edited by Brian Anderson

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the start of Lewis’s & Clark’s expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific, and there are celebrations and re-enactments planned all along the route. The trip was a wonder – three years and, something like 6,000 miles up the Missouri River over the Rocky Mountains and down the Columbia to the sea in what was more or less terra incognita. And it was all done without communications with, or support from, the US and the man who sent them, President Thomas Jefferson. It is little wonder that when they arrived back in St. Louis in September of 1806 they found they had mostly been given up for dead. The story of how they managed the trip with the loss of only one man has been told very well in any number of books.

But for Lewis, just building the specially-designed 55-foot keelboat and an iron-framed long boat that could be broken down into a small pack and covered with skins or bark as needed, is a good read in itself. The story will also be familiar to anyone who has ever had grand plans for building or fixing up a boat and making an ambitious voyage. In 1803, like today, one has to make a very conservative estimate of the time the preparations, shake down cruise, and voyage will take, double them, and even then you can be sure that Murphy’s Law will kick in a some point. For most of us, it doesn’t matter much. But imagine poor Lewis, coping with drought and drunken boat builders, having to explain to the President of the United States why he is in Cincinnati in the Autumn of 1803 and not looking for a winter camp half-way up the Missouri River.

To keep the story moving I have taken out many of the administrative details, such as consideration and appointment of personnel, and in one place an interesting but lengthy description of the excavation of a mammoth skeleton near Cincinnati. The letters can be found in their entirety HERE.

The photos are courtesy of builder Butch Bouvier at L&C Replicas in St. Onawa, Iowa. More information about his historical replicas and voyages can be found at: www.keelboat.com

One of Butch Bouvier’s full size Lewis and Clark Expedition keelboat reproductions built in 1985, presently on display at L&C State Park, Onawa, Iowa

Lancaster Apl. 20th 1803.


With a view to forward as much as possible the preparations which must necessarily be made in the Western country previous to my final departue, as also to prevent the delay, which would attatch to their being made after my arrival in that quarter, I have taken the following measures, which I hope will meet your approbation; they appear to me to be as complete as my present view of the subject will admit my making them and I trust the result will prove as favorable as wished for… .

My detention at Harper's Ferry was unavoidable for one month, a period much greater than could reasonably have been calculated on; my greatest difficulty was the frame of the canoe, which could not be completed without my personal attention to such portion of it was would enable the workmen to understand the design perfectly; other inducements seemed with equal force to urge my waiting the issue of a full experiment, arising as well from a wish to incur no expence unnecessarily, as from an unwillingness to risk any calculation on the advantages of this canoe in which hereafter I might possibly be deceived; experiment was necessary also to determine it's dementions: I therefore resolved to give it a fair trial, and accordingly prepared two sections of it with same materials, of which they must of necessity be composed when completed for servise on my voyage; they were of two discriptions, the one curved, or in the shape necessary for the stem and stern, the other simicilindrical, or in the form of those sections which constitute the body of the canoe. The experiment and it's result wer as follow.


Curved Section
Length of Keel from junction of section to commencement of curve
Length of curve(d section)
(Note-The curve of the body was formed by a suspended cord)
Width of broad end
Debth of D.D.
Simicilindrical Section.
Length of keel
Ditto beam
Debth of Hole

Weight of the Materials

Curved Section. ... lbs Semicilindrical Section
Iron ... 22 ... Iron ... 22
Hide ... 25 Hide ... 30
Wood ... 10 Wood ... 12
Bark ... 21 Bark ... 25
Total ... 78 Total ... 89
Competent to a
Burthen of 850 lbs. Burthen of 920 lbs.
Necessary to be transported by land.
Iron and Hide of Curved Section ... 47
Iron and Hide of Simicilindrical Do. 52 ... 99 lbs.
Burthen of Curved Section ... 850
Do. Do. Simicilindrical ... 920
Total: 1,770 lbs.  

Thus the weight of this vessel competent to the burthen of 1,770 lbs. amount to no more than 99 lbs. The bark and wood, when it becomes necessary to transport the vessel to any considerable distances, may be discarded; as those articles are reaidily obtained for the purposes of this canoe, at all seasons of the year, and in every quarter of the country, which is tolerably furnished with forest trees. When these sectons were united they appeared to acquire an additional strength and firmness, and I am confident that in cases of emergency they would be competent to 150 lbs. more than the burthen already stated. Altho' the weight of the articles employed in the construction of a canoe on this plan, have considerably exceeded the estimat I had previously made, yet they do not weigh more than those which form a bark canoe of equal dementions, and in my opinion is much preferable to it in many respects; it is much stronger, will carry its burthen with equal ease, and greater security; and when the Bark and wood are discarded, will be much higher, and can be transported with more safety and ease. I was induced from the result of this experiment to direct the iron frame of the canoe to be completed.

The transcript of the figures above is hard to understand, and I reconstructed it as best I could by going to a photo of the letter HERE.

