Modern history

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

St. Louis

March–December 1808

St. Louis was isolated but vibrant. Washington Irving described the city, as he saw it shortly after Lewis’s arrival: “Here to be seen [were] the hectoring, extravagant, bragging boatmen of the Mississippi, with the gay, grimacing, singing, good-humored Canadian voyageurs. Vagrant Indians of various tribes, loitered about the streets. Now and then a stark Kentucky hunter, in leathern hunting-dress, with rifle on shoulder and knife in belt, trode along. Here and there were new rich houses and ships, just set up by bustling, driving and eager men of traffic from the Atlantic States; while, on the other hand, the old French mansions, with open casements, still retained the easy, indolent air of the original colonists.”1

The Spanish presence was there too, as were black slaves. This was a mixing of three nationalities from the two Old World continents with the citizens of the nations from the New World. It made for a cosmopolitan city, of about five thousand residents, the most cosmopolitan of any in America west of the Eastern Seaboard port cities.

Irving found it charming, but his eyes didn’t see what would be the first thing to strike a modern visitor—horse manure everywhere one walked. Because he was so accustomed to them, Irving also failed to note the muddy (or dusty) streets and the smoke-filled rooms.

The American Irving was struck by the extreme distance between the elite and the common citizenry. The Spanish and French merchants lived lives that could only be called princely. They had huge tracts of land and had enjoyed trading monopolies, lived in elegant homes with superb libraries, excellent wines, extravagantly fashionable clothes, the latest wallpaper from New York, New Orleans, or Europe, the finest in furniture and such comforts as man-made lakes, cool cellars, and a fireplace in almost every room. One observer swore “there was a fiddle in every house.”

What Irving called “the happy Gallic turn for gayety and amusement” was most in evidence during the carnival season that preceded Mardi Gras. There was an abundance of cotillions, reels, minuets, with balls every night. The ladies wore silk gloves and stockings, bracelets and earrings. One astonished American declared, “I never saw anywhere greater elegance of dress than I have at a ball in St. Louis.” Secretary Bates admired the “inimitable grace” with which the ladies danced, but, being an American and a sour one at that, he added that their dancing was “too much in the style of actresses.”2 Shocking to American eyes were the “kings” and “queens” who presided over the balls and public ceremonies of the carnival season.

The great majority of the population, meanwhile, were illiterate, owned little or nothing, and lived in shacks. The men were mainly boatmen. They were the essential industry of St. Louis. It was their muscle power that made it possible for the merchants to move goods up the Missouri River, to the source of the furs. They were always in debt to their bosses, who treated them almost as badly as Virginia planters treated their black slaves.

Their loyalty was to one another. In 1807, while on an expedition organized by private traders, George Drouillard received orders from his employer, Manuel Lisa, to find the deserter Antoine Bissonnette and bring him back dead or alive. Drouillard brought him back dead. When the party returned to St. Louis, Drouillard was put on trial for murder. The jury found that Bissonnette’s desertion was a threat to the entire party and discharged Drouillard.3

Now the Americans were coming into this Old World society, bringing with them a new energy. Secretary Bates noted the contrast between the two styles: “While the English Americans are hard at labor and sweat under the burning rays of a meridian sun, [the French and Spanish elite] will be seated in their homes or under some cooling shade, amusing themselves with their pipes and tobacco, drinking coffee.” He further noted that “the Old Inhabitants” were “rigid economists.”4

The American threat to this way of life was very great. The Americans were questioning the validity of land titles acquired under the informal land cessions of the Spanish and French regimes, and of the monopolies granted for the lead mines and the Indian trade. There were not enough courts or judges to make decisions, and not enough soldiers to enforce them. The Americans brought with them a spirit of partisanship that added immeasurably to the difficulties of governing. Worse, some of them at least were Burrites, plotting to break Louisiana away from the United States.

Secretary and Acting Governor Bates was ill-suited to handle the responsibilities of governing, and he knew it. From the time of his arrival in the spring of 1807, he wrote Lewis about the quarreling that marked public affairs and urged him to hurry to St. Louis to set things in order. “I take a pleasure in expressing the opinion,” he wrote on April 5, 1807, “that you have a fair opportunity of establishing a lasting reputation in Louisiana, by composing the unhappy divisions of her Inhabitants.”5

Lewis’s predecessor, General Wilkinson, had granted trading licenses with abandon (to his own profit), to foreigners as well as U.S. citizens. There was intense fighting over land titles. Bates was trying to straighten things out, but felt overwhelmed. He told his brother, “The difficulties with which I have to contend in this country are numberless and almost insurmountable.”

