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Lewis & Clark

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson, as with many explorers and businessmen, wanted to
know if it were possible to journey along the Missouri and Columbia rivers to the Pacific Ocean.

They flow east and west respectively, from the Rocky Mountains. He pressured Congress for permission to send a small army unit to assess the possibility. He learned that France was interested in selling the Louisiana Territory to the recently formed United States. As president of this young nation, he pressed for the Louisiana Purchase to strengthen American trade and future settlement. This purchase from France doubled the size of America overnight.

Although he had attempted this several times before, the missions had always failed. His final decision was to send Meriwether Lewis. A person he could depend on. The 28-year-old army captain was to be the leader of a hazardous exploring mission. Years before, Jefferson and Lewis had actually been neighbors outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. Lewis was born there in 1774 and as a boy, spent many long hours tramping and hunting in the woods. This is where he acquired a remarkable knowledge of native plants and animals. While serving with the Virginia Militia at age 19, he was called out to help quell the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. In 1801, newly elected President Thomas Jefferson summoned Lewis to Washington, as his personal secretary.

Captain Meriwether Lewis chose an army comrade, 32-year-old 2nd Lieutenant William Clark, as co-leader of what will be called 'The Corps of Discovery'. Clark was also born in Virginia in 1770, but at the age of 14, he and his family were among the first settlers in Kentucky. William's oldest brother was a Revolutionary War hero - Gen. George Rogers Clark. William later served under Gen. 'Mad Anthony' Wayne, during the Indian Wars in the Northwest Territory. Lewis had requested that Clark be granted the rank of Captain, but the army refused to grant the promotion. Lewis none-the-less considered Clark with the same respect as a Captain and referred to him as such throughout the trip. No one knew any different.

The Expedition started August 31, 1803, as they floated the Ohio River on the first leg of their westward trek. The team arrived at St. Louis in December. It is here that Lewis meets a man named James MacKay, who provides valuable maps and information about the Missouri country. It will take the group at least to the Mandan Indian Village. They camped for the winter on the Illinois side, opposite the entrance to the Missouri River. From here, they purchased supplies and gathered their expedition party of young woodsmen and army soldiers from nearby outposts. Some were recruited, while others volunteered. By spring, their roster included 29 military personnel and some 16 local boatmen who would only go as far as the Mandan Village. Clark brought along his slave, York; while Lewis chose his dog named Seaman.

The expedition officially started on May 14, 1804, when the party entered the river in a 55-foot keelboat and two smaller boats. Before they left, Lewis had a few modifications made to the big boat, including the installation of a bronze cannon. It was mounted on a swivel and fired either a one-pound lead ball, or sixteen musket balls. Throughout the long, hot summer, they worked their way upriver, dealing with river obstacles, sudden high winds, mosquitoes, and drenching rains. The men faced problems with discipline, desertion, even mutiny and a death along the way. The primary choice of punishment was public floggings.

Their provisions included a must-have by Lewis and Clark… Whiskey! On one particular night, a guard decided to tap into a barrel for a single shot to liven the evening. That lead to another and another. He was soon relaxed to the point that he offered another soldier a taste. After several hours of this indulgence, a fight interrupted their little party. That got the attention of a sergeant, who was abruptly threatened with his life. The next morning, Lewis and Clark had the task of court-martialing the men for mutiny. Although found guilty, they were eventually forgiven. Other court-martials often ended with public floggings.

They sailed up the Missouri River past Boone's Settlement. This was a group of Kentuckians led by a man named Daniel Boone. In what will become South Dakota, a band of Sioux Indians attempted to attack the Corps. It must have been the cannon that got their attention, because the Indians quickly retreated and allowed the group to sail past without further incident.

Settling in about fourteen miles west of what will become Washburn, ND, they spend a month building a triangular-shaped fortress from area trees. Rows of small huts were linked together and used to make up two sides. A solid wall of cottonwood logs formed the front. They named their new home, Fort Mandan, for the local tribe. The Corps will spend the next five months at Fort Mandan, gathering information about the route ahead from the local Indians and French-Canadian traders who lived nearby. It is here that Lewis will meet and hire a man named Toussant Charbonneau as Interpreter. That contract will include one of his two Shoshone wives, who will also act as Interpreter. Her name is Sacagawez, and she is six-months pregnant. The spelling of her name is disputed, since there are five different versions of it in the official logs. [Note: Lewis and Clark were impeccably poor spellers] Toussant bragged over whiskey, that he had actually 'won them', gambling with some Hidatsa warriors.

