History Of The Lewis and Clark Expedition

The years between 1803 and 1806 were very exciting for the United States. There were many things going on at this time. The United States was expanding and exploring the unknown western lands. This was the time of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The Louisiana Purchase was the United States had expanded since the end of the American Revolution in 1783. The French controlled the Louisiana Territory until 1762, when the part of Louisiana west of the Mississippi River was ceded to Spain. Spain gained the territory due to the French and Indian War, or the Seven Years War. The French regained the power over the territory in 1800 when Napoleon Bonaparte convinced King Charles IV of Spain to release the territory back to France. The United States at the time had settlements on in the river valleys east of the Mississippi River.  In 1795, the United States made a treaty with Spain that allowed them to use the port of New Orleans and the Mississippi River as long as the products originated in the United States. However, in 1802 Spain revoked the treaty, as they did not own that territory any longer. This was a very big problem for the settlements near the Mississippi River because, “the very existence of these new settlers depended on their right to use the Mississippi River freely and to make transshipment of their exports at New Orleans” (“Louisiana Purchase”). Thomas Jefferson, the President of the United States at the time, was determined to negotiate with France to gain control over the port of New Orleans. He had not originally intended to purchase the whole Louisiana Territory. In 1803, President Jefferson sent James Monroe to Paris to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans (Jaede). To avoid conflict with the United States and to raise money for a possible war with Britain, Napoleon countered the offer from the United States. He offered to sell the whole Louisiana Territory to the United States, Monroe accepted immediately. President Jefferson approved the purchase for $15 million. The United States gained about 828,000 square miles of unexplored land west of the Mississippi River, roughly doubling the size of the country (Jaede).

Even before the United States gained the Louisiana Territory, Jefferson was planning to send someone to explore the land west of the Mississippi River, specifically along the Missouri River. Meriwether Lewis was asked by Jefferson to steer the expedition. Jefferson wanted Lewis to not only explore the land, but also find the Northwest Passage, an all water path across the continent. Lewis spent months preparing for the expedition, studying many sciences and buying supplies. Lewis appointed William Clark to be his co-commander, but the United States Secretary of War denied the request of a shared commandment between the two. “Captain Lewis and Lieutenant Clark chose to address one another as ‘captain’,” to make sure the other members of the expedition respected them both equally (Buckly).

Before the expedition began, Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark very specific instructions for the expedition. “Beginning at the mouth of the Missouri, you will take observations of latitude and longitude, at all remarkable points on the river, and especially at the mouths of rivers, at rapids, at islands and other places and objects distinguished by such natural marks & characters of a durable kind…” (Jefferson). On July 4th, news of the Louisiana Purchase was published in the newspapers, the very next day, Jefferson formally sent Lewis off on the Corps of Discovery Expedition. Lewis and Clark recruited many men to join them on the expedition, including George Drouillard as an interpreter. Lewis and Clark decided to set up camp along the Wood River for the winter of 1803; this camp became known as Camp Dubois.  On March 9th and 10th, “Lewis and Clark attend ceremonies in St. Louis marking the official transfer of the Louisiana Territory from France to the United States” (Woodger and Toropov, 6). Because this ceremony legitimized the Louisiana Purchase, they no longer needed to get Spanish or French permission to travel up the Missouri river. It was not until May 14th that the expedition left Camp Dubois to begin the journey up the Missouri River (Woodger and Toropov, 5-6).

The expedition would cover more than 8,000 miles from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific Ocean and back. Twenty-seven others joined Lewis and Clark on this expedition. “The party consisted of: nine young men from Kentucky; 14 soldiers of the United States Army, who volunteered their services; two french watermen; and an interpreter and hunter; and a black servant belonging to captain Clark” (Lewis et al., 1-3).

