The Great Journey: Lewis and Clark

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The Great Journey: Lewis and Clark


Mapping the Louisiana Purchase . No one knew precisely how large Louisiana was or what it contained, so President Thomas Jefferson secured $2,500 from Congress in early 1803 to explore the territory. He appointed Meriwether Lewis, his private secretary and a former soldier, to command the expedition. To prepare for the mission, Lewis immersed himself in books on zoology, astronomy, and botany. For the expeditions coleader Lewis picked William Clark, another former soldier and an experienced mapmaker who had earned a reputation for canny negotiations with Indians.

Reaching the Pacific . In the spring 1804 Lewis, Clark and forty-one men started up the Missouri River from the village of St. Louis in two dugout canoes and a fifty-five-foot keelboat. During the summer and fall the team traveled one thousand six hundred miles through country inhabited by the Missouri, Pawnee, Crow, Sioux, and Mandan peoples. That winter the team, known as the corps of discovery, built Fort Mandan in what is now North Dakota and sent Jefferson more than thirty boxes of minerals, plants, animals (including a live

Passages from the Journal of William Clark

William Clark, a soldier and explorer from Caroline County, Virginia, was asked in 1803 by Meriwether Lewis to join in leadership of an expedition to the Pacific Ocean across the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and Rocky Mountains. He became the primary mapmaker and artist of the endeavor, as well as a gifted diarist. The following are excerpts from his journals:

Sunday May 13, 1804

River Dubois opposet [sic ] the Mouth of the Missourie River

I dispatched an express this morning to Capt. Lewis at St. Louis, all our provisions goods and equipage on Board of a boat of 22 oars, a large Perogue of 71 oars, a second Perogue of 67 oars, Complete with sails &c. Men compd. With Powder Cartridges and 100 balls each, all in health and readiness to set out. Boats and everything Complete, with the necessary stores of provisions & such articles of merchandize as we though ourselves authorized to procuretho not as much as I think nessy. For the multitude of Indians thro which we just pass on our road across the Continent &c. &c.

20th August 1804

Sergeant Floyd [Charles Floyd, the only member of Lewis and Clarks expedition to die along the way] much weaker and no better We set out under a gentle breeze from the S.E. and proceeded on verry well. Sergeant Floyd as bad as he can be no pulse & nothing will Stay a moment on his Stomach or bowels. Passed two islands on the S.S. and at the first Bluff on the S.S. Serj. Floyd Died with a great deal of composure, before his death he Said to me, I am going away I want you to write me a letter. We buried him on the top of the bluff ½ a mile below a small river to which we Gave his name, he was buried with the Honors of War much lamented. This Man at all times gave us proofs of his firmness and Determined resolution to doe Service to his Countrey and honor to himself after paying all the honor to our Decesed brother we camped in the Mouth of floyds River about 30 yards wide, a butifull evening.

30th of August 1804

A verry thick fog this morning after preparing some presnts for the Chiefs which we intended to make by giving Meadels, and finishing a Speech which we intended to give them. We sent Mr. Dorion in a Perogue for the Chiefs and Warriers to a Council under an Oak Tree near where we had a flag flying on a high flagstaff at 12 oCLock we met and Cap. L. delivered the Speach & then made one great Chief by giving him a Meadel & some clothes, one 2d chief and three Third chiefs the same way. The Souex [Sioux] is a Sout bold looking people (the young men handsome) & well made, the greater part of them make use of Bows & arrow. they do not Shoot So Well as the Northern Indians the Warriers are Verry much deckerated with Paint Porcupine quils and feathers, large leagins and mockersons, all with buffalow roabs of different colors. The Squars wore Peticoats and a white buffalow roabe with the black hare tunred back over their necks and Sholders.

27th of October Satturday 1804

We set out early came too at the [Mandan Indian] Village on the L.S. this village is situated on an eminance of about 50 feet above the Water in a handsom plain it containes houses in a kind of Picket work, the houses are round and very large containing several families, as also their horses which is tied on one Side of the entrance. I walked up & Smoked a pipe with the Chiefs of the village they were anxious that I would stay and eat with them, my indisposition prevented my eating which displeased them, untill a full explenation took place, I returned to the boat and Sent 2 Carrots of Tobacco for them to smoke, and proceeded on....

Novr. 7th Thursday 1805

Great joy in camp we are in view of the Ocian, (in the morning when fog cleared off just below last village of Warkiacum) this great Pacific Octean which we been so long anxious to See. And the roreing or noise made by the waves braking on the rockey Shores (as I suppose) may be heard dinstinctly.

Sunday June 15th 1806

We passed through bad fallen timber and a high Mountain this evening. From the top of this mountain I had an extensive view of the rocky Mountains to the south and the Columbian plains for a great extent also the SW Mountains and a range of high Mountains which divides the waters of Lewiss & Clarks rivers and seems to termonate nearly a West course. Several high pts. To the N & N.E. covered with Snow. A remarkable high rugd. Mountain in the forks of Lewiss river nearly south and covered with snow.

Source: Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 1804-1806 (New York: Arno, 1969).

prairie dog and two grizzly bear cubs), and Indian artifacts. In early 1805 they set out again, this time accompanied by a Shoshone woman, Sacagawea, who acted as an interpreter and guide. With her help, the team crossed the Rockies to the Snake and Columbia Rivers, which took them to the Pacific Ocean in November 1805. Their hopes to return by ship dashed, the group was forced to retrace its steps the following spring. The successful expedition arrived back in St. Louis in September 1806 with just one fatality. In addition to the volumes of journals, drawings, and notes they brought back, the corps of discovery provided valuable information on the territorys inhabitants (especially the increasingly powerful Sioux). They also returned with guarantees of the richness and promise of the empire of liberty purchased so cheaply from France.


Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

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The Great Journey: Lewis and Clark

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