The Starting Point of the Lewis and Clark Trail

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1818
The official location of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail

The starting point of the 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition has changed over time due to the natural occurrence of changing river channels.

It has been over two hundred years since the explorers, Meriwether Lewis and Stanley Clark, made their journey from Camp Wood (also known as Camp Dubois), on the banks of the Mississippi River, to the Pacific coast. This expedition was at the request of President Thomas Jefferson. The purpose was to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean by means of exploring the Missouri River, which was in the newly acquired land of the Louisiana Purchase. The expedition was to include information about tributaries, land, climate, minerals, the various tribes of Native Americans they met along the way – their customs, language, laws, medicine, and beliefs.

Lewis and Clark’s Winter Camp Location

Camp Dubois, winter camp of Lewis and Clark from December 12, 1803 to May 14, 1804, was located near present-day Hartford, Illinois, on the eastern side of the Mississippi River. This meant that it was within United States’ territory. Even though the Louisiana Purchase was in 1803, the United States flag wasn’t raised in Missouri until March 10, 1804.

Shifting of River Channels

Pinpointing the location of Camp Wood (Dubois) based on river channels alone is difficult. Over the past two hundred years, the Missouri River has moved approximately 4.5 miles to the southwest where it discharges into the Mississippi. The Mississippi has also moved over the past two hundred years to the east by three-quarters of a mile, causing the curve of the Illinois side to erode. This shifting of the channel is caused by the natural accumulation of silt deposits. Over time, silt, rocks, and other natural debris build up and block the path the river takes. This causes the river to make a new path, or channel. The result is what was river channel in 1804 is now soil on the Missouri side, and what was land is now river on the Illinois side.

The shift of the Mississippi River has also affected the Wood River in Illinois. As a result of this natural shift, plus the dredging of a new channel done by the Standard Oil Company of Indiana in 1917, the 1804 channel is now cut off by about three miles and the Wood River now empties into the Mississippi approximately three-fifths of a mile north from the 1804 channel.

Based on these changing river channels, the location of Camp Wood is now on the western side of the Mississippi River, in Missouri, instead of the eastern side, in Illinois.

Sources:

  1. The National Parks Service
  2. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources