The Lewis and Clark expedition was the next move directed toward exploring and improving the newly acquired territory. This expedition was planned by the president in the summer of 1803 for the purpose of discovering the courses and sources of the Missouri and the most convenient water communication thence to the Pacific Ocean. Capt. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, both army officers, were given command. The party started in May, 1804, and consisted of nine young men from Kentucky, fourteen soldiers of the United States army who volunteered their services, two French watermen, an interpreter and hunter, and a colored servant of Capt. Clark. In addition to these, who were enlisted for tho whole expedition, a corporal and six soldiers, also nine watermen, were engaged to accompany the expedition as far as the Mandan nation in order to assist in carrying the stores or repelling an attack. This expedition embarked in three boats up the Missouri river. On May 25 they reached LaCharrette, a little settlement of seven houses on the Missouri river, about fifty miles above its mouth in what is now the state of Missouri. This was the last settlement of white people on the Missouri river. From this point onward there was no civilization. Continuing up the river the expedition reached and encamped on a large island of sand on the north side of the Missouri, immediately opposite the mouth of the river Nemeha, on the evening of July 11. As the party proceeded from this point northwest to the mouth of the Niobrara they explored much of what is now the eastern boundary of Nebraska. An account of what they saw is of special interest m this connection. We therefore give their daily journal until the Platte was reached:
“Thursday, 12 (July, 1804). We remained here today for the purpose of refreshing the party and making lunar observations. The Nemaha empties itself into the Missouri from the south, and is eighty yards wide at its confluence, which is in latitude thirty-nine degrees, fifty-five minutes and fifty-six seconds. Capt. Clark ascended it in the pirogue about two miles to the mouth of a small creek on the lower side. Ongoing ashore he found in the level plain several artificial mounds or graves, and on the adjoining hills others of a larger size. This appearance indicates sufficiently the former population of this country, the mounds being certainly intended as tombs, the Indians of the Missouri still preserving the custom of interring the dead on high ground. Prom the top of the highest mound a delightful prospect presented itself the level and extensive meadows watered by the Nemahaw and enlivened by the few trees and shrubs skirting the borders of the river and its tributary streams, the lowland of the Missouri covered with undulating,’ grass nearly five feet high gradually rising Into a second plain, where rich weeds and flowers are interspersed with copses of the Osage plan. Further back are seen small groves of trees and abundance of grapes, the wild cherry of the Missouri resembling our own but larger and growing on a small bush, and the choke cherry which we observed for the first time. Some of the grapes gathered today are nearly ripe. On the south of the Nemahaw and about a quarter of a mile from its mouth is a cliff of freestone in which are various inscriptions and marks made by the Indians. The sand island on which we are encamped is covered with two species of willow, broad and narrow leaf.
“July 13. We proceeded at sunrise with a fair wind from the south, and at two miles passed the mouth, of a small river on the north called Big Torkio. A channel from the bed of the Missouri once ran into this river and formed an island called St. Joseph’s, but the channel is now filled up and the island is added to the northern shore. Further on to the south is situated an extensive plain covered with a grass resembling timothy in its general appearance, except the seed, which is like flaxseed, and also a number of grape vines. At twelve miles we passed an island on the north, above which is a large sandbar covered with willows, and at twenty and a half miles stopped on a large sandbar in the middle of the river, opposite a high, handsome prairie, which extends to the hills four or five miles distant, though near the bank the land is low and subject to be overflowed. This day was exceedingly fine and pleasant; a storm of wind last night from the north northeast having cooled the air.
“July 14. We had some hard showers of rain before 7 o’clock, when we set out. We had just reached the end of the sand island and seen the opposite banks fall in and so lined with timber that we could not approach it without danger, when a sudden squall from the northeast struck the boat on the starboard quarter, and would have certainly dashed her to pieces on the sand island if the party had not leaped into the river, and with the aid of the anchor and cable kept her off, the waves dashing over her for the space of forty minutes, after which the river became almost instantly calm and smooth. The two pirogues were ahead in a situation nearly similar, but fortunately no damage was done to the boats or the loading. The wind having shifted to the southeast, we came at a distance of two miles to an island on the north. One mile above, on the same side of the river, is a small factory, where a merchant of St. Louis traded with the Otoes and Pawnees two years ago. Near this is an extensive lowland, part of which is overflowed occasionally. The rest is rich and well timbered. The wind again changed to the northwest by north. At seven and a half miles we reached the lower point of a large island on the north side. A small distance above this point is a river called by the Maha (now Omaha) Indians, the Nishnabatona. This is a considerable creek, nearly as large as the Mine River, and runs parallel to the Missouri the greater part of its course, being fifty yards wide at its mouth. In the prairies or glades we saw wild timothy, lambs quarter, huckleberries, and on the edge of the river summer grapes, plums and gooseberries. We also saw today for the first time some elk, at which some of the party shot, but at too great a distance. We encamped on the north side of the island, a little above Nishnabatona, having made nine miles. The river fell a little.
