Modern history

CHAPTER NINE

Down the Ohio

September–November 1803

Lewis had proceeded only three miles when he pulled over at an island and at the request of the pioneers living on it gave a demonstration of his air gun, purchased from gunsmith Isaiah Lukens of Philadelphia. It was a pneumatic rifle. The stock was the reservoir, and it could be pumped full of air to a pressure of five to six hundred psi, at which point it was not much inferior in hitting power to the Kentucky rifle. That it produced no smoke or noise astonished the frontiersmen.1

Lewis fired seven times at fifty-five yards “with pretty good success.” He passed the curiosity around for examination. It went off accidentally; the ball passed through the hat of a woman about forty yards off, “cuting her temple; she fell instantly and the blood gusing from her temple. we were all in the greatest consternation supposed she was dead but in a minute she revived to our enespressable satisfaction, and by examination we found the wound by no means mortal or even dangerous.” Never again did he pass the air gun around when it was pumped up and loaded.

The expedition returned to the river. After a mile or so, “we were obledged to get out all hands and lift the boat over about thirty yards.” Then another ripple. And another. The captain got out too, and pulled or lifted. Twice. A third time. Fortunately, the water was temperate, but when Lewis had the boat put ashore for the night, having gone only ten miles downstream, he “was much fatiegued after labouring with my men all day. Gave my men some whiskey and retired to rest at 8 OClock.”2

That was the first entry in what became the journals of Lewis and Clark.I The journals are one of America’s literary treasures. Throughout, they tell their story in fascinating detail. They have a driving narrative that is compelling, yet they pause for little asides and anecdotes that make them a delight to read. Their images are so sharp they all but force the reader to put down the book, close the eyes, and see what the captains saw, hear what they heard. The journals never flash back or forward. From start to finish, they stick to the present. The more closely they are read, the greater the reward.

Theodore Roosevelt, no stranger to adventure, said this about the journals: “Few explorers who saw and did so much that was absolutely new have written of their deeds with such quiet absence of boastfulness, and have drawn their descriptions with such complete freedom from exaggeration.”3

It is not known when Lewis made entries in the journals. Not even the first entry. Did Lewis write it that night, before blowing out his candle? Or the next morning, on the boat? Or a week or so later, at a weather-enforced halt? There is an extensive literature on the subject, capped by an essay by Gary Moulton in the introduction to volume 2 of the modern edition of the journals. Moulton concludes, “Most of the material we now have was written by the captains in the course of the expedition.” Not all, just most. Moulton adds that it cannot be said when during the expedition the entries were written, whether on the day of the event or a few days or even a few months later. Never mind: as Moulton remarks, in reading the journals “we are in a sense traveling with the captains and sharing their day-by-day experiences and uncertainties.”4

There is another, more important and tantalizing mystery. Lewis began his journal the day he began the expedition, August 31, 1803. He was a faithful recorder of flora and fauna, weather, the difficulties of getting down the river, unusual occurrences, people encountered. The journal, a combination travelogue and record, a description of matters new to science and of geography, and much more, obviously meant a great deal to him, and he was well aware of its importance to the success of the expedition. And he clearly enjoyed writing, thinking through the events of the day and sorting them out and making sense out of them in very long, very complex sentences that often threatened to get completely out of control but were always rescued by the last verb. Geographer Paul Russell Cutright speaks of “Lewis’s recurrent artistry in stringing apt words together colorfully,” and notes that among his virtues as a writer were “his sizable working vocabulary, his quietly authoritative statements, his active unrestrained interest in all natural phenomena, his consistent adherence to truth and, above all, his wide command of adjectives, verbs and nouns which repeatedly give color to his sentences.”5

Yet there are long periods—months at a time, nearly a year in one case—for which few and only sporadic journal entries by Lewis are known to exist. These gaps include September 19 to November 11, 1803; May 14, 1804, to April 7, 1805; August 26, 1805, to January 1, 1806; and from August 12 to the end of September 1806.