It is hard to picture the boat from Lewis’s description – perhaps he and Jefferson had roughed out some plans for it together before Lewis left Washington so he figured Jefferson could follow. Just reading from the text of the letter, it seemed that he was talking about a double-ended boat about 16’ long, with a beam of 4’10” and a depth from keel to gunwale of 2’2’’. With a little help from my engineer wife on the geometry, I calculated a total displacement for the boat of about 6,300 lbs. So if one figures on about 25% of that as a safe working load, Lewis’s figure of 1,770 lbs capacity sounds just about right. But Lewis writes in the letter that after the success of his experiment, he directed the rest of the boat to be constructed, and when it came time to build the boat at the Great Falls of the Missouri, Lewis wrote “ the iron frame of my boat is 36 feet long 4 1/2 f. in the beam and 26 Inches in the hole….” So he must have had one end and one body section made and tested on the Ohio River, and then left the construction of five other sections of frame and the other end piece to the smiths while he went to Pittsburgh to oversee the construction of the keelboat.

At Great Falls in late June of 1805, Lewis found that assembling the boat was not anywhere near as easy as he had thought. Timber suitable to make thwarts was apparently in short supply, and shooting enough elk and buffalo for the skin covering also took longer than he thought. In the end, Lewis wrote that it took 28 elk skins and 4 buffalo skins to cover it. But when they had managed those things, their problems were not over. After the skins were stitched together, Lewis found that the holes made in the skins in the course of sewing them enlarged as the skins dried and stretched out and leaked. The mixture of tallow and ground charcoal didn’t work, and there were no pines in the area from which he could make pitch. He noted the buffalo skins worked better, but said that as the buffalo had left the area, he had no choice but to abandon the boat.

On the Niobrara River in the 42’ Mackinaw boat "Raycliff", similar to, though a little larger, than the “canoes” or “perogues” that Lewis and Clark used.

My Rifles, Tomahawks & knives are preparing at Harper's Ferry, and are already in a state of forwardness that leaves me little doubt of their being in readiness in due time.

Being fully impressed with the necessity of seting out as early as possible, you may rest assured that not a moment shall be lost in making the necessary preparations. I still think it practicable to reach the mouth of the Missouri by the 1st of August. I am Sir, with much esteem and regard Your Most Obt. Servt.

Meriwether Lewis

Pittsburgh July 22nd 1803.

Dear Sir

Yours of the 11th & 15th Inst. were duly recieved, the former on the 18th inst., the latter on this day. For my pocketbook I thank you: the dirk could not well come by post, nor is it of any moment to me, the knives that were made at Harper's ferry will answer my purposes equally as well and perhaps better; it can therefore be taken care of untill my return: the bridle is of no consequence at all. After the reciept of this letter I think it will be best to direct to me at Louisville, Kentuckey.

The person who contracted to build my boat engaged to have it in readiness by the 20th inst.; in this however he has failed; he pleads his having been disappointed in procuring timber, but says he has now supplyed himself with the necessary materials, and that she shall be completed by the last of this month; however in this I am by no means sanguine, nor do I believe from the progress he makes that she will be ready before the 5th of August; I visit him every day, and endeavour by every means in my power to hasten the completion of the work: I have prevailed on him to engage more hands, and he tells me that two others will join him in the morning, if so, he may probably finish the boat by the time he mentioned: I shall embark immediately the boat is in readiness, there being no other consideration which at this moment detains me.

The Waggon from Harper's ferry arrived today, bringing every thing with which she was charged in good order. (Rifles, powder, shot, many other odds and ends of supplies)

The party of recruits that were ordered from Carlisle to this place with a view to descend the river with me, have arrived with the exception of one, who deserted on the march, his place however can be readily supplyed from the recruits at this place enlisted by Lieut. Hook.

The current of the Ohio is extreemly low and continues to decline, this may impede my progress but shall not prevent my proceeding, being detemined to get forward though I should not be able to make a greater distance than a mile pr. day. I am with the most sincere regard Your Obt. Servt.
... Meriwether Lewis

The keelboat.

Wheeling, September 8th 1803.

Dear Sir,
It was not until 7 O'Clock on the morning of the 31st Ultmo. that my boat was completed, she was instantly loaded, and at 10. a.m. on the same day I left Pittsburgh, where I had been moste shamefully detained by the unpardonable negligence of my boat-builder. On my arrival at Pittsburgh, my calculation was that the boat would be in readiness by the 5th of August; this term however elapsed and the boat so far from being finished was only partially planked on one side. In this situation I had determined to abandon the boat, and to purchase two or three perogues and descend the river in them, and depend on purchasing a boat as I descended, there being none to be had at Pittsburgh; from this resolution I was dissuaded first by the representations of the best informed merchants at that place who assured me that the chances were much against my being able to procure a boat below; and secondly by the positive assureances given me by the boat-builder that she should be ready on the last of the then ensuing week, (the 13th): however a few days after, according to his usual custom he got drunk, quarrelled with his workmen, and several of them left him, nor could they be prevailed on to return: I threatened him with the penalty of his contract, and exacted a promise of greater sobriety in future which, he took care to perform with as little good faith, as he had his previous promises with regard to the boat, continuing to be constantly either drunk or sick. I spent most of my time with the workmen, alternately presuading and threatening, but neither threats, presuasion or any other means which I could devise were sufficient to procure the completion of the work sooner than the 31st of August; by which time the water was so low that those who pretended to be acquainted with the navigation of the river declared it impracticable to descend it; however in conformity to my previous determination I set out, having taken the precaution to send a part of by baggage by a waggon to this place, and also to procure a good pilot. My days journey have averaged about 12 miles, but in some instances, with every exertion I could make was unable to exceed 41/2 & 5 miles pr. day. This place is one hundred miles distant from Pittsburgh by way of the river and about sixty five by land.

