Lewis and Clark are two names forever linked. These two names, the last names of Meriwether and William respectively, are that of two of the greatest explorers in the history of the United States. With the help of Indians and a group of brave men, the vast area west of the Mississippi River was the object of their exploration.
Lewis was born to a Virginia planter family in 1774. His father, who had been an officer in the American Revolution, died when Lewis was five years old, and for a brief time he lived in Georgia when his mother moved there with her second husband.
After assuming the management of his family’s Virginia plantation, Lewis joined the state militia in 1794 to help put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. He continued his military career as an officer in the regular army, serving on the frontier in Ohio and Tennessee, and rising to the rank of captain by 1801, when he accepted an invitation from President Thomas Jefferson, an old family friend, to serve as his private secretary.
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Even before the Louisiana Territory was purchased from France, Jefferson was ready to send an expedition into the frontier. In January of 1803 Congress approved a plan for an expedition. Jefferson had many reasons for employing the explorers. A boundless curiosity for botany, zoology, and geography was one of Jefferson’s main reasons. Also Jefferson wanted to establish communication and some interaction with the Indians.
The purchase of the Louisiana Territory was an entirely unexpected outcome. Robert Livingston, an ambassador to France, was told to discuss the purchase of the port of New Orleans from France. After weeks of fruitless efforts to buy the port, Livingston got lucky. The French, in need of money to wage wars in Europe, offered him the entire Louisiana Territory. A surprised Livingston purchased the entire territory for fifteen million dollars.
The Louisiana Purchase affected the expedition greatly. First, the party would be exploring their own country, a benefit that greatly pleased Lewis. The party was going to be limited to no more than fifteen men so that it would remain secret from Spain, who owned the land at the time the expedition was originally planned. Now the party could be expanded. With a much larger party, a second officer was needed. Lewis chose William Clark to be that officer.
Clark was born into a Virginia plantation family in 1770, the youngest of six sons and the youngest brother of George Rogers Clark, the hero of the American Revolution in the West. When he was fourteen, Clark’s family moved to a new plantation in Kentucky, and he would spend the rest of his life on America’s shifting frontier.
Beginning in 1789, Clark served as a militiaman in campaigns against the Indians of the Ohio Valley. He became an officer in the regular army in 1792, and in 1794 fought in the battle of Fallen Timbers. Two years later he resigned from the army to manage his family’s plantation.
Clark had become a friend of Meriwether Lewis’s when they served together at Fort Greenville, Ohio, in 1795, and quickly accepted his invitation to serve as second officer of the famed expedition.
In preparation for the journey into the unmarked territory Lewis studied many subjects. He studied botany, zoology, geography, and the use of navigational instruments that would be needed along the way. Most importantly, he studied medicine. Studying with Dr. Benjamin Rush, Lewis learned how to treat common illnesses that he would encounter on the journey. Clark also studied many of the same subjects as Lewis including extensive research on cartography. This was helpful because Clark made the majority of the maps.
Purchasing supplies was an especially difficult task because it was unknown to Lewis what would be needed in the unexplored land. Medicines, several tools, rope, guns, ammunition, blankets, clothes, kettle, cups, pens paper, and canned soup were some of the many things purchased for the trip. The canned soups were doubly useful because when finished the cans were melted into bullets. For transportation up the Missouri a keelboat was made.
The characteristics looked for in the people volunteering to be apart of the expedition were strong, unmarried men with hunting, blacksmith, or carpentry backgrounds. Many of the men were from the military to protect the party from Indian attacks. The men would be paid ten dollars a month plus clothing and subsistence. When the expedition returned they would be granted immediate discharge. The men would also receive a portion of land equal to that given to officers in the Revolutionary war.
After waiting out winter in St. Louis the expedition finally began. On May 14, 1804, the Corps of Discovery, as they were called, a group of men totaling 41 and one dog, Lewis’s dog, Seaman, began on the Missouri River. The journey began badly. The keelboat was poorly packed and handled even worse causing the boat to almost tip. Also on the first leg of the journey to the Mandan villages many men became sick, two men deserted, and one man died.
Sergeant Floyd was the man who died and the only man to die on the expedition He died of appendicitis, which could not have been treated at that time anyhow. The death put the group in low spirits but they traveled on after having a funeral and burying the body peacefully with a cedar post for a grave.
The Corps met the Oto and Missouri tribes, who were kind and offered no resistance to the expedition, at the mouth of the Platte River around Omaha, Nebraska. The Sioux, however, were not so accepting. There were many tense situations between the Teton Sioux and the Corps. Clark and the chief of the Teton engaged in shouting matches about which nation was better and on several occasions shots were almost fired.
Indian councils were held with each encountered group, some groups more pleased than others. The typical council involved an exchanging of gifts, speeches given, Lewis firing a gun to impress the Indians, and a medal with Jefferson’s likeness etched being given to the tribes. Each tribe was amazed or disappointed with the gifts. The Arikara and Hidatsa tribes met along the Missouri River on the way to the Mandan Villages were two tribes pleased by the council. These two tribes were peaceful and did nothing to harm the Corps.
The Mandan Villages in present day North Dakota were reached in October of 1804. The Mandan were extremely helpful to expedition. A fort was given to the Corps as a place to spend the upcoming winter, information on the upcoming land, and supplies for the next leg of the journey were also supplied.
