The significance of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was that it effectively opened up the west and established it as American territory. Spurred by the Louisiana Purchase, the expedition was designed to give the country a better sense of what it held as well as to attempt to soothe relations with the indigenous Indians and determine to what degree French and British citizens had infiltrated the area and toward what purpose.
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In addition, the expedition brought back a large catalog of newly discovered plants and species or subspecies of animals observed along the way. “When Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark into the West, he patterned their mission on the methods of Enlightenment science: to observe, collect, document, and classify,” however, Lewis and Clark “also represented a rising American empire, one built on aggressive territorial expansion and commercial gain” (Lewis and Clark, 2008).
By tracing the progression of the Lewis and Clark Expedition from its beginning on August 31, 1803, the addition of Sacagawea and the journey to the Pacific through its winter in Oregon in 1805-06 and its split journey home by September 23, 1806, it is easier to appreciate the accomplishments of the journey and its significance for America’s future.
Lewis was appointed head of the expedition by President Thomas Jefferson and was permitted to recruit his own officers and soldiers. He appointed William Clark as his co-leader and the party gathered at a staging point at the mouth of Wood River, which is on the Mississippi on the Illinois side just where the Missouri River enters the Mississippi from the opposite bank. From here, “the two captains recruited young woodsmen and enlisted soldiers who volunteered from nearby army outposts” (Anderson, 2004).
The expedition actually started on May 14, 1804, as they began rowing or towing their keelboat up the Missouri River for the beginning leg of their trip and with little idea of what they might find. “The trip was arduous – the men lived outdoors, hunted for food, and rowed the keelboat … up the river … They fended off huge clouds of mosquitoes that swarmed around them. The party made only 12 or 14 miles on a good day” (Bredenberg, 2000). While Lewis remained on the ground, constantly cataloging the various plant life and animal species he encountered, always attempting to keep an eye open for opportunities to improve relations with the Indians, Clark typically remained on the boat when possible to work on his cartography (Journey Log, 2008). It was during this leg of the journey that Sgt.
Charles Floyd died, the only man of the expedition to lose his life. It was believed his death was the result of a burst appendix and his grave marker in Sioux City Iowa eventually became the first National Registered Landmark in the United States (Sobotka, 2002). The Indian tribes they came into contact with during this segment of the journey include the Missouris, the Omahas, the Yankton Sioux, the Lakota (Teton Sioux), and the Arikaras.
The only tribe they had serious difficulty with was the Lakota. The party finally reached the region of North Dakota and the known Mandan and Hidatsa tribes by late October. “These tribes, with a population of about 4,500 people, occupied five permanent villages along the Missouri River and were known for their friendliness and generosity” (Bredenberg, 2000). Lewis and Clark decided to make their winter camp among friendly Indians rather than pushing ahead into unknown territory.
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Fort Mandan, the 1804-05 winter camp of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, was located approximately 1,510 miles away from their starting point at Wood River and took the expedition 164 days to traverse. The men were ready to rest but had to look to their defenses first with a tribe of potentially vengeful Indians behind them. “In four weeks of hard work, the men built a triangular-shaped fort. Rows of small huts made up two sides; a wall of upright cottonwood logs formed the front” (Anderson, 2004).
The five months spent in winter camp were occupied with gathering new supplies for the next leg of the journey, repairing or rebuilding equipment, and working with the native tribes to gain new information about what they might expect to find. One local inhabitant, Toussaint Charbonneau who was a French-Canadian trapper and fur-trader, brought his young wife to speak with the explorers. Sacagawea “had been kidnapped by plains Indians five years before, when she was about twelve years old, and taken to the villages of the Mandan and Minister, where she was eventually sold to Charbonneau” (Anderson, 2004).
Although Sacagawea was pregnant, the explorers realized her value as an interpreter for many of the tribes they were likely to encounter as well as her potential as proof that the expedition had only peaceful intentions. Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was born at Camp Mandan in February of 1805 and became the youngest member of the expedition. When the spring rains finally broke up the ice sheet covering the Missouri, Lewis, and Clark were able to dispatch their first report back to the president.
This report, carried by about 12 members of the original expeditionary force, was accompanied by 108 botanical specimens, 68 mineral specimens and a map of the area covered so far (Journey Log, 2008) as well as “Indian items … some live birds and a prairie dog, which had never been heard of in the East” (Bredenberg, 2000). The remainder of the expedition started on their way west again.
The journey from the Mandan Camp to the Rocky Mountains was characterized more by the astounding new forms of wildlife the party encountered than Indian encounters. The river continued to prove itself more and more difficult while the exploratory parties on the ground continued to encounter, for the first time, grizzly bears, buffalo, wolves, and bighorn sheep (Bredenberg, 2000). When the river suddenly forked, with each fork appearing of approximately equal size, there was a break in the unity of the party. While Lewis and Clark felt the southern fork was the ‘correct’ Missouri River, the men were convinced that the northern fork was the one to follow.
Exploratory parties were sent up each branch with no results and Lewis was forced to divide the party, leaving Clark in camp at the fork of the river and exploring further up his preferred branch in an attempt to find the indisputable landmark given them by the Indians, the Great Falls. These were discovered by a white man for the first time on June 13, 1805, but took the expedition a full month to portage around (Journal Log, 2008). As they approached the Continental Divide, they began seeking the Shoshone tribe, with whom they hoped to trade for horses. By a stroke of luck, they happened to find a tribe led by Sacagawea’s brother, Cameahwait (Journal Log, 2008).
