Through Missouri's Lake Area With Pike
by Michael Gillespie
The original documents of the Pike expedition included a daily diary, letters, survey notes, hand-drawn maps, and weather observations. After the expedition both Pike and his second-in-command, Lieutenant James B. Wilkinson, wrote reports of their journeys. With these documents, students of the expedition can reconstruct the adventure and literally follow it, mile by arduous mile. But in Missouri, there is a 150-mile segment of the trip that is obscured and, in a sense, inaccessible. It is an area now submerged under the waters of two man-made reservoirs: Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Lake.
The lower reservoir, Lake of the Ozarks, came into being in 1931. Truman Lake, located immediately upstream, filled in 1979. Both lakes have nearly the same surface area, about 55,000 acres each. Both were formed by damming the Osage River. Lake of the Ozarks is the deeper and longer of the two, coursing 93 miles along its main channel and reaching a depth of over 100 feet. Truman Lake has four main branches; the longest, the Osage River arm, is approximately 60 miles long and some 65 feet deep at the dam.
Over five million vacationers visit the two lakes each year. Lake of the Ozarks was created by a power company. The reservoir features lakeshore homes and resorts, and experiences heavy boating traffic in the summer months. Truman Lake is a Corps of Engineers impoundment, with minimal shoreline development and an emphasis on fishing.
While it might seem that the lakes have all but destroyed any chances of viewing the route of the Pike expedition, the opposite is true. For now it is possible to follow the exact route of the expedition by boat, just as Pike did, and view the surrounding hills and landforms from nearly the same perspective as he saw them. In so doing, there is the added mystery and intrigue in knowing that the very campsites of the expedition—ten in all—are down there, below the waters, undisturbed, perhaps forever.
What follows is an account of Pike’s journey up the Osage River, through the basin of the two present-day lakes. As an aid, the text is linked to two mapsheets. They show Pike’s hand-drawn outline of the Osage River. It is somewhat crude and imperfect map, but it depicts the major course changes in the river with a reasonable degree of accuracy. The mapsheets have been digitally cleaned and overlaid with information gleaned from Pike’s notes.
Modern locations and mileages above the respective dams are given in the text and on the mapsheets. For boaters who wish to follow the exploration, mileages on Lake of the Ozarks are marked by red and white signs along the shore. These mile markers correspond to entries in the text. There are no such mile markers on Truman Lake. Boaters there should obtain a free map of the lake, which is available at the visitor center located near the dam.
LAKE OF THE OZARKS
It was a rainy day when the Pike expedition passed the future site of Bagnell Dam and passed up the valley that—one hundred and twenty five years later—would become the bed of a huge lake. It was August 4, 1806. The Osage River was rising rapidly that day—a foot an hour, said Pike—and navigating upriver in the expedition’s two boats became difficult. They stopped at one point on the eastern shore to ferry their ransomed Indian captives across the mouth of a stream. The Indians, mostly women and children, walked along the banks of the Osage while most of Pike’s men rowed their bateau and barge against the current.
The boats were laden with supplies, trade goods, and baggage. The bateau was furnished with a mast and spars for setting sail whenever the wind favored the voyageurs, but now, on the narrow Osage, the overhanging tree branches frequently caught the mast, and Pike decided that it was no longer needed. The iron fittings were removed, for they could be forged into some other shape if necessary. Lieutenant Wilkinson carved the names of the exploring party into the mast and set it adrift. There is no record of anyone ever finding it. The expedition made camp on the north bank at mile marker three, just above Johnson Hollow.
In order to allow the baggage time to dry, the party remained in camp on August 5. The weather was clear and unseasonably comfortable, with the temperature in the seventies. Pike went out to hunt with the expedition’s physician, Dr. John H. Robinson. They scoured the North Shore area then rafted across the swollen river with “difficulty and danger,” and continued their hunt in the hills of Horseshoe Bend. At one point during the hunt they nearly stepped on a rattlesnake. The reptile showed no inclination to bite, and “appeared quite peaceable.” Pike spared the snake’s life “for not having bitten me.”
The expedition got underway again at 8:30 a.m. on the morning of August 6. It would be about ten degrees warmer this day, but a “fine day” nonetheless. After passing the mouth of Gravois Creek, the boats worked around Horseshoe Bend—the first of several 180-degree bends they would encounter in the lake area. Near Galena Point, mile marker 8, the ransomed Indians announced that they were leaving the river valley to travel west over the intervening ridge of present-day Highway 5. This course, they said, would save them many miles, and they would intersect the river farther up. The expedition continued without them, and camped this evening at mile marker 13, directly opposite today’s Lodge of the Four Seasons.
Pike’s boats made good time on August 7. No longer detained by the Indian party, and enjoying a falling river and slower current, they looped around Shawnee Bend, passed the mouth of the Grand Glaize River, and then worked southward through Turkey Bend. Along the way Pike wrote that he saw a bear and a wolf swimming the river, and that he passed “many beautiful cliffs on both sides.” Among these was a prominent “jutting rock” located just below the
Grand Glaize, and “La Belle Roche,” at mile marker 27. La Belle Roche, French for “the beautiful rock,” is a continuous cliff that runs for about one and one-half miles along the eastern side of Linn Creek Bend. It is known today as The Palisades.
This line of dolomite bluffs extends for a mile-and-a-half beginning at mile marker 27 on Lake of the Ozarks. Though impressive today, it was much more so at Pike's time when the level of the Osage River was some seventy feet below today's lake. The photograph was taken near the site of Pike's campsite of August 7, 1806.
The expedition camped for the night opposite the same cliff, about where Lake Road F-12 ends.
The journey resumed just after 5 a.m. on August 8. Flying clouds and drops of rain accompanied a strong breeze from the northwest. The river had dropped another two feet overnight, making the rowing easier as the current continued to slacken. The party stopped at the mouth of the Niangua River for breakfast. Pike did not explore the Niangua, but noted in his survey book that the river was navigable by canoe for 100 miles. He had gotten this information from trappers who frequently had traveled up the stream.
After breakfast the soldiers shoved off in their boats and made for Porter Mill Bend. Here, at about mile marker 38, they encountered an unusual feature. Lieutenant Wilkinson wrote about it in is report:
The most remarkable natural curiosity which I observed is a pond of water, about 300 toises [approximately one-third of a mile] in circumference, six miles above the mouth of the Yanga [Niangua River], on a rising piece of ground, considerably above the level of the river, which keeps one continued height, is perfectly pure and transparent, and has no outlet by which to discharge.
From what scant additional evidence is contained in Pike’s notes, this would appear to be the site of Porter Mill Spring, the third largest in the state of Missouri, and, since 1931, under fifty feet of lake water. Pike encamped this evening on a gravel bar in the river, near the mouth of Bollinger Creek—mile marker 44.
On August 9, Pike found the ransomed Indians waiting for him at the mouth of present-day Cartwright Springs Bay, mile marker 45. They had traveled from Galena Point overland for 13 miles to arrive at the same spot that had taken Pike 37 miles to reach by river. The Indians would resume their journey home by taking shortcuts whenever the river made one of its trademark loops, but generally staying in the near vicinity of Pike. They often were accompanied by one or more of Pike’s men. In Coffman Bend, Pike noted some “beautiful cliffs with dripping springs” on the west shore, located immediately below “Old Man’s Rapids.” Lieutenant Wilkinson described these rapids as “a fall of about six feet in two-thirds of a mile.” These falls are near mile marker 54, where the lake today completely covers them in deep water. Higher up, the expedition came to a cluster of eight rough-hewn cabins that had been used as a wintering camp by trappers. This site is between mile markers 62 and 63, in Brown Bend. The expedition camped there for the night.
It rained very hard during the morning of August 10. Pike and his men had been moving since 5 a.m., with a short stop for breakfast. In early afternoon a bottom plank on the bateau split open, and the boat had to be unloaded and repaired on shore. Both the soldiers and the Indians halted and set up camp on a gravel bar at mile marker 77.
With much of their corn and baggage wetted by the previous day’s rain, Pike decided to remain in place on August 11 and dry the provisions. The weather cooperated, with clear skies and a temperature in the mid-nineties. Pike entertained his men with a shooting match in the morning. Later, he left to hunt in the woods. After a 12-mile hike inland, he returned to the river in an exhausted state, aggravated by the high heat. “I here indulged myself by drinking plentifully of the water,” wrote Pike, “and was rendered so extremely unwell that I was scarcely capable of pursuing my route to the camp.” His intestinal distress was relived by swimming the river. In the evening, Pike’s men reloaded the boats and fashioned two new oars.
The usual early departure was briefly interrupted on August 12 by a near altercation with the Indians involving a purloined tin cup. Once underway, the expedition made good progress and passed, without comment, the eventual site of Warsaw, Missouri.
The expedition was now entering into the basin of the future Truman Lake.
Less than a mile into the present lake, where the waters of the South Grand River mingle with that of the Osage, the expedition drew past the site where the Osage hostages who now accompanied Pike were taken captive by the Potawatomi. The attack took place just nine months earlier, and the haunting memory of it must have shaken even the most stoic of the native tribesmen.
The Potawatomi, whose homeland were far away on the shores of Lake Michigan, had been engaged in a war of skirmishes with the Osage for over twenty years. The United States brought representatives of the two tribes together in St. Louis, in October 1805, to make peace. But the Potawatomi war chiefs Turkey Foot and Crippled Hand were not present and had no intention of honoring the treaty. So it was that in November of 1805 an Osage hunting party had set up camp where the Pike expedition now traversed. The Potawatomi attacked the camp while the Osage warriors were away hunting. The women, children, and old people tried to defend themselves, but the attack was too swift and brutal. Thirty-four Osages were killed, the rest were herded away as captives.