Perhaps the most important thing coming from the Mandan Villages was the addition of the Charbonneau family to the expedition. Toussaint and Sacagawea were hired because of Sacagawea’s ability to translate Shoshone. Sacagawea was kidnapped from her Shoshone tribe in what is now known as Montana and brought to the Mandan Village where she married Toussaint Charbonneau. Later that winter Sacagawea gave birth to a boy named Jean Batiste adding one more member to the expedition.
In April of 1805 the Corps set off again this time in canoes because the keelboat was too large to navigate the rivers. The keelboat was sent back to St. Louis with reports, letters, and maps written by Lewis and Clark. The Yellowstone and Musselshell Rivers were passed on the way to a fork in the Missouri.
Upon reaching the fork the Corps split into two groups headed by each captain and explored each fork. The south fork ended up being the Missouri River. Reaching the falls that would later be called the Great Falls, the Indians had told the Corps about the group was faced with another predicament, how to portage all there supplies around the Great Falls. After almost a month all the supplies were transported around the Great Falls and in July of 1804 the Corps continued along their path.
Sacagawea became of great service to the expedition at this point because she now recognized much of the land they were traveling. When Sacagawea notified the Corps that the headwaters were near, the spirits of the group were lifted. There were no signs of Shoshone, whom the Corps needed to supply them with the horses they needed to cross the Rocky Mountains. When the forks at the headwaters were reached they were named the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers. Shoshone were finally found and with the sight of Sacagawea, were very accepting. The Shoshone bartered horses in exchange for promise of fur trade and gun trade in the future.
When communicating with the Shoshone there was an interesting chain of translation. A captain gave an English message to Francais Labiche, a Corps member who spoke French, who translated the message into French for Toussaint Charbonneau, who translated the message into Hidatsa for Sacagawea, who, in turn, translated the message into Shoshone for the chief.
Traveling north toward the Columbia River the Corps took a trail that would later become known as the Lolo Trail. The Shoshone guide mistook the trail they took for another shorter more direct trail. This mistake added two days of traveling to their journey but the Corps didn’t mind because they explored more land taking the longer
Crossing the mountains was not an easy task for the Corps. Cold, snow, and hunger bit at the Corps every step of the journey across the mountains. When reaching the other side the Corps made canoes and traveled on the Clearwater River to the Snake River and finally to the Columbia River. Along these rivers many of the Indians had never seen white men. The presence of Sacagawea and her baby helped calm the tribes.
The waters of the Columbia River were very turbulent and full of narrow, rocky channels. The Chinook tribe thought to be hostile did not give the Corps any trouble. After a portage around the Cascades the climate changed. Rain became much heavier and the Corps were rained upon so heavily that their clothes rotted on their backs.
The captains made the journey to the Pacific at different times but each reached the western most point in their trip. Sacagawea also reached the ocean when going along on a trip to see a beached whale. The rest of the Corps of Discovery stayed at Fort Clatsop for the winter. The temperature stayed above zero but the wet cloudy weather was just as bad. The meat spoiled within days and had to be eaten spoiled because of lack of food. On March 23, 1806 the Corps began the long journey home.
The journey up the Columbia River was even fiercer. The Indians were not as willing to trade for horses. The Indians even stole form the Corps showing how little sympathy they had for the group. The Corps traded every possible thing they could spare for the horses and used there knowledge of medicine and healing to gain favor with the Indians.
The Walla Walla tribe helped immensely. Giving food, a welcoming celebration, and many fine horses the Corps were back on their feet and ready to travel the Lolo Trail once again. Only this time the Corps traveled the shorter more direct route.
At the Great Falls the Corps separated. Lewis led a group of men exploring Northeast of the falls and trying to make peace with the Blackfeet tribe and Clark led a group exploring the Bitterroot Valley. The two groups would meet at the mouth of the Yellowstone River.
When the Corps reunited at the mouth of the Yellowstone River they journeyed to the Mandan Villages where the Corps lost four members of their group, the three members of the Charbonneau family and John Colter who joined a fur trading party.
The Corps then traveled down the Missouri River to St. Louis and on September 23, 1806 the expedition ended. When in St. Louis Lewis wrote a letter to Jefferson about their arrival home. The Corps of
Discovery were honored with parties, ceremonies, and balls.
Captain Meriwether Lewis led an unsuccessful life after the expedition. Never marrying, Lewis entered into politics as the governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory; however, politics did not suit Lewis well. Lewis died of a gunshot wound in Tennessee. It is believed that he committed suicide.
Captain William Clark became the militia leader of the Upper Louisiana Territory and the superintendent of Indian affairs in St. Louis before marrying Julia Hancock. Clark had four sons with Julia and when Julia died he married Harriet Kennerly and had two more sons. In 1838 at the age of sixty-eight Clark died of natural causes.
The effects of the expedition were not evident right away but were great. The maps, drawings, and journals brought back by the Corps took some of the fear away from settlers wanting to move into the territory. The fur trade in the west was also expanded greatly by the expedition. The United States’ claim to the Oregon Country became stronger then Britain’s by virtue of their exploration and presence in the territory.
The expedition could not have survived without the Indians. Despite this fact, however, the expedition hurt the Indians. The door was opened for American settlers to move into the territory and to try to force the Indians out of the territory.
The west will forever be linked with Lewis and Clark, the two men who opened its doors. With undaunted courage and patriotic spirit these explorers survived an arduous journey through the uncharted lands of the Louisiana Territory and placed themselves among the greatest explorers of all time.