On January 18, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson requested $2,500 from Congress for exploration of the trans-Mississippi west, which was approved on February 28. Although the expedition intended to explore land soon to become part of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase, announced on July 4, the appropriation and still earlier the first planning had taken place when the Louisiana Purchase had not even been contemplated. The president helped to plan the expedition and appointed his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to lead it. Lewis selected William Clark to share command over the crew of 40 soldiers, boatmen, hunters, and a large dog.
Jefferson's basic aims were to assess the new lands' commercial possibilities, military prospects, and regional flora and fauna. Uppermost, it was hoped that a Northwest Passage, comprising rivers and portages, would be discovered for easy access to the Pacific Ocean. The Corps of Discovery, as it came to be known, was charged with collecting new specimens, recording latitude and longitude of geographical features, noting the land's economic potential, discovering new rivers, journaling about the Indian tribes, and convincing those tribes of the federal government's good intentions. The captains' journals proved to be invaluable to posterity.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition left from St. Louis, Missouri in late May 1804, proceeded up the Missouri River until its tributaries ended in the Rocky Mountains, crossed the Rockies and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. There they established Fort Clatsop near the present site of Astoria, Oregon. The trek was extremely arduous, but only one life was lost, owing to a ruptured appendix, over 28 months and 8000 miles on the trail.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition's findings forced the nation to face the harsh reality that no easy all-water route to the Pacific existed. Nevertheless, the extensive information gained about the natural features, peoples, and resources of the new lands would help to attract thousands of hardy pioneers in the following decades.
Preparations -- Summer 1803
Under Meriwether Lewis's supervision, a large keelboat was constructed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It would be accompanied on much of the journey by several smaller vessels called pirogues. Following construction, Lewis transferred it down the Ohio River, collecting William Clark and recruits on the way.
During fall and winter 1803, a logistical springboard, Camp Wood, was established upstream from St. Louis, Missouri.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition proceeds -- May 14, 1804
Lewis's journal recorded the following: "Showery day. Capt. Clark Set out at 3 oClock P.M. for the western expedition. One Gun fired. a nomber of Citizens see us Start. the party consisted of 3 sergeants & 38 Good hands ... we sailed up the Missouri 6 miles & encamped ... opposite the mouth of Coldwater Creek."
Pushing against the Missouri's current was demanding work, and each man needed up to eight pounds of fatty meat a day. They gathered greens when possible. When Sacajawea joined the party later on, she collected plants that enhanced the men's diet. Many of the crew contracted dysentery and a number of skin infections caused by the river water -- the first of many illnesses.
The Corps was directed essentially as a non-combat military campaign, including disciplining by lash if necessary. Following punishment, the captains held inspections to emphasize that they were on a military expedition.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition observed the first Fourth of July west of the Mississippi by discharging the keelboat's cannon, and naming a nearby stream Independence Creek.
July 21 found the Corps at the Platte River. From the 22nd to the 27th, they settled at a site they named Camp White Catfish after one was caught there. The stopover enabled the party to rest, fashion boat poles and oars, write reports to the president and to meet members of the Oto tribe. Captain Clark noted, "to let them know of the change of Government [Jefferson Administration] The wishes of our Government to Cultivate friendship with them, the Objects of our journy and to present them with a flag and Some Small presents."
The captains arrived at the agreed-upon meeting place, Council Bluff. At dusk, August 2, six Oto and Missouri chiefs appeared with a gift of fruit. The following day, Lewis advised the chiefs that they had a new father -- to explain the change of government. Gifts were exchanged. Clark took notes on their language and gathered other facts about them. The Corps went upriver at 4 p.m. that day.
On succeeding days, the Corps leaders had to deal with two desertions: a Private Moses B. Reed and a civilian French boatman. A special party was deployed to hunt them down. Reed was apprehended and punished by running a gauntlet of blows four times. The Frenchman got away.
On August 19, Clark wrote, "Sergt Floyd was taken violently bad ... and is dangerously ill we attempt in Vain to releive him...." He succumbed of a ruptured appendix, the only Corps member to die. Lewis and Clark named hilltops where he was buried Floyd's Bluff and a nearby stream Floyd's River.
The Corps passed the mouth of the Big Sioux River on August 21, 1804. Their campsites would be in today's Nebraska and South Dakota.
The Corps soon had their first meeting with the Yangton Sioux, whom they had feared, but the council proceeded amicably.