“I have great cause to lament your absence,” Bates wrote Lewis. But he also warned the governor, “contrary to my first expectation you must expect to have some enemies.” He further warned, “We have among us a set of men turbulent and ungovernable in their dispositions, which I believe may be accounted for, from that spirit of enterprize and adventure which brought them first into the country.”6

Through to the end of 1807, Bates’s anxiety for Lewis to arrive grew. By 1808, he was almost in a frenzy. In January, he wrote Lewis, “No one feels the want of your superintending presence so much as I do.” In early February, he wrote again to say he was “eagerly expecting your arrival every day.” Later that month, he was hoping to see Lewis “every hour.” By the 26th, it was “every moment.”7

Bates was an experienced bureaucrat. In 1801, he had hoped for the appointment Meriwether Lewis had received, to be Jefferson’s private secretary.8 He had been postmaster and later receiver of public monies and land commissioner in Detroit. He had held these positions as a Federalist, but in 1804, wanting higher office, he switched parties and had his brother use his influence with a Republican member of Congress to help him obtain an appointment as associate judge of Michigan Territory.

“As for my Politics,” he said in support of his candidacy and in direct opposition to the facts, “you all know that I am staunch.” He got the job, and was a good-enough Republican to receive, in 1807, the appointment to be the secretary of Louisiana Territory.9

If even so adroit and experienced a bureaucrat as Bates found governing Louisiana nearly impossible, obviously the inexperienced Governor Lewis was entering dangerous territory. Nevertheless, as he finally broke away from Virginia and headed west, Lewis was bursting with optimism, plans, and energy. The lethargy that had plagued him since the preceding July was gone. He was eager to start his new life.

Lewis arrived in St. Louis on March 8, 1808. He was in independent command—if not as independent as on the expedition, still generally on his own. The government could not get detailed instructions to or set policy for a governor who was a week’s travel from the nearest post office, in Vincennes, Indiana. It was another week to the next post office, in Louisville. Under the most favorable of circumstances and in the best weather, mail to or from Washington took nearly a month; in wintertime, in the severest weather, there was no communication at all with the outside world. It took three months to ascend the Mississippi from New Orleans. So Lewis was more or less on his own, with no practical experience in politics or government, in a capital teeming with plots and ambitious and unscrupulous men, with no set of written laws in the English language, and insufficient judges and courts. This was a challenge of a new kind.

He immediately threw himself into his activities, private as well as public. He began speculating in land and in the fur trade. Simultaneously, he searched for suitable lodgings. He was appalled at the rents being charged. He wrote Clark, who was on his honeymoon in Virginia, that one place he looked at cost five hundred dollars per year. “Such rent I never had calculated on giveing.” He settled on one for $250 per year.

The home he selected, on the corner of South Main and Spruce Streets, was quite grand—as it had to be, since Lewis and Clark had agreed that they would share quarters and Clark was expected shortly, accompanied by his wife and two nieces. In a letter of May 29, 1808, Lewis described the house to Clark with the enthusiasm of a real estate agent.

There was a good cellar, four rooms on the first floor, rooms upstairs for slaves, a piazza running across the east and south fronts, a detached kitchen with two fireplaces and an oven, and a garden, a stable, and a new smokehouse. Unfortunately, there was only one facility, and that “a small indifferent out house formerly used for smoking meat.”

Lewis planned to live with his friend, but was realistic: “Should we find on experiment that we have not sufficient room in the house, I can obtain an Office elsewhere in the neighborhood and still consider myself your messmate.” Not surprisingly, after a few months of “experiment,” the two men agreed, most likely at the insistence of Julia Clark, that the house wasn’t big enough.

Lewis got an office on Main Street and quarters with Pierre Chouteau, but ate with the Clarks.10 He had no wife, but he acquired what amounted to an adopted son. He brought René Jessaume’s thirteen-year-old boy, Toussaint, under an indenture to St. Louis to raise and educate him.11(Eventually, Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste, and daughter, Lizette, became boarders in Clark’s home and were tutored there.)

Ensign Pryor carried Lewis’s May 29 letter to Clark, with instructions to hand it over at the mouth of the Ohio, where Clark and party were expected in late June or early July. Pryor would provide a military escort up the Mississippi.

Clark was traveling with two keelboats, bringing his household furniture and heavy equipment for the Indians, including a horse-power mill and blacksmith’s tools. And, of course, his wife and his nieces. He had written Lewis that he would be arriving with “goods” and “merchandize.”

