LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION Little was known about western America when
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LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION. Little was known about western America when the Lewis and Clark Expedition set out in 1804. Twelve years earlier Captain Robert Gray, an American navigator, had sailed up the mouth of the great river he named the Columbia. Traders and trappers reported that the source of the Missouri River was in the mountains in the Far West. No one, however, had yet blazed an overland trail.
President Thomas Jefferson was interested in knowing more about the country west of the Mississippi. In 1803, two years after he became president, he asked Congress for $2,500 for an expedition.
To head the expedition, Jefferson chose his young secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis. Lewis invited his friend Lieutenant William Clark to share the leadership. Both were familiar with the frontier and with Indians through their service in the army. (See also Lewis, Meriwether; Clark, William.)
Before Lewis and Clark set out, word came that Napoleon had sold an immense tract of land to the United States (see Louisiana Purchase). The expedition would therefore be exploring American territory.
Plans for the expedition were carefully laid. The party was to ascend the Missouri to its source, cross the Continental Divide, and descend the Columbia River to its mouth. In preparation for the historic journey, Lewis studied map making and learned how to fix latitude and longitude. In the winter of 1803-04 the expedition was assembled in Illinois, near St. Louis. The party consisted of the two leaders, Lewis and Clark; 14 soldiers; nine frontiersmen from Kentucky; two French boatmen; and Clark's servant, York.
On May 14, 1804, the explorers started up the Missouri in a 55-foot (17-meter) covered keelboat and two small craft. On July 30 they held their first powwow, or meeting, with Indians at a place the explorers named Council Bluff. (Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the river from the site, perpetuates the name with the slight change.) On October 26 they reached the camps of the Mandan Indians.
On a site close to present-day Stanton, N.D., the explorers built Fort Mandan and spent the winter. It was here that they hired Toussaint Charbonneau, a French interpreter, and his Indian wife, Sacagawea, the sister of a Shoshone chief. While at Fort Mandan, Sacagawea gave birth to a baby boy. This did not stop her from participating in the group. She carried the child on her back for the rest of the trip. As an Indian interpreter she proved invaluable.
In the spring of 1805 the keelboat was sent back to St. Louis with dispatches for President Jefferson and with natural history specimens. Meanwhile, canoes had been built. On April 7 the party continued on up the Missouri. On April 26 it passed the mouth of the Yellowstone, and on June 13 reached the Great Falls of the Missouri. Carrying the laden canoes 16 miles (25 kilometers) around the falls caused a month's delay. On July 13 the canoes were launched again above the falls. On the 25th the expedition reached Three Forks, where three rivers join to form the Missouri. They named the rivers the Madison, the Jefferson, and the Gallatin.
For some time the explorers had been within sight of the Rocky Mountains. Crossing them was to be the hardest part of the journey. They decided to follow the largest of the three forks, the Jefferson.
They were now in the country of the Shoshone, Sacagawea's people. Sacagawea eagerly watched for her tribe, but it was Lewis who found them. The chief turned out to be Sacagawea's brother. He provided the party with guides and horses for the difficult crossing of the lofty Bitterroot Range.
After crossing the divide late in September, they reached a point on the Clearwater River. From here they were able to proceed by water.
On Nov. 7, 1805, Clark wrote in his journal, "Great joy in camp," for after a journey of over 18 months, the Pacific Ocean was within view. On the Pacific shore, near the mouth of the Columbia, they built a stockade, Fort Clatsop. There they spent the winter.
On March 23, 1806, the entire party started back. On June 24, with 66 horses, they began to cross the mountains. In the Bitterroot Valley the two leaders separated to learn more about the country.
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Missouri River, Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark Expedition, Sacagawea, Toussaint Charbonneau, Fort Mandan, Meriwether Lewis, Mandan, Jefferson River, William Clark, Fort Clatsop, Hernando de Soto
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