Lewis, Clark, and the Woman on the Dollar Coin

Even before the purchase of the Louisiana territory was a done deal, Jefferson had a hankering to send an expedition west. So in late 1803, he appointed a 29-year-old army officer named Meriwether Lewis to lead a group to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis, who was Jefferson’s former private secretary, enlisted a friend and former army colleague named William Clark as his co-captain.

[Credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS]
Credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS

Their mission was to find a good route to the Pacific through the mountains, open the area to American fur trading, and gather as much scientific information as they could. Accompanied by a force of 34 soldiers, 10 civilians, and Seaman, Lewis’s big Newfoundland dog, the expedition left St. Louis in 1804.

One of the civilians was a French trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau, who served as an interpreter with the Native Americans. Another was Charbonneau’s wife, a Shoshone Indian named Sacajawea. Sacajawea, who was also known as Birdwoman, gave birth to a son on the expedition and ended up carrying him on her back much of the way.

She was the star of the trip. Not only did she know many of the tribes’ customs, but her presence with an otherwise all-male group also helped convince Native Americans that the tourists’ goals were peaceful. For her efforts, 196 years later, Sacajawea’s image was chosen for the U.S. dollar coin that was first issued in early 2000.

The expedition trekked up the Missouri River through what are now the Dakotas and then took a left turn through Montana, Idaho, and Oregon. Traveling by boat, foot, and horseback, the group reached the Pacific near the mouth of the Columbia River in late 1805. After wintering there, they returned to St. Louis in the fall of 1806, having traveled a distance of nearly 7,000 miles in a bit less than three years.

The trip cost $2,500, and it was a smashing success. Only one man died, of a burst appendix.

Trouble with the Native Americans was kept to a minimum, and a vast storehouse of knowledge was gained, from information on plants and animals to whether there was land suitable for farming (there was) to whether it was possible to get there and back. Much of the country was thrilled by the stories of a strange new land just waiting to be Americanized.

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