Lewis and Clark

In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson won approval from Congress for a

visionary project that was to become one of American history\'s greatest

adventure stories. Jefferson wanted to know if Americans could journey overland

to the Pacific Ocean following two rivers, the Missouri and the Columbia, which

flow east and west from the Rocky Mountains. If the sources of the two

rivers were nearby, Jefferson reasoned that American traders would have a

superior transportation route to help them compete with British fur companies

pressing southward from Canada.

On February 28, 1803, the Congress appropriated funds for a small

U.S. Army unit to explore the Missouri and Columbia rivers and tell the western

Indian tribes that traders would soon come to buy their furs. The explorers were

to make a detailed report on western geography, climate, plants and animals,

and to study the customs and languages of the Indians. Plans for the expedition

were almost complete when the President learned that France offered to sell all

of Louisiana Territory to the United States. This transfer, which was completed

within a year, doubled the area of the United States. It meant that Jefferson\'s

Army expedition could travel all the way to the crest of the Rockies on American

soil, no longer needing permission from the former French owners.

Jefferson selected as leader for the exploring mission an Army captain,

28-year-old Meriwether Lewis. The Jeffersons and Lewises had been neighbors

near Charlottesville, Virginia, where Lewis was born August 18, 1774. As a boy

he had spent long hours tramping and hunting in the woods and acquiring a

remarkable knowledge of native plants and animals. He served in the Virginia

Militia when President Washington called it out in 1794 to quell the Whiskey

Rebellion. Lewis was having a successful career in the regular army when the

newly elected Jefferson summoned him in 1801 to work as his private secretary

in the President\'s House.

Lewis chose a former army comrade, 32-year-old William Clark, to be

co-leader of the expedition. Clark was born August 1, 1770, in Caroline County,

Virginia. At the age of 14, he moved with his family to Kentucky where they were

among the earliest settlers. In preparing for the expedition, Lewis visited the

president\'s scientific friends in Philadelphia for instruction in natural sciences,

astronomical navigation and field medicine. He also was given a long list of

questions to ask western Indians concerning their daily lives.

Lewis and Clark reached their staging point the Mississippi and Missouri

rivers near St. Louis in December 1803. They camped for the winter at the

mouth of Wood River, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, opposite the entrance

to the Missouri River. The two captains recruited young woodsmen and enlisted

soldiers who volunteered from nearby army outposts. Over the winter final

selections were made of proven men. In the spring, the expedition\'s roster

comprised of approximately 45 including some military personnel and local

boatmen who would go only part way. Lewis recorded that the mouth of Wood

River was to be considered the point of departure for the westward journey.

The expedition left on May 14, 1804. The party traveled in a 55-

foot long keelboat and two smaller boats called "pirogues." Through the long, hot

summer they laboriously worked their way upriver. Numerous navigational

hazards, including sunken trees called sawyers, sand bars, collapsing river

banks, and sudden sounds of high winds with drenching rains slowed their

progress. There were other problems, including disciplinary floggings, two

desertions, a man dishonorably discharged for mutiny, and the apparent

appendicitis-caused death of Sgt. Charles Floyd, the only member to die during

the expedition. In modern South Dakota, a band of Teton Sioux tried to detain the

boats, but the explorers showed their superior armaments, and sailed on.

Early in November they came to the villages of the Mandan and Minitari

Indians, who lived near present-day Washburn, North Dakota. In four weeks of

hard work the men built a triangular shaped fort made out of huts.They named it

Fort Mandan in honor of the local inhabitants. The party was now 164 days and

approximately 1,510 miles distant from Wood River.

The explorers spent five months at Fort Mandan, hunting and obtaining

information about the route ahead from the Indians and French-Canadian traders

who lived nearby.