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[photo] Wood (DuBois) River, Illinois
National Park Service photo, courtesy of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial National Historic Site
In December 1803, William Clark established "Camp River Dubois" on the Wood River at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, north of St. Louis, Missouri, and across the river in Illinois. While at the camp it was Clark's responsibility to train the many different men who had volunteered to go to the Pacific on the expedition and turn them into an efficient team. By and large, most of the members of the Corps of Discovery were strangers to one another. The youngest man, George Shannon, was 17 years old, the oldest, John Shields, was 35. The average age of all the men was 27. Clark had the men build a fort and cabins out of logs. He drilled the men, teaching them how to march in formation, use their weapons as a team and shoot effectively at targets. Most of all, he tried to get the men to respect military authority and learn how to follow orders. When they would later face danger on the frontier, there would be no time for the men to question the officers.

During the winter, Meriwether Lewis spent a lot of time in the little town of St. Louis. Lewis had to gather more supplies and equipment for his journey, because there were so many volunteers that there were over twice as many men set to go on the expedition as he had originally planned for! Lewis also talked with fur traders who had been up the Missouri River, and obtained maps made by earlier explorers. On March 9, 1804, Meriwether Lewis attended a special ceremony in St. Louis, during which the Upper Louisiana Territory was transferred to the United States. Two months later, on May 14, the expedition was ready to begin. William Clark and the Corps of Discovery left Camp River Dubois, and were joined by Meriwether Lewis in St. Charles, Missouri, a week later. The party numbered more than 45, mostly young, unmarried soldiers. The civilians
[photo of painting]
Painting "Lewis and Clark: The Departure from St. Charles, May 21, 1804" by Gary R. Lucy
Courtesy of the Gary R. Lucy Gallery, Inc. www.garylucy.com

who made the journey were primarily the guides and interpreters. Among the more well-known were Sacagawea, her husband Toussaint Charbonneau, their newborn son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau ("Little Pompey"), William Clark's black slave York, and an interpreter named George Drouillard (pronounced Drewyer). An additional group of men, engagés (hired boatmen), would travel only to the Mandan country for the first winter, and these included six soldiers and several French boatmen.

Travel up the Missouri River in 1804 was difficult and exhausting due to heat, injuries and insects as well as the troublesome river itself, with its strong current and many snags. The expedition used Lewis's 55-foot long keelboat and two smaller boats called pirogues to carry their supplies and equipment. The boats used sails to move along, but in going upriver against a strong current, oars and long poles were used to push the boats. Sometimes the boats had to be pulled upriver with ropes by men walking along the shoreline. They averaged 10-15 miles per day.

[photo] George Catlin painting: "Floyd's Grave, Where Lewis and Clark Buried Sergeant Floyd in 1804, " 1832
From George Catlin collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

Although there were some initial disciplinary problems, the men began to work together as a team, and to like one another. One man they especially liked was Charles Floyd, one of the three sergeants. Suddenly, on August 20, 1804, Sgt. Floyd got sick and died. It is believed that he died of a burst appendix. Floyd was laid to rest on top of a large hill by the river, in modern-day Sioux City, Iowa, where today there is a large monument to mark the spot. Sgt. Floyd was the only person to die on the two and one-half year journey, even though great danger lay ahead.

By October the Corps of Discovery reached the villages of the Mandan Indian tribe, where they built Fort Mandan (near present-day Stanton, North Dakota), and spent the winter of 1804-1805. The Mandan people lived in earth lodges along the Missouri River. Their neighbors the Hidatsa lived along the Knife River close by. The villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa people were the center of a huge trade network in the West. Lewis and Clark were not the first European-Americans to visit this part of the country. During the winter Lewis and Clark recruited a Frenchman who had lived with the Hidatsa (sometimes referred to as the Minnetari) Indians for many years. His name was Toussaint Charbonneau, and the captains wanted him to act as an interpreter. They got a real
Painting by George Catlin "Bird's-eye View of the Mandan Village, 1800 Miles above St. Louis" 1837-39
From the George Catlin collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

bargain, because along with Charbonneau would come his 16-year-old Shoshone Indian wife, Sacagawea, and her newborn baby boy. Sacagawea had been captured by a raiding party of Hidatsa warriors five years earlier, and was taken from her homeland in the Rocky Mountains to the Knife River village where she met her husband. Lewis and Clark knew that they would probably meet Sacagawea's people in the Rocky Mountains, and that they might have to ask for horses if they could not find a nearby stream which led down to the Columbia River. So Sacagawea would be invaluable because she could speak to her people directly for the explorers.

