Modern history


St. Louis

January–August 1809

Great joy in camp. Julia Clark has had a baby. William Clark names him Meriwether Lewis Clark. Clark gives a set of Shakespeare to the teen-age mother.

Great excitement in St. Louis. The St. Louis Missouri River Fur Company is preparing to ascend the river. There are job opportunities for voyagers, for men willing to join the militia, for Indians looking for employment and a chance to get some revenge on the Arikaras and Sioux. For Lewis there is much planning and packing to supervise. It is reminiscent of the winter of 1803–4, when the city had been all hustle and bustle helping Lewis and Clark get ready for their expedition.

Especially for Lewis, who was almost as busy as in 1804. The terms of the contract he signed with the Missouri River Fur Company and the orders he gave the commander, Pierre Chouteau, show how active and productive he was in the winter and spring of 1809, how much he drew on what he had learned about going up the Missouri, how much attention he paid to detail, how imaginative he was, how much thought he put into the task, and how ruthless he could be.

But there was a dark side to his life. It is barely hinted at in the available contemporary documents, but something was bothering him. His drinking, apparently, was heavy. He was taking “medicine” regularly, medicine laced with opium or morphine. His account book contains many references to those medicines, which he indicated he took to deal with malaria attacks. He swallowed a pill containing a gram of opium every night at bedtime to ward off such attacks, and three a night when suffering a fever. If they “do not operate” he took two more in the morning.1 He said repeatedly he needed to go back east, wanted to go back east, intended to go back east, that he would be off in a few days—but he didn’t go. He was borrowing small sums regularly from the Chouteaus, and on May 17 borrowed twenty dollars from Bates. He did not state the reason for the loans; it is possible that they were for drinking money.

His finances were in a sorry state, as shown by a November 9 entry in his account book: “Borrowed of Genl Clark this sum [forty-nine dollars] to pay Doctor Farrow for his attendance on my servant Pernia, an account which I consider exorbitant, but which my situation in life compells me to pay.”

In the orders he gave the expedition carrying Big White about how to handle the Arikaras, he was bloodthirsty to a shocking degree and displayed an alarming lack of common sense.

Meanwhile, Secretary Bates had a public scene with Governor Lewis, and the two top officials in Louisiana broke off relations.

Lewis’s behavior had become erratic.

On February 24, Lewis signed the contract with the St. Louis Missouri River Fur Company, in his capacity as governor of the Territory of Louisiana, on behalf of the United States of America.

The terms were explicit. The company promised to raise 125 militiamen, of whom at least forty “shall be Americans and expert Riflemen,” for the purpose of returning Big White and his party to the Mandan nation. The company was required to provide the militia with “good and suitable Fire Arms, of which Fifty at least shall be Rifles,” the numbers and quality to be approved by Lewis. All other expenses—provisions, utensils, boats, Indian presents, and so on—would be borne by the partners. Governor Lewis would sign drafts for the supplies, as an advance to be deducted from the final payment.

The company pledged to deliver Big White and party safely, to “defend them from all Warlike attacks . . . at the risque of their lives.” When the job was done, the United States would pay the company $7,000.

Pierre Chouteau of the company would command the expedition until it reached the Mandans and returned Big White; at that point, the military functions would end and command would go over to another partner, Manuel Lisa, who would push off with the company’s men for the Yellowstone and beyond in a commercial operation. It would have a monopoly; Lewis pledged to issue no license to any trader for any part of the Missouri higher than the mouth of the Platte River.

The company “shall without any pretence of delay whatsoever embark, start, and proceed on before the Tenth day of May next, under the penalty for default” in the amount of $3,000. The United States would advance the company up to $3,500 after the expedition was fully formed and equipped. Should Lewis be absent from St. Louis, he authorized General Clark to act in his place.2

Both sides were delighted with the contract. For Lewis and for the partners, it made perfect sense to combine the military expedition with the commercial venture. After all, the army had tried in 1807 with Ensign Pryor and been turned back, with the loss of three lives, George Shannon’s leg, and seven others wounded. The army could not possibly detach a force of 125 men to do the job. As for the partners, they could not expect to get a trading group past the Arikaras without military escort. Frontier army officers and officials of the government regularly engaged in private ventures on the frontier. And, obviously, it was as much in the government’s interest as it was in the company’s that the Missouri be opened to American fur traders.

