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The U.S. Army and the Lewis & Clark Expedition
Part 5: Camp River Dubois and the Missouri River Trek

Upon arriving at St. Louis, Lewis left the party to handle logistical arrangements and to gather intelligence on Upper Louisiana. Clark took the party upriver about eighteen miles to the mouth of the Wood River, a small stream that flowed into the Mississippi River directly across from the mouth of the Missouri River. Here, Clark constructed Camp River Dubois, which was finished by Christmas Eve 1803.

Once the camp was established, Clark set about preparing for the arduous journey ahead. Throughout the winter months he selected and trained personnel, modified and armed the keelboat and pirogues, and assembled and packed supplies. For all his efforts, William Clark never received the captaincy Lewis had promised him. Instead, the War Department commissioned Clark a Lieutenant of Artillery. Nevertheless, Lewis called Clark Captain and recognized him as co-commander, and the men of the expedition never knew differently.

On 31 March 1804, Lewis and Clark held a ceremony to enlist the men they had selected as members of “the Detachment destined for the Expedition through the interior of the Continent of North America.” In addition to the eleven men previously selected, Lewis and Clark chose: Sgt. John Ordway, Cpl. Richard Warfington, and Pvts. Patrick Gass, John Boley, John Collins, John Dame, Robert Frazer, Silas Goodrich, Hugh Hall, Thomas Howard, Hugh McNeal, John Potts, Moses Reed, John Robertson, John Thompson, Ebenezer Tuttle, Peter Weiser, William Werner, Issac White, Alexander Willard, and Richard Windsor. In their Detachment Order of 1 April 1804, Captains Lewis and Clark divided the men into three squads led by Sergeants Pryor, Floyd, and Ordway. Another group of five soldiers led by Corporal Warfington would accompany the expedition to its winter quarters and then return to St. Louis in 1805 with communiqués and specimens collected thus far.

With their military organization established, Lewis and Clark began final preparations at Camp River Dubois and in St. Louis for

Sketch of Camp River Dubois by Richard Guthrie (Courtesy of Illinois Historic Preservation Commission)

their trek up the Missouri River. Clark molded the men into a team through a regimen of drill and marksmanship training, while Lewis was busy in St. Louis arranging logistical support for the camp and obtaining intelligence on the expedition’s route and conditions along the way. Discipline was tough, and Clark made sure that the men were constantly alert, that they knew their tasks on both river and land, that their camps were neat and orderly, and that they cared for their weapons and equipment. He dealt firmly with any form of insubordination or misbehavior. At the same time he rewarded the winners of marksmanship contests and those who distinguished themselves on their work details. Clark’s fine leadership proved effective, as the expedition recorded only five infractions during its two-and-a-half-year trek, a record unmatched by any other Army unit of the time.

On the afternoon of Monday, 14 May 1804, Clark and his party left Camp River Dubois, crossed the Mississippi River, and headed up the Missouri. The Expedition proceeded slowly toward St. Charles, because Clark wanted to insure the boats were loaded properly for the journey. Two days later they reached St. Charles, made adjustments to the loading plan, and awaited Lewis. At St. Charles, Clark also enlisted two additional boatmen: Pvts. Pierre Cruzatte and Francois Labiche. Both knew the tribes of the Missouri River Valley and would serve as interpreters. On 20 May, Lewis arrived from St. Louis with a group of prominent St. Louis citizens who wanted to see the expedition launched. The next afternoon, a crowd lining the riverbank bade farewell to Captains Lewis and Clark and their expedition.

“The Commanding Officers” jointly issued their Detachment Orders for the Expedition on 26 May. This decree established a routine while making it clear to the men that this was a military expedition into potentially hostile territory. Lewis and Clark refined the organization previously agreed upon at Camp River Dubois. The three original squads were redesignated “messes” and manned the keelboat, while Corporal Warfington’s detachment formed a fourth mess and rode in the “white” pirogue. The civilian boatmen formed the fifth mess and rode in the “red” pirogue. Because he was the better boatman, Clark usually stayed on the keelboat while Lewis walked on shore and made his scientific observations. Occasionally, they would rotate and Lewis would catalog specimens on the keelboat.

