During the winter, Lewis and Clark hired Toussaint Charbonneau, a French fur trader, and his wife, a Shoshone woman named Sacagawea, realizing that this woman could help them by acting as interpreter with her people, who lived near the Missouri's headwaters.
In the spring, the captains sent items for Jefferson, including report of the expedition, samples of soil, minerals, and plants, Indian items, and even some live birds and a prairie dog, which had never been heard of in the East. Most of the expedition continued up the river in canoes, taking along Sacagawea, her husband, and their newborn baby, Jean-Baptiste.
The group spent the next months making their way west up the river into territory unknown to white men. They encountered a great profusion of wildlife, including buffalo, wolves, bighorn sheep, and ferocious grizzly bears. They made their way into present-day Montana, and found the river becoming increasingly impassable, with fierce rapids and waterfalls.
Across to the Western Ocean
As the party began crossing the mountains on horseback, it soon became obvious that the hope of finding a northwest water route was a false one.
In fact, the expedition had to make its way on the Lolo Trail across the vast Bitterroot Mountains, already covered with snow in September. The crossing took 11 days, during which the men nearly starved. They were almost helpless when they reached the Nez Percé Indians on the other side. Fortunately for Lewis and Clark and their group, the Nez Percé welcomed and fed them, helped them make canoes, and agreed to take care of their horses until their return on the way back east.
With the water finally running west, the explorers quickly traveled down the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia Rivers, reaching the Pacific coastal area in early November, a year and a half after leaving St. Louis. They built Fort Clatsop, named after the neighboring Indian nation, on the south side of the mouth of the Columbia, near what is now Astoria, Oregon, and spent the winter in cold, wet, miserable weather, preparing for the trip back home.
On March 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery started on the long journey back the way they had come. When they reached the friendly Nez Percés, they found their horses alive and cared-for, though scattered on open range.
The group was back across the mountains by June and decided to split up into smaller parties for a while so as to explore some of the territory more thoroughly. Lewis took a more northerly route, and it was during this trip that the explorers had their first and only violent conflict with Indians. A group of Blackfeet apparently tried to captured horses and guns, and Lewis's party killed two of them.
At about that same time, Clark, on a southerly route, discovered an unusual, large stone formation on the Yellowstone River. He named it "Pompy's Tower," after the nickname of Sacagawea's son. There on that formation, Clark left an inscription, "Wm. Clark July 25th 1806," which can still be seen today.
The separate parties rejoined in August back on the Missouri River, at the mouth of the Yellowstone. They continued on down the river, traveling quickly, they reached St. Louis on September 23, 1806.
The men of the expedition were welcomed as heroes. They had been gone so long that the nation feared they were dead. Remarkably, only one member of the group died. (This was Sergeant Charles Floyd, who probably died of a ruptured appendix as the Corps of Discovery traveled up the Missouri River on its way to the Mandan villages.)
The Corps of Discovery returned with a great deal of knowledge about the new United States territory west of the Mississippi -- the people, the land, the rivers, the mountains, the plants and animals. The expedition made important contributions to the mapping of the North American continent.
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The expedition of Lewis and Clark
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