Modern history


Ready to Depart

April–May 21,1804

As the April sun grew warmer, the banks of the Mississippi exploded into color. Green-gold, nature’s first hue, predominated early in the month, but it had serious competition. The captains noted spicewood in full bloom on April 1, along with the white dogtooth violet and the mayapple. On the 5th, the buds of the peach, apple, and cherry trees—imported by the pioneers—appeared. By the 17th, they were in full bloom. Osage apple and Chickasaw plum were in flower, along with the violet, the doves foot, and the cowslip.

It was gorgeous weather, with afternoon temperatures climbing into the sixties and, by the last week of the month, into the low seventies. But on the 26th, a frost killed fruit at Cahokia; St. Louis escaped without damage. That afternoon, the temperature was up to sixty-six.

Let’s go! one can almost hear the men of the Corps of Discovery crying out to the captains. Let’s go, for God’s sake.

Lewis decided no, not yet. Sometime between April 8, when Sergeant Ordway wrote that the expedition would be off on April 18, and mid-April, Lewis concluded that he needed far more in the way of provisions, and he needed more time to round them up. And Lewis needed time to arrange for the Osage chief’s journey to Washington.

He put departure day, D-Day, back a month.

At 7:00 a.m. on Saturday, April 7, Lewis and Clark set out in a canoe, with York and a private to paddle them, for St. Louis. They arrived at half past ten. Captain Stoddard greeted them and made them his guests; at his quarters Lewis and Clark dressed, then went to a dinner and ball. Stoddard was the host. He had invited some fifty gentlemen of the city, to thank them for their support and the courtesies shown to him. The ball lasted until 9:00 a.m. Sunday. “No business to day,” Clark wrote in his journal on Sunday evening.

On Monday, Clark returned to Wood River, while Lewis began buying. Flags. Mosquito nets. Shirts. Food. Liquor. Indian trade goods. Among other things, he bought and had shipped to Wood River, where it was repacked for the expedition: 4,175 complete rations, at $.14 each; 5,555 rations of flour at $.04 each; 100 gallons of whiskey at $1.28 each; 20 gallons of whiskey at $1 each; 4,000 rations of salt port at $.04 each; plus ground corn and much more.

Clark sent Lewis his shopping list—nails for hinges (200 sent, Lewis noted on the list), red oil paint for the lockers (not to be had, Lewis noted), red and blue ribbon (sent), and so forth. On May 2, Lewis wrote Clark to report that the Osage party would set out in about ten days and to ask Clark to send to him in St. Louis “the specimines of salt which you will find in my writing desk, on the shelves where our books are, or in the drawer of the Instrument case.” The invitation to rummage through Lewis’s writing desk spoke to the absolute trust between the two men, and the sentence also gives a tiny glimpse into what their quarters at Wood River were like.

Sunday, May 6, was a grand day for Captain Clark, a horrible one for Captain Lewis. At Wood River, several of the settlers came in to challenge the soldiers to a shooting match. Of the challengers, Clark wrote with some satisfaction, “all git beet and Lose their money.”

In St. Louis, Lewis was frustrated because there were no more kegs to be had—he had bought out the entire stock. He was furious because Manuel Lisa had evidently not gotten enough of Lewis’s business to satisfy him, and had therefore sent a petition to the authorities protesting Lewis’s high-handedness and other shortcomings. On May 6, Lewis wrote Clark about Lisa’s actions, and his reaction. He let it all out.

“Damn Manuel,” Lewis exploded. “And triply Damn Mr. B. [Francis Benoit, Lisa’s partner]. They give me more vexation and trouble than their lives are worth. I have dealt very plainly with these gentlemen, in short I have come to an open rupture with them; I think them both great scoundrels, and they have given me abundant proofs of their unfriendly dispositions towards our government and its measures.”

His blood was up. “These gentlemen,” he wrote, then stopped, crossed it out, and continued: “These puppies, are not unacquainted with my opinions. . . . strange indeed, that men to appearance in their senses, will manifest such strong sumptoms of insanity, as to be wheting knives to cut their own throats.”

