In the Footsteps of Lewis and Clark

By Tim A. Nigh | October 2, 2004
From Missouri Conservationist: Oct 2004

Their boats entered the mouth of the Missouri River on the afternoon of May 14, 1804. The water was murky and full of logs.

Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery returned two years later with experiences and knowledge that propelled the exploration and settlement of western North America. They started and completed this epic journey in Missouri.

Two hundred years later, you can visit places Lewis and Clark visited as explorers. Dioramas at conservation areas along their route provide a glimpse of a wild and untamed Missouri. You can retrace their footsteps and go on a personal Voyage of Discovery.

Mouth of the Missouri to the Manitou Bluffs

The first few weeks of the expedition was a transitional period for the Corps. The men were organized into "messes" and were learning to work together.

From the overlook at Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, you can imagine what that first day was like. Lewis and Clark would have paddled over the top of the present day overlook as they moved between camp and St. Louis that winter. Major changes in the river's course have left many of their riverside camps high and dry.

After camping the first night at the head of a small island in the middle of a wider and more meandering river than the river of today, the crew passed Pelican Island and camped at the frontier village of St. Charles.

Departing St. Charles, Lewis and Clark passed farmers, merchants, traders and a friendly band of Kickapoo Indians. The crew continued to encounter settlements until La Charette, near present-day Marthasville.

Several members of the expedition were often ashore hunting in bottomland forests that contained enormous trees, mainly sycamore and cottonwood. Weldon Springs and Howell Island conservation areas offer opportunities to experience forests that are not much different from what they saw.

Two weeks into the journey, the crew camped at the mouth of the Gasconade River, where Clark made a variety of measurements and observations. This was his constant practice. Clark later constructed detailed maps of the Missouri River and its environs.

The river was rising when the crew arrived at the mouth of the Osage River on June 1. Drenching spring rains had been common those first two weeks of their journey.

This large tributary was named for the Osage or Wahhazhe (Water People) who once lived there. In 1804, the Osage villages were far to the west, near the river's headwaters. Perhaps they moved to escape the hoards of "Musquetos & Small Ticks" that tormented the Corps' members here.

While camped at the Osage, Lewis and Clark saw several traders descending the river with a load of furs that hinted of the bounty of these lands. They also captured a wood rat along this stretch. It was the first of many western animal species first described by the expedition.

You can climb to the top of "Clark's Hill," which overlooks Smoky Waters Conservation Area, and still see both the Osage and Missouri rivers from Clark's vantage point.

In the vicinity of Jefferson City and the Carl R. Noren River Access, the keelboat lost its mast to a tree limb. Despite these difficulties, one member of the expedition described this area as "a Butifull peas of Land as I ever saw."

For the next three days, the Corps of Discovery passed through the Manitou Bluffs region. Public lands in this area include Marion Bottoms, Plowboy Bend, Eagle Bluffs, Overton Bottoms, Diana Bend and Franklin Island conservation areas.

Near Marion, Clark's servant, York, "Swam to the sand bar to geather greens for our Dinner and returned with a suffcient quantity wild Creases or Teng grass." Yellow cress, a native mustard seen commonly today, was an important addition to the crew 's diet. They mostly ate wild game.

Because of the vast changes in the river course since then, their camp on the night of June 5, 1804, is now in the middle of the current Marion Bottoms Conservation Area. At Eagle Bluffs, the river flowed beneath the bluffs along the present course of Perche Creek. Here Clark described a "pierced rock" in the bluff that one can access from the Katy Trail. The party next camped near Lewis and Clark Spring, also accessible from the Katy Trail, between Huntsdale and Rocheport.

On June 7, near present-day Rocheport, Clark described pictographs on the towering bluffs that gave rise to the local name, Manitou Bluffs.

Manitou Bluffs to the Kansas River

As Lewis and Clark left the mouth of Moniteau Creek near Rocheport, they began seeing major changes in the landscape. Now in a transition to the Great Plains, they saw their first sign of buffalo at salt licks along Petite Saline Creek. Vast prairies extended to the west. By the time the group reached the mouth of the Grand River, prairies and marshes occupied broad expanses of the floodplain.

