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The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) was the first U.S. overland expedition from the east coast to the west coast of the continent. It was led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark. After the Louisiana Purchase expanded U.S. territory in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson, inspired by French ideas for a similar scientific expedition through their territory, accelerated plans for what became the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Initially there were 33 in the expedition. Captain Lewis, Jefferson’s private secretary, was the leader. Captain Clark shared command, although he was technically second-in-command. Sergeant Charles Floyd was the quartermaster; his death early in the trip was the only fatality suffered by the team. There were three other sergeants, one corporal, and the rest were private soldiers, except for York, Clark’s black manservant. There was also an interpreter, George Drouillard.
On May 14, 1804, the expedition left Camp Dubois near present-day Hartford, Illinois, and met up with Lewis and others at Saint Charles, Missouri. They then journeyed to La Charrette, the last white settlement on the Missouri River, before heading westward into territory that was then largely or totally unknown to them.
The first Native American tribe encountered by the expedition were the Yankton Sioux, followed by the Teton (or Lakota) Sioux. The first tribe was given five medals, which was a great disappointment, and the second wanted a boat, nearly precipitating a fight. However, the expedition managed to continue on and during the winter built Fort Mandan, near present-day Washburn, North Dakota, where they sheltered for the winter. It was there that they were joined by a French Canadian, Toussaint Charbonneau, along with his Indian wife, Sacagawea. They would become interpreters for the expedition.
In April 1805, Lewis and Clark decided to send back a return party from Fort Mandan. It included a detailed report on what had been discovered up to that point, botanical specimens, and also a prairie dog, which was delivered live to Jefferson in a box.
The rest of the expedition then followed the River Missouri westward. The exact boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase were unknown, and the U.S. government was keen to claim what would later be the states of Washington and Oregon. It was to this area that the expedition headed, finally reaching the Pacific Ocean, an event that Clark recorded in his journal on November 18, 1805.
The expedition spent the winter near the coast building Fort Clatsop. On March 23, 1806, the exhausted group decided to return home. In July, the party split, with Lewis and nine men heading for the Falls of the Missouri, on the same route as the outward journey. Clark followed a southern route along the Yellowstone River.
The two parties reunited on August 12 and returned to St. Louis on September 23, 1806. By that time many people thought the whole party had been killed. Their expedition helped subsequent U.S. claims to the Oregon territories, although there was some anger expressed by the Spanish. The expedition has a unique place in U.S. history as the first successful attempt by people living in the east to cross the entire continent after independence.
- Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the West (Simon & Schuster, 1996);
- David Holloway, Lewis & Clark and the Crossing of North America (Excalibur, 1974);
- Gary E. Moulton, , The Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expeditions (University of Nebraska Press, 1986-93).