On April 7, 1805, Lewis and Clark sent the keelboat back to St. Louis with an extensive collection of zoological, botanical, and ethnological specimens as well as letters, reports, dispatches, and maps. Members of the expedition who had caused problems were sent back as well. As the keelboat headed south, the expedition, now numbering 33, resumed their journey westward in the two pirogues and six dugout canoes. The Corps of Discovery now traveled into regions which had been explored and seen only by American Indians.

[photo] The Great Falls of the Missouri were one of many challenges faced by the explorers
National Park Service photo, courtesy of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial National Historic Site

The men pulled and sailed their boats up the Missouri River through what is now Montana. By early June they reached a place where two rivers met. Lewis and Clark knew they needed to find the correct fork of the river. If they didn't, they might not get to the Pacific Ocean in time for the winter. The only clue they had was that the Indians had told them that the Missouri had a huge waterfall on it. They led small groups of soldiers up each river, Lewis going up the right fork and Clark up the left, both looking for the waterfall. When they returned, both Lewis and Clark had decided that the left fork was the right river, even though neither party saw a waterfall. Although the rest of the party disagreed, they followed the two captains up the left fork, calling it the Missouri and naming the right fork the Marias River after a cousin of Meriwether Lewis.

Sacagawea fell very sick, and the expedition moved slowly against the strong current of the river. Lewis became impatient, and led a small party of men overland to see if he could find the waterfall--otherwise, they would have to turn back and follow the other fork of the river. On June 13, he spotted a mist rising above the hills in front of him. After a few minutes of walking, Lewis looked down into a deep ravine, and saw a beautiful, huge waterfall. He knew they were on the right river. Lewis scouted ahead and found that there was not just one waterfall but five, and that they stretched for many miles along the river--an area now known as Great Falls. The canoes could not be paddled upstream against such a current. They would have to be portaged (taken out of the water and carried) around these waterfalls. Sacagawea was well again after drinking water from a mineral spring. The pirogues were left behind by this point, so Lewis tried to put his special collapsible, iron-framed boat from Harpers Ferry together. He was very disappointed when the boat did not work, but Clark was ready to help by having two more dugout canoes made.

[photo] Tributary of the Madison River, near Three Forks of the Missouri, Montana
National Park Service photo, courtesy of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial National Historic Site

They set out westward once more, paddling upstream. Soon they entered the Rocky Mountains and saw incredibly beautiful scenery with tall evergreen trees. By August 17 they reached the Three Forks of the Missouri, which marked the navigable limits of that river. At this spot the Missouri was fed by three rivers, which they named the Jefferson, Gallatin, and Madison after government officials in Washington. They turned up the river named for President Jefferson and finally reached its headwaters, where the once mighty Missouri could be easily straddled by a man. Now that they had reached the crest of the Rocky Mountains, it was hoped that the headwaters of the Columbia would be nearby, and that the men could float and paddle their way downstream to the Pacific Ocean. However, they found nothing but more mountains stretching off as far as they could see. Lewis knew then, as he crossed the Continental Divide through Lemhi Pass, that there was no easy water route to the West Coast.

This mountainous area was the homeland of Sacagawea's people, the Shoshone. Lewis, who needed horses to get his expedition over the mountains, was finally able to contact the elusive Shoshone, who had never seen a white man before. When Sacagawea came along the trail with her baby son on her back, she suddenly recognized the chief of the Shoshone, the man for whom she was supposed to interpret--and he was her brother! Although she got to see old friends and her family, Sacagawea did not decide to stay with the Shoshone. She continued with Lewis and Clark, her husband and baby, as the captains looked westward and hoped to find a way to the Pacific Ocean before the harsh winter weather set in.

Winter snow on the Lolo Trail

Photo from National Historic Landmarks collection

The explorers traveled overland on horseback, north to Lolo Pass, where they crossed the Bitterroot Range on the Lolo Trail; this was the most difficult part of the journey. The men almost starved on the trail, and were lucky to stumble into the camps of the Nez Perce Indians. They treated the explorers with kindness, feeding and helping them, pointing the way to the Pacific. Lewis and Clark left their horses for safekeeping with the honest Nez Perce, and finished making dugout canoes. They floated down the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia rivers, portaging dangerous waterfalls and trading with friendly Indians along the way. They reached the Pacific Ocean by mid-November 1805. They had fulfilled the goals set for them by President Jefferson. Now they had to make it through another winter and return with their information.

