Modern history

CHAPTER TEN

Up the Mississippi to Winter Camp

November 1803–March 1804

The expedition headed out into the Mississippi, then turned upstream. Lewis and Clark scholar Arlen Large speculates that this may have been the instant when the captains decided they needed more men.1 The power of that river, with its boils and swirls and floating obstacles, awed them.

Back east, Robert Fulton was doing his first experiments with a steamboat, but on the Mississippi, the expedition was proceeding at a pace closer to that of the first century than to the age of steamboats. Lewis now was face-to-face with what would be his major problem almost until he reached the Continental Divide, moving relatively large craft upstream on a major river.

The pirogues were badly undermanned; the keelboat was woefully so. They had to cross the river, east to west, west to east, at every bend, because only in the relatively slack water downstream from a point of land could they make any significant progress north. In eight hours of constant rowing or paddling, the expedition made ten and a half miles. Much more muscle power was needed. In addition, one man would have to stay constantly at the bow of the keelboat, watching for huge uprooted trees rushing downstream on the boiling current. More men would require more supplies.

Lewis had a lot to think about while the men dug in for all they were worth as the tiny fleet slowly inched its way north. He and Clark were not men who made snap judgments, but in this case it is likely that Arlen Large got it right: they decided on the first day to expand the party by more than 100 percent.

Over the next few days, the men worked the craft upstream, seldom making more than one mile per hour. Even more maddening, the river twisted and turned to such an extent that the twenty-five air miles to Cape Girardeau were forty-eight river miles. It took four days to reach the cape.

The village had been founded by Louis Lorimier some twenty years earlier. A French Canadian, he had been a Loyalist during the revolution and had fought George Rogers Clark, who had burned down one of his establishments, worth twenty thousand dollars. “This broke him as a mercht,” Lewis noted in his journal on November 25, but Lorimier was a high-risk-taking, fast-talking, hard-bargaining, vigorous, and ambitious frontier entrepreneur, a man who could recover from disaster.

After General Clark burned him out, Lorimier talked the Spanish into giving him a land grant on the west bank of the river. He built a trading post at Cape Girardeau. He encouraged American emigration into the area, which consequently flourished.

Lewis called on Lorimier and was told that the boss was at a horse race. Lewis went to the course. “The seane reminded me very much of their small raises in Kentucky among the uncivilized backwoodsmen, nor did the subquent disorder which took place in consequences of the decision of the judges of the rase at all lessen the resembleance. . . . it is not extrawdinary that these people should be disorderly. they are almost entirely emegrant from the fronteers of Kentuckey & Tennessee, and are the most dessolute and abandoned even among these people; they are men of desperate fortunes, but little to loose either character or property.”

Lorimier, on the other hand, intrigued him. Nearly sixty years old, he could not read or write. He had a “remarkable suit of hair; . . . it touched the grond when he stood errect. . . . when cewed it is kept close to his back by means of a leather gerdle.” Lorimier’s wife was a Shawnee woman. He had many children by her, including a daughter who caught Lewis’s eye: “She is remarkably handsome & dresses in a plain yet fashonable stile or such as is now Common in the Atlantic States among the respectable people of the middle class. she is an agreeable affible girl, & much the most descent looking feemale I have seen since I left Louisville.”

On November 28, the expedition reached the army post at Kaskaskia, on the Illinois side, some sixty miles below St. Louis. It was home to Captain Russell Bissell’s infantry company and to Captain Amos Stoddard’s artillery company. Lewis’s first act was to show the captains his orders from Dearborn, authorizing him to raid their companies. Then he called for volunteers and made his selections. The exact number is not known; Arlen Large thinks it was something more than a dozen.2 Not all would go all the way to the Pacific; Lewis was thinking of sending a detachment back to St. Louis from the Mandan villages, where he anticipated spending the winter of 1804–5. Lewis also requisitioned Stoddard for seventy-five pounds of powder and a cask to hold it.3

On December 4, Clark set out with the boat party, headed for the mouth of Wood River, upstream from St. Louis on the Illinois side, directly opposite the mouth of the Missouri. The word was that it was well timbered, with plenty of game and a nearby settlement of pioneers.

