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By Harold P. Howard
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 1971 University of Oklahoma Press
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The Expedition Sets Out
The Lewis and Clark Expedition was a favorite project of President Thomas Jefferson. He had dreamed of this journey of exploration long before 1803, when his emissaries managed to buy the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon I of France for fifteen million dollars.
Before he received congressional approval of the Louisiana Purchase, and almost before the ink was dry on the document of sale, Jefferson set in motion his plan to explore the vast wilderness northwest of the Mississippi River. The land included in the Louisiana Purchase extended to the western border of what is now Montana. He expected the explorers to go beyond the limits of the newly acquired territory, and he hoped that they would find a traversable land or land-and-river route to the Pacific Ocean.
Jefferson had already decided who would lead this proposed expedition—Captain Meriwether Lewis, whom Jefferson first employed as his secretary in anticipation of the expedition. Captain Lewis in turn had already decided whom he wanted to share the command if he could be persuaded to go—Captain William Clark, the younger brother of the famed Revolutionary War general George Rogers Clark, Lewis wrote to Clark from Washington on June 19, 1803, and received a favorable reply from Kentucky on July 26. Lewis insisted upon joint command of the expedition, wanting Clark to have authority equal to his own and to share equally in all decisions.
The expedition assembled in the fall of 1803 near St. Louis, Missouri, a village then consisting of just three streets. To begin with, the party numbered, besides the two captains, nine young Kentucky volunteers; fourteen soldiers, also volunteers; two French rivermen; one hunter; and Clark's Negro servant, York. To accompany them by water as far as the Mandan Indian villages in what is now North Dakota, nine more boatmen were employed, along with seven more soldiers. Winter quarters were established at Wood River on the eastern side of the Mississippi, opposite the mouth of the Missouri.
Jefferson's instructions said: "The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, & such principal streams of it, as by its course & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent, for the purpose of commerce." Lewis and Clark were expected to learn about the Indians, draw maps, find specimens of everything new to them—minerals, trees, flowers, animals, birds—and keep journals. Their cataloguing of these discoveries, and much more, is incredibly detailed. For the journey the explorers received altogether a niggardly appropriation of twenty-five-hundred dollars from Congress. Fortunately, they were able to draw on army depots for additional supplies.
The materials most necessary for the expedition were divided into bales and boxes, one box containing a little of everything in the case of accidents. The men packed clothing, fine instruments, tools, locks, flints, powder, ammunition, medicines, and articles of a critical nature in seven bales and one reserve box. To these were added fourteen bales and one box of Indian presents—fancy coats, medals, flags, knives, tomahawks, ornaments, looking glasses, handkerchiefs, paints, and beads. The heaviest single item was lead for bullets. Spirits and tobacco were also included.
The party pulled away from the Wood River base on May 14, 1804, and proceeded up the Missouri River past a few small settlements. Very infrequently were they entirely waterborne, since some members of the party usually walked along the shore. The plan was to go up the Missouri to its headwaters, which were thought to be several thousand miles away, and then strike off across the mountains, if necessary, to find a river leading to the Pacific Ocean.
For this water journey the men had procured a fifty-five-foot keelboat with a small sail and twenty-two oars. The men added two boats called pirogues, forty to fifty feet long, twelve feet wide, pointed at the prow, and square-sterned. Two horses, for hunting or carrying meat, were led or ridden along the banks of the river. The party pulled, poled, rowed, or sailed the boats up the river, always against the current.
The difference between this expedition and earlier and subsequent efforts to make the transcontinental journey was that the Lewis and Clark Expedition was well equipped and well planned. At times it would seem that there was too much baggage and that too much time was spent taking notes. But the result of the expedition was the opening of a land-and-river route across the United States—not the best or the shortest, but a good one—and the accumulation of a wealth of scientific information. The captains also drew the first good maps of the region.
A comparison of the Lewis and Clark trip, which was made into a completely unknown area, with the Astorians' trip of 1811, seven years later, points up how well Lewis and Clark managed. The Astorians tried to make the trip partly by water and partly by land, and they nearly failed to reach their destination, although Lewis and Clark had opened the way.
Another reason for the success of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was the alertness of the leaders. They always posted guards, and they seemed to be able to anticipate trouble. Lewis brought along his big Newfoundland, Seaman, who proved useful as a watchdog and hunter. Most of the Indian tribes ate dog meat, and Lewis and Clark did too; at times they even considered it a delicacy. But because of his value to the expedition Scannon never became a stew, and once a search party was sent out to find him when he was stolen by Indians.
Sir Alexander Mackenzie, an intrepid Scottish explorer, had reached the Pacific Ocean through the Canadian Rockies about a dozen years before the Americans arrived there. Responsible for only a boatload of men, Mackenzie followed such a mountainous route that it could not be developed. Although he moved 17,500 miles up and down Canadian rivers and another 500 miles on foot, he collected little scientific information, and by comparison with Lewis and Clark's journals his reports make dull reading.
Mackenzie's home base was at Lake Athabasca, near the Canadian Rockies, to which he could repair when he went in the wrong direction in his search for the Pacific Ocean. Mackenzie went northwest in 1789, all the way up the river that now bears his name and to the Arctic Ocean. In 1792 he explored the Peace River and found a short portage route across the mountains, reaching the Pacific above Vancouver Island, but no highway follows that route today.
Lewis and Clark were expected to succeed the first time, and the key to their success was skillful preparation. To begin with, they made few mistakes in calculating the amount of supplies necessary. One of their misjudgments was to carry too few blue beads, which the far-western Indian tribes cherished. Another was to haul halfway across the continent an iron framework for a boat, which Lewis planned to cover with skins or bark. The idea was a failure. Otherwise, the leaders' logistics were infallible. One of their most important precautions was to take along a full assortment of gun parts, even though they started with new guns. They lost some supplies, but accidents could not be foreseen or avoided.
In preparing for the rest of their journey, the captains made several fortunate decisions after they reached the Mandan villages, thereby proving they were good geographers who made no serious errors in their route.
The journey did not become a true exploration until the explorers reached the Mandans. All of the lower part of the Missouri River had been traveled by traders. The explorers passed through regions (later to be part of ten states of the United States), starting by crossing what is now the state of Missouri. From the west edge of the Missouri, the river flows from the north between Missouri and Iowa, between Missouri and Nebraska for a short stretch, and between Iowa and Nebraska. At the southeastern tip of South Dakota the river angles northwest into North Dakota, and near present-day Bismarck it passes through what was then the land of the Mandans and the Hidatsas.
The diaries kept by members of the expedition call attention to storms, heat, sandbars, snags, and treacherous currents, but in the early stages of their journey (across present-day Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas) they also remark on the beauty and richness of the countryside beyond the Missouri River bluffs.
The adventurers met few Indians and fewer white traders on their laborious trip upriver. To the Indians they gave variations of their "Great White Father" speech, urging them to discard Spanish and French medals and flags and to accept American medals and flags. Before they reached the Mandans, lack of an interpreter handicapped them.
There were some lapses of discipline. The "Corps of Discovery" was not yet a tightly integrated group. In each instance the captains court-martialed the offending men and flogged them when necessary. Before long the men were under military control. There was one death, early in the journey, the only death throughout the course of the expedition. Sergeant Charles Floyd, of Kentucky, died on August 20, 1804, near present-day Sioux City, Iowa, probably from a ruptured appendix and peritonitis. The captains named a river for him, and today a monument to him stands in the vicinity.
The first crisis that threatened the progress of the expedition began on September 25 and continued for three days. A series of confrontations took place with the warlike Teton Sioux in what is now south-central South Dakota. The captains slept little during this crisis. Trouble was expected with the Indians, and the men were prepared for it, for the Sioux had stopped earlier trading parties and had forced them to dispose of their goods for little or nothing.
On September 25, Lewis and Clark faced the Sioux, turning swivel guns on them. The following three days were mostly anticlimactic, and from that time on the Tetons did not molest them.
On October 27 the expedition reached the Five Villages of the Mandans in North Dakota. In the 1730's the Mandans had lived in the region around present-day Bismarck. It was there that white men first encountered them. They later retreated upriver about sixty miles to avoid the Sioux. Lewis and Clark found them near the mouth of the Knife River. Besides a village of Mandans there were two villages of Hidatsas and a settlement of relatives of the latter, whom the journals refer to as "Wettersoons." These Indians had substantial, livable dwellings, lodges made of timber, sunk partly into the ground and covered with thick roofs of earth. Most important, they were friendly.CHAPTER 2
The Journals and Diaries
In accordance with President Jefferson's instructions, everyone on the Lewis and Clark Expedition was urged to keep a diary. Besides the two captains, apparently three of the twenty-three privates and four sergeants did so. The members of the party had been selected for their ability to withstand the rigors of life on the trail, rather than for their writing ability. Sometimes it was more important to kill game or find one's way back to camp than to compose a narrative or keep a diary. It must have been a great effort not only to write by firelight at the end of a difficult day's travel but also to protect notes from the elements.