However, meeting the Teton Sioux in late September was different. The visit had its tense moments and was hindered by a language barrier. These people called themselves Lakota, "dwellers of the prairie," but French traders preferred the moniker Sioux, which is Chippewa for "enemy."
On September 7, Corps members drowned a prairie dog -- the first ever seen -- for shipment to President Jefferson.
When the Teton chiefs apparently wanted a boat in exchange for permission to continue upriver, things threatened to get ugly. Weapons were drawn and cocked. Once more, the language problem had interfered. Chief Black Buffalo avoided a fight by resolving the confrontation. The Lewis and Clark Expedition remained with the tribe three more days. October 1 brought the Corps to the mouth of the Cheyenne River.
Autumn 1804 arrived, and the Corps moved quickly into today's North Dakota. When the captains met with the Arikaras in the area, they urged their chiefs to end their wars with the neighboring Mandans and others. The chiefs asked for the captains' assistance, so the latter leaders agreed to council with the Mandans on October 12. One of the Arikara chiefs rode along.
On October 20, Private Pierre Cruzatte wounded a grizzly that subsequently escaped. Clark "Saw Several fresh tracks of that animal double the Sise of the largest track I ever saw..."
On the 24th, the captains encountered a Mandan hunting contingent led by Chief Sheheke. When the peace-seeking Arikara chief was introduced, the Mandans welcomed him and shared a peace pipe. When the Arikara chief turned to go home, some Mandans went with him to ratify their peacemaking.
The Corps set up their first winter camp on October 26, 1804. Two Mandan villages and three Hidatsa villages were nearby.
After their awkward visit with the Teton Sioux, Lewis and Clark were cautious with the Mandans and Hidatsas. The captains met for four days with the respective chiefs and met with success. The result signaled the beginning of friendship between the Corps leaders and chiefs.
On November 2, the crew commenced to build Fort Mandan out of cottonwood logs. The Corps moved into the unfinished structure when the weather turned colder. The day before Christmas 1804, Fort Mandan was completed, and the Corps settled in for the winter. A significant portion of their winter diet would be corn obtained from the Mandans.
The captains inquired of every native they met about lands up the Missouri, then wrote the information down. They also took notes on native ways, as well as plants and animals. In addition, they copied out daily astronomical data for cartographers back home, and drew their own maps.
Also in November, a French-Canadian fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau was met among the Hidatsa. He offered skills as an interpreter and cook. He also brought with him two Shoshone wives. Unfortunately, Charbonneau spoke no English, which necessitated translation among English, French, Hidatsa, and Shoshone speakers.
Sacajawea would stay with the Corps and accompany them for the remainder of their journey. When she gave birth to a son, she named him Jean Baptiste Charbonneau and carried him on a cradleboard to the Pacific and back. Lewis and Clark nicknamed him "Pomp."
Leaving Fort Mandan -- March 1805
The Corps packed to leave Fort Mandan as the ice cleared up on the Missouri. At the same time, Corporal Richard Warfington led a return party of a dozen men downriver in the keelboat, bearing reports, maps, Indian-made items and live scientific specimens for the president. Only one magpie survived all the way to Washington, D.C.
In April, the remainder of the Corps moved at least 25 miles a day on the Missouri, across present-day western North Dakota. Their progress was often impeded by high winds. One of the pirogues, piloted by Charbonneau, nearly went belly up. On April 29, Lewis and a fellow hunter slew a large grizzly, which heretofore had not been examined scientifically.
With a few men, Lewis scouted ahead and reached the Yellowstone River, where they camped. The following day, they went back to the main party.
At the mouth of the Yellowstone, Lewis and Clark concurred that a spot on the south side of the Missouri would be ideal for a trading post. Two forts were in fact erected there, but later on: Fort Union, a fur-trading post, opened 24 years later, and Fort Buford, was constructed in 1866.
Later that spring, the Lewis and Clark Expedition traveled west on the Missouri from the mouth of the Yellowstone to the mouth of the Musselshell in present-day eastern Montana. Curiously, they met no Indians on that segment. There was, however, abundant wildlife, much of what they dined on, such as beaver tail. Sacajawea helped to balance their diet by collecting such plants as wild licorice and breadroot.
Again, strong winds slowed their rate of travel, and again Charbonneau got into trouble with his pirogue. Water poured in as it tipped. Private Cruzatte, a more-able boatman, saved the pirogue as he and four others bailed it out and rowed it to shore. Critically important cargo was saved with Cruzatte's and Sacagawea's help, but some cargo was spoiled or lost.
