Shallow Water

Figure 3

Wheeling, [West] Virginia

Victor Collot map of historic Wheeling, West Virginia

After leaving Pittsburgh, Lewis found progress down the Ohio to be slow. The summer had been dry and the river was lower than anyone could remember. By late summer and ys were typically low, in that era before dams and navigation pools. Lewis's speed down the Ohio was in the hands of Mother Nature and his own determination. Writing to Clark on August 3, he stated that he would make his way downriver even if he "should not be able to make greater speed than a boat's length pr. day."8

Lewis of course traveled at a faster pace than that, even if the going was sometimes painfully slow. Going past landmarks and towns that can still be visited today, Lewis and his little flotilla of keelboat, pirogue, and at least one canoe, made their way downstream using the current, oars, poles, and sails. But the men also had to use non-nautical means, pushing and pulling the boat by brute strength over sand bars and through sections of only a few inches deep. When the obstacles proved too difficult, Lewis hired oxen and horses from local farmers to drag the keelboat downstream.9 Within a week of leaving Pittsburgh, the boats had stopped at Brunot's Island, where a demonstration of the air gun almost ended in disaster when a bystander was grazed by an errant ball; had passed McKee's Rock and stopped at Steubenville, Ohio; had passed Charlestown (present Wellsburg, West Virginia) and arrived at Wheeling. Lewis noted the dense fog that formed over the river, making visibility very low. These conditions also caused such extremely heavy dews that water dripped from the trees as if it were raining.10

Lewis arrived at Wheeling on September 7. He stayed two days, allowing the crew time to rest, do their laundry, and have bread baked. He also picked up supplies he had sent overland from Pittsburgh so that the keelboat would be lighter in the shallow upper reaches of the Ohio, and purchased another pirogue—the red pirogue that would travel over 3,000 miles on the journey. The young explorer almost recruited a doctor, William Patterson, the son of one of his Philadelphia tutors, Dr. Robert Patterson, but the young man failed to appear at the designated departure time, apparently deciding to pass on the western adventure. On the 8th Lewis dined with Thomas Rodney, en route to Mississippi Territory to take his Jefferson-appointed position as a judge. Rodney thought Lewis "a stout young man but not so robust as to look able to fully accomplish the object of his mission." That evening the travelers enjoyed watermelons onboard the keelboat.11 Another tasty dish was squirrel; Lewis twice commented on the creatures migrating across the Ohio, and sending "my dog" into the river to "take as many each day as I had occation for, they wer fat and I thought them when fryed a pleasent food."12 "My dog" is of course the famous Newfoundland, Seaman, who accompanied Lewis on the entire expedition. He so endeared himself to the members of the Corps that he is referred to in the journals as "our dog." Loyal to the end, there is good evidence that Seaman was with Lewis at the time of the latter's death in 1809 and died on his master's grave.13


8. Jackson, 1:116.

9. Moulton, 2:67-74.

10. Moulton, 2:67.

11. Moulton, 2:74075. For Thomas Rodney's account of his trip down the Ohio and encounters with Lewis, as well as with Clark once he reached Louisville, see the published journal of his trip entitled A Journey through the West, edited by Dwight L. Smith and Ray Swick (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997). Also of interest are Rodney's letters written to his son on the journey published in 1919 in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (vol. 43).

12. Moulton, 2:79, 82.

13. James J. Holmberg, "Seaman's Fate?" We Proceeded On, Vol. 26, no. 1 (February 2000), 7-9.