Modern history


Up the Missouri

May–July 1804

The current ran at five miles per hour usually, but it sped up when it encountered encroaching bluffs, islands, sandbars, and narrow channels. The level was springtime high, almost flood stage. Incredible to behold were the obstacles—whole trees, huge trees, oaks and maples and cottonwoods, that had been uprooted when a bank caved in; hundreds of large and thousands of smaller branches; sawyers, trees whose roots were stuck on the bottom and whose limbs sawed back and forth in the current, often out of sight; great piles of driftwood clumped together, racing downriver, threatening to tear holes in the sides of the boat; innumerable sandbars, always shifting; swirls and whirlpools beyond counting. This was worse than the Mississippi.

How in the world did they move that bulky boat, overladen in the bow, against the full force and power of the Missouri? Donald Jackson gives us a vivid description: “A keelboat was a useful but ungainly craft. Load it with ten or twenty tons of cargo and it was a faithful, wallowing drudge. Arm it with a swivel gun, set a guard with firearms at the gunwales, and it became a little warship. Navigating it downstream was easy if you kept an eye out for submerged logs, but going upstream there was no ideal way to keep it moving. If the wind was fair you ran up a sail. When the wind failed you broke out the iron-pointed setting poles and started pushing. If the bottom was deep enough, you could row. If the current was too swift for rowing you could bend a forty-fathom length of cordelling cable to the mast and put the crew ashore to haul on the line. Failing all this, you could tie up to the bank and wait for the wind to rise and blow fair.”1

Despite everything, they made good time generally, and if the wind was astern they made excellent time, once or twice twenty miles in a day. But when the wind wasn’t astern it required absolute vigilance and complete concentration by the captains and the sergeants, and total physical commitment from the men, to make every mile. The labor of the men was incredible, whether pulling at the oars, or pushing against their setting poles as they walked on top of the lockers from bow to stern.

For Warfington’s party in the white pirogue, and for the voyagers in the red pirogue, it was somewhat easier. Their craft were lighter and rode higher in the water. They were more maneuverable, so it was easier to turn away from danger. On the keelboat, to help dodge obstacles, the crew had to rush to one side or the other again and again. In the pirogues, all they had to do was lean.

The privates on the keelboat were tough, alert, quick. On June 16, Clark reported a typical incident: “Sand Collecting &c forming Bars and Bars washg a way, the boat Struck and turned, She was near oversetting. We saved her by Some extrodany exeretions of our party [who are] ever ready to incounture any fatigue for the premotion of the enterprise.”

On June 1, the party reached the Osage River and made camp on the point on the left side. The captains ordered all the trees in the area cut down, so that they could make observations, and stayed there through the next two days. They spent hours observing the time and distance from the sun to the nearest limb of the early-morning sliver of a moon. Between 6:22 and 8:28 a.m., they recorded two sets of three figures each a total of thirty-six times, or about one every three minutes.

When the expedition was under way, Clark was more often on the keelboat, Lewis on shore, because Clark was the better waterman, Lewis the better scientist (“more skilled [in zoology] than in botany,” according to Jefferson, but good at both).2

Lewis took long, solitary walks, collecting specimens, animal and plant, noting the physical characteristics of the land, judging the fertility of the soil, the presence of springs of good water, likely sites for homesteads, trading posts, and fortifications. Alas, none of his notes for the spring and summer of 1804 are known to exist.

It makes a terrible gap in the records. His notes would have expressed his first reactions to the biomass west of the Mississippi. This was hardly unknown territory; by 1804, the lower reaches of the Missouri had been much traveled. The creeks, islands, and prominent landforms all had names, mainly French. An accurate map existed through the mouth of the Kansas up to the entry of the Platte, and a pretty good map of the country from the Platte to the Mandan villages. But for Lewis it was all new, and he was seeing it with different eyes.

Up to the mouth of the Kansas, most of the flora and fauna were known to science. But there was more than enough of the new to keep Lewis happily busy, collecting and describing and preserving. After the hours at his instruments—squinting at the sky, calling out numbers for Clark to record—the hours he got to spend tramping around the prairie on the high ground up from the valley, doing what botanists like to do best—discovering new species—were surely welcome.

But we can’t catch his joy and wonder through his own words, because we don’t have his notes. Or any journal entry, even though, in Detachment Orders that Lewis wrote and he and Clark signed and proclaimed on May 26, Lewis ordered the sergeants, in addition to all other duties, “to keep a seperate journal from day to day of all passing occurences, and such other observations on the country &c. as shall appear to them worthy of notice.”


