There must have been times when the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition wished they didn’t have ships — especially when they had to carry their heavy wooden canoes 18 miles around the Great Falls on the Missouri River, taking 15 days, while leaving their bigger boats behind.
President Thomas Jefferson had sent earlier expeditions west of the Mississippi to explore the West — and look for an inland water route to the Pacific Ocean.
In January 1803, he ordered his personal secretary Army Capt. Meriwether Lewis to organize a new secret expedition. Lewis invited his fellow officer and friend 2nd Lt. William Clark to join as co-commanders — calling each other “Captain,” even though Secretary of War Henry Dearborn denied Lewis’ request for a shared command at rank of captain.
Five months later on May 2, Jefferson made that mission far more important with the Louisiana Purchase, buying 828,000 square miles of North America from France for $15 million — Napoleon needing the money for his costly military ventures.
The United States was suddenly double in size.
In the next two and a half years, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery would travel some 8,000 miles to explore the wilderness west of the Mississippi.
The new secret expedition was no longer secret.
The Pittsburg Post-Gazette much later reported, “Jefferson and Lewis wanted to keep the expedition quiet, so much so that Jefferson’s request for funds from Congress was confidential. Jefferson and Lewis even devised a secret code for their communications but apparently never used it.
“Why so hush-hush? Jefferson wanted Lewis and Clark to favorably influence the native tribes toward Americans before settlers swarmed over their lands, but he also feared that his political enemies might use the expedition against him.”
Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis and Clark were: “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, & such principle stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce.”
The Army expedition would need their own little navy to do the job, so Jefferson asked Congress for $2,500 to acquire boats, recruit men and buy supplies, including simple “Dollar Tree-type” gifts for the Indians and silver Jefferson Peace medallions for their chiefs.
With his orders from the Commander-in-Chief, Lewis headed to Philadelphia for instruction in botany, celestial navigation, medicine and zoology. He also bought supplies and spent $20 on a black Newfoundland dog he named Seaman.
Lewis spent a great deal of time reading books in the library at Jefferson’s Monticello estate, while also being groomed by the president himself in geography, science, politics, American Indians and diplomacy.
Others tutoring the 30-year-old Army officer were astronomer Andrew Ellicott, botanist Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton, surveyor and mathematician Robert Patterson, physician Dr. Benjamin Rush and anatomist Dr. Caspar Wistar.
In July 1803, Lewis left Washington for Harpers Ferry, where a National Park Service report says, “he picked up the more than 3,500 pounds of supplies and equipment he had amassed to take overland to the Pittsburgh area.
“The Harpers Ferry-made items probably included 15 rifles, 24 pipe tomahawks, 36 tomahawks for American Indian presents, 24 large knives, 15 powder horns and pouches, 15 pairs of bullet molds, 15 wipers or gun worms, 15 ball screws, 15 gun slings, extra parts of locks and tools for replacing arms, 40 fish gigs such as the Indians use with a single barb point, 1 small grindstone and the collapsible iron frame for a canoe,” that Lewis designed.
The “canoe” was more like the frame for a basket-shaped Bull Boat to be covered with hides, and used in waters where the bigger boats couldn’t operate.
For six weeks, Lewis was holed up in Elizabeth, Pa., (north of Pittsburg) waiting for completion of the expedition’s 55-foot-long flagship keelboat. When the boat was finally finished, he and a crew of nine headed down the Ohio River to St. Charles, Mo.; stopping at Louisville to pick up Clark and the men he was training.
They also acquired two large rowboats with sails called pirogues — calling one the “Red Boat” and the other the “White Boat” for easy identification.
Backup power were wooden poles.
Recruiting more volunteers along the way, the Corps wintered at Fort Dubois that they built on the banks of River Dubois near Hartford, Ill.
On May 14, 1804, Clark led the Corps’ 33 volunteers up the Missouri with their “fleet” of one keelboat and two smaller pirogue boats — rowing 15 miles per day, while being annoyed by swarms of insects and strong river currents.
A week later, Lewis left St. Louis and joined them in St. Charles.
Expedition discipline was tough. Missteps could bring hard labor and lashes across a bare back.
In late June, Pvt. John Collins broke into supplies and got drunk while on guard duty, inviting Pvt. Hugh Hall to join him. Both were court marshaled in the field. Collins received 100 lashes and Hall 50.
In mid-July, Pvt. Alexander Hamilton Willard received 100 lashes over four days for sleeping while on guard duty.
All could have received a death sentence.
Three months later John Newman was court-marshaled and received 75 lashes for “having uttered repeated expressions of a highly criminal and mutinous nature.”
