The Lewis and Clark Expedition – On the Ohio River

Celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the historic journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean and establish an American presence west of the Mississippi River generated renewed public interest in the expedition.  This renewed interest in the legacy of the Lewis and Clark expedition has also spurred much discussion over the actual starting place for the journey. Most historical accounts have the trek beginning May 14, 1804 from Wood River, Illinois at the mouth of the Missouri River at its confluence with the Mississippi, since this was where the expedition entered uncharted territory, including the National Park Service who has catalogued more than 60 sites for the 3700-mile long Lewis and Clark Historic Trail (www.nps.gov/hafe/lewis/).

However, since 2003 has been designated as the official bicentennial of the expedition, it is commonly accepted that the journey officially began in Pittsburgh on August 31, 1803 and that the events that took place in the nine months preceding the departure from Wood River, IL were crucial to the eventual success of the undertaking. Others state that Louisville, KY was the official starting point for the expeditions as this is where Clark joined the expedition on October 14, 1803.

As little is written about the Ohio River portion of the journey we here provide a brief summary of some of the major events that took place during the fall of 1803 between Pittsburgh and the Mississippi River. The following information was gleaned from Gary Moulton's The Journals of Lewis and Clark Expedition, Volume 2, (1986 Lincoln and London), and various other publications that document the numerous letters written by Meriwether Lewis to President Thomas Jefferson.

Lewis left Pittsburgh on August 31, 1803 with his crew of eleven men hoping to paddle and sail with the wind and the current down the Ohio river but on the first day and most every day there after, until they reached Cincinnati, they found themselves pushing, pulling, lifting and dragging the specially-designed 55 foot keel boat over the numerous sand bars, rocks and driftwood.

Rivermen in Pittsburgh advised the 29-year-old Lewis that the Ohio was far too low for him to start his journey on August 31 and suggested he wait until the "general rise" which usually occurred in October. Lewis was already frustrated by the delay in the boat construction, which was to have been completed by the 20th of July. After 6 weeks of persuading and threatening the boat builder, who according to Lewis was a drunkard, he was in no mood to delay his trip further.

On September 8th, the expedition had reached Wheeling where Lewis wrote the first of his many letters to President Thomas Jefferson,

"I set out (Aug. 31st) having taken the precaution to send a part of my baggage by a wagon to this place, and also to procure a good pilot. My days journeys have averaged about 12 miles, but in some instances, with every exertion I could make was unable to exceed 4 ½ & 5 miles per day….. When the Ohio is in it's present state there are many obstructions to it's navigation, formed by bars of small stones, which in some instances are intermixed with and partially cover large quantities of drift-wood; these bars frequently extend themselves entirely across the bed of the river, over many of them I found it impossible to pass even with my empty boat, without getting into the water and lifting her over by hand; over other my force was even inadequate to enable me to pass in this manner, and I found myself compelled to hire horses or oxen from the neighboring farms and drag her over them; in this way I have passed as many a five of these bars, (or as they are here called riffles) in a day, and to unload as many or more time. The river is lower than it has ever been known by the oldest settler in this country. I shall leave this place tomorrow morning and loose no time in getting on."

During this initial week of the journey, morning departure was often delayed due to dense fog. On September 3rd Lewis took his first temperature readings noting that the air temperature that morning was 63° Fahrenheit whereas the water temperature was 75°. Lewis discovered that cold air moving down the valley sides and passing across the warm water of the Ohio River in a situation known as "cold air drainage" resulted in fog and heavy dew. These reflections by Lewis on fog and dew caused him to begin taking regular air and water temperature readings throughout the trip creating a valuable meteorological record.

In Wheeling, Lewis purchased a "pirogue" or dug-out canoe and hired a man to operate it to carry the cargo sent by wagon from Pittsburgh in order to keep the keel- boat as light as possible. Wheeling was a common starting point for many traveling the Ohio River, as it gained more depth and was easier to navigate below this point. It took the crew another four full days to make the trip from Wheeling to Marietta taking time to stop and inspect the Indian burial mound on the east side of the Ohio River, 12 miles below Wheeling. Lewis noted that the mound was 310 yards in circumference at its base and 65 feet in height with a blunt point whose diameter was 30 feet. Lewis estimated the age of the mound to be 300 years based on the 13-½ foot girth of the white oak tree growing at its summit. Today this mound is known as Grave Creek Mound, at Moundsville, Marshall County, West Virginia, and it is considered to be the largest conical tumulus in the Ohio Valley, similar to those of the Adena culture of the area. Based on anthropological data the mound is considered to be pre-Hopewellian in origin and is estimated to date from 100 B.C.

