Getting Fast in Georgetown: Meriwether Lewis and the low Ohio

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September 5, 1803

At daybreak the fog lay heavily on the river as it had nearly every morning since Capt. Meriwether Lewis and his party of eleven soldiers and hired hands left Pittsburgh six days earlier. As he directed the morning activity of the camp at the northern tip of Virginia (present-day Chester, WV) and waited for the fog to disperse, Lewis may have reflected that for someone who hoped to traverse the continent, much of it terra incognito, the beginning of the voyage had been less than auspicious. He undoubtedly looked forward to reaching Wheeling, where the river would deepen, allowing Lewis and his men to spend more time in the boats and less of their day in the water dragging the boats over the numerous sandbars that awaited anyone traveling the shallow upper Ohio River. Though widely considered the most beautiful waterway in the fledgling United States, the Ohio upstream of Wheeling was notoriously difficult to navigate in low water and as Lewis would write in a letter to President Thomas Jefferson several days later, the water level in the autumn of 1803 was “lower than it has ever been known by the oldest settler in this country,” a scant six inches deep in some places. The pattern since leaving Pittsburgh had been thus: float several miles, get fast on a sandbar, drag the boat off, repeat.

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Lewis had arrived in Pittsburgh on July 15th, anxious to disembark soon after and join his partner, Lt. William Clark, who awaited him further downstream in Kentucky. Lewis had expected to find a 55-foot keelboat finished and ready to descend the river; what awaited him was the frame of an unfinished craft and a drunken boat builder with corn whiskey on his breath and a ready supply of excuses and empty promises. Lewis sent some of his baggage overland to Wheeling and then attempted to oversee construction of the vessel while the boat builder continued to drink. On August 31st. , two weeks after his arrival, the keelboat was completed. He and his men loaded the craft and a large canoe that Lewis had also purchased, and left three hours later.

Built in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1803, Meriwether Lewis's keelboat was 55 feet long, 8 feet across the beam (width), had a draught of 3 feet, and a burthen of 12 tons.
Built in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1803, Meriwether Lewis’s keelboat was 55 feet long, 8 feet across the beam (width), had a draught of 3 feet, and a burthen of 12 tons.

The first four days of travel had been nearly as frustrating as the wait. On the morning of the 4th, after having left their camp near present-day Beaver, PA they had traveled for only an hour when the “pirouge” (a canoe that speaks French) [1] sprang a leak and nearly sank, a mishap Lewis considered “truly distressing, as her load consisting of articles of hard-ware, intended for the Indians got wet and I fear are much damaged.” Having bailed out the water and jury-rigged the craft as best they could, they set off again and had floated only three miles further when the keelboat “got fast on a bar” just below Georgetown, PA.

Georgetown hadn’t exactly blossomed since it was founded by Maryland native, Benoni Dawson, a decade earlier. When Lewis arrived on that autumn day in 1803, it was still an insignificant village, described by traveler William Newton Mercer as “the last and among the least towns in Pennsylvania.” Christian Schultz, writing several years later, was more specific: “The character of Georgetown is not much esteemed by navigators of the Ohio; it is particularly pointed out as being inhabited by a set of quarrelsome fellows…” Meriwether Lewis, as it turned out, would not have disagreed. He and his men could not dislodge the keelboat from the “Georgetown Bar” without the aid of horses or oxen. Reluctantly, he sent to Georgetown for help. He had hired locals for the same purpose since leaving Pittsburgh and wasn’t pleased with the prospect, explaining that “The inhabitants who live near these riffles live much by the distresed situation of [the] traveller, are generally lazy, charge extravegantly when they are called on for assistance, and have no filantrophy or contience [sic].” Although it is not known how much was paid for the assistance, the additional help enabled them to dislodge the vessel, although still “with much difficulty.” Lewis also took advantage of the interruption to purchase another French-speaking canoe as well as to hire an additional hand by the name of Wilkinson to replace another he had dismissed at Beaver.[2] Whether Lewis was overcharged for the help in getting the keelboat dislodged from the bar is unknown – that he was swindled by whomever sold him the canoe and two poles he purchased for $11 is certain, for they had hardly gotten underway once more when Lewis discovered that the new pirouge leaked as badly as the older one, dangerously so. Lewis had no choice: both canoes were unsafe and though it was still early evening, he determined to stop for the night. Finding a suitable location a couple of miles below Georgetwon “on the east short,” [3] Lewis set his men to work repairing both of the watercraft and laying out the soggy gifts to dry in the sun. By nightfall the items were dry and Lewis ordered them wrapped in oilcloth and repacked in wooden casks. He was pleased to note in his journal that the “articles were not as much injured as I had supposed.” Still, it hadn’t been the best day.

This page from Zadok Cramer's Navigator (1821 edition) shows the same approximate area as depicted in the map above. Lewis undoubtedly carried a copy of this indispensable river guide on his journey down the Ohio river.
This page from Zadok Cramer’s Navigator (1821 edition) shows the same approximate area as depicted in the map above. Lewis undoubtedly carried a copy of this indispensable river guide on his journey down the Ohio river.

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Although September 4th had been frustrating, Lewis probably found it difficult to be pessimistic the next morning as the rising sun chased away the fog. He stepped onto the keelboat, his Newfoundland dog, Seaman, at his side and directed the men to disembark. It was 8 a.m. as they set off. Although they “got fast” on several more occasions, he found it unnecessary to hire any more assistance from lazy, over-charging locals before reaching Wheeling two days later, having traveled 90 miles since leaving Pittsburgh. In Georgetown, someone may have been rather pleased with himself for selling the leaky canoe, little dreaming that he had bilked what would become one of our nation’s most celebrated journeys of discovery, the Lewis & Clark Expedition. It was a mere footnote to an enterprise that would take the men across the continent and back, but on the shallow upper Ohio in that autumn of 1803, Virginia native Capt. Meriwether Lewis may have earned an extra measure of the patience, fortitude, and perseverance for which he would be remembered.

  1. A careful reading of the journal indicates that Lewis used the terms “pirogue” and “canoe” interchangeably.
  2. The “hand by the name of Wilkinson” who Lewis had hired at Georgetown was dismissed in Marietta on September 13th.
  3. It is interesting to speculate on Lewis’s use of “on the east shore” when referring to the party’s camp on the night of September 4th. A glance at the map will show that the Virginia shore would have been south and the Ohio shore north. Did Lewis mean Virginia, which would be the eastern shore once the group turned south soon after leaving the next morning or the eastern shore as it had been since they’d left Pittsburgh, in which case Lewis and his men would have camped for the night somewhere near Fawcettstown, now East Liverpool, in Ohio?

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