10. The Ohio Meets the Mississippi

Mississippi and Ohio River Confluence

View northwest, upstream

Aerial photo of two wide rivers joining

© 2000 Airphoto—Jim Wark

Meeting of the Waters

On the evening of 14 November 1803, Lewis and Clark camped on the point between the Ohio (right) and Mississippi Rivers near today's Cairo, Illinois—or wherever it actually was two hundred years ago. By now they had rowed, poled, dragged, and occasionally sailed their boats a total of 981 miles in 76 days, including rest stops. The next day they crossed to the west bank of the Mississippi and began practicing techniques for making celestial observations to determine latitudes and longitudes, which Lewis had learned from Andrew Ellicott and Robert Patterson back in Pennsylvania. Their calculations were incorrect, but Clark, with some previous experience in surveying, "made a partial survey of the point"—a surveyor's "station"—and measured the widths of the two rivers

Two days later, an admiring Shawnee Indian offered Lewis three beaver skins for his Newfoundland dog, Seaman, but "of course there was no bargain." The dog, Lewis wrote, "I prised much for his docility and qualifications generally for my journey." These qualifications included a comfort with water: Newfoundlands had long been bred to help trawlers retrieve their nets and to guide shipwrecked sailors through surf. The journals contain no hint that the Corps' mascot was ever called on to help with a water rescue, though there were several occasions when he could have been.

Clark had been to this place at least three times in the 1790s, and in 1795 drew a map of the confluence. In 1780 his brother George had built a fort about four miles down the Mississippi from here. On 18 November 1803, the two captains and eight men paddled a canoe down the Mississippi on a sentimental journey to the abandoned post, Fort Jefferson. To men and women of Clark's day, American history was family history.


From Discovering Lewis & Clark from the Air
Photography by Jim Wark

Text by Joseph Mussulman
Reproduced by permission of Mountain Press