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Lewis and Clark For Dummies

From Lewis and Clark For Dummies by Sammye J. Meadows, Jana Prewitt

Lewis and Clark's exploration of the West remains one of the best stories in American History. The first European-Americans to venture west of the Mississippi had quite an adventure — partly because Lewis and Clark surrounded themselves with a cast of unusual characters to take with them, and partly because of the momentous sights they discovered and remarkable Native Americans they met during the voyage. A timeline of events from the expedition reveals some of Lewis and Clark's more remarkable discoveries.

Lewis and Clark's Unforgettable Adventure

The Lewis and Clark story is proof that sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction: A melancholic presidential secretary and a genial frontiersman leading three dozen young Euro-American men, a handful of French-Canadians, a black slave, an Indian girl, her infant child, and a large dog on a voyage to find an all-water route across a vast, uncharted continent to a faraway ocean.

With only their wits, frontier skills, and significant tribal assistance to guide them and keep them alive, this group trekked thousands of miles on foot, by canoe, and on horseback, carrying or dragging tons of supplies and trade goods from one Indian village to the next.

Lewis and Clark's route: To the Pacific and back.
Lewis and Clark's route: To the Pacific and back.

After dozens of near-fatal mistakes and mishaps and 28 months of hardship and deprivation (long after they'd been given up for dead), they returned having suffered only three casualties — one of their own to death by natural causes and two Blackfeet Indians killed in a gun and knife fight.

Lewis and Clark had remarkable skills and luck. They seemed to find whatever they needed at just the right time — tribes willing to guide them, transportation to get them to their next destination, the instincts and reflexes to overcome the next threat (heat stroke, grizzly bear attack, malaria, gunshot wound, and a flash flood). When their skill gave out, they relied on luck. And when their luck gave out, they mustered the will to "proceed on," which became their watchwords.

Primary Members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

One of the reasons that the story of Lewis and Clark and their journey continues to fascinate people today is its large and colorful cast. Of the 40-some on the Lewis and Clark expedition, here are a few of the most memorable:

  • The brilliant but troubled Meriwether Lewis. After finishing school, Lewis joined the Army, where drinking and unruly behavior got him transferred to a company of elite sharpshooters, whose captain was William Clark. The two respected one another and became friends. Lewis was promoted to lieutenant in 1799 and gained a reputation for honesty and thoroughness, but also for vanity and occasional melancholia.

    Just before his inauguration in 1801, Thomas Jefferson appointed Lewis to serve as his private secretary, and Lewis moved to the White House. When Jefferson got congressional approval to fund an exploration of the West, the president appointed Lewis to lead it. At the time he was chosen to command the expedition, Meriwether Lewis was 29 years old, 6-feet tall, physically tough, smart, adventurous, ambitious, resourceful, organized, and determined. He knew how to lead men. But Lewis was not a perfect hero: He drank too much; he had a temper that he had trouble controlling; and he suffered from periodic bouts of severe depression.

            Meriwether Lewis
            Meriwether Lewis

    In June, perhaps suspecting his own limitations, Lewis asked William Clark to share command of the expedition. Clark enthusiastically accepted, and thus began one of the greatest partnerships in American history.

  • Out-going and rock-steady survivalist, William Clark. Clark never received a formal education like Lewis did, but was educated at home by his older brothers. The creative spelling in his expedition journals showed his lack of formal training. His education in wilderness skills, on the other hand, was supreme.

    He was gregarious, level-headed, curious, dependable, good at mapmaking and drawing, and faithful in recording the day-to-day events in his journal. But he wasn't perfect. Like Lewis, Clark could lose his temper. He used his influence with the tribes against their interests, and he sometimes beat his slave York.

    William Clark
    William Clark

    Clark was 6-feet tall, red-headed, popular, and tough. He was a commanding figure, and a few years older than Lewis.

  • Sacagawea, the Shoshone Indian, child bride, and mother. One of the most famous Native Americans in U.S. history, Sacagawea was about 12 years old when raiding Hidatsa Indians from present day North Dakota captured her (according to Lewis's journal). The Hidatsas transported her across the plains and eventually sold Sacagawea and another captive Shoshone girl in marriage to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader.

    Lewis and Clark hired Charbonneau as an interpreter, and when they learned that one of his wives spoke both Hidatsa and Shoshone, they selected her to accompany them to the Pacific

  • Sacagawea's un-heroic husband, Toussaint Charbonneau. Lewis and Clark thought him to be of little merit, except as a cook. Charbonneau was not a good boatman, he panicked easily in a crisis, and Clark berated him once for striking Sacagawea.

  • Sacajawea's infant, born on the expedition, Jean Baptiste. Clark nicknamed him Pomp ("little dancing boy") and started carrying the toddler on his shoulders as the expedition proceeded along.

  • York, Clark's humorous and dignified slave since childhood. He was a big man, a fine marksman, a good cook, and a strong swimmer. During the journey west, York carried a gun, and he hunted and functioned as an equal with the other men of the expedition.

