The Corps of Discovery: Lewis and Clark Formed a Partnership That Changed the Landscape of the United States

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Born into a prosperous family in Albemarle County, Va., in 1774, Meriwether Lewis developed, at an early age, a unique love of botany, encouraged by his mother who was an herb doctor. Lewis was also a neighbor and protege of a rising political star named Thomas Jefferson.


Jefferson encouraged the young man's thirst for knowledge and inspired in him a lust for adventure. At 20 years old, Lewis joined the Frontier Army and later served in the First Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, where he met the man who would become his lifelong friend--William Clark.

Clark was four years Lewis's senior, a native Virginian whose family eventually moved to Kentucky, where Clark began serving in the Kentucky Militia at age 19. The experience provided him an education in mapmaking, building forts, fighting and exploration. While in the Army, Clark struck up a friendship with Lewis, who was assigned to his command.

The two temporarily parted ways when, in 1801, the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson appointed Lewis his personal secretary. Already, the president had plans at work for exploring the Western frontier. He called Lewis "brave, prudent, habituated to the woods, and familiar with Indian manners and character," a perfect match for the task of exploration.

Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 (which won for the young United States new territory extending all the way west to the Rockies, north to Canada and south to the Gulf of Mexico), Jefferson decided to make Lewis head of an expedition to explore these vast new holdings of more than 800,000 square miles. Already well-versed in flora and fauna, disciplined from his years in the Army and loyal to friends and comrades. Lewis was a natural leader.

"I have no doubt but this tract of country, if cultivated, would produce in great abundance every article ... necessary to the comfort and subsistence of civilized man."

--Meriwether Lewis

"This is an immense undertaking freighted with numerous difficulties, but my friend, I do assure you that no man lives with whom I would prefer to undertake such a trip as yourself."

--William Clark

The aim of the expedition was not only to gain scientific knowledge of the flora and fauna of the West, but also to establish friendly relationships with Native American tribes and help pave the way for westward expansion and trade. Lewis did not wish to undertake this enormous responsibility without aid. He immediately thought of his old friend Clark, whom he invited to share command of the expedition. Both were young, ambitious, resourceful and eager for adventure. The two would become equal captains in one of the most successful working partnerships in American history.


Charged with tracing the Missouri River to its source, finding a pass through the Western mountains and searching out a water route to the Pacific Ocean, the two captains shared responsibility in lining up the 50 men who would make the journey with them across the Great Plains, over the Rockies and across the Sierra Nevada. Among them was Clark's black manservant York, whom the two men gave voting rights in the corps along with the other expedition members. …