About the Lewis and Clark Expedition

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The first article here takes a look back at the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 100 years later, from 1905.

Path to Pacific made by brave explorers — Lewis and Clark open vast region: Their lasting work (1905)

Guided by famous squaw Sacajawea, they journey into the Oregon country

Special Dispatch to The San Francisco Call (California) May 28, 1905

In every sense of the word, to Lewis and Clark belongs the credit for the discovery and exploration of “The Oregon Country.” They were the first white men, and excepting the narrowly ranging tribes of Indians, the very first, to traverse the country or make any stay within its bounds.

Others had sailed along its coasts and left their names on various headlands, points and bays — Ferrilo in 1543; Sir Francis Drake, some years later; De Fuca, in 1592; Fonte, in 1640; Perez, in 1774; Hecata, in 1775, from whose report a map was published in Rome in 1782, which showed the basin of the Columbia to be a great inland sea, near whose eastern border rose the Missouri River; and the celebrated Captain Cook, with whom was John Ledyard, a young New Englander, in 1777; but none of these displace Lewis and Clark as the discoverers and explorers of “The Oregon Country.”

The story of Cook’s voyages, published in London soon after his return, attracted the attention of Americans, and from Boston, two ships, the Columbia, Captain Robert Gray, and the Lady Washington, Captain Kendrick, were sent to the North Pacific Coast. Their primary object was to get sea otter furs and other valuables to be had from the Indians, but American curiosity and enterprise led to larger findings.

Lewis' first glimpse of the Rockies

On a second voyage of these ships, after nine days vainly trying to cross the breakers, Captain Gray caught a favoring wind and drove his good ship across the bar into the wide expanse of the great river, which he called the Columbia, after his vessel; the river of which Fonte had spoken and which Cook and Vancouver and others maintained did not exist.

Gray’s discovery and naming of the Columbia — “The Oregon” of Carver and Bryant — was an important factor in the final determination of the northwestern boundary line between the United States and the British possessions in North America by the Webster-Ashburton treaty of 1846, but it was the incontrovertible logic of the exploration and occupation by Lewis and Clark in 1805, backed by the cession of the French title in 1803; of the Spanish titles, real and imaginary, north of the forty-second parallel in 1819; the settlement of Astoria in 1811, its capture in 1813 and restoration to United States jurisdiction by Great Britain in 1818, that gave ground for fixing the boundary at the forty-ninth parallel instead of the forty-second and securing “The Oregon Country” to the United States.

‎Meriwether Lewis - ‎William Clark

Thomas Jefferson’s part

It is to Thomas Jefferson that the people of the United States are indebted for the two greatest and most important acquisitions of territory to their original limits. He conceived the idea and consummated the purchase from Napoleon of the titles and holdings of France in North America, and he, too, conceived and planned the expedition to the Oregon country.

From John Ledyard, Cook’s companion, whom he met in Paris about the time of the publication of Cook’s voyages, he had learned much of the promise of the Pacific Coast. Gray’s discovery of the mouth of the Columbia in 1792 led him to believe that the headwaters of that river and those of the Missouri were not far apart. The Louisiana purchase consummated, the long nurtured plan of exploration of the great unknown country was put into effect.

Plans for journey

Though from Jefferson came the idea of the general plan and authority for the great exploration that has been so fruitful of benefits to the American people, to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark must be accorded the credit for its successful accomplishment.

President Jefferson, on January 18, 1803, 81 days before Napoleon decided to offer Louisiana to the American envoys and 102 days before the signing of the treaty by which France transferred Louisiana to the United States, submitted to Congress a special message, in which he urged that an official expedition be dispatched to explore the western country.

Congress approved the plan. Captain Lewis was appointed to command the expedition, and upon the estimates which he himself prepared the modest sum of $2500 was appropriated for the expedition. The sum was considered adequate to defray the expenses of a company of forty-five men journeying nearly 9000 miles through a country actually unknown.

Start from Camp Dubois

At this time Meriwether Lewis was 29 years old. Reared on a farm in Virginia, at 20 he engaged as bodyguard to General Washington during the whisky rebellion, subsequently being removed to the regular service as a lieutenant in the line. He was promoted to a captaincy at 23. Captain Lewis selected as his associate William Clark, who also received a captain’s commission. Clark was four years older than his superior. He had joined the ranks as an ensign when 18 years old, subsequently becoming a captain of militia and a lieutenant of infantry under Wayne. He afterward served as adjutant and quartermaster. Captain Lewis, with a generosity seldom shown in commanders, insisted from the first in sharing the honors of command with his inferior, and Clark was always his staunch friend and advisor. The friendship of these two intrepid adventurers finds few parallels in history.

