"Washington D.C., June 20, 1803
To Meriwether Lewis Esquire, Captain of the first regiment of Infantry of the United States of America.
The Object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river & such principal stream of it as by it's course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce."
Monogahela and Allegheny River Confluence
© 2000 Airphoto, Jim Wark
To view the entire series with text by Joseph Mussulman, see Discovering Lewis & Clark from the Air, elsewhere on this site.
With these words President Thomas Jefferson set in motion the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806. The Corps of Discovery, as it would be called, or the "corps of volunteers for North Western Discovery," as Meriwether Lewis put it, epitomized the rising glory of the United States—its sense of limitless possibilities and unparalleled opportunities.
The Bicentennial of the expedition was an appropriate time for Americans to revisit this historic event, explore the intervening two hundred years, and try to understand the processes by which the land and the people along the Lewis and Clark Trail have been changed.1
The spirit behind the opening of the American West was the president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. For twenty years Jefferson had thought about finding a water route to the Pacific Ocean, and establishing an American presence west of the United States.That the West was foreign country didn't bother Jefferson; his initial efforts occurred while Louisiana belonged to Spain. Indeed, Jefferson named Meriwether Lewis commander of the expedition, and set about preparing him for his duties, long before the opportunity to purchase the Louisiana Territory came along. The consummation of that deal in May of 1803 meant only that the expedition would remain on American soil until it crossed the Rocky Mountains. By early 1803 Lewis was in Philadelphia. He took crash courses in medicine, botany, zoology, and celestial observation. He studied maps and journals of traders and trappers who had already reached as far up the Missouri River as the Mandan villages in North Dakota.2 By the time he left Washington he knew as much about the West, and what to do when he got there, as any man in America.
The President authorized Lewis to select a co-commander, and in June of 1803 Lewis offered the position to a 33-year-old ex-army lieutenant from Kentucky, William Clark. Once, for a brief period, Clark had been Meriwether Lewis's commanding officer. Although Jefferson sought an equivalent captaincy for Clark3, the promotion was denied by the War Department, and Clark was appointed Lieutenant in the Corps of Artillerists. Nevertheless, Lewis had promised Clark that they would share the responsibilities of command equally, and he kept his word, though actually Lewis was in charge, which was what Jefferson had in mind to begin with.
Clark brought complementary abilities to the transcontinental venture. He was a skilled riverman, a superlative geographer, and a first-rate map maker. He imbibed the intellectual curiosity of his generation, but because of limited formal schooling he had trouble writing it down. Like another frontiersman, Andrew Jackson, Clark never had much respect for a man who could think of only one way to spell a word. He outdid himself with the name of the Indian tribe known to Euro-Americans as Sioux, for which he devised twenty-seven ingenious creations, and the surname of Sacagawea's French-Canadian husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, which he spelled fifteen different incorrect ways.
Lewis left Washington on his historic western journey on the day after Independence Day, 1803. He picked up arms at the government arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Then he oversaw the construction of his specially-designed 55-foot keelboat (called the 'barge') in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and floated it down the Ohio River. Clark joined him at Clarksville, Indiana, across from Louisville, Kentucky.
While Lewis went ahead on horseback to St. Louis, Clark and the crew got the keelboat up the Mississippi, and set up winter quarters on the Wood River in Illinois, opposite the mouth of the Missouri. Meanwhile, Lewis made friends, collected supplies, and gathered more information in the city.
Leaving Camp Dubois
May 14, 1804
Leaving Camp Dubois, Monday, May 14, 1804
I Set out at 4 oClock P. M. in the presence of many of the Neighbouring inhabitents, and proceeded on under a jentle brease up the Missourie
At last, on May 14, 1804, forty-two soldiers and hired hands embarked from Camp Dubois and proceeded up the Missouri toward the Pacific Ocean. Clark was in sole command at the outset; Lewis would join him at St. Charles, Missouri. Until they reached Fort Mandan in today's northwestern North Dakota, where they spent their second winter, they traveled in the keelboat and two smaller craft called pirogues, all propelled, as conditions required, by oars, poles, sails, or tow ropes. On September 23, 1806, the expedition would come to its close back in St. Louis, Missouri, after a voyage lasting two years, four months, and ten days.
Geographically, the first and last segments of their westward voyage were more about confirmation than discovery. in 1796, the trader Jean Baptiste Truteau reported, he had been told by an Indian that the Missouri River originated in "great mountains of rock," beyond which another "wide and deep river" flowed "in the direction of the winter sunset" to "a large body of water, the other bank of which was not visible." Four years earlier Robert Gray, the captain of an American trading ship, had sailed into the estuary of that "Great River of the West," and left with it his vessel's name, Columbia Redviva.
Then there was James Mackay, a Scottish trader working for Spain, who visited William Clark at the Wood River camp in January of 1804. Mackay had primed John Evans for a trip to the Pacific in 1796, from which Evans learned that the Missouri ran north from its source between chains of the Rockies before it left the mountains, dropping over a great waterfall. Also, Lewis and Clark carried with them the newly-published journal of Alexander Mackenzie, the Canadian fur trader who had crossed present-day Canada in 1793.