There is no explanation for the gaps. Possibly he was depressed, or maybe it was just a severe case of writer’s block. Neither explanation seems likely, however. In any event, as Moulton warns, no one is ready to say that no Lewis journal exists for those gaps, because scholars are always discovering new documentation about the expedition.

So maybe the entries Lewis made for those dates are just lost. But that too seems unlikely, because of internal evidence and because there exists no known letter lamenting the loss of daily journals kept by Lewis, either at the time or after his death.6 Meanwhile, we are grateful for what we do have.

On the morning of September 1, fog over the river kept Lewis and his party ashore until 8:00 a.m. Lewis took care to load as much as possible in the pirogue, to lighten the load in the boat, but nevertheless ripples and shoals forced him again and again to unload and then lift the empty boat over the obstacle. At the last ripple of the day, Lewis was forced to seek out a local pioneer and hire a team of oxen to pull the boat off. The expedition made but ten miles.

September 2 was a repeat performance. The water was the lowest ever seen on the Ohio, sometimes but six inches deep, so low and clear Lewis could see catfish, pike, bass, and “stergeon” swimming. Stuck again, Lewis went ashore to hire a horse and an ox. “Payd the man his charge which was one dollar,” Lewis noted in his journal. Then he passed his judgment on the Ohio River pioneers, circa 1803: “The inhabitants who live ner these riffles live much by the distresed situation of the traveller [They] are gnerally lazy charge extravegantly when they are called on for assistance and have no filantrophy or contience.”

On the 3rd, at dawn, the air temperature was sixty-three, that of the river seventy-five. Lewis noted that “the fogg thus prodused is impenetrably thick at this moment” (one of the few times Lewis makes a reference to his precise time of writing). The party made six miles that day; Lewis discharged one of the men, for reasons unstated.

The following day, Lewis purchased another pirogue, for eleven dollars. He was cheated; it leaked badly. Goods got wet; guns began to rust. The party pulled over and spent the afternoon airing the articles, oiling the rifles, putting perishables into oilcloth bags, and otherwise repairing the damage. Lewis hired another hand, to replace the man dismissed.

On September 6, the wind came up strong from the north in a stretch of river free of ripples. Lewis hoisted the foresail on the mast and experienced the inexpressible joy of running downstream with a wind dead astern and a good sail to catch the power of that wind. “We run two miles in a few minutes,” Lewis wrote, almost unbelieving. Unfortunately, the wind strengthened to the point where Lewis was obliged to haul in the sail lest it carry away the mast.

At the next ripple, the exhilaration gave way to consternation. Lewis hoisted the mainsail on the mast to run the stuck boat over the ripple, only to break the crosspiece. “My men woarn down by perpetual lifting,” Lewis wrote, “I was obliged again to have recourse to horses or oxen.” He went to “Stewbenville,” on the Ohio bank of the river, and found it a “small well built thriving place has several respectable families residing in it, five yers since it was a wilderness.” He got the oxen and soon was afloat again. He concluded his entry with the sad news that, on the day during which he had covered two miles in but a few minutes, his total mileage for the day was but ten.

On September 7, he reached Wheeling, Virginia, which he found to be “a pretty considerable Village of fifty houses.” He dined that evening with Dr. William Patterson, son of the Robert Patterson of Philadelphia who had been one of Lewis’s teachers. Young Patterson was enthusiastic about Lewis’s expedition. “He expressed a great desire to go with me,” Lewis recorded, and Lewis was receptive, at least in part because Patterson had the largest collection of medicines west of the mountains—a pharmacy worth one hundred pounds.

Lewis told Patterson that a doctor was not authorized, but if he went on to St. Louis, where Lewis expected to spend the winter, there would be an opportunity to get Jefferson’s authorization for Patterson to join the party.

This was Lewis’s first admission that he would not have time to ascend the Missouri River for any distance at all before winter set in. Progress down the Ohio was so excruciatingly slow, he had to adjust. But he was eager to get going. Lewis told Patterson to be ready by 3:00 p.m. on September 9 and they’d be off together. Wouldn’t miss it for the world, the doctor replied.