Nevertheless, the contract opened Lewis to severe criticism. He had engaged the services of a private company, paying it with government funds. Any profits made from the commercial venture would be shared by his friend William Clark and Lewis’s brother, Reuben, and, apparently, Lewis himself. But on the early-nineteenth-century frontier, these were fairly commonplace arrangements. In fact, Dearborn had set a precedent when he authorized Clark to give an exclusive trading license to private traders willing to accompany the Pryor expedition.

Lewis had an explicit authorization for such expenditures from Jefferson, but in a month Jefferson would be leaving office, and the new president, James Madison, and his secretary of war, William Eustis, were set on saving money, not taking on new obligations. They were not close to Lewis, they were much less interested in the West than Jefferson, and they did not approve of Lewis’s free and easy way of signing drafts. They agreed with a former Indian agent who wrote to President Madison to protest the contract, asking, “Is it proper for the public service that the U.S. officers as a Governor or a Super Intendant of Indian Affairs should take any share in Mercantile and private concerns?”3

Secretary Bates was raising the same question, and he was furious that Lewis—expected to leave for Washington shortly—had named Clark rather than himself as his agent. Further, Bates was in continual disagreement with the governor over policy matters. Lewis was interested in promoting the fur trade; Bates wanted to promote settlement. Lewis refused to issue licenses for hunters in Indian country; Bates thought it a right of Americans to hunt.

So angry was Bates that in mid-April he said publicly that he had decided to write the president a catalogue of his complaints. But before he could do so, he had an “altercation” with Lewis. He spoke to Lewis “with an extreme freedom” of the “wrongs” Lewis had done him. In an April 15 letter to his brother, Bates explained that Lewis had “aroused my indignation” and caused “a heated resentment.” What the specific issue was he didn’t say; probably it was Clark’s appointment as Lewis’s agent.

“We now understand each other much better,” Bates wrote. “We differ in every thing; but we will be honest and frank in our intercourse.”4

Bates was an unlikable character, that type of bureaucrat who cannot for the life of him see any other person’s point of view. In a letter to his brother, he confessed that he found this “a strange world.” He explained, “My habits are pacific; yet I have had acrimonious differences with almost every person with whom I have been associated in public business.” He admitted that this disturbed him and had caused him to examine his actions, but, “before God, I cannot acknowledge that I have been blamable in any one instance.”5

His jealousy of Lewis was obvious. He told his brother that Lewis “has been spoiled by the elegant praises” of scientists and poets, “and over whelmed by so many flattering caresses of the high & mighty, that, like an overgrown baby, he begins to think that everybody about the House must regulate their conduct by his caprices.”6

It was commonly said in St. Louis that Bates wanted Lewis’s job. In his April 15 letter, Bates charged that Lewis had lost public confidence. “I lament the unpopularity of the Governor,” he claimed, but “he has brought it on himself by harsh and mistaken measures. He is inflexible in error, and the irresistable Fiat of the People, has, I am fearful, already sealed his condemnation.

“Burn this letter.”7

Through the late winter and into the spring of 1809, the Missouri River Fur Company recruited men and gathered supplies. Word came downriver that the Sioux had joined the Arikaras and were determined to stop all boats headed upstream. Lewis looked over the supply of presents for the Indians and decided it was insufficient, so on March 7 he signed a draft payable to Pierre Chouteau for $1,500 for additional presents; on May 13 he signed another, for $500, and two days later yet another, in the amount of $450, mainly for 500 pounds of gunpowder and 1,250 pounds of lead.8

Meanwhile, he worked on a set of orders for Chouteau. He declared that Chouteau’s “principal object” was to return Big White and his family. Paraphrasing what Jefferson had told him, Lewis wrote, “I consider the honour and Good faith of our Government pledged For the success of this enterprize.”

