Who Were Lewis and Clark? - Discoveries, Timeline & Facts

Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels. He has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

Lewis and Clark were American explorers commissioned by the President of the United States to explore the Louisiana and Oregon territories. Their expedition is celebrated as a major exploration leading to further American settlement in the West.

Westward, Ho!

Dysentery. Snakebite. Dead oxen. You may remember winding up with any one of these miserable outcomes if you played the class computer game, The Oregon Trail, while in school. In this game, your objective is to leave from St. Louis and make it successfully to the Oregon Country. Along the way, you have to complete the mission by repairing broken wagon wheels, dealing with illness, deciding the pace and rations of a whole crew, trading with Native Americans, and shooting every single Buffalo and deer that flashes before you in the open plains of the Midwest.

The classic Oregon Trail computer game mirrors the expedition of Lewis and Clark.
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This classic computer game is a tribute to a trip made by many in the early days of the United States of America. But the original pioneers to first make the westward trip were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In this lesson, we'll look at the historical background of their journey, outline a timeline of their trip, and note the legacy of Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea, one of their native American guides.

William Clark was the 2nd Lieutenant on Louisiana Territory expedition.
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Merriweather Lewis was appointed by Thomas Jefferson to lead the Louisiana Territory expedition.
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Historical Background

In the early 1800s, Napoleon, the leader of France, sought to rebuild a French empire in the New World. But when a slave revolt in Haiti sidetracked his plans, Napoleon quickly abandoned his ambitions and decided to sell the Louisiana territory to the United States for only $15 million. United States President Thomas Jefferson had always shown an interest in the territory west of the original 13 colonies, so he quickly agreed to what became known as The Louisiana Purchase.

Jefferson had read many books about the Louisiana Territory and thus commissioned Captain Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition to explore the new territory. Lewis quickly named William Clark as his 2nd Lieutenant. Both were trained as soldiers, but were picked by Jefferson to do this largely peaceful and scientific journey.

There were many objectives to Lewis and Clark's expedition. First, they were to create a map of the newly acquired territory. Second, Lewis and Clark were tasked with finding the legendary 'Northwest Passage', the much rumored water route that connected the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. We now know that such a route doesn't exist, but at the time, many were convinced that it did.

A third objective was to get to the Oregon territory. Officially, nobody had claimed this territory, and Jefferson knew that Great Britain had been seeking to settle there in order to take advantage of the fur trading along the Columbia River. Thus, Lewis and Clark's expedition was just as much about claiming more territory as it was about exploring the newly bought territory.

There were several minor objectives of the mission, as well. Lewis and Clark were also supposed to create a biological catalog of the species that they encountered as well as establish peaceful trading relations with Native Americans in the territory.

Sacagawea and Lewis and Clark

An important figure in the Lewis and Clark expedition was a Native American woman named Sacagawea. When Lewis and Clark were exploring the Missouri river, they began to search for translators among the French fur traders that lived there. One of them, Touissant Charbonneau, was married to Sacagawea. She provided the expedition with an opportunity to translate with future Native American tribes that Lewis and Clark might encounter.

Sacagawea thus played an important role in the survival of Lewis and Clark as they navigated to the Pacific Ocean. Interestingly, Sacagawea made the arduous journey while being pregnant, and gave birth along the way. Perhaps Sacagawea's biggest role was to signify to tribes that Lewis and Clark's party was peaceful. This was because war-intent Native American tribes would never approach other tribes with a woman in the group. Thus, Native Americans tribes began to understand the peaceful nature of Lewis and Clark's expedition.

Sacagawea served as a guide for Lewis and Clark. She is remember in various statues and considered a national hero in the United States.
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Timeline of Lewis and Clark Expedition

-On May 14th, 1804, Lewis and Clark leave from Fort Dubois on their journey.

-Lewis and Clark continue their expedition along the Missouri River past the present day cities of Kansas City and Omaha, Nebraska.

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