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From Monticello to Camp Dubois:
The Corps of Discovery's Ohio and Mississippi Rivers Sojourn

By James J. Holmberg

In January 2003, the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition officially began. This marked the 200th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's request to Congress for funding of an expedition to the Pacific. In the months that followed that communication, Jefferson's young secretary, Meriwether Lewis, continued to prepare for this epic adventure that the president had picked him to lead.

The preparations for the journey were numerous. President Jefferson wanted a maximum return from the endeavor across a wide spectrum. He tutored the young captain in a number of scientific subjects. He also sent him to Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to learn from such luminaries of the time as Benjamin Rush, Casper Wistar, Benjamin Smith Barton, and Andrew Ellicott. On his way to Pennsylvania in March 1803 Lewis visited the U. S. Armory and Arsenal in Harpers Ferry in order to secure firearms, accoutrements, Indian trade items, and other necessities for the expedition. Lewis also oversaw the design and building of the Experiment, a collapsible iron-frame boat that could be disassembled and then reassembled in order to travel from one navigable waterway to another. If it worked it would be quite a technological innovation (stay tuned until June 1805 and the Great Falls to find out). This project delayed Lewis for almost a month at Harpers Ferry and put him behind schedule. After intensive training in Philadelphia and Lancaster and the acquisition of supplies for the expedition, Lewis returned to Washington, DC.

Spring 1803 was fast turning to summer. Lewis continued his preparations. In mid-June Lewis wrote one of the most important letters of his life - and of the expedition. On June 19, he wrote his friend and former army commander, William Clark, inviting him to join him as co-leader of the undertaking. He also asked Clark to begin recruiting young hunters and woodsmen in the Louisville area for the journey. On July 5, Lewis left Washington for Pittsburgh - via Harpers Ferry to check on the shipment of his materiel - not knowing whether his friend would be coming with him.

Ten days after leaving Washington, Lewis arrived in Pittsburgh, July 15. There he spent the next month and a half trying to get his keelboat built. He proclaimed the boat builder to be a drunk and alternately pleaded with and threatened him to work on the boat. While in Pittsburgh, Lewis received a reply from Clark accepting his invitation and stating his intention to recruit men. Using Louisville as his base of operations, Clark put his affairs in order and reviewed candidates for the expedition. Lewis, meanwhile, started down the Ohio on August 31. By then the river was extremely low - lower than anyone could remember - and his progress was slow. He had to hire teams of oxen and horses to drag the keelboat downstream in some places and had men in front of the boat to shovel through sand bars in others. The journal he began the day he set off downriver was abruptly discontinued on September 18 and not taken up again until November 11. On September 28, Lewis reached Cincinnati. About October 5 he visited nearby Big Bone Lick in Kentucky to gather bones for the President.

On October 14, 1803, Lewis reached Louisville. His partner in discovery was undoubtedly waiting for him. They had designated Louisville as their meeting place and Clark had headquartered himself there. Lewis is believed to have had two recruits with him, and Clark is believed to have had seven. These men became the first permanent enlisted members of the Corps of Discovery and have entered the lore of the expedition as the "Nine Young Men from Kentucky." Composed of Reubin and Joseph Field, Charles Floyd, John Colter, John Shields, George Gibson, George Shannon, Nathaniel Pryor, and William Bratton, this group contained some of the most important members of the Corps. They provided the primary hunters, the blacksmith/gunsmith, and two of the three original sergeants. Also joining the group - although he probably had no say in the matter - was Clark's slave York. He too had been raised on the frontier and was well traveled, capable of facing the hardships and dangers of the journey. These twelve men formed that all-important foundation of the Corps of Discovery. It was this foundation upon which the future success of the expedition was built.

On October 15, the captains had the keelboat piloted through the Falls of the Ohio to Clarksville, Indiana Territory. It is believed that their base camp was established there at the Clark farm. Over the next eleven days Lewis and Clark went back and forth between Louisville and Clarksville. By the 26th this nucleus of the Corps was ready to push off from the Falls down the Ohio. The captains, York, and some of the others would not return for three years. One of the men would never return.

November 11th witnessed the arrival of the little band at Fort Massac on the lower Ohio, opposite present-day Paducah. Soldiers were detached from that garrison to assist the party in ascending the Mississippi to Kaskaskia, where the permanent party would acquire additional recruits. At least a couple of soldiers from Massac joined the Corps. It was also at Massac that one of the most important members of the expedition joined. That man was George Drouillard. This man of French Canadian and Shawnee parentage joined as a civilian interpreter and hunter and made significant contributions to the success of the expedition. The first mission the captains gave Drouillard was to go to Tennessee and find the detachment of soldiers that were supposed to have met them at Massac. Drouillard met the detachment and arrived with them at the Corps' winter quarters in mid-December.

After leaving Fort Massac on the 13th, the explorers spent five days at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers before beginning their northward push up the river toward Kaskaskia and then on to Cahokia, St. Louis, and finally their winter camp at Wood River named Camp Dubois. More men were recruited at Kaskaskia; and it was here that the captains announced their true intention of ascending the Missouri rather than the Mississippi. The Spanish, administering Louisiana Territory for France, had no intention of allowing this group of Americans up the Missouri before they had to, and made that clear to Lewis and Clark. The captains' original intention was to travel up the Missouri some distance, perhaps as far as La Charette, the last Euro-American settlement on the Missouri, before establishing their winter camp. The Spanish refusal, together with the lateness of the season, resulted to the Corps spending the winter in Illinois opposite the mouth of the Missouri. At Camp Dubois Clark trained the men for their mission and prepared for the spring 1804 ascent of the Missouri. Lewis spent much of the winter in Cahokia and St. Louis, gathering more information and supplies. May 1804 would witness the Corps of Discovery's push westward beyond the Mississippi on an odyssey that has become recognized as the greatest exploring venture in the history of the United States.


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