The Journey Begins...
The Illinois Starting Point of the Lewis & Clark Expedition
On January 18, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson proposed the first official government expedition to explore the vast unknown lands west of the Mississippi River. Jefferson's plan was outlined in a secret message to Congress. He proposed an expedition across the continent to the Pacific Ocean, stressing the importance of discovering commercial opportunity. But it would discover much more.
The Mission to Explore the Continent
Jefferson selected Meriwether Lewis, a captain in the U.S. Army, to lead the expedition, entrusting to him responsibility to find "the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce." The members of the expedition were also to document the territory and to make contact with the native peoples living there. Jefferson believed that a successful expedition might further American trade and political influence and advance American interests in its competition with France, England and Spain. Lewis's commission papers included many pages of specific, task-oriented instructions, a letter of unlimited U.S. credit, and British and French passports. With Jefferson's approval, Lewis invited William Clark to be co-commander of the expedition, and
gave Clark the rank of captain.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the expedition to find "the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce."
Lewis procured equipment and provisions in the East; many items were bought in lots of 15, the expedition's initial intended size. After celebrating the 27th anniversary of Independence Day with President Jefferson in Washington, Lewis departed for Pittsburgh on July 5, 1803. He started down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh on August 31 in a keelboat with a few men and soon procured an open boat, the "Red Pirogue." In mid October Clark joined the expedition at Louisville, Kentucky. Lewis's dog, Seaman, joined his master on the journey, as did York, Clark's "body servant" (a slave). Clark recruited additional men whom Lewis accepted on a trial basis.
The expedition passed the mouth of the Wabash River near present-day Shawneetown, Illinois in November 1803. According to Lewis' journal of November 14, "...this evening landed on the point at which the Ohio and Mississippi form there junchon..." (the site of present-day Cairo, Illinois). The expedition traveled the rivers around southern Illinois, gathering volunteer soldiers from Kaskaskia and Fort Massac. Today, the foundation of the fort at Kaskaskia may still be seen near Ellis Grove, Illinois as well as a reconstruction of Fort Massac near Metropolis.
Lewis and Clark Recruit Men in Illinois for the Expedition
At Kaskaskia, Lewis and Clark recruited twelve men from the troops stationed there. They also hired Francois Labiche, an expert boatman, Indian trader and interpreter. Half French, half Omaha, Labiche became an enlisted and valuable member of the expedition. To help move their boats upstream against the powerful Missouri River current, the captains hired French boatmen. These engages came to Illinois from France, Canada or New Orleans. Some were born on the Illinois frontier; some were of Native American descent. They were experienced trappers and tradesmen, familiar with the dangers the journey would bring. After spending the winter with the expedition in the Mandan Villages of present-day North Dakota, most of the engages returned home, bringing letters, journals, plants, animals, and news of the expedition with them.
Other individuals who would perform key roles for the expedition were recruited in present-day Southern Illinois, including interpreter George Drouillard and Sergeant John Ordway. Most of the soldiers and other men of the expedition were volunteers. So many more men volunteered than was needed that Lewis was able to choose those he regarded as the best: "The soldiers that will most probably answer this expedition best will be found in some of the companies stationed at Massac, Kaskaskias & Illinois."
The expedition began ascending the Mississippi River on November 20, 1803. Lewis obtained a second pirogue (boat) from the military unit stationed at Fort Kaskaskia. Lewis arrived at Cahokia by horse on December 6, and Clark arrived later that day with the men and boats. The next day Lewis and two interpreters, Cahokia residents John Hay and Nicholas Jarrot, ferried across the Mississippi River to talk with the Spanish Commandant at St. Louis. (Jarrot later built a home in Cahokia, which may still be seen as part of the Colonial Cahokia State Historic Sites.) They were seeking permission to enter the Upper Louisiana territory west of the river. The French owned the territory, but it was controlled by Spain. The Spanish Commandant did not know about the impending transfer of territory to the U.S., and because of this he was bound by his standing orders. He could not allow Lewis and Clark to set up a military camp west of the Mississippi River until he received word from his superiors. Lewis agreed to abide by his ruling, and Lewis and Clark decided to find a good winter camp location for the expedition. Clark headed up the Mississippi River toward its confluence with the Missouri River.
