Lewis and Clark in Missouri

By Shannon Cave | January 2, 2004
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2004

Lewis and Clark moved through what would become the state of Missouri in about 10 weeks, but this area was both a launching point and an important testing ground for the rugged explorers that comprised the Corps of Discovery. They learned lessons here that helped prepare them for their expedition to the Pacific Ocean and back.

As early as 1792, Thomas Jefferson dreamed of sending an expedition up the Missouri River and on to the Pacific ocean. He knew how important it was to explore the western frontier of our young, developing nation. He believed that resources in the west could fuel growth and help secure peace for the entire country.

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 accelerated plans to send a group of explorers into the region west of the Mississippi River. Jefferson directed his personal secretary Meriwether Lewis and Lewis's friend, William Clark to lead an expedition to the lands west of the Mississippi River.

Jefferson wrote more than 2, 000 words of instructions to Lewis before the Corps of Discovery departed. The full text of his instructions is available at <lewisandclarktrail. com/legacy/letter. htm>, but instructions began:

"The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it's course & communication with the water of the Pacific ocean may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce. "

The expedition members wintered at Camp Dubois on the east bank of the Mississippi River during the winter of 1803-04. They departed on their epic voyage up the Missouri River on May 14, 1804.

Historians typically focus on Corps of Discovery events that occurred west of Missouri. In doing so, they omit some good stories and key events. The trials the expedition faced in Missouri had the potential to abort the entire mission. Instead, they laid the foundations of caution, determination and teamwork that allowed the expedition to proceed toward a successful conclusion.

Lewis, for example, nearly fell to his death only a few miles from St. Charles. Had he not survived, the mission likely would have been scrapped. More than once, the expedition's keelboat narrowly escaped destruction. While in Missouri, the crew also had to resolve disciplinary problems and learn to work as a team. Here they also met Indian bands and traders of mixed nationality, constantly gathering critical information about what lay ahead.

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 and fast flowing channel. The natural river had roaring rapids, huge eddies, islands and backwaters.

In some ways, upstream travel in keelboats and canoes would have been easier then because the force of the current varied across the wide river. Expanses of shallow water allowed a crew of wading men to pull the boats along with ropes. In fact, eddies in the river sometimes helped move boats upstream.

However, keelboats often "grounded" on those same shallows. Other hazards included sand bars that constantly shifted, banks that unexpectedly caved in, and dislodged trees. These trees often became "sawyers, " logs lodged in the mud with jagged limbs pointing downstream. They could rip holes in any passing boat.

The expedition faced a steep learning curve. Only a few days out, its boat lodged on a sand bar. When the sand shifted, the current ripped the boat loose and spun it around three times before the crew regained control. Had it rolled over and been torn apart in the current, or had its hull been splintered by a sawyer, the expedition might have ended right there.

As they ascended the lower Missouri, the crew learned how to navigate the river and depend on one another. By the time they left the borders of what would be Missouri in July 1804, this group of young, inexperienced soldiers had become an experienced, efficient and indomitable crew of rivermen.

The expedition made careful records and maps of the river and lands nearby. Lewis usually walked on shore. Clark commanded the boats. Hunters on horseback ranged inland. They all gathered and reported information. Wherever they could, the leaders climbed to high points to get a clear view up and down stream and take precise angular readings.

On one such climb near St. Albans, Lewis slipped and took a near tragic tumble. A trail on Weldon Springs Conservation Area and a high point on Engelmann Woods Natural Area are near, and perhaps in sight of the bluff where he fell. Other great overlooks include new trails to the top of the bluffs at Grand Bluffs and Diana Bend conservation areas, and a new State Historic Site at Clark's Hill, overlooking Smoky Waters Conservation Area.

Thirty of the expedition members who left St. Charles in 1803 made it to the Pacific and back. Those returning, with the exception of York, Captain Clark's slave, received both pay and a warrant for land. Many chose Missouri land--first choice among many wondrous lands seen. Lewis became Governor of the Missouri Territory, but he died a couple years later. Clark became territorial governor and ran, unsuccessfully, in Missouri's first gubernatorial election. He was a key frontier figure in U. S. relations with Indians for more than three decades.

Revisiting the Missouri River

The bicentennial celebration of the Corps of Discovery offers a good reason to experience the river that Lewis and Clark traveled. Many communities along the river have comfortable riverfront parks where, after a few minutes relaxing on a bench, visitors can almost envision a keelboat appearing on misty water.

Many conservation areas preserve wetlands, oxbow lakes and bottomland forests that were common in 1804. Some features Lewis and Clark saw are hard to find. For example, the bottomland forests of today are much smaller and fragmented. Weston Bend State Park offers a striking overlook of an oldgrowth forest, which is preserved on Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

Oxbow lakes were common havens for waterfowl, wading and migratory birds as well as other wildlife. This same rich diversity can be found today at oxbows in Grand Pass, Cooley Lake and Little Bean Marsh conservation areas, or in Lewis and Clark State Park.

Almost all of Missouri's native prairies have been cultivated for many years, making prairie vistas described by the journals hard to find. The Conservation Department's Star School Hill Prairie, near Rockport, is one of several conservation areas where a visitor can see and begin to appreciate prairies like William Clark described. Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge also contains rich prairie land.

Traveling the river by boat will allow you to fully appreciate both the beauty and the hazards faced by the expedition. Motorboats make river travel easier, but the Missouri River still requires a healthy respect for safety. About 40 Conservation Department accesses to the Missouri, along with community owned and private ramps, provide many good options for launching boats on the river.

River sandbars are especially good places to explore. The river is constantly rearranging and uncovering materials and artifacts as it flows along. You might find a fossil from Montana, a fragment of a steamboat wreck, a bone from an Ice Age mammal, tools used by early native Americans, or at least some sense of wonder experienced by the expedition itself.

It's never far from a ramp to a quiet wilderness. Expect to be pleasantly surprised by the natural beauty of the river, its great fishing opportunities and the variety of wildlife viewing it offers.

York remained several years in St. Louis before he left as a free man. George Shannon, who is buried in Palmyra, was the youngest soldier in the group and later became an attorney and Missouri State Senator. John Colter had many adventures out west, including making the first report of today's Yellowstone National Park. He later settled in Franklin County, where he was buried and some of his descendants live today.

After leaving Missouri in 1804, Lewis and Clark wintered in North Dakota. There, they added Toussaint Charbonneau, Sacagawea and their newborn son, Jean Baptiste, to the Corps of Discovery. She carried the baby to the Pacific and back. When he was older, his parents brought Jean Baptiste to Missouri to be educated. He later guided many important expeditions to the far west.

The Corps of Discovery was the first, but not the only, important expedition to explore Missouri. In 1806, while Lewis and Clark were still returning through the Rocky Mountains, Zebulon Pike went up the Osage River, exploring what is now western Missouri, on his way to Colorado. In 1818, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft explored the interior of the Ozarks. All these expeditions kept records and provided additional important information about our state and its natural resources.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler