and map it. One historian wrote that because Lewis and Clark had to keep moving, they were more like tourists than diplomats. And the repercussions of that is evident to this day.
The Corps still had about 800 miles to journey before arriving at the Pacific Ocean, a trip that Clark estimated at 4,100 miles. We are ending this narrative here after sharing some of the most significant of the insights from this initial experience with a more behind-the-scenes look at the Corps.
Liz and Peter continue their pilgrimage to here in year eight, traveling the country in their Airstream and keeping the notebooks close by for all that interesting detail.
Loved this post-so informative and such a vivid picture of all they went through! Thank you!