It seems impossible that he could have issued such orders and not kept a daily journal himself. But if he did, we don’t have it. Thus, as the keelboat makes its way west across the present state of Missouri, then turns north at the mouth of the Kansas toward the Platte and on into the Dakotas, we see Lewis only through the eyes of other men, principally William Clark.

Clark was a great writer about events in which he participated, and described the country he was passing through with a lovely lyric quality, but he could be disappointingly terse when writing about an event he had not seen with his own eyes. Thus, on the second day of the journey, May 23, he wrote, “Capt Lewis’ assended the hill which has peninsulis projecting in raged pints to the river, and was near falling from a Peninsulia of rocks 300 feet, he caught at 20 foot. Saved himself by the assistance of his Knife.”

Surely Lewis told Clark more than Clark recorded about such a life-threatening incident. As soldiers, who either learned lessons or died, they had a need to talk over incidents that threatened the expedition. They had to avoid unnecessary risks. So Lewis must have told Clark in some detail how he came to fall, and how he saved himself—but this didn’t make it into Clark’s journal entry.

There is another tantalizing item. The next day, the expedition passed Boone’s Settlement. The village consisted of a colony of Kentuckians led by Daniel Boone, who had settled there in 1799 on a grant of land from the Spanish government. The man who had blazed the way into Kentucky was creating a farmstead for his family on the river. Lewis and Clark went ashore. The settlers flocked around them. The men bought corn and butter. Then they were off.

Did Lewis and Clark meet Daniel Boone? Did they shake his hand? Did he wish them luck, offer advice, or a drink? Did he pass the torch? “Lewis and Clark Meeting Daniel Boone” sounds like a Charley Russell painting, or a marvelous scene for a novel. But had he met Boone, surely Clark would have written about it. And there is no known Lewis entry for the day.

The next day, May 25, the expedition passed La Charette, the last settlement of whites on the river. French and American settlers had lived there for four or five years; Daniel Boone would move there in 1805. The site is gone now, washed away by the river. Clark recorded, “The people at this Village is pore, houses Small, they Sent us milk & eggs to eat.”

The main Lewis document available for this period is his May 26 Detachment Orders. It established the routine, and serves as a reminder that this was much more than a bunch of the guys out on an exploring and collecting expedition. This was a military expedition into hostile territory.

From Jefferson’s point of view, the captains were on an expedition to explore newly acquired territory, to find the water route to the Pacific, to extend commerce, to collect specimens for science, and to establish an American claim on the Oregon country. From the point of view of the various Indian tribes, the keelboat carried uninvited strangers into their midst and their land. The United States had bought Louisiana from Napoleon, but not the loyalty or alliance or subservience of the people who lived in Louisiana.

For Lewis and Clark, every strange Indian tribe encountered had to be considered belligerent until it proved otherwise. The Indians, they hoped, would be willing to talk and trade, but it would be the Indians’ choice. They might decide to fight. Certainly they would be tempted. The expedition’s arsenal was by far the biggest ever brought to the Missouri country, and any tribe able to take possession of it would dominate the region—no matter what the Louisiana Purchase said—for a long time to come.

The last thing Lewis wanted was an Indian fight. He was prepared—and was under orders—to do everything possible to avoid one. The best way to avoid a fight was to make sure one never got started, which meant in the first instance making certain that the expedition was never caught by surprise. A camp of sleeping men with weapons carelessly scattered around could well tempt a roving band of Indians into an attack. A well-regulated camp, with guards posted and calling out challenges, would not. Instead of a fight there would be a talk—which was what Lewis wanted most of all, because he believed the United States could bring more and better trade goods to the Missouri country from St. Louis than the British could bring down from Canada. Given a chance, Americans would win the fur trade.

To prevent surprise, Lewis’s Detachment Orders of May 26 stressed alertness. The sergeant-of-the-guard had as part of his duty posting sentinels and ensuring the security of the camp. These were clear, direct orders, with no words wasted but all possibilities covered, and they signified that the expedition was now in a war zone and might be attacked at any time.

To add to nighttime security, the expedition camped on islands whenever feasible. There were daily inspections of the rifles, the blunderbusses, and the cannon, to be certain they were ready for action.

Lewis’s May 26 order provides a series of images of life on the keelboat. He divided the permanent party into three squads, or “messes,” which among other things would cook and eat together. Each evening, upon landing, Sergeant Ordway would hand out to each mess a day’s provisions. It would be cooked at once, and a portion reserved for the following day. No cooking was allowed during the day. The regular ration was hominy and lard on one day, salt pork and flour the next, and cornmeal and pork the following day.

