The Lewis and Clark Expedition
The Lewis and Clark Expedition: Getting Started
More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase, acquiring 828,000 square miles of land that had originally belonged to France. He paid $15 million dollars for land that is now Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, as well as parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Texas.
At that time, few white people had traveled beyond the Mississippi River. It was a mysterious, untamed wilderness. Jefferson knew that before it could be settled, it needed to be mapped and explored.
- President Jefferson called his private secretary Captain Meriwether Lewis into his office. He asked him to organize an exploration party.
- Lewis agreed and sent a letter to his friend William Clark, who was living in Kentucky. In the letter, Lewis invited Clark to join him on the trip. He said that the goals of the trip were to find a river passage across North America to the Pacific Ocean; to meet and trade with Indian tribes; to discover new plants and animals; and to make new maps.
- Clark took only a day to think about it before saying yes. The exploration was named “The Corps of Discovery.”
- From the beginning, Lewis experienced challenges and discouragements. The boat builders turned out to be a “set of drunkards” and took twelve days just to make the oars and poles. Finally on August 31, the boat was completed and loaded.
- The packing list was simple, but complete. It included 1 Mariner’s compass; 4 tin blowing trumpets; 24 iron spoons; 1 microscope; 1 measuring tape; 6 papers of ink powder; mosquito curtains; 4 metal pens; 15 rifles; 1 lb. blistering ointment; 2 crayons; 1 pair pocket pistols; 30 shirts of strong linen; 6 copper kettles; 4 fishing hooks; 2 pick axes.
- For trading with Indians, the men took silver peace medals; 30 gallons of spirits; 50 pounds of tobacco; 2 dozen tinsel tassels; 100 burning glasses; 6 paper small bells; glass beads, and 12 red silk handkerchiefs.
- Lewis and Clark selected several men to join their group. They chose men with a variety of skills.
- John Ordway was the top sergeant at Camp Wood, Illinois. He joined the permanent party and kept a journal of the trip in case Lewis and Clark’s journals were lost.
- George Drouillard was an expert hunter and woodsman, capable of following the faintest tracks. His mother was a Shawnee Indian who came along as an interpreter.
- York was William Clark’s faithful slave. He was very large and strong.
- Pierre Cruzatte was a professional riverman. He was blind in one eye, was part Omaha Indian, and played the fiddle.
- Joseph and Reubin Field (brothers) were young, energetic, and strong.
- John Shields was the oldest of the men at age 35, but he was a skilled blacksmith and gunsmith.
- George Shannon, age 16, was the youngest member of the group. He joined after his father died in Ohio.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition: Setting Out
The expedition began its journey on May 14, 1804 at 4:00 in the afternoon from Camp Wood near St. Louis. Many of the local residents came to watch the boats set sail. The first few days were mostly uneventful.
- On June 4, the mast got caught in the limb of a sycamore tree and broke.
- On June 5, York swam to a sandbar in the middle of the river. Here he gathered greens for dinner.
- The mosquitoes and ticks were thick and made the men miserable.
- The men did not bring much food along. They had to hunt and forage for their meals. One journal entry describes catching three very large catfish. They also caught turkeys, geese, beaver, and deer. During the summer, finding food was easy. Later in the expedition, the men often went hungry.
- The men were excited to see a great deal of wildlife as they journeyed west. They wrote about prairie dogs, animals they’d never seen before. Wild antelope were plentiful, but shy. One morning, they spotted over 3,000 buffalo.
- They met Indians early on their journey. One evening, members of the Oto and Missouri nations came to camp, including six chiefs. The men gave them roasted meat and the Indians brought watermelon.
- They tried to find the Omaha Indians, but reported that they had not returned to their lands from their buffalo hunt. Over 400 of the group had died from a smallpox epidemic.
- They had dinner with the Sioux Indians and presented the Grand Chief of the Yankton Sioux with a flag and wampum, a hat and a coat. After dinner, the young warriors did a war dance. They were decorated with paint, porcupine quills, and feathers.
