The Lewis and Clark Expedition

The Lewis and Clark Expedition helped us realize there was much more to this great country than even we realized as a young country.  At the time, our country only reached the Mississippi River, but with the Louisiana Purchase, there was so much to see and explore.  President Thomas Jefferson called upon Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to head the expedition.  There were several goals: to study the plants, animals, and geography of the area, and most importantly to see if the land could be a financial boon to our country. 

Lewis studied the land, soil, animals, and plants along the way. What else do we know about Meriwether Lewis? 
He was born in Virginia on August 18, 1774.  His father served in the Continental Army but died in 1779 when his horse fell into an icy stream. He grew up not far from Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello.  He was a child protégé of the third president.  Lewis loved to explore the local plants.  In 1794, he joined the US Army and rose to the rank of captain.  In 1801, he became Jefferson’s personal secretary.  Jefferson appointed him to the exploration team because Lewis “was brave, prudent, habituated to the woods and [was] familiar with Indian manners and character.” Lewis was nearly six feet tall and in excellent physical condition.  He had an eye for details and used this while journaling on what he saw and found.  It was Lewis who requested Clark accompany him on the journey. 

Clark replied, “My friend, I assure you no man lives with whom[e] I would prefer to undertake such a trip.”


Clark charted the course and made maps of what they saw. Now, what do we know about Clark except that he was acquainted with Lewis? William Clark was born in 1770, during the beginnings of the Revolutionary War.  His family lived on a plantation in Virginia and his brother was a hero of the Revolutionary War – George Rogers Clark. He did not have much formal education and was taught at home. His eldest brother taught him wilderness survival skills which would benefit him later in life. After the war, his family moved to Kentucky where he was raised.  In 1789, he fought in several campaigns against the Native Americans in the Ohio Valley. In 1796, he resigned from the military and worked on the family farm.  He served with Lewis in 1795 while in the military and accepted his offer to join him on this expedition.

St. Louis Arch - commemorating Lewis and Clark 's expedition

Jefferson himself declared a primary goal was to find a direct water route across the continent which might connect us with Asia.  Since discovering a water route was their main goal, they had three types of boats with them – a 55 foot long keelboat and two pirogues, which are like canoes.

On May 14, 1804, a group of 35 men and 1 woman left St. Louis, Missouri to begin their journey.  They did not return until September 1806.  They had traveled more than 8,500 miles during their two year sojourn to the Pacific Ocean and back. There were three sergeants – Ordway, Pryor, and Floyd, 23 privates, two interpreters – Drouillard and Charbonneau and his Indian sqaw – Sacajawea, as well as an African American – York, who was Clark’s slave. When Lewis finally met up with Captain Clark, on May 20th, they truly began their exploration.

The journey was not easy and the travelers were attacked by mosquitoes, gnats, flies, and ticks.  They were also plagued by snake bites, sunstroke, and stomach complaints due to the food they ate along the way.  The men and Sacajawea had more than enough game to eat – buffalo, elk, deer, antelopes, turkeys, and squirrels, not to mention fish galore.

As they met Native American tribes along the way, Lewis and Clark were placed in the position of telling the chiefs, the land no longer belonged to them but to the United States of America. The Native Americans were told they had no choice but to give their loyalty to the “Great Father in Washington” and that the exploration gave the Great Father a chance to discover more about the land and the people who lived there. The chiefs soon welcomed the explorers thinking their lives would improve with this new association with Washington.

Throughout the journey, Lewis and Clark kept detailed diaries, writing down all they saw and did, in order to report it back to President Jefferson. One entry details how a buffalo attacked their camp at night.  The bull, attracted by their camp fire, charged through the camp, climbing over their boat and almost trampling the men in their sleep.  Thankfully, the bull made so much noise, the men awoke and were able to shoo the beast away before anyone could be harmed.
They traveled more than 600 miles before seeing a single Indian.  The Indian encounter between them and the Oto and Missouri Indians went well as the two sides exchanged gifts.  During this time, Sergeant Floyd became ill with appendicitis and died.  He is the only member of the team to die along the journey. 
By the end of August 1804, they reached the edge of the Great Plains and headed into Sioux territory.  They did encounter several different tribes of Sioux and were warned others would not be as welcoming.
In September, they met up with the Teton Sioux who did not like the gifts – a medal, a military coat, and a cocked hat.  The Indians wanted one of the boats. Both sides prepared to battle, but finally the Sioux pulled back. Much to their dismay, instead of making friends with the Indians, they left behind hostility.
By December, they reached a Mandan village where they would spend the winter.  They built a fort to protect them from the Sioux and the inclement weather. Throughout the winter, they prepared for their spring journey. They hunted for food and repaired tools and other equipment. It was here that they hired the trader – Charbonneau who was living with the Indians. Charbonneau, his wife – Sacajewea and their baby, joined them for the remainder of the journey. This time they took along 6 canoes with the two pirogues.

Now, firmly into 1805, the next leg of the journey begins. The Indians warned them about grizzly bears. Lewis was not worried because he felt the rifle would be no match for the powerful animal.  On April 29th, he encountered a pair of grizzlies.  One was wounded, but one managed to escape.  The wounded bear charged after Lewis and chased him for 240 feet before his companions killed it.
By May, they reached the Rocky Mountains.  They lost one pirogue by a gust of wind that overturned it, but the supplies were salvaged.  Having reached the Rockies, the journey now took on a different bend – how to travel over the mighty mountains.  They traveled along a river which came to a fork.  Unsure which way to go, they sent out scouts to discover which one would take them to the Missouri River. 

Finally on June 13, Lewis saw the Great Falls of the Missouri River that the Mandan Indians had told him.   The falls went on for 12 miles and were not one, but five separate falls.  More than a month passed before they managed to go around the falls carrying all their supplies.  Once passed the falls, they came upon the Rocky Mountains.

They had no idea how immense the Rocky Mountains were. They would need horses.  The only way to get horses was to meet up with the Shoshone Indians. By August, they finally spotted an Indian on horseback.  Much to their luck, the chief was Sacajewea’s brother.  She helped translate what they needed.  The trading was brisk and much to their dismay, the price continued to go up each time.  Information concerning the trails along the way proved much more valuable than the horses which were not the fine specimens the men needed.  While not the best transportation, they would have to suffice to get them over the mountains.

By September, the men reached the Continental Divide. Food was scarce and they met the Flathead Indians.  Fortunately they were able to purchase more horses for the journey.  But the journey across the Bitterroot Mountains was treacherous and the horses and men were starving.  They ate three colts before they met with the Nez Perce Indians and were able to add to their food stores.  Setting up camp, they fashioned several dugout canoes to carry them the rest of the way.

By mid-October, they reached the Columbia River.  Its swift current would guide them.  On November 7, he wrote how he had reached the ocean but he was a bit premature.  They were trapped by heavy storms for more than three weeks. It was not until the middle of November that they reached the Pacific Ocean.  Lewis and Clark built Fort Clatsop and spent the winter there.

During the upcoming months, they prepared for the journey home.  The entire journey took two years, four months, and 10 days.  They covered more than 8000 miles.  They were the first to ever see a grizzly bear.  They sent a prairie dog back to President Jefferson. 

Lewis and Clark were celebrated for their journey.  Clark was named the Indian agent for the West.  Lewis was appointed Governor of the Louisiana Territory.  Unfortunately, Lewis died in 1809.  Clark lived until 1838.  Their legacy has survived to this day and everywhere people celebrate this great achievement.

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