Lewis avoided specifics: “I deem it improper to trammil your operations by detailed and Positive Commands as to the plan of procedure.” But he had suggestions. The first was to employ up to 300 Indians from the nations living below the Arikaras: “You will Promise them, as a reward for their Services, the plunder which they may acquire from the Aricares.” He further advised Chouteau to recruit 100 white hunters and trappers, bringing his total up to 250 whites and 300 Indians.

In other words, should the Arikaras prove still to be hostile, Lewis was declaring all-out war on them. He was explicit on the point; he wanted Chouteau to have “a force sufficient Not Onely to bid defiance to the Aricares, but to exterpate that abandoned Nation if necessary.”

This went far beyond Jefferson’s recommendation that if the Arikaras tried to stop Big White they should be “punished.” It went far beyond burning their property or killing their horses. It called for nothing short of genocide.

If the Arikaras proved to be peaceable, Chouteau should demand of them “the unconditional surrender” of the warriors who had killed any member of Ensign Pryor’s party. Should the Arikaras claim they could not say who had fired the fatal bullets, Chouteau should require them to deliver up three warriors (three white men had been killed), chosen from among those “most active in stimulating” the hostilities.

“These murderers when Delivered will be shot in the presence of the nation,” and the Arikaras required to give their horses to Chouteau’s Indian allies.

If the Arikaras refused to deliver up their warriors, “You will take such measures as you may think best calculated to surprise and cut them off.” If Chouteau took any prisoners, “you will either give them to the mandane or minnitare nations.”

If the expedition got into an inconclusive fight and passed the Arikaras without destroying them, Chouteau should make an alliance with the Mandans and supply them with the necessary firepower to crush the Arikaras.

Lewis also said that Chouteau would be meeting “with sundry american Citizens” whose licenses to trade on the Missouri had expired. If they had acted in good faith, Chouteau should renew their licenses; had their conduct been improper, he should arrest them and return them to St. Louis by force. As for the competition from the north, “No British agent, Clerk, or engagé can under any Pretence whatever be Permitted to trade or hunt within this territory, the limits of which, are to be conceived to extend to all that Country watered by the Missoury.”

Lewis signed off, “I sincerely wish you a Pleasant voyage and a safe Return to your Family and Friends.”9

In mid-May, the expedition was under way. All together there were thirteen keelboats and barges, the largest flotilla sent up the river to date.

Through June and into July, rumors floated around St. Louis about Bates. He had made it known that he intended to denounce Lewis to the president and was said to be “at the head of a Party whose object it would be to procure his dismissal.” So widespread was the talk that Lewis called on Bates to demand an explanation.

“You are greatly mistaken,” Bates told him. In a letter of July 14 to his brother, Bates related that “As a Citizen, I told him I entertained opinions very different from his, on the subject of civil government, and that those opinions had, on various occasions been expressed with emphasis; but that they had been unmixed with personal malice or hostility.”

“Well,” Lewis replied, “do not suffer yourself to be separated from me in the public opinion; When we meet in public, let us, at least address each other with cordiality.”

Bates agreed, though he complained to his brother that Lewis had “used me badly.”

Then Bates demanded that Clark be brought into the conversation, to settle the business about Lewis’s appointment of Clark as his agent. When Clark arrived, Bates told the two men that the laws “expressly provided” that he, Secretary Bates, should be the governor’s agent when the governor was traveling.

