This year marks the 200th anniversary of the start of
Lewis’s & Clark’s expedition from St. Louis
to the Pacific, and there are celebrations and re-enactments
planned all along the route. The trip was a wonder –
three years and, something like 6,000 miles up the Missouri
River over the Rocky Mountains and down the Columbia to the
sea in what was more or less terra incognita. And it was all
done without communications with, or support from, the US
and the man who sent them, President Thomas Jefferson. It
is little wonder that when they arrived back in St. Louis
in September of 1806 they found they had mostly been given
up for dead. The story of how they managed the trip with the
loss of only one man has been told very well in any number
But for Lewis, just building the specially-designed 55-foot
keelboat and an iron-framed long boat that could be broken
down into a small pack and covered with skins or bark as needed,
is a good read in itself. The story will also be familiar
to anyone who has ever had grand plans for building or fixing
up a boat and making an ambitious voyage. In 1803, like today,
one has to make a very conservative estimate of the time the
preparations, shake down cruise, and voyage will take, double
them, and even then you can be sure that Murphy’s Law
will kick in a some point. For most of us, it doesn’t
matter much. But imagine poor Lewis, coping with drought and
drunken boat builders, having to explain to the President
of the United States why he is in Cincinnati in the Autumn
of 1803 and not looking for a winter camp half-way up the
To keep the story moving I have taken out many of the
administrative details, such as consideration and appointment
of personnel, and in one place an interesting but lengthy
description of the excavation of a mammoth skeleton near Cincinnati.
The letters can be found in their entirety HERE.
The photos are courtesy of builder Butch Bouvier at
L&C Replicas in St. Onawa, Iowa. More information about
his historical replicas and voyages can be found at: www.keelboat.com
One of Butch Bouvier’s full size
Lewis and Clark Expedition keelboat reproductions built in 1985,
presently on display at L&C State Park, Onawa, Iowa
Lancaster Apl. 20th 1803.
With a view to forward as much as possible the preparations
which must necessarily be made in the Western country previous
to my final departue, as also to prevent the delay, which would
attatch to their being made after my arrival in that quarter,
I have taken the following measures, which I hope will meet
your approbation; they appear to me to be as complete as my
present view of the subject will admit my making them and I
trust the result will prove as favorable as wished for…
My detention at Harper's Ferry was unavoidable
for one month, a period much greater than could reasonably have
been calculated on; my greatest difficulty was the frame of
the canoe, which could not be completed without my personal
attention to such portion of it was would enable the workmen
to understand the design perfectly; other inducements seemed
with equal force to urge my waiting the issue of a full experiment,
arising as well from a wish to incur no expence unnecessarily,
as from an unwillingness to risk any calculation on the advantages
of this canoe in which hereafter I might possibly be deceived;
experiment was necessary also to determine it's dementions:
I therefore resolved to give it a fair trial, and accordingly
prepared two sections of it with same materials, of which they
must of necessity be composed when completed for servise on
my voyage; they were of two discriptions, the one curved, or
in the shape necessary for the stem and stern, the other simicilindrical,
or in the form of those sections which constitute the body of
the canoe. The experiment and it's result wer as follow.
|Length of Keel from junction of section to commencement
|Length of curve(d section)
(Note-The curve of the body was formed by a suspended cord)
|Width of broad end
|Debth of D.D.
|Length of keel
|Debth of Hole
Weight of the Materials
|Curved Section. ... lbs
|Iron ... 22 ...
||Iron ... 22
|Hide ... 25
||Hide ... 30
|Wood ... 10
||Wood ... 12
|Bark ... 21
||Bark ... 25
|Total ... 78
||Total ... 89
Competent to a
|Burthen of 850 lbs.
||Burthen of 920 lbs.
Necessary to be transported
|Iron and Hide of Curved Section ...
|Iron and Hide of Simicilindrical Do.
||52 ... 99 lbs.
|Burthen of Curved Section ...
|Do. Do. Simicilindrical ...
|Total: 1,770 lbs.
Thus the weight of this vessel competent to the
burthen of 1,770 lbs. amount to no more than 99 lbs. The bark
and wood, when it becomes necessary to transport the vessel
to any considerable distances, may be discarded; as those articles
are reaidily obtained for the purposes of this canoe, at all
seasons of the year, and in every quarter of the country, which
is tolerably furnished with forest trees. When these sectons
were united they appeared to acquire an additional strength
and firmness, and I am confident that in cases of emergency
they would be competent to 150 lbs. more than the burthen already
stated. Altho' the weight of the articles employed in the construction
of a canoe on this plan, have considerably exceeded the estimat
I had previously made, yet they do not weigh more than those
which form a bark canoe of equal dementions, and in my opinion
is much preferable to it in many respects; it is much stronger,
will carry its burthen with equal ease, and greater security;
and when the Bark and wood are discarded, will be much higher,
and can be transported with more safety and ease. I was induced
from the result of this experiment to direct the iron frame
of the canoe to be completed.
The transcript of the figures above is hard to understand,
and I reconstructed it as best I could by going to a photo
of the letter HERE.
