While Napoleon was engaged in his European conquests and in need of funding, he struck a deal with American President Thomas Jefferson for the now-famous “Louisiana Purchase” of 1803. Napoleon had plenty on his plate already, and could not afford to maintain his vast holdings on the American Continent. At the time, little was known about the vast territories West of the Mississippi River, including just how vast they were.
Once acquired by the United States, President Jefferson was interested in exploring his new territories to find a navigable waterway to the Pacific Ocean for commerce, as well as to discover just what lay in the areas between. To accomplish these objectives, he commissioned a friend–US Army Captain Merriweather Lewis–to lead an exploratory and mapping expedition across the great expanse of land. History has since shown the Lewis and Clark trek to be one of the most successful of such expeditions undertaken in history. Unlike numerous expeditions to explore the Arctic regions–which often ended with the explorers perishing from cold, disease and starvation–the Lewis and Clark expedition (later dubbed the Corps of Discovery) suffered few casualties along the way, and was an unqualified success which not only reached the Pacific, but ended with the triumphant explorers returning to report their findings.
Lewis Chose William Clark, a Second Lieutenant in the US Army, as his partner and leader of the expedition. For appearances, during the expedition, Clark was often referred to as “Captain” even though this actual rank was not yet official.
The expedition originally departed from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on August 31, 1803. But the party was still being formed, with training activities and other organization by Clark taking place in the Illinois territory, East of the Mississippi River. The more famous part of the expedition–the one where uncharted lands were to be explored—embarked from Camp Dubois in the Illinois Territory on May 14, 1804, and met up with Lewis shortly afterward at St. Charles, in the Missouri Territory. The expeditionary party consisted of 33 people.
Traveling in a northwesterly direction across the Great Plains, the Corps of Discovery traversed the Continental Divide, which at the time was presumed to be a day’s journey, but proved to be much longer and considerably more difficult than the party anticipated! They encountered many Native Americans along the way. On the plains of what would become North Dakota, they built Fort Mandan in the winter of 1804-1805, and recruited a French-Canadian trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. Charbonneau’s teenage wife, a member of the Shoeshone tribe, joined the expedition as a translator and guide. Sacajawea would go on to secure her own place in history for being of invaluable assistance and crucial to the success of the expedition. The sight of her carrying her baby in a cradleboard on her back had a disarming effect when the party approached native villages, and along with her translation skills, she helped to ensure that the expedition’s encounters with native tribes were mostly peaceful. There is no doubt that her presence saved the expedition a great deal of trouble. Lewis and Clark’s peaceful trek across the west was in sharp contrast to the chaos and bloodshed that erupted in the decades after the Civil War. By that time, due to the incursion of thousands of westward-migrating pioneers, building of the railroads and the resulting destruction of the great buffalo herds on the plains, relations with the native tribes had become much more strained.
The expedition collected many samples of plant life along the way, drew maps, and sampled exotic indigenous cuisine (including boiled dog!) At one point, a “return” team was dispatched east from Fort Mandan carrying a live prairie dog as a gift for President Jefferson. Amazingly, the little animal—which the expedition had dubbed a “barking squirrel”– was alive when it was delivered to Jefferson. Research to discover what became of Jefferson’s famed pet prairie dog afterward proved fruitless. Apparently its fate was lost in history. It would be reasonable to expect the creature would have been stuffed and ended up in the Smithsonian or some other museum, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Chalk it up as one more historic mystery.
During their visit to the Great Plains, at least, there was an abundance of wild game to help provision the expedition. There were reported to be numerous weapons carried on the expedition–many of which were traded to native tribes for food and supplies to fuel their treks through mountains where food was less plentiful. Weapons carried by members of the expedition included Charleville muskets, Harpers Ferry and Springfield Armory muskets, a scattering of Kentucky Rifles, and some French St. Etienne AN IX flintlock pistols. Since many French weapons had found their way to American shores during the American War for Independence a few years before, the abundance of French firearms carried by the party was no surprise. There was also a scattering of blunderbuss weapons, mounted on swivels on the gunwales of the party’s canoes and pirogues–a standard seagoing tactic for that day–and the lead boat even had a small cannon mounted on its bow. I should not fail to mention the famous air gun carried on the expediton. It was a strange thing, with an air tank in the stock, and compared to a regular gun that used powder, it was much quieter. The strange weapon fired lead balls, but was not always reliable for maintaining enough air pressure to get off more than a few shots. It was often used to impress Native Americans –and whoever else they happened upon–and was regarded as a curio or an entertaining novelty by many on the expedition.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition shattered the national illusion that one might be able to sail a boat from the East coast to the Pacific Ocean by inland waterways, since no such passage exists. Westward passage would have to wait for the stagecoaches, railroads, and later the interstate freeways and airlines.
