9. The Wabash joins the Ohio

view north, upstream

Wabash River

Familiar Water

Lewis, Clark, and their crew left the Falls of the Ohio aboard the barge on 26 October 1803. The next journal entry on record was Lewis's, dated 11 November, the day they arrived at Fort Massac, a frontier outpost about 325 miles down the Ohio from Louisville. At a pace averaging nearly 20 miles per day, they must have passed the mouth of the Wabash about 7 November. Indians had named this river Wah-Bah Shik-Ki, meaning "Pure [or Shining] White" or "Water over White Stones." The French spelled the name Quabache, which Anglo-American settlers and mapmakers heard as Wabash. Today, swerving through the prairie, it scribes a crooked boundary between Indiana and Illinois from the vicinity of Terre Haute down to the Ohio River.

Both of the captains were already familiar with the Wabash country. They had crisscrossed the area in the course of their military duties, and in 1792 Clark had gained one of his first experiences in river navigation as commander of a detail hauling supplies up the Wabash in wintertime.1 Before that, William's brother, George, had made Revolutionary War history by capturing the British fort at Vincennes, a hundred and forty miles up the Wabash.

They would have had a hard time understanding the reason for the agricultural and industrial pollution the Wabash dumps into the Ohio along with its mud-tinted spring flow today – the price of generations of "improvements" to the old wilderness. Terms such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and methyl mercury would have baffled the captains. On the other hand, they themselves dosed their men with bichloride of mercury (Calomel, the principal ingredient in Dr. Rush's Bilious Pills) for many different symptoms, and applied mercury ointment liberally to treat venereal diseases, not suspecting it would do more harm than good.

The following January, in the expedition's winter camp by the River Dubois, Clark's mind wandered back to the Wabash country. He wrote himself a memo: "Explain the Pond & fishing place above Waubash" Whatever could he have meant by that?


1. William E. Foley, Wilderness Journey: The Life of William Clark (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004), 30.

From Discovering Lewis & Clark from the Air
Photography by Jim Wark
Text by Joseph Mussulman
Reproduced by permission of Mountain Press.