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Reading 1: The Corps of Discovery
On May 14, 1804, the "Corps of Discovery" departed from Camp River DuBois and put in along the banks of the Missouri River. With an oared riverboat known as a keelboat, two smaller rowboats known as pirogues, and 55 men--including a number of soldiers, translators, a slave, and a dog named Seaman--Capt. Meriwether Lewis and 2nd Lt. William Clark set out on the journey that would consume their lives for the following two and a half years.
President Thomas Jefferson outlined their primary mission: "…to explore the Missouri river, and such principal streams of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river, may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce…." Jefferson envisioned the nation's eventual expansion to the Pacific and wanted to strengthen the American claim to the northwest "Oregon Country." More territory would solve the problem of land competition and the West held the key to unlocking the mystery of the Northwest Passage. This mythic water route to the Pacific would open up the natural resources of the West and provide access to Asian commerce. With such an opportunity for discovery, Lewis and Clark embarked on the journey and began fulfilling additional objectives: documenting geography, flora, fauna, and unique cultures; establishing friendly contacts along the way; and returning with knowledge of the previously unknown.
During their travels, the corps encountered numerous problems and hardships. The first major hurdle was mobility. At times struggling against the current of the Missouri River, the men used sails, poles, and oars, occasionally resorting to tow ropes when all else failed. Later on, it would be necessary to abandon travel by water and physically carry the boats. This process, called portaging, proved to be very time consuming and draining, at times limiting travel to only four or five miles a day. Another major issue was discipline. Holding court-martials and dispensing lashes as punishments when necessary, the leaders of the corps knew that they had to establish order early on, to assure themselves of cohesion and unity through the rough times and cold winter months that lay ahead.
Establishing sound American Indian relationships was the most difficult matter to undertake. Throughout the expedition, members of the corps encountered at least 55 different native cultural groups. The first real test came with the corps' confrontation with the Teton Sioux on September 25, 1804. Attempting to sail through a portion of the Missouri River in present-day South Dakota controlled by the Teton people, members of the expedition found themselves in a standoff with swords, arrows, guns, and cannons threatening to settle the matter. Defusing the situation with an exchange of threats and tobacco, Lewis and Clark were on their way September 28.
Soon after their stand off, the corps encountered the Mandan and Hidatsa nations in what is now North Dakota. Seeking shelter from the winter of 1804-05, the Americans constructed a fort in Mandan territory, which consisted of two rows of huts, a sentry post, and a set of storerooms. Shortly after establishing camp, the men recruited an interpreter, a Frenchman named Toussaint Charbonneau who lived with the Hidatsa Indians for many years. With him came his wife Sacagawea and their newborn son. Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman captured by Hidatsa warriors, would be indispensable as an interpreter and an effective intermediary between the white Americans and the Indian peoples. Her presence would also assure the Indians encountered that the expedition was peaceful.
With the onset of spring in 1805, the Corps of Discovery, now numbering 33, again set out on their voyage West, losing one man to illness on August 20, 1804 and sending some men back to St. Louis after the first leg of the journey. With them, Lewis and Clark entrusted numerous items--zoological, botanical, and ethnographic specimens as well as maps, letters, artifacts, and reports--sent back in order to update the President on their progress.
The Corps of Discovery now traveled into regions, which had been explored and inhabited only by American Indians. The following months were highlighted by encounters with grizzly bears, a near tragic boat accident on the river, and a difficult navigational decision at the fork of the Marias and Missouri Rivers in present-day Montana. Unsure as to which way they needed to go to continue along the Missouri River, Lewis sent canoes out to explore each fork and small parties to determine the lay of the land. At nightfall, upon the canoes' return, the crew disagreed with the Captains on how to continue. The Captains prevailed, however, and continued up the left fork which was the Missouri River, leading onward to Great Falls. At Great Falls, also found in present-day Montana, the crew would face the most difficult challenge to date. The expedition would be forced to carry by hand, or in makeshift wagons, all equipment and supplies, including canoes, around the falls. Traveling overland approximately 18 miles, the group took approximately one month to bypass the falls and rapids.