Lewis traveled up the Illinois bank by horseback. He arrived at the village of Cahokia, almost directly across from St. Louis, on December 7. The next morning, Lewis crossed the river to St. Louis, along with Nicholas Jarrot (a Cahokia fur trader) as interpreter to meet the Spanish lieutenant governor of Upper Louisiana, Colonel Carlos Dehault Delassus. The meeting had some rough spots. Delassus denied Lewis permission to go up the Missouri until the transfer of sovereignty had taken place in St. Louis. Lewis did not argue the point. It was too late in the season to press on anyway, and Lewis needed to be near St. Louis to purchase supplies for the extra men.

Lewis told Delassus that his objective was to explore the Missouri country, purely for scientific purposes. Delassus, in a report to his superiors, said he had heard different: “According to advices, I believe that his mission has no other object than to discover the Pacific Ocean, following the Missouri, and to make intelligent observations, beause he has the reputation of being a very well educated man and of many talents.”4

Built on a bluff above the flood plain, St. Louis when Lewis arrived was four decades old, with a population of a little over a thousand, mainly French Canadians. For so young and so small a town, St. Louis had a critical role to play in a vast empire. It was the center of the fur trade for the huge region drained by the Missouri. Most of the trade goods came from across the ocean, then crossed the continent to reach St. Louis. From that central point, the goods fanned out via individual traders to the farthest reaches of the frontier. And the pirogues and keelboats that carried the trade goods to the Indians brought back stacks and stacks of beautiful furs that brought king’s ransoms in Europe.

Business opportunities abounded, in short, and continued to expand, because of the American pioneers slipping across to the Spanish side and making farms on the pieces of ground they had cleared. When the formal transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France and then to the United States took place, expected sometime in the coming spring, Americans would be rushing into the Missouri country. They would need outfitting.

As if things weren’t good enough for the St. Louis merchants, here came Meriwether Lewis, with only enough supplies in hand for a party of fifteen, instead of the amounts needed for a party of forty-five, and armed with an authorization from the president to buy whatever he might need and charge it to the army. The merchants of the day had suddenly become the first military contractors in St. Louis.

In addition to supplies, Lewis was going to need men, voyagers with strong backs who could paddle the pirogues up the Missouri to the Mandan villages. He would be spending a lot of time in the town, haggling with merchants, sizing up volunteers. Before Lewis left Washington, Jefferson had given him oral instructions to gather as much statistical information as possible on Upper Louisiana, which meant another job to do in St. Louis.

At the time he arrived in St. Louis, Lewis had not yet received Jefferson’s direct orders to abandon his risky plan to ride to Santa Fe during the winter months, but he had put the foolish thought out of his mind anyway. His problem was going to be finding enough time to do all that needed to be done, not how to pass time.

First came winter camp. On December 9, Lewis crossed to the Illinois side and met Clark and the party at Cahokia. He reported that the Spanish would not allow a movement up the Missouri, but Jarrot had a claim to a four-hundred-acre tract at the mouth of Wood River and suggested Lewis would find it a good place to build huts for the winter, to get started on modifying the keelboat for the long haul up the Missouri, and to select and train the men for the permanent party. Clark went on to the site to look it over.

Lewis returned to St. Louis to get going on his tasks. He began by doing his research on Upper Louisiana. It was the first survey done by an American of any part of the Purchase. Lewis worked up a questionnaire, with such queries as the population, the number of immigrants from the United States into Louisiana, how much land had been granted to individuals, the value of the imports and exports to and from St. Louis, and so on. Then he set out to talk to the men in town who had some knowledge of the local and regional situation.

He turned first to Antoine Soulard, surveyor general of Upper Lousiana for the Spanish government. Soulard, a Frenchman, told Lewis that the 1800 census recorded a population of about ten thousand in Upper Louisiana, two thousand of whom were slaves. About two-thirds of the whites were Americans. That was three years ago. In 1803 alone, it was estimated that another hundred American families had crossed over into Upper Louisiana. Scouts from North Carolina and elsewhere had come to look over the Missouri country, “in serch of some eligible positions to form settlements as soon as the American government is in operation.”

In reporting these and other matters to Jefferson, Lewis referred to an idea Jefferson had often expressed to him—that the American pioneers in Upper Louisiana could be persuaded to accept land in Illinois in exchange for their holdings. It was Jefferson’s notion that the land west of the Mississippi could be turned into a vast Indian reservation, where the Indians could learn to farm and become good citizens. That way there could be an orderly progression of the frontier, across Ohio and Indiana and on to Illinois, and a frontier free from Indian troubles, since all the Indians would be removed to the far shore.

This absurd notion showed how little Jefferson knew about Americans living west of the Appalachians. With the Purchase, or even without the Purchase, there was no force on earth that could stop the flow of American pioneers westward. Good, cheap land was a magnet that reached all the way back to Europe. The pioneers were the cutting edge of an irresistible force. Rough and wild though they were, they were the advance agents of millions of Europeans, mostly peasants or younger sons of small farmers, who constituted the greatest mass migration in history.

When Lewis and Clark arrived on the Mississippi River, they were following the first American settlers in Missouri and were but a jump ahead of thousands of others who were thinking about or already on their way to Missouri. Napoleon had gotten it right: he might as well sell and get some money for the place, because the Americans were going to overrun it anyway.

Lewis must have known that the government couldn’t get the pioneers to abandon the land they had cleared and cultivated, yet he wrote Jefferson, “I am fully persuaded, that your wishes to withdraw the inhabitants of Louisiana, may in every necessary degree be affected in the course of a few years.” With a bit more realism, he added that the slaveholders might cause trouble—they would not want to cross into the free territory of Illinois.5

Lewis also did research for his tour. Soulard gave him a map that traced the Missouri to the mouth of the Osage River. Lewis got two other maps, one a general map of Upper Louisiana, and another, the so-called Mackay map, made by Scottish trader and explorer James Mackay, which Lewis sent Jefferson. In 1795, Mackay had gone as far up the Missouri as the village of the Omahas, and the following year he had sent a young assistant, John Evans, on a mission to the Pacific. Evans got no farther than the Mandan villages, but at least that gave Mackay the information he needed to extend his map of the Missouri as far up as the Mandans.

Mackay was living in St. Louis in 1803, and Lewis had profitable talks with him. As historian Roy Appleman puts it, from Mackay and the maps Lewis had available to him, Lewis knew “virtually everything that was known to white men of the Missouri country as far as the Mandan villages and some Indian information about the lands to their west.”6

The most powerful and prominent St. Louis citizens were the French fur traders Auguste Chouteau, Sr., a founder of the city, his half-brother Pierre Chouteau, Sr., and their brother-in-law Charles Gratiot, who had established the first trading post at Cahokia, in 1777. Gratiot had helped supply George Rogers Clark during the revolution. William Clark had stayed at Gratiot’s house during a September 1797 business trip to St. Louis, where he also hobnobbed with Auguste Chouteau and “all the fine girls and buckish Gentlemen.”7

The Chouteaus had prospered in St. Louis, thanks to a license that gave them exclusive rights on trade, but much of their wealth was in land, taken in payment for goods. Their need was the need of those on the frontier everywhere: fluid capital, long-term credit, and cash. Money was so scarce in St. Louis that beaver skins were the coin of the land.