In Wheeling, Lewis picked up the shipment of rifles and ammunition he had sent overland from Pittsburgh and found it in good order. To carry it, he purchased another pirogue. That took up the better part of the day on September 9. By midafternoon, everything was finally packed and ready to go—but no sign of Dr. Patterson.

Lewis shoved off. That night, he opened his journal entry on a laconic note: “The Dr. could not get ready I waited untill three this evening and then set out.” Thus did Dr. Patterson miss the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It was undoubtedly just as well; his reputation was one of constant drunkenness, which may well have been the cause of his being late.

That night, the rain came down in torrents. Lewis covered the pirogues with oilcloth to no avail. He was up past midnight in a cold rain, wet to the skin. Finally, “I wrung out my saturated clothes, put on a dry shirt and turned into my birth.” In the morning, he stopped at an Indian earth mound on the Virginia bank and described it in considerable detail. Even with the stop, he made his best distance to date, twenty-four miles, because the river below Wheeling was relatively free of riffles and other obstructions. The next day, September 11, it was twenty-six miles. The highlight of the day was a performance by Seaman, Lewis’s Newfoundland, described by Lewis as “very active strong and docile.”

Squirrels were migrating across the Ohio River, north to south, for reasons obscure to Lewis, since their principal food, hickory nuts, was in abundance on both banks.II Seaman started barking at them; Lewis let him go; Seaman swam out, grabbed a squirrel, killed him, and fetched him back to Lewis, who sent the dog out for repeated performances. Lewis had the squirrels fried and declared “they were fat and I thought a plesent food.”

On the morning of September 13, Lewis saw another natural-history phenomenon: passenger pigeons flying over the river, north to south, on their migration. They flew in such great flocks they obscured the sun.

The river he was descending continued to broaden and deepen. It still sparkled in the sunlight, especially as the angle of the sun on the water became more acute with the shorter days. The water was dark, almost black, after the recent heavy rains. The banks were lined with hardwoods, deep green, enclosing. All the sounds on the river, other than the splash of the oars, were from nature’s chorus—frogs and birds mainly, and the wind through the trees.

Although clearings were rare and villages even rarer, this was not wilderness. Lewis and at least some of the men in the boat party had been down the river before, as had thousands of other Americans. It had been mapped, so Lewis had no reason to use his instruments to determine longitude and latitude. Still, it was wild enough to suit.

When Lewis pulled into Marietta at 2:00 p.m., he was in high spirits. He wrote a report to Jefferson, outlining his progress since Wheeling, describing his several methods for getting over obstructions, and indulging himself in a little joke: “Horses or oxen are the last resort; I find them the most efficient sailors in the [riffles], altho’ they may be considered somewhat clumsey.”7

Marietta, founded in 1788, was the oldest settlement in Ohio. Only a handful of children had been born there; indeed, only a few adult residents had been born in Ohio. Lewis spent a night there. He dismissed two of the men, for unstated reasons, reducing his party to a dozen. He had a visit with Colonel Griffin Greene, one of the founders of Marietta “and an excelant republican.” That last qualification had gotten Greene the appointment as postmaster.

Two men got drunk in the village and failed to report back to the boat. In the morning, Lewis went looking for them, found them “so drunk that they were unable to help themselves,” had them picked up and thrown into the boat, and set off.

As the expedition got lower on the river, it entered country in which, Lewis wrote on September 14, “the fever and ague and bilious fevers commence their banefull oppression and continue through the whole course of the river with increasing violence as you approach it’s mouth.”

Lewis was referring to malaria, which was endemic in the Ohio, Mississippi, and lower Missouri Valleys. He knew it well from his experiences on the Ohio during his travels as paymaster, and anticipated it. Malaria was the most common disease in the country, especially on the frontier, where it was so inescapable that many refused to regard it as a disease: like hard work, it was just a part of life. Jefferson had it. It may have been the illness that forced Clark to resign his commission in 1796.8

No one knew what caused malaria. Dr. Rush’s opinion was bad air, rising from swamps. He was on the edge of seeing the mosquito as the culprit, but never quite got there. The good doctor was helping one of his University of Pennsylvania graduate students in his research. S. Ffirth was doing his thesis on causation of malaria. The general view was that epidemics resulted from “contagium,” meaning the fevers were transmitted by direct contact between people. Ffirth wanted to see whether this was true.

