Lewis and Clark Expedition
President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
He wants them to explore and to map the newly acquired territory and to find a practical route across the western half of the continent.
He establish an American presence in this territory before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it.
Preparation of Lewis and Clark Expedition
The Lewis and Clark Expedition from May 1804 to September 1806, also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, was the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the United States.
It began in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, made its way westward, and passed through the Continental Divide of the Americas to reach the Pacific coast.
The Corps of Discovery was a selected group of US Army volunteers under the command of Captain Meriwether Lewis and his close friend Second Lieutenant William Clark.
Lewis knew that exploring the Louisiana Territory would be no small task and immediately began preparations.
He studied medicine, botany, astronomy and zoology and scrutinized existing maps and journals of the region. He also asked his friend Clark to co-command the expedition.
Even though Clark was once Lewis’ superior, Lewis was technically in charge of the trip. But for all intents and purposes, the two shared equal responsibility.
Initial Phase Lewis and Clark Expedition
On May 14, 1804, Clark and the Corps joined Lewis in St. Charles, Missouri.
They headed upstream on the Missouri River in the keelboat. They travelled with two smaller boats at a rate of about 15 miles per day. Heat, swarms of insects and strong river currents made the trip arduous at best.
By mid-October 1804, the LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION reached the MANDAN villages on the banks of the upper Missouri River in present-day NORTH DAKOTA.
Here they found several large, successful settlements with an overall population of about 5,000 people.
The Mandan villages were an important trade center. Mandan village brought together many different native groups as well as a handful of multilingual Frenchmen.
The expedition chose to spend the winter in this attractive location and it proved to be a crucial decision for the success of their journey.
While at Fort Mandan, Lewis and Clark met French-Canadian trapper Toussaint Charbonneau and hired him as an interpreter. They allowed his pregnant Shoshone Indian wife Sacagawea to join him on the expedition.
Lewis and Clark meets Sacagawea
On February 11, 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to a son and named him Jean Baptiste. She became an invaluable and respected asset for Lewis and Clark.
On April 7, 1805, Lewis and Clark sent some of their crew and their keelboat loaded with zoological and botanical samplings, maps, reports and letters back to St. Louis while they and the rest of the Corps headed for the Pacific.
A bedraggled and harried Corps finally reached the stormy Pacific Ocean in November 1805. They’d completed their mission and had to find a place to live for the winter before heading home.
They decided to make camp near present-day Astoria, Oregon, and started building Fort Clatsop on December 10 and moved in by Christmas.
Lewis and Clark Expedition Return Journey
On March 23, 1806, the Corps left Fort Clatsop for home. They retrieved their horses from the Nez Perce and waited until June for the snow to melt to cross the mountains into the Missouri River Basin.
They built a wooden fort close to present-day Astoria and spent a wet winter there.
Lewis and Clark set off in March 1806 and split into two parties to explore different routes, Clark’s party going down the Yellowstone. Lewis’s group’s skirmish with Blackfoot Indians was the only fighting the expedition did on the entire journey.
On July 25, 1806, Clark carved his name and the date on a large rock formation near the Yellowstone River.
He named Pompey’s Pillar, after Sacagawea’s son whose nickname was “Pompey.”
On August 12, Lewis and Clark and their crews reunited and dropped off Sacagawea and her family at the Mandan villages.
They then headed down the Missouri River – with the currents moving in their favor this time – and arrived in St. Louis on September 23 where they were received with a hero’s welcome.
Lewis and Clark Expedition Legacy
Only one member of the expedition died, possibly of a ruptured appendix. Everyone else and the dog returned safely.
Creatures they discovered that were previously unknown to whites included the grizzly bear, ‘a most tremendous looking animal’ as Lewis recorded.
They did not find a water route to the Pacific – there wasn’t one to find. However they pioneered the Oregon Trail, collected an immense amount of useful information. They also paved the way for the American conquest of the West.
The two men’s journals of the trip were published in 1814 after Lewis, sent back to St Louis as governor, had died in 1809, aged thirty-five, either of suicide or foul play. Clark became governor of Missouri and died in 1838, aged sixty-eight.