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Transcontinental trek: two hundred years ago this month, the Lewis and Clark expedition reached the Pacific Ocean, having trekked across what is now the United States.

Early American history was so full of epic events benefiting the American people that most citizens of the new nation thought Providence was guiding their destiny. It seemed impossible that, as colonists, the Americans would defeat the forces of the mighty British Empire. It seemed impossible that the former colonists would forge a union of independent states that would endure. It seemed impossible that the new nation would double her size with the stroke of a pen. Yet, all these things came to pass.

Thomas Jefferson was the one responsible for the dramatic increase in the size of the new nation through the purchase of nearly a million square miles of territory in the West. Jefferson had always been fascinated with the West. At the conclusion of the War for Independence, he tried to interest George Rogers Clark, famous for his exploits in the Old Northwest during the war, in leading an expedition to the Pacific. However, Clark was preoccupied at the time with putting his business affairs in order.

In 1786 Jefferson met the adventurer John Ledyard, an American who had sailed to the Pacific Northwest with Captain Cook. Ledyard convinced Jefferson that he could travel overland from Moscow to Siberia, cross the Bering Strait on a Russian otter-hunting ship, and then trek across the continent from the Pacific Coast to Philadelphia. Jefferson enthusiastically supported the bold wanderer. Ledyard made it as far as Siberia but was arrested there by Cossack police as a security threat.

Jefferson tried again in 1793. He got the American Philosophical Society to support an expedition led by the famous French explorer and botanist Andre Michaux that would cross the continent to the Pacific and back. No sooner was the expedition organized than it was revealed that Michaux was involved in revolutionary intrigue with Citizen Genet, the French minister to the United States. Genet attempted to rouse the American people to side with France in a war against Britain and even offered prizes for captured British ships. He was sent packing back to France, and the Michaux expedition collapsed.

Jefferson came into the presidency in March 1801 with his dreams of a grand expedition into the West unrealized. That was about to change. Within weeks of Jefferson's inauguration, Americans learned that Napoleon had induced Spain to cede the Louisiana Territory back to France.

Tensions quickly began to rise in the Western parts of the United States--in those days Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Farmers there sent their crops down the Ohio or other major rivers to the Mississippi and then down the great river to New Orleans. By the Treaty of San Lorenzo with Spain, Americans had the right to use the Mississippi freely and to deposit their goods at New Orleans for transshipment. With the Louisiana Territory reverting to France, all this now seemed in jeopardy.

The Grand Purchase

Being a great friend of the farmer, Jefferson took action. He instructed the U.S. minister to France, Robert Livingston, to approach the French foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, and negotiate for the purchase of New Orleans. Jefferson also sent James Monroe to France to aid Livingston. Faced with an impending war against her old adversary, Britain, France was not only receptive but stunned Livingston by offering to sell all of the Louisiana Territory to the United States. Even though Livingston had no authority to purchase the whole of Louisiana, he quickly put his signature on a treaty that gave the Louisiana Territory to the United States for $15 million and doubled the size of the United States.

Robert Livingston fully appreciated the significance of the Louisiana Purchase. As he was about to affix his signature to the treaty he said to James Monroe, "We have lived long, but this is the noblest work of our whole lives.... From this day the United States take their place among the powers of the first rank." Napoleon understood this also. He remarked to one of his ministers, "This accession of territory affirms forever the power of the United States, and I have just given England a maritime rival that sooner or later will lay low her pride."

The boundaries of the Louisiana Territory were not well-defined in the treaty, and Livingston later asked Talleyrand for exact boundaries and a precise description of the purchase. Talleyrand waved his hand and replied, "I do not know.... I can give you no direction. You have made a noble bargain.... Make the most of it."

The actual setting of fixed boundaries awaited negotiations with Spain and Britain. This took some years. The size of the Louisiana Territory was eventually fixed at 828,000 square miles. The cost had been about 3 cents an acre. The Louisiana Purchase was the greatest bargain in American history.

Thomas Jefferson made preparations for the Lewis and Clark expedition even before the Louisiana Purchase was completed. Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark were made co-commanders of the expedition. They were both outstanding leaders and men of exceptional intelligence. A 29-year-old native of Virginia, Lewis already had a distinguished military career behind him and had served as Jefferson's private secretary. Clark was the younger brother of Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark and had himself served in the Army with distinction, including fighting in the Battle of Fallen Timbers. At 33 years of age the redhead from Virginia would share the title with John Shields as the oldest member of the expedition.

