Aerial views of the recently opened Lewis and Clark Bridge across the Ohio at Louisville. Courtesy of bridgehunter.com and insiderlouisville.com
Most people think of the Lewis and Clark Expedition as an event in the history of the American West; up the Missouri, across the mountains, down the Columbia to the Pacific, and back again. That’s the western legacy of the epic journey; but there is also a very important eastern legacy. The expedition didn’t spring from nothing at the mouth of the Missouri River. Crucial planning, recruitment, and supply occurred in the East, meaning the East of today. In 1803 Kentucky and Indiana was the West. Louisville, located at the Falls of the Ohio was the last major town before heading farther down the Ohio or overland into Indiana Territory and beyond. It was in Louisville and across the river in Clarksville that hunters and woodsmen with the skills for a wilderness expedition could be found and needed supplies obtained.
Given these facts, it confidently can be stated that it was at the Falls of the Ohio that the foundation was laid for what historians often recognize as the greatest exploring venture United States history. So how did the connection with the Lewis and Clark Expedition come about? A full chronicle is too long for this space (go to www.lewisandclarkinkentucky.org for more information) so here’s the Cliffsnotes version.
When President Thomas Jefferson decided to send his private secretary Captain Meriwether Lewis on an expedition through the American West to the Pacific, the proverbial “ball” got rolling. Congressional approval and funding was received (the allotted $2,500 fell far short of the final cost of almost $40,000), Lewis studied pertinent subjects under the tutelage of Jefferson and other leading scientific and medical men of the day, supplies were acquired, a route decided, and a fellow officer and what would become the nucleus of the famous Corps of Discovery had to be recruited. To accomplish these last two objectives, Lewis turned to his friend and former brother in arms, William Clark. The two had served together in Ohio in the 1790s during the Indian wars and Clark briefly had served as Lewis’s commanding officer. Clark resigned from the army in 1796 and returned home to Louisville and the family farm Mulberry Hill (George Rogers Clark Park now encompasses the old home site and cemetery). In early 1803 William moved across the river to Clarksville to a farm at Point of Rocks (now Clarks Point). It was there that Lewis’s invitation to join him in the endeavor as co-captain was received. Clark had sold Mulberry Hill (to his brother Jonathan) due to financial difficulties arising from helping his brother George Rogers Clark with his financial and legal problems. The timing of the invitation was perfect. Clark was looking for opportunities and he knew such an expedition if successful (and if he survived) could lead to promising possibilities. He promptly accepted.
Lewis also asked Clark to recruit the finest hunters and woodmen in the area, capable of bearing great fatigue and hardship. It was impossible to carry all the food needed for the journey and they would be needed to keep the party fed. Clark knew just the kind of young men needed and quickly assembled most of those who
became the first enlisted members of the Corps. They were Charles Floyd and his first cousin Nathaniel Hale Pryor (both of whom were appointed sergeants), brothers Joseph and Reuben Field, John Colter, John Shields, and William Bratton. These seven were joined by two recruits Lewis brought with him – George Gibson and George Shannon – forming the famous Nine Young Men from Kentucky as Clark referred to them after the expedition. Clark was so confident of the importance of Floyd and the Field brothers that their date of enlistment was August 1, 1803, two and a half months before Lewis reached the Falls. On October 14, Lewis reached Louisville, where Clark awaited him. It was here at the Falls that the captains actually joined forces and formed one of the most famous partnerships in history. Over the following days the other recruits were enlisted and a base camp was established at the Clark farm at Point of Rocks. These eleven men were all official members of the Corps of Discovery, but a very important person who accompanied the party never had that status. This ex-officio member was York, Clark’s enslaved African American. Carried on the expedition roster as Clark’s servant, York was much more than that. He could do what the other Kentuckians did and when the explorers encountered Indians who had never seen someone with black skin before they were often amazed and the explorers were able to use it to their advantage to help advance the expedition. Thus the twelve men (and Lewis’s Newfoundland dog Seaman) that set out from the Falls down the Ohio into the wilderness and history were that all important foundation for the expedition’s success. They were the nucleus around which the Corps of Discovery formed.
While away on the expedition reports and artifacts were sent back to Louisville by Clark and some of the Kentuckians. Indiana and Kentucky newspapers printed expedition updates that other papers reprinted. The party returned first to St. Louis on September 23, 1806, where they were greeted as if risen from the dead. Reports had greatly exaggerated their demise. After selling off the expedition’s “surplus,” discharging the men, and other business, the captains and some of the men, with two Indian delegations headed east. They arrived in Louisville on November 5. Clark, in need of a new wardrobe promptly went shopping on Main Street and both captains were the guests of honor at a party at Locust Grove (Clark’s sister Lucy Croghan’s home) on November 8.
Most of the nucleus formed at the Falls returned to the life they had known prior to their epic adventure or cast their lot with the American West. Only York and Reuben Field sent most of the rest of their lives in Louisville. John Shields settled near Elizabeth, Indiana, but soon died. Charles Floyd never returned – he died near present Sioux City, Iowa, on August 20, 1804, of natural causes, the only member of the Corps to die on the journey. William Clark called Louisville and Clarksville home until June 1808 when he moved to St. Louis and only visited afterwards.
The Falls of the Ohio can boast of an important contribution to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The foundation of the Corps of Discovery, the nucleus around which the rest of the Corps formed, truly was laid here. A number of Lewis and Clark related sites can be visited today. Historic Locust Grove is the only verified Lewis and Clark related structure west of the Appalachians. The Filson Historical Society has a significant Lewis and Clark – and especially William Clark and York – related collection. One can stand at Clarks Point in the Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville near where the 1803 base camp was established. These three have been designated as official Lewis and Clark Trail sites by the National Park Service. In fact, the Eastern Legacy section of the trail is under consideration by the NPS for inclusion as part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Go to www.lewisandclarkinkentucky.org for more information about Kentuckiana and Kentucky connections to the explorers.
The decision to name the new bridge was former governor Mike Pence’s. With a strong recommendation from Southern Indiana legislators and the Indiana Lewis and Clark Foundation then Governor Pence agreed. And it was appropriate to do so. A bridge bearing their names recognizes the local connection to the most famous exploring venture in the history of the United States.