In his letter to Clark, Lewis showed what a good humor he was in, writing in a jocular vein, “I must halt here in the middle of my communications and ask you if the matrimonial dictionary affords no term more appropriate than that of goods, alise merchandize, for that dear and interesting part of the creation? It is very well Genl., I shall tell madam of your want of Gallantry; and the triumph too of detection will be more compleat when it is recollected what a musty, fusty, rusty old bachelor I am.”

Lewis went on: “I trust you do not mean merely to tantalize us by the promise you have made of bringing with you some of your Neices, I have already flattered the community of S Louis with this valuable acquisition to our female society.”12

It turned out that Clark had brought only one niece, “the beautiful and accomplished Miss Anderson,” his sister’s daughter. She caused a flutter in town. A friend wrote to Secretary Bates, “Great agitation in St. Louis among the bachelors, to prevent fatal consequences a Town meeting has been proposed for the purpose of disposing of her by lot.”13

As had been the case on the expedition, Lewis went through periods of doing little or no writing, followed by periods of extensive composition.I In the summer of 1808, he did a lot of writing—personal, chatty letters sparkling with good humor, as well as his official documents. In a long letter of July 25 to his old army friend (and fellow speculator in Kentucky lands) Major William Preston, Lewis gave a glimpse of his life and emotions.

“How wretchedly you married men arrange the subjects of which you treat,” Lewis complained in his opening (Preston had recently married Julia Hancock’s older sister). Lewis said that, just because “You have gained that which I have yet to obtain, a wife,” Preston was not excused from starting off with an entire page about land speculation and “your musty frusty trade,” and “a flimsy excuse about the want of money to enable you to come and see us &c &c before you came to the point.”

The point was that “she is off.” “She” was Letitia Breckenridge, who on June 2 had married Robert Gamble of Richmond. “So be it,” a disappointed but resigned Lewis wrote. “May God be with her and her’s, and the favored angels of heaven guard her bliss both here and hereafter, is the sincere prayer of her very sincere friend, to whom she has left the noble consolation of scratching his head and biting his nails, with ample leasure to reuminate on the chapter of accidents in matters of love and the folly of castle-building.”

Lewis was generous about the man who had won his fair lady: “Gamble is a good tempered, easy honest fellow, I have known him from a boy; both his means and his disposition well fit him for sluming away life with his fair one in the fassionable rounds of a large City.” He was also charitable about Letitia: “Such is the life she has celected and in it’s pursuit I wish she may meet all the pleasures of which it is susceptable.”

Lewis wanted his friend to come to St. Louis to participate in the boom. “In my opinion,” he wrote, “Louisiana, and particularly the district of St. Louis, at this moment offers more advantages than any other portion of the U’States . . . to the honest adventurer who can command money or negroes.” He described the economy, based on corn (shipped to New Orleans in the form of barrels of whiskey), wheat, lead, and furs. “Were I to dwell on the advantages of this country I might fill a volume.”

There would never be a better time to take the plunge: “I will wrisk my existence that you will at some future period regret having chosen any other,” Lewis wrote. “You have no time to lose. Lands are rising fast, but are yet very low.” Prices had doubled in a year. If Preston would sell his place in Kentucky, even if he got only half value for it, “and bring your money or negroes with you to this country you might purchase a princely fortune.”

Lewis backed his boosting with his own money. “I have purchased seven thousand four hundred and 40 ArpentsII for five thousand five hundred and thirty dollars,” all of it in the St. Louis neighborhood and blessed with springs and sites for mills, and excellent soil and ample rain.

As for the Indians, Lewis admitted that they had been “exceedingly troublesome during the last winter and spring,” but insisted that “I have succeeded in managing those on the Mississippi.” He added, however, that “the Osage and others on the Missouri are yet in a threatening position.” Still, he was confident that the steps he was about to take would soon “reduce them to order.”14

Lewis had indeed been extremely active on the Indian front, although to what extent the policies he had put into motion would bring the various nations to order remained to be seen. He had sent a veteran Indian agent, Nicholas Boilvin, accompanied by a military escort of twenty-seven men, to bring in two Indians of the Sauks and Foxes accused of murder.15 And he had initiated drastic measures against one band of the Osage tribe, called the Great Osages.

He explained his actions in a July 1 letter to Secretary Dearborn, his first report as territorial governor to the administration. The Great Osages had “cast off all allegiance to the United States,” he wrote, and no longer acknowledged the authority of their former leader, White Hair. According to White Hair and other information Lewis had received, the Great Osage had taken some prisoners, stolen some horses, killed some cattle. They had plundered frontier inhabitants of their clothes and furniture and burned their homes.

