Prelude: 1803 to May 1804
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson won approval from Congress for a visionary project that was to become one of American history's greatest adventure stories.
Jefferson wanted to know if Americans could journey overland to the Pacific Ocean by following two rivers, the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. He knew both rivers flowed from the Rocky Mountains; the Missouri River flows east from the Rockies, and the Columbia River flows west to the Pacific Ocean.
If the sources of the rivers were near one another, Jefferson reasoned that American traders could use that route to compete with British fur companies pressing southward from Canada.
On February 28, 1803, Congress appropriated funds for a small U.S. Army unit to explore the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. The explorers were to make detailed reports on the land's geography, climate, plants, and animals, as well as to study the customs and languages of the Indians. Plans for the Expedition were almost complete when the President learned that France had offered to sell all Louisiana Territory to the United States. This transfer, which was completed within a year, doubled the area of the United States. It meant that Jefferson's army Expedition could travel to the crest of the Rockies on American soil, no longer needing permission from the former French owners.
Jefferson selected an Army captain, 28-year-old Meriwether Lewis, as the Expedition's leader. The Jeffersons and Lewises had been neighbors near Charlottesville, Virginia, where Lewis was born on August 18, 1774. As a boy, he had spent time in the woods, acquiring a remarkable knowledge of native plants and animals. In 1794, he served in the Virginia Militia when President Washington called it out to quell the Whiskey Rebellion. Lewis had a successful army career when, in 1801, the newly elected Jefferson summoned him to work as his private Secretary in the "President's House."
Lewis chose a former Army comrade, 32-year-old William Clark, to co-leader the Expedition. Clark was born on August 1, 1770, in Caroline County, Virginia. At 14, his family moved to Kentucky, where they were among the earliest settlers. William Clark was the youngest brother of General George Rogers Clark, a hero of the Revolutionary War. William served under General "Mad Anthony" Wayne during the Indian wars in the Northwest Territory.
Lewis and Clark reached their staging point at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers near St. Louis in December 1803. They camped through the winter at the mouth of Wood River on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River and the confluence of the Missouri River. The two captains recruited young woodsmen and enlisted soldiers who volunteered from nearby army outposts. Over the winter, final selections were made of proven men. The Expedition's roster comprised approximately 45 people in the spring, including some military personnel and local boatmen who would go partway up the Missouri River with the Expedition. Lewis recorded that the mouth of Wood River was "to be considered the point of departure" for the westward journey.
Lower Missouri: May 1804 to April 1805
The Expedition broke camp on May 14, 1804. Clark wrote in his journal: "I set out at 4 o'clock P.M and proceeded on under a gentle breeze up the Missouri River." The party traveled in a 55-foot-long keelboat and two smaller boats called "pirogues." Through the long, hot summer, they laboriously worked their way upriver. Numerous navigational hazards slowed their progress, including sunken trees called "sawyers," sand bars, collapsing river banks, and sudden squalls of high winds with drenching rains. There were other problems, including disciplinary floggings, two desertions, a man dishonorably discharged for mutiny, and the death of Sgt. Charles Floyd was the only member to die during the Expedition. In modern-day South Dakota, a band of Teton Sioux tried to detain the boats, but the explorers showed their superior armaments and sailed on.
Early in November, they came to the villages of the Mandan and Minitari (Hidatsa) Indians, who lived near present-day Washburn, North Dakota. On the north bank of the Missouri River, they found a grove of thick cottonwood trees to construct a log fort. Standing close together, the trees also offered protection from the prairie winds.
In four weeks of hard work, the men built a triangular-shaped fort. Rows of small huts made up two sides; a wall of upright cottonwood logs formed the front. They named it Fort Mandan in honor of the local inhabitants. The party was now 164 days and approximately 1,510 miles from Wood River.
The explorers spent five months at Fort Mandan, hunting and obtaining information about the route ahead from the Indians and French-Canadian traders who lived nearby. The Expedition's blacksmiths set up a forge and made tools and implements, traded for the American Indian's garden crops of corn, melons, and beans. A French-Canadian named Toussaint Charbonneau visited the captains with his young pregnant Shoshone wife, Sacagawea.
Sacagawea's tribal homeland lay in the Rocky Mountain country, far to the west. She had been kidnapped by plains Indians five years before, when she was about twelve years old, and taken to the villages of the Mandan and Minitari, where she was eventually sold to Charbonneau. Sacagawea spoke both Shoshone and Minitari, and the captains realized that she could be a valuable intermediary if the party encountered the Shoshones. They also knew that she and Charbonneau could be helpful in trading for the horses that would be needed to cross the western mountains. In addition, Sacagawea and her baby would prove to be a token of truce, assuring the Indians that the Expedition was peaceful. While descending the Columbia River, Clark later noted, "No woman ever accompanies a war party of Indians in this quarter." As a result, the captains hired Charbonneau, who was joined by Sacagawea and their infant son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, born at Fort Mandan on February 11, 1805. The boy became a favorite of Clark, whom he nicknamed "Pomp," citing his pompous "little dancing boy" antics.
Upper Missouri: April 1805 to July 1805
Moving up the river from the Mandan villages, they passed the confluence of the Yellowstone with the Missouri River. They entered a country where Lewis observed "immense herds of Buffaloes, Elk, Deer and Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture." Grizzly Bears charged the men hunting them.
Lewis said he would "rather fight two Indians than one bear." River navigation became more difficult. During a fierce windstorm, the pirogue that carried vital records and instruments filled with water and nearly capsized. Sacagawea, who was aboard, saved many items as they floated within her reach. Near the end of May, the Rocky Mountains came into view.
The river's current grew stronger. The explorers had to abandon the paddles and tow the heavy canoes with rawhide ropes while walking along the shoreline. When river banks gave way to cliffs, the men had to wade in the water, pushing and pulling the boats upstream.
In early June, the explorers reached a point where the Missouri River divided equally into northerly and southerly branches. They spent nine days concluding that the south branch was the true Missouri. Lewis named the "Marias River" north fork and scouted ahead with a small advance party following the south fork until he heard waterfalls. The Indians at Fort Mandan had told them about the falls of the Missouri River, so Lewis knew he was on the right stream.
In the vicinity of present-day Great Falls, Montana, the Expedition had to portage 18 miles around a series of five cascades of the Missouri River. The men attached cottonwood wheels to the canoes to push them overland. The weather was hot, with intermittent squalls pelting the party with large, bruising hailstones.
Transporting the heavy boats and baggage up the steep incline from the river and traversing the long stretch of prairie lands was exhausting. Prickly pear spines penetrated their feet through moccasin soles, adding to the difficult and exhausting portage.
After three weeks of shuttling canoes and baggage along this portage, a camp was established above the falls at "White Bear Island." They had brought along a metal framework over which they stretched hides to make a large, light boat to resume their journey on the river. The plan failed when stitches in the hides leaked water, and they had to abandon the framework and make two more cottonwood canoes.
West of the Divide: July 1805 to November 1805
On July 25, the Expedition arrived, where the Missouri River was divided into three forks. They named the southeast branch the "Gallatin" for the Secretary of the Treasury, and the southerly one was called the "Madison" for the Secretary of State. The westerly branch became the "Jefferson" River, "in honor of that illustrious personage Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States."
Because it flowed from the west, the captains decided to follow the Jefferson River. Learning from Sacagawea that they were now within the traditional food-gathering lands of her people, Lewis went ahead to look for the Shoshones. He reached a spring in the mountains in mid-August, which he called "the most distant fountain" of the Missouri River. Just beyond was a saddle in a high ridge (today's Lemhi Pass), from which Lewis saw towering, snow-covered mountains to the west. A brook at his feet ran westward, and he knew he had crossed the Continental Divide. The brook was one of many tributary streams of today's Snake River, joining the Columbia River.
Immediately west of the Continental Divide, Lewis came upon two Shoshone women and a girl digging edible roots. Lewis gave them presents, and soon, they were joined by a large number of Shoshone men on horseback. Lewis rejoined Clark and the main party, returning from this scouting trip accompanied by several Shoshones. The explorers formed a camp with the Indians a few miles south of present-day Dillon, Montana, called "Camp Fortunate." Here, Sacagawea found a childhood girlfriend. The girl had been with Sacagawea when both were captured but had escaped and returned to her people. Sacagawea learned that her brother, Cameahwait, was now chief of the tribe. It was an emotional scene when brother and sister were reunited.