When the Ohio is in it's present state there are many obstructions to it's navigation, formed by bars of small stones, which in some instances are intermixed with, and partially cover large quntities of driftwood; these bars frequently extend themselves entirely across the bed of the river, over many of them I found it impossible to pass even with my emty boat, without geting into the water and lifting her over by hand; over others my force was even inadequate to enable me to pass in this manner, and I found myself compelled to hire horses or oxen from the neighbouring farms and drag her over them; in this way I have passed as many as five of those bars, (or as they are here called riffles) in a day, and to unload as many ore more time. The river is lower than it has ever been known by the oldest settle in this country. I shall leave this place tomorrow morning, and loose no time in geting on.

I have been compelled to purchase a perogue at this place in order to transport the baggage which was sent by land from Pittsburgh, and also to lighten the boat as much as possible. On many bars the water in the deepest part dose not exceed six inches. I have the honour to be with the most perfect regard and sincere attatchment Your Obt. Servt. ...

Meriwether Lewis, Capt.

The "Raycliff" is cordelled up the Missouri.

On board my boat opposite Marietta
September 13th 1803.

Dear Sir

I arrived here at 7. p.m. and shall pursue my journey early tomorrow. This place is one hundred miles distant from Wheeling, from whence in descending the water is reather more abundant than it is between that place and Pittsburgh, insomuch that I have been enabled to get on without the necessity employing oxen or horses to drag my boat over the ripples except in two instances; tho' I was obliged to cut a passage through four or five bars, and by that means past them; this last operation is much more readily performed that you would imagin; the gravel of which many of these bars are formed, being small and lying in a loose state is readily removed with a spade, or even with a wooden shovel and when set in motion the current drives it a considerable distance before it subsides or again settles at the bottom; in this manner I have cut a passage for my boat of 50 yards in length in the course of an hour; this method however is impracticable when driftwood or clay in any quantity is intermixed with the gravel; in such cases Horses or oxen are the last resort: I find them the most efficient sailors in the present state of the navigation of this river, altho' they may be considered somewhat clumsey. I have the honour to be with much respect Your Obt. Servt.

... Meriwether Lewis, Capt.
... 1st U.S. Regt. Infty.

Polling up the Missouri.

Cincinnati, October 3rd 1803.

Dear Sir,

I reached this place on the 28th Ult.; it being necessary to take in a further supply of provisions here, and finding my men much fatiegued with the labour to which they have been subjected in descending the river, I determined to recruit them by giving them a short respite of a few days, having now obtained the distance of five hundred miles. On the evening of the 1st inst. I again dispatched my boat with orders to meet me at the Big Bone lick, to which place I shall pass by land, it being distant from hence only seventeen miles while by water it is fifty three, a distance that will require my boat in the present state of the water near three days to attain.

The late reserches of Dr. William Goforth of this plase at that Lick has made it a place of more interesting enquiry than formerly, I shall therefore seize the present moment to visit it, and set out early tomorrow morning for that purpose.

(I have removed here an interesting but very lengthy description of excavating mammoth bones and teeth from Big Bone salt lick near Cincinnati.)

So soon Sir, as you deem it expedient to promulge the late treaty, between the United States and France I would be much obliged by your directing an official copy of it to be furnished me, as I think it probable that the present inhabitants of Lousiana, from such an evidence of their having become the Citizens of the United States, would feel it their interest and would more readily yeald any information of which, they may be possessed relative to the country than they would be disposed to do, while there is any doubt remaining on that subject.

As this Session of Congress has commenced earlyer than usual, and as from a variety of incidental circumstances my progress has been unexpectedly delayed, and feeling as I do in the most anxious manner a wish to keep them in good humour on the subject of the expedicion in which I am engaged, I have concluded to make a tour this winter on horseback of some hundred miles through the most interesting portion of the country adjoining my winter establishment; perhaps it may be up the Canceze River and towards Santafee, at all events it will bee on the South side of the Missouri. Should I find that Mr. Clark can with propiety also leave the party, I will prevail on him also to undertake a similar excurtion through some other portion of the country: by this means I hope and am pursuaded that by the middle of February or 1st of March I shall be enabled to procure and forward to you such information relative to that Country, which, if it dose not produce a conviction of the utility of this project, will at least procure the further toleration of the expedition.

It will be better to forward all letters and papers for me in future to Cahokia.

The water still continues lower in the Ohio that it was ever known. I am with every sentiment of gratitude and respect Your Obt. Servt.

... Meriwether Lewis. Capt.
... lst. U.S. Regt. Infty.