New Faces and Places

For the expedition Lewis and Clark selected some 40 men, described as "good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried young men, accustomed to the woods and capable of bearing bodily fatigue to a pretty considerable degree." After the men were assembled, the party established a winter camp near St. Louis late in 1803. During the winter of 1803-04 Lewis and Clark drilled and trained the men to razor sharpness.

On 14 May 1804, Lewis and Clark set out on what would become the most famous expedition in American history. Up the Missouri they went, soon passing Le Rochette, the last white settlement on the river. On 20 August the expedition lost a man when Sergeant Charles Floyd, the quartermaster, died from a ruptured appendix. Miraculously, Floyd would be the only member of the expedition to die in a journey that took more than two years and covered nearly 8,000 miles.

Toward the end of September, the Corps of Discovery, as the expedition was officially known, ran into the Teton tribe of the Sioux. The many bands of the Teton were the terrors of the northern Plains and held the tribes who lived along the Missouri, such as the Arikara, at their mercy. The Sioux expected the other tribes to pay them tribute--usually in the form of corn, horses, and women--or face the consequences. They were masters at intimidation and were accustomed to getting their way. Lewis and Clark refused to be cowed by the Sioux and challenged them to fight or desist. For some days a duel of dare and double-dare continued before the Sioux broke off, impressed with this new bold and steely-nerved tribe called Americans.

By late October the expedition had reached the Mandan villages in North Dakota. The Mandan had been rumored to be a lost tribe of Welshmen. Another rumor named the Mandan as one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Neither Welshmen nor Jews, the Mandan were a Siouan Indian people who lived in earthen lodges along the Missouri River and prospered as middlemen in a trade that stretched from the upper Missouri to Canada. They were famous for their Bull Dance, performed by buffalo costumed warriors. Lewis and Clark found the Mandan friendly and eager to trade, and decided to winter with them. The Americans built a triangular stockade--Fort Mandan--near the Indian villages and prepared as best they could for a North Dakota winter.

The expedition members were fascinated by the Bull Dance and the Mandans by York, William Clark's black slave and personal servant. At first the Mandan thought that York had painted his body, and they wet their hands and tried to wipe the color from his skin. They also felt his woolly hair, which reminded them of the coat on a buffalo. York told the Indians that he was a wild animal captured and tamed by Clark. While the Mandan had seen whites--mostly French Canadian and British fur traders--York was the only black they had ever set eyes upon. If the Indians were fascinated by York, they were also fascinated by Seaman, Meriwether Lewis' huge Newfoundland. The dog weighed nearly 150 pounds--triple the size of the largest Indian dogs--and with his webbed feet could outswim a man. Seaman was also an excellent sentry.

Sacagawea on Board

During their stay with the Mandan, Lewis and Clark met Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian fur trader. They would hire him as a guide for $500, something akin to $75,000 in today's money. Lewis and Clark, and other members of the expeditions, later said that Charbonneau was not worth his hire. Few remember his name today. His wife, though, became one of the most famous names in American history--Sacagawea. From grammar school on, we all learned that Sacagawea, the teenage Shoshone girl, served as the guide for Lewis and Clark, that she led the intrepid Americans across the continent. More statues of her have been erected in the United States than those of any other female in American history. At the turn of the 20th century, the suffragists of the Pacific Northwest even cultivated Sacagawea as a feminist symbol.

Actually, most of what we know about Sacagawea is fiction, the product of novels. Eva Emery Dye's The Conquest probably did the most to create the myth. The real story is quite different. First and foremost, Sacagawea did not serve as a guide to the Lewis and Clark expedition. On only one occasion did she determine the route of travel, and in that instance her choice of the two available routes proved the less desirable.

Sacagawea was born in 1788 or '89 near present-day Salmon, Idaho. Her name means "bird woman" in the language of her people, the Northern Shoshone or Snakes. By Sacagawea's time the Northern Shoshone had adopted the horse and the horse culture, living a semi-nomadic existence in eastern Idaho and southwestern Montana.