On May 20, the Corps reached -- and named -- the Musselshell River, translating from the Hidatsa. On May 29, Clark named a stream the Judith River for a Virginian girl he planned to marry.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition reached the Missouri Breaks, ominously featuring rugged cliffs and narrow river bottoms. They were progressing roughly 20 miles a day, sometimes resorting to towing and poling their fragile vessels. Lewis described the White Cliffs area of the Breaks: "I should have thought that nature had attempted here to rival the human art of masonry had I not recollected that she had first began her work."
Clear of the Missouri Breaks, the Corps confronted something unexpected. On the second of June, they approached two rivers that appeared to comprise the main Missouri. One branch came from the southwest and the other from the northwest. Even their map didn't depict that configuration. They stayed 10 days, breaking into groups to explore the vicinity, trying to decide which fork was the main Missouri -- the one they wanted.
Lewis became convinced that the north fork he had investigated was not the main Missouri. He named that fork the Maria's River (now Marias) after a cousin. Cruzatte, the experienced Missouri waterman, disagreed, so Lewis left to explore the south fork farther than Clark had managed.
According to the Mandans, mighty waterfalls existed ahead on the Missouri. If Lewis found them, then he and Clark would be correct that the south fork was the main Missouri.
Lewis and four men left on June 11 to locate the falls. Voila! After first hearing them, Lewis and Private Silas Goodrich hiked several miles and found the Great Falls of the Missouri. Now the Corps would have to get around the five waterfalls with rapids between.
Portaging is the task of bearing boats overland, and that's what the Corps did to skirt the falls.
At this point in the trek, Lewis suddenly chased into the Sun River by a grizzly. His gun was unloaded at the time. When Lewis turned to face the bruin with a gun stand, the grizzly changed its mind and left.
The men dragged canoes three-quarters of a mile to Belt Creek, then one and three-quarters miles up the creek, then walked no fewer than 18 miles. Ferrying the canoes and goods began on June 23 and required eight days. Clark wrote, "to State the fatigue of this party would take up more of the journal than other notes..." A flash flood down a ravine nearly spelled disaster.
With the pirogues stashed far behind for the return trip, the Corps now relied on eight fully packed dugout canoes as they headed up the Missouri on water again. They named rivers as they progressed.
As usual, the captains took down astronomical data for future mapmaking and wrote descriptions of animals new to them. They also kept an eye out for the Shoshone -- Sacajawea's people. In this country, the expedition endured gnats, mosquitoes, and prickly pear cactus.
The Corps needed horses to bear cargo on a short portage over what they thought was a single mountain range between the headwaters of the Missouri and those of the Columbia River. So it was time to trade with horse-owning natives. Lewis ordered flags to be raised on the canoes, in hopes that the Shoshones would understand that they were not a war party.
Before stopping for breakfast on July 25, the Corps reached the Missouri's three forks and gave them names: the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin, after the president, secretary of state, and secretary of the treasury, respectively. They faced a major decision at the Marias River. Which was the correct fork to the Rocky Mountains and contact with the Columbia? After considerable exploration, they picked the fork that proved to be the main branch -- the Jefferson -- and pressed southwest on it.
At these forks, the Corps was encamped precisely where Sacajawea's people had been five years earlier, when the Hidatsa attacked and she was kidnapped. (She was later purchased by Charbonneau.)
In late summer 1805, the Corps moved up the newly named Jefferson to locate the Shoshones, trade for horses, then learn where to cross the Rockies. On August 8, Lewis noted that geese were flying, a sign of autumn. However, Sacagawea had recognized Beaverhead Rock, which was her tribe's summer camp on the river that runs to the west beyond the mountains. Maybe that river was the Columbia, thought the leaders.
On August 11, Lewis spotted an Indian on a horse, and believed he was a Shoshone. When he hailed him, the Indian disappeared into the bushes.
(On August 12, the shipment from Fort Mandan was successfully delivered to the president.)
The Continental Divide -- August 1805
Part of the Corps reached the Continental Divide, where Lewis beheld "immence ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered with snow." When they crossed the Divide into present-day Idaho, they simultaneously left the Louisiana Purchase and entered lands previously claimed by European countries.
