Mapping America – The Story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

The Birth of an American Adventure

Born on August 1, 1770, William Clark was one of the most prominent explorers in American history. Along with Meriwether Lewis, Clark embarked on a fantastic expedition across the Louisiana Territory in 1804, and they secured their place in history by claiming the Pacific Northwest for the United States. In celebration of Clark’s birthday, here’s a recap of the expedition that proved to be a crucial juncture in American exploration.

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On the tracks of Lewis and Clark in United States in 1997 – Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (on the right). (Photo by Jean-Erick PASQUIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

In 1803, the United States purchased Louisiana from France, which meant bringing approximately 828,000,000 unexplored squares miles of territory. At the time, the Louisiana Territory stretched from the Canadian border in the North to the Gulf of Mexico in the south, and from the Rocky Mountains in the West to the Mississippi River in the East. Because the acquisition of Louisiana doubled the territory of the country, President Jefferson decided to send an exploratory expedition. He appointed Meriwether Lewis, his private secretary, as a commander in Charger. Lewis then selected William Clark, his superior officer from the Army as his co-commander.

The Corps of Discovery Prepare for Their Journey

“The Corps of Discovery” was the name given to the group of explorers and volunteers led by Lewis and Clark. Their primary objectives for the trip were both commercial and scientific in nature, as they aimed to study the animal life, geography, and plants of the area with the ultimate purpose of learning how the new area could be exploited economically.

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Map of the Northwestern United States depicts the route taken by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their first expedition from the Missouri River (near St. Louis, Missouri) to the mouth of the Columbia River (at the Pacific Ocean in Oregon), and their return trip, 1804 – 1806. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Clark was a pivotal element in preparing the expedition, mostly because he was a skilled mapmaker and was the one to figure out what routes the exploration mission should take. The entire entourage ultimately encompassed more than 40 men, two pirogues (boats) and a 10-ton keelboat.

The Venture into Unknown Territories Begins

The journey that would eventually cover about 8,000 miles began on May 14, 1804. It started in St. Louis, Missouri, and progressed to the Pacific Coast. Along the way, Clark mapped the route and oversaw the men, while Lewis collected specimens of animals and plants and made scientific observations.

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(Illustration by Ed Vebell/Getty Images)

Because the trip proved to be a strenuous one, the party only made 12 to 14 miles per day. They lived and slept outdoors, rowed both the keelboat and the smaller boats up the river, and hunted for food while sometimes fending off clouds of mosquitoes.

The Uncharted West Looms

Along the way, the explorers encountered various Indian inhabitants such as the Omahas, the Missouris, the Teton Sioux and the Yankton Sioux. Apart from the Teton Sioux, also known as Lakota, all the nations were friendly, and the captains would meet with the chiefs of the expedition and offer them gifts.

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1805: American explorers Lewis and Clark at the mouth of the Columbia River during their exploration of the Louisiana Territory. Original Artwork: Painting by Frederic Remington (1861-1909). (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

The encounter with the Lakota resulted in a confrontation that was close to degenerate into violence. When the winter of 1804 was near, Lewis and Clark decided to camp with the Mandans and the Hidatsa, mostly because they did not know the route beyond the villages of the Mandans, which were located along the Missouri River.

Sacagawea Comes to the Rescue

It was during the winter when the explorers decided it would be constructive to have some local help, and so they hired Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman, and her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, who was a French fur trader.

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Sacajawea guiding the expedition from Mandan through the Rocky Mountains. Painting by Alfred Russell. Color slide. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Sacagawea’s help proved immensely helpful, as she acted as an interpreter with her people who lived close to the headwaters of the Missouri River. When spring came, Lewis sent the keelboat down the river with a few men and a report for Jefferson, as well as samples of soil, plants, Indian items, and even a prairie dog, which was unheard of in the East.

Pacific in the Sight

Together with Sacagawea, her husband and their newborn baby, the explorers spent the next months going further west. When they reached present-day Montana, they discovered that the fierce rapids and waterfalls made the area increasingly impassable, and they began crossing the mountains on horseback.

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Captain Meriwether Lewis and William Clark hold a council with Native Americans of the Omaha and Oto tribes at Council Bluffs, Iowa. Original Artwork: Engraving from ‘Journal of Voyages’ by Peter Gass – pub 1811. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

They eventually reached the Pacific Ocean in mid-November 1805, and they decided via a democratic vote to spend the winter near what is now Astoria, Oregon, where they built Fort Clatsop. The winter was a harsh one, and after their hopes of encountering vessels around the Pacific to help them return home, Lewis and Clark decided to use the Columbia and Missouri rivers to go back.

The Journey Ends

The Corps of Discovery started the problematic return journey on March 23, 1806, and by June they decided to split into smaller parties to be able to explore some of the territories more thoroughly.

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Explorers at the Portage’ bronze statue by sculptor Bob Scriver, in Broadwater Overlook Park, Great Falls, Montana. Figures of Merriwether Lewis, William Clark, Clark’s dog Seaman and his servant York. (Photo by: Greg Vaughn /VW PICS/UIG via Getty Images)

Clark took a southern route and discovered a massive, unusual formation on the Yellowstone River, and named it Pompy’s Tower, after Sacagawea’s son’s nickname. Lewis took the northern route and encountered a group of Blackfeet Indians who tried to capture the horses and guns of the explorers. A violent fight followed, and Lewis’s party killed two of the natives.

The Expedition Comes Home

In August, the parties rejoined and reached St. Louis together on September 23, 1806, and they were welcomed as heroes. Amazingly, only one member of the expedition lost his on a journey that proved to be a perilous one.

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Vintage illustration of Lewis and Clark, Pathfinders, 1910s. (Photo by Found Image Holdings/Corbis via Getty Images)

The explorers were met with a grand reception and were each rewarded with both public land and double pay. Lewis and Clark received 1,600 acres each, and the other members of the party were gifted 320 acres each. The total cost for the expedition was $38,000, which is approximately $800,000 today.

Post-Expedition Life

Having survived an expedition that took so long those at home feared the party members were dead, Clark went on to marry Julia Hancock in 1808. When Sacagawea died in 1812, he took care of her children along with his own family.

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Clark’s grave in Saint Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Jean-Erick PASQUIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

In 1813, he was appointed a governor of the Missouri Territory, a position he held until the territory became a state in 1820. Clark was known for his work in Indian affairs and for the fair treatment he always used in his relationship with the Native Americans. He died on September 1, 1838, in St. Louis, Missouri.

A Legacy to Behold

No exploration of West America has greater historical significance than the voyage led by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. Geographers and historians collectively judge the expedition as the most successful land exploration in the history of North America.

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Signature of William Clark on Pompey’s Pillar in Montana. (Photo by Jean-Erick PASQUIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The two explorers’ adventure remains one of the foundational stories of the West, and during the 2003-2006 Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition commemorations and special events took place across all the 11 Western states that were part of the historic journey.