keelboat

BERT HANOR prepared this painting as an interpretation of the keelboat designed by Dr. George Hunter for the Ouachita River Expedition. Hanor's depiction of the boat and crew was set to canvass during the mid-1970s. Dunbar and Hunter are shown at the front of the vessel with 10 soldiers also shown on board. In all, the boat transported at least 19 men. (Drawing courtesy Hot Springs National Park) 

(2nd in a Series)

Up and down the river, the odd-looking boat drew puzzled glances. 

When it landed at the mouth of St. Catherine's Creek along the Mississippi River 15 miles south of Natchez in July of 1804, William Dunbar scratched his head. He immediately worried that the vessel was too heavy and its draft too deep for navigation along the Mississippi’s tributaries. 

Dr. George Hunter, a Philadelphia druggist appointed by President Thomas Jefferson, delivered the vessel. He and Dunbar were co-leaders of the Ouachita River Expedition. This was one of four journeys organized to explore the Louisiana Territory. 

In late May 1804, Hunter and his teenage son had traveled to Pittsburgh where Hunter supervised construction of the boat, which Hunter designed. Later, the two traversed the Ohio and Mississippi rivers onboard the craft.  

Before Hunter's arrival at Natchez, word that a band of Osage warriors was disrupting river traffic up the Arkansas led President Thomas Jefferson to suspend an excursion up that river. Jefferson suggested that Dunbar look into sending a party up the Red, but that, too, was dropped when Dunbar learned that the Spanish would oppose such an excursion because the Red flowed through land claimed by Spain. 

During this period of indecision, Dunbar sent Hunter to New Orleans where a commander at the U.S. Army garrison was to further supply the boat and assign enlisted men and an officer as the military escort for the Ouachita expedition. Dunbar instructed Hunter to make some modifications on the vessel and then return as quickly as possible with the full party. 

By the time the boat docked for the second time at the mouth of St. Catherine's Creek, it was early fall. In all the party consisted of 19 men. 

 

‘A FERRY FLAT’ 

 

The "Chinese-stile" boat designed by Hunter was, according to his description, "made somewhat in the form of a ferry flat, with a mast fixed to strike occasionally, & provided with a large sail (24 ft. x 27 ft.), manned with 12 and a Sergeant." The boat "was 50 feet long & about 8 feet beam {wide} on deck at the mast {36 feet long} which was her extreme breathe, tapering to the stern. Had a cabbin abaft {rear} & a pavilion ({large tent} amidships {middle} for the accommodation of the Officers & crew, with tarpaulins & curtains to keep off the weather." 

By comparison, the boat used by Lewis & Clark for their journey up the Missouri was only five feet longer, eight feet wide at the center of the vessel and had a much shallower draft. 

Hunter's boat could be propelled by oar, by sail or the use of poles. 

But Dunbar expected the vessel would be a problem. By autumn, the Mississippi’s tributaries were at low stages, and Dunbar knew the boat would not maneuver well through shallow water, especially along the Ouachita north of present day Harrisonburg, where the first of several gravel-bottomed shoals existed. 

These river conditions existed for centuries until a half-century ago when the Ouachita, Black and Tensas rivers were dredged and a series of locks and dams built along the Black and Ouachita. Designed to make the rivers navigable, the project changed river life. 

Dunbar noted that when the expedition was encamped along the Black River near present day Jonesville that the crew cooked "pearl-muscles," which once clustered along the riverbank during low water periods. The muscles have disappeared. And lost in the depths of the higher river stages are the cool springs that bubbled up along the banks in the summer during low stage. During those times, a family would place a crock of milk in the spring water to keep it cool. 

 

THE COST 

 

An appropriation of $3,000 was provided for the expedition. Wrote Dunbar biographer Arthur H. DeRosier Jr.: "He (Dunbar) not only tried to get more money and the best soldiers and scientists available, but also tried to procure the best information possible about the area he was to traverse. He wrote to men in Louisiana whose judgment and advice he trusted and bombarded them with questions about the area. He wanted to know about rivers, creeks, bayous, minerals, vegetation, animals, Indians, languages, and many other things he felt he must know more about before leaving ... " 

Dunbar and Hunter were each provided $700 in salary, $300 for supplies, $500 for instruments, $600 for presents to be used as gifts or for trade with the Indians and approximately $140 for miscellaneous needs. The soldiers were paid their regular military salaries. 

 

INSTRUMENTS & TOOLS 

 

Materials needed to outfit a journey were basic: camp supplies, clothing, arms and ammunition, and medical supplies. One of the main objectives of the journey was to map the Black and Ouachita rivers and to do this Dunbar and Hunter brought along the tools of a cartographer, including several mathematical instruments.  