President Jefferson issued his final instructions to Captain Lewis on July 4, 1803, and Lewis left Washington on the following day, being joined by Captain Clark at Louisville. Having selected the men to compose the party, they went into camp at Camp Dubois, near St Louis, remaining there until the 14th day of May, 1804, when the final start was made.

The party consisted of Captain Meriwether Lewis, Captain William Clark, nine young men from Kentucky, fourteen soldiers, two French Canadians, an interpreter and hunter and a negro servant of Captain Clark. The expedition proceeded up the Missouri River in boats, forty-three days being consumed in crossing what is now the State of Missouri and in October the party went into camp for the winter among the Mandan Indians, in what is now North Dakota, learning much from the Mandans of the geography of the surrounding country.

Lewis and Clark journals - trout drawing

“Bird woman” guide, Sacajawea

Winter quarters were abandoned on the afternoon of April 12, 1805, and the long journey across the continent was resumed. Three recruits were here added to the party — a Frenchman named Charboneau, his squaw, Sacajawea, and their infant son. Sacajawea, the “bird woman,” was of invaluable assistance to the party, twice saving its members from death and proving herself at all times a faithful and intelligent guide and interpreter. In commemoration of her services, an association formed for the purpose will erect a statue to the Indian woman at the Lewis and Clark Centennial.

On leaving its winter quarters, the expedition continued the ascent of the Missouri, passed the rocks and the great falls and cascades in Montana, ascended through the mighty canyon and reached the headwaters of the stream. They had seen no Indians since leaving Fort Mandan, some four months before, but here they came upon a band of Shoshone Indians, whom Sacajawea at once recognized as the tribe from which she had been stolen years before by the enemies of her people, the Mandans. It developed that the chief of the Shoshones was a brother of the “bird woman,” and he did all in his power to aid the travelers.

Learning from the Indians that the water route was impracticable, the party was divided, and the advance, under the direction of Captain Clark, crossed the Bitter Root Mountains by the Lolo train into what is now Idaho, suffering intensely from cold and hunger, and on the 20th of September reached a village of Nez Perce Indians. The Nez Perces received them hospitably, and the famished travelers ate so heartily of the food supplied by their savage hosts that many of them were taken sick, including Captain Clark.

The other party joined that of Captain Clark on the banks of the Kooskoosky, or Clearwater River, where they left in charge of the friendly Nez Perces the horses that had carried them across the mountains and built canoes. The canoes being constructed, they embarked in October on their journey down the Clearwater and connecting streams for the Pacific. The travelers were at this time in most deplorable physical condition, the majority suffering from some ailment, and their condition did not improve. Whereas they had for some time been subsisting on roots, fish, horse meat and an occasional deer, crow or wolf, their resort, when out of other food, now became the wolfish dogs which they purchased from the Indians.

Lewis and Clark journals - natives drawing

Reach the Columbia

After much suffering, the travelers reached the Snake River, which they named “Lewis.” Going down this stream to the Columbia, they followed that river, passing in safety a number of rapids, and on the 21st of October reached the Cascades.

On November 15, having traversed the present States of Washington and Oregon, the party reached Cape Disappointment, and the eyes of the weary travelers were gladdened with the sight of the great ocean which had been the goal of their efforts through seventeen months of dangerous and toilsome journeying. It was not until the middle of December that they found ground suitable for winter quarters, and in the meantime they had experienced great suffering, for the winter rains had set in and there were no conveniences for shelter, while the hunters returned to camp day after day without the game which they had hoped to procure for food. The winter quarters finally decided upon were located near Youngs Bay, in Clatsop County, where they erected a rude fortification which they named Fort Clatsop, in honor of the tribes of Indians in that region.

The party waited some months in the hope that some trading vessel might appear, from which much-needed supplies could be obtained, but, being disappointed in this and seriously alarmed by the scarcity of their food supply, the final leave of Fort Clatsop was taken on March 23, 1806. The captains left several copies of a paper describing their journey, giving some to the natives and posting another on the wall of the deserted fort. One of these papers fell into the hands of Captain Hill, and American fur trader, who carried it to China and thence to the United States.

MORE: Read the Declaration of Independence, and find out about who signed it

Start made for home

The ascent of the Columbia was fraught with less danger than the descent, but was much more arduous. The stock of merchandise for trading with the Indians was alarmingly low, and this was one great cause of anxiety. The expedition proceeded up the south bank of the stream and came unexpectedly upon the Willamette River, which they had missed en route to the ocean, and on April 2 Captain Clark set out to explore the river, ascending on the following day to the place where the city of Portland now stands. At the south of the Lapage River, later called the John Day, the canoes were abandoned and the travelers proceeded on foot, packing their baggage on the backs of a few horses purchased from the Indians.