“July 15. A thick fog prevented our leaving the encampment before 7. At about four miles we reached the extremity of the large island, and crossing to the south (side of the Missouri) at the distance of seven miles, arrived at the Little Nemaha, a small river from the south, forty yards wide a little above its mouth, but contracting as do almost all the water emptying into the Missouri at its confluence. At nine and three quarters miles we encamped on a woody point on the south. Along the southern bank is a rich lowland covered with pea vine and rich weeds and watered by small streams rising in the adjoining prairies. They, too, are rich, and though with abundance of grass, have no timber except what grows near the water. Interspersed through both are grape vines, plums of two kinds, two species of wild cherry, hazelnuts and gooseberries. On the south there is one unbroken plain; on the north the river is skirted with some timber, behind which the plain extends some four or five miles to the hills, which seem to have little wood.
“July 16. We continued our route between a large island opposite to our last night’s encampment and an extensive prairie on the south. About six miles we came to another large island called Fairsun Island, on the same side, above which is a spot where about twenty acres of the hill have fallen into the river. Near this is a cliff of sandstone for two miles, which is much frequented by birds. At this place the river is about one mile wide, but not deep, as the timber or sawyers may be seen scattered across the whole bottom. At twenty miles distance we saw on the south an island called by the French I’Isle Chance, or Bald Island, opposite to a large prairie which we called Baldpoint Prairie, from a ridge of naked hills that bound it, running parallel with the river so far as we could see and from three to six miles distance. To the south the hills touch the river. We encamped a quarter of a mile beyond this in a point of woods on the north side. The river continues to fall.
“Tuesday, July 17. We remained here this day in order to make observations and correct the chronometer, which ran down on Sunday. The latitude we found to be forty degrees, twenty-seven minutes, five seconds. The observation of the time proved our chronometer to be slow five minutes, fifty-one seconds. The highlands bear from our camp north twenty-five degrees west up the river. Capt. Lewis rode up the country and saw the Nishnabatona about ten or twelve miles from its mouth, at a place not more than three hundred yards from the Missouri, and a little above our camp. It then passes near the foot of the Bald Hills and is at least six feet below the level of the Missouri. On its banks are the oak, walnut and mulberry.
“Wednesday, July 18. We passed several bad sandbars in the course of the day, and made eighteen miles, and encamped on the south (of the Missouri), opposite to the lower point of the Oven Islands. An Indian dog came to the bank. He appeared to have been lost, and was nearly starved. We gave him some food, but he would not follow us.
“Thursday, July 19. The Oven Islands are small and two in number, one near the south shore, the other in the middle of the river. Opposite to them is the prairie called Terrien’s Oven, from a trader of that name. We encamped on the western extremity of the island in the middle of the river, having made ten and three-quarters miles.
“Friday, July 20. We passed at about three miles distance a small willow island to the north and a creek on the south about twenty-five yards wide, by the French called L’eau qui Pleure, or the Weeping Water. Thence we made two and one-half miles to another island, three miles farther to a third, six miles beyond which is a fourth island, at the head of which we camped on the southern shore; (made) in all eighteen miles.
“Saturday, July 21. We had a breeze from the southeast, by the aid of which we passed at about ten miles a willow island on the south, near highlands, covered with timber at the bank and formed of limestone with cemented shells. On the opposite bank is a sandbar, and the land near it is cut through at high water by small channels, forming a number of islands. The wind lulled at 7 o’clock and we reached, in the rain, at the distance of fourteen miles, the great river Platte.”
