Lewis and Clark at Camp River Dubois
John J. Dunphy
The River Bend is the acknowledged point of departure for one of the most famous expeditions in world history: Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. President Thomas Jefferson charged Meriwether Lewis to discover the Northwest Passage — a waterway that stretched to the Pacific Ocean — and to explore that great expanse of land known as the Louisiana Purchase. Lewis, a U.S. Army lieutenant who was promoted to the rank of captain for this task, asked William Clark, a former soldier with whom he had served, to command the expedition with him.
After recruiting Army volunteers for this dangerous undertaking, Lewis selected a site on 400 acres of land owned by Nicholas Jarrot, a wealthy fur trader who lived in Cahokia, that would serve as a winter camp for the Corps. Camp was established in December of 1803 at the mouth of a small river called Dubois — in English, the Wood River. At that time, the mouth of the Dubois was opposite the mouth of the Missouri River. The site became the Corps of Discovery’s Camp River Dubois.
Lewis spent time in Cahokia and St. Louis, where he gathered maps as well as all available information about the territory the Corps of Discovery would enter in the spring of 1804. Clark remained at Camp River Dubois to prepare for the journey.
Clark organized the recruits into groups with specific daily duties such as blacksmithing, preparing the boats and gathering supplies for the upcoming journey. Firewood had to be hauled into camp on sleds constructed by Private Patrick Gass, who was a carpenter. Sergeant John Ordway took charge of the camp during the absence of both Lewis and Clark.
A hunting party left Camp River Dubois daily to keep the men supplied with fresh meat. The volunteers of the Corps of Discovery enjoyed a steady diet of deer, badger, wildcat, turkey, wild hog and other game. This high-protein diet was supplemented by area residents, who brought butter and vegetables to Camp River Dubois as gifts or items for barter.
Lewis and Clark knew that the journey west would be fraught with danger. The volunteers were drilled daily in rifle marksmanship and sometimes held shooting competitions with neighboring residents.
The months at Camp River Dubois were also used to modify the keelboat that would take the Corps west. Clark had lockers placed along the sides of the boat. The lids of the lockers could be raised to form a breastwork for defense. When the lids were down, they provided catwalks for men with poles pushing the boat. Clark also had eleven three-foot benches built for the oarsmen.
The bow of the keelboat had a small cannon mounted on a swivel. This “swivel gun” could fire a one-pound lead ball or sixteen musket balls. Clark had Lewis acquire four blunderbusses — heavy shotguns that fired buckshot — to provide additional firepower. Lewis acquired the blunderbusses in St. Louis and had two mounted on swivels at the keelboat’s stern.
The other two blunderbusses were placed on swivels in the two pirogues that would also be used for traversing the waterways. These pirogues were essentially smaller versions of the keelboat. One had seven oars, the other only six.
Despite the many tasks that had to be performed, the rambunctious young men at Camp River Dubois still found time to engage in infractions of military discipline. In a brief note dated January 6, 1804, Clark mentioned disciplining men who fought, became drunk and neglected their duties. He punished the men by ordering them to build a hut for a local woman who had promised to do their washing and sewing.
Detachment orders, written by Lewis and dated March 3, 1804, deplore the behavior of privates Reuben Field and John Shields, who failed to obey the orders of Sergeant Ordway when both commanders were away from camp. Lewis also reprimanded Privates John Colter, John Boley, Peter Weiser and John Robinson who had left Camp River Dubois under the pretext of hunting, when they had actually visited neighboring whiskey shops.
One might conclude from this episode that Lewis and Clark disapproved of drinking and would have preferred volunteers who were teetotalers. Not at all!
The commanders gave their volunteers a gill (four ounces) of whiskey as a reward for good conduct and work well done. Winners of marksmanship competitions were also awarded a gill of whiskey. Colter, Boley, Weiser and Robinson were disciplined for neglecting their duties, not for alcohol consumption per se.
While life for the volunteers at Camp River Dubois probably alternated between boredom and rowdiness, there is no reason to believe that it was particularly dangerous. For decades, there has been a myth in the River Bend that at least two members of the Corps of Discovery died during the winter of 1803–1804 and were buried in what is now the Milton Cemetery in Alton.
Articles in The [Alton, IL] Telegraph and Wood River [IL] Journal during the 1950s allude to this belief. It was also referred to in W.D. Armstrong’s A Condensed History of Madison County (Alton, Illinois: National Printing Company, circa 1925) as well as George Thomas Palmer’s Historic Landmarks Along the Highways of Illinois (Illinois State Historical Transactions, Publication 39; 1932). Palmer attributed the deaths to bilious fever.
Scholars believe this notion must be consigned to the realm of folklore. There is no mention of a single death at Camp River Dubois in Clark’s field notes, and it is difficult to believe that he would have failed to record such a tragic occurrence. Except for an occasional illness or inebriation, all the volunteers were probably well and in high spirits.
After enduring six months of cramped quarters, the men of the Corps of Discovery welcomed their departure from Camp River Dubois on May 14, 1804. Private Joseph Whitehouse wrote in his journal that, despite a heavy rain, a number of residents from the Goshen Settlement, which included the present-day Illinois cities of Edwardsville and Collinsville, came to watch their departure. They fired the swivel gun, hoisted sail and started out in high spirits for their western expedition. The adventure had finally begun.
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Chuinard, Eldon G. Only One man Died: The Medical Aspects of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Glendale, California: The Arthur H. Clarke Company, 1979.
Clarke, Charles G. The Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press; Bison Books Edition, 2002.
Dunphy, John J. and Dunphy, Susan. Lewis and Clark’s Illinois Volunteers. Alton, Illinois: Second Reading Publications, 2003.
Moulton, Gary, ed. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.
Thwaites, Reuben Gold, ed. Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804–1806. New York: Antiquarian Press LTD, 1959.
John J. Dunphy is the author of Lewis and Clark’s Illinois Volunteers. His latest book, Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials, features interviews with veterans of the U.S. Army’s 7708 War Crimes Group. These men, most of whom were barely out of their teens at the time, apprehended and built cases against Nazi war criminals in post-war Germany.