Eating hominy and lard cold on the day after it was cooked must have made fresh meat welcome. To provide it, Drouillard and two or three companions and two horses acquired in St. Charles went out every day to hunt. When they brought in deer or bear, no lard or pork was to be issued. From the third day of the expedition on, Lewis was conserving rations.

Lewis’s Detachment Order was exact about the responsibilities of the sergeants on the boat as it moved upstream. One sergeant was stationed at the helm, another midships, and the third in the bow. The sergeant at the helm steered, saw to the baggage on the quarterdeck, and attended the compass. The sergeant midships commanded the guard, managed the sails, saw that the men at the oars did their duty, and kept a good lookout for the mouths of all rivers, creeks, islands, and other remarkable places. He also measured out the whiskey ration and served as the sergeant-of-the-guard at night. The sergeant at the bow was charged to keep a good lookout, and to report all pirogues or other craft in the river, and all hunting camps or parties of Indians.

Two of the privates had specified duty. They were Labiche and Cruzatte, the mixed-bloods who had joined up in St. Charles. They had been up the Missouri before and were the best rivermen in the enlisted ranks. Lewis ordered that they “man the larboard bow oar alternately, and the one not engaged at the oar will attend as the Bows-man, and when the attention of both these persons is necessary at the bow, their oar is to be maned by any idle hand on board.” The bowman’s tasks included warding off floating debris with his iron-tipped pole, calling out warnings of dangers ahead, looking for the best place to cross the river, and watching for sandbars, whirlpools, whatever.

On June 8, the bowman called out, “Pirogue ahead!” The boats tied up at a bank, and the two parties began to exchange information. The three downstream travelers explained that they had been hunting and trapping on the upper Missouri for the past year. Clark estimated that they had about nine hundred dollars’ worth of pelts and furs. This was big money in the pre-industrial-revolution age, about as profitable a venture as any young ambitious entrepreneur could find, other than a gold or silver claim. Of course, as always, the men who did the hard part and took the greatest risks got the least reward. The nine hundred dollars the voyagers got in St. Louis would grow by a factor of ten by the time the furs reached New York. In China, they were worth ten times the New York price.

From the Indian point of view, the furs were their resources, taken without their permission and without payment. One had to doubt that they would continue to allow white men to trap their creeks and rivers. Even if they did, without trading posts scattered along the Missouri small parties could hardly hope to be successful. The three men the expedition met on June 8 were out of provisions and powder. Even with a handout from the captains, they were just going to make it back to St. Louis.

On June 12, the bowman again cried out, “Pirogues ahead!” This time, there were two pirogues. One contained furs, the other buffalo grease and tallow. Lewis bought three hundred pounds of “voyager’s grease” from the trappers—whether for food or insect repellent, or both, is unclear. He paid with a chit that could be cashed with Stoddard in St. Louis.

The leader of the party was Pierre Dorion, Sr., a fifty-five-year-old Frenchman who had known George Rogers Clark back in Illinois during the Revolutionary War. In 1785, Dorion had settled down with the Yankton Sioux on the Missouri, above the Platte. He had a Yankton wife and spoke the language fluently, as well as French and English. Such priceless skills could not be ignored; Lewis and Clark persuaded Dorion (“old Durioun” in Clark’s journal) to return to the Sioux villages with them. They hoped that Dorion could persuade some Sioux chiefs to go to Washington to meet their new father.

On June 17, Clark complained, “The party is much aflicted with Boils and Several have the Decissentary, which I contribute to the water which is muddy.” The next day, several men had “the Disentary, and two thirds of them with ulsers or Boils, Some with 8 or 10 of those Tumers.”

Lewis agreed with Clark’s diagnosis, that the water was to blame. The captains urged the men to dip their cups below the surface when they went for a drink of water. The surface water was full of scum, mud, and debris; if the men dipped deep, they would get cleaner water.

The captains were undoubtedly right about the bad effects of the water, but an equal culprit in bringing on the boils and other skin problems was their diet. Only on the rarest of occasions did the party get fresh vegetables, such as watercress, and there was no ripe fruit as yet. Roman legions put vinegar in their drinking water, but Lewis and Clark had taken no such precaution. They and their men were living on meat and cornmeal. The meat was contaminated with bacteria (of whose existence they were unaware). Infected mosquito bites also contributed to their ailments.

