“…When descending the Ohio (River) it shall be my duty by enquiry to find out and engage some good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried men, accustomed to the woods, and capable of bearing bodily fatigue in a pretty considerable degree: should any young men answering this discription be found in your neighborhood I would thank you to give information of them on my arivall at the falls of the Ohio. …”
So wrote Meriwether Lewis on June 19, 1803, in the invitation to William Clark to join him in an expedition to the “Western Ocean.” Clark, who’d lived in Kentucky for nearly 20 years, said yes, and word of the expedition spread throughout Louisville and the frontier. Gentlemen’s sons volunteered. Frontiersmen volunteered.
It would be “an undertaking fraited with many difeculties,” Clark noted in his reply to Lewis. Still, for Clark and others of that time, it meant opportunity. And one did not survive in the wilds of Kentucky, or anywhere in this wilderness, without looking out for opportunities.
“The invitation arrived at the perfect time,” says Filson Historical Society Curator of Special Collections James J. Holmberg, whose extensive research on William Clark’s Dear Brother letters to Clark’s brother, Jonathan, has shed new light on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
At the time of the invitation for the expedition, William Clark was living with his older brother, George Rogers Clark, in a cabin at Point of Rocks at the foot of the Falls of the Ohio, just downstream from Louisville. Some 20 years before, George had been Thomas Jefferson’s choice to head a similar expedition, but the plan fell through, and the territory west of the United States remained largely unmapped.
If William Clark had been involved in a business enterprise of his own, the prospect of going into the wilderness might not have seemed so appealing. But at age 32, resigned from the Army, and broke from trying to rectify his brother’s financial records and war debts, Clark saw the expedition as a chance to put himself on the path of success and to achieve the heroic status that had become a Clark family tradition with the Revolutionary War where his five older brothers served.
William Clark’s July 18, 1803, acceptance of Lewis’ invitation included a note that future correspondence be sent to Louisville. From then on, establishing himself in Louisville where resources and men were, Clark began preparing for the expedition and putting his affairs in order for the expedition that would reunite Lewis and Clark who, about eight years before, had served in a company of elite Army riflemen-sharpshooters commanded by Clark.
Back east and up river, Lewis was gathering supplies and know-how crucial for the journey. In the president’s house in Washington and perhaps at Monticello, he read from President Thomas Jefferson’s extensive library and took botany lessons from Jefferson, whose idea it was for the expedition. In Philadelphia, Lewis studied with the leading scientists of the day. At the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, he ordered arms, ammunition, and an iron frame boat. In Pittsburgh (a town of 2,400 in 1800), he ordered the building of a keelboat that turned out to be 55 feet in length with an 8-foot beam, a 32-foot mast, a shallow draft, and a hold that was 31 feet long.
On August 31, 1803, Lewis and a temporary crew of 11 left Pittsburgh on the Ohio River and sailed for Louisville and the Falls of the Ohio. No sooner had the keelboat started out than they began to have trouble navigating the river. The small canoes that accompanied the keelboat began leaking. Fog also plagued and delayed this early leg of the trip.
The Ohio River in 1803 was the shallowest that old-timers of the day had ever seen it. “Pittsburgh to almost Cincinnati was where they had their most difficulties with low water conditions,” says U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Louisville District historian Chuck Parrish. The keelboat had to be unloaded to lighten its weight. Farmers came to the rescue with oxen and horses to help the keelboat through the low water and sandbars, points out history buff Paul Cissell of Paducah. Lewis remarked in his journal how the farmers charged too much for this assistance, some charging $1.
Clark spent the summer awaiting Lewis and preparing for the journey. One such task was recruiting volunteers to be considered for the permanent corps.
On September 3, 1803, Clark signed his power of attorney over to his brother, Jonathan, 20 years his senior and a former lieutenant colonel in the Revolutionary War. Louisville at the time, with a population of 350 to 400 people, was “The West.”
Heading with the boats and equipment to meet Clark, Lewis recorded various stops and observations. For instance, on September 8, he purchased the red pirogue (canoe) at Wheeling, West Virginia, which later would navigate the Missouri River. Exactly when Lewis and the crew reached the Kentucky-Ohio corridor isn’t known, as there is a gap in Lewis’ journal until November 11, 1803.
