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Prairie dog, one of the many new animals encountered by the Corps of Discovery

Photo from Theodore Roosevelt National Park

It has been described as "the greatest camping trip of all time," a voyage of high adventure, an exercise in manifest destiny which carried the American flag overland to the Pacific. The Lewis and Clark Expedition was all of this and more. Between 1804 and 1806, Lewis and Clark made the first systematic reports, based on scientific measurement and observations, of the Missouri River--not only its course, but its flora and fauna, depth and current, tributaries and inhabitants. They continued onward to document their observations in the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest. Lewis and Clark described for science at least 120 mammals, birds, reptiles and fish, as well as at least 182 plant species. They made the first attempt at a systematic record of the meteorology of the West, and less successfully attempted to determine the latitude and longitude of significant geographical points. These facts set them apart from other contemporary expeditions, most notably those of Zebulon Pike, which made no new scientific discoveries.

[photo] Animal species encountered included grizzly bear, buffalo, black tailed deer and bighorn sheep
Courtesy Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, National Park Service

As the expedition began to move up the Missouri River, Lewis focused on the details--the animals, the type of rocks, the trees and grasses--along the route. How fast was the current? How high the cliffs? Was that bird or plant different from one known in the East? Lewis went on to describe some of the animals, including the eastern wood rat--the first animal new to science encountered on the voyage--in what is today Osage County, Missouri. The explorers encountered fierce grizzly bears which attacked them. The bears were so tough that even several rifle shots wouldn't kill them. The grizzly bears were truly the kings of the western plains. Lewis and Clark were fascinated with the little prairie dogs that built huge underground villages. They saw so many buffalo that at one point they recorded that they had to "club them out of the way." Other new species that the Corps of Discovery encountered included pronghorn antelopes, bighorn sheep, black tailed deer (or mule deer), mountain beaver, white weasel, mountain goat, coyote and various species of rabbit, squirel, fox and wolf. In addition to their descriptions, Lewis and Clark sent back a large number of zoological specimens, including a few live ones, as well as skins, bones, skeletons, teeth, talons and horns. Among the five live animals Lewis sent Jefferson in 1805 was a "barking squirrel," or black-tailed prairie dog, which lived out the rest of its life at the White House.

The geographical findings were in themselves of outstanding significance. Lewis and Clark determined the true course of the Upper Missouri and its major tributaries. They discovered that a long, instead of short, portage separated it from the Columbia River, which proved to be a majestic stream rivaling the Missouri itself rather than a short coastal river. Neither the Missouri nor the Columbia was found to be navigable to its source, as many had believed. The explorers also learned that, instead of a narrow and easily traversed mountain range, two broad north-south systems, the Rockies and the Cascades, represented major barriers. Passing for the most part through country that no European-Americans had seen, the two captains dotted their map with names of streams and natural features.

William Clark drew this map of part of the continent of North America in 1805

Image from Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, g3300 ct000586

Clark made his scientific mark primarily in the field of cartography, for which his training consisted mainly of some experience in practical surveying and a limited amount of Army mapping. Yet his relatively crude maps, prepared under field conditions, enriched geographical knowledge and stimulated cartographical advances. Of particular importance were the three progressively improved maps Clark drew between 1804 and 1810 of the Western United States and lower Canada. These were mainly based on the observations of the two captians, data provided by the Indians, earlier maps of the West, and the journals of preceding explorers. According to historical cartographer Carl I. Wheat, the last of the three (c.1809) was of "towering signficance" and was "one of the most influential ever drawn" of the United States.


[photo] Two of the botanical specimens discovered by Lewis and Clark, and hence named after them--the white Philadelphus lewisii (Lewis's mock orange, and the state flower of Idaho) above, and the pink Clarkia pulchella (pinkfairies) below

Photos by Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service, www.forestryimages.org

Lewis and Clark also made significant additions to the botanical knowledge of the continent. Jefferson believed that the voyages of discovery would add to the world's supply of food crops and plants beneficial to human kind. Lewis and Clark were directed to pay special attention to "the soil & face of the country, it's growth & vegetable productions, especially those not of the U.S." Lewis and Clark collected hundreds of plant specimens and recorded information on their habitats, growth, and uses by American Indians. Lewis showed a talent for observation, exemplified in his description of camas, sometimes known as quamash, an important food plant for the Nez Perce. In a beautifully crafted essay for his journal record, Lewis carefully described the plant's natural environment, its physical structure, the ways Nez Perce women harvested and prepared camas, and its role in the Indian diet. The explorers discovered about 80 species new to science, including future state flowers for Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, as well as the state grass of Montana. Their collections formed the basis for the first major scientific publication that described and illustrated the plants west of the Mississippi River. Lewis and Clark sent back numerous botanical specimens during the expedition, orignially held in two collections, one in Britain and another at the American Philisophical Society in Philadelphia. In the latter half of the 19th century, the two collections were brought together in their permanent Phildelphia home of the Academy of Natural Sciences.

More than a mere stunt to see if the continent could be crossed and conquered, more than a diplomatic mission to Indian peoples, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was a scientific foray. It is this aspect of the expedition, fulfilled in every sense, which sets the Lewis and Clark Expedition apart and plays a major role in its resonance 200 years later.

For more information please see The Science of the Lewis and Clark Expedition on the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Lewis and Clark Website, portions of which were excerpted for this piece. Additional information for this essay was taken from: Ferris, Robert G. and Roy E. Appleman, eds. Lewis and Clark: Historic Places Associated With Their Transcontinental Exploration (1804-06). Washington, D.C.: United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1975.

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