Another navigational quandary at the confluence of Missouri River's Three Forks in Montana had the corps opting for the westward oriented Jefferson River over the Madison and Gallatin Rivers. As the party forged on, crossing the two-mile stretch of Lemhi Pass and into Lemhi Valley, they finally reached the land of the Shoshone Indians. Along the border of present day Idaho and Montana, in mid-August 1805, Lewis and Clark held council with the tribal leaders, one of which happened to be a relative of Sacagawea. In light of this reunion, the corps established Camp Fortunate on August 17, 1805. And over the next few days, Lewis and Clark learned and received much from these native people, specifically horses and a guide for the arduous Lolo Trail through the Bitterroot Mountains. In addition, the Americans gained valuable information about Shoshone culture and the land to the West.
Continuing into September and August of the same year, Lewis and Clark's crew encountered two more indigenous groups that proved to be hospitable. The Salish, called the "Flatheads" by the corps, assisted the explorers with more horses and directions. The Nez Perce fed and housed them, nursing them back to health after their harrowing experience through the Bitterroot Mountains. They also helped the corps build canoes so they could proceed by water and kept their horses for them until they could return the following year. The explorers reached the Columbia River on October 16th. A month and nine days later on November 25, 1805, traveling through southern Oregon Country, the crew came upon a view of Point Adams and Cape Disappointment, just beyond was the Pacific Ocean. The Corps of Discovery succeeded in their goal of reaching the Pacific while dispelling the myth of the Northwest Passage along the way.
Establishing Ft. Clatsop, near present-day Astoria, Oregon, the crew passed the winter in the coastal forests that bordered the Pacific. Over the next few months, the corps made preparations for the journey home, made careful observations of the area, and developed strong relations with the native Clatsop people. As illness became an increasing problem and it became harder to find food, once spring arrived, it was time for their return journey home.
Departing in late March 1806, the crew set off eastward for the first time in almost two years. Upon their return to Nez Perce country in the spring of 1806, the explorers settled into camp to wait until the snow melted in the mountains so that they could pass over the Continental Divide and return to the east. During this period they freely interacted with the Nez Perce, learning many of their customs and playing many types of games with them. The horses of the explorers were returned to them, well looked-after by the Nez Perce during the winter. The Nez Perce also provided guides for their overmountain trek.
The group decided to split on the return trip to explore new territory, so when they reached what they called Travelers Rest in Montana, Lewis went north and Clark went south. While on the Marias River, the party with Lewis fought a party of Blackfeet Indians, and was forced to kill two of them. This was the only violent incident of the entire journey. Having investigated the regions of the Upper Marias and Yellowstone River, the two halves of the crew reunited along the Missouri River in what is now the state of North Dakota on August 12th . After leaving Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and their son at the Mandan Villages, the corps set out on the last leg of their journey. On September 23, 1806, 29 members of the expedition arrived in St. Louis to much deserved applause and recognition.
Having successfully collected information, mapped previously unknown regions, and observed/forged relationships with a variety of indigenous inhabitants, Lewis and Clark had shed considerable light on some of the mysteries of the West. In addition, the Corps of Discovery had determined the course of the upper Missouri and its tributaries and had brought back vast amounts of zoological and botanical knowledge. The successful expedition also allowed for the formation of a more profitable fur trading industry for the U.S. Because of their work, the first phase of expansion was complete as the U.S. strengthened its claims to Oregon Country.
Questions for Reading 1
1. What were the reasons behind Jefferson's decision to explore the West?
2. How long were the members of the Corps of Discovery away from their homes? How would you describe the nature of the expedition?
3. Both Lewis and Clark, as well as many of the other men on the expedition were members of the army and had prior military experience. How might this experience have helped them during their journey?
4. Who were Charbonneau and Sacagawea? Why were they recruited to join the mission?
5. Considering the goals of the expedition, do you think the corps was successful? From whose point of view? Explain your answer.
Reading 1 was compiled from The Lewis and Clark Journey of Discovery website, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior and Robert G. Ferris, ed., Lewis and Clark: Historic Places Associated with Their Transcontinental Exploration (1804-06) (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1975).