[photo] Fort Clatsop, where the explorers established their 1805-1806 winter camp
Photo from National Park Service digital archive

Once in sight of the ocean, the expedition was lashed by harsh winds and cold rain as they huddled together on the north side of the Columbia River. It was decided to stay on the south side of the river, inland where the winds and rain would be less harsh and there would be more elk to hunt for food and clothing. In December the explorers built Fort Clatsop (near present-day Astoria, Oregon), and settled in for the winter. Lewis and Clark accomplished considerable scientific work, and gathered and recorded information regarding the country and its inhabitants. The men spent most of the winter making clothing and moccasins out of elk hides, and trying to hunt for food in an area which seemed to have very little game. No contact was made with any trading ships, and Lewis and Clark knew that all the men would have to return to the United States by an overland route.

On March 23, 1806, the return trip began. After a tough journey up the Columbia River against strong currents and many waterfalls, the party retrieved their horses from their friends the Nez Perce, and waited in the Indian villages for the deep mountain snows to melt. It wasn't until June that they could get over the mountains and back to the Missouri River basin. After crossing the Bitterroots, Lewis and Clark decided to split their party at Lolo Pass in order to add to the knowledge they could gather. They wanted to be certain that there was not an easier way to cross the continent to the Pacific, and that they had not missed an important potential route or pass. Confident of their survival, Lewis went north along the Missouri River while Clark went south along the Yellowstone River. They planned to rendezvous where the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers come together in western North Dakota. Clark took the larger group with him, including Sacagawea, her husband and son, and York. Lewis took along the best hunters and outdoorsmen, including George Drouillard and the Field brothers.

Two Medicine Fight Site
view north
National Register of Historic Places Collection

While on the Marias River in Montana, Lewis's small group had a fight with a party of Blackfeet Indians, and was forced to kill two of them who tried to steal their guns and horses at a place now know as Two Medicine Fight Site. This was the only violent incident of the entire journey. While out hunting one day, Lewis was accidentally shot by Cruzatte, a nearsighted member of his own crew. The painful wound in Lewis's backside kept him from being able to sit down or continue his journal writing. Soon after this near-disaster, the Corps of Discovery was reunited in North Dakota. They returned to the Mandan villages where they left Charbonneau, Sacagawea and the baby behind. Clark promised to take care of the baby, who he nicknamed "Pomp." Three years later, Charbonneau and Sacagawea brought Pomp down to St. Louis, where William Clark saw to his schooling.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition returned to St. Louis on September 23, 1806. When people in the settled portions of the United States heard that Lewis and Clark had returned from the West, they could barely believe it. Most people had given them up for dead. If wild animals, hunger, harsh weather or Indians hadn't killed them, perhaps they had gotten lost, they thought. Of course, none of those things happened. Lewis, Clark and nearly all their men returned to St. Louis as heroes. The Corps of Discovery disbanded in St. Louis and their detailed descriptions of the journey, maps and the numerous specimens they had collected were sent to Philadelphia to be housed in part at the American Philosophical Society and later at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Lewis and Clark made their way east, pausing for three weeks at Locust Grove, home of Clark's sister, and finally arriving in Washington, D.C., where they told President Jefferson in person about the wonders they had seen in the West. Both Lewis and Clark were rewarded for their success. Clark was appointed Indian agent at St. Louis after his marriage in 1808. Five years later, he became Governor of the Missouri Territory. In 1822, President Monroe appointed him Superintendent of Indian Affairs to establish and secure treaties with the western tribes. He died in St. Louis in 1838 and is buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery. Lewis was appointed to the governorship of the Louisiana Territory, a challenging position in which he struggled to appease many divided factions. Lewis failed at many aspects of the governorship, however, most notably in the public perception of how he spent official government funds. Lewis was traveling to Washington, D.C., in 1809 to explain his actions and clear his name, when he died of two gunshot wounds, one to his head, the other to his heart on October 11th. Most historians believe that Lewis committed suicide due to depression and problems in his life and career, while a popular belief continues that he was murdered, perhaps by representatives of his political enemies. The explorer was buried not far from where he died, and today a memorial along the Natchez Trace Parkway pays tribute to the man who led the Voyage of Discovery to the Pacific Ocean.

For more information please see The Journey and Others Who Made the Journey from which this is excerpted, on the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial's Lewis and Clark Journey of Discovery website.

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