If the Great Osages wanted war, Lewis was ready. He held several councils with the Shawnees, Delawares, Kickapoos, Iowas, and others, telling them “that they were at liberty to wage war against” the Great Osages. He began preparations in St. Louis, because “War appears to me inevitable with these people; I have taken the last measures for peace, which have been merely laughed at by them as the repetition of an old song.”

The problem was that the Great Osages felt themselves independent of the government, because they had a Spanish trader among them. Lewis had therefore suspended all trading licenses (which caused an uproar among the traders in St. Louis) “until a sufficient force” could be sent to establish permanent trading posts. He provided General Clark with an escort of eighty men to go up the Missouri to establish a fortification and trading post on the Osage River. This amounted to an expedition against the Great Osages.

Lewis needed more men, and asked for an authorization to pay recruits for the militia. He needed supplies, and asked Dearborn to send him 500 muskets, 300 rifles, 120 swords, 60 pairs of pistols, and a ton of gunpowder. That should take care of the Spanish-influenced southern flank.

The danger on the northern front, on the Missouri beyond the Mandans, came from the British. Lewis gave orders that they should be kept out of U.S. territory, but of course he had no power to enforce them. Indeed, he wasn’t sure the War Department would approve.16

Dearborn had about lost all his patience with the young hero. From his point of view, Lewis was doing everything wrong. The United States was on the verge of war with Britain; the War Department was woefully unprepared; here was Lewis opening up another front, demanding weapons and men, marching regular troops off to deal with some minor Indian problems that sounded like a squabble between the Little Osages and the Great Osages, fed by wild stories from White Hair and some traders.

Lewis had said not one word about returning Big White to his people, even though the commander-in-chief had ordered him to make this his top priority. And he had taken unauthorized actions without properly reporting—the first Dearborn had heard about Boilvin’s expedition to bring back the murderers (in itself a very questionable piece of Indian policy) had come from an army officer reporting the requisition for men and supplies.

In a July 2 letter that crossed Lewis’s letter to him, Dearborn set a policy: “Except in cases of the most pressing emergency detachments of the troops should not be made” until approved by the president. The secretary closed with a complaint: “No communication except some Drafts for Money, has, for many Months, been received from the Executive of Louisiana.”17 That was a stinging rebuke, and no doubt surprising to Lewis when he received it, so long had he been accustomed to making decisions without having to seek any approval beyond talking it over with Clark.

A worse rebuke quickly followed. On July 17, Jefferson wrote to Lewis. He opened with a complaint: “Since I parted with you in Albemarle in Sept. last I have never had a line from you.” He said he would have written earlier but for his conviction “that something from you must be on it’s way to us.”

Those were stern words for Jefferson, and he immediately softened them. He realized that the slowness of the mails might have been the cause; he said it was not until February that he had learned that the Arikaras had attacked Ensign Pryor’s expedition to return Big White to his people, and turned it back, with casualties (including the loss of George Shannon’s leg). This was a severe blow to the president, who had given his word that Big White would be returned home safely and soon.

As to his relations with Lewis, Jefferson had decided to “put an end to this mutual silence” and write himself, to ask for a report from Lewis on what he intended to do to return Big White: “We consider the good faith, & the reputation of the nation as pledged to accomplish this.” He hastened to add he did not want “any considerable military expedition” sent up the river “in the present uncertain state of our foreign concerns.” But he did authorize Lewis to get the job done “if it can be effected in any other way & at any reasonable expence.”

That statement from the president amounted to almost a blank check for Lewis, nearly as good as the letter of credit he had carried with him on the expedition—or so at least Governor Lewis chose to read it.

Jefferson passed on some welcome news: “A powerful company is forming for taking up the Indian commerce on a large scale.” It was headed by John Jacob Astor and would have a capital of one million dollars. Jefferson described Astor as “a most excellent man long engaged in the [fur] business & perfectly master of it.”

As to the bad news, relations with Britain were worse than ever, and the Congress was debating “whether war will not be preferable to a longer continuance of the embargo.” In politics, it looked as if the Republican nominee, Secretary of State James Madison, would easily defeat the Federalist Charles Pinckney, “but with this question it is my duty not to intermeddle.” Lewis’s friends and family in Albemarle were fine.

Jefferson’s closing line cut to the heart: “We have no tidings yet of the forwardness of your printer. I hope the first part will not be delayed much longer.”18

The journals were in St. Louis, and Lewis had not prepared a single line for the printer, who was in Philadelphia. Jefferson here offered him an opportunity to straighten out his misconception, but Lewis did not take it. He never answered the letter.