“I will suffer no interferences &c. &c. &c.” he declared. To his brother, Bates remarked, “How unfortunate for this man [Lewis] that he resigned his commission in the army: His habits are altogether military & he never can I think succeed in any other profession.”10

On July 16, Bates wrote the secretary of the Treasury to complain about Lewis’s behavior. It seemed Lewis had ordered Bates to print the laws of the territory and charge it to the secretary’s office. Bates had refused, but ultimately relented in response to Lewis’s repeated order; now he wanted the Treasury to compensate him.11

By July 25, Bates was able to boast to an ally, “Our Gov. Lewis, with the best intentions in the world, is, I am fearful, losing ground. . . . He has talked for these 12 Mos. of leaving the country—Every body thinks now that he will positively go, in a few weeks.”12

In early August, Lewis received a short note from a clerk in the Department of State named R. S. Smith. It referred to a draft Lewis had signed on February 10 in favor of one Peter Provenchere for $18.50 for translating the laws of the territory into French for publication. Although Lewis had no authorization to pay for such services, he explained, “I did not hesitate to cause the copies of those laws to be made out [for a felony trial]. I was compelled to take the course which I have, or suffer a fellow to escape punishment.”

Now the bill came back to him, with a note from clerk Smith: “The bill mentioned in this Letter having been drawn without authority it cannot be paid at this Dept.”13

Lewis was shaken by the refusal. “This occurrence has given me infinite concern as from it the fate of other bills, drawn for similar purposes, to a considerable amount cannot be mistaken,” he wrote. “This rejection cannot fail to impress the public mind unfavourably with respect to me, nor is this consideration more painful than the censure which must arise in the Mind of the Executive from my having drawn public monies without authority. A third, and not less embarrassing circumstance attending the transaction is that my private funds are entirely incompetent to meet these bills, if protested.”14

Secretary Bates thought of himself as a long-suffering, honest, misunderstood man guarding the public treasury. He sent a series of complaints about Lewis’s drafts and orders to Washington. Sometime that summer, Lewis struck back; as Bates put it, “he took it into his head to disavow certain statements which I had made, by his order, from the Secretary’s Office.

“This was too much—I waited on him,—told him my wrongs—that I could not bear to be treated in such a manner.”

“Take your own course,” Lewis replied.

“I shall, Sir,” Bates fired back. “And I shall come, in future to the Executive Office when I have business at it.”

Shortly thereafter, a ball was held in St. Louis. Bates was present when Lewis entered. Bates recorded: “He drew his chair close to mine—There was a pause in the conversation—I availed myself of it—arose and walked to the opposite side of the room.”

Lewis also rose—according to Bates, “evidently in passion.” Lewis retired into an adjoining room and sent a servant for Clark. He told Clark that Bates had “treated him with contempt & insult and that he could not suffer it to pass.” He asked him to call Bates into the room.

Clark refused, according to Bates because “he foresaw that a Battle must have been the consequence of our meeting.”

Some days later, Clark called on Bates to ask that he patch things up with Lewis.

“NO!” Bates replied. “The Governor has told me to take my own course and I shall step a high and a proud Path. He has injured me, and he must undo that injury.

“You come,” Bates told Clark, “as my friend, but I cannot separate you from Governor Lewis—You have trodden the ups & the Downs of life with him and it appears to me that these proposals are made solely for his convenience.”15

This unseemly squabbling certainly did Lewis’s mood no good, but it was a minor affair compared with what happened to him on August 18. That day, he received a heart-stopping letter from Secretary of War Eustis.

Dated July 19, it was written in the deadly passive voice of the born bureaucrat. Eustis said that, after his department had reluctantly approved Lewis’s contract with the Missouri River Fur Company for seven thousand dollars, “it was not expected that any further advances or any further agency would be required on the part of the United States.” Lewis should therefore “not be surprized” that his draft of May 13 for an additional five hundred dollars for presents for the Indians “has not been honored.”

That meant Lewis was personally responsible for the money.

Eustis went on, “It has been usual to advise the Government of the United States when expenditures to a considerable amount are contemplated in the Territorial Government.” When 125 men are to be enlisted for “a military expedition to a point and purpose not designated, which expedition is stated to combine commercial as well as military objects . . . it is thought the Government might, without injury to the public interests, have been consulted.”