When Sacagawea was 11 years old, she was kidnapped by the Minnetaree (or Hidatsa) Indians and sold in the tribe as a slave. She probably would have remained a slave of the Minnetaree were it not for Toussaint Charbonneau. While Charbonneau was visiting the Minnetaree and gambling with their chief, he was given Sacagawea, now about 15 years old, in partial payment for the chief's gambling debts. Charbonneau fancied her looks and, instead of selling her, made her one of his wives. Like Indian braves who could afford it, the French Canadian Charbonneau had more than one wife.

In February 1805, while Lewis and Clark were wintering at Fort Mandan, Sacagawea gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. When the Americans renewed their ascent of the Missouri in April, Toussaint Charbonneau and Sacagawea, carrying little Jean Baptiste in a cradleboard on her back, went with them.

Tributaries and Travails

On 13 June, Lewis and Clark reached the Great Falls of the Missouri, where the water cascaded downward 80 feet. They spent a month portaging around the obstacle and resting before they renewed their journey. Another week brought them to the Three Forks Country where the Missouri branches into its three principal tributaries. Lewis named the tributaries for the president who had sent them on their expedition, Jefferson; the Secretary of State, (James) Madison: and the Secretary of the Treasury, (Albert) Gallatin.

Lewis and Clark followed the Jefferson to its source in the southwestern part of Montana. By then the great river had become a small creek. Tall, lanky Hugh McNeal stretched his long legs until he stood with one foot on either side of the creek and exclaimed, "I thank God that I have lived to bestride the Missouri." The expedition earlier had been forced to leave the boats behind and horses were now used for the trip over the Continental Divide. Lewis and Clark learned firsthand that there was no Northwest Passage, the much hoped-for all-water route across the continent.

The Corps of Discovery crossed the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass in August and met with the Snakes, Sacagawea's people. The Snakes were overjoyed to see her return and, as a result, were eager to help Lewis and Clark. They advised the explorers against attempting to float down the Salmon River and instead told them to head north and take Gibbons Pass into the Bitterroot Valley. They also supplied the expedition with fresh horses. In snow and ice--it was only early September--Lewis and Clark worked their way through the pass. Once in the Bitterroot Valley, they had a friendly encounter with the Flathead Indians.

The Flatheads called themselves Salish and actually had normally shaped heads. Other Indians to the northwest of the Flatheads, however, practiced cosmetic skull deformation, pushing their infants developing heads to a peak or ridge. The Indians must have thought it very becoming because they derisively called the Salish "Flatheads."

The Corps of Discovery entered the Bitterroot Mountains through Lolo Pass and struggled for two weeks in rugged, forested terrain. Snow and ice or drizzle and dampness continued day after day. Steep, rocky slopes barred their passage again and again. Starvation became a real possibility, and they had to kill horses for food. Almost everyone was suffering with some kind of sickness and morale was low. A year later on the return trip William Clark wrote that "not any of us have yet forgotten our sufferings in these mountains in September last. I think it probable we never shall."

On 20 September, the Americans emerged from the dark, dank forest onto the beautiful Camas Prairie. They soon came upon the Nez Perce Indians, so named because they pierced their noses and hung shells in them. The Nez Perce had herds of fine horses and had developed their own breed, the Appaloosa, making them the only Indians in what is today the United States to have practiced selective breeding of animals. The Nez Perce lived a lifestyle similar to that of Plains Indians, riding horses, living in teepees, and hunting buffalo. Nonetheless, their principal foodstuff was the camas bulb--similar to a sweet potato--which the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition feasted oil. The Nez Perce also fished for salmon during the fish's annual run upstream.

From this point the Americans were able to work their way to the Pacific by water, using canoes to carry them down the Clearwater River to the Snake and down the Snake to the Columbia. They reached the mouth of the Columbia on 15 November 1805. On the trunk of a tall pine tree William Clark carved his name, the date, and the inscription, "By land from the United States in 1804 & 1805."

Lewis and Clark built Fort Clatsop on the south bank of the Columbia, the site of present-day Astoria, Oregon. There the expedition spent the winter of 1805-06 and got a taste of the Oregon coast at its worst. Nearly every day it rained. When it didn't rain, thick fog enveloped the fort. Four months of this and every member of the party was ready to crack.

On 23 March 1806 the return journey began. After crossing the Continental Divide, the party split up. Lewis took one group north and explored the Marias River while Clark and another group turned south to strike the Yellowstone River. They planned to reunite at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri. Accompanying Clark was Sacagawea, who finally got a chance to act as guide. When Clark saw Flathead Pass and then Bozeman Pass in the distance, he asked Sacagawea for her advice. She told him to take Bozeman. It was a mistake. As Clark noted, their path led through swampy ground which was "an intolerable route caused by beavers damning the stream; a muddy, wet route."