As they passed the massacre site, the Osage asked Pike if they might leave the belabored expedition and travel overland. Worn down by fear and fatigue, but overwhelmed at the prospect of being so close to their families, they could no longer resist the urge to fly to their homes. Lieutenant Wilkinson volunteered to go with them, along with Doctor Robinson, an interpreter, and one soldier. They were still some seventy river miles from their villages, but almost half of that distance was consumed by the unceasing bends and oxbows of the river they called Serpent-With-Mouth-Open.
They left the expedition at a point just north of the present-day Highway 7 bridge, and would have exited the immediate area along the approximate line of Route Z, headed west.
All along the way the Osage victims were terrified of an attack. Three trappers who saw them pass by said they were crying from fear. At last, after a journey of six difficult but uneventful days, they arrived at their villages, located in the vicinity of Schell City, Missouri.
Without the Indians, Pike’s main party found themselves opposite the high bluffs of Shawnee Bend, where Pike called a halt for the day. [There is another Shawnee Bend eighty miles downstream, on Lake of the Ozarks.] During the afternoon the temperature had reached a steamy ninety-five degrees. Almost immediately after stopping, a strong thunderstorm came up and blew over Pike’s flag staff and several articles of his clothing that he had set on top of the cabin of the bateau. They sank into the choppy waters of the river. Fatigued by the long day, in which the party had traveled some twenty miles, Pike abandoned his usual habit of sleeping in a tent. He lay down on the floor of the bateau without taking supper and slept through the rainy night.
Though still raining the morning of August 13, the party shoved off at 5:30 a.m. At two o’clock they stopped for lunch on a broad gravel bar near the mouth of the Pomme de Terre River. “During the time we halted,” wrote Pike, “the river rose over the flat bar on which we were.”
The river here turned one of its sharpest bends. Wrote Pike: “We made almost a perfect circle, so that I do not believe we were tonight three miles from where we encamped last night.” His estimate was quite correct, having put in above Hogle Creek, some 13 miles above Truman Dam. But the very sharp bend at the mouth of the Pomme de Terre had so confused Pike that he made one of his most egregious mapping errors of the journey thus far. Though Pike had taken care to record his compass bearings and distances all along the way, he was not especially gifted at it. His bearing lines in this location crossed over themselves, leaving future map makers to wonder how a river could overlap itself (when in fact there was a considerable ridge between the two courses). Fortunately his accompanying hand-drawn map gives enough detail to rectify the error.
On the 14th the expedition rounded Berry Bend, passing along the way “some of the largest cedars I ever saw,” wrote Pike. Just above the bend, about 21 miles above Truman Dam, Pike saw and brought-to a canoe manned with three traders, who brought the unwelcome news that part of the Osage nation had gone on the war path against the Kansa nation. Pike wrote some letters for the traders to carry down to St. Louis. Then he “gave the poor fellows some whisky and eight quarts of corn, they having had only two turkeys for four days.” Pike and his men camped on an island in a nameless bend some 32 miles above Truman Dam.
The next morning, having traveled about three miles farther, the party again met their compatriots and the Indians that had left them on them three days earlier. “Found all well,” wrote Pike. “They had been joined by their friends and relatives from the village, with horses to transport their baggage. Lieutenant Wilkinson informed me that their meeting was very tender and affectionate.” In short, wrote Pike, enough “as to make polished society blush.”
After loading their horses with baggage, the Indians left the river for a more direct route to their villages. Lieutenant Wilkinson and Dr. Robinson went with them. One of the Osage stayed with Pike to serve as a hunter for the party.
August 16, 1806, was a pleasant, cool day. Pike noted the place where the Osage chief, Beautiful Bird, and others, were killed by a Sac war party. The Sacs—described as implacable enemies of the Osage—hid in ambush and attacked when the Osage chief and his warriors passed by in boats. The Osages were on their way to St. Louis, from where they were to continue to Washington, D.C. to meet President Jefferson. The deadly ambush took place in the sharp bend in front of today’s H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation.
Also on this day, while passing the future town of Osceola, Missouri, the oarsmen of Pike’s two boats engaged in a friendly race. “The crews are convinced it is not the boat, but the men who make the difference,” Pike wrote. At noon they ate lunch at a grouping of rocks, called the Swallow’s Nest. Pike described the location as along the west shore, above the mouth of the Sac River. Somewhere near Roscoe, Missouri, Pike met an old man, hunting alone, “from whom we obtained no information of consequence. That night the Pike expedition camped at the site of Monegaw Springs, Missouri, at the end of Route YY. They were now beyond the waters of modern-day Truman Lake.
The next day they would pass the site of the old Spanish fortress, Fort Carondelet. This marked the beginning of the Osage towns. Pike had accomplished his first goal of his expedition—to deliver the Osage captives safely to their homes.
Pike’s journal attests to the serpentine twists of his route.
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