Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the most important surveyor’s expedition in history. Traveling up the Missouri River from St. Louis, and then crossing Oregon to the Pacific, they brought back detailed charts that would serve the United States in the early years of its westward expansion. They conducted diplomacy with the Indians along the way, and collected extensive records of the natural environment along the way. As surveyors, diplomats, scientists and soldiers, they did more to create the Western Frontier than anyone.
President Thomas Jefferson had envisioned an expedition to travel up the Missouri River even before the Louisiana Purchase had been negotiated. He had hoped that the Missouri, or at least a complex of waterways connected to it, would permit convenient transportation from the Pacific coast to the population centers of the eastern United States. A naval expedition had identified the mouth of the Columbia River and laid claim to the surrounding region for the United States; Jefferson anticipated that this river might link with the Missouri, and hoped to ensure that the entire stretch of waterway would be in American hands.
To accomplish this task, Jefferson turned to his secretary, Meriwether Lewis. In his professional capacity, Lewis was privy to Jefferson’s political and diplomatic goals, without the need of having all of those goals explicitly laid out on paper. Personally, he shared many of Jefferson’s scientific interests, and he was well-prepared to conduct the kind of survey that Jefferson envisioned. As an Army Captain, he had the rank and stature to lead a group intended, in part, to suggest to the Indians of the west the kind of power that the American government had at its disposal.
William Clark was Lewis’ choice to fill out the leadership of the expedition. Clark had been Lewis’ superior officer for a brief period in Lewis’ military career, and Lewis considered him a fitting complement to his own skills. Clark brought the skills of an engineer and a greater familiarity with boat handling. He also became the principal chartmaker and made a more striking impression on the Indians encountered along the way. It had been intended that Clark, who had resigned his commission, would be given a commission as a Captain and that his leadership would be equal to Lewis, although the Army did not follow this intention, and technically, Clark was reinstated as a Second Lieutenant.
Lewis and Clark gathered their team, 33 men known as the Corps of Discovery, at Camp Dubois on the Missouri River, near St. Louis. They set out on a keelboat on May 14, 1804, and traveled up most of the river by October. They set up camp near modern Bismarck, North Dakota, and waited out a very harsh winter. They enjoyed good relations with the Mandan Indians nearby, and made some very important contacts there: a French trapper, Toussaint Charbonneau, and his Indian wife, Sakakawea (commonly known as Sacajawea or Sacagawea).
When they set out again the following spring, Sacajawea would prove particularly important in her role as an interpreter with the Indians who lived further upriver. Over the course of 1805, they crossed the Rocky Mountains and explored Oregon Territory. By November, they had followed the Columbia River to the Pacific; they were thrilled by this accomplishment, but the hope for a continuous water passage had proved false.
They spent the winter at Fort Clatsop nearby, and somewhat hastily they broke camp in March. By the time they reached the mountains, they found their passage blocked by snow, and had to wait another month before their journey could resume. This journey included a brief period in which Lewis and Clark split up along alternate river paths, but they regrouped in August and followed the Missouri downstream. On September 23, they were welcomed at St. Louis.
They brought back extensive charts that opened up the way for trade along the Missouri River, and with it, settlement in the west. They made very positive first impressions among the Indians of the west, especially Clark, and many of the tribes with whom Lewis and Clark fostered relations remained friendly decades later. Their explorations confirmed the American hold on Oregon, and they brought back information about many natural wonders. Moreover, all but one of the men on the expedition returned alive; the sole exception died of an unspecified illness that appears to be a ruptured appendix.
Clark remained an important figure in relations with the Indians for many years. Lewis was appointed Governor in Louisiana Territory, but he died under mysterious circumstances in 1809: many, above all Jefferson, concluded that it was a suicide, although there are grounds to suspect murder. In a two-year expedition, however, they left an indelible mark on American history, and their names have become a by-word for explorers.
Aretha, David, ed. American West Chronicle. Legacy Publishing, 2007.
DeVoto, Bernard, ed. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Houghton Mifflin, 1953.
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