Ffirth’s research methods were crude, heroic, and reckless. They demonstrated the almost total ignorance that the best-trained specialists of the era wallowed in, with regard to disease; as in means of transportation, mankind had made virtually no progress in the previous two thousand years. Ffirth inhaled vapors from black vomit taken from malaria or yellow-fever patients. He injected the vomit into the stomachs and veins of cats and dogs, and into his own body. Neither the cats and dogs nor Ffirth got malaria. He completed his research in June 1804, and reported his conclusion: the “autumnal disease” (yet another name for malaria) was not contagious.9

Whether Lewis met Ffirth is unknown. That Lewis talked about malaria with Dr. Rush is apparent, because he spent one-third of his medical budget on the purchase of Peruvian bark for his “armamentarium.” For the thirty dollars, Lewis got fifteen pounds of the Peruvian bark. It came from a South American tree and contained many alkaloids, the most important being quinine and quinidine. Lewis had it in a powder form. It was considered sovereign for malaria, and rightly so; later in the nineteenth century, quinine became the drug of choice for the disease. One medical historian calls it “the drug that changed the destinies of nations,” because “it alone made possible the invasion and exploitation of tropical countries.”10

Quinine copes with rather than completely cures the disease. Recurrences are common to sufferers. The best preventive was to avoid getting bitten by infected mosquitoes—easier said than done, of course; even had he known that it was the mosquitoes transmitting the malaria, Lewis could have done little about it.

He had armed himself for the war against mosquitoes. In Philadelphia, he had purchased “Muscatoe Curtains” and “8 ps. Cat Gut for Mosquito Curtains,” and two hundred pounds of tallow mixed with fifty pounds of hog’s lard. The lard served a double purpose: insect repellent and a base for pemmican.11

Lewis took mosquitoes seriously, but his preparations were entirely defensive. Neither he nor anyone else alive in 1803 had the slightest idea how to take the offensive against them. Nor did anyone understand how serious was the battle against them. Lewis thought of the mosquitoes as a pest, not a threat.

Nor did he ever learn how to spell his enemies’ name. His usual spelling, repeated at least twenty-five times, was “musquetoe.” Clark was more inventive: he had at least twenty variations, ranging from “mesquetors” through “misqutr” to “musquetors.”12

In many ways, the trip down the Ohio was a shakedown voyage for the boat and pirogues. Getting the packing right, for example, was a constant learning process. On September 15, it rained hard for six hours. Lewis kept paddling, and made eighteen miles. The following day, it was nineteen miles, but by dusk “my men were very much fatigued.” The next morning, the expedition came to a long sandbar. It was “a handsome clean place,” so Lewis decided to spend the day opening and drying his goods, “which I had found were wet by the rain on the 15th,” even though he had wrapped them securely in oilcloths and had the canoes constantly bailed during the course of the day. The guns, tomahawks, and knives were rusting. Lewis had them oiled and exposed to the sun. Clothing of “every discription also was opened and aired.” All hands, including the captain’s, were kept busy in this enterprise from 10:00 a.m. to sunset, when Lewis had the canoes reloaded, this time paying more attention to getting vulnerable items up off the canoe bottom.

From Marietta it was about one hundred miles southwest to the point where Ohio, Virginia, and Kentucky joined, then another hundred or so to Cincinnati. The river was deep, the weather fine; Lewis covered the two hundred miles in two weeks without incident.

He stayed in the Cincinnati area for a week, to rest his men, take on provisions, do some research for Jefferson, and write two letters. The first was to Clark in Louisville, in reply to a letter of August 21 which Lewis had just picked up.

Clark reported that he had many applicants for the expedition “from stout likely fellows,” but he was putting them on hold until Lewis got to Louisville and could look them over. Clark pointed out what he knew Lewis already knew, that “a judicious choice of our party is of the greatest importance to the success of this vast enterprise.”

