Reliving Lewis and Clark: Starting Out

Anthony Brandt
for National Geographic News
May 18, 2004
On the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition to open up
the U.S. West, this news series follows the trail of Lewis and Clark.
In this article we looks at what's being reenacted in 2004 at the
same spot where the expedition was two centuries ago—and what
happened all those years ago.

On Sunday, May 13, 1804, William Clark—encamped with expedition members outside St. Louis—sent a message to Meriwether Lewis in the city. The men were packed and ready to go.

The boats were loaded, the men healthy and armed with powder cartridges and a hundred balls of lead each, and they had Indian trade goods, "though not as much as I think necessary," Clark added, "for the multitude of Indians we must pass on our road across the Continent." He was right about that. The Lewis and Clark expedition ran out of trade goods in Oregon, long before they had to make their way home.

Nobody has ever been able to figure out precisely how many men went up the Missouri with Lewis and Clark. They had three boats. The keelboat, a standard vessel for river travel in the West at that time, was 55 feet (17 meters) long and could handle 22 oarsmen. But Clark indicates on one day that 22 men manned the oars—and then, on the next day, it's 20.

The same is true of the two pirogues; different journal entries on different days list different numbers of men. But we have a pretty good idea of the count: Between 40 and 42 men went upriver with Lewis and Clark.

The keelboat carried the permanent party, the people chosen by the two captains to go all the way to the Pacific and back. The larger of the two pirogues carried a party of French engagés, river men hired to travel up the Missouri with them as far as the Mandan Indian villages in what is now North Dakota.

The smaller pirogue carried Corporal Warfington and his detachment, which was scheduled to bring the keelboat back downriver from the Mandan villages the next spring.

It rained the day the expedition left their camp outside St. Louis. People came to see them off anyway. Did the rain dampen their enthusiasm? Probably not, but it did dampen some of the provisions.

They were taking a great deal of stuff with them—tons of it. One of the lists Clark made includes 1,200 pounds (544 kilograms) of "parchmeal," a kind of flour; 800 pounds (363 kilograms) of another kind of flour; 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) of hulled corn; 50 kegs of pork weighing almost two tons; seven barrels of salt weighing 750 pounds (340 kilograms); 600 pounds (272 kilograms) of grease to cook with; and 21 bales of "Indian goods" (i.e., trade goods).

"Soup" Not Wanted; Whiskey Ran Out

They took 193 pounds (87 kilograms) of a portable "soup," a paste made out of boiled beef, cows' hooves, vegetables, and eggs. It was one of the few things among their provisions they would bring back mostly uneaten.

Lewis resorted to the soup when they were crossing the Bitterroot Range in September 1805 and all of them were starving, but even then nobody wanted it. It must have tasted awful.

They took eight tents, six brass inkstands, enough ink powder to write the million or so words of their journals, and a hundred quills. They took at least 120 gallons (450 liters) of whiskey, which would run out. All the provisions would run out eventually. Except the soup.

Clark got started late that first day, at four in the afternoon. He took the boats across the Mississippi and camped a little over four miles (6.5 kilometers) up the Missouri on an island.

From there, they proceeded on to St. Charles, a community of French settlers about 20 miles (32 kilometers) upriver, arriving on May 16. They stopped there to reload the boats and to wait for Meriwether Lewis, who was still delayed in St. Louis finishing up the expedition's business.

Concealed Logs

The weight in the keelboat had to be redistributed more to the bow of the boat, to avoid running on concealed logs; on the way to St. Charles the keelboat had run on logs three times. The barge, as Clark called the keelboat, "was several minutes in imminent danger."

St. Charles was the first white settlement west of the Mississippi River and north of the Missouri. Clark counted about a hundred houses in the village and some 450 people. He noted that the residents were "poor, polite and harmonious," by which he probably means "peaceful."

Not all Clark's men were, however. The community threw a party for the expedition the night of the 16th. The next day Clark put three of his men on trial, two of them for not returning from the party that night (and thus absent without leave). The other defendant, John Collins, was on trial not only for that offense but also for "behaving in an unbecoming manner at the ball last night," and then for "speaking in a language after his return to camp tending to bring into disrespect the orders of the commanding officer."

Collins was sentenced to fifty lashes "on his naked back." He was most likely drunk when all this happened.

Reenactment HoeDown

St. Charles is now a city of 60,000 people and the center of much of the bicentennial activity celebrating the departure of Lewis and Clark for the West. The city is home to the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, a group of Lewis and Clark reenactors.

The St. Charles Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission held two balls the night of May 16, 2004, one a hoedown for the Discovery Expedition's "enlisted men." The other a grand ball for "Lewis" and "Clark" and the "upper classes," said Julie Gustafson, spokesperson for the commission.

Everyone was in period costume at both dances, and experts on period dances came to teach the authentic dances of the time. "People didn't dance in pairs then," notes Gustafson, "they danced in groups." Everyone had a good time, she says, and "John Collins" didn't behave badly.

They are, however, reenacting his court-martial, and once again he will be found guilty as charged. Gustafson assured me "Collins" will escape punishment this time. The festivities in St. Charles will conclude on May 22 with another ball.

In 1804, Lewis and Clark and their men actually left St. Charles on May 21. Lewis showed up on the 20th, riding in with some gentlemen from St. Louis. Lewis was harsher in his comments on St. Charles than Clark had been.

He called the inhabitants "miserably poor, illiterate and when at home excessively lazy." But they did, he said, live in a "state of perfect harmony among each other."

The villagers were not farmers, he took note, but hunters and fur traders who, "in order to gain the necessary subsistence for themselves and their families, either undertake hunting voyages on their own account," or hire out to fur trading outfits.

"On those voyages," Lewis went on, "they are frequently absent from their families or homes the term of six, twelve, or eighteen months and always subject to severe and incessant labor, exposed to the ferocity of the lawless savages, the vicissitudes of weather and climate, and dependent on chance or accident alone for food, raiment or relief in the event of malady."

These were precisely the circumstances the Lewis and Clark expedition was about to encounter.

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