On August 13, the expedition's advance party met some Shoshones. After glimpsing a few, then giving them gifts, a party of 60 warriors galloped up. After convincing the young men that they were peaceful, the white men were greeted with hugs by their commander, Chief Cameahwait. It was the Shoshones' first encounter with white people. Lewis advised Cameahwait several times that the main party of the Corps included a young Shoshone woman.
For the first time since their split-up, the main party's canoes showed up at noon on August 17.
"The Great Chief of this nation proved to be the brother of the woman with us..." wrote Clark.
Part of the Corps and the Shoshones rested at the site they named Camp Fortunate. Autumn approached, and the Corps was on the wrong side of the Divide. They needed to go west to find the Columbia River. Again, they decided to split up. One party would bring Shoshones with horses back to Camp Fortunate, then Captain Lewis and the remainder could pack their goods over the Divide to the Shoshone camp.
On August 22, Camp Fortunate greeted Sacajawea, Charbonneau, Cameahwait, and 50 Shoshone men as well as a few women and children. They had responded to Clark's request to help the Corps cross to their village in present-day Idaho.
Lewis's group and the Shoshones left Camp Fortunate on August 24. They trekked over the Divide and reached the Shoshone camp. The captains traded for horses. On August 30, the reunited Corps had a mule and 29 poorly fed horses unused to packs. On August 31, the Corps set out again, at this juncture with Old Toby, a Shoshone guide. They again crossed the Salmon-Bitterroot Divide (today's Idaho-Montana border), and went down the north side to Ross's Hole.
At that point, they became the first whites to encounter allies of the Shoshone, the Salish, who greeted them benignly.
September 9 dawned and the Corps reached a stream they named Travelers Rest Creek. They rested at present-day Missoula, Montana while they prepared to cross the mountains, and the captains took down astronomical observations to certify the latitude and longitude of the spot.
Beyond the divide
The toughest leg of the entire journey lay ahead over inhospitable mountains. The Corps began this leg on September 11. They had anticipated a single range of 3000 feet or so -- like the Alleghenies of home. To the contrary, they found range after range. The Bitterroots, as they came to be called, were up to 9000 feet and jagged.
They encountered rain, sleet, and snow, and became terribly cold. Food was hard to find, and hunger threatened. The band split up. On September 20, Clark's party descended into present-day Weippe Prairie. There, they met a camp of Nez Perce Indians gathering camas root, a staple of their diet. The party was warmly greeted and feasted by the natives. The meal consisted of fish, bison, dried berries, and of course, camas root.
The following day, Clark questioned the natives about the surrounding environs, then composed a map of upcoming rivers and tribes. The captain and his party moved on to Clearwater River and reached Nez Perce chief Twisted Hair's encampment.
On September 22, Clark and his men rejoined Lewis and the main party. They had "...trymphed over the Rocky Mountains..." It was time to build canoes for the push to the Pacific.
On to the Columbia -- October 1805
The Corps negotiated no fewer than 15 rapids on the Clearwater on October 8. One canoe sank, drenching men and goods.
Nez Perce chiefs Twisted Hair and Tetoharsky joined them as arranged, and longtime Shoshone guide, Toby, headed home on his own.
At one segment, the canoes managed 58 miles in a day. They reached the Snake River. That evening, they set up camp at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, across from today's Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington.
Sacajawea continued to be a valuable Corps member, despite her inability to interpret outside of Shoshone country. Her simple presence signaled to other natives that the Corps came in peace.
Another canoe got into trouble, this time on a rock. Out came its contents, and what was saved from the water had to be dried. While they waited, Lewis spotted what were probably the Blue Mountains of Oregon and Washington.
On October 16, the Corps finally reached the Columbia River. When they took a rest at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers, the Nez Perce brought representatives of the Wanapam and Yakima tribes. The latter welcomed them warmly with singing, drumming, and food. The Corps leaders held council with them and proclaimed friendship in word and gifts. Copious notes were taken about the natives. It was noted that infants' strangely shaped foreheads were attributable to being strapped with boards and bands on their cradleboards. On October 18, Clark spied Mount Hood, named in 1792 by a British sea captain -- a sign that the ocean lay ahead.
Corps members also saw a sage grouse for the first time, and traded such items as knitting paraphernalia for dog meat to eat.
They set off on the Columbia and passed the Walla Walla River. The Columbia now headed west. (It now is the border between Oregon and Washington.) The Corps approached lands explored by the British party of George Vancouver more than a dozen years before. Using copies of Vancouver's maps, they kept a lookout for features indicating the Pacific Ocean was near.
