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West by Northwest with the Corps of Discovery

By Caroline Kim | HUMANITIES, November/December 2002 | Volume 23, Number 6

Two days before Meriwether Lewis set out from Washington to prepare for his expedition with William Clark, astounding news came from Europe. Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been ignoring Thomas Jefferson’s request to purchase the busy port of New Orleans for nearly a year, found himself facing a war with England and consequently offered to sell the whole of the Louisiana Territory for 15 million dollars. Though twice the federal budget, it was a bargain by any standards. Jefferson rushed the treaty through Congress, buying all 820,000 square miles for just three cents an acre. In one swift stroke, the size of the United States more than doubled. With satisfaction, Napoleon declared, “I have just given to England a rival that will sooner or later humble her pride.”

Largely unexplored, the vast interior of the continent presented a blank on the maps of the day. Myths about the territory abounded--that it was the home of woolly mammoths and other ancient animals, that there were erupting volcanoes and mountains of salt, that it was inhabited by a tribe of blue-eyed, Welsh-speaking Indians descended from a prince who had settled the New World three hundred years before Columbus. The members of Lewis and Clark’s expedition did not know whom or what they would encounter.

Jefferson was keenly interested in the West. When he became president in 1801, the United States ended at the banks of the Mississippi River. To the north was Canada, controlled by England. To the southwest, from Texas to California, was the land called New Spain. Russia had an outpost in Alaska and was extending south to the Pacific Northwest. And just west of the United States, from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains, was the area of the Louisiana Territory belonging to France.

In his inaugural address Jefferson had predicted that the United States would one day reach all the way to the Pacific: “However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits and cover the whole . . . continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms and by similar laws.”

When Jefferson appealed to Congress in 1803 to appropriate funds for an expedition to explore the Missouri River, he was hoping to find the mythical Northwest Passage--an extended water route that would span the length of the continent and facilitate trade from the Atlantic to the Pacific and beyond to the Far East. He believed that whoever discovered it would control the destiny of the continent. For more than a century, Spanish conquistadors in the south and British and French explorers in Canada had been searching for the fabled passage to no avail. The Missouri was the last hope.

Jefferson had called on his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to lead the expedition. “The object of your mission,” he wrote to Lewis, “is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it’s course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean . . . may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce.” The expedition was also assigned to draw maps, write detailed observations of the plants, animals, terrain, and weather they encountered, and to record the various languages, religions, and customs of the Indians they met.

Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory meant that now the expedition would travel on American soil all the way to the Continental Divide. But it also meant further duties--surveying the land with a view to future settlement, commerce and military defense, and impressing upon the Indians the power and authority of their new leader in Washington.

Aware that the expedition, which the president named the “Corps of Discovery,” had attained a new urgency, Lewis went to Philadelphia for a crash course from the leading scientists of his day. He was taught how to describe and preserve botanical specimens, how to determine latitude and longitude, how to look for fossils, and how to doctor the men under his charge. He also asked his good friend William Clark to join him on the expedition as co-commander.

“My friend,” he wrote, “If there is anything in this enterprise, which would induce you to participate with me in it’s fatiegues, it’s dangers and it’s honors, believe me there is no man on earth with whom I should feel equal pleasure in sharing them as with yourself.”

“Dear Lewis,” Clark wrote back, “This is an undertaking fraited with many difeculties, but My friend I do assure you that no man lives whith whome I would prefur to undertake Such a Trip.” Before the Corps of Discovery set out under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark, Jefferson expressed to them the importance of recording diligently all that they saw and experienced, even suggesting that Lewis keep a copy of his notes on birch bark as it was less susceptible to damp than paper. While they did not go so far as to write on bark, when they did return two years later, they had filled hundreds of notebook pages with observations of plants and animals never before seen, and had recorded the existence of unknown Indian tribes that had long lived in the interior of the continent. Given the variety of tasks that the men had to perform every day--hunting, jerking meat, chopping firewood, making their own clothes and moccasins, dragging boats in shallow water, to name a few--it could not have been an easy task to sit and write at the end of a wearying day.

“They had an incredible range of activities just to get through the day,” says Gary Moulton, professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and editor of a new edition of The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. “And then to sit down every evening or when you had a five-minute break and write in your journal. They just had a commitment to it that’s hard for us to understand. They realized the importance of it. They had a sense of history, but they also had a sense of duty. That’s what Jefferson wanted--to bring back a record. Because, otherwise, all they were bringing back were just stories. And that’s why these are journals, not diaries. They’re intellectual writings and writings of events of historical matter.”

Moulton began the project of editing the expedition’s journals in 1979 and completed the thirteenth and final volume last year. The edition comprises a complete history of the expedition, including the journals of Lewis and Clark, an atlas, an herbarium, and the journals of four enlisted men. With help from geologists, biologists, ichthyologists, ornithologists, and linguists, Moulton provided detailed notes on the specific plants, animals, rivers, and Indian tribes that Lewis and Clark encountered. “I used over a hundred consultants over the life of the project,” says Moulton.