Lewis had reason to contemplate cutting his own throat. He had been forced to begin this letter with an awful piece of news: “I send you herewith inclosed your commission accompanyed by the Secretary of War’s letter; it is not such as I wished, or had reason to expect; but so it is—a further explaneation when I join you.”1

It was a lieutenant’s commission—not a captain’s, as Lewis had promised. Lewis was mortified, and apparently helpless.

His heart had sunk as he read Dearborn’s reply to his letter of February 10 asking about Clark’s commission. Dated March 26, Dearborn’s letter began, “The peculiar situation, circumstances and organisation of the Corps of Engineers is such as would render the appointment of Mr. Clark a Captain in that Corps improper.” The best Dearborn could do for Clark was a commission as a lieutenant in the Corps of Artillerists, which he enclosed. Clark’s military grade would have no effect on his compensation for the expedition, Dearborn said, meaning Clark would still be paid as a captain.

On March 24, Dearborn had sent a list of nominations to Jefferson, including Clark’s as a lieutenant in the artillery. That afternoon, Jefferson had endorsed the list and sent it on to the Senate for confirmation, which was done on March 26.

In a shifty little bureaucratic maneuver, Dearborn managed to make a bad situation worse. He dated Clark’s commission as of the day he signed it, March 26, 1804. That hurt Clark on the seniority list and denied his service from the day he enlisted, and even denied his service from mid-October 1803 to March 26, 1804.2

As far as is known, Jefferson made no protest; whether because he failed to notice or because he approved Dearborn’s decision cannot be said. It had always been clear that, if Clark turned down Lewis’s invitation and Moses Hooke took his place, it would be as a lieutenant and he would be clearly second-in-command, but that, if Clark joined up, it would be as a captain and a co-commander. Jefferson knew that, and reports sent to him from St. Louis and Wood River also made it clear that Lewis and Clark had been functioning as co-commanders.

It may be that Jefferson wanted Lewis in sole command. Perhaps he reasoned that in such a long voyage it was inevitable that the two leaders would disagree, perhaps sharply enough to paralyze the command, or, even worse, to divide the Corps of Discovery into hostile factions.

Whatever Jefferson’s intentions, Dearborn’s action gave Lewis an opportunity to take sole command. But he felt not the slightest temptation to take advantage of the situation. He immediately wrote Clark: “I think it will be best to let none of our party or any other persons know any thing about the grade, you will observe that the grade has no effect upon your compensation, which by G——d, shall be equal to my own.”3

For the next seven years, only Dearborn, Jefferson, a clerk or two in the War Department, and Meriwether Lewis and William Clark knew that, as far as the army was concerned, Captain Lewis was in command of the Corps of Discovery, with Lieutenant Clark as his second-in-command. For the men of the expedition, it was Captains Clark and Lewis, co-commanders. That was all that counted.

Whether Clark ever talked to Lewis about the matter is unknown. In 1811, when Nicholas Biddle was editing the journals for publication, he asked Clark to explain the “exact relation” between the two officers. “Equal in every point of view,” Clark wrote in reply. He said his feeling on learning that the promised captain’s commission would not be forthcoming “was as might be expected.” But Lewis’s stratagem satisfied him, and since “I wished the expidetion suckcess . . . I proceeded.” He told Biddle that in the published journals he wished to be placed “on equal footing with Cap. Lewis in every point of view without exposeing any thing or even mentioning the Commission at all.”

Clark confessed to Biddle, “I did not think myself very well treated,” but said he had never mentioned the case to anyone, not even Jefferson or Dearborn. He instructed Biddle to keep the whole thing to himself.4

On another appointment matter, Lewis was successful. Jefferson had just taken the lead in founding the United States Military Academy at West Point. Lewis suggested using the academy as part of the effort to win over to the American side the French businessmen in the Purchase territory. As historian Theodore Crackel puts it, Lewis’s plan was simple: “The sons of the area’s leading citizens should be made cadets and sent to West Point. What better way to bind these families to the new nation—and to the [Jefferson] administration?” Dearborn and Jefferson accepted without hesitation.