Nor did he reply to others. In August, Jefferson told Dearborn, “It is astonishing we get not one word from him.”19

The cause almost surely was Lewis’s chagrin at failing to prepare his manuscript for the printer. He knew how much it meant to Jefferson. He further knew how much it meant to his own financial future and to his reputation. Yet he did nothing.

Clark must have talked to him about publication. Still he did nothing. True, he was terribly busy, but he had an option—a man who could put more than five thousand dollars into land speculation could afford a five-hundred-dollar-per-year editor. Not that an editor could have done the job quickly or accurately, at least without Lewis’s active help, but hiring one would have meant some progress was being made. In addition, Lewis might have told Jefferson that it was impossible for the governor of Louisiana to find time to do the work himself. Had Lewis pointed this out and confessed to Jefferson that nothing had been done, the president could have helped, perhaps by getting the journals to Washington and putting some War Department clerks to work on them.

Jefferson must bear some of the responsibility. He could have pushed Lewis much harder. Dumas Malone comments that in this case “Jefferson, who was so tolerant of persons he trusted, may have erred on the side of patience.”20

Lewis found numerous opportunities to get out of the office, sometimes on horseback trips for land speculation, on other occasions to visit old army friends at Bellefontaine. He visited George Shannon in the hospital. He joined other Masons in St. Louis in establishing a Masonic Lodge in St. Louis, and agreed to serve as the first Master.21 He helped establish the first newspaper west of the Mississippi by participating in the financing of Joseph Charless’s Missouri Gazette, which printed its initial issue on July 22, 1808. The governor used it as an outlet for his pronouncements. On August 2, the paper printed the first half of Lewis’s long policy statement to Dearborn; he used the nom de plume “Clatsop.”

He also wrote occasional pieces for the newspaper. On November 16, 1808, he contributed an essay on “The True Ambitions of an Honest Mind.” It read, in full:

“Were I to describe the blessings I desire in life, I would be happy in a few but faithful friends. Might I choose my talent, it should rather be good than learning. I would consult in the choice of my house, convenience rather than state; and, for my circumstances, desire a moderate but independent fortune. Business enough to secure me from indolence, and leisure enough always to have an hour to spare. I would have no master, and I desire few servants. I would not be led away by ambition, nor perplexed with disputes. I would enjoy the blessings of health but rather be beholden for it to a regular life and an easy mind, than to the school of Hippocrates. As to my passions, since we cannot be wholly divested of them, I would hate only those whose manners rendered them odious, and love only where I knew I ought. Thus would I pass cheerfully through that portion of my life which cannot last always, & with resignation wait for that which will last forever.”22

These are ideals that Polonius would have approved, put in the stilted language the earnest young governor often used when he tried to express feeling. Some of the blessings he described, he enjoyed; others, not. He had a few faithful friends, most of all Jefferson and Clark. He lived in fairly simple accommodations. He was short of an independent fortune, but in sight of one. He often complained about his lack of leisure. He had but one servant, a free black man named John Pernier. His ambition was always in danger of leading him away, and he was cursed with disputes aplenty. His health was dependent on the medicines for malaria he regularly took. As to hatred, he perhaps had Bates in mind when he expressed the hope that he would hate only those who were odious.

“My life is still one continued press of business which scarcely allows me leasire to write to you,” Lewis told his mother in a letter of December 1, 1808. Of course he was not quite that busy, but that is the way a young man opens a letter to his mother when he suddenly realizes he has not seen her or written to her in over a year. Lewis’s first concern was for her health, but he expressed it with a complaint: “I sincerely hope you are all well tho’ it seems I shall not know whether you are dead or alive untill I visit you again.” With what can only be called a piece of gall from someone who had not written a letter to his family in a year, he went on: “What is John Marks and Edmund Anderson about that they do not write to me?” He wanted to know whether John Marks was studying in Philadelphia, whether Mary was married, and if so if she had moved to Georgia. “I know your feelings on this subject,” he continued. “I hope you will bear the seperation with your usual fortitude.”

Then he expressed a fantasy of his, one that he had not put into his Missouri Gazette article but nevertheless a blessing of great importance to him, to bring his family together in St. Louis. He already had Reuben with him. Now he told his mother that it was his hope “that I shall have it in my power in the course of a few years to bring you together again.” He explained that he would be offering John Marks “such inducements as will determine him to remove to Louisiana,” and that he had selected a thousand-acre farm for his mother, “with which I am convinced you will be pleased,” and was purchasing other land so that Mary and her husband could join them. He said he had paid out three thousand dollars for the land, with fifteen hundred more due in May 1809 and twelve hundred on May 1, 1810. To get the money, he was putting his inheritance—the farm on Ivy Creek—up for sale.

