The Lewis and Clark expedition, known then as the “Corps of Discovery,” departed from Camp Dubois on the Mississippi river near St. Louis, Missouri at 4 p.m. on May 14, 1804. They traveled up the Missouri river from where it joined the Mississippi, and met up with Lewis in St. Charles, Missouri, a short time later, marking the beginning of their voyage to the Pacific coast.
In 1804 the upstream trip on the upper Missouri river took many months to accomplish.
The downstream return trip from the Knife river would only take a few weeks.
Many in St. Louis had given up the explorers for dead, but by September of 1806, reports began to filter overland from the town of St. Charles that Lewis and Clark had been sighted.
Before their triumphant return to St. Louis, Lewis, Clark and their corps members spent the final night of their return voyage at Fort Belle Fontaine, the first U.S. military fort west of the Mississippi.
Fort Belle Fontaine was located on the south bank of the Missouri River four miles downstream from the Mississippi River at the mouth of Coldwater Creek, then called La Petite Riviere or sometimes St. Ferdinand River.
This fort was east of St. Charles, so many had gotten advanced news of their impending arrival at the St. Louis riverfront.
At about noon on September 23, 1806, amid public excitement, perhaps some 1,500 St. Louisans watched in awe as a motley-looking group of men in five dugout canoes and a larger boat called the “White Pirogue” rounded a bend of the Mississippi River just north of the riverfront.
The citizens lined the riverbank atop a bluff and began cheering and firing guns into the air to welcome them back.
When Lewis and Clark pulled to shore they were dressed mostly in animal skins and looked like characters out of Robinson Crusoe, though the wealth of information they brought back with them would forever change the nation.
While in St. Louis, Lewis and Clark had the business of discharging the members of the corps and organizing their travel to the East. Before leaving, they were honored by a grand dinner and ball. Among the many toasts, the final was to “Captains (Lewis and Clark) may their perilous services endear them to every American heart.”
As for the men themselves, the return to St. Louis meant different things for different members of the Lewis and Clark crew.
For the soldiers, the return to “civilization” was triumphal and promised rewards of land grants and extra pay.
For the captains Lewis and Clark, high public offices and a nation’s thanks awaited.
For Clark’s slave, York, the landing meant a return to bondage after the taste of freedom he had enjoyed on the expedition.
For the Mandan chief Sheheke and family, who were on their way to Washington to meet President Jefferson, a new world of Anglo-American politics and warnings of westward expansion signaled the beginnings of great changes for the native cultures and people of the West.
The maps subsequently produced from the Lewis and Clark expedition provided the first accurate depiction of the relationships between the sources of the Columbia and Missouri Rivers and the Rocky Mountains, thus allowing for vast settlement of the west and making St. Louis forever known as the gateway to the west.
Now WE know em