Captains Lewis and Clark now commanded through the three sergeants, who rotated duties on the keelboat. One always manned the helm, another supervised the crew at amidships, and the third kept lookout at the bow. The senior sergeant was Ordway, who acted as the expedition’s first sergeant. He issued daily provisions after camp was set up in the evening. Rations were cooked and a portion kept for consumption the next day. (No cooking was permitted during the day.) Sergeant Ordway also appointed guard and other details. The guard detail consisted of one sergeant, six privates, and one or more civilians – fully one third of the entire party. The guard detail established security upon landing and maintained readiness throughout the encampment. All three sergeants maintained duty rosters for the assignment of chores to the five messes. The cooks and a few others with special skills were exempted from guard duty, pitching tents, collecting firewood, and making fires. Drouillard was the principal hunter and usually set out in the morning with one or more privates and rejoined the expedition in the evening with meat.

The expedition generally made good time up the Missouri River. Thanks largely to the total commitment of the crews, the keelboat and pirogues averaged a bit more than one mile per hour against the strong Missouri current. With a wind astern, the crews usually doubled their speed. Along the way, the expedition conquered every navigational hazard the Missouri River offered. In addition, the men also overcame a variety of physical ills: boils, blisters, bunions, sunstroke, dysentery, fatigue, injuries, colds, fevers, snakebites, ticks, gnats, toothaches, headaches, sore throats, and mosquitoes. As the expedition traveled north, its members became the first Euro-Americans to see some remarkable species of animal life: mule deer, prairie dog, and antelope. Wildlife became more abundant as the expedition moved upriver. The likelihood of meeting traders and Indians also increased.

As the men traveled north, they encountered more than a dozen parties of traders, sometimes accompanied by Indians, coming downriver on rafts or in canoes loaded with pelts. On 26 June the expedition reached the mouth of the Kansas River. On 21 July, some six hundred miles and sixty-nine days upstream from Camp River Dubois, the expedition reached the mouth of the Platte River. On 28 July Drouillard returned from hunting with a Missouria Indian. The next day Lewis and Clark sent boatman “La Liberte” (Jo Barter) with the Indian to the Oto camp with an invitation for their chiefs to come to the river for a council.

At Council Bluff on Friday morning, 3 August 1804, the expedition held its first meeting with six chiefs of the Oto and Missouria tribes. This amicable council set the pattern for later meetings between the expedition and Native Americans. The outstanding characteristic of these councils was the mutual respect between the expedition and its native hosts. At midmorning, under an awning formed by the keelboat’s main sail and flanked by the American flag and troops of the expedition, Captains Lewis and Clark awaited the Indian chiefs. The two captains wore their regimental dress uniform, as did Sergeants Ordway, Floyd, and Pryor, Corporal Warfington, and the twenty-nine privates. As the Oto and Missouria delegation approached, the soldiers came to attention, shouldered their arms, dressed right, and passed in review. Captain Lewis then stepped forward to deliver his long speech announcing American sovereignty over the Louisiana Territory, declaring that the soldiers were on the river “to clear the road, remove every obstruction, and make it a road of peace,” and urging the Oto and Missouria tribes to accept the new order. According to Private Gass, the chiefs were “well pleased” with what Lewis said and promised to abide by his words. The chiefs and officers then smoked the peace pipe and Lewis distributed peace medals and other gifts to the chiefs. The council closed with a demonstration of the expedition’s air gun, designed to awe the Indians. Like a BB gun, the air gun operated by air pressure, was nearly silent, and was capable of firing a .31-caliber round forty times before recharging. Upon conclusion of the council, the expedition continued upriver.

Tragedy struck the expedition on 20 August when Sgt. Charles Floyd died of what modern medical authorities believe was peritonitis from a perforated or ruptured appendix. Floyd had been ill for some weeks, but nothing Lewis or Clark did seemed to help. On 19 August he became violently ill and was unable to retain anything in his stomach or bowels. Lewis stayed up most of the night ministering to him, but Floyd passed away just before noon the next day. That afternoon the expedition buried Floyd with full military honors near Sioux City, Iowa, on the highest hill overlooking a river the men named in tribute to their stricken comrade. Sgt. Charles Floyd was the only member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to lose his life. Two days later the captains ordered the men to choose Floyd’s replacement. Pvt. Patrick Gass received nineteen votes, while Pvts. William Barton and George Gibson each received five. In their orders of 26 August, Lewis and Clark appointed Patrick Gass to the rank of sergeant in “the corps of volunteers for North Western Discovery.” This was the first time the captains used this term to describe the expedition.