Kentuckian John Colter, recruited by Lewis, may have come aboard in Maysville some time after September 18. The party landed in Cincinnati on September 28 where they stayed through October 3 while the crew rested; Lewis took on more supplies and did archeological work for Jefferson at several sites, including Big Bone Lick in northern Kentucky.
The next day, the group sailed to Big Bone Lick, and Lewis, staying behind, met them there. The group stayed from October 4-8, 1803. “Kentucky has about 660 miles of the eastern portion of the 1803 Lewis and Clark Trail—its entire border with the Ohio River,” points out Holmberg, also chair of the Kentucky Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission. “This gives Kentucky the longest section of the trail in the east and one of the longest overall, taken together with the 400-mile return route.” Many communities, like Ashland, weren’t yet founded, but settlers on farms and in cabins surely witnessed the sight of the keelboat on the river. It would not have been such an extraordinary sight, re-enactor Peter Geery guesses, because settlers were accustomed to seeing barges of supplies on the river.
On October 14, 1803, Meriwether Lewis arrived at Louisville and was greeted by William Clark. That this initial face-to-face meeting for the expedition took place on Kentucky soil has been overlooked as national sources touted Clarksville as the initial meeting place. James Holmberg looked to the documents and letters of the day, but also to the river to redress this major inaccuracy. A 1975 National Park Service book lists Clarksville as the initial meeting place. Historian Stephen Ambrose, now deceased, reiterated this in his Undaunted Courage in 1996: “Safely through (the Falls of the Ohio), Lewis tied up at Clarksville and set off to meet his partner, who was living with his older brother, General George Rogers Clark…When they shook hands, the Lewis and Clark Expedition began.”
But if you consider the river 200 years ago with Louisville at the head of the Falls and Clarksville at the foot, with a drop of about 26 feet in two-and-one-fourth miles and plenty of rapids, riffles, and rock outcroppings, would Clark have expected Lewis and the temporary crew to secure a river pilot and navigate the Falls with the keelboat and red pirogue, while Clark sat in his brother’s cabin awaiting Lewis’ arrival? Not likely. “We can rest assured that Clark would have been waiting for Lewis in Louisville where they state in letters they will meet,” Holmberg points out.
The Kentucky Gazette reported on November 1—with a Louisville, October 15 dateline—that Lewis’ arrival was at “this port” on October 14. Holmberg has used letters and a journal written by Thomas Rodney to help establish the timeline of this part of the trip.
Rodney’s journal entry, dated October 17, 1803, indicates that Lewis and Clark visited him on his boat, tied up at Louisville in the evening, and took a glass of wine with him.
One man, York—an enslaved African-American willed to William Clark in 1799—became a member of the Corps of Discovery without the requisite Army enlistment. “York was the only member of the team that did not volunteer, and the only one (except for John Shields) not to meet the strict requirement that there be no wife and children left behind that might mourn and be lost if a man did not return from this dangerous and unknown mission,” points out Hasan Davis, a former Kentucky Humanities Council Chautauqua Living History performer, who still portrays York across the nation.
“York had a wife (and perhaps children) but since he was only a slave there was no concern for who might miss his passing. And although his name never appeared on the rolls of the expedition, it has been made clear that he was prepared to die to see the orders of the president carried out,” says Davis.
The day of departure on October 26, 1803, Clark and perhaps Lewis were in both Louisville and Clarksville. One errand was Clark’s trip to the Jefferson County Courthouse to acknowledge the assignment of his September 3 power of attorney. Evidence in letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts demonstrate how intertwined Louisville and Clarksville are in the Lewis and Clark saga and what appropriate bookends they are for the Falls of the Ohio, the landmark that describes the whole area, Holmberg says. Jonathan Clark’s diary pinpoints the historic departure of the corps: “Capt. Lewis and Capt. Wm. Clark sot (set) of(f) on a Western tour —went in their boat to Mr. Temple’s (a farm along the Ohio River in the area of today’s Lake Dreamland neighborhood in western Louisville).”
While time has altered the river and landscape, you can still stand on the bluff where the Clark cabin used to be (now an 1830s period cabin is there). The boats for the expedition were most likely tied down by Mill Creek on the Clarksville side of the river. “I wish I could have seen it,” says cabin tour guide Tom Chapman.
