Camp River Dubois
By Dr. Charles E. White and Lieutenant Colonel Mark
Although the expedition had successfully traversed the
distance between Pittsburgh and St. Louis by 11 December 1803, Captain
Meriwether Lewis knew the most challenging part of the journey was
yet to come. Accordingly, Lewis planned to fully utilize the winter
of 1803 - 1804 to make the final necessary arrangements, refine and
test load plans for the expedition's three watercraft, and to mold
the officers and men into a cohesive group capable of withstanding
Rather than spend the winter at one of the nearby frontier
forts, Captain Lewis tasked his co-commander, Captain William Clark,
to have the men build their own camp. Lewis viewed the project as
an opportunity to gain valuable experience that would later serve
the expedition well. Additionally, the project would allow him to
judge which men were most proficient with woodworking tools and masonry;
skills that would prove to useful when the expedition began living
off the land after it departed Missouri. In accordance with Lewis'
instructions, Captain William 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 and the men constructed Camp River Dubois, which
was finished by Christmas Eve 1803.
Once their winter camp was completed, Captain Clark shifted his emphasis
to carrying out a rigorous program of individual and unit training.
With Clark taking care of training, Lewis was free to collect supplies
from local merchants and gather additional information on the region
that the expedition would cross during their journey to the Pacific.
Throughout the winter months, Clark molded the men into a smoothly
functioning team employing a daily regimen of close order drill, school
of the soldier, equipment inspections, and marksmanship training.
The latter skill was especially important since the expedition would
depend on hunting for food to supplement the rations they brought
along. In order to develop a competitive spirit, Captain Clark held
occasional contests among the volunteers (and against local traders)
to determine who was the best shot.
When the expedition was not busy conducting individual
and unit training, Clark focused their efforts on preparing their
watercraft for the journey. With the help of river men from Cahokia,
Clark had his soldiers modify and arm the keelboat and two smaller
pirogues, waterproof and pack supplies, load and reload the boats
until they were considered "seaworthy", and then rehearse
maneuvering them on the river while fully loaded. Discipline was tough
as Captain Clark focused on ensuring his soldiers knew by heart how
to perform critical mission related tasks on both river and land.
Daily inspections by the non-commissioned officers kept
the camp clean, neat, and orderly, and ensured that the men took proper
care of themselves, their weapons, and their assigned equipment. Captain
Clark 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
approach to unit discipline proved effective, as the expedition recorded
only five minor infractions during its two-and-a-half-year trek to
the Pacific Ocean, a record unmatched by any other Army unit of the
Overseeing preparations for the next leg of the expedition's
trek consumed much of the personal time of Captains Lewis, who spent
days at a time coordinating the acquisition of information and goods
from the merchants of St. Louis and the nearby town of Cahokia. Since
Captain Clark often accompanied Lewis on his trips, Sergeant John
Ordway, the expedition's senior noncommissioned officer, frequently
found himself in sole charge of Camp River Dubois for days on end.
After initially testing his authority, the men came to respect and
admire Sergeant Ordway, a clear demonstration that the expedition's
non-commissioned officers were worthy of the trust that had been placed
in them by Captains Lewis and Clark.
In turn, both captains supported their non-commissioned
officers by firmly dealing with any form of insubordination or misbehavior,
especially when it was directed against a sergeant or corporal. The
first time this occurred, Captain Lewis admonished the recruits and
pointed out the importance of noncommissioned officers in the chain
of command. He informed the men that he and Captain Clark would be
derelict in their own duties if they were "to communicate our
orders in person" to every member of the expedition.
Captain Lewis was constantly interested in identifying
which soldiers possessed critical skills and encouraging them to further
develop their talents. In addition to devoting his own efforts to
making preparations for the expedition's departure next spring, Lewis
planned to use the period spent in winter quarters to test the leadership
skills of his non-commissioned officers. He knew that the expedition
might be forced to split up into smaller independent groups in order
to simultaneously accomplish numerous missions. Lewis consistently
strove to instill the enlisted members of the expedition with confidence
in the leadership abilities and technical skills of their non-commissioned
officers, most of whom they had not met before.
On 31 March 1804, Lewis and Clark held a solemn 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: Sergeant John Ordway, Corporal Richard Warfington,
and Privates 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, Isaac White, Alexander Willard, and
In their Mission Orders 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.
The intense training program and extensive logistical
preparations paid off on 14 May 1084, when the keelboat and both pirogues
of the expedition cast off to the cheers of crowds lining the bank
of the Missouri River. The soldiers, clad in their best uniforms,
waved back to the admiring throngs. The faces of the spectators clearly
displayed the thrill many felt at the prospects of expanded commerce
and enhanced international prestige to be gained. For their part,
the members of the expedition experienced a different sense of excitement,
which could be characterized as a keen sense of anticipation at the
prospect of embarking on a journey of unknown duration in unexplored