The Lewis and Clark Expedition: Route, Timeline & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the history, routes, and significance of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and test your understanding of early American history, pioneers, and the expansion of the United States.

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.

Lewis and Clark
Lewis and Clark

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.

Lewis and Clark Expedition and division of the continent

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.

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