The point of origin of the Lewis and Clark Western Expedition is about as clear as the muddy Missouri River.
Pittsburgh, where the Corps of Discovery’s keelboat was built; Clarksville, Ind., where William Clark joined Meriwether Lewis on their way to St. Louis; and Camp Dubois in Illinois, where the corps wintered in 1803-04, all claim to be the starting point for the historic journey commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson.
But St. Charles, Mo., was the last bastion of civilization for the Corps of Discovery – a place where they repacked their boats, celebrated Mass, enjoyed the hospitality of residents and even held a court martial.
“This was the last real town they were in, they recruited the last of their men here, this is where everyone was finally altogether in one place, this is where they got the last of the supplies,” noted Bill Brecht, executive director of the Lewis & Clark Boathouse and Nature Center.
The boathouse is located on the riverfront in St. Charles near the site where the Corps of Discover camped for five days, waiting for Lewis to rejoin them before heading off on their epic journey.
Clark and his crew arrived in St. Charles on May 16, 1804, and pitched camp on the northern edge of modern-day Frontier Park.
Clark noted in his journal that the town had about 100 houses and 450 residents, whom he described as “pore, polite & harmonius.”
He dined the first night with St. Charles’ power couple, Francois and Marie Duquette, and Don Carlos Tayon, the former Spanish commandante.
Clark wrote that the Duquette’s home was “an eligent Situation on the hill Serounded by orchards & a excellent gardain.”
Clark’s men were invited to a ball by the Duquettes. Three of his soldiers who were supposed to guard the camp got caught trying to slip into the party.
The following day, they were court martialed and found guilty of abandoning their posts; one of the men also was charged with “behaving in an unbecomeing manner at the Ball last night” and received 50 lashes as punishment.
At the urging of Clark, about half the men went to St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church for a Mass likely spoken in French, the language used by the villagers but not understood by most of the men of the corps.
Lewis, who arrived on May 20 after attending to business in St. Louis, was not impressed by the village, writing, “A great majority of inhabitants are miserably pour, illiterate & when at home excessively lazy.”
Finally, on May 21, the expedition was sent off by a boisterous crowd on the banks of the Missouri River.
“We fired our Swivel, from the Bow of our boat, and gave them three Cheers, which they returned,” noted Pvt. Joe Whitehouse.
The Lewis & Clark Boathouse and museum, at 1050 S. Riverside Dr. in St. Charles, is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.