Sailed, rowed, poled or towed – Westward Journey Keelboat Nickel

Today, the Westward Journey Keelboat Nickel tells the story of where the Corps of Discovery were 210 years ago.

On June 20, 1803 shortly after the initial discussions for the Louisiana Purchase, President Jefferson wrote lengthy and detailed instructions to Meriwether Lewis for the exploration of the new territory:

“To Meriwether Lewis, esquire, Captain of the 1st regiment of infantry of the United States of America.

“Your situation as Secretary of the President of the United States has made you acquainted with the objects of my confidential message of Jan. 18, 1803, to the legislature. You have seen the act they passed, which, tho’ expressed in general terms, was meant to sanction those objects, and you are appointed to carry them into execution.”

In one paragraph, the President identified the overall objective:

“The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by its course & communication with the water of the Pacific ocean may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.”

But in the details, Jefferson wanted to know much more such as the map coordinates, the flora and fauna, the terrain and the interactions with the natives.

Shortly afterwards, Lewis and his friend, William Clark, began gathering their requirements from supplies to scientific instruments to their team to their traveling equipment.

Since they planned much of their journey using the waterways, they ordered boat builders to adapt a 55-foot keelboat for their journey.

A keelboat is a roughly built, shallow freight boat with a keel to permit sailing into the wind.

Their modified keelboat could be sailed, rowed, poled like a raft or towed from the riverbank.

In addition, they ordered two wooden row boats, similar to dugout canoes, called Pirogues as support for carrying several of their group and their supplies.

With the keelboat ready for travel, Lewis began the 981-mile journey down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh on August 31, 1803.

On October 14, 1803, Lewis met Clark at Louisville. Together, they continued their preparatory journey to Camp DuBois where they would spend the winter at the mouth of the Missouri River.

In the spring of 1804, President Jefferson finalized the Louisiana Purchase.

On May 14, 1804, Clark began moving the men, equipment and supplies up river to St. Charles while Lewis finalized their business in St. Louis.

On May 21, 1804, the Corps of Discovery began their odyssey from St. Charles with an overall team of less than 35 people.

Over the next few months they journeyed up the Missouri.

By October they traveled up the Missouri into what is now South Dakota.

On October 17, 1804, 210 years ago, the team camped in Sioux County, North Dakota just south of where the Cannonball River enters the Missouri.

The diary read,

“the river wider than usual and full of sandbars. wind from the northwest then became so strong that we could not move after ten o’clock, until late in the afternoon, when we were forced to use the towline and therefore made only six miles.”

The Westward Journey Keelboat Nickel shows against another keelboat in Virginia circa 1875.

Westward Journey Keelboat Nickel