In April, Lewis and Stoddard recommended some young men for appointment to West Point, including Charles Gratiot and two sons of Auguste Chouteau. One of these, Lorimier, was half Indian. Stoddard would not go along with the recommendation for Lorimier, because “he exhibited too much of the Indian in his color. This circumstance may make his situation among the cadets at the school rather disagreeable.” Lewis stuck with the recommendation, and all three got their appointments. Three others were added later. Of the six, five graduated and got commissions, including young Lorimier, who served three years and won two promotions.5

In St. Louis in the first week of May 1804, there were difficulties and postponements connected to the Osage chiefs trip. In Wood River, Clark was having a hard time holding the young lions in. During the day, they were packing, unpacking, repacking, as Clark experimented with various possibilities. At night, too many of them got drunk and brought on Clark’s displeasure—but not much more, because he recognized the cause of the problem and felt it would solve itself once they were under way.

On May 7, Clark loaded the keelboat. The following day, he and twenty oarsmen took it for a ride in the Mississippi, to check its balance. Back on shore, Clark shifted more gear to the stern. On May 11, Drouillard brought to camp seven voyagers, who had been recruited in the St. Louis area with help from the Chouteaus.I

On Sunday, May 13, Clark sent a message to Lewis in St. Louis: all was ready. The boat and pirogues were loaded. The boat would have twenty-two privates to row her, along with the three sergeants. One canoe would be paddled by six soldiers with Corporal Warfington. The other canoe would be paddled by eight French voyagers, who would be returning with Warfington’s group. The craft were “Complete with Sails &c. &c. men Compe. with Powder Cartragies and 100 Balls each, all in health and readiness to Set out.”

They had everything needed, they hoped. Clark entered an ominous note, saying they had enough of the necessary stores “as we thought ourselves autherised to precure.” Not what the captains thought was needed, only what was authorized. In fact, Clark bluntly declared in his journal that the expedition did not have as many stores “as I think necssy for the multitud of Indians tho which we must pass on our road across the Continent & &c.”

Nevertheless, the next morning, May 14, Clark wrote in his journal, “fixing for a Start.” That afternoon he set off at four o’clock, “under a jentle brease,” and made four miles up the Missouri; he camped on an island. He described the men as being “in high Spirits” and said they were “robust young Backwoodsmen of Character helthy hardy young men, recomended.”

The next day, he set out for St. Charles, on the north bank of the Missouri, where he would shift the load again, having found that in the Missouri the concealed timber, either embedded in the river bottom or floating downstream almost completely submerged, was difficult to avoid and must be bumped into by the bow, rather than letting the bow ride up on the obstacles. That meant getting more goods in the bow, fewer in the stern. On May 16, the expedition pulled into St. Charles, there to reload and wait for Captain Lewis to come up.

Lewis was busy with the Osage party and with making arrangements for Captain Stoddard to act as his agent in St. Louis until he returned. On May 16, he signed an authorization that gave Stoddard power to act in his behalf, to draw bills of exchange on the secretary of war “to any amount, which the nature of the service may in your judgment and at your discretion be deemed necessary.” More specifically, Lewis declared that Indians would soon be arriving in St. Louis from upriver. He intended to select the delegations and start them on their way to Washington, where they would meet their new father.

Lewis told Stoddard to spare no reasonable expense in getting these trans-Mississippi Indians to Washington, and see to their comfort and protection, especially if they were Sioux, the most numerous and warlike tribe on the Missouri and one Lewis especially wanted to impress.

Further, Stoddard should pay the French voyagers when they returned to St. Louis. And if anyone showed up in St. Louis with a chit from Lewis, Stoddard should pay in cash and notify the secretary of war. Any letters arriving for Lewis, “from whatever quarter they may come,” should be sent to Jefferson, who would hold them.6

Over the following couple of days, Lewis made last-minute preparations for Chouteau’s and the Osage chiefs trip to Washington. He prepared a package for Chouteau to carry to Jefferson, including mineral specimens, a horned lizard, a chart of the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans, and a map of Upper Louisiana done by Clark and Lewis, based on the Evans map and on what they had heard from French boatmen around St. Louis. This map has been identified by Donald Jackson as “the first cartographic product of the expedition.”7 On May 19, Chouteau’s party set off for Washington.

At noon on May 20, Lewis set off by horseback for St. Charles, accompanied by Stoddard, two of his lieutenants, Auguste Chouteau, Charles Gratiot, and a dozen or more of the substantial inhabitants of St. Louis. Lewis made a journal entry about the trip, almost the only one he wrote between November 1803 and April 1805. He noted: “The first 5 miles of our rout laid through a beautifull high leavel and fertile prarie which incircles the town of St. Louis.” At 1:30 p.m., a violent thunderstorm forced the party to take shelter in a little cabin. The men remained an hour and a half “and regailed ourselves with a could collation which we had taken the precaution to bring with us from St. Louis.”