Wrote Trey Berry, Pam Beasley and Jeanne Clements, who edited the journals of both Hunter and Dunbar in a book (The Forgotten Expedition, 1804-1805: The Louisiana Purchase Journals of Dunbar And Hunter): "To construct the most accurate map possible, William Dunbar used a chronometer, an instrument called a circle of reflection, pocket and surveying compasses, and other instruments. Hunter attempted to use a sextant he had purchased in Philadelphia, but he often found it to be cumbersome and less than accurate." 

The three editors added that the "explorers' list of navigational and scientific instruments also included an octant, artificial horizons, a surveyor's chain, an acrometer (an instrument that measured acceleration), several pocket watches, and a microscope. Dunbar's circle of reflection was an instrument supported by a tripod pedestal that could be used with the artificial horizon when a true horizon could not be seen. The circle of reflection was made by Troughton of London. Dunbar and Hunter almost daily took numerous solar and lunar observations." 

 

65 GALLONS OF WHISKEY 

 

Camp supplies included oil cloth, pliers, chisels, steels for striking to make a fire, handsaws, hatchets, whetstones, tablespoons, mosquito curtains, fish hooks and lines, soap, portable soup (a thick paste of beef, eggs and vegetables that was boiled), salt and writing materials. Hunter recorded that he brought along bacon, flour, salt and vinegar. 

Clothing consisted of coats, frocks, shoes, woolen pants, blankets, knapsacks, stockings and flannel shirts. Lewis & Clark took mirrors, sewing needles and thread, scissors, silk ribbons, ivory combs, handkerchiefs, cloth, tobacco, tomahawks, knives, kettles, face paint and beads. 

All explorers needed medical supplies, including lancets, forceps, syringes, tourniquets, doses of physic, doses of emetic, doses of diaphoretic (sweat inducer) and other drugs for blistering, salivation and increased kidney output. 

The Ouachita River Expedition packed 65 gallons of whiskey, which Hunter purchased at a cost of $85. Whiskey was considered both recreational and medicinal. 

Some of these medical supplies seem bewildering today but medicine 200 years ago was not patient-friendly. A staple for any 19th Century medicine chest was Dr. Benjamin Rush's patented "Rush's pills."  

According to historian Stephen Ambrose in his book on Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, Rush's pills were "generally referred to as 'Thunderclappers.' As far as Rush was concerned, they were sovereign for nearly all of mankind's ills. They were composed of calomel, a mixture of six parts mercury to one part chlorine, and jalap. Each drug was purgative of explosive power; the combination was awesome. Mercury had an even more important role ... it was the treatment of choice for syphilis (and remained so until the advent of penicillin during World War II.)" 

 

GUNS & AMMUNITION 

 

With 12 soldiers and one sergeant, the Dunbar-Hunter group was well armed, carrying rifles, flints, bullets, and gunpowder packed in lead canisters. Not only were the arms needed for protection and self-defense, but also for hunting food. 

One of the most popular guns of the day was a newly manufactured military rifle. 

These "muzzle-loading, flintlock, long-barrel rifles," wrote Ambrose, "were absolutely dependable -- the U.S. Model 1803, (was) the first rifle specifically designed for the U.S. Army, .54 caliber, with a thirty-three-inch barrel. Lewis referred to these weapons as short rifles, for they were considerably shorter than the civilian Pennsylvania rifle. The Model 1803 delivered a lead slug on target with sufficient velocity to kill a deer at a range of about a hundred yards. An expert could get off two aimed shots in one minute." 

Lewis' eight-pound muzzle-loader had a 40-inch barrel. 

 

‘TOMORROW WE SET OFF’ 

 

On Monday, October 15, 1804, Dunbar informed Jefferson that he could not procure a smaller boat for the trip and that "Lieut. Wilson and a Serjeant and twelve in the large boat with four months provision..." were ready to depart. 

The trip from New Orleans to Natchez had been difficult for the soldiers, said Dunbar, adding that "extreme bad weather with rain and contrary winds rendered the passage up tedious, and to add to our retardment I was extremely unwell at the time of the boats arriving; a few days were necessary for recovery & a few more were given to the writing of letters and transacting of business preparative to our expedition." 

Dunbar ultimately sent Lt. Wilson back to New Orleans because "I did not find myself authorised to deprive the Service of a Commissioned officer upon this little expedition." There is some speculation that Dunbar and the lieutenant did not see eye-to-eye. 

Dunbar wrote Jefferson that "we shall take the Courses & distances of the river, so as to be able to form a sketch of it; we shall make all the haste we can to the hot springs, which we look to as our principal object; we shall endeavour to get all the information we can procure at the Settlement on the River Washita {present day Monroe}." 

The details of planning the trip now behind him, Dunbar prepared for a good night's rest. 

"Tomorrow we set off," he wrote the President.

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