On the trail of Lewis and Clark

I had heard of this pair of intrepid explorers and their quest to find a water route across the vast land of America but when I saw monuments, signs and schools and colleges bearing their name I had to find out more.

Lewis and Clark memorial in Seaside, Oregon.

Lewis and Clark memorial in Seaside, Oregon.

Meriwether Lewis was born into a military family and grew up in the woods of Georgia with a fascination for natural history. Following a time of more formal education under the guidance of private tutors and after his graduation he joined the Virginia militia at the age of 19 and the following year the US Army. He quickly rose in rank to become a captain at the age of 26 when he ended his military career. Among his commanding officers at this time was William Clark.

1770 William Clark was one of ten children born into a family of common planters in Virginia. As was the custom of the time young William was tutored at home. His elder brothers had fought in the American Revolutionary War and at it’s end relocated the family to Kentucky where William’s interest in the natural world was ignited by one of his brothers during lessons in wilderness survival. After a busy six years in the militia Clark resigned his commission due to ill health.

In 1803 Thomas Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase and the United States grew in size by 828,000 square miles. Much of this land was unexplored so Jefferson requested that Congress approve the money to fund an exploratory expedition westwards. The primary objective was to explore and map the new territory and find routes across the continent to establish an American presence on the West coast (before any other country staked a claim). The secondary objective was to study the areas plant and animal life and establish trade relationships with the indigenous peoples.

Lewis was selected to lead the Corps of Discovery expedition due to his previous knowledge of the west. He in turn selected Clark who was simply the best man for the job: had previous experience negotiating with native people, had survival skills and was able to map. Both of them had an interest in the natural world. There was much preparation by Jefferson for the trip with Lewis being tutored in medical cures  and astronomy. Silver Indian Peace Medals bearing Jefferson’s portrait were prepared as symbols of peace along with enough weaponry to show their military firepower, including the new repeating rifle. Flags, gifts and a range of other items were carefully gathered.

On the 1st of May 1804 the Corps of Discovery left to meet with Lewis and follow the Missouri River westwards. The whole expedition team had narrowly missed capture by a group of mercenaries sent to prevent America’s encroachment on Spanish territories. The relationships the team established with the native peoples saved them from starvation during the upcoming harsh winters and with navigation in the vast Rocky Mountains. After following the Missouri to it’s source the party crossed the continental divide and sailed the tributaries of the vast Colombia River in canoes. Thanks to a previous explorers maps and notes they navigated the lower stretch of the Colombia River and on sighting Mount Hood they knew that the Pacific was near and it was sighted on the 7th November 1805. The winter proved exceptionally harsh and later in the month the camp relocated to the south side of the river near what is modern day Astoria and Seaside.

Their mission was accomplished when the American flag was raised above the newly built Fort Clatsop. An American presence had been established on the West coast and the area had been mapped along with diplomatic relations being established with two groups of native peoples. One thing they did not do was find a continuous water route across the continent but this did not stop the thousands of immigrants who chose to make their way to the West coast nor the further exploration and scientific discoveries.

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