Then north of today’s Council Bluffs, Iowa, Pvt. Moses B. Reed said he’d lost his knife and was going to look for it — but instead deserted. George Drouillard and three others succeeded in finding him and brought him back to camp.
His punishment was “running the gauntlet” four times, being beaten with switches by men on both sides. He was banished from the Corps but assigned to hard labor until they could send him back to St. Louis in the spring.
On Oct. 24, the expedition reached the Mandan and Hidatsa villages in North Dakota. With weather getting colder, the Corps decided to build Fort Mandan and winter there.
That’s where French-Canadian trapper Toussaint Charbonneau and his pregnant Lemhi Shoshone Indian wife, Sacagawea, were hired as guides and interpreters.
When Sacagawea gave birth to Jean Baptiste, Clark nicknamed him “Pompy” or “Pomp.”
In April 1805, the keelboat was loaded with animals and artifacts for President Jefferson and headed down the Missouri to St. Louis. Also on board were some of the troublesome men.
One trunk and four boxes contained pelts, horns, animal skeletons, specimens of dried plants, soil, minerals and insects; Mandan and Hidatsa artifacts and Arikara tobacco and tobacco seed.
Three cages carried a live prairie dog, a sharp-tailed grouse and four magpies.
Jefferson received most of it, but only the prairie dog and one magpie survived.
On April 7, 1805, the permanent party left Fort Mandan with just six canoes and two pirogues. The following month, a sudden storm upended a pirogue, dumping the Corps’ journals and other important supplies into the river. Alertly, Sacagawea rescued most of it — earning praise from the two captains.
The Great Falls of the Missouri stopped the two pirogues, and where the small boat Lewis invented was abandoned because they couldn’t find any tar or resin to patch the leaks.
The boat was buried in a cache with other supplies for later. They did eventually reclaim the cache but nobody knows what happened to Lewis’ boat after that.
From then on the transportation would be on foot, in canoes or horseback.
The Corps met Sacagawea’s Shoshoni and obtained the horses from them, but had to carve their own canoes.
After crossing the daunting Bitterroot Mountains, the expedition met the Nez Perce, paddled canoes down the Columbia, reached the Pacific Ocean and built Fort Clatsop, where they wintered.
Then they started the long journey back to St. Louis.
In addition to their keelboat and two pirogues, the expedition added 13 canoes they hollowed out of logs and obtained two more from Indians — one bought, one stolen — and also built three bull boats and a raft.
None survived. No one even knows what happened to the flagship keelboat.
Almost all watercraft end badly, but Lewis and Clark’s tiny boats played a big role in the early American West and deserve to be remembered.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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There were plenty of injuries, illnesses and disciplinary lashings during the Lewis and Clark expedition — but only one fatality. He was the Corps’ quartermaster, 22-year-old Sergeant Charles Floyd who died of an abdominal infection — possibly appendicitis. He was buried on the banks of the Missouri in today’s Sioux City, Iowa — the burial site America’s first National Historic Landmark.
After the expedition…
After the Lewis and Clark expedition ended, Lewis became governor of Upper Louisiana Territory and Clark an Indian agent. The rest of the men scattered — some staying in the military while others turned to fur trading, farming or faded into history. The Charbonneau family moved to St. Louis and William Clark helped raise their son Pomp — paying for his education at the Jesuit St. Louis Academy. Pomp had an adventurous life and became fluent in English, German, French and Spanish.
After the Lewis and Clark expedition ended on Sept. 23, 1806, a grand reception was held in St. Louis. Congress awarded the two leaders 1,600 acres of land each, and their men received 320 acres each. Everyone received double pay — except Sacagawea who received nothing.
Hard times on the trail…
One report described how tough the portage was for the Lewis and Clark expedition around the Great Falls: “The ground was rocky, uneven, and hard. Prickly pear cactuses were everywhere. The Corps wore through their moccasins every two days. The intense heat of the summer sun was interrupted by violent storms, with thunder, rain, and hailstones the size of eggs. Swarms of gnats and mosquitoes pestered them. Rattlesnakes and grizzly bears were a constant threat.”
President Jefferson wanted Lewis and Clark to open good relations with Native Americans in the West that were sometimes hostile. Adding Sacagawea and her baby Jean Baptiste to the expedition had an unexpected benefit — their presence helped convince suspicious Indians that the expedition was on a peaceful mission.
Mystery boat builders…
To this day, it’s still unclear where the Lewis and Clark keelboat and pirogues were built — Pittsburg, Elizabeth or elsewhere.
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