St. Louis: Gateway to the West

Two generations after its founding St. Louis became central to the most ambitious, overland expedition in U.S. history. Its leaders were past military comrades with diverse talents that complemented each other brilliantly. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left lasting impressions on the nation and transformed St. Louis into the Gateway to the West. For anyone wishing to pick up their historic trail in the mid-Mississippi River Valley, St. Louis is an excellent place to begin and to end, even as they did in 1803 and 1806.

Although in truth, the end of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806 marked new beginnings for both men in St. Louis.

William Clark lived the rest ( latter half ) of his life here. Meriwether Lewis governed the Louisiana Territory from St. Louis.

Following his tragic death, Clark was appointed by President Jefferson to govern the Missouri Territory. These were enormous areas that Jefferson believed Lewis and Clark  uniquely qualified to govern, for they had mapped a great part of them and grasped their complexities – of terrain, people, languages, life styles, and cultures.

President Jefferson also appointed William Clark the Superintendent of Indian Affairs of Upper Louisiana. Pioneers who wanted free land out the Oregon Trail had to obtain permission for it, in person, from William Clark in St. Louis, opening St. Louis to a flood of adventurers from the East.

Everything needed for the journey west could be purchased in St. Louis – wagons, cutlery, sugar and flour, clothing  – which marked the start of the Oregon Trail for thousands.

William Clark witnessed enormous changes in St. Louis – from a French-speaking village of over one hundred dwellings (including Creole mansions), to a bustling river port with limestone bluffs carved out to create a proper levee, finally a rapidly expanding city. But he would barely recognize it today, there is so little left of the St. Louis he governed from.

Market Street (originally Rue de La Place), which Lewis and Clark climbed to reach St. Louis from the river, has long since disappeared into a national park below Third Street/Memorial Drive.

The gleaming leg of a steel arch stands where Auguste Chouteau’s elegant mansion  welcomed him and St. Louis now stretches in places all the way to the Missouri River.

There is still a Catholic Church in the original church block. The Greek Revival cathedral of limestone that replaced the vertical post church standing when he and Lewis arrived, has stood the test of time; completed just four years before Clark died. But St. Louis’ French colonial churches and first cemetery are gone.

To get a sense of that earlier church and the handsome, Federal-style home that Clark built in the grassy area just north of the Gateway Arch, you must cross the Mississippi and visit Holy Family Log Church and Nicholas Jarrot’s Mansion in Cahokia, Illinois, which have survived into the 21st century ten minutes from the Gateway Arch.

Cahokia was a much earlier settlement than St. Louis. But its situation in a flood plain of the Great American Bottom prevented it from flourishing as did Pierre Laclede’s fur trading post, which he set high above the mighty Mississippi, safe from its flood waters.

The Courthouse in Cahokia, now a marvelously atmospheric museum, was the post office from which Meriwether Lewis mailed reports back to President Jefferson in Washington, D.C. before the expedition started out.

Jefferson had personally mentored Lewis and knew well the measure of the gentleman soldier he dispatched to the furthest, western reaches of the continent – not only as scientist and explorer but as presidential emissary to tribal nations whose spoken languages and traditions were unknown in the East.

You don’t get a sense of the immensity of that task from downtown St. Louis or even from Cahokia, which have been settled for hundreds of years. For that you must travel to Camp River Dubois, Illinois – a twenty-five minute drive from the Poplar Street Bridge.

There on a bright, summer’s day like today cicadas and songbirds drown out the sounds of cars and buses. Only the occasional train whistle, heard from near or far across the drought-ridden cornfields, overpowers them.

For this rural area of Wood River, Illinois remains almost as bucolic as it did when Meriwether Lewis secured permission from Nicholas Jarrot to establish a winter camp on property he owned near the mouth of the Missouri River, some thirty miles north of his Cahokia home.

Here, in the middle of nowhere, a crew of forty-four workmen built a winter encampment under the direction of Capt. William Clark, who trained and shaped them into a corps while Capt. Meriwether Lewis conducted business critical to the expedition in St. Louis.

This included procuring medical supplies from Dr. Antoine Saugrain, whose garden included many healing plants.

Camp River Dubois became the point of departure for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, whose instructions from President Jefferson were daunting: to chart a route to the Pacific Ocean from the Missouri River, to establish friendly relations with native peoples along the way, to record observations of plant and animal life with particular emphasis on species unknown in the eastern United States and to send samples of plant and animal life along with progress reports back to Washington, D.C.; all of which they accomplished in varying degrees.

The most stunning exhibit at the Camp River Dubois Historic Site is a life-size/fifty-five foot model of the keel boat on which the Corps of Discovery ascended the Missouri River to the Great Plains.

