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The expedition of Lewis and Clark

The expedition of Lewis and Clark

In 1803, when Thomas Jefferson was the President of the United States, the U.S. purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. This was a huge tract of over 800,000 square miles, taking in nearly the entire mid-section of North America. This area included much of what are now the 15 states of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. This almost doubled the size of the new country.

Much of the new territory was unexplored. Jefferson decided to send an expedition up the Missouri River to its source in the western mountains and beyond to the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson hoped that the expedition would be able to find the elusive Northwest Passage, a water route across the country, which would be a great boon to commerce, and to map the new Northwest territory, to fill in the empty spaces on the maps of the time.

Jefferson hoped that Lewis and Clark would find a water route across North America. Up to that point, trade with India and the Orient was only possible by sailing south around Africa or South America, a long and arduous journey. For hundreds of years, explorers had searched for a way to cross the continent by a water route, sometimes know as the Northwest Passage or the Passage to India.

So in that same year, Jefferson commissioned the Corps of Discovery under the command of his trusted private secretary, Meriwether Lewis. Besides seeking the Northwest Passage, Lewis was to map the new territory, assess its natural resources, and make contact with its inhabitants, befriending them if possible. Lewis recruited his friend William Clark to share equally in the command of the expedition, as well as a force of over 40 men. The members of the Corps of Discovery were soldiers, but their purpose was peaceful -- exploration, diplomacy, and science. Lewis was commissioned as a Captain of the Army of the United States, Clark as a Lieutenant (although this inferior rank was kept secret from the men, and Clark was always called "Captain").

Lewis purchased a large stock of supplies, including guns and ammunition, food, clothing, navigational instruments, and large numbers of goods to be used as gifts and barter for Indians. To carry the Corps and its cargo on the first leg of their journey, Lewis had a keelboat built, a 55-foot shallow-draft vessel capable of carrying about 12 tons of cargo. The boat had a sail, but was mostly propelled with oars and poles. The journey on the Missouri River would be over 2,000 miles -- upstream all the way.                                                                                                                

Up the Missouri

The expedition started from St. Louis, where the Missouri empties into the Mississippi, on May 14, 1804. Along the way, Clark oversaw the men and carefully mapped the route. Lewis made scientific observations and collected specimens of animals and plants. The party made only 12 or 14 miles on a good day.                 

Along the way, the group made contact with Indian inhabitants of the land. During the first season of travel, they contacted the Missouris, the Omahas, the Yankton Sioux, the Teton Sioux (Lakota), and the Arikaras. The captains would offer gifts, meet with the chiefs, and make speeches encouraging the Indian nations to make peace with one another and with their new "great father," President Jefferson. All were friendly except the Lakota, with whom the expedition had a confrontation that nearly became violent.

By October, Lewis and Clark decided to build a fort and winter with the Mandans and their Hidatsa neighbors. These tribes, with a population of about 4,500 people, occupied five permanent villages along the Missouri River and were known for their friendliness and generosity.

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.

Return Journey

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.
The tribes Lewis and Clark met were actually very different from one another. Indeed, in terms of language, appearance, and way of life they were as dissimilar from each other as the peoples of Europe.
Some of the Indians lived in wooden houses. Some lived in skin houses. Some made wooden boats. Some made boats of bark or animal hides. Some ate dog meat. Others would eat it only if starving. Some tribes were warlike. Others thought war was barbaric.

During their journey to the Pacific Ocean, Lewis and Clark traveled through three different culture areas: the Plains, Plateau, and Northwest Coast.
The Plains Indians were primarily nomadic buffalo hunters who lived most of the year in tipis. The horse was an important part of their culture.
Although a few of the Plains tribes, like the Mandans and Pawnees, lived in permanent villages most of the year, they hunted buffaloes and had a lifestyle similar to their nomadic neighbors. Among the Plains tribes Lewis and Clark met were the Osage, Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, and Mandan.

Upon reaching the Rocky Mountains, Lewis and Clark entered the country of the Plateau Indians. Living here were the Blackfeet, Flathead, Shoshone, Nez Perce, Spokane, and Yakima Indians. These Indians lived in the Columbia River Country and were fishermen as well as hunters.
Upon reaching the Pacific Ocean, Lewis and Clark met Indians of the Northwest Coast Culture Area. These people were excellent wood workers who built large houses, boats, and totem poles. Living near the mouth of the Columbia River were the Clatsop, Tiliamook, and Chinook Indians.

Route Mapping on the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Lewis and Clark and their Corps of prepared about 140 maps on the trail and collected some 30 maps from Indians, fur trappers, and traders.
Most of the maps were drawn or compiled by William Clark. Although Clark had little formal education, he displayed an inherent ability for mapmaking.
While Meriwether Lewis was not a cartographer, he carried out much of the celestial observation. Using his own instruments, Thomas Jefferson personally taught Lewis the basic principles of determining latitude by observing altitudes of the sun or a star with an octant.

Compass Traverse Maps

The primary maps prepared by Lewis and Clark were called compass traverse maps. These show the route that they traveled each day.
The explorers were more successful determining latitude, which involves measuring the angle of the moon and a star with an instrument called an octant. Latitude was usually determined for each camp site.

Next, Lewis and Clark recorded the direction and distance covered for each leg of their journey. Direction was determined with a "circumferentor" or plain surveyors compass. Distances from point to point were generally estimated in miles. Clark and many of the soldiers were experienced woodsmen who were trained from childhood to estimate distances.


Lewis and Clark did not achieve the primary objective of their expedition, to find a water route across the continent. However, they did provide a much more accurate view of the American West. Their heroic journey marked a turning point in western exploration, in the history of the United States, its citizens and its native inhabitants, and in geographic knowledge of the North American continent.

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