Between Manitou Bluffs and Glasgow, the floodplain remains constricted by the bedrock valley walls of the Ozarks. Visitors can reach the Missouri River at Stump Island Access and from De Bourgmont Access, a couple of miles up the Lamine River. French traders had told Lewis and Clark of lead deposits up the "La Mine," the last of the truly Ozarkian tributaries they would pass.

Above Glasgow, the river has cut a much broader valley across the plains of western Missouri. Again, the crew encountered large, shifting islands of sand that threatened their keel boat.

The river twisted across the broad bottoms, scouring new marshes and frequently leaving oxbows in its former course. You can get a sense of the way the river looked then at Grand Pass Conservation Area. One of the few large conservation areas in this reach, its extensive wetlands provide habitat for numerous waterfowl that migrate along the Missouri River.

Farther west, at Cooley Lake Conservation Area, is an oxbow that was abandoned by the river before Lewis and Clark passed. The crew began seeing an even greater abundance of wildlife near Cooley Lake. Many of the animals were eating the immense crop of mulberries that grew there.

Lewis and Clark camped for several days at the mouth of the Kansas River, where they studied an area that would be home to Pierre Chouteau's fur trading post in 1821. The area would later be called Westport Landing. Now, of course, it's Kansas City. Here they caught and ate "several large catfish."

Hunters venturing up the Kansas River also saw their first buffalo, and one group brought in a young wolf to tame. The first journal reference to abundant flocks of now extinct Carolina parakeets was made here.

Kansas River to the Iowa State Line

Having come west 390 miles in six weeks, the crew headed north up the Missouri toward the Mandan villages.The journey north brought them to the Great Plains of the West. They more frequently encountered wolves, buffalo and elk. They also saw floodplain lakes visited by swans, pelicans, wood ducks and other waterfowl.

Prairies stretched to the horizon. The weather became hotter and more sultry, causing heat-related illnesses and discomfort. Still, the Corps persevered.

They passed several abandoned French settlements near present day Ft. Leavenworth, and camped on the west side of the river on the banks of what became Little Bean Marsh Conservation Area. Today this outstanding marsh is isolated on the floodplain on the east side of the river. A boardwalk leads to the marsh, and a tower provides excellent viewing of abundant wetland wildlife.

The Corps of Discovery greeted the morning of the Fourth of July with a blast from its cannon. Later, the party passed an oxbow lake that Clark described as a mile wide and 7-8 miles long, with brilliantly clear water and numerous young geese. Called "Gosling Lake" by Clark, this was likely the lake at Lewis and Clark State Park.

The Corps members began describing the numerous beaver that would later fuel future fur trading commerce. Lewis' dog, Seaman, was skilled at chasing beavers from their lodges.

Journal entries that day describe extensive and beautiful prairies covering the floodplains and adjacent hills. They named Fourth of July Creek and Independence Creek. The latter still bears that name as it flows into the Missouri, just north of Atchison, Kansas.

The party celebrated Independence Day that evening with another cannon salute and an extra gill of whiskey.

Heat and a treacherous, meandering river slowed travel the next week. The expedition passed St. Michael's Prairie at present day St. Joseph on July 7 and did not reach Big Lake until July 11. Along the way, they frequently reported tremendous numbers of wildlife associated with the abundant wetlands.

Wetlands on this portion of the Missouri River are at Bob Brown, Squaw Creek, Big Lake and Deroin Bend conservation areas. Today, these wetland wildlife areas are being managed to restore the wet prairies, marshes, bottomland forests and ponds indigenous to this region. Their wet soils attract thousands of mallards, bluewinged teal and Canada and snow geese, along with herons, shorebirds and wintering bald eagles.

From Big Lake north, the floodplain and adjacent hills were largely prairie. Clark was impressed by the steep, loess-hill prairies that lined the floodplain. You can still see beautiful loess-hill prairies at Brickyard Hill and Star School conservation areas.

On their last day in Missouri, Lewis rode horseback through the bottoms near the Nishnabotna River. He described it as "one of the most beautiful, level and fertile prairies that I ever beheld."

As it traversed what would become the state of Missouri, The Corps of Discovery traveled 66 days and nearly 600 miles. This part of their journey seasoned the crew and prepared them for the hardships and adventures to come.

The Bicentennial celebration of the Corps of Discovery expedition is a good opportunity to visit some of the landmarks Lewis and Clark passed and described, and to kindle your pioneering spirit.

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