Ohio River

View southwest, down the Ohio

Aerial photo of modern Louisville

© 2000 Airphoto—Jim Wark


In 1778, Colonel George Rogers Clark established a fort at the Falls of the Ohio River, a strategic spot on the main travel route through what was then the West, which extended only to the Mississippi River. In 1780 the Virginia General Assembly officially established there a town they named for Louis XVI of France, a staunch supporter of the American War for Independence. It was in the state of Virginia until 1792, when the area on which it centered was admitted to the Union as the fifteenth state, Kentucky.1 Here lay the Falls of the Ohio, a two-mile-long series of rapids with a total drop of twenty-six feet. In 1799 Col. Clark's younger brother William—Billy, his family called him—became involved in a plan of his brother's to build a canal around the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville, but it came to nothing.

Twenty-six-year-old Lieutenant William Clark retired from the army in 1796 and returned to the vicinity of Louisville, chiefly to help George. There he received a long letter, dated 19 June 1803, from his old army friend, Meriwether Lewis, inviting him to share command of the expedition and outlining the overall plans. "When descending the Ohio," Lewis wrote, "it shall be my duty by enquiry to find out and engage some good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried men, accustomed to the woods, and capable of bearing bodily fatigue in a pretty considerable degree: should any young men answering this discription be found in your neighborhood I would thank you to give information of them on my arivall at the falls of the Ohio." Lewis first stepped ashore at a landing which at that time was just beyond the bridge in the picture, but the best passage through the falls was along the north bank.

At the lower end of the falls, opposite Louisville, was the townsite of Clarksville, Indiana, platted by the Virginia legislature in 1783-84 in recognition of George's support of the Revolution. Land was also set aside nearby for grants to men who had served under him in his Illinois Regiment. The two brothers established a farm near Clark's Point, and settled there together early in 1803. It soon became an intermediate staging point for the expedition, and the beginning of Billy Clark's role as co-commander.2

Among Lewis's temporary crew when the barge (keelboat) docked at the Falls on October 14 were John Colter and George Shannon, whom Lewis had signed on 200 miles upriver at Maysville, Kentucky. Clark was waiting with seven more recruits who would become permanent members of the contingent soon to be known as the Corps of Volunteers for North Western Discovery—William Bratton, Joseph and Reuben Field, Charles Floyd, George Gibson, Nathaniel Pryor, and John Shields. More volunteers for the main party would be enlisted at Fort Massac and Kaskaskia, in Illinois, and St. Charles in Missouri, and others—Hugh Hall, Thomas P. Howard, and John Potts—would come all the way from the outpost at South West Point, Tennessee. Clark brought along his lifelong personal slave, York.


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

Text by Joseph Mussulman
Reproduced by permission of Mountain Press

1. That accounts for the fact that the flags Lewis and Clark flew above their camps and distributed to Indian chiefs contained fifteen stars.

2. James J. Holmberg, Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 80-81.