The legendary expedition reached the mighty Columbia River (I’m from the Portland, Oregon area, so the wide and swift-moving Columbia is a familiar sight to me) and followed it out to its estuary in what is now Astoria, Oregon. I know just how they felt. They were ecstatic to lay eyes on the vast mouth of the Columbia where it empties into the Pacific. The expedition faced a long and dreary winter on the coast, which consisted mostly of rain. I doubt anyone who’s ever lived in the region will dispute that. It was a long and hungry winter for the Lewis and Clark group. Wild game is a scarce commodity on the Pacific Northwest coastline in winter, and it was the wrong season for them to take advantage of the area’s most abundant meat source–the Pacific salmon that migrate upstream to spawn in the summer. It’s a shame they didn’t get a chance to sample a barbecued “steak of the sea”, as the rich, red fish meat has been called. I’m not sure when barbeque sauce was invented, but evidently the Lewis and Clark expedition was not meant to experience such delicacies.
Regarding Sacajawea, I’d rather not get into a discussion of the etymology of her somewhat confusing name, the many different spellings and pronunciations of it, or the tribal meanings of it. The most commonly accepted version of her name is a native word meaning “Bird Woman”, or some variation thereof. Suffice it to say that Sacajawea did a great service to the Expedition and to the history of America. Her image and story is immortalized on coins, sculptures and other monuments. Hats off, a standing ovation and a warm toast to her accomplishments!
Considering the scope and danger of this marathon round-trip expedition through inhospitable wilderness and bad weather, and a few disputes involving fair trade with the Teton Sioux tribe and other native peoples they encountered –it’s truly amazing that the party suffered only one fatality. Sergeant Charles Floyd died from what was thought to be appendicitis, and was buried at what is now Sioux City, Iowa. Two Blackfeet Indians were also killed in a skirmish on the return trip when they attempted to steal some weapons from the Lewis and Clark party.
The expedition had made it to the Pacific Ocean, naming their landing place “Cape Disappointment” when the ship they expected to carry them back east failed to materialize. They built Fort Clatsop, and when the expected ship still hadn’t arrived, were forced to make their way back east in a reverse of the perilous trek they had just completed. Upon their triumphant return to civilized society, they enjoyed a short-lived popularity. I guess people have short attention spans when it comes to westward exploration and expansion. If not for the famed expedition, there wouldn’t be a rather large arch dominating the St. Louis, Missouri skyline. Widespread public attention to their accomplishments was not given until the 1960’s, when they finally started to receive the historical accolades they had earned 150 years earlier. Their mapping of the vast open regions paved the way for a massive migration of settlers to the West, who wasted no time striking out in large numbers to claim land, mine gold and silver, build towns, have shootouts, and in general, raise ten different kinds of Hell before settling down. However little their feats of derringdo were noticed back then, Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea are household names today. There are monuments to Lewis and Clark scattered along the very lengthy trail of their epic Expedition. Many buildings, highways, and even institutions like Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon commemorate the pair’s journey. Sacajawea, too, has her share of monuments and namesakes. She is a true national heroine and a certified part of American history.
When the expedition ended in 1806, the significance of their discoveries was mostly unacknowledged. Most had given the members of the party up for dead, since they had been gone for over two years. It wasn’t until years later that the significance of the expedition became widely known. In addition to taking many scientific samples, they also contributed a much better understanding of the vast expanse of territory through which they had traveled. The party also produced a large quantity of maps, which came in handy when the United States exploded Westward in its quest for “Manifest Destiny.” President Jefferson was evidently pleased with their accomplishments, and the careers of both Lewis and Clark prospered after their return. Both Merriweather Lewis and William Clark later served terms as Governor of Missouri Territory.
For living history reenactor gear, non-firing and blank firing historically accurate guns, please visit us at www.gunsofold.com