It is hard to picture the boat from Lewis’s description
– perhaps he and Jefferson had roughed out some plans
for it together before Lewis left Washington so he figured
Jefferson could follow. Just reading from the text of the
letter, it seemed that he was talking about a double-ended
boat about 16’ long, with a beam of 4’10”
and a depth from keel to gunwale of 2’2’’.
With a little help from my engineer wife on the geometry,
I calculated a total displacement for the boat of about 6,300
lbs. So if one figures on about 25% of that as a safe working
load, Lewis’s figure of 1,770 lbs capacity sounds just
about right. But Lewis writes in the letter that after the
success of his experiment, he directed the rest of the boat
to be constructed, and when it came time to build the boat
at the Great Falls of the Missouri, Lewis wrote “ the
iron frame of my boat is 36 feet long 4 1/2 f. in the beam
and 26 Inches in the hole….” So he must have had
one end and one body section made and tested on the Ohio River,
and then left the construction of five other sections of frame
and the other end piece to the smiths while he went to Pittsburgh
to oversee the construction of the keelboat.
At Great Falls in late June of 1805, Lewis found that
assembling the boat was not anywhere near as easy as he had
thought. Timber suitable to make thwarts was apparently in
short supply, and shooting enough elk and buffalo for the
skin covering also took longer than he thought. In the end,
Lewis wrote that it took 28 elk skins and 4 buffalo skins
to cover it. But when they had managed those things, their
problems were not over. After the skins were stitched together,
Lewis found that the holes made in the skins in the course
of sewing them enlarged as the skins dried and stretched out
and leaked. The mixture of tallow and ground charcoal didn’t
work, and there were no pines in the area from which he could
make pitch. He noted the buffalo skins worked better, but
said that as the buffalo had left the area, he had no choice
but to abandon the boat.
On the Niobrara River in the 42’
Mackinaw boat "Raycliff", similar to, though a little
larger, than the “canoes” or “perogues”
that Lewis and Clark used.
My Rifles, Tomahawks & knives are preparing
at Harper's Ferry, and are already in a state of forwardness
that leaves me little doubt of their being in readiness in due
Being fully impressed with the necessity of seting
out as early as possible, you may rest assured that not a moment
shall be lost in making the necessary preparations. I still
think it practicable to reach the mouth of the Missouri by the
1st of August. I am Sir, with much esteem and regard Your Most
Pittsburgh July 22nd 1803.
Yours of the 11th & 15th Inst. were duly
recieved, the former on the 18th inst., the latter on this day.
For my pocketbook I thank you: the dirk could not well come
by post, nor is it of any moment to me, the knives that were
made at Harper's ferry will answer my purposes equally as well
and perhaps better; it can therefore be taken care of untill
my return: the bridle is of no consequence at all. After the
reciept of this letter I think it will be best to direct to
me at Louisville, Kentuckey.
The person who contracted to build my boat engaged
to have it in readiness by the 20th inst.; in this however he
has failed; he pleads his having been disappointed in procuring
timber, but says he has now supplyed himself with the necessary
materials, and that she shall be completed by the last of this
month; however in this I am by no means sanguine, nor do I believe
from the progress he makes that she will be ready before the
5th of August; I visit him every day, and endeavour by every
means in my power to hasten the completion of the work: I have
prevailed on him to engage more hands, and he tells me that
two others will join him in the morning, if so, he may probably
finish the boat by the time he mentioned: I shall embark immediately
the boat is in readiness, there being no other consideration
which at this moment detains me.
The Waggon from Harper's ferry arrived today,
bringing every thing with which she was charged in good order.
(Rifles, powder, shot, many other odds and ends of supplies)
The party of recruits that were ordered from
Carlisle to this place with a view to descend the river with
me, have arrived with the exception of one, who deserted on
the march, his place however can be readily supplyed from the
recruits at this place enlisted by Lieut. Hook.
The current of the Ohio is extreemly low and
continues to decline, this may impede my progress but shall
not prevent my proceeding, being detemined to get forward though
I should not be able to make a greater distance than a mile
pr. day. I am with the most sincere regard Your Obt. Servt.
... Meriwether Lewis
Wheeling, September 8th 1803.
It was not until 7 O'Clock on the morning of the 31st Ultmo.
that my boat was completed, she was instantly loaded, and at
10. a.m. on the same day I left Pittsburgh, where I had been
moste shamefully detained by the unpardonable negligence of
my boat-builder. On my arrival at Pittsburgh, my calculation
was that the boat would be in readiness by the 5th of August;
this term however elapsed and the boat so far from being finished
was only partially planked on one side. In this situation I
had determined to abandon the boat, and to purchase two or three
perogues and descend the river in them, and depend on purchasing
a boat as I descended, there being none to be had at Pittsburgh;
from this resolution I was dissuaded first by the representations
of the best informed merchants at that place who assured me
that the chances were much against my being able to procure
a boat below; and secondly by the positive assureances given
me by the boat-builder that she should be ready on the last
of the then ensuing week, (the 13th): however a few days after,
according to his usual custom he got drunk, quarrelled with
his workmen, and several of them left him, nor could they be
prevailed on to return: I threatened him with the penalty of
his contract, and exacted a promise of greater sobriety in future
which, he took care to perform with as little good faith, as
he had his previous promises with regard to the boat, continuing
to be constantly either drunk or sick. I spent most of my time
with the workmen, alternately presuading and threatening, but
neither threats, presuasion or any other means which I could
devise were sufficient to procure the completion of the work
sooner than the 31st of August; by which time the water was
so low that those who pretended to be acquainted with the navigation
of the river declared it impracticable to descend it; however
in conformity to my previous determination I set out, having
taken the precaution to send a part of by baggage by a waggon
to this place, and also to procure a good pilot. My days journey
have averaged about 12 miles, but in some instances, with every
exertion I could make was unable to exceed 41/2 & 5 miles
pr. day. This place is one hundred miles distant from Pittsburgh
by way of the river and about sixty five by land.