The Chouteaus had a nice setup—a monopoly, in fact, of every imported item needed, and many of those desired, on the frontier, from nails to glass beads, from ironwork to ladies’ dresses, from powder and lead to imported wine. But it was too good to last. In 1798, Manuel Lisa arrived in St. Louis and began to muscle his way into the fur trade. He was as quick and sharp as the Chouteaus, having grown up in New Orleans, where he had hustled a living on the teeming waterfront. He moved upstream to St. Louis, where as a Spaniard he got preferential treatment, including some generous land grants. But he had no intention of becoming a farmer; he could see that the real opportunity in St. Louis was in trade. He began agitating for economic liberty; his biographer, Richard Oglesby, says his attack on monopolies “made him sound as if he was one of Adam Smith’s most ardent disciples.” To shut him up, the Spanish gave him a license to trade.8

From these merchants, Lewis began making his purchases. Corn, flour, biscuits, barrels of salt, kegs of pork, boxes of candles, kegs of hogs’ lard, “600 lb Grees,” twenty-one bales of Indian goods, tools of every description.9 He bought from the Chouteaus, he bought from Lisa. He asked questions and got more information for Jefferson. He studied his maps.

On December 16, Drouillard reported in. He had brought the eight soldiers from Tennessee with him. Delighted, Lewis quickly examined them. Disappointed, he wrote Clark he found them “not possessed of more of the requisite qualifications; there is not a hunter among them.” Still, there were possibilities: one of the soldiers was a blacksmith and another was a house-joiner. Lewis sent them on to Clark at Wood River. Eventually, four of the eight passed muster.10

Through the winter, Lewis kept up an active correspondence with Jefferson. Many letters recorded by Jefferson as received from Lewis, and many letters Jefferson wrote and noted, are missing. Still, what is available is informative and suggestive. On January 13, 1804, Jefferson wrote Lewis, saying he had been able to follow Lewis’s progress by newspaper accounts. He reported that the transfer of Louisiana to the United States had been scheduled for December 20, and he had no doubt it had occurred.

“The acquisition of the country through which you are to pass has inspired the public generally with a great deal of interest in your enterprize,” Jefferson wrote. “The enquiries are perpetual as to your progress. The Feds, alone still treat it as philosophism, and would rejoice in it’s failure. Their bitterness increases with the diminution of their numbers and despair of a resurrection. I hope you will take care of yourself, and be the living witness of their malice and folly.”11

To put it another way, those misguided Federalists who had criticized the Purchase and derided the expedition were committing political suicide, so the president’s aide need not worry about pleasing them by making a ride to Santa Fe. Avoiding unnecessary risks was the way Lewis could confound the Feds.

On January 22, Jefferson wrote Lewis to confirm that the transfer had happened in New Orleans on December 20, and to give him instructions on how to deal with the Indians now that the United States was sovereign throughout Louisiana. The instructions came down to: tell them they have a new father. Jefferson also wanted Lewis to offer the Osage chief a free trip to Washington, to meet the new father—and to be impressed by the power and numbers of the Americans.

Jefferson closed with the welcome news that the American Philosophical Society had elected Lewis to membership.12

He had earned it. Two years of study under Thomas Jefferson, followed by his crash course in Philadelphia, had made Lewis into exactly what Jefferson had hoped for in an explorer—a botanist with a good sense of what was known and what was unknown, a working vocabulary for description of flora and fauna, a mapmaker who could use celestial instruments properly, a scientist with keen powers of observation, all combined in a woodsman and an officer who could lead a party to the Pacific.

Now the payoff for the American Philosophical Society savants began. In March, and again in May, Lewis sent boxes of specimens to Jefferson. They constituted the first shipment of natural-history specimens by Lewis to Jefferson from west of the Mississippi, and thus the first ever. He included slips, or cuttings, from trees owned by Pierre Chouteau, who had gotten them from the Osage Indian village three hundred miles to the west. Lewis wrote three long paragraphs of detailed description. As a man of the Enlightenment, now officially signified by his membership in the APS, Lewis was interested in practical uses of the tree, which he named the “Osage apple” (now the “Osage orange”). The fruit was never eaten, but the wood was perfect for making bows: “So much do the savages esteem the wood of this tree for the purpose of making their bows, that they travel many hundred miles in quest of it.” That was Lewis’s first description of a plant unknown to science. He could anticipate making many more.13

