Excerpt: It is almost impossible to fathom the strength and dedication that were the hallmark of the Corps of Discovery. Day after day, week after week, month after month, the men rowed and pulled and pushed the boats against the current of the Missouri, against strong headwinds that wanted to drive them back, and against their own fatigue.
In many ways the Lewis & Clark Trail is the emblematic American Journey. It represents an America that was still young and optimistic, that could accomplish anything it set out to do, that was destined for great things.
On the following pages you will find articles recounting the expedition’s ups and downs, which were published originally in Show-Me Missouri magazine. And if the retelling of the epic journey inspires you to re-trace the explorers’ steps, you’ll also find the opportunity to do that.
Explore the Lewis & Clark Trail by following in the tracks of the Corps of Discovery as they “discovered” a continent very much inhabited. The experience helps us understand who we are, where we have been, and how we as a society might approach the future.
Thomas Jefferson’s instructions to Meriwether Lewis expressed a “hopeful geography” based on his belief that the territory west of the Mississippi mirrored that to the east. His instructions reveal the West as Jefferson hoped it would be – a region of navigable rivers, easily portaged mountains and fast, empty, fertile spaces.
Many of the men who eventually navigated the continent gathered for the winter of 1803-04 at Camp DuBois on what is now the Illinois side of the Mississippi River while the Captains made final preparations and made purchases for their journey.
The departure from St. Charles was exhilarating as the men pushed off upstream. The little French village had embraced the men as they completed the thousands of tasks necessary for their long journey.
The journey continues as the 55-foot keelboat and two pirogues laboriously make their way upstream. They encounter their first natives and handle discipline problems among the rowdy young men.
As the party proceeds they enter territory dominated by the mighty Teton Sioux. The Sioux were the only tribe mentioned by Jefferson in his letter of instruction. He perceived them to be the most powerful and important to the success of future trading (and in fact, the Sioux nation was the seat of power on the American plains of 1804).
The Corps’ second winter on the trail was probably the most peaceful and most pleasant season passed on the journey. There was time for socializing between the fort and the nearby Mandan Villages, male bonding on the hunting trail, and long evenings of trading stories around a campfire in the snug earth lodges. This is where the Corps providentially acquire the services of Sacagawea, whose interpreter husband would turn out to be so much excess baggage while the teen-aged mother would prove invaluable to the Corps’ survival.
The spring of 1805 would prove to be one of the least difficult and most beautiful of the journey. The cumbersome keelboat had been shipped back to St. Louis with the specimens collected so far and the journals recounting the expedition’s first year. There was every expectation that they would reach the Pacific Ocean by summer and spirits were high. But Jefferson’s “hopeful geography” was about to have its first major setback and the mettle of the men would be tested as never before.
The falls were expected. The Mandan had acknowledged that a half-day portage would be required to skirt the magnificent falls to the west. However, they had indicated one fall, not the five which greeted the men. And the difficult portage around them consumed nearly a month of precious time before they had even reached the mountains.
More surprises await the Corps. The one range of mountains expected before the final push to the ocean, turned out to be what must have looked like endless peaks of the American Rockies. The weary men were tested once again. However, their luck held, when by incredible coincidence the chief of the Shoshones (from whom Lewis & Clark desperately needed to procure horses) turned out to be the brother of Sacagawea!
They had made it. They had crossed the continent and seen more of it than any other people on the planet. But they also had learned the hard way that there was no Northwest Passage – the main purpose of their expedition. How would they ever explain this to Jefferson? Worse yet, the hoped-for ship to take them home via a comparatively easy water route, proved to be a mirage. But there was no time to despair, A miserable, wet winter was ahead, and they need shelter, food and clothing to survive.
In actuality, the journey was only half over when they reached the Pacific. The Corps now had to retrace the exhausting route – with a few detours to fill in the blanks on Clark’s map. The men were traveling lighter now, but challenges were still numerous. They encountered daunting weather, hostile natives, and those “troublesome mosquitoes”, but this time they were heading home. The adventure of a lifetime ended just six months after their departure from Fort Clatsop.