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Off the Charts

Going where few cartographers have gone before, the expedition members hope to find a river that will carry them all the way to the Pacific Ocean

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As the winter of 1804 turned finally to spring at Woods River, near St. Louis, Lewis and Clark continued to prepare for their expedition, debriefing traders and merchants about the surrounding area and neighboring tribes. Their primary goal was to find a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. Or, as President Jefferson had put it to Lewis: "The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river [to locate] the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce." To help in this effort, Jefferson had gathered the best geographical information available, including Aaron Arrowsmith's 1802 map, below. (The map, which was to guide the corps, was virtually blank west of the Rocky Mountains.)

Having not heard from home since May 1802, expedition member Sgt. John Ordway had written his brother in September 1803: "Silence on your part...induces me once more to Solicit you to inform me your reasons for your negligence in writing to me. Are you among the living or have you taken your departure for that ‘bourne from whence no traveller returns?" In a later letter to his parents written 200 years ago this month, Ordway describes the expedition's plan to take the Missouri River as far west as it could. He and the other members of the Corps of Discovery believed that the continent could be traversed by a single waterway (with a short overland portage) all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It wasn't until the expedition's return in 1806, when Lewis and Clark reported the Northwest Passage nonexistent, that explorers would abandon their search for an interior water route.

Honored Parence.
Camp River Dubois April the 8th 1804
I now embrace this oppertunity of writing to you once more to let you know where I am and where I am going. I am well thank God, and in high Spirits. I am now on an expidition to the westward, with Capt. Lewis and Capt. Clark, who are appointed by the President of the united States to go on an expidition through the interior parts of North America. We are to ascend the Missouri River with a boat as far as it is navigable and then to go by land, to the western ocean, if nothing prevents, &c.

This party consists of 25 picked Men of the armey & country likewise and I am So happy as to be one of them pick'd Men from the armey, and I and all the party are if we live to Return, to Receive our Discharge when ever we return again to the united States if we chuse it. This place is on the Mississippi River oppisite to the Mouth of the Missouri River and we are to Start in ten days up the Missouri River. This has been our winter quarters. We expect to be gone 18 months or two years. We are to Receive a great Reward for this expidition, when we Return. I am to Receive 15 dollars pr. month and at least 400 ackers of first Rate land, and if we make Great Discoveries as we expect, the united States, has promised to make us Great Rewards more than we are promised, &c. For fear of exidants I wish to inform you that I left 200 dollars in cash, at Kaskaskias....Capt. Clark is bound to See me paid at the time and place where I receive my discharge and if I Should not live to return my heirs can git that and all the pay Due me from the U.S. by applying to the Seat of Government. I have Recd. no letters Since Betseys yet, but will write next winter if I have a chance. Yours, &c.

John Ordway Sergt.

Ordway would survive the expedition and sell his journal of it to Lewis and Clark for $300. He would also leave the Army and move to Missouri, where he would marry. He and his wife, Grace, farmed the land he had earned as a reward for his service to the corps. Ordway's journal was lost for almost a century; it was eventually found among the papers of Nicholas Biddle (the first editor asked to turn the journals into a narrative) and published in 1916.

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