On a more general note, Clark concluded, “I am happy to here of the Session of Louisiana to the united States, this is an inestimable treasure to the Western People, who appear to feel its value.”13

Lewis responded by reporting his progress and discussing the selection of men for the voyage up the Missouri. He said he liked Clark’s ideas on the need for “a judicious selection,” and that he had two young men with him, “taken on trial, conditionally only, tho’ I think they will answer tolerably well.” Apparently he meant John Colter and George Shannon. Obviously he meant that Clark would have a veto over his choices, just as he would over Clark’s.14 Lewis and Clark had not been together in seven years, but even before they met their partnership was flourishing, their trust in each other’s judgment complete. There were no perils in divided command for this pair.

The second letter was to Jefferson. Lewis reported on his visit to Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, some twenty miles southwest of Cincinnati. Earlier in the year, Dr. William Goforth had discovered there the bones of a mammoth. Evidently Jefferson had urged Lewis to visit the site. Lewis did, and sent in a mammoth report on the mammoth, including 2,064 words to describe “a tusk of an immence size,” along with some specimens of bones.

Lewis asked the president to send him “some of the Vaxcine matter, as I have reason to believe from several experiments made with what I have, that it has lost it’s virtue.”15 He intended to use it to vaccinate against the smallpox. This too was a favorite subject of Jefferson’s, who had sponsored the use of the cowpox and had inoculated himself and his family. The wording of the letter indicates that it was Jefferson who had provided Lewis with cowpox to bring to the frontier and to the Indians, and instructed him in its use.16 The big problem, as Lewis’s request reflects, was keeping the vaccine alive. When no scab formed where Lewis scratched the cowpox vaccine into a patient’s arm, Lewis knew it was no longer virile.

Lewis concluded his letter to Jefferson with a statement of intentions. “As this Session of Congress has commenced,” he began, and as for a variety of reasons, his progress had been delayed, “and feeling as I do in the most anxious manner a wish to keep them [the politicians] in a good humour on the subject of the expedicion in which I am engaged, I have concluded to make a tour this winter on horseback of some hundred miles through the most interesting portion of the country adjoining my winter establishment.”

He said he would go up the Kansas River toward Santa Fe, and he proposed to have Clark make his own “excurtion throgh some other portion of the country.” That way, by the end of February, he would be able to send Jefferson “such information relative to that Country which, if it does not produce a conviction of the utility of this project, will at least procure the further toleration of the expedition.”17

Here was the president’s aide at work, a zealot protecting his boss from the Federalist jackels in Congress. Here was the partisan politician, trying to give his party a winning issue in the upcoming (1804) presidential campaign. Here too was the young adventurer, resigned to having to build a winter camp near St. Louis rather than getting on up the Missouri a few hundred miles, his mind alive with possibilities during the brilliant fall afternoons on the Ohio, refusing to submit to the anticipated dullness of an army-camp life for five months. But, alive though his mind was, here was a young man who had not thought things through.

This was the first Jefferson knew that Lewis had abandoned hope of getting up the Missouri before winter. He accepted the decision—indeed, endorsed it heartily—because he wanted Lewis to spend the winter gathering information in St. Louis, not out on the Kansas prairie, and because the expedition could draw its rations from the U.S. Army posts on the Mississippi, thus not depleting the stores for the voyage. So, as commander-in-chief, Jefferson had said directly to Lewis, “I leave it to your own judgment” as to where to spend the winter.

Not that the president had a lot of choice. The mails moved so slowly there was not the slightest possibility of Jefferson’s giving Lewis orders that could arrive in time to be acted on. Jefferson did not receive Lewis’s letter until mid-November; his reply did not reach Lewis until January.

Still, Jefferson tried to take control, because he was so alarmed by Lewis’s proposal to set off on a midwinter exploration toward Santa Fe, into the part of the continent clearly Spanish and, because of its gold and silver mines, a part about which the Spanish were extremely sensitive. The great danger involved led Jefferson to issue a direct order, hoping it would arrive in time: “You must not undertake the winter excursion which you propose in yours of Oct. 3.”