The Walla Walla Indians received them most hospitably, and Yellept, their chief, presented Captain Clark with a superb white stallion, a kindness which Clark reciprocated by the gift of a sword. On reaching the Nez Perces, where they had left their horses the fall before, it was found that the Lolo trail was not yet free from snow and for six weeks they resided with these hospitable people. The first attempt to cross the Bitter Root Mountains was unsuccessful, but a second begun about the first of July, was accomplished without mishap. It was then decided to pursue two separate routes for a time, with a view of shortening the distance to the falls of the Missouri River. Accordingly, on July 4, Captain Lewis, with a portion of the party crossed the Rocky Mountains to the Missouri and followed down the main stream, exploring the larger tributaries and learning much of the geography of the region.

With the remainder of the party Clark crossed the Yellowstone and, guided by the “bird woman,” who had passed through this country when a small girl, descended the Yellowstone to its mouth and joined Captain Lewis and his followers some distance below on August 12. The plan, conceived by Captain Clark at Fort Clatsop, had proved entirely practicable, shortening the most difficult part of the way by 580 miles. The journey down the Missouri River was accomplished without particular incident and the united party reached St Louis on September 25, 1806, having been absent two years and four months.

Lewis and Clark open vast region

Rejoicing at return

The return of Lewis and Clark was the occasion of great rejoicing throughout the United States, for their expedition had aroused interest, and much anxiety was feared for the safety of the travelers. Soon after their return Captain Lewis was appointed Governor of Louisiana, while Captain Clark was given the position of general of militia for the same Territory and Indian agent for the vast region he had explored.

Captain Lewis died on October 11, 1809, at the age of 35 years. It is presumed he committed suicide while troubled with a disease to which he had been subject in early life. His associate, Captain Clark, gave his country long and faithful service in various public capacities. He died September 1, 1838, at the age of 68 years.

The story of the remarkable journey across the country was given wide publicity, and the fame of the exploit of Lewis and Clark has continued to grow down to the present day, as its importance becomes more and more apparent. It is a notable fact that the first publication of a journal of the expedition was made in London.

Lewis and Clark

In his message to the Fifty-eighth Congress recommending the project of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, President Roosevelt said:

“I trust that the Congress will continue to favor in all proper ways the Louisiana Purchase, which was the first step in the expansion which made us a continental nation. The expedition of Lewis and Clark across the continent followed thereon and marked the beginning of the process of exploration and colonization which thrust out national boundaries to the Pacific.

“The acquisition of the Oregon country, including the present States of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, was a fact of immense importance to our country, first giving us our place on the Pacific seaboard and making ready the way for our ascendancy in the commerce of the greatest of oceans. The centennial of our establishment upon the western coast by the expedition of Lewis and Clark is to be celebrated at Portland, Oregon by an exposition in the summer of 1905, and this event should receive recognition and support from the National Government.”


Photos from the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition (1905)

Lewis and Clark Exposition 1905 Portland Oregon 3

Lewis and Clark Exposition 1905 Portland Oregon 2

Lewis and Clark Exposition 1905 Portland Oregon 1

Jefferson’s secret message to Congress about Lewis & Clark (1803)

In this secret message of January 18, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson asked Congress for $2,500 to explore the West — all the way to the Pacific Ocean — and through territory that did not yet belong to the United States.

According to the archivists at the Library of Congress, Jefferson made the request in a secret message in order to hide his intentions from his political enemies in the Federalist Party.

Congress agreed to fund the expedition that would be led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The 8,000-mile expedition provided the US Government with its first glimpse of the vast lands that lay west of the Mississippi River.

Thomas Jefferson letter

Transcript of Jefferson’s Secret Message to Congress Regarding the Lewis & Clark Expedition (1803)


Gentlemen of the Senate, and of the House of Representatives:

As the continuance of the act for establishing trading houses with the Indian tribes will be under the consideration of the Legislature at its present session, I think it my duty to communicate the views which have guided me in the execution of that act, in order that you may decide on the policy of continuing it, in the present or any other form, or discontinue it altogether, if that shall, on the whole, seem most for the public good.

The Indian tribes residing within the limits of the United States, have, for a considerable time, been growing more and more uneasy at the constant diminution of the territory they occupy, although effected by their own voluntary sales: and the policy has long been gaining strength with them, of refusing absolutely all further sale, on any conditions; insomuch that, at this time, it hazards their friendship, and excites dangerous jealousies and perturbations in their minds to make any overture for the purchase of the smallest portions of their land. A very few tribes only are not yet obstinately in these dispositions.

In order peaceably to counteract this policy of theirs, and to provide an extension of territory which the rapid increase of our numbers will call for, two measures are deemed expedient.

First: to encourage them to abandon hunting, to apply to the raising stock, to agriculture and domestic manufacture, and thereby prove to themselves that less land and labor will maintain them in this, better than in their former mode of living. The extensive forests necessary in the hunting life, will then become useless, and they will see advantage in exchanging them for the means of improving their farms, and of increasing their domestic comforts.