- Later, they met with 60 Teton Sioux and presented a medal, a coat, and a hat to the chief, Black Buffalo. The Second Chief Partizan was upset because he said he hadn’t been given enough presents.
- His soldiers seized Lewis and Clark’s boat and said they would kill the men. When Lewis and Clark’s men drew their guns, the Indians retreated. The next morning, the Indian Chiefs and Lewis and Clark’s men made up. They smoked a peace pipe and had a meal together.
- On October 9, they met the Arikaras Indians. These people were fascinated with York because of his dark skin, his size, and his strength. He told them he used to be a bear and then he growled and chased the children, who squealed and giggled. Lewis wrote in his journal that the Arikaras were smart, hardworking, and industrious. They were great farmers, growing corn, beans, squash, and tobacco, and they refused to drink alcohol. They said it made men into fools
Learn more about the Native Americans Lewis and Clark met on their journey.
Lewis and Clark: Fort Mandan
Lewis and Clark knew that traveling during the winter would be almost impossible. In late October, they met the Mandan people on the Missouri River. These Indians were friendly and peaceful. The Corp decided to build a fort there and named it after their friendly neighbors.
- Much of the world was experiencing a mini ice age during this time. Winters were much colder than they are today.
- On November 2, the Corp chose a place for the fort near the river. They began building it the next day from timber found in the forests nearby.
- A man named Toussaint Charbonneau visited them and asked to be hired as an interpreter. He had a wife named Sacagawea. She was kidnapped from the Shoshoni nation when she was ten years old. Charbonneau said that Sacagawea’s tribe lived by the Rocky Mountains and had many horses. Sacagawea would help the Corp trade for the horses.
- The winter was very long and cold. On December 7, 1804, Lewis and 15 men went to hunt buffalo with local Indians. Three of the men came back with severe frostbite.
- On December 17, Lewis recorded the temperature at -45 degrees at sunrise. Brrr!
- On January 10, he recorded the temperature at -40. He said that an Indian man came to the fort. This man had been outside all night with very few clothes on, but wasn’t hurt at all. The people were accustomed to the cold.
- Lewis wrote on March 29, 1805 about how the Indians jumped across the river on small blocks of ice. He was surprised by their strength and skill.
- Corp: short for the Corp of Discovery, the name of Lewis and Clark’s expedition
- Kidnap: to take against one’s will
Questions and Answers
Question: What did the men do during the winter?
Answer: President Jefferson had sent them with a list of over 100 different things to do. They were instructed to look, smell, taste, touch, and observe everything. That winter, some of the men built canoes. Others made rope, clothing, and tools. Some cured meat. Some prepared plant, animal, and rock specimens to send back to Jefferson. Others worked on maps. Sometimes Native Americans or fur traders would visit and dance or tell stories.
Read more about the winter at the Mandan Fort.
Lewis and Clark: Journey Onward
After a long, cold winter, the Corp left Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805. Lewis and Clark knew that they would soon leave the Missouri River and head into the wilderness. They had many exciting adventures and challenges ahead.
- At Fort Mandan, the large boats or barges turned back. The company would be traveling by land frequently now. The barges sailed back to St. Louis with letters to friends and the government. The specimens they’d made over the winter were mailed back to President Jefferson.
- The party that continued forward included 33 people in six small canoes and two larger boats (pirogues). Everyone felt excited but anxious. They were going into territory where no white man had ever been before.
- On May 14, 1805, they were traveling on the river when a small storm stirred up. Charbonneau, the French trader and interpreter, was very frightened. He dropped the rudder and began shrieking and praying, almost tipping the boat over. The boat contained valuable supplies, tools, books, and food. The Bowman, Cruzatte, threatened to shoot Charbonneau if he didn’t calm down. Cruzatte ordered the men to begin bailing water out of the boat, which was near sinking. Charbonneau’s brave wife, the Shoshone Indian, Sacagawea, grabbed most of the materials that were washed overboard—all while holding her infant son.