Lewis’s proposal caused Jefferson great worry, not just about the dangers, but about Lewis’s judgment. Thus there is a note of suppressed alarm in his response. He could hardly remove Lewis from the command, but he could try to get Lewis to think of first things first. Jefferson wrote: “The object of your mission is single, the direct water communication from sea to sea formed by the bed of the Missouri & perhaps the Oregon.”

That was the most succinct statement about the purpose of the expedition Jefferson ever wrote.

He explained that the dangers of a Santa Fe trip would be greater than those Lewis would face on the Missouri, because the Spanish armed forces would be almost certain to arrest and detain him if he went southwest, but leave him alone on the Missouri, since that was now American territory. As to Clark’s proposed excursion, Jefferson wrote: “By having Mr. Clarke with you we consider the expedition double manned, & therefore the less liable to failure, for which reason neither of you should be exposed to risques by going off of your line.”

The Louisiana Purchase had another impact on the goals of the expedition. Jefferson described the boundaries of Louisiana as “the high lands inclosing all the waters which run into the Missisipi or Missouri directly or indirectly.” That was stretching the boundaries a bit, perhaps—no one really knew—but, as Jefferson explained, “it therefore becomes interesting to fix with precision by celestial observations the longitude & latitude of the sources of those rivers.”

What he meant, or hoped for, was that northern tributaries of the Missouri would extend well north of the forty-ninth parallel, deep into the fur-rich country of western Canada. If so, that territory wasn’t western Canada; it was the property of the United States.III Jefferson didn’t want to risk not finding out because his young captain had indulged himself in a joy ride. He concluded his letter by repeating his order that Lewis stick to his assigned missions, which were “not to be delayed or hazarded by any episodes whatever.”18

On October 4 or 5, Lewis pushed his boat and pirogues back into the river and headed west for the falls of the Ohio, some one hundred miles downstream. On October 14, he was at the head of the falls, which were actually long rapids created by a twenty-four-foot drop of the river over a two-mile-long series of limestone ledges. At the foot of the rapids, on the north bank, was Clarksville, Indiana Territory. Louisville, Kentucky, was on the south bank. On October 15, Lewis hired local pilots, who took the boat and pirogues into the dangerous but passable passage on the north bank.19 Safely through, Lewis tied up at Clarksville and set off to meet his partner, who was living with his older brother, General George Rogers Clark.

When they shook hands, the Lewis and Clark Expedition began.

Each man was about six feet tall and broad-shouldered. Each was rugged in the face, Clark somewhat more so than Lewis, who had a certain delicacy to his profile. Their bodies were rawboned and muscled, with no fat. Their hands—sunburned, like their faces, even this late in the season—were big, rough, strong, capable, confident. Each man was long-legged. Just a glimpse of their stride across a porch, or at how they seated themselves, showed the physical coordination of an athlete. Each, probably, was dressed in fringed buckskin. And who can doubt that, as they stuck out their hands to each other, both men had smiles on their faces that were as broad as the Ohio River, as big as their ambitions and dreams.

Oh! To have been able to hear the talk on the porch that afternoon, and on into the evening, and through the night. There would have been whiskey—General Clark was the host, and General Clark was a heavy drinker. There would have been tables groaning under the weight of pork, beef, venison, duck, goose, fish, fresh bread, apples, fresh milk, and more.

There were the two would-be heroes with the authentic older hero, all three Virginians, all three soldiers, all three Republicans, all three great talkers, full of ideas and images and memories and practical matters and grand philosophy, of Indians and bears and mountains never before seen. Excitement and joy ran through their questions and answers, words coming out in a tumble.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a single word of description of the meeting of Lewis and Clark.