There are trees growing in Philadelphia (at Fourth and Spruce Streets) and the University of Virginia (at Morea, a guest house) today that grew from the cuttings Lewis sent.14 And as historian Michael Brodhead notes, this was the beginning of “a rich, almost uniquely American phenomenon: the military naturalist.”15

Among Lewis’s worries that winter was Clark’s commission. Clark had been on active service since the previous summer, but by February 1804 his commission had still not arrived. On February 10, Lewis wrote Dearborn, and Jefferson, about the matter. Through to the end of April, he got no reply, nor did the commission arrive in the meantime. The matter continued to nag.16

The missing commission had no practical effect. Lewis called Clark “captain” and their relationship was one of a genuine joint command. Indeed, through the second part of December and all of January, Clark was the officer with the troops in the field. He planned and oversaw the construction of the huts. He made a number of improvements to the keelboat, including some cleverly devised lockers running along the sides of the boat, with lids that could be raised to form a breastwork, or shield. When the lids were down, they provided catwalks, or “passe-avants,” for men with poles pushing the boat. Crosswise between the lockers, Clark had eleven benches built, each three feet long for use by two oarsmen. He added center poles, to support an awning.

Clark worried about the Indians. The word among the Americans living near the mouth of the Missouri was that upriver the Sioux were hostile, numerous, well armed, and certain to demand a ransom for passage. Clark added a bronze cannon, probably purchased by Lewis in St. Louis. Mounted on a swivel that allowed it to be turned and fired in any direction, it was the expedition’s heaviest armament and in 1804 would be the largest weapon to that date ever taken up the Missouri. It could fire a solid lead ball weighing about one pound, or sixteen musket balls with sufficient velocity to go through a man. At close range, a highly effective antipersonnel weapon.

map

Flintlock blunderbuss, of the type the captains mounted on swivels, two on the keelboat and one on each pirogue. (National Park Service)

In addition to the swivel cannon, Clark asked Lewis to get four smaller weapons, called blunderbusses—heavy shotguns that used buckshot. Lewis found them in St. Louis. Clark mounted them on swivels, two for the stern of the keelboat and one on each pirogue. They could be loaded with musket balls, scrap iron, or buckshot.17 At close range, devastating.

In early February, Lewis crossed over to the camp at Wood River. He looked over the men—there were nearly forty of them—and listened as Clark explained what he had done to the keelboat. Clark then left to spend a few days in St. Louis, to make purchases and to attend a ball at the Chouteaus’. Lewis had intended to join him at the ball, but was obliged to stay in camp to meet with some visiting Kickapoo Indians. Having missed the ball, he wrote Clark, “and finding more to do when I began to look about me than I had previously thought of I determined it would be as well to go to work [here, at Wood River] and pospone my return to St. Louis a few days.” He wanted Clark to talk to Pierre Chouteau about the possibility of his leading an expedition of Osage chiefs to Washington.

Clark’s tasks in St. Louis included picking a crew of voyagers to paddle the canoes—the captains by now having decided to keep the permanent detachment, the Corps of Discovery, together as a unit on the keelboat. Clark, who had once descended the Mississippi to Memphis, and who had lived on the Ohio River for many years, was the better waterman of the two captains, and thus probably the better judge of the voyagers.

Clark talked to Manuel Lisa, who was ready to contract out a crew that he would select and organize. Lewis wrote Clark, “Engage them immediately, if you think from their appearance and characters they will answer the purpose.”