It is ingeniously crafted with a cross-section that allows visitors to see how the keel boat was packed, along with a sampling of the boat’s contents, sleeping quarters, abbreviated upper deck and towering canvas mast.

To the tribal people who caught sight of it plying its course over the Missouri, it must have seemed like something out of a dream.

Recreations of a settlers’ cabin with its kitchen garden and the fort which housed the Corps until they embarked for the Pacific Ocean on May 14, 1804 are other wonderful features of the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site, which has suffered from a lack of funding during the nation’s and the State of Illinois’ economic hard times.

But volunteer docents and crafts people do an excellent job of maintaining Camp River Dubois and telling its wonderful stories. This is a great place for a class or a family outing, with a small but very fine gift shop and a theater in which a film is shown about the Corps of Discovery and their winter encampment near the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers.

Just before their departure, Captain Clark and his crew rendezvoused with Captain Lewis in St. Charles, Missouri where they had been entertained at dinners and dances. Lewis made his way overland from St. Louis arriving on St. Charles Rock Road. His visits to St. Louis were marked by hospitality and the acquisition of maps and information from the Chouteaus that would prove invaluable to the expedition. Main Street in St. Charles, Missouri is a charming place to explore with its shops, restaurants and early capitol building of the State of Missouri.

The Corps would close up camp and depart the next day. On their first night after leaving Camp River Dubois , they camped on an island near the site of Fort Bellefontaine (beautiful fountain, named for a nearby spring) which was lost when the Missouri River shifted its channel. On the final night of their return journey over two years later, they stayed at a fort which had been constructed in 1805 and shopped at the trading post before returning to “civilization” in St. Louis the following day. The overlook from the bluffs in Fort Bellefontaine Park ( located on the south side of the Missouri River) is lovely. During the 1930s a great staircase was constructed on the site by WPA workers. It has the reputation of being haunted because of bloodstains that appear in photos taken of it, that cannot be erased. There is a good hiking trail in this rustic, river park frequented by deer and other wildlife.

Lewis and Clark were met with astonishment and delight upon their return to St. Louis. Everyone left their houses and came out to greet them for they were believed lost, the journey had taken so long. Just three years later, in 1809, Meriwether Lewis was dead. But William Clark lived on until 1838, raising his children here and helping to charter the first Episcopal parish, Christ Church, in St. Louis.

There are many places in and around downtown St. Louis specific to Lewis and Clark – from the site of Dr. Antoine Saugrain’s home and surgery, where Lewis went for treatment of malaria* and medical supplies, to St. Louis Place, a skyscraper at Broadway and Olive Street, bearing a plaque that commemorates the death place of William Clark.

The Arch grounds are especially significant as the site of Clark’s home, Indian Council Room and of St. Louis College where his children were educated. The Museum of Westward Expansion beneath the Arch, traces the course of the Lewis and Clark Expedition from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean with photographs, exhibits and artifacts.

Clark’s grave site in Bellefontaine Cemetery marks the end of the Lewis and Clark Trail in St. Louis. William Clark was buried on land belonging to his nephew, John O’ Fallon, which in 1849 became incorporated into the elegantly landscaped, garden cemetery where the remains of so many other famous St. Louisans lie; none more critical to the evolution of the United States of America than William Clark.

References:*Uncovering the Truth About Meriwether Lewis -Thomas Danisi, Prometheus Books, 2012; The Point of Departure brochure for the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site; and Lewis & Clark in St. Louis – a commemorative booklet edited by David Lancaster, assisted by Amanda E. Doyle and published by WHERE International, LLP.

Illustrations: St. Louis, Missouri 1846 – in the public domain at; Detail from the Map of the Lewis and Clark Expedition – in the public domain at; Breaking Up Camp at Sunrise by Alfred Jacob Miller – in the public domain at; Map of the Oregon Trail by Ezra Meeker – in the public domain at, courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries; Meriwether Lewis and William Clark by Wilson Peale – in the public domain at; The First Catholic Church in St. Louis, Missouri, 1770 – in the public domain at

Photographs: Cahokia Courthouse, Entrance of Holy Family Log Church in Cahokia, Nicholas Jarrot Mansion in Cahokia, Illinois, Commemorative Plaque at the Death Place of William Clark, Staircase at Fort Bellefontaine Park, Grave Site of William Clark in Bellefontaine Cemetery – courtesy of Thomas Kavanaugh, Sr. All other photos – The Gateway Arch, Camp River Dubois Lewis & Clark State Historic Site, Main Street in St. Charles, MO, The Captains Return by Harry Weber – Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh, author of this blog.


About stltourguide

I am a walking tour and narrated coach tour guide in St. Louis, Missouri specializing in the history of the area.
This entry was posted in Commentary and Criticism, French Colonial Cahokia, Happenings, History, Lewis & Clark, St. Louis and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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