May 14, 2007

Lewis and Clark leave St. Louis for the West

On May 14, 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition set off from St. Louis. They didn't leave until 4:00 p.m. and they only traveled 4 ½ miles the first day, but it was the start of the first United States exploration of the lands between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. The group was headed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

On the first leg of the journey -- between St. Louis and Kansas City, the party averaged 15 to 20 miles per day. The territory was not altogether unknown here -- Lewis and Clark had read the available accounts of French, Spanish, and Canadian fur traders, and knew the general course of the Missouri River. They passed at least eight parties of fur traders who were making their way back to St. Louis. There were 45 men in their party, and they had been charged with studying and cataloging the animal and plant life in the new territory, reporting on the Indians and the French and Canadian hunters and trappers in the area, and mapping the terrain. The land had only been acquired by the United States the previous year, when Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, adding approximately 530 million acres to our territory.

By the winter of 1804-1805, the group found themselves at what is now Washburn, North Dakota, and constructed a shelter, Fort Mandan, where they planned to stay until spring. The winter was spent by the group cataloging and studying their animal and vegetable specimens, and working on producing detailed maps and journals. They also encountered a violent rainstorm, which stranded them in their fort without food, until they were rescued by a Shoshone woman, Sacajawea, and her husband, a French Canadian named Toussaint Charbonneau, who brought them a supply of fish. The men were not used to eating fish and many of them became violently ill. Sacajawea and her husband later became guides for the group, smoothing the way with the Indian tribes.

By April, the group had traveled up the Missouri River as far as the mouth of the Yellowstone, and by August they had crossed the Great Divide. At this point, they were captured by the Shoshones, but, as it turned out, the chief was the brother of Sacajawea, and the meeting was a friendly one.

They then traveled up the Snake River, reached the Cascade Mountains and then the Columbia River, and in November they laid eyes for the first time on the Pacific Ocean.

They sheltered that winter at Fort Clatsop, another temporary fort, and in March headed back home again. The party broke into two sections, so that Lewis could explore the Marais River while Clark explored the Yellowstone. It was September 23, 1806 when the explorers returned to St. Louis.

These are some of the more interesting details I unearthed while reading about Lewis and Clark:

  • In all, they observed and wrote descriptions of 178 plants and 122 species or subspecies of animals. Packets of specimens and reports were sent back to Jefferson from time to time, including a prairie dog in a box (which arrived alive).
  • Sacajawea, besides her service to the group as an interpreter, was useful in other ways. Indians meeting them for the first time concluded that they could not possibly be a war party, since no war party would travel with a woman and child. (She had given birth to a son in February, 1805.)
  • The expedition did not make a particularly favorable impression on at least some of the Indian tribes. The first tribe of Sioux they met was less than pleased with the presents they gave them -- a collection of 5 medals. Things got serious with a tribe of Blackfeet Indians that Lewis's group encountered on the way back. The Blackfeet tried to steal their weapons in the night, and in the ensuing struggle, two Indians were killed. Lewis's group managed to cover over 100 miles in one day as they fled from the tribe.
  • Clark's slave, York, was a member of the party. During the trip, he was accorded full privileges, even getting a vote in matters that were decided by the party as a whole. (So did Sacajawea.)

    He was a great curiosity to the Indians, most of whom had seen white men before, but never black ones. York apparently hammed it up a bit, telling them that before Clark had captured him, he had been wild, and a cannibal, and that children made particularly good eating. (York had been raised from birth by the Clark family.)

    When the group returned, Clark settled in St. Louis, keeping York with him. York wanted to return to the Louisville area, where he had a wife and child, and repeatedly asked Clark to grant him his freedom, which Clark refused, citing financial difficulties. Clark became increasingly irritated by York's requests, and once was said to have given him a "severe trouncing." Eventually Clark did give him his freedom, and set him up in a drayage business.
  • There was only one death among the members of the expedition: Charles Floyd, who apparently died of peritonitis as a result of a burst appendix.
  • Meriwether Lewis was shot in the thigh at one point by one of his own men, who mistook him for game.
  • Discipline was swift and strict. There are a number of court-martials, mutinies, and disciplinary actions recorded in the accounts of the trip. Among the offenders were John Collins and Hugh Hall, found guilty of stealing whiskey they were supposed to guard, Thomas Howard, of showing Indians how to scale the walls at Ford Mandan, and Alexander Willard, of sleeping while on sentry duty.
  • A Newfoundland dog named Seaman was purchased for $20 by Lewis specifically for the trip. Seaman once was severely injured by a beaver, which had cut several arteries in his hind leg, but was saved through surgery performed by two leaders. The dog was a good hunter and protector, and highly valued by the company. At one point he was stolen by Indians, and Lewis threatened to burn down the village if the dog was not returned.
  • The final tally of expenses to the government was nearly $39,000. The cost had been estimated by Jefferson (and allocated by Congress) at $2,500.

Some things never change, I guess.

Illustration: Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia by Charles Marion Russell, Public Domain

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