In camp, ticks and gnats were bad, mosquitoes a plague. They came up in droves, so thick that the men could not keep them out of their eyes, noses, ears, and throats. To escape, men stood in the smoke of the fire and coated their exposed limbs, neck, and face with voyager’s grease.

On June 26, the expedition completed its westward trek of nearly 400 river miles across the present state of Missouri and arrived at the mouth of the Kansas River. There they spent nearly four days, making observations and airing, sunning, and repacking their goods. “The Countrey about the mouth of this river is verry fine,” Clark wrote about the site of present-day Kansas City. He measured the width of the rivers; the Kansas was 230 yards wide, the Missouri 500. Lewis weighed the water of the two rivers and found the Missouri’s to be heavier, meaning it carried more mud. Still, Clark found “the waters of the Kansas is verry disigreeably tasted to me.”

On the evening of June 28, the party made ready to push back into the river at dawn. But that night there was a raid on the whiskey supply, serious enough to cause a delay.

Alcohol in any form has always been a curse and a necessity to military leaders. Drunkenness causes more discipline and personnel problems than any other cause, but soldiers must have their alcohol. Frederick the Great put it best: “If you contemplate some enterprise against the enemy, the commissary must scrape together all of the beer and brandy that can be found so that the Army does not lack either, at least during the first few days.”3

In other words, don’t run out of booze until there is no turning back.

Lewis had bought all the whiskey he felt could be carried without making an unacceptable sacrifice somewhere else—for example, in trade goods. The total figure is disputed, but about 120 gallons is generally accepted. The daily ration was one gill. Used at that rate, the whiskey would be gone in 104 days. That could be stretched by watering down the whiskey but it was still obvious that there was not enough to make it to the Pacific and back.4

No doubt every man in the party knew exactly how much whiskey was available, and how much of it was his by rights. They knew they would run out; it had happened to them before; they could handle it as long as everyone ran out at the same time and no man got a half-ounce more than his fair share.

Just after midnight, June 28–29, Private John Collins was on guard duty. He tapped a barrel. Just one little sip wouldn’t hurt. Just one more. Another. Soon he was drunk. Private Hugh Hall came up; Collins offered him a drink; Hall accepted. Soon they were drunk together. At dawn, the sergeant-of-the-guard put them under arrest, and shortly thereafter Clark began drawing up court-martial papers.

While Clark prepared for the trial, Lewis took advantage of a clear sky and a morning moon. He measured the distance between the sun and the moon’s nearest limb forty-eight times between 7:06 and 8:57 a.m. He faithfully recorded whatever he could whenever he could, leaving up to experts back east to work out the meaning of the figures.

At 11:00 a.m., the court convened agreeable to order. Sergeant Pryor presided, Private John Potts acted as judge advocate, and four privates were members.

Sergeant Ordway charged Collins with “getting drunk on his post this morning out of whiskey put under his Charge as a Sentinal and for Suffering Hugh Hall to draw whiskey out of the Said Barrel intended for the party.”

Collins plead “Not guilty!”

The court deliberated, then concluded, “Guilty,” and sentenced Collins to one hundred lashes on his bare back.

Hall was charged with “takeing whiskey out of a Keg this morning which was contrary to all order, rule or regulation.”

Having seen what happened to Collins, Hall tried a bit of plea-bargaining: “Guilty!”

He was sentenced to receive fifty lashes well laid on.

Lewis and Clark approved the sentence and ordered it carried out at 3:30 p.m. It was, with vigor. Clark noted that “we have always found the men verry ready to punish Such Crimes.”

Flogging was cruel, but not unusual. Slaveholders had seen it all their lives. Officers in the army saw it done on a regular basis to their own men. In this case, it fit the need perfectly. It allowed the men to let out their anger in a direct, physical way. It caused Collins and Hall great pain. But the expedition didn’t lose their services; both men were at the oars—groaning, but at the oars—that afternoon. After a couple of sleepless nights of tossing and turning, they would be all right. Besides, there was no guardhouse on the boat to lock them up in.5

“Deer to be Seen in every direction and their tracks ar as plenty as Hogs about a farm,” Clark wrote on June 30. Now headed north, the expedition was entering a near-paradise. Clark noted “rasberreis perple, ripe and abundant.”

On July 4, the men ushered in the day with a firing of the cannon. Private Joseph Field got bitten by a snake. Captain Lewis treated him with a poultice, probably of Peruvian bark, that drew the poison. At noon, the party pulled ashore at the mouth of a creek of some fifteen yards wide, “coming out of an extensive Prarie” on the left (west) side. As they ate, the captains questioned the voyagers. No, they knew no name for the creek.

