It has been a while since our last communication. Your Captain has been lost in a sea of research dealing with Lewis and Clark. I feel that I have been set adrift to search out the image of Lewis and Clark as they made their way through the virgin West in the beginning of the 19th century. What did the boats look like? How were the men dressed? What do we really know about the appearance of Lewis and Clark. I have talked to many historians in the past few months, and, I have observed an interesting difference between the historian of the oral or written word and the historian of the visual image. If you write books or lecture, all you have to say is: there was a keelboat, soldiers, sails, canons, uniforms, flags, ect. You don't have to produce an image. Your Captain has been chasing down some very elusive images dealing with Lewis and Clark. I will talk about them later.
For now, I would like to explain my goal at this time. For the next two to three years, I will be devoting myself to the Lewis and Clark expedition. Mainly, I would like to tell the story of the first few days of Lewis and Clark's journey up the Missouri River. I will have one or two works dealing with travel later in the adventure, however, I would like to focus on the first 60 or 70 miles up the Missouri River. My reasons for choosing this location are two fold.
First of all, I have not found a lot of visual work dealing with the early part of their travels up the Missouri. The men were, for the first time, really together as a unit. How were the boats going to handle? How would they work as a unit? Would the young leaders, Lewis and Clark, be able to grab and hold on to the respect of the men and provide the leadership to keep them alive and still accomplish the goals of exploration and diplomacy set forth by President Thomas Jefferson? We know that the leaders had early problems with discipline leading to court marshal and the administration of lashes. Lewis almost fell to his death above Tavern Cave. The keelboat was almost lost in rough water. And, the men were getting to know the mean river that ran all the way to the Rockies.
Secondly, my studio is located only 68 miles up the Missouri River and overlooks the beautiful muddy river that was the highway west. The river is still in the same location against the Washington, Missouri bank as it was in May of 1804. If my studio were here on May 25, 1804, I would have been able to see an Army unit of about 54 men traveling in a keelboat, two pirogues, and on horse back with their eyes wide open fixed on the boiling muddy waters, the huge trees that littered the currents, the rumored hostile adversaries of the forests and plains, the game they would have to hunt in order to survive, the skies for the tests and perils they could provide, and mainly, on the next bend to see the beauty or the beast that was the river. On May 25, 1804, the view from my studio would have been of a virgin frontier and the passing of the first official government representatives on their way to an unknown horizon.
As the men proceeded across the Mississippi River and into the mouth of the Missouri River, all hands manned the oars. Keelboats and pirogues were propelled by four methods: Cordelling, pulling the boat from shore will a long rope, Poling, pushing against the river bottom with poles while walking the length of the deck then repeating the action, Sailing, and Rowing. Rowing, especially the keelboat, was only utilized when crossing rivers from one side to the other. Therefore, in order to make way into the mouth of the Missouri River across the Mississippi all hands were commanded to put their backs into their work.
The painting reveals sixteen oars in the water. Three members of the crew are trying to remove debris from the path of the keelboat as Clark stands study at the helm giving directions to his helmsman and crew. From bow to stern, let us review the crew members and their jobs. Follow my thoughts, and remember this is my interpretation of the event based on the facts that I have been able to research.
The first crew member we see on the bow with pole in hand is Sgt. Ordway. Ordway is the first Sergeant and therefore in charge of the men. His dress is the dress of the day. Please remember, Lewis and Clark were co-captains of an Army Expedition, thus, military protocol was the rule. I think often this fact is lost in the study of Lewis and Clark. There were two other Sergeants assigned to the keelboat, Sgt. Floyd and Sgt. Prior. We see these individuals on the deck in front of the helm cabin with setting poles in hand and their eyes on the activity before them. The first sign of trouble would be their signal to take actions to avoid the problem.
Back to the bow, in a rowing position behind the canon, we find the only black man in the crew. This man was Captain Clark's slave, York. York was an interesting character in the expedition. Although he was a slave, the men bonded with him and accepted him as an equal. When faced with a difficult decision later in the voyage about which direction to take, the men voted as opposed to being ordered. York was given an equal vote. Thus, it could be said that York was the first black man to formally vote in the United States.
At the helm we see a Frenchman. There were twelve Frenchmen hired for their boat handling abilities. It is my thought that Captain Clark had his best man at the helm the first day on the treacherous Missouri River.
That leads us to Clark. What would have been going through his mind. Here is a young man in his twenties, the lives of all the men in his hands with all in front of him, unknown. I have choosen to dress Clark in an untrimed military coat and round hat. I will talk more about the dress of Lewis and Clark later, however, for now it is interesting to know that the image we have of Lewis and Clark is somewhat flawed. Most of the images we have are from the works created in the early part of the twentieth century. The image we see of Lewis pointing forward on our road signs with the Tricorn hat is wrong. For military use, this hat went out of fashion around 1786. The formal hat worn by Lewis and Clark was a Chapeau Bras. Pronounced (shap-o-bra), this is a French description of a hat which is to be carried under the arm when not being worn, hence the name "chapeau" for hat and "bras" for arm. I have heard of the hat referred to as a bicorn. I will talk more about this later. For non-formal daily wear, Lewis and Clark would have worn a round hat much like the uniform hat I have illustrated earlier. I have also found no evidence of Clark with our road side representation of a coon skin cap with a tail, ala Dave Crockit.
Please note that Lewis was not with the expedition at this point. He was in St. Louis finishing business and joined Clark at St. Charles.
The crew members are dressed in fatigues, linen shirts and pants, with a fatigue cap made of dark blue wool with red trim. As I have said, because this was a military expendition subject to military discipline and in the early stages of the voyage, dress would also have been very disciplined. What Sgt. Ordway wore is what all the men would have worn. In the early stages of the trip, the men would not have been the rag tag image given to Lewis and Clark. As their clothing wore out things would have changed, however, upon departure from Wood River I would like to think of them as a highly trained military unit. It has also been suggested that the men would have been wearing their blue coats with red and white trim along with their white pants (overalls). I can not put the men in dress wear because one jump in the water would have made any white cloth brown forever. This was not the time or place for dress uniforms.
I will be talking more about these images in later Captain's Log notes. My next essay will deal with the flag being flown from the keelboat. A lot of research went into the keelboat flag, and, I will be sending notes at a later date.
It is my hope that I will be able to complete the above works before my 2004 showing at the Old Courthouse which is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in downtown St. Louis. Keep your fingers crossed and pray for fair seas to allow your Captain to make way on the waters of new exploration in historic interpretation. I hope to publish all of the above works in the form of a suite entitled:
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