They would also trade for garden crops and hunt in the local woods. On one occasion, Lewis and about fifteen other men joined the Mandan on a hunt. With their rifles, they were able to kill 20 buffalo in just two days. It is said that the white men only ate the tongues, and the rest was left for scavengers. The expedition encountered its first grizzly bear while walking along the shore of the Little Missouri River.

Lewis and Clark will both write in their journal logs about the strange and wondrous lights in the sky. At the time, they were observing the Northern Lights for the first time. Many of the things observed by this small group of adventurers was new. This part of the country was quite different and quite beautiful. They documented temperatures along their trek which are more than fifteen degrees colder than what is considered the usual now. On one particularly cold night, the water on the Missouri River froze over one and a half inches thick, overnight. At some points along their journey, the river froze to the point as to allow herds of buffalo to cross without breaking through the icy crust.

In the spring of 1805, the expedition moved up the river from the Mandan Villages. The party is short one man, because he died along the way, most probably due to an appendicitis attack. Charbonneau, Sacagewa, York and Seaman will also be along on the trip. The other 16 boat men went back to St. Louis, taking the specimens they had collected so far. The group was now in two pirogue boats (or Dugout Canoe) and six regular canoes. By the end of April, they had reached the mouth of the Yellowstone River. In May, they will confront the Rocky Mountains. Clark thought he had spotted them one day, so Lewis went ahead of the group to scout, and was able to confirm it the next day.

Soon, strong currents caused the explorers to abandon their paddles, getting out to tow the heavy canoes with ropes along the bank. When river banks gave way to cliffs, the men would wade the rushing water, pushing or pulling the boats on upstream. Transporting the heavy boats and baggage up steep inclines and crossing the long stretch of prairie lands was physically exhausting, but ultimately accomplished.

Late in July, Lewis went ahead of the main party seeking the Shoshone Indians. Within the next few weeks, he reached the towering, snow-covered mountains to the west. The brook at his feet flowed westward, and with that revelation, he knew he had crossed the Continental Divide.

Immediately west of the Divide, Lewis came upon two Shoshone women and a girl who were digging edible roots. Lewis gave them presents, and soon they were joined by a large number of Shoshone men on horseback. Fearing the worst, Lewis thought capture was imminent, but as it turns out, this is Sacagewa's long lost tribe. In fact, her brother is now the tribal Chief. Instead of capture, this turns into a welcomed reunion.

Returning from his scouting trip, Lewis was accompanied by a number of Shoshone, as he rejoined the main party. The explorers formed a camp with the Indians, a few miles south of what is now, Dillon, Montana. They soon proceeded across the Continental Divide to the main village of the Shoshone tribe. After a short stay with their new-found friends, the now horse-backed explorers leave for the mountains. With them they take a Shoshone guide they had hired at the village.

At times, the half-starving explorers survived on horse meat alone, while following the ancient Indian route across the Bitterroot Mountains. This area is located in Montana and Idaho. Here, the bone-chilling cold weather and slippery, hazardous travel conditions created even more stress on the now wary explorers. Clark will write in his diary, that York had gotten frostbite on his feet and privates. Each man could eat eight or nine pounds of meat, cornmeal and even some snacks, while still complaining of hunger. Due to the exhaustive and demanding requirements of the journey; this diet, with no appreciable animal fat, left them undernourished and weakened. At times, it was documented that they ate dog. It will be noted by Lewis as an unfortunate but required act. Not that being a dog-owner had anything to do with it.

In mid-September, it started to snow one night, continuing through the entire next day. They found themselves buried in over eight inches of new snow, with overloaded limbs of the Ponderosa pines dumping their weighty accumulation on top of the men. Local natives, the Nez Percé (meaning Pierced Nosed), provided a feast of pounded salmon, camas roots, and berries, but the group was unaccustomed to their diet and it made them extremely ill.