He closed with a promise to come to Virginia for a visit during the course of the winter.23

Through the second half of 1808, Lewis was involved in organizing the St. Louis Missouri River Fur Company. Among the partners were William Clark, Manuel Lisa, Pierre Chouteau, Auguste Chouteau, General Wilkinson’s brother Benjamin, and Reuben Lewis. Meriwether Lewis was assumed to be a secret partner. Not many details are known, but the general idea was to send a privately raised, publicly financed, very large expedition up the Missouri in 1809 to return Big White to his people. After the expedition got to the Mandan villages, the fur traders could go on to the mouth of the Yellowstone, where the company would enjoy a monopoly granted by Governor Lewis.

The scheme smacked of nepotism and reeked of conflict of interest, but to Lewis and the partners it made perfect sense. The government could not raise the force necessary to overpower the Arikaris and the Sioux; the partners had insufficient capital to finance the military part of such an expedition; the commander-in-chief had authorized Lewis to use whatever means seemed best to him, at whatever “reasonable” cost, to return Big White. The work of forming the company went forward.

In late July, Boilvin returned with four Indians. They were Iowas, and according to the Sauks and the Foxes they were the men who had committed the murder. Lewis said publicly that three of them would be hanged—after trial.

The trial was held on July 23. “The streets of St. Louis teemed with Indian warriors,” an observer reported. They incessantly harassed Governor Lewis and General Clark, beseeching pardon. The Iowa warriors were found guilty, but something must have bothered Lewis about the trial, for he ordered a new one, which was held on August 3. The Indians were again found guilty, but instead of hanging them, Lewis had them put in jail, evidently to await instructions.24

Not until mid-August did Lewis receive Dearborn’s letter of rebuke dated July 2; nor until then did Dearborn receive Lewis’s report of July 1—which was then passed on to Jefferson at Monticello, since Dearborn was in Maine. The maddening slowness of the mails made a difficult situation worse.

On August 20, Lewis replied to Dearborn. He got immediately to the point: “I shall in future . . . be as cautious with rispect to my requisitions on the regular troops as you can possibly wish me.”

Of course there was an immediate “but”: “When you take into view Sir, my great distance from the seat of the general government, surrounded as I am with numerous faithless and savage nations [it is obvious] that many cases will arrise which require my acting before it is possible I can consult.” That got him into a convoluted sentence of explanation: “I have ever thought it better not to act at all than to act erroniously, and I shall certainly not lay myself liable hereafter to the censure of the executive under this head, tho’ I shall ever feel a pleasure in exercising to the best of my judgment and abilities such discretionary powers as they may think proper to confide to me.”

He went on at great length to defend what he had done. After nearly a thousand words on the subject, he concluded: “This has been an extreemly perplexing toilsome & disagreeable business to me throughout and I must candidly confess that it is not rendered less so at this moment in reflection than it was in practice from the seeming disapprobation which you appear to have to the measures pursued.”25

Jefferson, meanwhile, replied on August 21 to Lewis’s July 1 report to Dearborn. Although he had privately expressed fear that Lewis had been too prompt “in committing us with the Osages,” he told Lewis only that he regretted “that it has been necessary to come to open rupture with the Osages, but, being so, I approve of the course you have pursued in permitting the other nations to take their own satisfaction for the wrongs they complain of.” Indeed, the commander-in-chief was willing to go further and supply the guns and ammunition the Indians attacking the Osages would need, a strange action for a man who wanted peace among all the inhabitants of Louisiana.

But Jefferson did not approve at all of sending the Boilvin expedition to snatch the accused murderers from the Sauks and the Foxes, and hoped that nothing had happened yet. If Boilvin had brought in some accused Indians, Jefferson told Lewis to “give time,” for “Indulgence on both sides is just & necessary” in such cases.

Like every nineteenth-century president, Jefferson could not set and hold to a consistent Indian policy. This reflected the pressures he was under. On the one side, there were questions of morality and law and order, and certainly the white frontiersmen committed many an outrage on the Indians before crying for help when retribution came. On the other side, the Indians could not be controlled with good intentions, and American citizens had to be protected. Jefferson hoped it could be done without bloodshed, but controlled they must be. Jefferson told Lewis, “Commerce is the great engine by which we are to coerce them, & not war.” The operative verb in the sentence was “coerce.”

