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Lewis and Clark Expedition

The Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806) was the first American overland expedition to the Pacific coast and back. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 sparked the interest of United States expansion to the west coast. A few weeks after the purchase, United States President, Thomas Jefferson, an advocate of western expansion, had Congress appropriate $2500, "to send intelligent officers with ten or twelve men, to explore even to the western ocean." They were to study the Indian tribes, botany, geology and wildlife in the region. He selected Captain Meriwether Lewis to lead the expedition, known as the Corps of Discovery; Lewis selected William Clark as his lieutenant.

The group, consisting of 33 members, departed from Camp Dubois and began their historic journey on May 14, 1804. They soon met-up with Lewis in Saint Louis, Missouri and the approximately forty men followed the Missouri River westward (On August 20, 1804 The Corps of Discovery suffered its first and only death when Sergeant Charles Floyd died, apparently from acute appendicitis). The group followed the Missouri through what is now Kansas City, Missouri and Omaha, Nebraska, crossed the Rocky Mountains and descended by the Clearwater River, the Snake River, and the Columbia River through what is now Portland, Oregon until they reached the Pacific Ocean in the summer of 1805. The explorers started their journey home on March 23, 1806 and arrived on September 23.

In the Ken Burns documentary aired on PBS about Lewis and Clark, historian Stephen E. Ambrose, author of the book "Undaunted Courage" about the expedition, compared the significance and impact of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to Americans of that era to the American landing on the moon for subsequent generations. The expedition not only answered questions about vast uncharted areas of North America (everything between the Missouri River in North Dakota to Mount Hood in western Oregon) but also gave Americans an electrifying sense of the vastness of their new country after the Louisiana Purchase and America's almost limitless natural resources and potential as an emergent nation. He also views the expedition as a quintessimal America saga, with a cast of characters that included a French Canadian trapper, the Indian woman Sacajawea who carried her infant throughout the trip, President Thomas Jefferson, the heroic personalities and comaraderie of both Captain Lewis and Captain Clark, a platoon of American soldiers reminiscent of Rogers Rangers, the muscular Black American servant of Lewis named York, colorful Indian tribes (Sioux, Mandans, Nez Perce, Blackfeet), Captain Lewis' shaggy dog, numerous close shaves with death for everyone on the expedition, quick "think-on-your-feet" diplomatic innovation to defuse hostility and enlist the support of exotic tribes, scientific observation of awe-inspiring naturalistic phenomenon, a case of close combat with Indians, encounters with grizzly bears, harrowing navigation of wild rivers amidst magnificent scenery, and a difficult passage through the snow clad Bitterroot Mountains of Western Montana and Idaho. Despite all the trials, tribulations, and close calls, the expedition did not lose a person between North Dakota and Oregon and the return trip. "Undaunted Courage" reads like real life imitating Hollywood, which makes it all the more surprising that Hollywood has never made a feature motion picture about the epic journey.

A contemporary explorer was Zebulon Pike (as in Pikes Peak) who in 1805-1807 traveled from the upper Mississippi River down to the Spanish territories near the Rocky Mountains.

Accomplishments of the Expedition


See also: History of United States

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