According to Moulton, sergeants in the U.S. Army had to be literate to keep the companies’ records; thus three of the four enlisted men’s journals were written by sergeants. Of these, the journal of John Ordway is the most complete. “First of all, because he wrote an entry for every one of the 863 days,” says Moulton. “He was the top sergeant, so he’s going to keep track of the men--who’s out on this assignment, who’s out on that assignment. He seemed to pay more attention to the terrain, to the environment, noting trees and vegetation, the hunting of the party, how many animals were hunted and brought in and killed each day.”

Ordway, born in New Hampshire in 1775, wrote to his parents just before he began his journey.

Honored Parence.
I now embrace this opportunity of writing . . . to let you know where I am and where I am going. I am well, thank God, and in high Spirits. I am now on an expidition to the westward, with Capt. Lewis and Capt. Clark, who are appointed by the President of the united States to go . . . through the interior parts of North America. We are to ascend the Missouri River with a boat as far as it is navigable and then go by land, to the western ocean, if nothing prevents. . . .

The Corps of Discovery set out from the frontier town of St. Louis on May 14, 1804. The first summer and fall, the expedition moved slowly up the Missouri, working hard against the current. Fourteen miles was a good day. In addition to the permanent party of thirtythree men were three and a half tons of supplies, including scientific and medical instruments, pliers, chisels, handsaws, hatchets, yards of cloth for tents and sheets, twelve pounds of soap, 193 pounds of “portable soup,” clothing, blankets, knapsacks, 500 rifle flints, 420 pounds of sheet leads for bullets, 176 pounds of gunpowder, tobacco, whiskey, and presents for the Indians--pocket mirrors, sewing needles, silk ribbons, handkerchiefs, beads, face paint, and medals with the likeness of Jefferson on one side and two hands clasped on the other. The Corps presented these medals to the chiefs of the tribes as tokens of friendship.

From late October to March while the Missouri was frozen, the expedition wintered near the villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians and learned from them about the terrain that lay ahead. “The maps of the time, the legends, the stories, the information that they were provided with,” says Moulton, “just didn’t give them a true sense of the interior continent. They changed their ideas as they moved forward. They got certain information from Washington, certain information in the St. Louis area, certain information at the Mandan and Hidatsa villages, so they were fine-tuning their ideas right along.”

It was the Mandans and Hidatsas who first gave Lewis and Clark a sense of the immensity of the Rocky Mountains. It would not be a half day’s portage from the Missouri to the Columbia River as the explorers had hoped. In fact, it would take them nearly a month. Though they had little idea at the time, they began to understand that they would need horses to carry the men and their supplies over what the Indians indicated was a great range of “shining mountains.” And for horses, they would need contact with the Shoshone Indians. Luckily, a French Canadian fur trader named Toussaint Charbonneau was also living among the Mandans. He was married to a young Shoshone woman who had been captured several years earlier by the Hidatsas and sold to him. She was called “Bird Woman”--Sacagawea. After Lewis helped Sacagawea through the difficult birth of her child, he hired both Charbonneau and Sacagawea to serve as interpreters with the Shoshones.

As soon as the ice broke up on the Missouri, the expedition set out once again. They sent their big keelboat back to St. Louis with letters and specimens, including a live prairie dog that would eventually reach Jefferson in Washington. Before they left, the Indians warned them about a particularly fierce animal that would as soon attack a man as flee from him--the white bear known today as the grizzly. On April 13, 1805, Lewis wrote in his journal that when “the Indians are about to go in quest of the white bear, previous to their departure they paint themselves and perform all those superstitious rites commonly observed when they are about to make war upon a neighboring tribe.”

Soon afterward, they encountered their first white bear--which was not white but a light brownish color, though just as fierce as they had been told. On May 5 Lewis wrote, “Captain Clark and Drouilliard killed the largest brown bear this evening which we have yet seen. It was a most tremendous-looking animal, and extremely hard to kill. Notwithstanding he had five balls through his lungs and five others in various parts, he swam more than half the distance across the river, to a sandbar, and it was at least twenty minutes before he died. He did not attempt to attack, but fled, and made the most tremendous roaring from the moment he was shot. We had no means of weighing this monster.” Clark guessed its weight at 500 pounds while Lewis thought his estimate “too small by a hundred pounds.”

On May 14, Ordway writes in his journal that “abt. 4 oClock the men in the canoes Saw a large brown bear on the hills on S.S. 6 men went out to kill it. They fired at it and wounded it. it chased 2 of them into a canoe, and anoth[er] [into?] the River and they Steady fireing at him. after Shooting eight balls in his body Some of them through the lites [lungs], he took the River and was near catching the Man he chased in, but he went up against the Stream and the bear being wounded could not git to him.” Finally, “one of the hunters Shot him in the head which killed him dead.”

