Reliving Lewis and Clark: Starting Out

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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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