Start of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: August 31st, 1803. (Months Past)

Article excerpt

CAPTAIN MERIWETHER Lewis, aged twenty-nine, set off from Pittsburgh by boat at the end of August with a party of men and his Newfoundland dog, Seaman, to begin the first American expedition to the Pacific overland (Andrew Mackenzie had crossed Canada to the Pacific in the 1790s). At Louisville he picked up his chosen co-leader, Lieutenant William Clark, who was four years older. The two men, both from uppercrust Virginia planter families, had become friends in the army. Lewis had been personal assistant to President Thomas Jefferson, who authorised the expedition to find a water route through the Rocky Mountains to the west coast, make friendly contact with the native Indians and report on matters of scientific interest. One underlying motive was the hope of opening up a trade route to the Far East, far shorter than the voyage round the Horn. The fact that much of the territory to be explored belonged to Spain was not considered a deterrent.

Though interested in natural history, the two leaders were not intellectuals, and certainly neither of them could spell, but they had more valuable qualities. They were army officers, decisive practical men, resourceful leaders and man managers, experienced at dealing with Indians and coping with wild country and danger. Clark was the more outgoing and adventurous of the pair, Lewis the quieter, prone to bouts of depression.

The expedition spent the first winter training in camp near St Louis. In May 1804 the 'corps of discovery' of more than forty men, mostly soldiers, with Clark's black servant and the dog, set out in pelting rain and what Clark described as 'a jentle brease' in three boats propelled by sail and oars--a 55ft keel-boat and two smaller pirogues. They moved slowly up the Misssouri River into today's North Dakota, which they reached at the beginning of November after a tense, though bloodless, encounter with a Sioux chief called Black Buffalo and his band. The expedition spent the next winter amicably with the Mandan Indians. The keelboat was too big to go any further, so they built themselves dugout canoes. Heading for Shoshoni territory, they were able to enlist a Shoshoni woman named Sacagawea ('Bird Woman') as guide and interpreter. She had been carried off in 1800 in an Indian raid and sold to a French Canadian fur trader called Charbonneau, who went along too. …

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