Mill Creek is much narrower today than it would have been 200 years ago. “The keelboat likely could have nudged into the mouth of the creek and made it a little easier for boarding and loading of supplies,” historian Chuck Parrish surmises.
Today, it is much safer to take a tour of the cabin than to brave the sloping, swampy, uninhabited place where the Ohio River and Mill Creek meet, but looking down the slope from Emery Crossing Road, it is tempting to imagine October 26, as Lewis and Clark and the men said their final goodbyes and set off down the river.
The party stopped the next day at a Kentucky settlement below Louisville. The location is believed to be West Point, Kentucky, where expedition blacksmith/gunsmith John Shields lived. Moving on, the group continued along the Ohio River. The Lewisport and Owensboro areas have been listed as possible stopping points, but that’s more conjecture than fact.
Whether the party stopped in the newly founded town of Henderson is also unknown, but General Samuel Hopkins, a Clark associate, lived there. “We like to assume that he would have stopped to see his good friend,” says Henderson County Tourist Commission Executive Director Marcia Eblen, reiterating that the explorers had no idea if they would ever return from this trip.
In the 1800s, stopping along the river to talk with people was a way of gaining information. This gossip, as it was then called, was a positive thing. Travelers also shared information with settlers and farmers along the way.
“This was a story of the Army, not mountain men who ran into the wilderness to see what’s out there,” Peter Geery points out. Lewis designed the uniform that the corps members wore. Uniforms were made of super-fine milled drab cloth that cost $7 a yard, but what color was drab cloth, Geery wonders. Details like the color and cut of the coats never got mentioned in the expedition journals as more important details vied for time and attention.
The explorers reached what is now modern-day Paducah on November 11, 1803, about 8:30 a.m. Unknown to William Clark at the time, he would return to this area and found a city here in 1827, naming it after the Padouca Indian Nation.
Next, the corps stopped at Fort Massac (now in present-day Illinois). More men (the exact number unknown) were recruited, and after the corps left the fort on November 13, 1803, they camped on the southeast shore in Kentucky’s McCracken County.
The next day, they reached the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Their first stab at calculating latitude and longitude occurred near present-day Cairo, Illinois.
On November 18, 1803, the captains and eight men visited the site of abandoned Fort Jefferson on the east bank of the Ohio River in present-day Ballard County, Kentucky. “I was at old fort Jefferson, it is entirly grown up with Trees_ Opposit the mouth of the Ohio on the west Side of the Mississippi a Small Settlement is formed of four or five Americans, we met with a great many Showonee Indians, and traded with them for different kinds of wild meets, Such as Biar, Vensions, Ducs, Tongues, and Beaver Tales,” William Clark wrote in one of the letters discovered in Louisville in 1988 and detailed in Dear Brother by James Holmberg.
Lewis and Clark and crew left the Ohio River area on November 20, 1803, and spent the winter at Camp River DuBois near Wood River, Illinois. Here, the “Nine Young Men from Kentucky,” as Clark later described them, joined additional recruits and became a unified working corps of soldiers. The Corps of Discovery was finally ready to begin Jefferson’s mission. It is believed that as many as half the members of the expedition were Kentuckians or had Kentucky connections, says Holmberg, who is also founding president of the Falls of the Ohio Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Committee.
Besides the nine Kentucky recruits, five of the soldiers who joined at Massac on the lower Ohio and Kaskaskia on the Mississippi are believed to have been Kentuckians. And of course at the time, Clark and York were Kentuckians.
On May 14, 1804, the corps, led by Clark, started up the Missouri; on May 22 Lewis, tending to details in St. Louis, rejoined the group in St. Charles, and they pushed onward in the journey to find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. Wrote Sgt. John Ordway to his parents before the departure: “... I am So happy as to be one of them pick’d Men from the armey. ... We expect to be gone 18 months or two years. We are to Receive 15 dollars pr. month and at least 400 ackers of first Rate land, and if we make Great Discoveries as we expect, the united States, has promised to make us Great Rewards more than we are promised, &c.”
In November 1805, the Corps of Discovery finally reached the Pacific Ocean. “Ocian 4142 Miles from the Mouth of MissouriR,” Clark calculated. The 33 members of the permanent party had reached their main destination at last. But now with winter upon them, this news (and the facts of the discovery) would have to wait. The corps built Fort Clatsop, Oregon, and wintered there until beginning the trek home on March 23, 1806.
