Setting Out

men pulling pirougue“We arrived at St. Charles at 12 oClock. A number of spectators French & Indians flocked to the bank to see the party. This village is about one mile in length, situated on the North Side of the Missourie at the foot of a hill from which it takes its name, Peetiete Coete or the Little hill. This village contains about 100 houses, the most of them small and indifferent and about 450 inhabitents Chiefly French. Those people appear pore, polite & harmonious. ”

-The words (and misspellings) are William Clark’s from his journal entry of May 16, 1804.

It had taken two days for William Clark and the men to make the short journey from their winter camp at Wood River, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, to this small town on the banks of the Missouri. Entering into the swift current of the Missouri for the first time gave the Corps of Discovery the opportunity to test their boats and themselves against the river that would take them west. By the time the group reached St. Charles, Clark knew that work remained to be done.

The keelboat’s load had to be rearranged to make it ride more evenly in the water. One of the pirogues lacked sufficient man-power, so Pierre Cruzatte and Francois Labiche, men of French and lndian descent who joined the group in St. Charles, were welcomed warmly. Both men had been up part of the Missouri before and their experience would be invaluable. Cruzatte’s fiddle would also be a happy sound to enliven quiet nights along the river.

The party spent five days in the village making their final preparations. Although Clark had cautioned his men to behave themselves and “have a true respect for their own dignity,” the months of isolation at Wood River made the social opportunities in St. Charles too tempting. William Werner, Hugh Hall and John Collins were court-martialed and found guilty of being absent without leave. Collins was also found guilty of behaving in all “unbecomming manner” at a ball and being insubordinate. The judges, Sergeant John Ordway and four of the privates, recommended leniency for Werner and Hall and the captains agreed.  However, Collins received 50 lashes for his offenses, a standard punishment at that time.

On Sunday, May 20th, about 20 of the men attended Mass a St. Charles Borromeo. Under the floor of the log church were buried the founder of St. Charles, Louis Blanchette, and his lndian wife.

At that same time, about 20 miles to the east, Meriwether Lewis was saying thank you and farewell to Mrs. Pierre Chouteau, his hostess during much of the winter in St. Louis. Accompanied by notables of the city, Lewis set out on horseback for St. Charles. While the day had started out sunny, the party later encountered a driving rainstorm that caused them to take shelter for a time. However, Lewis was determined to reach St. Charles, that night, so when the rain didn’t let up, he and most of his escorts continued on.


Lewis’ time in St. Charles was brief. On Monday, May 21 1804, the party “set out at half passed three oClock under three cheers from the gentlemen on the bank,” according to Clark. They made only three miles, camping that night on the head of an island.

The party now consisted of 45 men, including the two captains, three sergeants, military personnel, the French voyageurs, and Clark’s slave York. They traveled in three boats. Most of the permanent party was assigned to the keelboat, which ran 55 feet in length and was 8 feet wide. Corporal Richard Warfington commanded a crew of five soldiers in the 39-foot white pirogue.  Warfington would be in charge of returning the keelboat to St. Louis the following spring. The 42-foot red pirogue was navigated by the Frenchmen.

The routine established by Lewis and Clark during the early part of the trip across Missouri would hold true for most of the journey. Clark, the better boatman and navigator, usually stayed on the keelboat. Lewis, always on the search for new species of wildlife to send to Thomas Jefferson, would most often walk along the shore. Usually he was accompanied by Seaman, his Newfoundland dog.

Meriwether Lewis’ curiosity almost brought the expedition to a quick end just two days out of St. Charles. Limestone bluffs lined the Missouri River corridor in the eastern part of the state. On the south side of the river, near present day St. Albans, was a cave, “called by the French the Tavern which is 40 yards long, 4 feet deep and about 20 feet high,” wrote Clark, and it was a gathering place for trappers and traders. Lewis climbed the bluff there to a peak about 300 feet above the river. He lost his footing and slipped, but was able to use his knife to obtain some leverage and stop his fall.

Those first few days also were the last of civilization the men would see until their return trip. They traveled through the Femme Osage valley and what is now Defiance. The legendary frontiersman, Daniel Boone, had moved to the area in 1799, but there is no record of the men meeting.

La Charette, a small village of seven families, was the last white settlement on the Missouri. Flooding and the shifting of the river have washed away the site, but it was located near present-day Marthasville.

As they “proceeded on” (a phrase that would be used many times in their journals ), Lewis and Clark also met some trappers returning from the west, their canoes loaded down with furs. They gleaned from them any and all information they could regarding the Indian tribes.

In one of the canoes was Pierre Dorion, a French-Canadian who had lived with the Teton Sioux for 20 years. He knew their language and how they thought. The captains convinced him to return up the Missouri with them. While it would be several weeks before Indians were encountered, Lewis and Clark knew that they would need all of the help they could get in dealing with this fierce tribe.