Thinking ahead to their return journey, Captain Lewis ordered the canoes submerged to "guard against both the effects of high water and that of fire the Indians promised to do them no intentional injury." The party then proceeded across the Continental Divide to the main village of the Shoshones. With Sacagawea providing vital service as an interpreter, a Shoshone guide was hired, and trading with the Indians for riding and pack horses was successful. After a short stay, the now horse-mounted corps followed their guide, Old Toby, into the "formidable mountains."
September found the half-starved explorers surviving on horse meat while following the Lolo Trail's ancient Indian route across the Bitterroot Mountains in modern Montana and Idaho. During an early-season snowstorm, they encountered fallen timber, bone-chilling cold, and slippery, hazardous travel. Descending the west slope of the mountains, they reached a village of the Nez Perce.
Here, the natives provided a salmon, roots, and berries feast. The ravenous explorers found, to their dismay, that this unaccustomed diet made them extremely ill.
The group reached today's Clearwater River, where they branded and left their horses in the care of the Nez Perce until their return. They built new canoes and proceeded through boulder-strewn rapids, making speedy but risky progress. They reached the Snake River and then the Columbia River on October 16. They floated down that mighty river reaching the now inundated "Great Falls of the Columbia" (Celilo Falls) near the modern Oregon town of The Dalles. Here, and also when confronted by the raging rapids within the Cascade Mountains that Clark called the "Great Shute," they again were forced into toilsome portages.
On November 2, they drifted into the quiet upper reaches of tidewater on the Columbia. On November 7, Clark wrote: "Great joy in camp we are in view of the Ocean, this great Pacific Ocean which we have been so long anxious to see." They were still 25 miles upstream and saw the storm-lashed waves of the river's broad estuary.
For the next nine days, savage winds blew, ocean swells rolled into the river, and the rain poured down, stranding them in unprotected camps just above the tide at the base of cliffs. In mid-November, the captains finally strode upon the sands of the Pacific Ocean near the Columbia's mouth, the western objective of their journey. Clark recorded that 554 days had elapsed, and 4,132 miles had been traveled since leaving Wood River.
Pacific Ocean: November 1805 to March 1806
Captain Lewis carried a letter of credit signed by Jefferson, guaranteeing payment for the explorers' return by sea via any American or foreign merchant ship encountered in the Columbia River estuary. They saw no ships upon reaching the ocean, nor as their records reveal, would any enter the turbulent river entrance during their four-month stay at the coast. In truth, the captains never seriously intended to return by sea, preferring to establish a camp close to the coast instead. They hoped to obtain from trading ships "a fresh Supply of Indian trinkets to purchase provisions on our return home."
Due to the absence of game and their unprotected exposure to fierce winter storms on the Columbia (Washington State) north shore, the party crossed the river to the south side (Oregon), where Indians informed them elk and deer were numerous. An actual vote of the members was recorded, representing the first American democratically held election west of the Rockies that included the vote of a woman, Sacagawea, and a Negro-American man, York.
Crossing the river, they built their 1805-06 winter quarters on a protected site five miles south of modern Astoria, Oregon, naming it Fort Clatsop for their neighbors, the Clatsop Indians. The men spent the winter hunting elk for food and making elk skin clothing and moccasins to replace their worn buckskins.
Lewis filled his journal with descriptions of plants, birds, mammals, fish, and amphibians, weather data, and detailed information on Indian cultures. Clark drew illustrations of many animals and plants and brought his maps of the journey up to date. Sacagawea joined Clark and a few men on a coast trip to procure oil and blubber from a "monstrous fish," a whale washed up on the beach. They visited the Expedition's salt-making camp at present-day Seaside, Oregon, where several men kept a continuous fire burning for nearly a month, boiling seawater, to produce twenty gallons of salt.
Return Journey: March 1806 to September 1806
On March 23, 1806, the explorers started back up the Columbia in newly acquired Indian canoes. At the Great Falls of the Columbia River, they bartered with local Indians for pack horses and set out up the river's north shore on foot. The party obtained riding horses from various tribes along the way and reached the Nez Perce villages in May. While camped among the Nez Perce for a month, waiting for the high mountain snows to melt, the captains gave frontier medical treatment to sick and injured Indians in exchange for native foods.