Thomas Jefferson painted portrait

Secondly: to multiply trading houses among them, and place within their reach those things which will contribute more to their domestic comfort, than the possession of extensive, but uncultivated wilds. Experience and reflection will develop to them the wisdom of exchanging what they can spare and we want, for what we can spare and they want. In leading them to agriculture, to manufactures, and civilization; in bringing together their and our settlements, and in preparing them ultimately to participate in the benefits of our governments, I trust and believe we are acting for their greatest good.

At these trading houses we have pursued the principles of the act of Congress, which directs that the commerce shall be carried on liberally, and requires only that the capital stock shall not be diminished. We consequently undersell private traders, foreign and domestic, drive them from the competition; and thus, with the good will of the Indians, rid ourselves of a description of men who are constantly endeavoring to excite in the Indian mind suspicions, fears, and irritations towards us.

A letter now enclosed, shows the effect of our competition on the operations of the traders, while the Indians, perceiving the advantage of purchasing from us, are soliciting generally, our establishment of trading houses among them. In one quarter this is particularly interesting. The Legislature, reflecting on the late occurrences on the Mississippi, must be sensible how desirable it is to possess a respectable breadth of country on that river, from our Southern limit to the Illinois at least; so that we may present as firm a front on that as on our Eastern border.

We possess what is below the Yazoo, and can probably acquire a certain breadth from the Illinois and Wabash to the Ohio; but between the Ohio and Yazoo, the country all belongs to the Chickasaws, the most friendly tribe within our limits, but the most decided against the alienation of lands. The portion of their country most important for us is exactly that which they do not inhabit.

Their settlements are not on the Mississippi, but in the interior country. They have lately shown a desire to become agricultural; and this leads to the desire of buying implements and comforts. In the strengthening and gratifying of these wants, I see the only prospect of planting on the Mississippi itself, the means of its own safety. Duty has required me to submit these views to the judgment of the Legislature; but as their disclosure might embarrass and defeat their effect, they are committed to the special confidence of the two Houses.

While the extension of the public commerce among the Indian tribes, may deprive of that source of profit such of our citizens as are engaged in it, it might be worthy the attention of Congress, in their care of individual as well as of the general interest, to point, in another direction, the enterprise of these citizens, as profitably for themselves, and more usefully for the public.

The river Missouri, and the Indians inhabiting it, are not as well known as is rendered desirable by their connexion with the Mississippi, and consequently with us. It is, however, understood, that the country on that river is inhabited by numerous tribes, who furnish great supplies of furs and peltry to the trade of another nation, carried on in a high latitude, through an infinite number of portages and lakes, shut up by ice through a long season.

The commerce on that line could bear no competition with that of the Missouri, traversing a moderate climate, offering according to the best accounts, a continued navigation from its source, and possibly with a single portage, from the Western Ocean, and finding to the Atlantic a choice of channels through the Illinois or Wabash, the lakes and Hudson, through the Ohio and Susquehanna, or Potomac or James rivers, and through the Tennessee and Savannah, rivers.

An intelligent officer, with ten or twelve chosen men, fit for the enterprise, and willing to undertake it, taken from our posts, where they may be spared without inconvenience, might explore the whole line, even to the Western Ocean, have conferences with the natives on the subject of commercial intercourse, get admission among them for our traders, as others are admitted, agree on convenient deposits for an interchange of articles, and return with the information acquired, in the course of two summers.

Their arms and accouterments, some instruments of observation, and light and cheap presents for the Indians, would be all the apparatus they could carry, and with an expectation of a soldier’s portion of land on their return, would constitute the whole expense. Their pay would be going on, whether here or there.

While other civilized nations have encountered great expense to enlarge the boundaries of knowledge by undertaking voyages of discovery, and for other literary purposes, in various parts and directions, our nation seems to owe to the same object, as well as to its own interests, to explore this, the only line of easy communication across the continent, and so directly traversing our own part of it. The interests of commerce place the principal object within the constitutional powers and care of Congress, and that it should incidentally advance the geographical knowledge of our own continent, cannot be but an additional gratification.

The nation claiming the territory, regarding this as a literary pursuit, which is in the habit of permitting within its dominions, would not be disposed to view it with jealousy, even if the expiring state of its interests there did not render it a matter of indifference.

The appropriation of two thousand five hundred dollars, “for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the United States,” while understood and considered by the Executive as giving the legislative sanction, would cover the undertaking from notice, and prevent the obstructions which interested individuals might otherwise previously prepare in its way.

TH. Jefferson
Jan. 18. 1803

Transcription via the Library of Congress – Paragraph breaks added for readability

ALSO SEE: George Washington’s life & legacy

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