In fact, Lewis had been explicit about the purpose of the expedition, although he had not cleared the commercial aspects of it with Washington. Eustis seized on that point: “As the object & destination of this Force [beyond the Mandans] is unknown, and more especially as it combines Commercial purposes, so it cannot be considered as having the sanction of the Government of the United States, or that they are responsible for consequences.”

Eustis closed with a chilling remark: “The President has been consulted and the observations herein contained have his approval.” The president, of course, was Madison, not Jefferson—now retired at Monticello and unable to protect Lewis.16

In any event, Jefferson was unhappy with Lewis. He was slow to censure and ready to give Lewis the benefit of the doubt, but his patience was wearing thin. On August 16, he sent Lewis a letter of introduction for an English botanist coming to St. Louis on a “botanising tour.”


Meriwether Lewis’s journal. (Courtesy American Philosophical Society)

Then Jefferson wrote: “I am very often applied to know when your work will begin to appear; and I have so long promised copies to my literary correspondents in France, that I am almost bankrupt in their eyes. I shall be very happy to recieve from yourself information of your expectations on this subject. Every body is impatient for it.”

Perhaps to soften the blow, Jefferson added some political gossip and commentary on foreign affairs. He said Lewis’s friends in Virginia “are well, & have been long in expectation of seeing you. I shall hope in that case to possess a due portion of you at Monticello, where I am at length enjoying the never before known luxury of employing myself for my own gratification only.” He asked Lewis to present his best wishes to Clark “and be assured yourself of my constant & unalterable affections.”17

Lewis never replied, or made any known mention of the letter; nor did he explain to anyone, even Clark, the cause of the delay in preparing the journals for publication.

Lewis did reply to Eustis, in a letter of August 18, the day he got it. He said Eustis’s letter of July 19 “is now before me. The feelings it excites are truly painful.” He protested that he had accompanied every draft for a public expenditure with an explicit statement of the purpose and insisted, “I have never received a penny of public Money.” He added, “To the correctness of this statement, I call my God to witness.

“I have been informed Representations have been made against me,” Lewis went on. What those “Representations” might have been is not known, but can be surmised from his protests against them; nor is the source known, but it can be guessed that it was Bates. Evidently Bates—or someone else—had spread a story that the Missouri River Fur Company intended to go into the Rocky Mountains, beyond the Continental Divide, into territory not belonging to the United States, possibly with the intent of setting up a new country, á la Aaron Burr and General Wilkinson.

Whatever the specifics, Lewis said he could not correct by letter “the impressions which I fear, from the tenor of your letter, the Government entertain with respect to me.” Therefore, he would leave St. Louis in a week, going by way of New Orleans to Washington. “I shall take with me my papers, which I trust when examined, will prove my firm and steady attachment to my Country.”

The expedition to return Big White had only that object, he went on, “and in a commercial point of view, . . . they [the company] intend only, to hunt and trade on the waters of the Misoury and Columbia Rivers within the rockey Mountains and the Planes bordering those Mountains on the east side—and that they have no intention with which I am acquainted, to enter the Dominions, or do injury to any foreign Power.

“Be assured Sir, that my Country can never make ‘A Burr’ of me—She may reduce me to Poverty; but she can never sever my Attachment from her.”

Word that the government had refused to honor Lewis’s drafts had spread round town within hours of the arrival of Eustis’s letter (Bates again?). Lewis informed Eustis that the protested bills “have effectually sunk my Credit; brought in all my private debts, amounting to about $4,000.” He had handed over to his creditors the deeds to the land he had purchased around St. Louis, as security, and pointed out that “the best proof which I can give of my Integrity, as to the use or expenditure of the public Monies, the Government will find at a future day, by the poverty to which they have now reduced me.”18

Lewis spent the next few days with Clark. They agreed that both of them should go to Washington. Clark was of course deeply involved in the Missouri River Fur Company and in any case had other governmental matters to take up with the War Department, including protested drafts of his brother George Rogers Clark (which had ruined him). Lewis would go by water, Clark overland.

