From misfits to heroes

How a ragtag group of men came together
to make the Lewis and Clark Expedition    
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[APRIL 28, 2004]  HARTFORD -- "The Bad News Bears." "The Dirty Dozen." "The Mighty Ducks." The Lewis and Clark Expedition. Each of these stories features undisciplined misfits who overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve great things through determination and teamwork.

The 200th anniversary of the start of the Lewis and Clark Expedition will be celebrated during "The Departure," a special event scheduled for May 13-16 at Lewis and Clark State Historic Site.

"The members of the expedition began their journey as a wild bunch of hard-drinking, brawling and insubordinate rowdies," writes James P. Ronda in his book "Voyages of Discovery: Essays on the Lewis and Clark Expedition." "It is easy for us to forget that at their beginnings the explorers were not clean-shaven, keen-eyed Eagle Scouts. But somehow this passel of rough-and-tumble galoots became the best of families, willing to share the risks and hazards of a common life in pursuit of an important goal."

Meriwether Lewis, having been issued specific orders by President Thomas Jefferson, left Pittsburgh in mid-1803 on his way to establishing a base of operations at Camp River Dubois, near what is now Hartford. He picked up William Clark in Louisville, Ky. Along the way, Lewis and Clark recruited men from the forts and settlements that lined the rivers, including Fort Kaskaskia and Fort Massac in the present state of Illinois. Lewis and Clark asked the fort commanders for the "best men" to staff the expedition, but the officers often used the opportunity to pawn off their troublesome soldiers. Other men volunteered for the uncertain but exciting mission.

Soldiers in the American Army following the Revolutionary War were not highly regarded. President Jefferson had reduced the size of the military, and the small frontier army that manned outposts along Midwestern rivers was full of misfits and troublemakers who often couldn't find opportunities in the civilian world. Contemporary explorer Zebulon Montgomery Pike called the soldiers Lewis and Clark recruited a "set of rascals," while Clark considered one such hard-drinking, hog-stealing recruit a "black guard."

Civilians recruited along with the way were little better. Men from Kentucky and Tennessee came from the frontier, where you shot first and asked questions later to survive. These men placed a high priority on individualism and survival. Taking orders from anyone was a sign of weakness. Furthermore, they had a history of violent confrontations with Native Americans, which probably made Lewis and Clark nervous since they expected to encounter many Native Americans on their journey.

Finally there were the French Canadian boatmen, who were a necessary evil because they had the boat-handling and hunting skills the expedition needed. Fur trader Alexander Henry the Younger described French boatmen as "insolent and intriguing fellows" driven by greed -- "undisciplined, impertinent, ill-behaved vagabonds."

Rascals, fiercely independent, insolent, undisciplined, impertinent and ill-behaved. These were the men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition who arrived at Camp River Dubois in December 1803. Lewis and Clark suspected it would be a difficult task to shape these men into a corps of discovery. They were right.

Things got off to a rocky start shortly after arrival at Camp River Dubois. Christmas Day 1803 began with a traditional gunfire salute but quickly degenerated into chaos, as too much whiskey led to widespread fistfights. This was just the first of many incidents during the next five months in camp that involved drinking, fighting, insubordination and desertion.

On Jan. 4, 1804, Clark wrote, "Worner & Potts fight after Dark without my Knowledge & the Corpl. head of the mess left the hut & Suffered to bruise themselves much." Clark quickly doled out punishments, forcing the offenders to build a hut for the woman they had hired to do laundry and sewing for the camp. Other incidents resulted in demotions, confinements, flogging, a court martial and dismissal from the expedition.


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The darkest hour came in February 1804 when both Lewis and Clark were away from camp, leaving professional soldier Sgt. John Ordway in command. One expedition member refused to stand guard duty and when confronted by Ordway was joined by another man who "excited disorder and faction among the party." The incident gained momentum as several men who were supposed to be hunting but actually had been drinking in a local tavern joined the fray. Bloodshed was miraculously avoided, but upon returning to camp Clark wrote he was "mortified and disappointed" at the conduct of his men. He restricted several of the offenders to camp for 10 days.

Two of the men who confronted Sgt. Ordway, John Colter and John Shields, later distinguished themselves as among the most important members of the expedition. Colter is credited with being the first American to see Yellowstone.

Lewis finally had enough when he wrote new detachment orders on Feb. 20, 1804: "No whiskey shall in future be delivered from the Contractor's store except for the legal ration, and as appropriated by this order, unless otherwise directed by Capt. Clark or myself."

"These young heroes were in great shape, strong as bulls, eager to get going, full of energy and testosterone -- and bored. So they fought and drank -- and drank and fought," wrote Stephen Ambrose in his book "Undaunted Courage."

Clark earned the respect of these men. He was patient, realizing the men were anxious to get on with the expedition, but firm in his discipline. Clark kept the men busy with military drills and target practice, encouraging them to hone their skills in shooting competitions with local residents. The men worked on the camp and the expedition's keelboat. Punishments for infractions were designed to build the team spirit. The men who had to build the washerwoman's cabin because they had gotten drunk and fought saw their excess energy put to good use. Gradually, men who had been wild and stubborn began to feel a part of the team, apologizing for their wrongs and asking to be kept as members of the expedition. "R. Field was in a mistake & repents," wrote Clark in his journal one day.

"A large share of the credit for transforming this diverse group of undisciplined men into a dedicated, cohesive unit goes to Captain William Clark," said Erin Bishop, a historian with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. "Clark recruited many of the men, whipped them into shape through training and discipline, and served as a role model for the men through the nearly three years they were together."

Clark predicted the men were "ever ready to inconture any fatigue for the promotion of the enterprise." His prediction was accurate, as 28 months and 8,000 miles later all but one of the original expedition members returned safe and successful to a national hero's welcome. There were minor troubles with discipline along the way, but by the winter of 1804-1805 the "wild bunch of hard-drinking, brawling and insubordinate rowdies" had achieved "a perfect harmony."

"These men from various ethnic, geographic and social backgrounds were not extraordinary by themselves," said Brad Winn, site manager of Lewis and Clark State Historic Site in Hartford. "But they came together as a group to accomplish one of the most extraordinary feats in United States history."

This is one of 15 nationally significant signature events being conducted nationwide during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. Administered by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (, the site features a reconstructed Camp River Dubois and a new museum, including a full-size keelboat that is cut away to show the supplies Lewis and Clark took in order to deal with any situation on their journey.

(Sources: "Voyages of Discovery: Essays on the Lewis and Clark Expedition," edited by James P. Ronda; "The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition," edited by Gary Moulton; "Undaunted Courage," by Stephen Ambrose.)

[Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
news release]

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