In November 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their companions were descending the Ohio River on their way to St. Louis. By the 19th, they were nearly to the river’s confluence with the Mississippi River; from there, they will travel the Mississippi to its confluence with the Missouri River in the St. Louis area, where they will build a winter camp.
There is no journal entry for Nov. 19, 1803, although astronomical observations were recorded on that day. Their camping spot on November 19 is thought to have been in Alexander County, Illinois, near what is today the community of Cairo. No one is sure.
Although they were still within the barely civilized regions of the country, where some American pioneers lived, they were most keen on learning what was around them. On November 18, William Clark and eight men made a side trip by canoe to view “the ground on which Oald <sic> Fort Jefferson stood,” according to Lewis’ entry of that day.
William’s older brother, George Rogers Clark, established the fort in 1780, naming if after Thomas Jefferson, who was then the governor of Virginia. The fort was abandoned less than 14 months later, leaving behind an unremarkable history. In the ensuing two decades, the fort likely decayed into shambles.
William Clark’s curiosity about it may have been a matter of military duty—to determine the condition of the fort—but he more likely may have been more personally curious because of his older brother’s connection to the Revolutionary War fort.
William was still probably pondering the fort on November 19. How was he going to describe its fate to his brother? George Rogers Clark was 18 years older—he was born, by the way, on a November 19, in 1752. Would George Rogers even be alive whenever William returned to his older brother’s home in Clarksville, Indiana? As it turned out, he still lived, but history doesn’t seem to know what, if anything, William reported to his brother about Fort Jefferson.
By the next November 19—in 1804—the expedition had ascended the Missouri River more than a thousand miles from their place of departure in St. Louis. It was a physically tough journey with almost daily struggles of using rope to pull their 55-foot keelboat against the current. They often did this by wading chest-deep through the muddy water. Mosquitos were a constant plague to everyone, including Lewis’ big Newfoundland dog, Seaman. The humid, hot summer weather of the Midwest extracted a constant toll on their bodies and their minds.
As winter approached, they decided in November to build a fort among the Mandan Indians in the riverside prairie lands of today’s North Dakota. Fort Mandan was completed in mid-November and on the 19th day of the month the explorers busied themselves moving into their new quarters. It was a cold, windy day. Ice was forming on the river and covered the expedition’s boats. Hunters returned to the fort with 32 deer, 12 elk and a buffalo they killed.
“A timely supply,” Clark concluded in his journal.
Their time at Fort Mandan was often spent with the local natives and, as it turned out, learning about bitter rivalries among the tribes inhabiting the region. Lewis and Clark were most interested in what lay to the west and northwest beyond the Mandan Nation. They knew that once they proceeded on in the spring they would enter unmapped wilderness where no white men had traveled. On this November 19, several Indians hung out at the new fort, and it’s likely that they were quizzed—through hand-signs and complex interpretations—about the lay of the land.
By the time Nov. 19, 1805, came around, the explorers had ascended the Missouri River to its source in western Montana, followed the Lolo Trail across the Rocky Mountains in Montana and into Idaho, went down the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers, and were nearing the mouth of the Columbia River—and their westward destination, the Pacific Ocean.
They were in dire straight when they reached the coast. Their elk-skin clothing and moccasins rotted away due the wet coastal climate. Food was critically low and easily spoiled. Trading goods were almost gone. Some men became violently ill. The coastal weather was horrible—terribly cold, frenzied rain fell almost constantly as high winds hindered progress.
For 11 days in early November, gigantic white-capped waves on the river only a few miles from the ocean caused the expedition to become stuck on a dreary headland. Eventually, the gales lessened and the explorers quickly proceeded on and set up camp at today’s Baker’s Bay, northwest across the Columbia from today’s Astoria, Oregon. There, again, they were stranded for another 10 days due to swells—so near was the ocean and yet so far away.
It was from there that Clark decided to explore ahead on foot to better understand what the terrain and opportunities were like. He and 10 men set out on November 18 for what became a two-day journey to the coast.
On November 19, they moved—as Clark wrote in his journey—through “ruged <sic> Country of high hills and Steep hollers,” and “maney <sic> places open with small ponds in which there is a great numbr <sic> of fowl.” They viewed a high point of land in the distance—today’s Leadbetter Point—that Clark wrote about, stating, “I have taken the Liberty of Calling (this point of land) after my particular friend Lewis.”
Clark noted how easily moss grew on fallen trees and that deer along the coast were darker and “deeper bodied,” with shorter horns than deer previously encountered on the expedition. Their eyes were larger, too, and they did not lope like other deer. Instead, they “jump,” he wrote. The deer also had black tails, a species until then not seen by the explorers, who were used to white-tailed deer. The day before, a member of the small party had shot and killed another usual creature: a condor, which had a wingspan of more than nine feet.
On the day of this November 19, Clark reached the sandy coast and saw a dead 10-foot sturgeon washed up on shore, as well as several backbone joints from what he thought came from a whale. On a small pine tree in the vicinity of what is now Long Beach, Washington, he carved in his name and “the Day of the month & year, &…” as a way to memorialize his first visit to the Pacific Ocean.
1806 and beyond:
By the following November 19—this in 1806—Lewis and Clark had arrived, on September 23, back to St. Louis, having traversed 7,500 miles on their roundtrip exploration.
In 1807, Jefferson appointed Lewis as governor of the Louisiana Territory, a position that unfortunately became plagued by political intrigue. Lewis also faced financial challenges and personal depression. He only lived to see three more November 19s after the expedition concluded. His life ended on Oct 11, 1809, under mysterious circumstances along the Natchez Trace in today’s Tennessee.
Meanwhile, Clark lived to see 32 more November 19s. He died Sept. 1, 1838, his post-expedition life marked by a legacy of marriage, children and many accomplishments.