On September 11th Lewis made the first of many natural history observations in his journal. He noted that numbers of squirrels were swimming across the Ohio from west to east and assumed they were headed south for a better climate as he observed that, "except for the beech nut which was scarce that year, there was an abundance of walnuts and Hickory nuts on both sides of the river." Lewis also noted in his journal,

"I made my dog take as many each day as I had occasion for, they were fat and I thought them, when fried a pleasant food – many of these squirrels were black, they swim very light on the water and make pretty good speed – my dog was of the Newfoundland breed very active, strong and docile, he would take the squirrel in the water, kill them and swimming bring them in his mouth to the boat."

These would have been gray squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis; and such migrations are rare today as the squirrel population is much reduced. Apart from two brief lists of trees and fish, this is the first of many natural history observations in Lewis's journals. His interest in plants and animals, which he shared with Jefferson, started from childhood. His command of technical terms, especially in his botanical descriptions, was impressive, but he seldom used the Linnaean system of Latin names for species, nor did he attempt to bestow such names on the many new species observed during the expedition. Lewis carried several reference works with him that assisted him in writing his descriptions. These included Benjamin Smith Barton's Elements of Botany; or, Outlines of the Natural History of Vegetables (Philadelphia, 1803); Jon Miller, An Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus, Vol. 1 London, 1779); and Miller's An Illustration of the Termini Botanici of Linnaeus, Vol. 2 (London, 1789)

This first book to chronicle the Lewis & Clark expedition, History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, was not published until 1814, five years after Lewis's death from gunshot wounds by his own hand. After Lewis's death, Clark commissioned Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia to write the history of the expedition from the original journals, which concentrated on the journey itself and contained much information about the native peoples encountered. However, despite the impressive and copious notes taken by Lewis on natural history no publications of the scientific portion of the history of the journey was published until 1893 when Elliot Coues published an edited version of Biddle's History identifying many of the plants and animals mentioned in the journals and locating many geographical points.

On September 14th after spending the night in Marietta, Lewis noted in his journal that he had been informed of instances of goiter in the neighborhood and came across two women who were living by the river that had contracted the disease since taking up residence on the banks of the Ohio. Goiter, fever, ague and bilious were all contemporary names for malaria, which was endemic in the Ohio, Mississippi and lower Missouri valleys at the time. Lewis reported contracting the disease himself on November 13, 1803.

The trek from Marietta to Cincinnati required two full weeks of backbreaking travel, the monotony of which apparently had its affect on Lewis. On September 18th Lewis noted in his journal that they descended the rapids at Letart Falls in Meigs County, Ohio. He did not make another journal entry until November 11, 1803 when the expedition reached Fort Massac, which sits on a promontory overlooking the Ohio River just above Metropolis, IL, approximately 30 miles east of where the Ohio meets the Mississippi. From subsequent letters Lewis wrote to President Jefferson we know that he reached Cincinnati on September 28th and spent nearly a week. He visited Big Bone Lick where he collected 300 mastodon and mammoth bones to be sent to Thomas Jefferson and reached Louisville, KY, on October 14th where he joined with Clark.

On October 24th, Lewis and Clark hired a pilot to navigate the keelboat and red pirogue through the Falls of the Ohio to Clarksville, IN. From the 14th until that time the captains enlisted the nucleus of the crew who would make the journey with them to the Pacific Ocean. This crew came to be known as the Corps of Discovery.

The party left Clarksville in October 26th and made their way down the Ohio to Fort Massac where they recruited a few more men went on to the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers where they spent a week before heading up the Mississippi to Wood River, IL at the mouth of the Missouri river, arriving on December 12, 1803. It was here where the expedition would spend the winter in Camp Dubois and launch their journey of discovery on May 14, 1804.

Also of interest: