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Camp River Dubois
By Dr. Charles E. White and Lieutenant Colonel Mark J. Reardon

Although the expedition had successfully traversed the distance between Pittsburgh and St. Louis by 11 December 1803, Captain Meriwether Lewis knew the most challenging part of the journey was yet to come. Accordingly, Lewis planned to fully utilize the winter of 1803 - 1804 to make the final necessary arrangements, refine and test load plans for the expedition's three watercraft, and to mold the officers and men into a cohesive group capable of withstanding great hardships.

Rather than spend the winter at one of the nearby frontier forts, Captain Lewis tasked his co-commander, Captain William Clark, to have the men build their own camp. Lewis viewed the project as an opportunity to gain valuable experience that would later serve the expedition well. Additionally, the project would allow him to judge which men were most proficient with woodworking tools and masonry; skills that would prove to useful when the expedition began living off the land after it departed Missouri. In accordance with Lewis' instructions, Captain William Clark took the party upriver about eighteen miles to the mouth of the Wood River, a small stream that flowed into the Mississippi River directly across from the mouth of the Missouri River. Here, Clark and the men constructed Camp River Dubois, which was finished by Christmas Eve 1803.

Once their winter camp was completed, Captain Clark shifted his emphasis to carrying out a rigorous program of individual and unit training. With Clark taking care of training, Lewis was free to collect supplies from local merchants and gather additional information on the region that the expedition would cross during their journey to the Pacific. Throughout the winter months, Clark molded the men into a smoothly functioning team employing a daily regimen of close order drill, school of the soldier, equipment inspections, and marksmanship training. The latter skill was especially important since the expedition would depend on hunting for food to supplement the rations they brought along. In order to develop a competitive spirit, Captain Clark held occasional contests among the volunteers (and against local traders) to determine who was the best shot.

When the expedition was not busy conducting individual and unit training, Clark focused their efforts on preparing their watercraft for the journey. With the help of river men from Cahokia, Clark had his soldiers modify and arm the keelboat and two smaller pirogues, waterproof and pack supplies, load and reload the boats until they were considered "seaworthy", and then rehearse maneuvering them on the river while fully loaded. Discipline was tough as Captain Clark focused on ensuring his soldiers knew by heart how to perform critical mission related tasks on both river and land.

Daily inspections by the non-commissioned officers kept the camp clean, neat, and orderly, and ensured that the men took proper care of themselves, their weapons, and their assigned equipment. Captain Clark dealt firmly with any form of insubordination or misbehavior. At the same time he rewarded the winners of marksmanship contests and those who distinguished themselves on their work details. Clark's approach to unit discipline proved effective, as the expedition recorded only five minor infractions during its two-and-a-half-year trek to the Pacific Ocean, a record unmatched by any other Army unit of the time.

Overseeing preparations for the next leg of the expedition's trek consumed much of the personal time of Captains Lewis, who spent days at a time coordinating the acquisition of information and goods from the merchants of St. Louis and the nearby town of Cahokia. Since Captain Clark often accompanied Lewis on his trips, Sergeant John Ordway, the expedition's senior noncommissioned officer, frequently found himself in sole charge of Camp River Dubois for days on end. After initially testing his authority, the men came to respect and admire Sergeant Ordway, a clear demonstration that the expedition's non-commissioned officers were worthy of the trust that had been placed in them by Captains Lewis and Clark.

In turn, both captains supported their non-commissioned officers by firmly dealing with any form of insubordination or misbehavior, especially when it was directed against a sergeant or corporal. The first time this occurred, Captain Lewis admonished the recruits and pointed out the importance of noncommissioned officers in the chain of command. He informed the men that he and Captain Clark would be derelict in their own duties if they were "to communicate our orders in person" to every member of the expedition.

Captain Lewis was constantly interested in identifying which soldiers possessed critical skills and encouraging them to further develop their talents. In addition to devoting his own efforts to making preparations for the expedition's departure next spring, Lewis planned to use the period spent in winter quarters to test the leadership skills of his non-commissioned officers. He knew that the expedition might be forced to split up into smaller independent groups in order to simultaneously accomplish numerous missions. Lewis consistently strove to instill the enlisted members of the expedition with confidence in the leadership abilities and technical skills of their non-commissioned officers, most of whom they had not met before.

On 31 March 1804, Lewis and Clark held a solemn ceremony to enlist the men they had selected as members of "the Detachment destined for the Expedition through the interior of the Continent of North America." In addition to the eleven men previously selected, Lewis and Clark chose: Sergeant John Ordway, Corporal Richard Warfington, and Privates Patrick Gass, John Boley, John Collins, John Dame, Robert Frazer, Silas Goodrich, Hugh Hall, Thomas Howard, Hugh McNeal, John Potts, Moses Reed, John Robertson, John Thompson, Ebenezer Tuttle, Peter Weiser, William Werner, Isaac White, Alexander Willard, and Richard Windsor.

In their Mission Orders of 1 April 1804, Captains Lewis and Clark divided the men into three squads led by Sergeants Pryor, Floyd, and Ordway. Another group of five soldiers led by Corporal Warfington would accompany the expedition to its winter quarters and then return to St. Louis in 1805 with communiqués and specimens collected thus far.

The intense training program and extensive logistical preparations paid off on 14 May 1084, when the keelboat and both pirogues of the expedition cast off to the cheers of crowds lining the bank of the Missouri River. The soldiers, clad in their best uniforms, waved back to the admiring throngs. The faces of the spectators clearly displayed the thrill many felt at the prospects of expanded commerce and enhanced international prestige to be gained. For their part, the members of the expedition experienced a different sense of excitement, which could be characterized as a keen sense of anticipation at the prospect of embarking on a journey of unknown duration in unexplored lands.

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