On the morning of the 22d of July the party again set sail, and having found at a distance of ten miles from the mouth of the Platte a high and shaded situation on the north side of the Missouri, they encamped there to make observations and to send for the neighboring tribes for the purpose of making known to them the recent change in the government and the wish of the United States to cultivate their friendship. That time of the year was the one in which the Indians go out into the prairies to hunt the buffalo, but as some hunters’ tracks had been discovered and as the plains were on fire in the direction of the Indian villages, it was hoped they might have returned to gather the green corn. Two men were, therefore, dispatched to the Otoe or Pawnee villages with a present of tobacco and an invitation to the chiefs to visit the company at their encampment. Their first course was through an open prairie to the south, in which they crossed Butterfly creek. They then reached a small, beautiful river called Come de Cerf, or Elkhorn River, about one hundred yards wide, with clear water and a gravelly channel. It emptied a little below the Otoe village into the Platte, which they crossed, and arrived at the town, about forty-five miles from the point of starting. They found no Indians there, though they saw some fresh tracks of a small party.
In the daily journal which was kept by Lewis and Clark an extended account is given of a remarkable prehistoric earthwork which they visited before they reached the Niobrara. It was on the south side of the Missouri river, in the north part of what is now Knox County, Nebraska. The journal says: “This earthwork is opposite the upper extremity of Bonhomme Island, and in a low, level plain, the hills being three miles from the river. It begins by a wall composed of earth, rising immediately from the bank of the river, and running in a direct course south seventy-six degrees west, ninety-six yards. The base of this wall or mound is seventy-five feet and its height about eight. It then diverges in a course south eighty-four degrees west, and continues at the same height and depth to a distance of fifty-three yards, the angle being formed by a sloping descent. At the junction of these two is an appearance of a horn work of the same height as the first angle. The same wall then pursues a course northwest for three hundred yards. Near its western extremity is an opening or gateway at right angles to the wall, defended by two semicircular walls placed before it, and from the gateway there seems to have been a covered way communicating with the interval between these two walls. Westward of the gate the wall becomes much larger being about one hundred and five feet at its base and twelve feet high. At the end of this high ground the wall extends for fifty-six yards on a course north thirty-two degrees west. It then turns north twenty-three degrees west for seventy-three yards. These two walls seem to have had a double or covered way. They are from ten to fifteen feet in height, and from seventy-five to one hundred and five in width at the base, the descent inward being steep while outward it forms a sort of glacis. At the distance of seventy-three yards the wall ends abruptly at a large hollow place, much lower than the general level of the plain, and from which is some indication of a covered way to the water. The space between them is occupied by several mounds scattered promiscuously through the gorge, in the center of which is a deep, round hole. From the extremity of the last wall, in a course north thirty-two degrees west, is a distance of ninety-six yards over the low ground, where the wall recommences and crosses the plain in a course north eighteen degrees west for eighteen hundred and thirty yards to the bank of the Missouri. In this course its height is about eight feet till it enters at the distance of five hundred and thirty-three yards a deep circular pond of seventy-three yards in diameter, after which it is gradually lower toward the river. It touches the river at a muddy bar which bears every mark of being an encroachment of the water for a considerable distance, and a little above the injunction is a small circular redoubt.
Along the bank of the river and at eleven hundred yards distance, in a straight line from this wall, is a second wall about six feet high and of considerable width. It rises abruptly from the bank of the Missouri at a point where the river bends, and goes straight forward, forming an acute angle with the last wall till it enters the river again, not far from the mounds just described, toward which it is obviously tending. At the bend the Missouri is five hundred yards wide, the ground on the opposite side highlands, or low hills on the bank, and where the river passes between this fort and Bonhomme Island all the distance from the bend it is constantly washing the banks into the stream, a large sand bank being already taken from the shore near the wall. During the whole course of this wall or glacis, it is covered with trees, among which are many large cotton trees two or three feet in diameter. Immediately opposite the citadel, or the part most strongly fortified on Bonhomme Island, is a small work in a circular form, with a wall surrounding it about six feet high. The young willows along the water joined to the general appearance of the two shores induces a belief that the bank of the island is encroaching, and the Missouri indemnifies itself by washing away the base of the fortification. The citadel contains about twenty acres, but the parts between the long walls must embrace nearly five hundred acres.”
- Additional Offsite Resources
- Otoes, A Powerful Nation
Source: Compendium of History Reminiscence & Biography of Western Nebraska, Alden Publishing Company, Chicago, 1912