Reliving Lewis and Clark: Surviving Winter Camp

Anthony Brandt
for National Geographic News
February 3, 2004

"The Object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river & such principal stream of it as by it's course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce."—President Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, leader of the "Corps of Discovery," June 20, 1803.

These words launched one of the greatest explorations in history. Now, on the 200th anniversary of the expedition to open up the U.S. West, author Anthony Brandt follows the trail of Lewis and Clark. In this article he looks at what's being reenacted in 2004 at the same spot where the expedition was exactly two centuries ago, and recounts what happened all those years ago.

Some of the men who are reenacting the expedition of Lewis and Clark are living now in the replica of the camp that Lewis and Clark and their men set up at the mouth of the Wood River in Illinois, 200 years ago.

The contemporary Camp Dubois is located about two miles (three kilometers) from the original because the Mississippi River has moved east by three-quarters of a mile (1.2 kilometers) in the last 200 years. In the process it wiped out the original site.

Scott Mandrell, a teacher who lives and works in St. Louis, has taken a three-year leave of absence from his job to play the role of Meriwether Lewis on the trip and he reports that they have a firing range at the camp, just as Lewis and Clark did, and they engage in target practice several times a week.

They also conduct video conferences with schools around the country, and the men keep a journal on the Internet. Mandrell says that they're having a good time. "Camp Dubois," he says, "was the most civilized of the expedition's winter camps. They had glass in the windows of the cabins they built for themselves." They're eating venison and salt pork, just as Lewis and Clark's men did, but Mandrell says that people will often stop by at six in the morning with a couple of dozen donuts, or late at night with pizza. Lewis and Clark definitely did not eat pizza.

Giant Catfish

Lewis and Clark ate venison and rabbit, turkeys, possum, and sometimes catfish—and lots of turnips, a staple of their diet there. One species of catfish in the Mississippi grew to weigh nearly 200 pounds (90 kilograms), more than enough to feed the entire camp and bring in the neighbors as well.

They had neighbors at Camp Dubois. Nearby was a small settlement of frontier families. Local people sometimes came to the camp for shooting contests with expedition members. Because the members took target practice every day, they were excellent marksmen. These were betting contests, and the locals almost always walked away with empty pockets. At one point in his journal, William Clark describes the members of the expedition as "robust young backwoodsmen of character, healthy hardy young men."

They were healthy, they were hardy, and they were also difficult to control. Lewis and Clark were often away in St. Louis or other nearby towns taking care of the expedition's business—buying supplies for the long tough journey up the Missouri River, looking for information about the river from men who had been partway up it before them, and dealing with agents of the Spanish government, which was still in charge in St. Louis.

While they were gone they placed one of their most reliable men, Sgt. John Ordway, in charge, but some of the men refused to obey him from time to time, usually when they were drunk.


Drunkenness, in fact, was a real problem that winter. Men would get permission to go hunting, then go off to a nearby tavern instead and get drunk. One man loaded his gun and threatened to kill Ordway. Other men got into fistfights. Some men were demoted from higher ranks because of their behavior and others were kicked out of the expedition entirely. They had to beg their way back into the Corps of Discovery, as it was known.

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