The captains thereupon named it, their second experience in bestowing a name.I They called it Independence Creek.

The expedition pulled over for the night at the site of an old Kansas Indian town. “We Camped in the plain,” Clark wrote, “one of the most butifull Plains I ever Saw, open & butifully diversified with hills & vallies all presenting themselves to the river covered with grass and a few scattering trees, a handsom Creek meandering thro.”

The captains ordered an extra gill distributed. As they sipped their portions, they took in their surroundings and were quite overwhelmed. The country was covered with a sweet and nourishing grass, interspersed with copses of trees “Spreding ther lofty branchs over Pools Springs or Brooks of fine water. Groops of Shrubs covered with the most delicious froot is to be seen in every direction, and nature appears to have exerted herself to butify the Senery by the variety of flours Delicately and highly flavered raised above the Grass, which Strikes and profumes the Sensation, and amuses the mind.”

At sunset, the men again fired the cannon. It was the first-ever Fourth of July celebration west of the Mississippi River.

Perhaps the captains grew philosophical under the influence of the whiskey, as happens to earnest young men carrying heavy responsibilities who find themselves in the Garden of Eden as full dark comes on and the campfire burns down on their nation’s birthday. Clark’s last journal entry that day: “So magnificent a Senerey [here follow several words that Clark later crossed out] in a Contry thus Situated far removed from the Sivilised world to be enjoyed by nothing but the Buffalo Elk Deer & Bear in which it abounds & Savage Indians.” Possibly the captains puzzled over why God had created such a place and failed to put Virginians in it, or put it in Virginia.

On July 8, there was an Indian scare—a fire on the east bank. All hands went on alert, but nothing came of it. On the night of July 11–12, Private Alexander Willard went to sleep on his post. Ordway found him and turned him in. The offense was one of the most serious possible—punishable by death, according to the regulations. The captains themselves constituted the court—rather than privates, as in Collins’s case.

Ordway charged Willard with “Lying down and Sleeping on his post whilst a Sentinal.”

Willard pled, “Guilty of Ly Down, and not Guilty, of Going to Sleep.”

The captains conferred. After considering the evidence, they found Willard guilty on both counts. They sentenced him to one hundred lashes, each day for four days, beginning that evening at sunset. One shudders at the thought of Willard’s back after the fourth day; one shudders at the thought of what might have happened had a roving band of Sioux come up while Willard was sleeping on guard duty.

On July 21, some six hundred miles and sixty-eight days upstream from Wood River, the expedition reached the mouth of the Platte River. This was a milestone. To go past the mouth of the Platte was the Missouri riverman’s equivalent of crossing the equator. It also meant entering a new ecosystem—and Sioux territory. The expedition stopped so the captains could make the usual measurements.

Lewis wrote a five-hundred-word description of the Platte, that fabulous river that makes its way from the Rockies across modern Nebraska to the Missouri, running a mile wide and an inch deep, just bursting with animal and plant life. What most impressed Lewis was the immense quantity of sand the Platte emptied into the Missouri, and the velocity of the current. He measured, as he always did: whereas on the Mississippi below St. Louis a vessel would float at four miles an hour, and on the Missouri from five and a half to seven, depending, on the Platte that vessel would make at least eight miles an hour. Assuming it never ran aground, which it would at every bend or sandbar.

Lewis also made his celestial observations. The next morning, he wrote a thousand-word description of the instruments he was using, how he was using them, what he was measuring, and so forth. It seems Lewis wanted to be as sure as he could that someone someday would take all his figures and make some sense out of them.

On July 30, Clark recorded, “Capt. Lewis and my Self walked in the Prarie on the top of the Bluff and observed the most butifull prospects imagionable, this Prarie is Covered with grass about 10 or 12 Inch high.” There were swans in a nearby pond. Great quantities of catfish were caught that evening.

Private Joseph Field killed and brought in to Lewis a badger. Lewis wrote that “this is a singular anamal not common to any part of the United States,” and went on with a description of its weight, teeth, eyes, and so on. Then he skinned and stuffed the badger to send back to Jefferson. This was the first time he had put into practice the taxidermic skills Jefferson had taught him. The badger was not new to science: a specimen sent from Canada to Europe in 1778 had been technically described. (The expedition had already discovered and Lewis had described two animals new to science, the Eastern wood rat and the plains horned toad).6

So far, 640 miles up the river, the party had not seen an Indian. All the river tribes were out on the prairie, hunting buffalo.

I. Most of the rivers had French names; the first named by Clark was Cupboard Creek, on June 3, 1804.

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