- On the same evening, the men found a huge brown grizzly bear. Six hunters shot at him. The bear attached them and two men shot him again, only slowing him down for a moment. The bear chased after them again and was so close that the men threw down their guns and jumped into the river. The bear followed them, just a few feet behind one of the men. Finally a man on shore shot the bear again and killed him. It was a close call. The Corp realized that there were safer ways to get meat than hunting bears.
- On June 27, 1805, the men experienced a terrible hail storm, something new to many of them. The hail was the size of pigeon’s eggs, according to Lewis’s journals, and would have killed a man if it had hit him. The men hid under their canoes.
- Pirogue: Long, thin, flat-bottomed canoe or dugout that could slip into narrow places
- Rudder: a flat piece of wood or metal that helps control a boat
Questions and Answers
Question: What did Lewis and Clark think of Charbonneau?
Answer:They thought his wife was his very best asset. Sacagawea was brave, smart, and resourceful. She became one of the most valuable members of the Corp, although she was rarely given the credit she deserved.
Lewis and Clark: Crossing the Rocky Mountains
Lewis and Clark (and Thomas Jefferson) had hoped to discover a Northwest Passage, a system of rivers that would run all the way to the Pacific Ocean, opening up trade with Asia. The Rocky Mountains were a disappointing surprise and the end of their dreams of finding a continental waterway. Crossing the mountains was a tough challenge.
- In late summer of 1805, the Corp began their travels across the mountains. Their journals record that they crossed some of the worst roads imaginable. The sides were steep and some of the roads were still covered with snow. Several of the horses fell and some were crippled. One horse fell a hundred yards into a creek, but was fine.
- They were fascinated to find boiling water coming out of the ground. One person took a bath in the warm water.
- Game was hard to find in the mountains and the men often went hungry. Sometimes they had to kill a horse to have something to eat. In late August, the weather was already cold and snowy.
- Finally they came out of the mountains. A Nez Perce Indian took them to the Grand Chief’s lodge. He drew them a map of the rivers going forward. The men built five dugout canoes and continued on.
- The men traveled down white water rivers in those canoes. One canoe sank and another turned over. They lost their gun powder, some bedding, and much of their food.
- The native people watched from the shores and thought the men were crazy for trying to travel over such dangerous rapids. They hid in their homes. They thought the men were not men, but birds that had fallen from the clouds. They were happy to see Sacagawea because they knew the men were not coming to hurt them. Women never traveled with war parties.
- Cripple: unable to walk
- Rapids: fast-moving, roaring water
Questions and Answers
Question: How did the men build the dugouts?
Answer:the Indians had a clever method. They took a log and hacked it in half. They lit fires in the wood and allowed it to burn most of the wood out, leaving a shell. They continued scraping the wood out to form a boat.
Watch a video
containing Lewis’s own words about how he felt when he first saw the Rocky Mountains.
Lewis and Clark: Headed to Oregon
Lewis and Clark’s company were excited to leave the Rocky Mountains. They passed through Idaho, Washington, and Oregon on the way to the Pacific Ocean.
- The Snake River flowed into the Columbia River, slowing and widening. The group discovered many harbor seals as the river neared the ocean.
- They had salmon for dinner, which Lewis said was the most delicious fish he had ever tasted.
- They observed that the Chinook Indians flattened their babies’ heads with boards so they were long and narrow at the top.
- Lewis wrote that he met a chief who carried in a bag 14 fingers taken from enemies.
- They were impressed with the Chiluckitequaw canoes, which were decorated with intricate carvings and flew swiftly through the waves.
- Ducks, geese, and swans were so numerous that it was hard to sleep at night because of their noise.
- On November 7, 1805, the group sighted the Pacific Ocean and heard its thunderous roar. They were overjoyed!
- They approached the sea and wanted to explore it. The waves were so high that many of the men got seasick. Rainy weather made it hard to hunt or to explore.
Lewis and Clark: The Journey Home
Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean on November 18, 1805. It was too late in the year to head back so they wintered there and left for home the following March, 1806.
- Native Americans showed them a quicker route through the mountains. The group split up to explore the Yellowstone and Marias Rivers.