Meanwhile, Lewis made Cahokia his headquarters. He gathered any information he could on Upper Louisiana and the west from Cahokia, Kaskaskia, St. Louis and other locations. Lewis also used this opportunity to meet Spanish authorities with the goal of smoothing the transfer of the Louisiana Territory to the United States. The 1737 French log structure now known as Cahokia Courthouse State Historic Site, where Lewis gathered much of his information during this time, may still be visited.
In December of 1803, Clark and his men cleared the land and cut logs for a winter camp at River Dubois.
Camp Established at River Dubois
On December 12, 1803 Clark and his men entered the River Dubois near the present city of Hartford, Illinois and pulled up on the southern bank. The river's mouth was a good harbor for boats and the location was very close to the mouth of the Missouri River, the route chosen for the expedition. Most importantly, the location was in United States territory on the east side of the Mississippi River, which would honor the Spanish Commandant's ruling that the expedition stay out of the Louisiana Territory until it was transferred to the U.S. Clark chose this spot for the expedition's winter camp.
Clark's men built a road from the mouth of the River Dubois through the forest to nearby prairie: "fixed on a place to build huts Set the men to Clearing land & Cutting Logs - a hard wind all day-flying Clouds, Sent to the neghbourhood, Some Indians pass," was the December 13 entry in Clark's journal. Then, based on Clark's plan, they began to build temporary housing for themselves and to set up the camp. They partook of the plentiful wild game for food: "Send out Shields & Floyd to hunt to day, they Kill 7 Turkeys verry fat," wrote Clark on December 21. By Christmas Eve, 1803 the men were able to sleep indoors. Lewis rejoined Clark several weeks later and moved into the camp, which he later dubbed "Camp River Dubois."
Christmas Day 1803 was busy at Camp River Dubois, as Clark noted in his journal: "Christmas 25th Decr:...found that Some of the party had got Drunk (2 fought) the men frolicked and hunted all day, Snow this morning, Ice run all day, Several Turkey Killed...Three Indians Come to day to take Christmas with us..."
The winter was spent making observations at the mouth of the River Dubois and other locations. These observations were performed largely by Clark to fulfill Jefferson's first instruction: "Beginning at the mouth of the Missouri, you will take [careful] observations..." For example, both men maintained a weather diary, noting weather and climate observations each day. They also made astronomical observations, some performed in the middle of the cold winter night.
Camp River Dubois Was a Military Camp
Camp River Dubois was a military camp and the soldiers were required to participate in training and perform other military duties. U.S. military regulations governed how buildings and tents were to be laid out and how the soldiers were to function. Soldiers had to maintain personal cleanliness and health, police the camp to maintain order and a healthy environment, and care for their equipment and clothing. They had inspections, marched and stood guard duty. In addition to marksmanship practice (offhand shooting at a fifty-yard target) and shooting competitions with neighbors, they hunted to supplement their military rations. Sgt. John Ordway was in charge of the camp during periods in which both Captains Lewis and Clark were away.
Military regulations provided for laundry support and included pay and housing for civilian employees. A woman volunteered to wash and sew: "Cloudy to day, a woman Come forward wishing to wash and doe Such things as may be necessary for the Detachment several men Come from the Countrey to See us & Shoot with the men," Clark noted on January 1, 1804. Clark hired the washer woman, Mrs. Cane, and had a cabin built for her.