On June 1st, 1804, 133 miles from St. Louis, Lewis and Clark named their first geological landmark, Cupboard Creek. Lewis and Clark did not write in their journals, or the entries were lost, from June 17th to July 14th, 1804. However, a few important events happened during this time. For example, on June 26th, the expedition reached the mouth of the Kansas River. By June 26th, 1804, they had traveled a total of 366 miles from their starting point. On July 4th, 1804, the first ever Independence Day celebration west of the Mississippi River took place. Lewis and Clark named Independence Creek, near today’s Atchison, Kansas, in celebration. On July 21st, 1804, they, “arrived at the lower Mouth of the Great River Platt [Platte] at 10 o’clock…” (Lewis et al., 10). 730 miles from their starting point, Lewis and Clark reached and named Pelican Island on August 8th, 1804. Sergeant Charles Floyd becomes the only man to die on the expedition on August 20th, 1804, after being very sick. A day before Floyd’s death, Clark wrote,”Serjent [Sergeant] Floyd is taken verry [very] bad all at once with a Biliose Chorlick [bilious colic] we attempt to relieve him without success as yet, he gets worse and we are much allarmed [alarmed]…” (Lewis et al., 21). Patrick Gass was elected to replace Sergeant Floyd two days after Floyd’s death. On August 27th, the expedition reaches the mouth of the James River in South Dakota and meets a few Yankton Nakota Indians, or Yankton Sioux Indians. “Now the expedition sees the culture of the Plains Indians in detail and the notebooks fill with descriptions of the Sioux…” (Lewis et al., 25). On the 21st of September, the expedition had reached the Big Bend of the Missouri River. The Teton Lakota Indians, or Teton Sioux Indians, were know for stopping upriver trading boats and forcing them to sell or trade their goods for extremely low prices that the Teton had made up themselves. From September 25th to the 28th, 1804, the expedition was halted by the Teton, who wanted one of their boats. After the Teton were scared off by Lewis and Clark, they stopped pirating trading vessels. The expedition passes the mouth of the Cheyenne River on October 1st, 1804. On October 8th, 1804, the expedition, “passed the mouth of a River called by the Ricares We tar hoo [Grand River]” (Lewis et al., 47). The expedition finally enters present day North Dakota on October 14th, 1804. On October 27th, 1804, the expedition landed in the Mandan and Hidatsa Indian Villages. On November 4th, 1804, Sacagawea and her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, were asked to accompany the expedition as interpreters. The expedition set up a fort, Fort Mandan, to camp for the winter of 1804 to 1805, and ended up staying until April 7th, 1805. From April 2nd to April 7th, 1805, Lewis and Clark prepared to send a shipment back, with a crew, to the president and to the states. “The shipment includes live animals, pelts, and skeletons; samples of soil, plants, minerals, and insects; various artifacts; tobacco and seed; and maps, letters, and journals” (Woodger and Toropov, 10). The expedition reaches the mouth of the Little Missouri River on April 11th, 1805, and then proceeds to reach the mouth of the Yellowstone River on April 25th, 1805. Two days later they passed into Montana. On May 3rd, 1805, the expedition reaches Porcupine River, present day Poplar River, 2000 miles away from their starting point. In celebration of this, Clark names the river’s first tributary 2000 Mile Creek. On May 20th, the expedition reaches Mussel Shell River; Lewis and Clark named a creek after Sacagawea also. When they finally see what they believed to be the Rocky Mountains in the distance on May 26th, Lewis wrote a detailed description of the mountains. However, they mistaked the detached mountain chain, now called the Little Rocky Mountains, for the actual Rocky Mountains. “I thought myself well repaid for my labor, as from this point, I beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time…” (Lewis et al., 118). Clark names a river, Judith River, after his love interest in Virginia, Julia “Judy” Hancock, on May 29th, 1805. On June 2nd, they reached a fork in the river, but they did not know which of the two rivers was the actual Missouri River. They spent six days examining both branches of the fork, even splitting up to do so. Eventually, on June 9th, Lewis and Clark came to the conclusion that the Southern branch of the fork was the actual Missouri River. Lewis named the Northern branch Maria’s River in honor of Maria Wood, his cousin, but he was not aware that the Indians had already named the river Bear River. The rest of the expedition members are still convinced that the Northern branch is the way to go, so they split up once again. On June 13th, Lewis finally discovered the Great Falls of the Missouri, which proves that Clark and himself were correct about the Southern branch. On July 15th, Lewis names Fort Mountain, now known as Square Butte, and names a series of cliffs “The Gates of the Mountains” four days later. The expedition reaches the three forks of the Missouri on July 25th and on the 28th, “Lewis names the three branches Jefferson’s River [now Jefferson River], Maddison’s river[now Madison River], and Gallitin’s river [now Gallatin River],” (Woodger and Toropov, 12). The expedition decides to go down Jefferson’s River on July 30th. On August 11th, 3000 miles from their starting point, the expedition members on the river named an island 3000 Mile Island. The very next day, Lewis becomes the first non-Indian to cross the Continental Divide. On August 17th, near the Beaverhead River, Lewis and Clark named their camp, near the Shoshone village, Camp Fortunate. From September 11th to 22nd, the expedition crossed the Bitterroot Mountains, this journey was very dangerous and provisions were running low. “Weary and near starvation, they finally exit from the Bitterroots onto the Weippe Prairie, near present-day Weippe, Idaho” (Woodger and Toropov). The expedition sets up Canoe Camp at Clearwater River on September 26th, and set out on the river on October 7th. On October 10th, they reach Snake River and camp near what is now known as Lewiston, Idaho. 3714 miles from their starting point, on October 16th, 1805, the expedition reaches the Columbia River. On November 2nd, they passed the mouth of the Sandy River. On November 7th, 4142 miles into their journey, Clark believes to see the Pacific Ocean. However, he was mistaken, as from their camp location that day, near Pillar Rock, the ocean can not be seen (Lewis et al., 279). November 15th marks the day that the expedition finally reached Cape Disappointment and the Pacific Ocean, about 4162 miles away from St. Louis. Noting this occasion, Clark wrote, “men appear much satisfied with their trip beholding with estonishment [astonishment] the high waves dashing against the rocks and this emence Ocian [immense Ocean]” (Lewis et al., 287).