- Along the way, they had many adventures. Indians tried to steal their horses and guns. Cruzatte shot Lewis in the britches because he mistook him for an elk.
- Clark wrote in his journal that the number of buffalo, elk, and antelope was too many to number. One day, the group had to wait an hour to allow a herd of buffalo to pass.
- Both Spain and England had an interest in the western part of the United States. Spanish forces tried on four different occasions to find and capture Lewis and Clark. They arrived in Nebraska around September 1, and would have pressed forward to find Lewis and Clark if a Pawnee Indian tribe hadn’t stopped them.
- Chief Big White, the Mandan chief, joined the group and visited Thomas Jefferson.
- On September 21, 1806, the men arrived near St. Louis. Many people thought they had died. They were met with cheering crowds.
- The trip had taken more than two years and four months.
- During their journey, Lewis and Clark’s company traveled more than 7,689 miles of rough wilderness. They traveled through prairies, mountains, rivers, and forests. They mapped everything.
- They discovered over 300 new plants and animals previously unknown to science.
- Their exploration allowed America to claim the Pacific Northwest and opened the region to fur traders, settlers, and mountain men.
Lewis and Clark: Sacagawea
Sacagawea earned Lewis and Clark’s respect, but she never received any money or awards for her service. Today we recognize her as one of the most valuable members of the Corps of Discovery.
- The U.S. issued a coin in the year 2000 that shows an American-Indian woman carrying a baby on her back. This woman is Sacagawea.
- Sacagawea was born in 1789 or 1790 in what is now Idaho. She belonged to the Shoshone nation and lived along the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains. Her people camped near the Snake River.
- Her name means “bird woman,” maybe because she was small and had quick movements like a bird. She loved her parents, her two brothers, and her sister.
- Sacagawea didn’t go to school, but she learned how to hunt, find food, make clothing, and other useful skills from her mother. She liked to play games with her friends.
- When she was 10 or 11, she was kidnapped by a Minnetaree warrior and taken to his village 600 miles from her home. A French trader, Charbonneau, traded with the Indians for Sacagawea. She became his wife at the age of 13 or 14. She had her first baby when she was 16.
- Lewis and Clark met Charbonneau and Sacagawea. They gave the fur trader $500 to join them as an interpreter.
- When Sacagawea was about to give birth, she drank a mixture of powdered rattlesnake tail and water, which was supposed to make the birth easier. Her baby was born 10 minutes later! Charbonneau named him Jean Baptiste; Clark called him Pomp.
- As the party traveled west, Sacagawea was happy. She was traveling toward her people. Finally they met her brother and family. Sacagawea was so happy. She helped trade for horses.
- The group was often cold and hungry. Mosquitoes and fleas made them miserable and some of them got sick or injured. Sacagawea was good at finding plants for medicine and food.
- But one time, Sacagawea became very ill. Lewis and Clark were worried. They knew how valuable she was to the group. And who would care for her baby if she died? They took turns caring for her themselves. Finally she got better.
- During the winter of 1806, a whale washed ashore from the Pacific Ocean. Many of the men were excited to go see it, but Sacagawea was not invited. She told Lewis and Clark that it was not fair. She said she had worked hard for the group and should be allowed to go. Clark took her to see the whale.
- Finally the party returned to St. Louis and it was time for Sacagawea to say goodbye to Lewis and Clark.
Questions and Answers
Question: What happened to Sacagawea after the expedition ended?
Answer: Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and their children went back to live at the Mandan Indian village. They got a letter from Clark, who had become very fond of all of them. Clark invited them to come start a farm near St. Louis. The family came for about six months but Charbonneau became restless. He took Sacagawea on a fur-trading trip, but left Pomp with Clark and his wife, Julia. Sacagawea died in 1812 after giving birth. She was 25 years old. Clark and Julia raised both Pomp and Sacagawea’s daughter, Lizette.
Sacagawea wasn’t always given the credit she deserved, but today we know how brave, strong, and resourceful she was. Several lakes are named after her and there are numerous sculptures in her honor.