Thus, in the Boilvin matter, Jefferson approved of Lewis’s requisition for arms and militia expenses, but in passing this along to Dearborn he expressed the hope that Lewis would be able to settle with the Sauks and the Foxes without war, “to which he seems too much committed.”26

From the territorial governor’s point of view, that was a lovely sentiment, but too mushy for practical affairs. As Lewis had put it in his report to Dearborn, “I sincerely hope that the general government in their philanthropic feelings towards the indians will not loose sight of the safety of our defenceless and extended frontiers.”27

Three days later, Jefferson again wrote Lewis. He had just heard of Lewis’s statement in early July that three Iowas were to be hanged for murder. He hoped it would not be done, “as we know we cannot punish any murder which shall be committed by us on them even if the murderer can be taken. Our juries have never yet convicted the murderer of an Indian.” If a hanging was necessary, he instructed Lewis to limit it to one man, the “most guilty & worst character,” because only one white man had been killed. (Lewis kept the Indians in jail, from which they escaped in the summer of 1809.)

Jefferson next turned to a much more important matter, one on which Lewis had been inexcusably lax, as far as Jefferson knew. “I am uneasy,” the president wrote, “hearing nothing from you about the Mandan chief, nor the measures for restoring him to his country.”

Once more, Jefferson authorized in advance any measures Lewis might consider necessary, saying that the return of Big White “is an object which presses on our justice & our honour. And farther than that I suppose a severe punishment of the Ricaras indispensable, taking for it our own time & convenience.” The president signed off, “I repeat my salutations of affection & respect.”28

Lewis spent much of his time on the routine business of government. His duties put him in contact with men who had been or would be famous, most notably Daniel Boone and Moses Austin. He appointed Boone justice of the district of Femme Osage. He had various dealings with Austin, who held lands west of St. Louis that were rich in lead. Austin expressed his “confidence” in Lewis but warned him that the bickering parties in the territory would attempt to drive a wedge between the governor and Secretary Bates; Austin later commented that a breach between the two “has already taken place and Governor Lewis has expressed his dissatisfaction of the Secretary’s conduct.”29

Indeed, Lewis had dismissed a number of officeholders, some of them Burrites who had been appointed by Wilkinson, others friends of Bates.30 In the process, he made enemies. The governor created what amounted to an Indian territory, access to which by whites would be controlled by him. His purpose was to prevent claim-jumpers and squatters from taking up lands; there was much grumbling about this. When he issued orders suspending all trading with the Great Osages, he made more enemies.

When Clark established Fort Osage near the river by that name, he negotiated a treaty establishing a boundary line. When the Great Osages learned that the treaty forbade them to cross to the east of the line, they complained that they had never understood the treaty and anyway only the Little Osages had agreed to it. Lewis then commissioned Pierre Chouteau to go to Fort Osage and negotiate a new treaty.

Lewis’s instructions to Chouteau were solidly in the tradition of treaty-making with the Indians. A line should be drawn that “assures to them, for their exclusive use, the lands west of the boundary line.” That was a backward way of saying the Osages would be selling the land east of the line. Any Osages who refused to make their mark on the treaty “can have no future hopes . . . for it is our unalterable determination, that if they are to be considered our friends and allies, they must sign that instrument, and conform to its stipulations.” Those who obeyed would have trade goods aplenty, plus a blacksmith shop and the horse-power mill Clark had brought to St. Louis. Those who resisted would be cut off completely from all trade goods.31

The Osages did as they were told, adopting the treaty on November 10, 1808. It was ratified by the U.S. Senate, unanimously, on April 28, 1810.

The governor enacted a law to permit villages to incorporate as towns, and laid out a road from St. Louis to Ste. Genevieve, Cape Girardeau, and New Madrid. He oversaw the construction of a shot tower and arranged for the exploration of nearby saltpeter caves.32

Lewis’s relations with Clark were excellent, as always. He borrowed money from Clark regularly. On one occasion he recorded in his account book, “Borrowed of Genl. Clrk this sum [$1] at a card party in my room.” On another occasion he borrowed $6, which he then loaned to his brother, Reuben. On October 7, it was $50 for an unstated purpose. On October 28, Clark loaned him $49.50 for two barrels of whiskey.33

In August, when one of Clark’s slaves ran away, Lewis gave York $4 for his expenses as he searched for the man. That indicates a high level of trust in York, but nevertheless Clark was upset with York.