The Corps of Discovery entered Sioux country on 27 August near Yankton, South Dakota. As the boats passed the mouth of the James River, a young Indian boy swam out to meet one of the pirogues. When the expedition pulled to shore, two more Indian youth greeted them. The boys informed Lewis and Clark that a large Sioux village lay not far up the James River. Anxious to meet the Yankton Sioux, the captains sent Sergeant Pryor and two Frenchmen with the Indians to the Sioux village. They received a warm welcome and arranged for the chiefs to meet Captains Lewis and Clark. On the morning of 29 August, the Corps of Discovery met the Yankton Sioux, with both parties dressed in full regalia. As the Sioux approached the council, the soldiers came to attention, raised the American flag, and fired the keelboat’s bow swivel gun. The Yanktons also had a sense of drama. Musicians playing and singing preceded their chiefs as they made their way to the American camp. After greeting one another, Lewis gave his basic Indian speech. When he finished, the chiefs said they would need to confer with the tribal elders. Lewis was learning Indian protocol, which required of him patience and understanding. The captains then presented the chiefs with medals, an officer’s coat and hat, and the American flag. After the formalities were over, young Sioux warriors demonstrated their skill with bows and arrows. The soldiers handed out prizes of beads. In the evening the men built fires, around which the Indians danced and told of their great feats in battle. The Corps of Discovery was truly impressed with the peaceful Yankton Sioux. Later, the same could not be said about the Teton Sioux.

From the time they had left St. Louis, Captains Lewis and Clark knew they would eventually have to face the aggressive Teton Sioux. Careful diplomacy would be required. On one hand, the Teton Sioux had a bad reputation for harassing and intimidating traders and demanding toll. On the other hand, of all the tribes known to Jefferson, it was the powerful Teton Sioux whom he had singled out in his instructions for special attention. Jefferson urged Lewis and Clark “to make a friendly impression” upon the Sioux. Acutely aware of the often-violent tactics the Teton Sioux used to control the Upper Missouri, the expedition, in Clark’s words, “prepared all things for action in case of necessity.”

On the evening of 23 September, just below the mouth of the Bad River (opposite present-day Pierre, South Dakota), three Sioux boys swam across the Missouri River to greet the Corps of Discovery. Anxious to begin talks, the captains told the boys that their chiefs were invited to a parley the following day. But the next afternoon, as the Corps of Discovery was preparing for the council, Pvt. John Colter (who had gone ashore to hunt) reported that some Teton warriors had stolen one of the expedition’s horses. Suddenly, five Indians appeared on shore. As the captains tried to speak with the Indians, they realized that neither group understood the other. Later that evening, Lewis met with some of the Sioux leaders, who promised to return the horse. In his journal, Lewis reported “all well” with the Sioux.

Early on Tuesday morning, 25 September, on a sandbar in the mouth of the Bad River, the Corps of Discovery met the leaders of the Teton Sioux: Black Buffalo, the Grand Chief; the Partisan, second chief; Buffalo Medicine, third chief; and two lesser leaders. The council opened on a generous note, with soldiers and Indians offering food to eat. By ten o’clock both banks of the river were lined with Indians. At noon the formalities began. Lacking a skilled interpreter, Lewis made a much shorter speech, but one that upheld the essential elements established in his earlier talks. After the Corps of Discovery marched by the chiefs, Lewis and Clark presented them with gifts suited to their stature. Evidently unaware of factional Sioux politics, the captains inadvertently slighted the Partisan and Buffalo Medicine. The chiefs complained that their gifts were inadequate. Indeed, they demanded that the Americans either stop their upriver progress or at least leave with them one of the pirogues loaded with gifts as tribute. Hoping to divert their attention, Lewis and Clark took the three chiefs in one of the pirogues to the keelboat, where Lewis demonstrated his air gun. Unimpressed, the chiefs repeated their demands. After some whiskey, the Partisan pretended to be drunk. Fearing a bloody melee, Clark and three men struggled to get the Indians ashore. When the pirogue landed, three young warriors seized the bow cable. The Partisan then moved toward Clark, speaking roughly and staggering into him. Determined not to be bullied, Clark drew his sword and alerted Lewis and the keelboat crew to prepare for action. Suddenly, soldiers and Indians faced each other, arms at the ready. A careless action by an individual on either side might have touched off a fight that might have destroyed the expedition. Fortunately, the members of the corps held their fire, and Lewis, Clark, and Black Buffalo calmed the situation.