Lewis and Clark: A Dog Named Seaman
33 people went on the cross country journey known as the Corps of Discovery or the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But none of them were as loved by Lewis as his dog, Seaman.
- Lewis bought Seaman for $20 from a man named John Hansen. Seaman was a Newfoundland, large and black with thick fur and webbed feet. Lewis knew he’d be a good companion for the trip west.
- As the expedition went up the Ohio River, they noticed squirrels swimming across the river. Lewis told Seaman to catch the squirrels. Seaman would jump into the river, swim to the squirrels and bring them back. The men fried the squirrels for supper.
- The group once met some Native Americans who were fascinated with Seaman. Their dog was small, maybe 20 pounds. Seaman was a huge dog, weighing 150 pounds. His thick hair made him seem even bigger. The Indians thought he was a bear. When they realized he was a dog, they wanted to trade for him. Lewis said, “No trade.”
- Another time, the group encountered many beavers along the river. Beaver pelts were valuable. Lewis told Seaman to get the beaver and the dog jumped into the river, swimming toward one of the largest ones. That beaver lashed around and bit Seaman hard in the leg, cutting through an artery. Seaman barely made it back to the boat because he was faint from losing blood. Lewis took him to the shore and cleaned him up. Seaman was very weak. Lewis and Sacagawea cared for him for several days, giving him buffalo broth and meat. Finally he got better.
- One night a buffalo bull charged into camp, headed straight toward a tent where men lay sleeping. He was within 2 feet of their heads and would have crushed them. Seaman wheeled and barked at him. The buffalo stopped, confused, and finally moved on.
- Three Clatsop Indians came one night to steal Seaman. They lured him away with beaver meat and put a rope around his neck. They were headed toward their village when Lewis discovered Seaman was gone. He ordered his men to follow the Indians. If they refused to give Seaman back, Lewis said, “Shoot.” Sure enough, they let Seaman go.
Questions and Answers
Question: What happened to Seaman after the expedition?
Answer:Lewis died just three years after the expedition ended. One record says that Seaman was so sad he refused to eat and died of grief upon his master’s grave.
Read Lewis and Clark and Me: A Dog’s Tale
by Laurie Myers and illustrated by Michael Dooling.
Watch a play
Meriwether Lewis was one of the greatest frontiersmen and adventurers in U.S. history. His men loved him for his courage, strength, and steadfast leadership.
- Meriwether Lewis was born in 1774 to a Virginia planting family. His father fought in the Revolutionary War and died when Meriwether was five years old. Meriwether took over the plantation operations for a while, but joined the militia when he was 20. He quickly became a captain.
- Thomas Jefferson, a family friend, asked Meriwether to be his personal secretary and later asked him to lead the expedition west. Meriwether agreed and spent two years studying biology, botany, mapmaking, and other topics necessary for the journey.
- Meriwether asked William Clark, a friend from the army, to join him on the trip.
- The party set out in 1803 and spent a winter at the Mandan Village.
- Over the next two years, Lewis and his men would travel more than 7,000 miles. They found over 300 previously unknown plants and animals. They met with Native American nations, usually forming friendships and sometimes experiencing conflict.
- Meriwether Lewis was known for his gentle steadiness. He loved his dog Seaman and took personal care of the dog when he was hurt. He also helped care for other members of the group, including Sacagawea.
- People in Washington thought Lewis and his Corps of Discovery had been killed because they were gone so long. People were overjoyed when the group returned home, welcoming them as heroes.
- After the expedition, Meriwether became governor of Louisiana. He struggled in this role and had many discouragements.
- In 1809, while traveling to Washington D.C., he was killed. Even today, historians aren’t sure how he died. Some believe that he had an illness that caused mental distress and instability. They also believe he was taking mercury as medicine, which we now know is poisonous.
William Clark was Meriwether Lewis’s friend and partner on the journey west. He
- William was born in 1770 in Virginia. His family originally came to Virginia in 1630. They were landowners, gentlemen, and frontiersmen.
- Even though William’s family lived on the rough frontier, they enjoyed a fairly civilized life, similar to the lives of English aristocrats at the time. They attended balls, fox hunts, and community events. William’s older brothers studied literature, mathematics, Latin, and geography—a classical education.
