Naval Ensigns and Pennants

Figure 8

Flag on Clark's Drawing of the Barge (Keelboat)

Clark's sketch of the barge's (keelboat) flag

Clark included a naval pennant, or ensign, in his sketch of the barge (keelboat). The figure outlined by the stars in the canton is uncertain.

In 1801 Ann Hoskin, a seamstress in Philadelphia, made an ensign for the United States Military Department with a hoist of 9 inches and a fly of 6 feet.1

The expedition was mostly water-born; its commanders consistently referred to their journey as a voyage. Upon their departure from Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805, Lewis proudly referred to their six dugout canoes and two pirogues as "this little fleet." Historically, a senior officer in command of a detached corps or squadron was entitled to fly a pennant from his command ship2—either a long, slender three-cornered flag (called a burgee) such as the one the expedition flew (Figure 8), or else a broad swallow-tailed white flag. In either case the iconic fields were arranged to fit in the "hoist" or flagstaff end.

There was at least one more flag of exceptional importance to the expedition—their naval ensign (Figure 8).3 In the U.S. Army, beginning with the Military Peace Establishment Act of 1802, the term ensign denoted a junior infantry officer next below a second lieutenant. By then the Gadsden flag had long been out of date and therefore inappropriate.

Consistent with naval law and practice, from the beginning of the expedition the captains ordered the men in charge of both pirogues to fly the American flag. As they ascended the Missouri above the Great Falls, harboring premature expectations of meeting Sacagawea's people any day, and even seeing evidence that unidentified Indians were nearby, perhaps watching them, on 23 July 1805 Lewis "ordered the canoes to hoist their small flags in order that should the indians see us they might discover that we were not Indians, nor their enemies." Furthermore, American naval tradition dictated (up until 1912) that flags on small boats were to be of the 13-star, 13-stripe design established by the Flag Act of 1777 (Figure 4). On August 6, 1804, Clark noted that the red pirogue had "lost her Colours" in a severe thunderstorm. How many ensigns they had with them is not known, but if they had no replacement, the captains might have considered the loss potentially serious, for the absence of "colours" might have signified that the boat was out of commission, which would have made it fair game for fresh-water thieves or pirates who could assume that its crewmen were prepared to surrender.4 The captains might not have expected Indian observers to think of this, but experienced British or Spanish boatmen might have taken the sign seriously.

The Corps met many other boats on the lower Missouri, both going and coming. On 14 September, 1806, nine days from the end of their journey, the captains' scraggly little fleet of five dugouts led by the white pirogue were pulling hard to stay ahead of the current, their firelocks primed and all hands on the lookout for the piratical Kansa Indians. In mid-afternoon they met three large boats—"Keel Boats," Sgt. Ordway called them—out of St. Louis, bound for the Yanktons and the Omahas to trade for furs. "We…Spread our flags," Ordway reported, whereupon "they Sailed up to us and halted with us a Short time."

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  • 1. The receipt is in the Consolidated Correspondence File 1794-1915, Office of the Quartermaster General, Record Group 92, Box 304, National Archives. Cited in Grace Rogers Cooper, Thirteen-Star Flags: Keys to Identification (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973), 15.
  • 2. W. H. Smyth, The Sailor's Word-Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms (Glasgow: Blackie and Son, 1867), s.v. "pennant."
  • 3. Hugh F. Rankin, "The Naval Flag of the American Revolution," William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 11, No. 3 (July 1954), 340-353. Historically, the ensign had been the official bearer of the regimental flag. Upon being assigned to command the expedition to take the Mandan chief Sheheke and his family home from the U.S., Nathaniel Pryor received a commission as an ensign in the infantry.
  • 4. Smyth, s.v. "Ack-men."