Lisa was doing quite a lot of business with the expedition. He paid a visit to Wood River to see what the captains didn’t have that he did. Lewis dined in his home, although he most often stayed with Auguste Chouteau in the finest house in town.18

On February 20, Lewis prepared to shove off for St. Louis. He issued his first detachment orders, putting Sergeant John Ordway in command during his and Clark’s absence, and directing the sawyers to continue their work, the blacksmiths to continue their work (with an extra gill, or four ounces, of whiskeyI and exemption from guard duty), the men making sugar to continue to do so, and so forth. To save powder and lead, he ordered only one round per man per day for target practice. Sergeant Ordway would give instructions in shooting off hand at a distance of fifty yards. There was a prize of an extra gill of whiskey for the winner each day. Except for hunters, no man was to absent himself from camp without Sergeant Ordway’s knowledge and permission. Finally, no whiskey beyond the legal ration.

Lewis went off to St. Louis, conducted business, and returned a week later. Sergeant Ordway reported to him that Privates Reubin Field and John Shields had refused to mount guard duty as ordered because they would be damned if they would take orders from anyone other than the captains. Privates John Colter, John Boley, Peter Weiser, and John Robinson had gone off “hunting”—or so they had told Ordway, who had tried to stop them. In fact, they went to a neighboring whiskey shop on the edge of the nearby American settlement and got drunk.

To deal with these disciplinary matters, Lewis wrote another detachment order, dated March 3 in the journal: “The Commanding officer feels himself mortifyed and disappointed at the disorderly conduct” of Field and Shields, especially since he had thought of them as excellent soldiers and men of judgment. He went on: “A moments reflection must convince every man of our party” that the captains had to be in St. Louis, to gather the necessary supplies and equipment for the voyage. When they were gone, Sergeant Ordway was in command. Period. Lewis confined Colter, Boley, Weiser, and Robinson to quarters for ten days.

On March 7, Lewis returned to St. Louis, to be present at the ceremonies marking the formal transfer of Upper Louisiana to the United States. Captain Stoddard, the official American representative, invited Lewis to serve as the chief official witness. There was a detachment from the First Infantry Regiment out of Fort Kaskaskia on hand.

The ceremony took place on March 9, in front of Government House, Spanish headquarters in the city. First a transfer was made from Spain to France. Colonel Delassus presided for Spain, while Stoddard acted as agent for the French. When the Spanish flag was struck, Delassus presented it to Stoddard, who then ran up the French Tricolor. The crowd, composed of nearly all the residents of St. Louis, most of them French, cheered. With tears in their eyes, Frenchmen asked Stoddard to let the Tricolor wave over St. Louis for one night. Stoddard agreed.

The next day, to the salute of guns and cheers from the soldiers, the Tricolor was lowered and the Stars and Stripes was raised, the documents were signed, and appropriate speeches were made. Stoddard assumed the post of military-civil governor of Upper Louisiana, pending the establishment of territorial government. After the ceremonies, Lewis and Clark accompanied Stoddard on an inspection of Spanish defenses.19

A few days later, Clark returned to Wood River to continue preparations. The days were getting noticeably longer, the first hints of opening buds were on the tree limbs, the great duck and geese migrations were just starting, the ice no longer ran in the river, spring was coming. And with the first warm days came an ominously unwelcome visitor. On March 25, Clark wrote in his journal, “The musquetors are verry bad this evening.”

On March 28, Lewis drew three drafts, or checks, of five hundred dollars each on the secretary of war. He had already drawn $1,669, and drew an additional $159 a few days later. He was also drawing money to provide for the Osage chief and Pierre Chouteau on their trip to Washington. And he was signing chits for supplies. Altogether, signing his name to a draft on the government was becoming a commonplace experience for Lewis. Indeed, it was threatening to become habit-forming.

On the afternoon of the 29th, Lewis crossed over to Wood River. Clark had alarming news. There had been fights between the men. John Shields had opposed an order and had threatened Sergeant Ordway’s life, and wished to return to Kentucky. John Colter had disobeyed orders and had loaded his gun, threatening to shoot Ordway.