The journal that Captain Clark kept is more nearly complete than that of Captain Lewis. It contains a daily record for all but ten days of the entire journey (a single entry covers those ten days). The records of 441 days of the expedition are missing from Lewis' journal. Often the two captains' records parallel each other, occasionally making it appear that one of the men copied from the other's log—borrowing perhaps made necessary by accident or illness.
Privates Joseph Whitehouse, Robert Frazier (or Frazer), and George Shannon recorded some of their experiences. Whitehouse's writings cover the period from May 14, 1804, to November 6,1805. His journal was given to someone who later sold it to a private collector in 1894. Reuben Gold Thwaites, the famed Wisconsin historian, found and purchased the Whitehouse journal in the early 1900's. Frazier's diary was lost, and only a few of his maps were found.
The journal of one of the four sergeants, Nathaniel Pryor, was also lost. Sergeant Charles Floyd kept a faithful record until his death on August 20, 1804, mentioned earlier. His journal, lost for eighty-five years, was found by Thwaites in 1895. Patrick Gass, who was elected sergeant after Floyd's death and who had attended school only fourteen days in his life, kept a journal that was edited and embellished by a schoolmaster and published in 1807. It gives a great deal of useful information about the expedition.
The journal of Sergeant John Ordway, for many years believed lost, was also found by Thwaites. Parts of it were owned by the heirs of Captain Clark, and other parts eventually became part of the Nicholas Biddle estate. Biddle, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer, publisher, and diplomat, edited the notes for the first official narrative of Lewis and Clark's travels, having been persuaded to do so by Captain Clark. Biddle's work was completed by Paul Allen, a writer whom he asked to assist him. George Shannon, one of the privates who kept a diary, was employed to help Biddle and Allen interpret the notes. Biddle was a well-educated scholar, and he was thorough. He could write in Latin as well as English, and when he found descriptions of Indian rituals offensive, he put them in Latin in his narrative, although his notes are in English.
Ordway fortunately bridges most of the gaps left by the other diarists. He was one of the better educated of the enlisted men. He guarded his manuscript carefully through the whole arduous journey, keeping it inside his shirt most of the time. Eventually he sold it to Clark for ten dollars.
After the expedition Gass's diary, published in 1810, was the first to be published. Lewis' untimely death in 1809 delayed publication of an "official" account of the expedition, which was finally issued in 1814 in two volumes and became known as the Biddle edition. Two thousand copies were to have been printed, but only fourteen hundred copies were actually issued. As far as the records show, Biddle never received any payment for his work.
The Biddle edition was re-edited in 1893 with many notes by Elliott Coues, an army surgeon, naturalist, and surveyor from New Hampshire. Coues retraced many miles of the Lewis and Clark trail, and his geographical notes are of great interest, although he tended to overedit the diaries.
In the years 1904–1906, Thwaites, secretary of the Wisconsin Historical Society, published his eight-volume work on Lewis and Clark, including everything then available on the expedition, in addition to scientific notes and letters, in unabridged form.CHAPTER 3
Sacajawea Comes to Visit
"We commence building our cabins," Clark wrote on November 3, 1804. The day before he had gone downriver from the Mandan village where they had stopped to look for a suitable campsite with timber nearby. On November 4, Clark mentioned visitors: "A Mr Chaubonie, interpeter for the Gross Ventre nation Came to See us, and informed that [he] came Down with Several Indians from a hunting expedition up the river, to here what we had told the Indians in Council this man wished to hire as an interpiter."
Thus is introduced Toussaint Charbonneau, Sacajawea's French-Canadian husband. The "Several Indians" referred to by Clark included at least two Indian women. Ordway wrote on the same day: "Frenchman's squaw came to our camp who belongs to the Snake nation. She came with our interpreter's wife and brought with them four buffalo robes and gave them to our officers." The interpreter was a French Canadian named Réné Jussome, a local trader and a friend of Charbonneau's. Jussome was the first interpreter hired by Lewis and Clark, and it is likely that his wife and Sacajawea were the visitors to the camp.
Charbonneau, well known to the Indians of the region, had lived among them for about eight years. Before that he had been with the Northwest Fur Company, and in 1803 he had been at Fort Pembina. The Indians regarded him with some amusement, and through the years they gave him several nicknames, most of them derisive.
Excerpted from Sacajawea by Harold P. Howard. Copyright © 1971 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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