The Nez Perce rounded up the Expedition's horses that they had cared for over the winter, easing the captains' concern for adequate transportation as the party resumed its eastward travel in early June. Retracing their outbound trail through the Bitterroots, they were turned back by impassable snowdrifts and made their only "retrograde march" of the entire journey. After a week's delay, they started out again and successfully crossed the mountains. On June 30, they arrived at their outbound "Travelers Rest" camp, eleven miles south of modern Missoula, Montana, where they enjoyed a welcome rest from their toils.
On July 3, 1806, the party separated. With nine men, Lewis rode directly east to the Great Falls of the Missouri River. Then, with three men, he traveled north to explore the Marias River almost to the present Canadian border. Lewis and his companions camped overnight with some Blackfeet Indians, who attempted to steal the explorers' guns and drive off their horses at daylight. In describing the ensuing skirmish, Lewis related that he was fired upon by an Indian, which resulted in a near-miss that "I felt the wind of the bullet very distinctly." Lewis afterward would elaborate that two of the Blackfeet were killed during the brief encounter but that he and his companions miraculously escaped unharmed.
Meanwhile, with the balance of the party, Clark proceeded southeasterly on horseback, crossing the Rockies through today's Gibbons Pass. Returning to the Jefferson River (now the Beaverhead River in its upper reach), the submerged canoes were recovered and repaired. Clark placed some men in charge of the canoes while the others continued on with the horses, all following the river downstream to the Three Forks junction of the Missouri River.
Here, the group is divided. The canoe travelers continued down the Missouri River to White Bear Island, where they recovered their cached equipment and portaged back around the falls. With the remainder, Clark rode their horses easterly to explore the Yellowstone River. While the Expedition was again passing through the Shoshone lands, Sacagawea remembered from her childhood, Clark praised her "great service to me as a pilot."
Upon reaching Yellowstone, new canoes were made. Clark assigned three men to drive the horses overland while he and the others drifted down the river. On July 25, 1806, Clark named an unusual rock formation on the south bank of the Yellowstone River (Montana) "Pompy's Tower" in honor of Sacagawea's son.
The parties were reunited on August 12 near the confluence of the Yellowstone and the Missouri rivers. Here, Clark learned that Lewis had been shot while searching for game in the brushy shoreline of the Missouri River. In his buckskin clothing, Captain Lewis was mistaken for an elk by Pierre Cruzatte. Clark treated and dressed the wound with medicines they carried.
Arriving at the Mandan villages on August 17, the Charbonneau family was mustered out of the Expedition. At his request, Private John Colter was discharged to join a fur trapping party bound up the Missouri River. The remainder of the party, accompanied by a Mandan chief and his family, headed down the Missouri River on the last leg of the homeward journey.
After September 23, 1806
On September 23, 1806, the tattered Corps of Discovery arrived at St. Louis and "received a hearty welcome from its inhabitants." Jefferson's explorers had covered 8,000 miles of territory over 2 years, 4 months, and 9 days. Its records contributed important information concerning the land, natural resources, and native peoples. Lewis and Clark learned that the surprising width of the Rocky Mountains chain destroyed Jefferson's hoped-for route between the Missouri and Columbia River systems. This finding resulted in a passage over what is now South Pass (Wyoming) during later trips westward by fur traders and other explorers. Despite difficulties, Lewis and Clark remained friends after the Expedition. Congress rewarded the officers and men of the military enterprise, including Toussaint Charbonneau, with land grants. Neither Sacagawea nor York received compensation for their services.
On February 28, 1807, President Jefferson picked Lewis as Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory. His career started well, but controversy involving government finances arose in 1809, culminating with his decision to travel to Washington, D.C., to resolve the dispute. Traveling through Tennessee, Governor Meriwether Lewis, on October 11, 1809, died mysteriously from gunshot wounds inflicted while at Grinder's Stand, a public roadhouse. It is not known conclusively whether he was murdered or committed suicide. His grave lies where he died, within today's Natchez Trace National Parkway near Hohenwald, Tennessee.
Clark enjoyed a lifelong, honorable career in public service in St. Louis. On March 12, 1807, Jefferson commissioned him Brigadier General of Militia and Indian Agent for Upper Louisiana Territory. In 1813, he was appointed Governor of Missouri Territory, which he held until Missouri Statehood in 1820. In 1822, he was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs by President Monroe. He was reappointed to this post by each succeeding President and served in this capacity for the remainder of his life. General William Clark died of natural causes in St. Louis on September 1, 1838, and is buried in the Clark Family plot at Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.