They spent much time attempting to put Lewis’s accounts in order. They made up a list of what Lewis owed; it came to some twenty-nine hundred dollars, exclusive of his land debts.19 Lewis sent ahead to New Orleans the land warrant for sixteen hundred acres he had been given by Congress, to be sold, he hoped, for two dollars an acre. He wanted the money deposited in a New Orleans bank “for the benefit of my creditors.” He returned to Auguste Chouteau much of the land he had bought from him on credit. He looked around for anything he had that could be sold; in Clark’s memorandum book, Lewis wrote, “The negroe boy Tom belongs to my mother, and therefore cannot be sold on my account.”20

The most valuable item he possessed, by far, was the journals, worth a thousand times and more what the land warrant would bring. Those he would never sell.

Lewis had told Eustis that he would be departing in a week, but it actually took him three weeks to get going. He packed all his belongings, including the journals, which had been continuously in his possession since the end of the expedition. He told Clark he would go to Philadelphia to get the publication process started.

His baggage contained, among many other items, a sea-otter skin, a pair of red slippers, a silver tumbler, a tomahawk, five vests, two pairs of pantaloons, one pair of black silk breeches, two cotton shirts, one flannel shirt, two pairs of cotton stockings, three pairs of silk stockings, a bundle of medicines, a broadcloth coat, a pistol case, three knives, a sword, a “pike blade” with a broken shaft (his espontoon?), and all his official papers.21 He got off on September 4.22

Some days after Lewis left St. Louis, one of the land commissioners in the territory, Clement Penrose, accused Bates of being responsible for “the mental derangement of the Governor,” which Penrose said was due to “the barbarous conduct of the Secretary.”

Bates confronted Penrose after a meeting of the Board of Commissioners. He charged Penrose with spreading slanders against him and said, “I pledge my word of Honor, that if you ever again bark at my heels, I will spurn you like a Puppy.” Later that day, he wrote Penrose a record of the conversation.

“You said that I have been, and am the enemy of the Governor—and that I would be very willing to fill that office myself. I told you this morning that it was false—and I repeat that it is an impudent stupidity in you to persist in the assertion. . . . In return for the personal allusions with which you have honored me, I tender to you, my most hearty contempt.”23

In another letter that week, Bates wrote that “all feeling minds are, in different degrees, affected by the unhappy situation of Governor Lewis, and would feel a painful reluctance in contributing to his mortifications.”24

Lewis had borrowed again, enough money to purchase a considerable medical chest. He jotted in his account book that he had bought pills for “billious fever, pills of opium and tartar,” and others.

The Missouri Gazette had reported that Governor Lewis “set off in good health for New Orleans on his way to the Federal City.” The emphasis on his health had more an ominous than a reassuring ring.

The day after Lewis’s departure, Clark wrote his brother Jonathan, describing Lewis’s situation and mood during his last week in St. Louis:

Govr. L I may Say is ruined by Some of his Bills being protested for a Considerable Sum which was for Moneys paid for Printing the Laws and Expenses in Carrying the mandan home all of which he has vouchrs for. . . .

I have not Spent Such a day as yesterday for maney years. . . . I took my leave of Govr. Lewis who Set out to Philadelphia to write our Book (but more perticularly to explain Some Matter between him and the Govt.) Several of his Bills have been protested, and his Crediters all flocking in near the time of his Setting out distressed him much, which he expressed to me in Such terms as to Cause a Cempothy which is not yet off—I do not beleve there was ever an honester man in Louisiana nor one who had pureor motives than Govr. Lewis. if his mind had been at ease I Should have parted Cherefuly. . . .

I think all will be right and he will return with flying Colours to this Country—prey do not mention this about the Govr. excupt Some unfavourable or wrong Statement is made—I assure you that he has done nothing dishonourable, and all he has done will Come out to be much to his Credit as I am fully purswaded.25

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