Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Adventure Is Out There
There are few names in history more synonymous with exploration and discovery than Lewis and Clark. An argument could be made for Captain Kirk and Mister Spock, but beyond that, nobody could challenge the supremacy of these early American explorers.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) was the two year voyage of discovery across the continent from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back. They weren't the first Anglo-Americans to explore many of these areas since fur trappers had lived in the wilderness for years. However, it was the first expedition into this territory sent forth by the American government, and it paved the way for generations of pioneers.
There and Back Again
The history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition begins with the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte. With slave revolts in Haiti and war with Britain, France needed money and agreed to sell their colonial territory Louisiana to the United States in 1803, called the Louisiana Purchase. For present-day Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Colorado, and Wyoming, the U.S. paid the equivalent of 15 million dollars. President Thomas Jefferson quickly established a specialized army unit with the purpose of discovering the quickest water route across the continent to connect Eastern commerce to Pacific-coast ports and trade. The unit was called the Corps of Discovery, led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and his friend Second Lieutenant William Clark. The Corps had the goals of mapping the territory, establishing relations with Native American nations, and setting up an American presence on the West Coast.
The Corps left St. Louis and headed up the Missouri River in May of 1804. They followed the river into modern Nebraska and Iowa, where Sergeant Charles Floyd suffered from appendicitis and became the only casualty of the expedition. By the end of August, the Corps reached the Great Plains of the American West.
During this time, they met two dozen Native American nations. Most helped them navigate the area, although the expedition came close to fighting with the powerful Lakota. As winter came, they prepared winter camp in the territory of the Mandan nation, and met a French-Canadian trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau and his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea. Sacagawea proved to be incredibly helpful as an interpreter and to improve relations with the other Native American nations the Corps encountered. In Native American culture, the presence of a woman in the group signified a diplomatic intent, not a war party.
The Corps followed the Missouri river to the Continental Divide near the present-day Montana-Idaho border, and followed the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia Rivers into Oregon. The Corps spotted the Pacific Ocean on November 7, 1805 and reached it two weeks later.
At the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific Ocean, they founded Fort Clatsop and waited out the winter. It was a harsh winter and food ran low, but all of them survived. In March of 1806, they started the trip back up the Columbia River. Near the continental divide, in July, the Corps split into two groups. Lewis took four men to explore the Marias River, and ended up in a fight with men from the Blackfeet nation. Two Blackfeet were killed, and Lewis' group ran over 100 miles that day in fear of retaliation.
Clark and the rest passed through Crow territory, where half of their horses were stolen without the men seeing a single Crow warrior. The two groups met up again in August at the Missouri River. On September 23, 1806 they rowed back into St. Louis, completing the expedition. The Corps proved that there was no single river that crossed the continent from East to West, found water routes that were accessible to each other, established relationships with two dozen Native American nations, and established a legal claim for the West Coast. They described over 200 new plant and animal species, made 140 maps, and encountered 70 indigenous cultures.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition lasted two years from 1804-1806 and reached all the way to modern-day Oregon on the Pacific Coast. It was made possible by the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, when France sold a huge swath of territory to the United States, and was designed to discover a water route across the continent to access commerce opportunities on the West Coast and establish a legal claim for the United States to that land.
One of the key members, who arrived in the first winter, was Sacagawea. This Shoshone woman acted as the expedition's interpreter and signaled peace to other Native American nations. The Lewis and Clark Expedition made it to the Pacific and back home, mapped out the center of the continent, and established diplomatic relations with dozens of Native American nations, all while only losing one man. Even Captain Kirk couldn't do that.
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