On May 14, 1804 Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left Camp Debois, near St. Louis with a party of men known as the Corps of Discovery. They were being sent by US President Thomas Jefferson to complete a mission – head west up the Missouri River and find if it or a series of rivers make a connection that will lead to a navigable water passage to the Pacific Ocean.
Lewis & Clark’s Exploration Duties
Lewis and Clark were to record every detail of their journey, including mapping the region, and learning about its soil, plants, animals, weather conditions, and topography. Along the way they were to make contact with and count the number of native Indian tribes they encountered.
The further the Corps of Discovery traveled west, the more they stepped into the unknown as few white men had gone beyond the Mississippi River at that time.
The Corps of Discovery – President Thomas Jefferson’s Idea
Some have suggested the Lewis & Clark expedition akin to the moon landing of the 20th century. That’s how big it was in the history of the United States. The Corps of Discovery was the first official exploration of unknown area commissioned by the United States Government.
President Thomas Jefferson saw the great potential in advancing the interests of the young nation. “It is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits and cover the whole continent with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms and by similar laws.”
Thomas Jefferson could envision the future of the United States of America, spreading from the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of the Pacific.
Lewis & Clark Made Americans See The West Differently
Many Americans assumed much of the land west of the Mississippi River a barren and rugged landscape, that was mostly populated by barbaric Indian tribes and not worth the effort to explore.
President Thomas Jefferson wanted to understand more about the Indians and instructed Lewis and Clark in a letter along those lines. “In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit; allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable and commercial dispositions of the United States, of our wish to be neighborly, friendly and useful to them.”
Lewis & Clark’s Journey Westward
With keelboats loaded with supplies needed for the trip, the group headed upstream on the Missouri River. Lewis took his dog “Seaman” a Newfoundland breed that alerted them to grizzly bears that ventured into their camp at night.
Clark brought along his slave “York” whose blackness the Indians perceived as big medicine. Today a statue of him rests on the banks of the Ohio River in Louisville, Ky.
Lewis and Clark kept daily journals that told of the many hardships, as well as joys they encountered along the way. Their writings tell of tribes of wild Indians, wolves, ferocious bears, lice, mosquitoes, rattlesnakes, and also of the extremes of hot and cold weather. Once a temperature of 45 degrees below zero was recorded in the Dakotas, with river ice 3 feet thick.
For the first time white men saw the breathtaking beauty of the great prairies, with vast herds of buffalo, and the majestic mountains, cliffs, waterfalls, geysers, and much more.
Along the way, a young Indian girl named Sacagawea joined them and proved invaluable, acting as an interpreter and guide. Many historians now suggest that without her help, the party might not have made it. Captain Lewis wrote in his journal that the actions of Sacagawea were “equal in fortitude and resolution” to any person in the group. Captain Clark even adopted her son and brought him back east.
The Corps of Discovery reached the Pacific Ocean in November 1805. They didn’t find a water route, but they did prove the journey could be made, and they also made many valuable discoveries along the way.
Captain Lewis wrote in his journal of the abundance of animals and plants they saw, of which some had never been seen by white men before. He recorded 122 animals not previously known about. Of them all, the prairie dog fascinated them the most. They captured one and presented it as a gift to President Thomas Jefferson.
Lewis & Clark Come Home
In September 1806, the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery returned home as national heroes. They had been gone from civilization for two and half years. Captain Lewis told President Jefferson that “In obedience to your orders we have penetrated the continent of North America to the Pacific Ocean.”
President Thomas Jefferson responded in kind: “Never did a similar event excite more joy through the United States. The humblest of it’s citizens had taken a lively interest in the issue of this journey, and looked forward with impatience for the information it would furnish.” The United States will forever be indebted to Lewis & Clark and the Corps of Discovery.