Over the next two weeks, the captains selected the first enlisted members of the expedition. They did not lack for volunteers. Word had spread up and down the Ohio, and inland, and young men longing for adventure and ambitious for a piece of land of their own set out for Clarksville to sign up. Lewis and Clark sized them up, making judgments on their general hardiness, their shooting and hunting ability, their physical strength and general character, their suitability for a long journey in the wilderness. How many applied is not known, but one of those eventually selected, Private Alexander Willard, boasted in his old age that “his fine physique enable[d] him to pass the inspection for enlistment in the expedition” that more than one hundred others failed.20

Seven of the men the captains picked had previously been conditionally approved by Clark, two by Lewis. They made Charles Floyd and Nathaniel Pryor sergeants. Floyd was the son of Captain Charles Floyd, who had soldiered with George Rogers Clark.21 When these nine men were sworn into the army, in solemn ceremony, in the presence of General Clark, the Corps of Discovery was born.

In addition to the enlisted men, the corps consisted of the captains—and Clark’s slave, York. York was big, very dark, strong, agile, a natural athlete. About Clark’s age or a bit younger, he had been Clark’s lifelong companion, bequeathed to him by his father, whose companion had in turn been York’s father.

Certainly the captains discussed the size of the expedition. Secretary of War Dearborn had authorized twelve enlisted men and an interpreter, but Jefferson had orally given Lewis authorization to engage “any other men not soldiers that I may think useful.” Back in 1783, General Clark had advised Jefferson that, if the American Philosophical Society did send out an expedition to explore the Missouri country, they should keep it small—a dozen at most—because any larger party would arouse the Indians to hostile acts. In 1803, he may have repeated that advice to his younger brother and Captain Lewis, but if he did, they ignored it. They intended a much larger party. According to a locally written newspaper story, it was said around Louisville that “about 60 men will compose the party.” How many of them would be soldiers attached to the Corps of Discovery, how many soldiers who would go only as far as the first winter camp, how many civilians hired to power the keelboat, was to be determined.22

In any event, the core of the Corps of Discovery had been formed, and the captains were pleased with the stout young fellows they had picked.

The keelboat and pirogues set off from Clarksville on October 26. There was plenty of water, and no obstacles. On November 11, the party arrived at Fort Massac, built ten years earlier on the Illinois bank of the Ohio, about thirty-five miles upstream from the junction of the Ohio and the Mississippi. There Lewis expected to find eight soldiers who had volunteered from the army camp at South West Post, Tennessee, but they hadn’t been seen. Lewis immediately hired George Drouillard, a locally renowned woodsman, to go to Tennessee, pick up the missing soldiers, and bring them on to winter quarters, which he should look for on the east bank of the Mississippi, near St. Louis.

Although he never learned how to spell Drouillard’s name—it usually came out “Drewyer”—Lewis was impressed by him from the start. Son of a French Canadian father and a Shawnee mother, Drouillard was a skilled frontiersman, hunter-trapper, and scout. He was an expert in Indian ways, fluent in a couple of Indian languages and in French and English, and master of the sign language. He exuded a calm confidence, giving the strong impression that, no matter what happened, he could handle it. Lewis signed him to a contract to serve as interpreter at twenty-five dollars per month, and arranged for the paymaster at Massac to advance him thirty dollars in coin.

Though Lewis was authorized to draw volunteers from the garrison at Fort Massac, he was disappointed in the quality of the men who stepped forward. Only two met his standards.

On November 13, the expedition set off from Massac. There was a heavy rain. “I was siezed with a violent ague,” Lewis wrote in his journal, “which continued about four hours and as is usual was succeeded by a fever which however fortunately abated in some measure by sunrise.”

He had malaria. When he woke, “I took a doze of Rush’s pills, which operated extremly well.” The fever passed.

That night, the party landed on the point at which the Ohio and Mississippi flowed together. For the following week, Lewis and Clark made measurements and conducted celestial observation. With his measuring chain and circumferentor, or surveying compass, Clark determined by triangulation that the width of the Ohio at the point just before junction was 1,274 yards, that of the Mississippi 1,435 yards, and of the combined rivers 2,002 yards.

During the encampment at the mouth of the Ohio, Lewis began to apply the lessons he had learned in Philadelphia on celestial observation, and simultaneously to teach Clark what he knew.

