May of 1804 saw Captain Meriwether Lewis, formerly secretary to President Jefferson, and Captain William Clark of Virginia launch out from Wood River opposite St. Louis, where they had kept their men encamped all winter on the east side of the Mississippi, waiting until the formal transfer of Louisiana for the long journey of exploration to the sources of the Missouri and the Columbia. Their escort consisted of twenty soldiers, eleven voyageurs, and nine frontiersmen. The main craft was a keel boat fifty-five feet long, of light draft, with square-rigged sail and twenty-two oars, and tow-line fastened to the mast pole to track the boat upstream through rapids. An American flag floated from the prow, and behind the flag the universal types of progress everywhere—goods for trade and a swivel-gun. Horses were led alongshore for hunting, and two pirogues—sharp at prow, broad at stern, like a flat-iron or a turtle—glided to the fore of the keel boat.
[Illustration: Captain Meriwether Lewis.]
The Missouri was at flood tide, turbid with crumbling clay banks and great trees torn out by the roots, from which keel boat and pirogues sheered safely off. For the first time in history the Missouri resounded to the Fourth of July guns; and round camp-fire the men danced to the strains of a voyageur’s fiddle. Usually, among forty men is one traitor, and Liberte must desert on pretence of running back for a knife; but perhaps the fellow took fright from the wild yarns told by the lonely-eyed, shaggy-browed, ragged trappers who came floating down the Platte, down the Osage, down the Missouri, with canoe loads of furs for St. Louis. These men foregathered with the voyageurs and told only too true stories of the dangers ahead. Fires kindled on the banks of the river called neighboring Indians to council. Council Bluffs commemorates one conference, of which there were many with Iowas and Omahas and Ricarees and Sioux. Pause was made on the south side of the Missouri to visit the high mound where Blackbird, chief of the Omahas, was buried astride his war horse that his spirit might forever watch the French voyageurs passing up and down the river.
[Illustration: Captain William Clark.]
By October the explorers were sixteen hundred miles north of St. Louis, at the Mandan villages near where Bismarck stands to-day. The Mandans welcomed the white men; but the neighboring tribes of Ricarees were insolent. “Had I these white warriors on the upper plains,” boasted a chief to Charles Mackenzie, one of the Northwest Fur Company men from Canada, “my young men on horseback would finish them as they would so many wolves; for there are only two sensible men among them, the worker of iron [blacksmith] and the mender of guns.” Four Canadian traders had already been massacred by this chief. Captain Lewis knew that his company must winter on the east side of the mountains, and there were a dozen