By Gary Kimsey
May 14 has an important role in our country’s history. It wasn’t a day of a great battle that changed the course of our nation or of a landmark political speech. Nor a day of a great discovery of technology. Yet, it was a day that helped carry America into a new era.
May 14 of 1804 was the day when the Lewis and Clark Expedition departed Camp Dubois near Wood River, Ill., for a journey up the Missouri River that took the explorers into the unexplored Pacific Northwest and across the Rockies to the mouth of the Columbia River.
The main purpose was to discover what was out there in the Louisiana Territory that the United States had just purchased…and what was beyond. Was there a waterway to China? What was the land like? Good for farming? Mineral deposits? Was it possible to start commerce with the natives? Were some natives actually giants? Did woolly mammoths live out there? Such questions and many more were answered through the exploration, giving millions of future Americans new opportunities.
Nearly two and a half years after their May 14 departure, the explorers arrived back to the tiny outpost of St. Louis, Mo., not far from Camp Dubois. Their return was a surprise. Not having heard from the explorers for more than a year—since they had headed into unexplored country west of Fort Mandan in North Dakota—many people incorrectly assumed the explorers had ended as bleached bones somewhere in the wilderness.
In recent decades—and in the minds of some historians, government officials, makers of brochures, and Lewis and Clark fans—May 14 was “the official day” when the expedition was launched. Well, there’s a yes and there’s a no to their belief.
The expedition did depart on May 14 in a 55-foot keelboat and two pirogues, smaller boats. However, in 2019 the recognized eastern terminus of the expedition was changed from Camp Dubois, in the St. Louis area, to Pittsburgh, Pa., where Meriwether Lewis departed on August 31, 1803, in the keelboat that was constructed there. The keelboat moved slowly down the Ohio River, picking up recruits along the way, and reached Wood River at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, near St. Louis, late in the year.
The federal change of the expedition’s eastern terminus was an important accomplishment supported by the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, National Park Service and other organizations. The effort to extend the trail to include a large part of the Eastern Legacy—this large part being the Ohio River and a small stretch of the Mississippi River—took considerable time of working closely with local and state governments, and elected federal officials to extend the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail from 3,700 to 4,900 miles—from Pittsburgh to the mouth of the Columbia River. The extension of the trail happened when congress approved legislation in 2019 and the president signed the legislation into law.
There is also a good case to be made that the official “start” of the expedition occurred on Oct. 15, 1803, when Lewis joined William Clark in Clarksville, Indiana, near the Falls of the Ohio. Some folks believe this was when the expedition began in earnest. Others think the journey began when the full contingent of soldiers departed on May 14, 1804, from Camp Dubois. The “start” of the expedition will likely continue to be a topic of healthy debate for years to come.
Setting aside the issues of where the expedition actually started and how many miles the trail now includes, just think about that single day of May 14, 1804.
Camp Dubois had been the home of the men since December. They trained there, gathered supplies, improved the keelboat, and, importantly, honed military discipline to become an effective team. They were leaving the safety of their home.
The temperature at Sunrise on May 14 was 42 degrees. The day was cloudy, rainy and a bit windy. By 4 p.m., the temperature had risen to 64 degrees and the sky had cleared. We know these details from the Lewis and Clark journals. Final preparations were made during the day. Supplies were loaded on the keelboat and pirogues.
The 42 soldiers and French engages (men hired to help man the keelboat) were hardened to outdoor living. They were tough and skilled. Even so, there had to have been natural apprehensions and smatterings of unspoken fear. It’s possible that some of the men paused on shore and pondered the future. What is ahead? What is out there? And perhaps some wondered the greatest of all personal questions: Will I survive?
A few local people were present to wish them well. The keelboat’s swivel cannon was fired to mark the departure. Sails were hoisted. The adventure began.
To learn more about May 14, 1804:
Visit DiscoveringLewisandClark.com (it can also be reached at Lewis-Clark.org). This is the most comprehensive site for learning what there is to know about the expedition. Among many other features and educational opportunities, the site has a rotating home page for each day of the expedition: articles, photographs and artwork, links, and a day-by-day audio-cast. The site is operated by the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.
Other excellent sites:
- About Camp Dubois: Lewis and Clark State Historic Site.
- May 14 journal entries by expedition members.
- About the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, events, exploring the trail, other very useful information: National Park Service.
- Learn about events, travel routes and other important information at the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation’s website and nonprofit organization Facebook page. Sign up to become a member of the foundation—membership is not required to use the sites but it is a valuable benefit for you and your kids for increasing one’s educational repertoire and experiences.
(The author, Gary Kimsey, is a member of the Missouri-Riverbend Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. In 1973, he and four other men spent six months retracing the expedition’s trail by canoe and foot. Back then, the official trail—3,700 miles—was from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia.)