Portrait by Jacques-Louis David, here cropped.
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson dispatched “envoy extraordinaire” James Monroe to France to second our minister there in negotiations to reopen the Mississippi River to American traffic. If they couldn’t buy New Orleans, they were to obtain a “perpetual” right of transit to the Gulf.
Instead, of course, Napoleon sold all of Louisiana to the U.S. He was about to renew the war with Great Britain, needed the money, and knew he might lose the region anyway.
The mission to France addressed the immediate concerns of Jefferson’s constituents west of the Appalachians, but the President also had larger plans. He had a long-standing interest in exploring the West. Then he learned that a British-Canadian fur trader had crossed the Continental Divide, and reached the Pacific via a land route.
He decided to counter with an American expedition … to bolster a claim on the vast northwest region. Thus, when the negotiators returned, preparations for the Lewis & Clark Expedition were already in progress. The Purchase simply meant that the Corps of Discovery would be exploring American territory as far as the Continental Divide.
On the same day five years after the Treaty consummation -- October 1, 1805 -- Sergeant Patrick Gass of the Corps wrote in his journal, “This was a fine pleasant warm day. All the men are now able to work; but the greater number are very weak. To save them from hard labour, we have adopted the Indian method of burning out the canoes.”
They had started canoe construction a few days earlier, but the work had gone slowly because many men suffered from intestinal complaints, probably because of a switch to an unfamiliar diet of roots and dried fish. Stephen Ambrose, in his excellent book about the Corps, Undaunted Courage, wrote that they “put them over a slow-burning fire trench and burned them out.”
|Idaho Travel Council.|
While it can be done that way, and perhaps some were, an alternate method is as effective and much more controllable: piling hot coals on the surface and letting them eat into the wood. Periodically, workers scoop off the coals and chop out the charred wood. They did at least a few that way because Sergeant John Ordway wrote, “built fires on some of them to burn them out. Found them to burn verry well.”
The canoes were completed less than a week later. The final transport vessels weighed well over a ton.
They set out down the Clearwater River on the 7th. The very next day, they had their first mishap on the river: The canoe piloted by Sergeant Gass hit a hidden rock and cracked. One man was slightly injured, and most of their load got wet. They spent the next day letting the baggage dry and fixing the canoe.
The following day they reached the Snake River, leaving (the future) Idaho. They would not return for six months.
|Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, Simon & Shuster, New York (1996).|
|Patrick Gass, Carol Lynn Macgregor (ed.), The Journals of Patrick Gass, Mountain Press Publishing Company; Missoula, Montana (1997).|
|Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Gary E. Moulton (Ed.), The Definitive Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (2002). Journals Online.|