After President Thomas Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase, he wanted an expedition to explore and survey the vast lands that had come under the control of the United States. He chose Meriwether Lewis, an Army captain and Jefferson’s personal secretary, to lead the expedition. Lewis chose William Clark to lead with him. Clark was a land owner in Kentucky and an Army officer, where he had served with Lewis.
Both men studied extensively before setting out, reading up on medicine, botany, astronomy, and zoology. They read every available map and journal detailing the area, from Spanish, French, and British sources. Lewis gathered munitions at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and then boarded a custom-made keelboat, which he sailed down the Ohio River to Clarksville, Indiana, where he joined Clark. There, Clark boarded the boat, taking it up the Mississippi, while Lewis took to horseback to gather more supplies, including maps and surveying equipment.
Meanwhile, Clark recruited the men who would travel with them, members of the Corps of Volunteers for Northwest Discovery, at Fort DuBois, Missouri. The final group consisted of Lewis, Clark, Clark’s enslaved man, York, 27 soldiers, a French-Indian interpreter, and a boat crew. They set out on May 14, 1804, picking up Lewis in St. Charles, Missouri and continuing up the Missouri River. On August 20, Sergeant Charles Floyd died of stomach infection; miraculously, he was the only Corps member to die on the entire journey.
The Corps traveled through Iowa and into South Dakota. In November, they arrived near what is today Washburn, North Dakota, where they set up their winter camp. They built a structure they called Fort Mandan. Nearby were the Mandan and Minitari Indians, just some of the over fifty tribes who encountered Lewis and Clark on their journey. Some groups, like the Teton Sioux, were suspicious of the soldiers, but there was relatively little violence during encounters as compared to other similar expeditions.
At Fort Mandan, Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman, met Lewis and Clark. She was pregnant and with her husband, a French-Canadian fur trapper, Toussaint Charbonneau. Although the expedition hired Charbonneasu as interpreter, it would be Sacagawea who would prove integral to the success of the venture. Sacagawea gave birth in February, 1805; the Corps set out, with baby Jean Baptiste in tow, in early April.
The Corps traveled across Montana, crossing the Continental Divide. They purchased horses from the Shoshone, thanks to Sacagawea. There, she also reunited with her brother, Cameahwait, whom she had not seen since she had been kidnapped by the Hidatsa people when she was 12; she was later sold to Charbonneau.
The horses proved useful as the Corps crawled over the Lolo Trail through the Bitterroot Mountains with Shoshone guides. Cold and exhausted, the men were revived by the Nez Perce Indians, who they met near the Clearwater River, in what is today Idaho. The final leg of their journey west was on the water; they rafted down the Clearwater to the Snake River, and then to the mighty Columbia.
They reached the Pacific Ocean in November of 1805. It was time for another winter camp, which they set up near what is today Astoria, Oregon. They called their shelter Fort Clatsop, moving in on Christmas Day. It was a damp and dismal winter, and practically the entire Corps had stomach sicknesses.
On March 23, 1806, the Lewis and Clark expedition headed east. They returned to the Nez Perce, where they had left their horses, then crossed the mountains. At the Lolo Pass, the leaders split their troops. Lewis headed to the Great Falls of the Missouri River; Clark and Sacagawea to the Yellowstone River. Clark named a large rock formation near the river Pompey’s Pillar; Pompey was the nickname for Sacagawea’s son.
Lewis had a less monumental time; they got into an altercation with Blackfeet warriors, killing two of them. This was the only episode that resulted in indigenous death during the expedition. Lewis’ woes continued, as he was shot in the buttocks soon thereafter.
The men and their groups reunited on August 12, 1806. They bid farewell to Sacagawea and her family at the Mandan villages. Then, they sailed down the Missouri River to St. Louis, where they arrived on September 23.
From Missouri, the leaders traveled to Washington D. C. to report on their findings. They had traversed over 8,000 miles, made a library of maps and accounts (nearly 5,000 pages of journals), returned 120 animal specimens and 200 botanical specimens, and did so with comparatively little violence.
Lewis became the Governor of the Louisiana Territory, while Clark was named Brigadier General of Militia for the Louisiana Territory and a federal Indian Agent. Unfortunately, Lewis became an alcoholic and died of gunshot wounds in 1809. Sacagawea died a few years later; Clark became the guardian of her children. Clark himself lived a successful life and died in 1838.
The publications of the Lewis and Clark expedition
The expedition was a huge success, widely reported upon in the papers of the time. Accounts of the journey were published even before they returned, however. Lewis’ and Clark’s letters were featured in periodicals from Boston to Louisville. Matthew Carey included a paragraph about the expedition in the 1806 edition of John Newbery’s Compendious History of the World (first published in London in 1763). Having received a cache of documents, Jefferson wrote a report to Congress in February 1806; portions of this were printed as broadsides and newspaper articles and then reprinted in whole by Hopkins and Seymour of New York, as well as in London and Natchez, Mississippi.
The first complete account of the expedition came out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Zadok Cramer saw an opportunity; he purchased the journal of Patrick Gass, a Corps member, and flew the journal through printing. Cramer and his partner, David M’Keehan, released the book less than a year after the return of the Corps; they sold their publication rights to J. Budd (London) and Matthew Carey (Philadelphia); the latter published three illustrated editions of the journal.
In 1809, the pseudonymous Hubbard Lester penned a fictitious account that borrowed liberally from other sources. His work included a bogus map riddled with errors. Over the next fifty years, at least eight fictitious or counterfeit Lewis and Clark accounts were offered to readers. The last one appeared in 1846, showing that even these fraudulent accounts found an audience.
More discerning readers had to wait until 1814 for the authorized expedition account. Nicholas Biddle and Paul Allen compiled an abridged version of Lewis and Clark’s journals into a two-volume narrative. Lewis was supposed to have written the account, but his decline and death in 1809 made this impossible. The account also included a detailed map of the American West by Clark, which would remain the gold standard for the northwestern United States until the 1830s.
However, many critics found the lack of a volume dedicated to the botanical and naturalist findings a major detraction of the work. It seems that many Americans already knew the story of the expedition; they wanted more figures, images, and data. This is supported by the fact that most surviving examples of the Biddle/Allen account lack the map; there is some evidence that travelers used it for trans-Mississippi journeys. The Biddle/Allen narrative was printed in many languages worldwide, but it was only reprinted in the US once, in 1842.