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.
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.
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 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. 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 Clark, 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, 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 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. 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.(1) 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.
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