As the expedition continued the journey through the summer of 1805, they noticed the Missouri growing shallower and more difficult to navigate. In many places, the men had to drag the canoes along muddy banks. With fall approaching, it became imperative to find the Shoshones and their horses--for if they found themselves in the Rocky Mountains when cold weather arrived, they knew there would be little chance of survival. The game they hunted was less plentiful as they approached the “shining mountains,” which they soon learned were so named from the sun glinting off the lasting snow on the peaks.

On August 11 Lewis spotted an Indian on a horse. Convinced that it was a young Shoshone warrior and elated that he was finally about to make contact, he took his blanket, and as he later recounted, “made him the signal of friendship known to the Indians of the Rocky Mountains and those of the Missouri--which is, by holding the mantle or robe in your hands at two corners and then throwing it up in the air higher than the head, bringing it to the earth as if in the act of spreading it, thus repeating three times.” When this had no effect, he took some beads and a looking glass out of his pack, and laying down his gun, advanced toward the young man. At this, the young warrior slowly turned his horse away from Lewis and prepared to leave. Desperate, Lewis then yelled tai-va-vone, believing he was saying “white man.” Unfortunately, he was using the Shoshone word for “stranger” and the Indian whipped his horse and fled. Lewis was crushed.

The next day, Lewis and two other men found a well-worn Indian trail that led west toward a ridgeline. Here they found the headwaters of the Missouri, which completed one of the objectives of the expedition’s mission. About the event, Lewis wrote, “the road took us to the most distant fountain of the waters of the mighty Missouri in search of which we have spent so many toilsome days and restless nights. Thus far I had accomplished one of those great objects on which my mind has been unalterably fixed for many years. Judge, then, of the pleasure I felt in allaying my thirst with this pure and ice-cold water which issues from the base of a low mountain . . . Two miles below, McNeal had exultingly stood with with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his God that he had lived to bestride the mighty, and heretofore deemed endless, Missouri.”

Lewis had now approached the farthest point of the new United States, the Continental Divide. He was the first American ever to reach the spine of the Rocky Mountains. Hurrying up the ridge, he believed he had found the Northwest Passage and expected to see, just over the top, the watershed of the Columbia River. Instead, he “discovered immense ranges of high mountains still to the west of us, with their tops partially covered with snow.” There was no mythical passage.

However, there is no sense of disappointment in his journal. “As a matter of fact,” says Moulton, “he just seems to say, here it is, here’s where we’re going. If the Indians can find a way through, we can find a way through. It’s this American pride that’s shot through. If they can do it, we can do it, and we can do it better.” In the next several days, the expedition again encountered the Shoshones and finally made contact. Amazingly, Sacagawea turned out to be the chief’s sister. “The meeting of those people was really affecting,” Lewis wrote, “particularly between Sacagawea and an Indian woman who had been taken prisoner at the same time with her, and who had afterwards escaped from the Minnatarees and rejoined her nation.” With Sacagawea’s aid as an interpreter, the expedition purchased enough horses to cross the Rocky Mountains.

That November, the Corps of Discovery finally reached the Pacific Ocean. They arrived near a point in Washington, named Cape Disappointment. Though they had not found the fabled Northwest Passage, Lewis and Clark did fulfill one of Jefferson’s wishes. “This was an objective of Jefferson’s,” says Moulton, “to plant an American flag on the coast and state to the world that the United States was in this game, too. So, it was not only to explore the Louisiana Territory, but it was also to stake a claim to the Pacific Northwest.”

At the end of March, after a dreary winter at Fort Clatsop in Oregon, it was time for the Corps of Discovery to begin the long journey back to the settled United States. As they sailed closer to St. Louis, it was with surprise that people in the settlements ran to the banks to watch them pass. They had long since been given up for lost. In his entry for September 12, Ordway wrote that one man “informed us that the people in general in the united States were concerned about us as they had heard that we were all killed then again they heard that the Spanyards had us in the mines &C.” When they arrived in St. Louis on September 23, they were hailed everywhere as heroes. Each enlisted man on the expedition received double pay and 320 acres of land. Lewis and Clark were each awarded 1,600 acres.

Lewis and Clark’s expedition had an immediate effect on the country. The story of their journey opened the way for adventurous Americans who desired to go west. Traders moved further and further along the Missouri, building forts and settlements to trade with the Indians. Within five generations, sixteen million Americans inhabited the land Lewis and Clark had been sent to explore. But for the millions of Indians on the continent, it was the beginning of the end, as white men and disease encroached onto land that the Indians believed belonged to everyone and no one.

But on September 23, 1806, the men in the Corps of Discovery were not aware of the impact of their journey. Instead, as Ordway wrote, “we unloaded the canoes and carried the baggage all up to a Store house in Town. drew out the canoes then the party all considerable much rejoiced that we have the Expedition Completed and now we look for boarding in Town and wait for our Settlement and then we entend to return to our native homes to See our parents once more as we have been So long from them.-- finis.”

About the Author

Caroline Kim is a writer in San Francisco.