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
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
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
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
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
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.