Despite this, the cost of the horses they needed to make the trip across the mountains was dear and the members of the expedition nearly starved as they made their way down out of the mountains. Only the ability to trade with the Nez Perce provided the party with the dried fish and roots they needed to survive. The trip down the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific Coast was relatively quick after these difficulties and they reached their destination in what is now Astoria, Oregon by early November (Bredenberg, 2000).
Upon reaching the sands at the mouth of the Columbia River, the expedition had traveled 4,132 miles in 554 days (Anderson, 2004). They actually arrived on the north side of the river but soon determined to make a winter camp and replenish supplies on the south side (in Oregon) because the natives had indicated hunting and foraging were better over there. “An actual vote of the members was recorded, representing the first American democratically held election west of the Rockies that included the vote of a woman, Sacagawea, and an Afro-American man, York” (Anderson, 2004), who was Lewis’ manservant.
The winter camp in Astoria was called Fort Clatsop after the nearby Indian tribe and again, the men spent the winter hunting the elk, replenishing supplies, boiling seawater for salt, and marveling over the new plants and animal life they found, including a ‘monstrous fish’ (whale) that was found washed up on the beach during their stay (Anderson, 2004). Although there was much to do and much to prepare for, the spirits of the men were low perhaps as a result of the dripping, cold weather found in Oregon and Washington during the winter months.
Lewis had a letter in his possession from Thomas Jefferson securing them passage on any sailing vessels they might find on the west coast to take them home rather than attempting an equally arduous return overland journey, but the men (and woman) of Lewis’ expedition did not encounter a single ship during their entire four-month stay. “One ship did stop to trade with the Indians during the corps’ time on the West Coast, but the Indians did not tell Lewis and Clark about it, and the ship left without them ever knowing it had been there” (Journal Log, 2008).
The timing was important regarding their eventual departure home because they had to wait for the snow to melt in the mountains, but needed to leave early enough to avoid the freezing of Missouri. The party departed Fort Clatsop on March 23, 1806.
Their departure is marred by dishonest dealings with the local Indians who had shared their hunting grounds throughout the cold winter. Finding that they were unable to purchase the fifth canoe from the Clatsop tribe, the party stole one on the evening of their departure and made a hasty retreat back up the Columbia River (Journal Log, 2008). They also had a great deal of trouble with the Chinookan Indians, who kept attempting to steal their supplies as they made their way up the difficult river (Journal Log, 2008).
Eventually, though, they reached the Nez Perce, who had honored their agreement to look after the horses during the previous season. “The group was back across the mountains by June and decided to split up into smaller parties for a while so as to explore some of the territories more thoroughly. Lewis took a more northerly route” while Clark followed a more southerly direction (Bredenberg, 2000). This division of the party took place at Traveler’s Rest on July 3. Lewis took nine members of the party north along the Marias River into known Blackfeet territory. The party did encounter Blackfeet, but the Indians seemed friendly and the two groups decided to camp together that night.
Near morning, the Indians attempted to steal two of the guns and run off the horses of Lewis’ party and, as they struggled, two of the Indians were killed. “Lewis and his men rode off, covering 120 miles in 24 hours, not knowing whether Blackfeet were giving chase” (Journal Log, 2008). Clark and the rest, including Sacagawea and her family, struck for the Yellowstone River in the south through known Crow country.
This tribe was well-known for their horse-thieving and, although no one in Clark’s party ever reported seeing a Crow, half of their horses went missing in a single night (Journal Log, 2008). Lewis and Clark were reunited at the mouth of the Yellowstone on Missouri on August 11, 1806, when one of Clark’s group, mistaking a buckskin-clad leg for an elk, shot Lewis through the leg which Clark was able to treat (Anderson, 2004). Dropping off Sacagawea and her family on the way, the expedition returned home to St. Louis on September 23, 1806, as heroes.
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Having successfully completed an overland journey both west to the Pacific and back east to the Mississippi, Lewis, and Clark were able to secure an interest in Americans for the western territories that had been recently acquired. During the trip, Lewis was able to describe 178 plants and 122 species and subspecies of animals discovered on his journey while Clark was able to provide fascinating maps with enticing blank spaces in them just waiting to be filled.
The friendly connections made with the majority of Indian tribes encountered and with European fur traders already in these areas helped foster growth in trade and diplomatic relations while the diaries and descriptions published by the expedition’s leaders fostered growth in the American imagination of a country that stretched from one sea to the other and all points in between. This strengthened the resolve of the Americans to retain the territory of the Louisiana Purchase and encouraged many to begin moving west. With more settlers in the area, Thomas Jefferson was more assured of claiming the Louisiana Territory and gained a stronger claim on the Oregon territory.
Anderson, Irving W. “A Brief History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.” Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Great Falls, MT: Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, 2004.
Bredenberg, Al. “The Expedition of the Corps of Discovery.” Lewis and Clark Mapping the West. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, 2000. Web.
“Journal Log.” National Geographic. Washington D.C.: National Geographic, 2008. Web.
“Lewis and Clark.” Lewis and Clark and the Revealing of America. Washington D.C.: Library of Congress, 2008. Web.
Sobotka, Pamela. “Sgt. Charles Floyd: A Short Biography.” eSsortment. Pagewise, 2002. Web.