In April 1804, President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriweather Lewis and William Clark to explore the Louisiana territory which Jefferson had acquired for the United States the previous year. He was anxious to have the men find the Northwest Passage which was believed to follow a waterway to the Pacific Ocean which would give the United States the means to trade more easily with the countries of the Far EasCredit: Wikimedia Commons
Four dozen men made up the group which called themselves the Corps of Discovery. Meriweather Lewis was a brilliant but troubled man, dark and moody, who suffered from manic depression, melancholia and alcoholism. He had been Thomas Jefferson's secretary for many years. He was four years younger than his companion William Clark who was more outgoing and self-confident with practical experience. Lewis took his Newfoundland dog on the trip with him; Clark brought along his black slave named York. They expected to be gone for two years.
President Jefferson asked them to write down everything they experienced, to gather information on the weather, the landscape, on plants and animals. When they reached the Great Plains, they encountered animals they had never seen before - coyotes, prairie wolves, jackrabbits, antelope, and immense herds of Buffalo, sometimes 3000 at a time.
Lewis took on a French-Canadian fur trapper named Charbonneau and his Shoshone wife Sacagawea. Charbonneau was not a great help but Sacagawea knew the territory, directed them correctly and knew which Indian tribes were friendly. Her help was indispensable to the success of the journey.
Statue of Sacagawea, Bismarck, N.D.
The group suffered only one death during the entire expedition. Charles Floyd, 22 years old, became ill with what they called bilious colic, but which was probably a burst appendix. They encountered Otoes and Sioux and told them that the land now belonged to the United States. The Teton Sioux, sometimes called the Lakota, had immense power and tried without success to exact a toll from the white men. The Mandans in North Dakota welcomed them and provided them with food as winter was coming on. In return, Meriweather Lewis had primitive medical skills which he offered to the Mandans.
Sacagawea gave birth to a boy, Jean Baptiste, who then became the youngest member of the Corps of Discovery. She directed them to the Great Falls which they were told would take two days to get around. Instead, there were 18 waterfalls and it took one month to get around them. They came upon three tributaries and fortunately, Sacagawea recognized a landmark called the Beaver's Head which assured them they were on course. They approached the Continental Divide where no white man had ever been previously. They came upon two Indian women who were Shoshone, and Sacagawea recognized her brother with the tribe. The Corps was desperate to find horses and the Shoshone sold them all the horses they needed. They were able to reach the Columbia River which led to the ocean. This gave them great joy.
Another band of Indians, the Nez Perce (pierced nose) were extremely friendly to them when they reached the border of Oregon and Washington. The Nez Perce took an oath that they would always be friendly to the white man and they kept this promise.
Lewis suggested they take a vote on where to spend the winter. It was an American moment, democracy in action. They decided to stay on the south side of the Columbia River. They cut their names into the trees. They had put an entire continent between themselves and their countrymen.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Meriweather Lewis and William Clark
In November of 1805, they started to smell salt water. The finally reached the Pacific Ocean on November 15, 1805. They had traveled 4,162 miles since leaving the Mississippi. They kept records of the new animals and plants they had seen. There were 120 species of animals and 178 species of plants that had never before been described for science.
The expedition ended on September 24, 1806 when they returned to St. Louis. Meriweather Lewis was appointed as governor of the Louisiana Territory and William Clark became the Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Sacagawea left her son Jean Baptiste and a baby girl in William Clark's care. She died shortly thereafter.
This is truly an American story and Lewis and Clark are American heroes. They linked the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. Their journey was truly the most important expedition in American history.
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