The men had been at Wood River for the better part of four months. They never got to go to St. Louis. The only women they saw were the pioneers at the nearby settlements, and there weren’t many of them, and mostly they were married. There was a whiskey seller around but he was expensive and hard to get to. Once the huts were completed and the keelboat’s alterations were finished, the men had almost nothing to do. A little drilling on the parade ground, which they hated, a little target practice, which they loved but only got to do once a day, was about it.

These young heroes were in great shape, strong as bulls, eager to get going, full of energy and testosterone—and bored. So they fought, and drank—and drank, and fought. Clark recorded various serious fistfights, sometimes with delightful comment: “R. Field was in a mistake & repents.” “Frazer. has don bad.”

But fighting among themselves was one thing, threatening the sergeant quite another. On March 29, the captains put Shields and Colter on trial for mutiny. The privates “asked the forgivness &c & promised to doe better in future.” The captains relented; no punishment was noted. And two days later, Shields and Colter were welcomed into the permanent party.

On March 31, after a full exchange of views between themselves, the captains held a ceremony in order to enlist the twenty-five men they had selected to be members of “the Detachment destined for the Expedition though the interior of the Continent of North America.” Another group of five soldiers was designated to accompany the expedition to its winter quarters, then to return to St. Louis with communiqués and specimens. Corporal Richard Warfington would be its leader. The main detachment was divided into three squads. Charles Floyd and Nathaniel Pryor joined Ordway as sergeants commanding the squads.

Warfington, Floyd, and Pryor were not the only soldiers who had impressed the captains. Pryor was sick. In the Detachment Order recording the selections, Clark wrote: “Dureing the indisposition of Sergeant Pryor, George Shannon is appointed (protempor) to discharge his the Said Pryor’s duty in his Squad.” Since Shannon was not yet twenty years old, the youngest man in the party, that appointment was a genuine compliment.

The permanent party was now in place. Besides the twenty-two men and three sergeants, it included Lewis and Clark, Clark’s slave, York; Drouillard; and Lewis’s dog, Seaman. It was straining to get going. Every morning, the men looked across the Mississippi and saw the Missouri pouring into the main stream, so powerful its muddy waters drove clear across three-quarters of the width of the mighty Mississippi, the Missouri being the more powerful of the two.

Clark also recorded, “I send to the Missouries water for drinking water, it being much Cooler than the Mississippi.”

In the evening, the men could watch the sun go down over the Missouri. Surely, as they sipped their whiskey ration at the end of the day, they stared at that river, and talked about it, and thought about it. They were not daunted by it. Rather, they were drawn to it. What adventures awaited, what sights they would see, they knew they couldn’t even guess, which only made them all the more eager to get going—so they could find out.

Sergeant Gass wrote in his journal that the local inhabitants had warned that the party was “to pass through a country possessed by numerous, powerful and warlike nations of savages, of gigantic stature, fierce, treacherous and cruel; and particularly hostile to white men.” But, he insisted, “the determined and resolute character” of the men and the confidence pervading all ranks “dispelled every emotion of fear.”20

A week after the ceremony of enlistment, Ordway wrote his parents. He expressed determination and confidence:

We are to ascend the Missouri River with a boat as far as it is navigable and then to go by land, to the western ocean, if nothing prevents, &c.

This party consists of 25 picked Men of the armey & country and I am So happy as to be one of them pick’d Men. . . .

We are to Start in ten days [April 18] up the Missouri River. . . . We expect to be gone 18 months or two years. We are to Receive a great Reward for this expedition, when we Return.

Ordway said he would be drawing fifteen dollars per month in pay and would receive a bonus of four hundred acres of prime land. Then he reported what may have been just another soldiers’ rumor, or an expectation encouraged by the captains; whichever it was, it spoke to the spirit of the men and their captains: “If we make Great Discoveries as we expect, the united States, has promised to make us Great Rewards more than we are promised, &c.”21


I. Four ounces is about the alcoholic content of four beers. For most people, it raises the blood-alcohol value to 0.10 percent, or about what police regard as driving under the influence.

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