The Corps met many Indian groups who lived along the river. The Umatilla people reacted with fright at first, but calmed down when they saw Sacajawea.
By October 20, the Corps was in country that supplied little wood. Indians they encountered sold them some. They told the Corps members about big falls coming up, as well as a large, cone-shaped mountain near the falls. That feature was today's Mount Hood. Bad rapids were a regular obstacle.
Celilo Falls loomed ahead. The Corps leaders elected to portage around them on the Washington side. Acting on a warning from the Nez Perce guides that an attack was imminent, Lewis and Clark directed the Corps to be ready with guns. The Nez Perce also indicated they were at war with the local Wishram people, but Lewis and Clark managed to arrange a successful peace council.
High winds prevented much progress on October 28. Their dugout canoes were easily swamped, while the locally made canoes were much lighter and more maneuverable. Such signs of coastal trade as brass teakettles appeared.
Sighting the ocean
The Corps passed through the Columbia Gorge, continuing to meet with occupants of native villages. Private Cruzatte entertained visitors and natives alike with his fiddle. Trader-ship goods became more numerous at the villages, and the language barrier became much worse -- no sign language. The best form of communication was Chinook Jargon, a stew of Chinook, English, French, and Nootka.
By November 1805, they observed the Columbia rising and falling with the tide. On November 3, they reached today's Reed Island, which marked the easternmost point that Vancouver's team had reached. The local Watlala people treated the Corps to wapato root, which would help to feed them next winter. On November 7, Clark thought he glimpsed the Pacific Ocean and entered a joyful remark in his journal. Twenty more miles would need to be traversed.
Powerful storms put a stop to the Lewis and Clark Expedition for close to three weeks. Rain made otherwise relatively easy travel quite miserable: "...we are all wet, cold and disagreeable, rain Continues & Encreases." They could hear ocean waves "roreing" in the near distance.
Winter on the Coast
Ten more days lay ahead before the Corps reached the coast. Wind and rain continued to assail them. Their leather garments began to rot. They were looking for a place where a trader vessel could anchor, so the Corps could bulk up with goods for the return trip.
From November 18th to 20th, a party from the Corps left to behold the Pacific "...this emence ocian." In his journal, Clark wrote that the Pacific Ocean was anything but pacific: "...Since I have seen it, it has been the reverse."
The Corps regrouped and took a vote to decide about the winter camp, on November 24. The decision was in favor of further exploration. The rain continued unabated.
Finally, on December 7, the Corps arrived at the future site of Fort Clatsop -- two miles up the Netul River from Young's Bay. They would remain in their new fort until March 23, 1806.
For their diet, they needed to make salt, which they managed to do by the 25th of December Necanicum River where today's Seaside, Oregon exists. While there was plentiful elk in the area, the butchered meat spoiled in the rain.
On December 8, construction of Fort Clatsop began -- in the rain. Land was cleared, trees felled, logs split and walls raised and chinked. By Christmas Eve, the men began to move in. Christmas Day was soggy, with food spoiled by the damp. The fort was finished on December 30, and a guard was posted at the gate.
On January 4, 1806, President Jefferson met a delegation of Yangton Sioux, Arikara, Missouri, and Oto chiefs who had met the Corps leaders more than a year before.
Also in early January 1806, men who helped set up the salt works also brought a piece of blubber given to them by the Tillamooks from a beached whale. Later, the party traded for 300 pounds of it, which lasted about three weeks as a dietary supplement.
Winter saw much activity as the men made salt, clothing, luggage, and candles. They also preserved meat.
Departure for the Lewis and Clark expedition was set for April 1, 1806. The winter food supply ranged from plenty to skimpy, but on the whole, the Corps stay in the fort was successful. Every day was gray, however.
For his hospitality, the Corps made a gift of the fort to Chief Coboway on March 22, and he and his family resided there for a time.
Going home -- March 1806
The Lewis and Clark Expedition departed Fort Clatsop on March 23, 1806 and began their return trip to the United States.
Everyone in the return party made it back. On September 23, Clark wrote, "[We] descended to the Mississippi and down that river to St. Louis at which place we arrived about 12 oClock. We Suffered the party to fire off their pieces as a salute to the Town."
See Great Plains Culture Groups, Northwest Culture, and Far West Culture^.
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