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.

Continued on Next Page >>




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