From all these sources, and more, the explorers gained a remarkably detailed if not always accurate picture of both the geography and the inhabitants of the west. They knew the general course of the Missouri River, its headwaters, and its principal tributaries. They even had some indication of west-slope streams. Mentally, Euro-Americans had already crossed the continent to the Pacific. The fabled Northwest Passage might just be there.
In the first month of their journey the Corps of Discovery encountered no fewer than eight parties of fur traders floating down to St. Louis. Their reassurances lent energy and conviction to the task. Sailing, rowing, pulling and pushing their craft among the many hazards of spring runoff on "The Big Muddy," they averaged about 15 to 20 miles a day. After the Corps left St. Charles, communication with St. Louis and points East would be infrequent and unreliable. The first report was a brief message Captain Amos Stoddard, the acting commandant of Upper Louisiana, received via one of those returning fur traders—perhaps one they met on May 25 at St. Johns or La Charette, the last white settlement on the Missouri:"I have heard from him about 60 miles on his route, and it appears, that he proceeds about 15 miles per day—a velocity seldom witnessed on the Missouri; and this is the more extraordinary as the time required to ascertain the courses of the river and to make the other necessary observations, must considerably retard his progress. His men possess great resolution and they [are in the best] health and spirits." After that, nothing until Corporal Warfington returned with the keelboat in late spring the following year.
Meanwhile, firmer bonds were being forged within the Corps. Discipline was firm, punishment quick and harsh. On the twentieth of August, Sergeant Charles Floyd, a 22-year-old Kentuckian, died, possibly of peritonitis, and was buried on a bluff near present Sioux City, Iowa. Despite the extreme rigors and deprivations the men were to suffer over the next two years, there were no more fatalities. Nonetheless, every stomach ache thereafter must have aroused a shudder of apprehension.4
Meeting New Nations
Council Bluffs Meeting
August 3, 1804
Council Bluffs, August 3, 1804
after Brackfast we Collected those Indians under an orning of our Main Sail, in presence of our Party paraded & Delivered a long Speech to them expressive of our journey the wirkes of our Government, Some advice to them and Directions how They were to Conduct themselves. . . .
Those Chiefs all Delivered a Speech acknowledgeing Their approbation to the Speech and promissing to prosue the advice & Derictions given them that they wer happy to find that they had fathers which might be depended on &c.
We gave them a Cannister of Powder and a Bottle of whiskey and delivered a few presents to the whole after giveing a Br: Cth: [breech cloth] Some Paint[,] guartering [garters to hold up stockings] & a Meadele [peace medal] to those we made Cheifs after Capt Lewis's Shooting the air gun a feiw Shots (which astonished those nativs) we Set out and proceeded on five miles . . . & Camped. . . . The Misquitors excessively troublesom this evening.
Although the search for a Northwest Passage was paramount, the Lewis andClark expedition was also a combined anthropological, diplomatic, and commercial mission to the Missouri River Indian tribes. Meriwether Lewis's standard speech promised military protection and trade advantages in return for peace. The first nations to hear this pitch were the Otos and the Missouris, at a council held on August 3, north of present-day Omaha, Nebraska. The Indians responded favorably, for they needed both market commodities and protection from their northern neighbors, the Teton Sioux.
The Otos and Missouris were peaceful, as were the Yankton Sioux, encountered near today's Sioux City, Iowa. Not so the Teton Sioux, upriver in modern South Dakota. The Teton Sioux had "an attitude." They had been pushed onto the plains by population pressure in the east, and were now the arbiters of the growing river trade on the middle Missouri. One of their leaders, the Partisan, threatened to stall the expedition. But the with its swivel cannon and the men with their muskets, rifles, and bayonets represented the most formidable array of military power yet to ascend the Missouri.5 Nobody backed down. Finally, a calmer head, Black Buffalo's, prevailed, and the confrontation passed. Lewis and Clark would have yet a few more dicey moments with the Sioux, who were not mollified.
Beyond the Sioux, near modern Bismarck, North Dakota, were the Arikaras, some two thousand peaceful people. Beyond them, at the mouth of the Knife River, were five earth-lodge villages of Mandans and Hidatsas. "Villages" is a misnomer. Their combined population was about 4,400; by comparison, the town of St. Louis was then less than one-fourth as large. Some 4,556 descendants of all three tribes now occupy the Fort Berthold Reservation, northwest of the Knife River.6
- 1. See America After the Expedition for an analysis of the effects of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
- 2. See John Evan's Map Validated, François-Antoine Larocque, Thompson, Lewis Clark, and Jefferson: Parallel Journeys, Columbia River Discoveries, and Alexander Mackenzie's Wonderful Trail to Nowhere.
- 3. See Clark's Commission
- 4. See Medicine on the Trail, and interview with David Peck, D.O.
- 5. To learn more about the Expedition's arsenal, see Survival Tools by Michael Carrick, Inside a Flintlock Rifle, and Captain Lewis's Air Gun by David Nelson.
- 6. For more detailed North Dakota Tribal Data from the 2010 Census, visit the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission online.