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curiousKC | Muddy Water, Wildlife and Whiskey: Lewis and Clark’s Stop in Kansas City, Kansas

Explorers Regroup, a Few Unwind

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Above image credit: The view from Lewis and Clark Park at Kaw Point. A ridge of ice to the right of the statue marks where the Kansas River empties into the Missouri River. (Clarence Dennis | Flatland KC)

A curiousKC reader interested in local history reached out wondering: Where exactly did Lewis and Clark stop in what would become Kansas City?

Fortunately, there is a well-documented answer. But first, here’s a refresher on the land grab that sent Lewis and Clark west in the first place.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson essentially doubled the size of the country with the Louisiana Purchase.

Jefferson bought the French-owned territory in one of the best land deals of all time, dropping $15 million dollars on the vastness of the West. The plot spanned from the banks of the Mississippi in the east to the Rockies in the west. Latitudinally, the land stretched from the northern Canadian border to parts of north Texas in the south.

Just like that, the United States grew by 828,000 square miles.

A year later in 1804, Jefferson tasked his buddy Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, a former military superior of Lewis, with charting the vast expanse of land. The pair set off from St. Charles, Missouri, on May 14, along with a crew of about 50. What ensued was an 8,000-mile scientific and diplomatic journey to explore the newly purchased land along with its resources and to spread word to Native American inhabitants regarding the newly purchased land.

With Jefferson interested in a potential water route to the Pacific Ocean, the expedition would cut diagonally northwest through the newly purchased land by three boats up the Missouri River.

Six weeks into the new territory, the explorers pushed against the muddy current to a the convalence of two rivers — what was to become Kansas City.

Point Above the Kansas River

Lewis and Clark Park at Kaw Point’s entrance in Kansas City, Kansas.
(Clarence Dennis | Flatland)

On Tuesday, June 26, relatively early into what was known as the Corps of Discovery’s quest up the Missouri River, the expedition came across the mouth of the Kansas River. Charting coordinates at the confluence of rivers was one of Jefferson’s orders for the team of explorers.

Clark recorded the moment in his journal. But reading on, please note that spelling and grammar were not his strong suits.

“Passed a bad sandbar, where our tow rope broke twice, & with great exertions we rowed around it and came to and camped in the point above the Kansas River,” “ … we determin to delay at this Place three or four Days to make observations & recruit the party…”

The expedition stopped ashore at what is now referred to as Lewis and Clark Point at Kaw Point, where the Kansas and Missouri rivers meet. While four days sounds like a relatively short stay for a perilous journey into the unknown, the stop was one of the more significant pauses early in the expedition.

“It was a struggle to get upstream with all of the supplies necessary for the long trip,” explained Dan Sturdevant, chairperson of the Missouri-Kansas River Bend chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.

The Lewis and Clark local expert said the pair’s convoy moved at about 11 miles a day at that point. The upstream battle became quite the chore for the expedition’s keelboat, which carried between 15 and 20 tons of supplies.

Sturdevant pointed out that he has become particularly interested in the explorers’ first order of business at one of the historic journey’s early extended breaks.

“They surrounded the encampment with a military-style fort, or redoubt, to protect from a potential attack at night from Native Americans,” Sturdevant said, before noting that such an attack would have been unlikely at that time, as Native Americans in the region would have been hunting in the western part of the state.

Precaution also may have been taken, according to Sturdevant, due to an 1795 account of an attack on French fur trappers near Kaw Point that may have spooked Lewis and Clark.

Clark’s map of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers. (Contributed | lewisandclarkwyco.org)

“River convergences were a dangerous place to be during this time,” Sturdevant said.

On guard, the expedition used the rest stop to make repairs on their boats, dry out supplies and explore the surrounding river bluffs and its banks. The four-day stint on the banks of modern-day Kansas City, Kansas, also made for a few firsts for the expedition.

After all, what’s a river trip without a few surprises along the way?

“The water we drink or the Common water of the missouri at this time, contains a half a Comm Wine Glass of ooze or mud to every pint…”

William Clark, June 21, 1804

Buffalo, Birds and Bears, Oh My!

Today, crossing the cracked parking lot off Fairfax Trafficway just above the river, it’s virtually impossible to imagine Kaw Point, the banks of the Missouri, or the Kaw River Valley to the west completely untouched by industry or urban development.

In 1804, expedition journals described the region as “teeming with wildlife.” In addition to notes accounting for deer, elk and bears in the region, it was in the Kaw River Valley where the expedition trapped a wolf pup, uncovered natural springs and first saw the West’s mighty buffalo. The journals also detailed a large number of Carolina parakeets, which would without question be the most colorful bird in Kansas City, had the species not become extinct in the 1920s.

Where the camp once existed, there is now a rather inconspicuous park, where Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail plaques by the National Park Service commemorate the expedition’s encampment and experience.

If you can block out the buzz of adjacent highways, trains and industry, you can imagine a campground on the muddy bank.

Across the water to the southeast, where Lewis and Clark would have seen only the sky, the park offers a complete view of the Kansas City skyline.

Who knows, maybe your dog has lifted a leg exactly where Lewis’ newfoundland Seaman once marked his territory?

A large silhouette on the side of a building on Fairfax Trafficway points toward Lewis and Clark Park at Kaw Point. (Clarence Dennis | Flatland)

Not Cool, John.

All things considered, the Corps of Discovery’s time at Kaw Point went pretty smoothly. Aside from rough waters upon arrival and some initial worry about the potential threat of attack, the only real issue came in the early morning of the expedition’s final day on the north bank of the Kansas River.

In “History of Lewis and Clark at Kaw Point”, Janet Vogel of lewisandclarkwyco.org gives a synopsis of the journaled drama.

“Just after midnight, Private John Collins was on guard duty. He tapped a community whiskey barrel. He thought, ‘Just one little sip wouldn’t hurt. Just one more. Another.’ Soon he was drunk. Private Hugh Hall came to relieve him of his duty and Collins offered him a drink; Hall accepted. Soon they were drunk together. At dawn, the sergeant-of-the-guard put them under arrest, and shortly thereafter Clark began drawing up court-martial papers to be presented to a court composed of the men of the expedition.”

Collins, who pled not guilty, received 100 lashes to the back as punishment. Hall pled guilty and received 50 lashes. Despite digging into the rationed supply of whiskey, both men were allowed to continue on the expedition. 

That must have been awkward with more than 7,000 miles to go.

For more on Lewis and Clark’s journey through the Kansas City region, visit lewisandclarkkc.org

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