Twelve to 14 miles of progress upstream was a good day in those early stages or the expedition. The captains were constantly measuring. How wide was the Missouri at various points? How wide were the other rivers that ran into it, such as the Gasconade and Osage? Lewis took celestial navigations whenever possible. Clark was the mapmaker and, though little experienced at the craft, would prove astonishingly accurate.

Early Impressions

The captains and other men of the Corps who kept journals were delighted by the beauty of the countryside as they traveled across Missouri. Each of the sergeants had been ordered to keep his own journal and some of the other men did as well. Sergeant Charles Floyd referred to an area near present-day Jefferson City ”as Butifull a peas of Land as ever I saw.” His overall impression was that, “The land is Good.”

Near today’s Rocheport at Manitou Bluffs, they spied pictographs, which Clark described as, “courious paintings and carveing in the projecting rock of limestone inlade with white red and blue flint of a very good quallity.” In the vicinity they saw signs of buffalo, encountered a den of rattlesnakes, and hunters returned to camp with their first bear meat. There was much to cover in their journals.

On June 9, Clark noted a site called the Prairie of Arrows as one with potential for a fort. The area had had that name since 1723. Its most likely source was Indians using the native flint to make spears and arrowheads. In 1813, a fort was moved here and the town became known as Arrow Rock.


During those first weeks the men were becoming acquainted with the dangers that the Missouri River presented. This stretch across the state would be one of their most difficult until they reached Great Falls and the Rocky Mountains. Spring rains and snowmelt had the river running high and fast. Trying to maneuver the three boats upstream was not an easy task.

This was especially true of the keelboat. It was outfitted with 22 oars and a mast, but much of the time the men moved it by poling from the deck or by attaching a tow rope and cordelling it as they walked along the shore. The work required so much energy that each man ate about eight pounds of flesh meat per day. The hunters among them were constantly on the lookout for game.

Because of the current, the riverbanks were subject to frequent and sudden collapse, with large trees and soil entering the river and creating hazards for the boatmen. Sandbars were treacherous, especially west of the Grand River near present-day Brunswick.

A day of rest was rare for the men and questions about joining the Corps of Discovery probably prevailed at times. Many in the expedition suffered from dysentery, others from boils.  Their water came from the river, and their diet was very unbalanced, consisting primarily of meat and some greens that York would gather.  Another constant plague for all of the company was the mosquitoes, which would remain troublesome throughout the journey.

Western Missouri

As they reached western Missouri, Clark spent a night away from the group. Surveying his surroundings, he noted “a high commanding position, more than 70 feet above high-water mark, and overlooking the river, which is here of but little width. This spot has many advantages for a fort and trading-house with the Indians.” The spot stuck in Clark’s mind and he would return to it in 1808 to oversee the building of Fort Osage.

On June 26, more than a month after leaving St. Charles, the party reached the confluence with the Kansas River. In the area where one day Westport Landing and eventually Kansas City would be built, Lewis decided to camp for a few days. It gave the Corps time to dry out some of their goods, make repairs to the boats and repack.

Part of the men’s daily ration was one gill of whiskey. The supply was closely guarded, as there was not enough to take them to the Pacific and back. On their last night by the Kansas River, Private John Collins was on guard duty and tapped into a barrel. Private Hugh Hall joined him and by morning both were drunk. As had happened in St. Charles, both men were court-martialed. Collins had 100 lashes applied to the back which had previously taken 50 and Hall, who had escaped punishment the first time, suffered 50 lashes.

The Missouri River turned here and the men were now headed north instead of west. On the morning of July 4th, the 28th in the country’s history, they fired the cannon on the keelboat and named a creek flowing in from the west Independence Creek. On the Missouri side, Clark noted a lake that ran nearly a mile long and several miles wide. He called it Gosling Lake, and it now is bordered by Lewis & Clark State Park.

They made camp that night on the site of a deserted Kansas Indian village. The cannon was fired again at sunset and the men were given an extra gill of whiskey to mark the occasion.

Another court-martial was convened on the morning of July 12. Private Alexander Willard was charged with sleeping while on guard duty, a capital offense. Its seriousness was reflected by the fact that Captains Lewis and Clark themselves heard the case. Willard was found guilty and sentenced to 100 lashes on each of the next four days.

On July 17, 1804, Lewis rode on horseback along the Nishnabotna River, which flowed south from Iowa. He said that the land comprised “one of the most beautiful, level and fertile prairies that I ever beheld.” The area through which he was riding was known as the Bald-pated Prairie, with the Bald Hills in the background. More game was taken, including both “verry fat Cat fish” and four deer.

This would be the Corps of Discovery’s last full day in Missouri until their return more than two years later. On July 18, they moved beyond the state’s present borders into the territory that is now Iowa and Nebraska. In the immediate future lay their first real encounters with Indian tribes and the death of one of their own. In the distance stretched the unknown continent.

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