Establishing latitude was complicated, but doable in the field. Using the octant (in the summer) or the sextant (winter), Lewis would “shoot” the sun at noon and take its altitude. He would then consult a table to determine latitude. The angle of the sun at high noon, together with the date, would tell him for certain how far north of the equator he was.

Determining longitude was almost impossibly complicated. If Lewis knew it was high noon in Greenwich, and he knew exactly what time it was where he was, he could figure out his longitude. But to know the time in Greenwich required an accurate chronometer. Though Lewis had bought the best available in Philadelphia, it was not reliable.

The alternative was to note the regular movement of the moon, measured against the sun and stars. The method was to choose a bright star as a fixed point against which to measure the moon’s easterly motion in its orbit around the earth. The stars that could be used for the measurement were Antares, Altair, Regulus, Spica, Pollux, Aldeberan, Formalhaut, Alphe, Arieties, and Alplo Pegas.

Lewis could identify those stars, and many others—a skill that he had absorbed in the course of his life. He had spent countless nights stretched out in the open, countless hours staring at the stars. He had enjoyed the privilege of walking the grounds after dark at the President’s House and at Monticello with Thomas Jefferson for his guide to the skies. The skill also grew out of his character. His intense curiosity compelled him to study the world around him and the sky above him.

His crash course in Philadelphia enabled him to make the observations. It was complicated. With the sextant, every few minutes he would measure the angular distance between the moon and the target star. The figures obtained could be compared with tables showing how those distances appeared at the same clock time in Greenwich. Those tables were too heavy to carry on the expedition, and the work was too time-consuming. Since Lewis’s job was to make the observations and bring them home, he did not try to do the calculations; he and Clark just gathered the figures.

It meant staying up till midnight, making observations every five minutes or so for an hour or more. It meant frustration on those nights—too frequent—when clouds came up to render observation impossible.23 The sky over the dark, murmuring river was black and transparent, free of any pollutants, far from any glowing village. Behind the captains, the men slept in their tents, the quiet sleep of healthy young men exhausted from the day’s labors. The private on guard duty kept a small fire burning. Lewis’s dog sat beside him as he called out the numbers for Clark.

This was practice—the longitude and latitude of the mouth of the Ohio were known—but Lewis and Clark worked at it as if it were the real thing, because soon enough it would be.

Seaman was always with Lewis. On the afternoon of November 16, the captains crossed to the Spanish side of the Mississippi to make observations. They encountered a camp of Indians. One of them, “a respectable looking Indian,” offered Lewis three beaver skins for Seaman. Lewis refused, with considerable indignation. He pointed out that he had paid twenty dollars in cash for the dog. Besides, Lewis wrote, “I prised [Seaman] much for his docility and qualifications generally for my journey.”

On November 18, Lewis complained that the men had discovered a nearby illegal trading post, with whiskey as the main trade item. He issued orders to stay away, but a number of the men went anyway and got drunk. Whiskey and whiskey traders were the bane of frontier life; Lewis had to anticipate more trouble with drinking during the long winter nights coming up.

On November 20, the expedition set out for St. Louis. Now it was headed upstream—and would continue to labor upstream until it reached the Continental Divide somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.


I. There are many editions of the journals. By far the best is Gary Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, published in eight volumes by the University of Nebraska Press between 1987 and 1993. My quotations are taken from the Moulton edition. I have not annotated quotations from the journals, because it is just as easy to look up the original by searching for the date of the entry as by searching for volume 3, page 76, or whatever. Also, relying on the date will allow those who wish to see the full entry to do so in the Reuben Gold Thwaites eight-volume edition, or the Biddle paraphrase, or any of the various other editions.

II. The squirrel population today is much reduced, and the migrations Lewis saw are all but extinct.

III. Complicating everything was the 1783 treaty between the United States and Britain. It ran a line west from the source of the Mississippi River relative to the Lake of the Woods, or latitude 49 degrees. It was not clear whether the Purchase or the treaty would prevail in setting the boundary.

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