Re-measurings in later years have shown that Clark’s calculation of 4,142 miles was off by only 40 miles or so, an awesome feat considering the tools of the day.
The Return Trip
When the corps’ canoes paddled into La Charette (near present-day Marthasville, Missouri) on September 20, 1806, residents of this village were surprised as the expedition was considered long lost. Word quickly spread along the river, and by the time the Corps of Discovery arrived in St. Louis, the townspeople were there to greet them. “We arrived at this place at 12 oClock today from the Pacific Ocian ...” says the priceless September 23, 1806, letter, today a part of the Filson Historical Society’s outstanding Lewis and Clark collection.
Packed in one boat were new maps of the American west that Clark had drawn from the expedition’s measurings, during the long winter at Fort Clatsop. Sadly, the corps had learned, there was no direct Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean, but rather a winding artery along rivers, cliffs, plains, and mountains—the Rockies—unlike anything Americans had seen in the east.
As the buckskin-clad corps celebrated their St. Louis arrival, they were minus two Kentucky members. Sgt. Charles Floyd died early in the expedition in August 1804 of what is now considered a ruptured appendix. Despite the brutal demands of land portages and raging waters, food shortages, mountains and weather, and encounters with those who didn’t want the mission to succeed, Floyd was the only corps member to die on the expedition. Private Colter missed the St. Louis arrival as he was given permission to return to the Yellowstone River country and Rocky Mountains to trap and trade for furs.
On October 9, 1806, the first detailed printed account of the return of the expedition—a letter to Jonathan Clark that both Lewis and William Clark had collaborated on—appeared in Kentucky’s Frankfort Palladium and was reprinted in newspapers across the country and abroad. “We congratulate the public at large and the particular friends of Messrs. Lewis and Clark and their enterprising companions, on the happy termination of an expedition, which will, doubtless, be productive of incalculable commercial advantages…” the Palladium said. On October 10, members of the Corps of Discovery were honorably discharged at St. Louis.
Lewis and Clark and the remaining group, including two delegations of Indians, took the southern route back to Louisville. They are believed to have crossed into Kentucky at Lusk Ferry near present-day Golconda, Illinois, and came up through the counties bordering the south side of the Ohio River. “Most of these men were trying to get home and wanted some comforts,” says Jim Mallory of Lexington, past president of the Ohio River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. “They followed the easiest route and traveled existing roads on the way home and to Washington.” Imagine the reunion, the excitement and embracing, when the party arrived in Louisville on November 5, 1806.
Sources indicate that the captains made Jonathan Clark’s home, Trough Spring, near Louisville their base, says Holmberg. (Just four years before, William Clark had overseen the building of this house for his brother. The house is still standing, but is privately owned and has undergone extensive changes.) How Lewis and Clark spent this first day back in Louisville is not entirely known, but Clark did go to the store of Fitzhugh and Rose in Louisville that day and later that week.
Major William Croghan and his wife Lucy (William Clark’s sister) hosted a family gathering and welcome-home celebration at their Locust Grove estate in Louisville on November 8, 1806. Lewis and Clark attended, and today the 213-year-old Historic Locust Grove is considered the only verifiable remaining structure west of the Appalachians where both captains visited. Jonathan Clark mentions the event in his diary, but no details on the feast.
Needing to get back to Washington to report on the expedition, Lewis said farewell around November 11, 1806, as he, some of the crew, and the Indian delegations headed through Frankfort, and then on to Washington. Two overland routes were taken, one more eastward through Lexington and the other through the Cumberland Gap and then down Virginia’s Great Valley, Holmberg points out. About a month later, William Clark, probably accompanied by York, headed overland, via the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap, into Virginia and the east.
KENTUCKY'S BICENTENNIAL: A COMMEMORATION FIT FOR HEROES
So you always hated history in school? Or wished you lived out west where the real action took place? Wait, what’s that keelboat floating down the Ohio River, and the smaller red boat near it? The flag at the keelboat’s mast looks different—15 stars, 15 stripes. A real “star-spangled banner” where the 15th star and stripe represent Kentucky’s 1792 entry into the Union.