After the picnic, the rain continued. Impatient, Lewis said to hell with it and started off for St. Charles. Most of his companions accompanied him. They arrived at half past six “and joined Capt Clark, found the party in good health and sperits.” After a supper with the local officials, Lewis retired early to spend the night on the boat.

In the morning Clark said some of the men, twenty in all, wished to attend a final mass, and he had some rearrangements to make in the packing, so it would be midafternoon before the party could set off. Lewis took a look around St. Charles. Founded in 1769, it was a village of some one hundred families living in homes Lewis described as “small and but illy constructed.” It had a chapel and a priest, and about 450 inhabitants, overwhelmingly French Canadians. “Not an inconsiderable proportion of them,” Lewis noted, “can boast a small dash of the pure blood of the aboriginees of America.”

Lewis hired two half-breeds, Pierre (Peter) Cruzatte and Francis Labiche. Cruzatte, son of a French father and an Omaha mother, was skilled in the sign language and spoke Omaha. Labiche spoke several native tongues. Lewis attached them to the permanent party after swearing them in as privates in the U.S. Army—a sure sign of his high approval of the two men.8

Clark had characterized the people of St. Charles as “pore, polite & harmonious.” Lewis had a harsher judgment: he found them “miserably pour, illiterate and when at home excessively lazy.” Still, he found qualities to admire: “They are polite hospitable and by no means deficient in point of natural genious, they live in a perfect state of harmony among each other.” He regretted the influence of the Roman Catholic priest among them, a typical Virginia planter’s prejudice, and regretted too that the men regarded the cultivation of the soil as a “degrading occupation.”

To support their families, the men either undertook hunting trips to collect furs, or hired themselves out as voyagers to paddle traders up the Missouri, the Osage, and other rivers. They were gone from six to eighteen months at a time. Perhaps looking ahead to what faced him, Lewis said that the voyagers were “always subjected to severe and incessant labour, exposed to the ferosity of the lawless savages, the vicissitudes of weather and climate, and dependant on chance or accident alone for food, raiment or relief in the event of malady.”

Lewis had brought to Clark a letter from Clark’s brother-in-law, William Croghan, which carried the welcome news that George Rogers Clark had revived from an illness that his family had feared would prove fatal. Just before setting out, Clark replied, giving the letter to Stoddard to take to St. Louis and post. He thanked Croghan for the news, which relieved him much, expressed the hope that he would be back in Clarksville in two years, and said, “I think it more than probable that Capt. Lewis or myself will return by sea, the other by the same rout we proceed.” He concluded with a description of the rain, thunder, and lightning of the previous three days and admitted that it “discommodes me a little in sitting out.”

Discommoded or not, at 3:30 p.m., to the cheers of a crowd on the bank, the expedition set out. Captain Stoddard was there. A couple of weeks later, he reported to Dearborn that, as Lewis and his party had begun the ascent of the Missouri, in the boat and two pirogues, “All of them were deeply laden, and well manned. His men posses great resolution and they are in the best health and spirits.”9

As the keelboat turned her bow into the stream, Lewis and his party cut themselves off from civilization. There would be no more incoming letters, no orders, no commissions, no fresh supplies, no reinforcements, nothing reaching them, until they returned.

The captains expected to be gone two years, perhaps more. In all that time, in whatever lay ahead of them, whatever decisions had to be made, they would receive no guidance from their superiors. This was an independent command, such as the U.S. Army had not previously seen and never would again. Lewis and Clark were as free as Columbus, Magellan, or Cook to make their mark on the sole basis of their own judgments and abilities.

Their first afternoon together on the Missouri, they made three and a quarter miles. They camped that night on the head of an island on the starboard side. Spring storms continued and a hard rain lasted through the night. At 6:00 a.m., May 22, they were on their way.

I. This may have been one of the causes of the rift between Lewis and Lisa. Earlier, Lewis had expected to contract for a canoe crew with Lisa. Apparently the deal fell through, perhaps with some charges of bad faith.

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