    The Indians who encountered the expedition were in awe of York's size, his nimbleness as a dancer, and especially his black skin. Suspecting that York had spiritual powers, the Arikaras called him "Big Medison" ("paint that won't rub off").

  • The civilian jack-of-all-trades, George Drouillard. He was the expedition's best hunter, scout, woodsman, and interpreter of Indian sign language. Drouillard brought great skill, endurance, and judgment to the expedition during dangerous times. George Drouillard was born in French Canada, the son of Pierre Drouillard and a Shawnee mother.

  • The one-eyed fiddler, Cruzatte. Cruzatte was recruited for his navigational skills and his command of the French and Omaha languages.

    His music had a direct impact on the success of the expedition: It served as a critical survival tool, both as a form of entertainment and recreation for the members of the expedition and as a way of establishing trust and good will with the Indian nations the travelers encountered along the trail.

  • Lewis's Newfoundland dog, Seaman. The Indians sometimes offered to buy him, and at one point, some Chinooks stole him, and in a rage Lewis stopped everything and threatened to burn villages in order to get him back. The big dog kept buffalo bulls and grizzly bears away from camp. Seaman caught beaver, squirrels, and even an antelope, all of which the expedition eagerly cooked for supper.

        A Newfoundland dog
        A Newfoundland dog

    Even in the hungriest of times on the trail, Seaman was taken care of, and when the expedition was reduced to eating dogs that they bartered from the Indians, Seaman never became dinner.

Noteworthy Native Americans that Lewis and Clark Encountered

Many Native American tribes gave the Lewis and Clark expedition shelter, food, transportation, guides, maps, directions, and advice. Several individual Native Americans also stand out in their efforts to help the explorers:

  • The wise and proud Teton Sioux leader, Black Buffalo, who saved the mission by diffusing tensions between his people and the expedition at the mouth of the Bad River.

  • Compassionate Cameahwait, leader of a starving band of Shoshones, who delayed a buffalo hunt (although his people needed the meat for survival) in order to help the first white men they had ever seen.

  • Cheerful, sincere Twisted Hair, who, with two of his sons, helped Clark find good timber for making canoes.

  • Generous Sheheke of the Mandan tribe, who took the Americans in for the winter, saying "If we eat, you shall eat; if we starve, you must starve also."

  • Watkuweis, an elderly Nez Perce woman, who saved the expedition from slaughter by telling her tribe to "do them no hurt."

  • Old Toby, a Shoshone, who guided them west across the Bitterroot Mountains (a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains).

  • Unknown and unsung Shoshone women who helped transport the expedition's bags.

Key Dates of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

The Lewis and Clark expedition (at the time known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition), was the first American exploration of what is now the western portion of the United States. Lewis and Clark departing from St. Louis, Missouri, in 1804 and went all the way to the Pacific coast.

January 18, 1803

Thomas Jefferson sends a secret communication to Congress seeking authorization for the expedition. A $2,500 appropriation is requested.

April 1803

Napoleon offers to sell the Louisiana Territory to United States.

Spring 1803

Meriwether Lewis, chosen as commander of the expedition, goes to Philadelphia to study botany, zoology, medicine, and celestial navigation with the nation's leading scientists.

Lewis invites William Clark to share command of expedition, and Clark accepts.

July 4–5, 1803

The Louisiana Purchase (for $15 million) is announced, adding 828,000 square miles to the United States and nearly doubling the current size of the country.

Lewis leaves Washington for Pittsburgh to oversee construction of a keelboat.

Summer 1803

Lewis purchases a Newfoundland dog for $20 to take on the expedition.

Lewis takes the keelboat down the Ohio River, stopping at Falls of the Ohio to pick up Clark and nine recruits.

October 1803

Lewis and Clark proceed down the Ohio River from Clarksville, Indiana, with his recruits and with York, Clark's slave since childhood.

December 1803

Lewis and Clark establish Camp Dubois (also known as Camp Wood) for the winter on the east bank of the Mississippi River, where they recruit and train more men.

March 10, 1804

Lewis and Clark attend ceremonies in St. Louis that celebrate the transfer of the upper Louisiana Territory from France to the United States.

May 14, 1804

Clark and the expedition set out from Camp Dubois for St. Charles, Missouri.

May 21, 1804

Lewis and a small company leave on horseback from St. Louis, bound for St. Charles.

July 1804

The expedition marks the nation's first Independence Day celebration west of the Mississippi near today's Atkinson, Kansas.

Private Alexander Willard is court-martialed for falling asleep on duty and is sentenced to four sets of 100 lashes.

August 3, 1804

The expedition holds its first meeting and council with western Indians, the Oto and Missouri.

August 20, 1804

Near today's Sioux City, Iowa, Sergeant Charles Floyd dies, probably from a ruptured appendix.

August 30, 1804

The expedition holds friendly council with Yankton Sioux near today's Yankton, South Dakota.

September 25, 1804

A stand-off between Teton Sioux and the expedition ensues after the tribe demands a toll to proceed upriver. Leader Black Buffalo defuses the tension.