The expedition camps for the winter at Fort Clatsop until they head on the journey home on March 23rd, 1806. They split the expedition, once again, to explore the Yellowstone and Marias River on July 3rd. On July 7th, Lewis crosses the Continental Divide at what is now called Lewis and Clark Pass. The parties remain on separate paths until August 12th, 1806, when they reunited at Reunion Point near what is now New Town, North Dakota. On August 14th, the expedition arrives back at the Mandan Indian villages; this is where Sacagawea, Charbonneau, and their son leave the expedition. Charbonneau is paid for his duties as interpreter, but Sacagawea is not. On September 17th, 1806, “near what is now Brunswick, Missouri, Lewis and Clark meet Captain John McClallen, who informs them that the Spanish had been trying to locate and stop their expedition and that many in the United States had assumed they were now dead” (Woodger and Toropov, 19). Finally, on September 23rd, 1806, the expedition arrives in St. Louis, Missouri, where they are greeted with cheers and celebrations. The group goes their separate ways from here and are all paid with many acres of land each.

As previously mentioned, Lewis and Clark encountered many Indian tribes throughout their journey. In the fall of 1804, they landed in the Mandan and Hidatsa Indian villages, near present day Bismarck, North Dakota. Sacagawea and her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, lived in this village. With the winter coming up soon, Lewis and Clark decided to set up a fort near Sacagawea’s village. Because there were so many Indian tribes in the west that did not speak English, the captains knew they would need interpreters. When, “they learned that Charbonneau spoke French and Hidatsa and that Sacagawea spoke Hidatsa and Shoshone, they asked the couple to join them as interpreters” (Lusted). Sacagawea became the only women to join the expedition. Her new born son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, born on February 11th, 1805, also accompanied the expedition through their travels. Sacagawea was very valuable to the expedition and not just because of her Shoshone heritage. She was very knowledgeable in many areas, especially plants. She knew which plants were good food sources and which were good for medical purposes. She knew how to dig up roots the proper way and which plants and berries were edible. When the boat carrying them almost capsized on May 14th, 1805, she saved many valuable supplies and documents. Lewis and Clark named a creek in her honor six days later. “Perhaps most important, her presence in the group was reassuring to other native groups. It convinced them that the Corps’ purpose was peaceful,” (Lusted). In 1805, the expedition needed horse to cross the Bitterroot Mountains. When they found a group of Shoshones on August 17th, they hoped to buy horses from them. Surprisingly, the chief was Sacagawea’s brother, Cameahwait, which led him to selling the expedition the horses they needed. When the expedition finally landed at the Pacific Ocean in November of 1805, they took a vote on where they would camp for the winter. “Sacagawea’s vote was counted and carried equal weight to the men’s votes” (Lusted). This was significant because women in the United States would not be able to vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. While the expedition was on their return trip, Sacagawea was very helpful in the navigation back. In August 1806, the expedition finally returned to Sacagawea and her family’s village. Her husband, Charbonneau, was paid for his services on the expedition, but Sacagawea was not. Six years after she returned to her village, she passed away after giving birth to her second child. “Clark later became the guardian of both her children” (Lusted).

Many amazing things came out of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The expedition led to the discovery of many plants, animals, medicines, and landmarks that were unknown to the United States. Lewis and Clark are credited with identifying 122 animals during their expedition, 11 mammals they discovered were completely new and unknown to science at the time. The grizzly bear, American bison, coyote, prairie dog, elk, and the antelope are just a few of the animals that they identified on their expedition (Woodger and Toropov, 29-31). Lewis and Clark noted and described more than 50 new species of birds during their expedition, including cranes and geese (Woodger and Toropov, 50). They mentioned 31 varieties of fish in their journals, but only 12 species were not already discovered. The species of fish they found included the northern mooneye, the sauger, the blue catfish, the king salmon, and the eulachon, or the candlefish (Woodger and Toropov, 138-140). 148 out of the 180 plants or plant species that Lewis and Clark described were new discoveries, including red-flowering currants, prairie apples, flax seeds, cottonwood trees, and many more. They even found 2 new genera, a level of biological classification, including Clarkia, an herb, and Lewisia, bitterroot (Woodger and Toropov, 278-279, 345). Many of the plants they found had medicinal properties, including Indian tobacco, tansy flowers and seeds, and wormwood leaves and flowers (Drake). All of these things and their descriptions became very useful to science in the United States. Lewis and Clark introduced so many things that, without their expedition, may have not been around today.

In conclusion, the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition changed the United States in many ways. The years of 1803 to 1806, were major for the United States. The United States almost doubled its size and discovered so many things about the west that were not known to them before. Lewis and Clark found so many new species that might not have been found if it were not for them.

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