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 quntities of driftwood; 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 emty
boat, without geting into the water and lifting her over by
hand; over others 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 neighbouring farms and drag her over
them; in this way I have passed as many as five of those bars,
(or as they are here called riffles) in a day, and to unload
as many ore more time. The river is lower than it has ever been
known by the oldest settle in this country. I shall leave this
place tomorrow morning, and loose no time in geting on.
I have been compelled to purchase a perogue at
this place in order to transport the baggage which was sent
by land from Pittsburgh, and also to lighten the boat as much
as possible. On many bars the water in the deepest part dose
not exceed six inches. I have the honour to be with the most
perfect regard and sincere attatchment Your Obt. Servt. ...
Meriwether Lewis, Capt.
The "Raycliff" is cordelled
up the Missouri.
On board my boat opposite Marietta
September 13th 1803.
I arrived here at 7. p.m. and shall pursue my journey early
tomorrow. This place is one hundred miles distant from Wheeling,
from whence in descending the water is reather more abundant
than it is between that place and Pittsburgh, insomuch that
I have been enabled to get on without the necessity employing
oxen or horses to drag my boat over the ripples except in two
instances; tho' I was obliged to cut a passage through four
or five bars, and by that means past them; this last operation
is much more readily performed that you would imagin; the gravel
of which many of these bars are formed, being small and lying
in a loose state is readily removed with a spade, or even with
a wooden shovel and when set in motion the current drives it
a considerable distance before it subsides or again settles
at the bottom; in this manner I have cut a passage for my boat
of 50 yards in length in the course of an hour; this method
however is impracticable when driftwood or clay in any quantity
is intermixed with the gravel; in such cases Horses or oxen
are the last resort: I find them the most efficient sailors
in the present state of the navigation of this river, altho'
they may be considered somewhat clumsey. I have the honour to
be with much respect Your Obt. Servt.
... Meriwether Lewis, Capt.
... 1st U.S. Regt. Infty.
||Polling up the Missouri.
Cincinnati, October 3rd 1803.
I reached this place on the 28th Ult.; it being necessary to
take in a further supply of provisions here, and finding my
men much fatiegued with the labour to which they have been subjected
in descending the river, I determined to recruit them by giving
them a short respite of a few days, having now obtained the
distance of five hundred miles. On the evening of the 1st inst.
I again dispatched my boat with orders to meet me at the Big
Bone lick, to which place I shall pass by land, it being distant
from hence only seventeen miles while by water it is fifty three,
a distance that will require my boat in the present state of
the water near three days to attain.
The late reserches of Dr. William Goforth of this plase at that
Lick has made it a place of more interesting enquiry than formerly,
I shall therefore seize the present moment to visit it, and
set out early tomorrow morning for that purpose.
(I have removed here an interesting but
very lengthy description of excavating mammoth bones and teeth
from Big Bone salt lick near Cincinnati.)
So soon Sir, as you deem it expedient to promulge
the late treaty, between the United States and France I would
be much obliged by your directing an official copy of it to
be furnished me, as I think it probable that the present inhabitants
of Lousiana, from such an evidence of their having become the
Citizens of the United States, would feel it their interest
and would more readily yeald any information of which, they
may be possessed relative to the country than they would be
disposed to do, while there is any doubt remaining on that subject.
As this Session of Congress has commenced earlyer
than usual, and as from a variety of incidental circumstances
my progress has been unexpectedly delayed, and feeling as I
do in the most anxious manner a wish to keep them in good humour
on the subject of the expedicion in which I am engaged, I have
concluded to make a tour this winter on horseback of some hundred
miles through the most interesting portion of the country adjoining
my winter establishment; perhaps it may be up the Canceze River
and towards Santafee, at all events it will bee on the South
side of the Missouri. Should I find that Mr. Clark can with
propiety also leave the party, I will prevail on him also to
undertake a similar excurtion through some other portion of
the country: by this means I hope and am pursuaded that by the
middle of February or 1st of March I shall be enabled to procure
and forward to you such information relative to that Country,
which, if it dose not produce a conviction of the utility of
this project, will at least procure the further toleration of
It will be better to forward all letters and
papers for me in future to Cahokia.
The water still continues lower in the Ohio that
it was ever known. I am with every sentiment of gratitude and
respect Your Obt. Servt.
... Meriwether Lewis. Capt.
... lst. U.S. Regt. Infty.