The military drills and basic camp chores made for a long winter for the men, who were anxious to be underway. As a result, drunkenness, fighting and other inappropriate behavior occasionally occurred, in one case leading to a court-martial. It had been Lewis' policy to accept the best volunteers on a trial basis. Clark evaluated the soldiers and other volunteers at Camp River Dubois and selected those who would be the best men for the long journey to the Pacific Ocean. Once selected, Clark made sure the men functioned as a team. Rather than expel men for fighting, for example, he made the offenders work together to build the washer woman's cabin.
Camp River Dubois often had visitors such as traveling Indians, traders, military contractors, or local squatters. Many of these people provided information about the areas west of the Mississippi River where the expedition would soon be heading.
Clark Surveyed the Area Near Cahokia Mounds
Clark surveyed the area during the long winter, noting items of interest in his ever-present journal. "I discovered an Indian Fortification...this fortress is 9 mouns forming a Circle," he wrote on January 9, 1804. Clark had actually encountered a mound group connected to nearby Cahokia Mounds. (The prehistoric Native American city is now a World Heritage Site and may be seen by visitors.) He was enchanted by the beauty of the area as well: "My situation is as comfortable as could be expected in the woods, & on the frontiers; the Country back of me is butifull beyond description... The Missouri which mouths imedeately opposet me...is the river we intend assending as soon as the weather permits," he wrote on January 15.
Meriwether Lewis served as an official witness to the formal transfer of Upper Louisiana, first from Spain to France on March 9 and then from France to the United States on March 10, 1804, in St. Louis.
While Clark oversaw the day-to-day operation of the camp, Lewis was busy with official duties. He served as an official witness to the formal transfer of Upper Louisiana, first from Spain to France on March 9, and then from France to the United States on March 10, 1804, in St. Louis. Later, Lewis arranged for a group of Indian leaders living west of the Mississippi River to be escorted safely to Washington so that President Jefferson could meet them and then had them accompanied back home to Louisiana.
In the spring, the camp became a beehive of activity as final preparations were made. On March 30, 1804, Lewis and Clark formally enlisted the soldiers and other men who would take part in the expedition. Volunteers who had been civilians were now in the U.S. military. On April 1 Clark issued Detachment Orders determining who would go all the way to the Pacific Ocean, the "Expedition through the interior of the Continent of North America," and others who would perform supportive roles.
The information collected by Lewis and Clark had been put to good use, and at the camp the expedition had been comprehensively planned. Extensive geographic information had been obtained on the Missouri River from its mouth to the Mandan Indian villages in present-day North Dakota. The boats were altered to better fulfill the journey's needs. Gifts were packaged and organized in the order in which they were to be used based upon information obtained about Native American leaders they would encounter along the way. Items were separated and distributed among different packages so if the contents of one package were damaged or lost, an entire quantity of a valuable item would not be lost. Food was prepared and packed, and included parched corn meal, deboned pork in brine, and sugar made from the sap of maple trees.
The Expedition Leaves Camp River Dubois
On Monday, May 14, 1804, the Expedition, under Clark's command, left Camp River Dubois on the east side of the Mississippi River and sailed up the Missouri River, beginning their voyage of discovery. Lewis, in St. Louis making final arrangements, planned to meet the Expedition at St. Charles. In the journals, Lewis designated the mouth of the River Dubois in present-day Illinois as the official "point of departure." Sgt. Ordway also noted in a journal he started at Camp River Dubois: "Monday May the 14th 1804... Capt Clark Set out at 3oClock P.M. for the western expedition. One Gun fired. a nomber of Citizens see us Start."
In a letter to his parents dated April 8, 1804, Sgt. Ordway summed up the journey: "I am now on an expidition to the westward, with Capt. Lewis and Capt. Clark, who are appointed by the President of the united States to go on an expidition through the interior parts of North America. We are to ascend the Missouri River with a boat as far as it is navigable and then go by land, to the western ocean, if nothing prevents..."
On September 23, 1806, on their return from their voyage of discovery to the Pacific Ocean, the expedition visited the location of Camp River Dubois just before concluding their journey in St. Louis.