- The family moved to Louisville, Kentucky in 1784. Now they were really in the Wild West. William was unable to complete the formal education his brothers had enjoyed.
- His family had a long history of accomplished military service. William joined the army in 1789, protecting colonists from Indian attacks in Kentucky.
- It was here that he met Meriwether Lewis, who served under him. The two became good friends.
- William retired from the army in 1796 and inherited land and slaves when his father died three years later. One of the slaves was York, who later joined the expedition west.
- William and Meriwether kept in touch and Clark was thrilled when Meriwether invited him to join the expedition.
- William traveled over 2,000 miles on the expedition. He was an expert mapmaker and frontiersman. His steadfastness and solid leadership allowed the group to return home safely. On the trip, he became very fond of Pomp, Sacagawea’s son and eventually adopted him.
- William came home a hero. The government gave him 1,500 acres of land and $1,200.
- William married Julia Hancock. He had met her when she was twelve and decided to marry her when she was fifteen. They finally married in 1808.
- Lewis died in 1809. William took on the work of compiling and publishing the journals from the expedition. He also became the governor of Louisiana. He was also the superintendent of Indian Affairs. He kept both positions almost until his death.
- William and Julia had five children. He was devastated when she died in 1820, but later married her cousin and had two more children. He named one of his sons after Meriwether Lewis.
- William died in 1838.
Lewis and Clark: York
William Clark is well-remembered for leading the Corps of Discovery, but there were many other men who played quiet, but important, roles. One of those men was named York and he and William Clark were childhood friends.
- York was born on the plantation owned by William Clark’s father. York was named after his father, York.
- He was probably William’s playmate and it’s likely that they rode horses, fished, and swam in the streams of Virginia together.
- When York was 12, he became William’s personal servant.
- Unlike many slaves who spent their days in the fields caring for crops, York lived in the Clark home. He had good food, shoes, and clothing.
- He could not read or write. It was illegal in those days to teach a slave to read.
- In 1785, York moved with the Clark family to a new plantation in Kentucky. Everyone helped clear land, plant crops, and build the house, barn, and cabins for the slaves. It was hard work.
- York had to protect the Clark family from Indians and learned to shoot a gun.
- When William left for the military, York stayed behind working on the plantation. William returned and once again, York became his personal servant. In 1800, York fell in love with and married a slave from a nearby plantation. Since records weren’t kept on slaves then, we have no knowledge of her name or if the couple had children.
- When Lewis and Clark organized the expedition, they looked for strong, rugged men. William knew York would be a good choice. As a slave, York couldn’t refuse William’s request. He had to go.
- The company set out in May, 1804. They had many challenges with Indians, mosquitoes, disease, cold weather, and accidents.
- William wrote in his journal that York swam to a sandbar sitting in the middle of the Missouri River to gather some watercress for dinner. The men ate mostly meat and were probably happy to have some greens.
- York also cared for Sergeant Charles Floyd when he became ill.
- York killed two buffalo during a hunt.
- The Native Americans had never seen a black man. They were astonished by his dark skin and his large size. He pretended to be a bear and chased the children, making them laugh and squeal. They loved York. They considered him a powerful warrior, stronger than the white men.
- In November, the group voted on whether they would build a fort for the winter near the Pacific Ocean or try to travel back to Washington. Everyone in the group voted, including York and Sacagawea. During this time, slaves and women were generally not allowed to vote, but everyone had a say in this group.
- York traded with the Nez Perce Indians for food during that long, cold, hungry winter. He traded some small items like buttons for three bushels of edible roots and some bread. Lewis was very happy!
Questions and Answers
Question: What happened to York after the Corps of Discovery?
Answer:Unfortunately, William was a product of his time and did not treat York very fairly. York received no pay for his part in the expedition and he was forced to go to St. Louis with William, separated from his wife. Later he went to work on the Kentucky farm and probably never saw his wife again. Clark did give York his freedom about 10 years after the expedition but it was very hard for York to make a living.