Lewis and Clark Expedition

The Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806) was the first United States overland expedition to the Pacific coast and back.

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 sparked interest in expansion to the west coast. A few weeks after the purchase, United States President Thomas Jefferson, an advocate of western expansion, had U.S. Congress appropriate $2500, "to send intelligent officers with ten or twelve men, to explore even to the western ocean". They were to study the Indian tribes, botany, geology, Western Terrain and wildlife in the region, as well as evaluate the potential interference of British and French-Canadian hunters and trappers who were already well established in the area. The expedition was not the first to cross North America, but was roughly a decade after the expedition of Alexander Mackenzie, the first European to cross North America by land north of Mexico, in 1793.

Jefferson selected Captain Meriwether Lewis to lead the expedition, afterwards known as the Corps of Discovery; Lewis selected William Clark as his partner. Due to bureaucratic delays in the US Army, Clark officially only held the rank of Second Lieutenant at the time, but Lewis concealed this from the men and shared the leadership of the expedition, always referring to Clark as "Captain" ([1] (http://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu/v02.appendix.a.html)).

The group, consisting of 33 members, departed from Camp Dubois and began their historic journey on May 14, 1804. They soon met-up with Lewis in Saint Charles, Missouri and the approximately forty men followed the Missouri River westward. Soon they passed Le Rochette, the last white settlement on the Missouri River. On August 20, 1804 The Corps of Discovery suffered its first and only death when Sergeant Charles Floyd died, apparently from acute appendicitis. In the winter of 1804-1805 they wintered at Fort Mandan. The Shoshone/Hidatsa native woman Sacagawea and her husband, French Canadian Toussaint Charbonneau, joined the group from there and guided them westward. Sacagawea and her Shoshone tribe came from further west. Not only did Lewis and Clark feel that she could aid them in translation, but they thought that when they got to that part of the country, she could take them to her native home.

The expedition followed the Missouri through what is now Kansas City, Missouri and Omaha, Nebraska, crossed the Rocky Mountains and descended by the Clearwater River, the Snake River, and the Columbia River, past Celilo Falls and through what is now Portland, Oregon until they reached the Pacific Ocean in the December of 1805. At this point in time, Lewis spotted Mt. Hood, a mountain known to be very close to the ocean. Clark had written in his journal, "Ocian [sic] in view! O! The Joy!". By that time the expedition faced its second bitter winter during the trip, so the group decided to vote on whether to camp on the north or south side of the Columbia River. That was a "Real American Moment", for York, who was a slave, and Sacagawea, who was an Indian and a woman, voted along with the rest of the men of the party. The party agreed to camp on the south side of the river (modern Astoria, OR) , building Fort Clatsop as their winter quarters. While wintering at the fort, the men prepared for the trip home by boiling salt from the ocean, hunting elk and other wildlife. Mostly they just endured the persistent rain.

Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia by C.M. Russell
Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia by C.M. Russell

The explorers started their journey home on March 23, 1806 and arrived on September 23.

Lewis and Clark played a key role in the putting together of the United States. They had to act largely as diplomats for the President because when they met an Indian tribe, they had to tell them that the land now belonged to the United States. Without these calm meetings, the white settlers from the East would have stormed the Indian Country much too soon, and there would have been total chaos.

See Timeline of the Lewis and Clark Expedition for more detail


  • The U.S. gained an extensive knowledge of the geography of the American West in the form of maps of major rivers and mountain ranges
  • Discovered and described 178 new plants and 122 species and subspecies of animals (see List of species described by the Lewis and Clark Expedition
  • Opened American fur trade in the West
  • Paved the way for peaceful relations with the Indians
  • Established a precedent for Army exploration of the West
  • Strengthened the U.S. claim to Oregon Territory
  • Focused U.S. and media attention on the West
  • Produced the first literature about the West (the Lewis and Clark diaries)
  • Made themselves heroes throughout the country and big names in Early American History
  • Helped show pioneers some of the Oregon Trail

Expedition members

Popular histories and documentaries

In the 1997 Ken Burns documentary Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, historian Stephen E. Ambrose, author of the book Undaunted Courage about the expedition, compared the significance and impact of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to Americans of that era with the American landing on the moon for subsequent generations. The expedition not only answered questions about vast uncharted areas of North America (everything between the Missouri River in North Dakota to Mount Hood in western Oregon) but also gave Americans an electrifying sense of the vastness of their new country after the Louisiana Purchase and America's almost limitless natural resources and potential as an emergent nation. He also views the expedition as a quintessential America saga, with a cast of characters that included a French Canadian trapper, President Thomas Jefferson, the heroic personalities and camaraderie of both Captain Lewis and Captain Clark, a platoon of American soldiers reminiscent of Roger's Rangers, the muscular Black American servant of Clark named York, colorful Indian tribes (Sioux, Mandans, Nez Perce, Blackfeet), Captain Lewis' shaggy dog named Seaman, numerous close shaves with death for everyone on the expedition, quick "think-on-your-feet" diplomatic innovation to defuse hostility and enlist the support of exotic tribes, scientific observation of awe-inspiring naturalistic phenomenon, a case of close combat with Indians, encounters with grizzly bears, harrowing navigation of wild rivers amidst magnificent scenery, and a difficult passage through the snow clad Bitterroot Mountains of Western Montana and Idaho. Despite all the trials, tribulations, and close calls, the expedition did not lose a person between North Dakota and Oregon and lost no one on the return trip. Undaunted Courage reads like real life imitating Hollywood, which makes it all the more surprising that Hollywood has never made a feature motion picture about the epic journey.

Further reading


Notable fiction

These popular fictionalized historical novels have varying degrees of historical accuracy, which is unfortunate as they shaped much of the popular American understanding of the expedition.

External links

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