York was demanding his freedom as his reward for his services on the expedition. His wife belonged to someone else and lived in Louisville, Kentucky. When Clark refused to free him, York asked to be allowed to go to Louisville. Clark agreed to send him there, but only for a visit. In a November 9, 1808, letter to his brother Jonathan, Clark explained that he would “send York and premit him to Stay a fiew weeks with his wife, he wishes to Stay there altogether and hire himself [a fairly common practice; York was proposing to hire himself out and send the money his labor earned to Clark] which I have refused. he prefers being Sold to return[ing] here, [but] he is Serviceable to me at this place, and I am determined not to Sell him, to gratify him, and have derected him to return . . . to this place, this fall. if any attempt is made by York to run off, or refuse to proform his duty as a Slave, I wish him Sent to New Orleans and sold, or hired out to Some Sevare Master untill he thinks better of Such Conduct. I do not wish him to know my determination if he conducts himself well.”

York continued to argue that he should be set free. Clark lamented to his brother, “I did wish to do well by him [York], but as he has got Such a notion about freedom and his emence Services [on the expedition], that I do not expect he will be of much Service to me again.”

Clark fretted over the situation. He discussed it with Lewis. In a late-1808 letter to his brother, Clark wrote, “I do not cear for Yorks being in this Country. I have got a little displeased with him and intended to have punished him but Govr. Lewis has insisted on my only hireing him out in Kentucky which perhaps will be best.” Clark hoped that York would learn a lesson from “a Severe Master” and thus “give over that wife of his” to return to St. Louis.

York was not the only slave causing Clark problems. He wrote Jonathan that he was often “much vexed & perplexed with my few negrows,” so much so that he had been forced to chastise them and was considering selling all but four, not only to relieve the frustration of dealing with them but to obtain badly needed money. Still, he was troubled by his temptation to sell his slaves. “I wish I was near enough to Council with you a little on this Subject will you write a fiew lines about this inclination of mine to turn negrows into goods & cash.”

In May 1809, York returned to St. Louis. “York brought my horse,” Clark wrote, “he is here but of very little Service to me, insolent and sukly, I gave him a Severe trouncing the other Day and he has much mended.”34

No commentary is necessary. Much of the evil of slavery is encapsuled in this little story—not least Jefferson’s realism about the effect of slavery on the morals and manners of the slaveholder. York had helped pole Clark’s keelboat, paddled his canoe, hunted for his meat, made his fire, had shown he was prepared to sacrifice his life to save Clark’s, crossed the continent and returned with his childhood companion, only to be beaten because he was insolent and sulky and denied not only his freedom but his wife and, we may suppose, children.

That Lewis’s attitude was somewhat softer is obvious, but it is highly unlikely that he ever told Clark to grant York his freedom. Lewis could no more escape the lord-and-master attitude toward black slaves than Clark could—or, come to that, than Jefferson could (Jefferson also sold slaves and separated families). No wonder Jefferson could write, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”35

In the late fall of 1808, war with Great Britain appeared imminent. To prepare for it, President Jefferson asked the nation to raise a hundred thousand men. Louisiana’s quota was a mere 377. Lewis used the pages of the Missouri Gazette to appeal to the patriotism of the young men of his territory, mainly relying on the Anglophobia of the French and American inhabitants to get a response. He urged the young men to join in “defending our liberties and our country from the unhallowed grasp of the modern barbarians of Europe, who insatiate with the horrid bucheries of the eastern world, are now bending their course towards our peaceful and happy shore. . . . With them power begets right and justice is laughed to scorn. . . . They are destitute of magnanimity and virtue.”

Lewis asked that volunteers sign up for twelve months’ service and “thus prove themselves worthy of their fathers of ’76 whose bequest, purchased with their blood, are those rights we now enjoy and so justly prize; let us then defend and preserve them, regardless of what it may cost, that they may pass unimpaired to the generation who are to succeed us.”36

The response, sad to relate, hardly matched Lewis’s eloquence. Only a few dozen Americans, and no Frenchmen, rallied to the call to arms.

Still, Lewis’s first nine months in St. Louis had been busy and relatively successful. He had avoided, although only barely, an Indian war. He had established some law and order on the frontier. He was putting his own men into office. He was building roads and making other improvements. The St. Louis Missouri River Fur Company was a going concern.

But there was much he had not done, most especially on the two matters that most concerned Jefferson: Big White was still in town. And there the journals sat. Lewis apparently never even opened them.


I. This went back some time. In 1801, Lewis’s friend Tarleton Bates had complained to his brother Frederick that “Meriwether Lewis is silent though he promised to write weekly,” and in 1807, Amos Stoddard complained that although he had written Lewis “several friendly epistles” he had not received any reply. (Jackson, Letters, vol. II, p. 445.)

II. A French unit of land measure; an arpent was the equivalent of about .85 acre.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!