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The U.S. Army and the Lewis & Clark Expedition
Part 4: Along the Ohio River

Pittsburgh, as a riverboat-building center in 1803, provided a logical starting point for the expedition chartered to discover an all-water route to the west coast. While in Philadelphia in May, Lewis had placed an order for a keelboat for the mission. Arriving in Pittsburgh, Lewis found the builder had only just begun construction, which would take another six weeks. Lewis worried about his ability to get down the Ohio River, with its diminishing flows, and up the Mississippi River before winter set in.

Other frustrating news followed. The shipment of supplies had not yet arrived from Philadelphia. The driver had decided that the weapons were too heavy for his team and had left them at Harpers Ferry, so Lewis had to hire another teamster to bring the arms to Pittsburgh. Good news came from Clark, who had accepted Lewis’ invitation to join the expedition. Clark told Lewis he would be ready to go when the keelboat reached Louisville, Kentucky. In the meantime, he would recruit only quality men: the word was out, and Clark already had many young frontiersmen eager to join the expedition. Lewis was delighted with this news, knowing Clark was an excellent judge of men.

Lewis finally left Pittsburgh on 31 August. With him were seven soldiers from the Army barracks at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, three prospective recruits, the pilot of the boat Lewis had hired in Pittsburgh, and one or two additional hands. It took them six weeks to travel down the shallow Ohio River to Louisville. Along the way Lewis had stopped for a week in Cincinnati to rest his men and take on provisions. Arriving in Louisville on 14 October, he hired a local pilot to guide the boat safely through a daunting set of rapids known as the Falls of the Ohio, then on a short way to Clarksville, Indiana Territory. Once there, Lewis set off to meet his cocaptain. Over the next two weeks, Lewis and Clark selected the first enlisted members of the expedition. They included: Sgts. Charles Floyd and Nathaniel Pryor and Pvts. William Bratton, John Colter, Joseph and Reuben Field, George Gibson, George Shannon, and John Shields. (Colter and Shannon may have joined Lewis before he had reached Cincinnati.) These men became known as the Nine Young Men from Kentucky. Clark also decided to bring along his servant, York, a black man of exceptional size and strength.

Keelboat Replica of Lewis and Clark State Park, Onawa, Iowa (Copyright 2001, Charley Van Pelt)

The keelboat and two smaller, flat-bottom boats (called by their French name, pirogue) departed Clarksville on 26 October and arrived two weeks later at Fort Massac in southern Illinois Territory, about thirty-five miles upstream from the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Here, Lewis hired the respected Shawnee/French hunter, guide, and interpreter George Drouillard, and accepted from the post two privates: John Newman and Joseph Whitehouse. The seven soldiers from Carlisle Barracks who had been temporarily assigned to bring the keelboat down the Ohio River remained behind at Fort Massac. The party left Fort Massac on 13 November and reached the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers the next evening. The men camped there for a week, while Lewis and Clark measured both the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and Lewis taught Clark how to make celestial observations. The expedition then set out for St. Louis.

As they turned upstream into the powerful Mississippi River, Lewis and Clark immediately realized they needed more men. All three boats were badly undermanned, and the expedition seldom progressed more than a mile an hour moving upstream. On 28 November the men reached Fort Kaskaskia, some fifty miles south of St. Louis. The next day Lewis remained behind to confer on personnel matters and to requisition supplies, while Clark took the boats to Cahokia, a few miles below St. Louis. Lewis left Fort Kaskaskia on 5 December and arrived at Cahokia the next day. Following two days of talks with Spanish authorities, the party left Cahokia and reached St. Louis early on the morning of 11 December.

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