When the expedition reaches the Clearwater River, they brand and leave their horses in the care of the Nez Percé, until they return. New canoes had to be constructed before proceeding through the boulder-strewn rapids. They floated down the river to the great Columbia, near what will become The Dalles, Oregon. For the next week and a half, severe winds blasted their faces and ocean swells rolled into the mouth of the mighty river. With it, the rain poured, stranding them just above the base of the cliffs, in what will become southern Washington. Finally in mid-November, Lewis and Clark walked upon the sands of the Pacific Ocean. They had reached the far western objective of the long and hazardous journey across country. Besides the obvious climate and physical demands, they also faced illness from colds, flu, strained muscles, frostbite, gun shot wounds, dysentery, and VD attacks. It was no easy jaunt to the beach. They pushed themselves to the limit to get this far, and they still yet had to return to the east coast.

Because of the absence of wild game and the unprotected exposure to fierce winter storms on that cold northern shore, they elected to cross the river to the Oregon side. The Indian guide told them that elk and deer were plentiful there. What is strange is that an actual vote was taken and recorded, which could be reported as the first American, democratically held election, west of the Rockies. Since the vote included everyone on the team, that included a woman and a black man.

It is there on the south shore of the Columbia, that they built their winter quarters. It was a protected site, five miles south of what will become Astoria, Oregon. They named westernmost outpost, Fort Clatsop, after the local Clatsop Indian tribe. The Corps spent the winter hunting elk for food and making clothing and moccasins to replace their worn buckskins.

Lewis spent the time filling his journal with descriptions of plants, birds, animals, fish, and weather conditions they had experienced. He also wrote a detailed report on the observed Indian cultures. In the meantime, Clark drew his illustrations of the many animals and plants witnessed. He meticulously updated his maps of their journey. They also recorded and cataloged all the specimens collected so far.

The Clatsop tribe was one of the friendliest they had encountered. They were shrewd traders and skilled boatmen. Everyone had gotten so friendly, that Lewis would have to repeated warn his men to constantly be on guard. Although this tribe acted and appeared to be friendly, Lewis always felt they were inherently treacherous. Although he was suspicious of these people, they left the camp as friends.

In late March of 1806, the expedition started back in newly acquired Indian canoes from the Clatsop. When they reached the intersection of the Yellowstone and Marias rivers, Lewis chose the later and Clark traveled the Yellowstone, until they would regroup at the Missouri River.

When they returned to the Nez Percé camp, they rested and had a conference with the various chiefs, discussing ideas, such as; peace and harmony between natives on each side of the Rockies, the strength of the United States, and future trading posts. It took half a day to get the main points across because the interpretation had to pass from French to Hidatsa to Shoshone and finally into Nez Percé.

They arrived back in St. Louis on September 23, 1806. Their journey had covered some 8,000 miles, taking 2 years, 4 months and 9 days to complete. Lewis and Clark Expedition Journals contributed some important information about this new land, natural resources, and its native peoples. They had discovered and cataloged 50 new plants, many rivers and lakes, possible locations for trading posts, scenic descriptions, and most of all, made contact and more importantly, good friendships with many local tribes.

They also learned that the enormous width of the Rocky Mountains had destroyed the notion of an easy connection to the Pacific Ocean, along the Missouri and Columbia rivers. This finding was probably the single most important geographical discovery of the mission. It may have destroyed Jefferson's dream, but not his commitment to growth and prosperity of the Union. This was just a logical and good first step.

Originally, President Jefferson had asked the Congress for $2500 for this expedition. The total price of this little outing actually cost the taxpayers, $39,000. Although it is considerably more than the original request, the country gained a valuable starting point to continue their expansion to the west. From the detailed maps and descriptions of the local tribes, it would allow a new breed of explorer and adventurers to develop. The mountain men, fur traders and trappers, the pioneers and of course, the gold miners. It will be the catalyst for the great expansion west over the new century and beyond.

On February 28, 1807, President Jefferson chose Meriwether Lewis as Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory.

Lewis had made one mistake which would haunt him the rest of his life. On the mission, a problem arose between the Corps and the Blackfeet Indians. After meeting and some tense moments of introduction, they appeared to want peaceful relations. The braves were allowed to stay overnight in their camp. The next morning, several of the braves were caught stealing rifles. That began an incident in which two of the Indians would be killed by the Corps. This would begin a war of the Blackfeet Indians and any white face. All the future problems in the settling of the west, which involved the Blackfeet tribe, can be traced back to this single unfortunate event.


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