This fall, Kentucky will observe the start of the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The eyes of Lewis and Clark enthusiasts will be focused on Kentucky and Clarksville, Indiana, as the Falls of the Ohio region hosts one of only 15 National Signature Events in the four-year nationwide bicentennial commemoration.
The Falls of the Ohio Bicentennial Commemoration, at Louisville and Clarksville, Indiana, October 14-26, pinpoints Kentucky’s place on Lewis and Clark’s route to the Pacific. This National Signature Event commemorates the October 14, 1803, meeting of Lewis and Clark on the waterfront in Louisville, and their historic departure from Clarksville 13 days later.
The Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, Missouri, is a commemoration fit for heroes in more ways than one. What a sight to behold as re-enactors sail down the Ohio River into Louisville and Clarksville on their keelboat and red pirogue (canoe). In fact, from September through November there will be two- and three-day visits by the re-enactors to Kentucky communities all along the original Lewis and Clark route: Vanceburg, September 22; Maysville, September 23-24; Augusta, September 24-25; Covington, September 29-October 3; Union/Big Bone Lick State Park, October 4-6; Warsaw, October 8-9; Carrollton, October 9-11; West Point, October 27-28; Stevensport, October 31-November 2; Owensboro, November 2-3; Henderson, November 5-7; and Paducah, November 10-12.
A Shawnee village, reconstructed by the Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band, will also be at the Falls of the Ohio’s George Rogers Clark home site. Visits to the cabin and Shawnee village and Louisville’s Locust Grove will enable you to imagine the various worlds William Clark knew in his lifetime.
Other ways to learn the Lewis and Clark story is to see the National Park Service’s “Corps of Discovery II: 200 Years to the Future” traveling exhibition and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Exhibit Barge that will visit Kentucky towns this year: Ashland, September 13-17; Maysville, October 3-8; Louisville, October 14-19; Clarksville, Indiana, October 23-28; Henderson, November 2-6; and Paducah, November 11-16.
You’ll also want to visit the Filson Historical Society’s exhibit, “Lewis and Clark: The Exploration of the American West,” at Filson on Main in Louisville, ongoing now through 2004.
As the expedition’s historic departure from the Falls is re-enacted on October 26, 2003, the gentleman in the Captain of the Artillery uniform of 1800-1803 and formal “hat of arms” will be the real sixth-generation grandson of William Clark, Charles Clark.
Gracious and soft-spoken, Charles Clark lives in St. Louis where his famous ancestor settled in 1808. “I’m quite honored by the attention shown to our family.”
A member of the 268-member Discovery Expedition of St. Charles re-enactors, he has been portraying Capt. Clark for about 10 years. It’s ironic that Charles, like his ancestor, works for the government, Charles paying bills for the Army at the Department of Defense’s Defense, Finance and Accounting Service. There’s another irony here. William Clark’s brother, George Rogers Clark, never got paid for the debts he incurred on behalf of his military campaigns. Charles Clark good-naturedly quips, “You still owe us,” but acknowledges that too much time has passed.
The heroes of the expedition are many: the two namesake Army captains, York (Clark’s slave), Sacagawea (the Shoshone woman who later joined the expedition party), and nearly three dozen men who risked their lives to map a path to the Pacific Ocean. But this story also has its share of modern-day heroes and volunteers, because without them, there likely would be no commemoration here.
For years, the role that Kentucky and the east played in the Lewis and Clark journey—the Eastern Legacy as it is now called—just wasn’t part of the picture.
“This bicentennial has given us an avenue to set the record straight,” says Dani Cummins, president of the Falls of the Ohio Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Committee.
LEWIS & CLARK WEB SITES
National Lewis and Clark Info and Signature Events
Falls of Ohio Bicentennial Commemoration in Kentucky
The Filson Historical Society
MORE ON LEWIS AND CLARK
For an extensive list of Lewis and Clark events in Kentucky, books for adults and children, insight into the Lewis and Clark Dear Brother letters, and the work to extend the Eastern Legacy trail, just click one of the following:
Lewis & Clark Events
The Lives Behind the Lewis & Clark Letters
The Discovery of the "Dear Brother" Letters
Additional Insight from the Lewis & Clark Letters
Lewis & Clark Sources