If Sacagawea was not much of a guide, she certainly was a worthy member of the expedition. She dug roots and gathered berries to supplement the party's sometimes meager diet and served as an interpreter for Lewis and Clark with her own people, the Snakes, and later with the Walla Walla Indians. Members of the expedition praised her for resourcefulness and good humor, and the sight of little Jean Baptiste strapped to her back on the cradleboard seemed to lift the men's spirits.

Clark's party got to the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri first but, finding the area swarming with mosquitoes and lacking game, decided to move farther downstream. Lewis arrived at the junction of the two rivers a few days later and found a note from Clark explaining his move. Eager to reunite, Lewis followed without hesitation, pausing only on his way downstream to hunt elk. That hunt was nearly the end of Lewis. Emerging from a copse of thick timber, the buckskin-clad Lewis was mistaken for an elk by another hunter and shot in the hip. The .54 caliber lead ball passed through the flesh of his hip and buttocks and left him painfully but not critically wounded. Somehow infection did not set in and he recovered nicely, although he became the butt of jokes for weeks.


Lewis and his party caught up with Clark several days' travel down the Missouri. From now on the Big Muddy, as the Missouri was nicknamed, would carry them downstream with relative ease. They reached St. Louis on 23 September 1806.

Lewis and Clark brought back a remarkable set of diaries, which were published as the Journals of Lewis and Clark. The Journals are a rich mine of information containing not only careful notes on fauna and flora, Indian tribes, geology, geography, and weather, but also thrilling accounts of encounters with grizzly bears and hostile Indians, running rapids and scaling mountain passes, and near starvation and accidents.

The Journals and the epic nature of the transcontinental trek made the expedition the most famous in American history. Ironically, most of the members of the expedition died in obscurity, and several of them died shortly after completing the overland journey. Suffering from depression, Meriwether Lewis committed suicide in 1809. Joseph Field, one of the expedition's best trackers and hunters, was dead by 1807; German immigrant and miner John Ports by 1808; John Shields, a blacksmith and gunsmith, and fiddle-playing George Gibson, a hunter and interpreter, by 1809; George Drouilliard, an interpreter and hunter, by 1810; and John Colter, a hunter who later achieved fame as a mountain man and was the first white man to see the wonders of Yellowstone, by 1813. At the other extreme, Patrick Gass, the expedition's chief carpenter, lived until 1870, dying at the age of 99.

Despite her later tame in American history, Sacagawea drifted into obscurity following the Lewis and Clark expedition and died in 1812 at Fort Manuel, a fur trading post. John Luttig, an employee of the Missouri Fur Company, recorded in his journal on 20 December 1812, "This evening the wife of Charbonneau, a Snake squaw, died of putrid fever. She was a good and the best woman in the fort, aged about 25 years. She left a fine infant girl." Her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, was living with William Clark in St. Louis at the time. A year earlier, Toussaint Charbonneau had asked Clark to become the boy's guardian and see to it that he was given an education.

For the next 12 years the boy received a classical education while also developing his skills as a hunter and guide. In 1823 he met Paul Williams, the Prince of Wurttemberg, who was touring the American West. The prince invited him to travel to Europe with the royal party, and Jean Baptiste spent the next six years as a member of the royal household in Germany. He not only saw Europe but furthered his education. In 1829 he returned to Missouri and was soon off to the Rockies as a trapper. He served as an Army scout and guide during the Mexican War and then spent the 1850s in the California goldfields. He died of pneumonia in 1866 en route to the Montana mines.

William Clark was the only expedition member to remain prominently in the public eye. In 1807 President Jefferson appointed him Indian Agent for the Louisiana Territory and made him commander and brigadier general of the territorial militia. He became governor of the newly formed Missouri Territory in 1813 but then failed to win election as governor when the territory became a state in 1820. He was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1822 and held the position until shortly before his death in 1838. Among Indians and whites alike, he was highly respected--and so too was the expedition. Until Americans set foot on the moon, there was nothing like it in American history.

Roger D. McGrath, Ph.D., the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes, is a retired history professor.
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Author:McGrath, Roger D.
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 14, 2005
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