Lewis & Clark: Discovering Western America

By Conry, Jaci | American Heritage, February-March 2004 | Go to article overview

Lewis & Clark: Discovering Western America


Conry, Jaci, American Heritage


Two hundred years ago, President Thomas Jefferson sent an expedition westward to find and map the area between the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast. The amazing effort, led by Army captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, is America's greatest adventure story.

The bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's remarkable, nearly three-year journey is commemorated throughout the nation in an ongoing celebration from 2003-2006.

In successfully completing the overland journey between the Missouri and river systems, Lewis and Clark opened the unknown West for future development. During their exploration, they collected plant and animal specimens, studied Indian cultures, conducted diplomatic councils, established trading relationships with tribes and recorded weather data.

In December 1803, Lewis and Clark established Camp River Dubois on the Wood River at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers north of St. Louis. The captains recruited young woodsmen and enlisted soldiers who volunteered from nearby army outposts. Over the winter, they prepared the men, whom they called the Corps of Discovery, for the frontier.

Missouri

On May 14, 1804, the Corps of Discovery, numbering about 45, set off on their journey West. Today, St. Louis lives up to its designation as the expedition's starting point with the Gateway Arch that stands just south of where the Missouri River ends its 2,565-mile run and joins with the Mississippi. Located underground, directly below the 630-foot arch, is the Museum of Westward Expansion. Here, the story of Lewis and Clark is relayed with interactive exhibits featuring written accounts, fine art and rare artifacts from the crucial Camp River Dubois preparation period. In Sibley, Fort Osage overlooks the bends of the Missouri River. A former U.S. outpost designed by Clark, it was the westernmost government presence during the early 19th century. Today's fort is a reconstruction from original plans still in existence.

Nebraska

The Corps of Discovery encountered Nebraska early in the summer of 1804. One of the first sites they came upon was a series of ancient Indian burial mounds in Rulo, near the Missouri River Bridge. Today the mounds look much the way they were described in Clark's journals centuries ago. In the present-day town of Lynch, the Corps also happened upon the prairie dog, which was first described as a "barking squirrel." One of these energetic creatures was sent live to President Jefferson, and its stuffed remains are still on display at the Smithsonian. Fort Atkinson State Park marks the site of the first official council of U.S. representatives with native tribes. On August 3, 1804, Lewis and Clark presented chiefs from the Otoe and Missouri tribes with peace and friendship medals bearing images of Jefferson. In 1820, Fort Atkinson, the first U.S. military outpost west of the Mississippi, was built. The fort, which has been reconstructed, will feature an outdoor dramatization of the first council this August.

North Dakota

The Corps of Discovery spent more time in North Dakota than any other place on the journey. In late 1804, the frontiersmen constructed their winter headquarters, the triangular-shaped Fort Mandan on the north bank of the Missouri River in Washburn. Here they spent 146 nights, hunting and obtaining information about the route ahead from two friendly Mandan Indians and French Canadian traders who lived nearby. Today, visitors will find a full-scale replica of the fort.

Also in Washburn is the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, where exhibits include a 4-ton canoe, hand-carved from a cottonwood tree like those used during the expedition. At the Knife River Indian Villages near Stanton, Lewis and Clark met French fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife, Sacagawea, a member of the Shoshone tribe. The couple joined the expedition as guides and interpreters as the Corps headed off to chart the world unknown. …

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