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Lewis and Clark in Missouri

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

In Missouri, even before the expedition officially departed, the explorers found their first botanical species previously unknown to science. They discovered the Osage-orange tree (Maclura pomifera) across the river from their winter camp on March 26, 1804.

Their first documented "new species" of animal was the eastern wood rat (Peromyscus gossypinus), noted in what is now Callaway County. In what is now the northwest corner of the state, Lewis and Clark first heard the calls of a coyote. In 1804, coyotes were not known in Missouri, or east of the Mississippi. Today they live in all of the lower 48 states. Expedition journals often mention wolves, black bears, cougars, bison and elk. Near today's Kansas City, the explorers also saw flocks of colorful Carolina parakeets, a species now extinct.

At Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, a new overlook allows visitors to see the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the starting point of the expedition.

In 1804, the Mississippi River flowed in the middle of what is now the conservation area, so there is little doubt that the expedition crossed some of this land by water. Its members reconnoitered and hunted the same lands on foot or horseback as they hunted around their winter camp a couple of miles north.

Lewis, along with other members of the expedition, kept journals with which to report their findings back to the President. While in Missouri, they wrote that the landscape "is beautiful, bountiful and a good place to build homes." Their journals enthusiastically describe the lush forests, expansive prairies, oxbow lakes and rich grasslands along the Missouri River. The writers spelled "beautiful" in many ways (even "butifull"), but the word was their common adjective for lands of the future state of Missouri.

People today often don't fully appreciate the power, the beauty and the hazards the Missouri River once presented. Lewis and Clark encountered a river that had no upstream dams, dikes or riprapped banks to control its flow or its floods. Even through the 19th century, the naturally flowing river devoured hundreds of steamboats, and many pilots who traveled the river once chose never to return. Today the river is tame by comparison, but it still requires skill to navigate.

In 1804, the Missouri River was generally wider and shallower, and its flow was much less uniform. Today's river is pinched by levees, dikes and riprap to maintain a narrow, deep

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