The Ohio River from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi
Pittsburgh in 1796
Victor Collot, A Journey in North America (1796).
Courtesy East Tennessee State University
"Left Pittsburgh this day at 11 ock with a party of 11 hands 7 of which are soldiers, a pilot and three young men on trial they having proposed to go with me throughout the voyage."1 With those words, written on August 31, 1803, Meriwether Lewis began his first journal entry on the epic Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Ocean.
Even though Lewis himself declared the mouth of the River Dubois to be the expedition's official point of departure, the two and one-half months spent descending the Ohio River were in fact its real beginning
Often referred to as the recruitment phase of the expedition, it was that–but so much more! The Ohio was where the all-important foundation–the nucleus–of what became the Corps of Discovery was formed. On the Ohio, Lewis and Clark met to actually form their partnership in discovery. On the Ohio, the famous Nine Young Men from Kentucky were recruited and enlisted. On the Ohio, York, George Drouillard, and at least two others joined the expedition. While on the Ohio, these men began forming relationships and friendships, and a dedication to their mission and to each other that would carry them, through dangers and hardships, to the Pacific and back. Some of these men were also among the most important members of the Corps.
When Lewis finally left Pittsburgh, at least one month behind schedule, his destination was Louisville, Kentucky, where he would rendezvous with William Clark and the men Clark had recruited. Lewis knew his friend and former army commander was coming with him. On June 19, he had written Clark inviting him to join the endeavor as co-commander. Then, after making final arrangements, he left Washington City on July 5, for Pittsburgh, arriving there on July 15. And then he waited, and waited, for the keelboat he had expected to be almost ready for his journey to be completed because of the "unpardonable negligence and inattention of the boat-builders who . . . were a set of most incorrigible drunkards, and with whom, neither threats, intreaties nor any other mode of treatment which I could devise had any effect."2 One consolation during this frustrating delay was the arrival by August 3 of Clark's letter of July 18 agreeing to "cheerfully" join Lewis as co-leader of the Expedition and "partake of the dangers, difficulties, and fatigues, as well as the . . . honors & rewards of the result of such an enterprise, should we be successful in accomplishing it."3 So, happily, Clark was coming, but Lewis's expected rendezvous with his partner in discovery in Louisville was delayed later and later, from mid-August to late August to early October.4 He finally arrived on October 14.
While Lewis waited for the keelboat to be finished, he put together his temporary crew and took three young men on trial. Two of these recruits were still with him when he reached Cincinnati on September 28. They were most likely with him when he reached Louisville and are believed to be two of the nine men5 enlisted at the Falls of the Ohio.6 Clark, meanwhile, was busy recruiting, and wrote Lewis on July 24, that he already had men of a "discription calculated to work & go thro . . . those labours & fatigues which will be necessary." Almost a month later, on August 21, Clark specified that he had retained four recruits and promised others an answer after consulting with Lewis.7
1. Gary E. Moulton, editor, The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 13 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001), 2:65.
2. Donald Jackson, editor, The Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with related Documents, 2 vols., revised edition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:125.
3. Jackson, 1:110. Lewis's invitation to Clark to join him on the Expedition had arrived at a perfect time in Clark's life. He had impoverished himself trying to help his brother George Rogers Clark with his legal and financial difficulties. Only months earlier he had sold his farm Mulberry Hill outside Louisville (that he and York had called home since coming to Kentucky in 1785) and moved across the Ohio River to Clarksville to make a fresh start.
4. Jackson, 1:57, 117, 125. In letters Lewis wrote Clark dated June 19 (from Washington), August 3 (from Pittsburgh), and September 28 (from Cincinnati), he stated his expected arrival dates in Louisville, revising the date in each letter to reflect his current status.
5. Jackson, 1:125. Who those recruits were are not definitely known. It is generally agreed that George Shannon was one of the them. About eighteen years old, he had been attending school in Pittsburgh, and probably joined the expedition there. The other recruit is more uncertain. John Colter is usually named as that second recruit, joining Lewis at Maysville, Kentucky, when Lewis stopped there about September 24. A more likely possibility might be George Gibson. Born in Mercer County, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, Gibson identified himself after the expedition as a Mercer County resident, therefore signifying that as his likely home when he left on the western journey. Another piece of evidence, which might be nothing more than coincidence but that must be considered, is that Gibson and Shannon both have the same enlistment date, October 19. This would have given Clark time to evaluate them and give his okay to enlisting them in the enterprise.
6. The Falls of the Ohio was an approximately two-mile stretch of rapids through three channels. In times of high water they could be navigated without great danger or difficulty but, as the water dropped, they could become more dangerous. The best channel was the northern one, called the Indian (later Indiana) Chute, along the Indiana shore. Louisville was founded in 1778 at the head of the Falls on the Kentucky side of the river. Clarksville was founded in 1783 at the foot of the Falls on the Indiana side. By 1803, Louisville was a major western town, growing rapidly, with a population of some 600, with thousands more in surrounding Jefferson County. Clarksville remained a small village, plagued by floods, and surpassed by Jeffersonville to its east and New Albany to its west after their founding in the early 1800s.
7. Jackson, 1:113, 117. Clark is believed to have had seven recruits waiting for Lewis. They were Joseph and Reubin Field, Charles Floyd, Nathaniel Hale Pryor, John Shields, William Bratton, and perhaps John Colter. Colter would be one of the recruits if Gibson was indeed already with Lewis. Three of the four that Clark mentioned as already recruited are known: the Field brothers and Floyd. Their enlistment date of August 1 is two and one-half months before Lewis arrived at the Falls and inspected potential Corps members. Who the fourth was can only be speculated. Colter, who has an enlistment date of October 15, the first after the Field brothers and Floyd, are good candidates. Nathaniel Pryor was enlisted on October 20; he was Floyd's first cousin, and both cousins were appointed sergeants in the Corps. That two of the three Corps' sergeants came from the Nine Young Men testifies to the quality of man that Clark recruited. Perhaps the fourth of Clark's recruits was John Shields. Although Shields was married, Clark made an exception to Lewis's instruction to recruit unmarried men, knowing that Shields' skills as a blacksmith, gunsmith, and hunter would be of crucial importance. His enlistment date was October 19. Or was the fourth William Bratton? He might have been one of those likely young men who applied to Clark, perhaps venturing eastward from Woodford County, Kentucky, or northward from south central Kentucky upon hearing about the Expedition. His enlistment date was October 20. A final possibility is Clark's enslaved African-American, York, but it is unlikely that Clark would have counted his servant as one of the recruits. In some ways, he was a nonperson, someone to be there to take care of the needs of his master, but not worthy of notice, and certainly not in an official capacity as an expedition recruit. York would go on the entire journey, becoming the first African-American to cross the United States from coast to coast, but never be carried on the rolls as an official member nor be compensated. Any reward for his loyal and important service would have to come from his master. It is not known if Clark rewarded him. It is also possible that none of these men was the mysterious fourth recruit, because that man did not go on the Expedition.