October 24, 1804

The expedition reaches Mandan and Hidatsa villages. Lewis and Clark decide to build their second winter fort across from the main Mandan village, about 50 miles north of today's Bismarck, North Dakota.

November 4, 1804

Lewis and Clark hire Toussaint Charbonneau, French-Canadian fur trader, as interpreter. He brings along Sacagawea, one of his wives and a teenage mother-to-be who is a Shoshone living with the Hidatsa.

February 11, 1805

Sacagawea gives birth to a baby boy, Jean Baptiste, with Lewis assisting the delivery.

April 7, 1805

The big keelboat and ten men are sent back downriver, along with plant and animal specimens, maps, reports, and Indian artifacts destined for President Jefferson.

The permanent party, including Sacagawea and her baby, resume the westward voyage in two pirogues (flat-bottomed wooden boats) and six dugout canoes.

April 29, 1805

In today's eastern Montana, the Corps is dumbfounded by the abundance of wildlife, including buffalo herds that number tens of thousands of animals.

The Corps encounters its first grizzly bear, a species unknown to early Americans.

May 3, 1805

The expedition reaches the White Cliffs of the Missouri River, near today's Big Sandy, Montana, and described as "seens of visionary inchantment."

June 13, 1805

Lewis arrives at the Great Falls of the Missouri, the "grandest sight [he] ever beheld." It takes a month to portage around these falls.

Late July 1805

The expedition reaches the headwaters (the official start) of the Missouri River. Sacagawea recognizes the place where she was captured by the Hidatsas five years earlier.

August 12, 1805

The shipment to Jefferson arrives in Washington, D.C.

Lewis climbs to Lemhi Pass, on what is now the Idaho-Montana border. He expects to see a plain and a river on the other side of the summit, but instead he finds nothing but more mountains.

August 17, 1805

Lewis finds the Shoshone tribe and negotiates for horses. The Shoshone leader, Cameahwait, turns out to be Sacagawea's brother. The spot is named Camp Fortunate.

August 31, 1805

The expedition leaves the Shoshones and heads north toward the Bitterroot Mountains, guided by a Shoshone that Lewis and Clark call Old Toby.

September 11–22, 1805

The expedition ascends into the Bitterroot Mountains in what is now the panhandle of Idaho, traveling for 11 days and nearly starving before emerging in the territory of the Nez Perce Native Americans.

Late September 1805

On the advice of an elderly Nez Perce woman named Watkuweis, the Nez Perce decide to befriend and not kill the Corps.

October 7, 1805

In five canoes that they build under the guidance of the Nez Perce, the expedition pushes off downstream on the Clearwater River.

October 16, 1805

The expedition reaches the Columbia River, which is teeming with salmon.

November 7, 1805

Twenty miles from the Pacific Ocean, Clark writes "Ocian in View! O! the Joy."

November 24, 1805

The Corps of Discovery, including Sacagawea and York, vote on where to spend the winter. The majority decide to build a fort on the south side of the Columbia.

December 1805

As a winter camp, the Corps members build Fort Clatsop (named after the local tribe) that sits near today's Astoria, Oregon.

January 4, 1806

In Washington, D.C., Jefferson welcomes a delegation of Missouri, Oto, Arikara, and Yankton Sioux leaders.

March 23, 1806

The Corps presents Fort Clatsop to the Clatsop leader, Coboway, and they set out for home.

May–late June 1806

The expedition waits in Nez Perce country for the snow to melt in the Bitterroot Mountains before trying to cross.

July 3, 1806

The expedition splits into two groups, Clark taking a group down the Yellowstone and Lewis heading to Great Falls and the northernmost reaches of the Marias River.

July 25, 1806

Clark names a sandstone hill on the Yellowstone River "Pompy's Tower" after Sacagawea's son's nickname, and Clark inscribes his name and the date on it. This is now the site of Pompey's Pillar National Monument in central Montana.

July 26 and 27, 1806

Lewis and three men camp with some Blackfeet youths and in the morning, the Blackfeet attempt to take their horses and guns. In the fight that follows, two Blackfeet are killed.

August 12, 1806

The expedition is united on the Missouri downstream from the mouth of the Yellowstone River.

Mid-August 1806

The expedition arrives back at the Mandan villages. Lewis and Clark say goodbye to Sacagawea, Jean Baptiste, and Charbonneau.

Early September 1806

Covering 70 miles a day, the expedition speeds through Teton Sioux country, stopping only to exchange some harsh words with the Native Americans who tried to block them on the trip westward.

September 20, 1806

The expedition cheers the sight of a cow and reaches La Charette.

September 23, 1806

The expedition reaches St. Louis completing a trek of two years, 4 months, 10 days.

October 11, 1809

Meriwether Lewis commits suicide at Grinder's Stand, an inn south of Nashville, Tennessee.

December 20, 1812

Sacagawea dies at Fort Manuel, in today's South Dakota.

Exact date unknown, 1832

York dies of cholera (it's believed), having been free for approximately 15 years.

September 1, 1838

William Clark dies at the home of his eldest son, Meriwether Lewis Clark.

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