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Lewis And Clark The Men Who Opened The West

Matthew Knight By Matthew Knight on
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Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) are most famous for being the first men, along with the rest of the Corps of Discovery, to explore and map the American West. In April 1803, Napoleon sold a vast amount of territory to the United States in the ‘Louisiana Purchase’. President Jefferson wanted the newly bought area to be explored and mapped. He therefore invited his personal secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to lead the expedition. Lewis, who was a skilled diplomat, scientist and frontiersman, invited his friend William Clark, who was a brilliant cartographer, to be the co-leader of the expedition.

In a letter from Jefferson to Lewis he described the objectives of the expedition. It stated that an expedition team of 32 men, including Lewis and Clark, were to “explore the Missouri River, and such principal streams of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado, or any other river, may offer the most direct and practicable water-communication across the continent, for the purposes of commerce.” Other aims were to befriend the natives and to observe the different tribes and customs, collect scientific data, including the climates and different flora and fauna. They were also meant to map the areas that they passed and note any strange geographical or geological features.

What did they discover?

On May 21, 1805 the Corps of Discovery (45 men) set off up the Missouri river in 8 canoes. By October they started looking for a place to stay for the winter. As they were in Mandan (an Indian tribe) territory, they called it Fort Mandan. After Christmas a fur trader, his Indian wife Sacagawea and their newborn child joined the expedition. Lewis realised that she would be useful, as she knew the course of the Missouri well and could speak many Indian languages. Her presence with the baby strapped to her back, alerted Indians to the fact that this was not a war party and this lead to their acceptance. As March came, most of the ice on the river had melted so 32 men and the woman and her child set off while the rest returned to the east with specimens. The party carried on up the Missouri and eventually came to a fork in the river. Uncertain which to follow, they split up. Lewis took the south river, and on the 13th of June they came to the Great Falls, a succession of rapids, which they had to walk around. The two parties later met up and continued towards and then through, the Rockies. The expedition then went down the river Clearwater, to the river Snake and eventually to the Columbia. The Columbia led them further west until on 15 November 1805 they saw the Pacific Ocean. Lewis famously wrote in his journal, “Ocian in view! O! the joy!” Near the Coast they built Fort Clatsop (also named after an Indian tribe) where they stayed for the winter. After 5 months, they started their return journey.

During the expedition, Lewis and Clark recorded many new species of plant and animal. Lewis was the first man to record the, now called, prairie dog. At the time, Lewis called it a barking squirrel as it looked like a squirrel but made a noise of a small dog. They were also the first to record and describe the grizzly bear and the mountain goat. They recorded many, never before seen plants such as the salmon berry, the camas flower and the cottonwood. In total Lewis and Clark collected 108 specimens of animals and plants. By the end of the voyage they had brought back details of 122 animals and 200 plants, many of them never before recorded or seen by those in the east.

What problems did they encounter?

Over the course of the expedition, there were no major disasters. In fact there was only one death, that of Sergeant Charles Floyd, who died of acute appendicitis. One of the main problems that Lewis and Clark had to reckon with was the native Indians. As they had to pass through the land of many different tribes, they had to bring gifts (these included coins, cocked-hats, frock-coats, flags and feathers) for the tribal chiefs to allow them to pass through the land.

Another problem was the method of travel. They started off the journey in boats; however, as winter covered the rivers in ice, they found it difficult to progress. Also, when there was no convenient river and they had to travel over land, they could not travel very quickly. Whenever possible and necessary, they traded canoes for horses. Even on the water they had a fair amount of problems. As they approached the Rockies, they had to tackle rapids (like the Great Falls), which were sometimes so dangerous they had to walk around them carrying the boats.

How successful were they in meeting their aims?

When they arrived back on September the 23rd, 1806, Lewis and Clark’s expedition was an almost complete success. They had reached the Pacific and returned both alive and well and they had drawn detailed maps of their journey. They had brought back their journals, which contained accurate descriptions of 322 new plants and animals. They had also collected data on the geography, climates and geology of different areas.

They were not entirely successful in that they did not find a “direct and practicable water-communication across the continent”. Even so, they had found a practicable route through the Rockies on foot. Concerning the Indians, they had made treaties with some 50 native tribes and studied their ways, languages and religions. The Corps of Discovery also strengthened the U.S. claim to the Oregon Territory.

How important was the expedition?

The expedition had a big effect on what was to happen in the United States both in the short-term and the long-term.

Short term

Lewis and Clark had returned from the expedition and had brought lots of information about the west with them. As no one on the journey had died from conditions in the west, the idea that the west was a deadly and foreboding place changed. They had brought back information on the geography and the wildlife, so a large number of trappers, went to try to catch bears and other mammals for their furs and hides. This caused the northern plains fur trade to rise quite significantly between 1806 and 1812. As said before, Lewis and Clark’s expedition had lifted the cloud of mystery that had surrounded the area for decades. Now that they had proved it was possible to travel there, it inspired many Americans to go out to the west.

Long term

One of the main long-term impacts of Lewis and Clark’s journey was that on the native Indians. The white men brought diseases such as smallpox and the common cold, which killed many of the natives. Years later, as more and more people moved west, the U.S. government saw it necessary that the natives should be moved to reservations. Here they were forced to farm instead of hunt and be educated by a white system, destroying almost all of the native Indian Culture.