Over the next two days both sides tried to ease tensions. The Sioux held an impressive ceremony at their village on the evening of 26 September. After Black Buffalo spoke, he said a prayer, lit the peace pipe, and offered it to Lewis and Clark. After the solemnities were over, the Corps of Discovery was treated to all of the Sioux delicacies, and hospitality reigned in the camp. At nightfall, a huge fire was made in the center of the village to light the way for musicians and dancers. Sergeant Ordway found the music “delightful.” Shortly after midnight the chiefs ended the festivities and returned with Lewis and Clark to the keelboat, where they spent the night. The next day Lewis and Clark made separate trips to the Sioux villages and presented more gifts. On 28 September, as the Corps of Discovery made final preparations for departure, Black Buffalo and the Partisan made their now-familiar demand that the expedition remain with them. Both Lewis and Clark were weary of the constant demand for gifts and sensed trouble from the well-armed Sioux warriors lining the banks of the river. After an angry exchange of words, Lewis tossed some tobacco to the Indians. Realizing that he could not keep the expedition from leaving, Black Buffalo ended the confrontation and allowed the boats to pass.

News of the Expedition’s confrontation with the Teton Sioux spread rapidly up and down river. Captains Lewis and Clark had demonstrated sound leadership and bold determination, while the training, discipline, and teamwork of the men had gained them much prestige. While the success of the expedition at Bad River was due in large part to Chief Black Buffalo, who sought to avoid bloodshed, the fact that the Sioux had permitted the Americans to pass gave hope to the tribes of the upper Missouri. Between 8 and 12 October, the Corps of Discovery visited the Arikara villages in north central South Dakota. The councils went smoothly: The Arikara chiefs were pleased with their gifts and amazed with the air gun, while the captains learned much about the surrounding country and its tribes. On 26 October, five days after the first snow fell, the expedition arrived near the junction of the Knife and Missouri Rivers, roughly sixty miles upstream from present-day Bismarck, North Dakota, and 1,600 miles from Camp River Dubois. This was the home of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes.

Described as “the central marketplace of the Northern Plains,” the five Mandan and Hidatsa villages attracted many Europeans and Indians alike. With a population of nearly 4,400, this was the largest concentration of Indians on the Missouri River. After visiting all five villages, Lewis and Clark prepared for their important council scheduled for 28 October. This would be the largest council yet, bringing together leaders from the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes. That Sunday weather prevented Lewis and Clark from holding their meeting, so the captains spent the day entertaining the chiefs who had arrived and reconnoitering the Missouri River for a good location for their winter quarters. On 29 October, just three days after arriving, Captains Lewis and Clark held their most impressive council to date. After the usual display of American military prowess, Lewis gave a speech that not only stressed American sovereignty, but also sought harmonious relations among the tribes themselves. Next came the distribution of gifts to the chiefs. Then Lewis ended the proceedings with a display of his air gun, “which appeared to astonish the natives very much.”

With the onset of winter, the Corps of Discovery had to find a suitable place for their camp. On 2 November, Captain Clark selected a site directly opposite the lower of the five Indian villages and two miles away from it. The next day the Corps of Discovery set to work building a triangular-shaped structure that consisted of two converging rows of huts (or rooms), with storage rooms at the apex (the top of which provided a sentry post) and a palisade with gate at the base or front. The walls were about

Map of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

eighteen feet high, and the rooms measured fourteen feet square. The men finished the fort on Christmas Day 1804 and named it Fort Mandan in honor of their neighbors. For security, the captains mounted the swivel cannon from the bow of the keelboat on the fort, kept a sentry on duty at all times, refused Indians admittance after dark, and kept the gate locked at night.

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