Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820

Author: Reuben Gold Thwaites  | Date: 1804

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The Lewis and Clark Expedition

AT FOUR in the afternoon of the fourteenth of May, 1804, "all in health and readiness to set out," the expedition left camp at River Dubois, "in the presence of many of the neighboring inhabitants, and proceeded on under a jentle brease up the Missouri." Clark was in charge of the embarkation, for Lewis was attending to the last business details in St. Louis. The flotilla consisted of three craft—a keel boat fifty-five feet long, drawing three feet of water, carrying a sail, propelled by twenty-two oars, with both forecastle and cabin, and the center guarded by a breastwork, for attacks from Indians were feared, especially on the lower reaches of the Missouri; a pirogue or open boat with seven oars, and another with six, both of them carrying sails. The party comprised, in addition to Clark, three sergeants (Ordway, Pryor, and Floyd), twenty-three privates, two interpreters (Drouillard and Charbonneau), Charbonneau’s Indian squaw Sacajawea, and the negro York.

Lewis had not expected Clark to leave until the fifteenth, but the latter’s plans were perfected a day ahead of time, and he was anxious to be off. Arriving the following noon at St. Charles, then a French hamlet of some four hundred and fifty inhabitants—"pore, polite, and harmonious," his journal aptly describes them—he lay there until the twentieth, when his friend joined him, the latter having been accompanied twenty-four miles overland from St. Louis by several citizens of that place, and a small knot of United States military officers, who had but recently taken part in the territorial transfer from France. At their head was Captain Stoddard, serving as military governor of Upper Louisiana, pending its reorganization by Congress.

The people of St. Charles hospitably entertained the visitors, and on the following day the expedition set out "under three Cheers from the gentlemen on the bank." During the succeeding two or three days many settlers flocked to the shores to watch the little fleet toiling up the great muddy stream, and good-naturedly to wish the company joy in their undertaking. On the twenty-fifth of May the explorers passed La Charette, the last white settlement on the river—the home of Daniel Boone, still a vigorous hunter at a ripe, old age. Upon the sixth of June buffalo signs were seen; on the eleventh they first shot bears….

Rapids were now frequently met with, necessitating the use in the swift water of towing-lines and kedge-anchors, a work much impeded by heavy growths, along the banks, of bushes and gigantic weeds. "Ticks and musquiters," and great swarms of "knats," begin to be "verry troublesome, necessitating smudge fires and mosquito-bars. The men frequently suffer from snake-bites, sunstroke and stomach complaints. Both Lewis and Clark now play the part of physicians, and administer simple, though sometimes drastic, remedies for these disorders; the journals make frequent mention of strange doses and vigorous bleeding. Sometimes storms drench them in their rude camp; or, suddenly bursting upon their craft in open river, necessitate great ado with anchors and cables until the flurry is over.

Two days later (August 20th) occurred the first and only death. Sergeant Charles Floyd, a man of firmness and resolution, being "taken verry bad all at once with a Biliouse Chorlick…. Died with a great deal of composure." This event took place a short distance below the present Sioux City, about 850 miles above the mouth of the Missouri….

The explorers were now in a paradise of game. Great herds of buffaloes, sometimes 5,000 strong, were grazing in the plains, the fattest of them falling easy victims to the excellent aims of the hunters. Elk, deer, antelopes, turkeys, and squirrels were abundant, and gave variety to their meals, for which the navigators generally tied up at the bank and joined the land party around the huge campfires. Prairie dogs, whose little burrows punctured the plains in every direction, interested the explorers. One day there was a general attempt to drown out one of these nimble miners; but, although all joined for some time in freely pouring water down the hole, the task was finally abandoned as impracticable. Prairie wolves nightly howled about their camps in surprising numbers and in several varieties.

Worn by the fatigue of a day’s hard work at the oars or the towing-line or pushing-pole, or perhaps by long hours of tramping or hunting upon the rolling plains, which were frequently furrowed by deep ravines, each member of the party earned his night’s rest. But as they lay under the stars, around the generous fires of driftwood, great clouds of mosquitoes not infrequently robbed them of sleep. The two great leaders were possessed of mosquito-bars, which generally enabled them to rest with comparative comfort, although sometimes even these were ineffectual; but apparently none of the others enjoyed these luxuries, and buried their heads within their blankets, almost to the point of suffocation. Once they had camped upon a sand-bar, in mid river. By the light of the moon the guard saw the banks caving in above and below. Alarming the sleepers, they had barely time to launch and board their boats before the very spot where they had lain slipped into the turbid current. In the upper reaches of the river, the following year, grizzly bears and stampeded buffalo herds were added to the list of night terrors….

The principal Mandan village was on a bluff overlooking the Missouri, above the present Bismarck, N. D. Three miles below, "on the north side of the river, in an extensive and well-timbered bottom," the expedition settled itself for the winter within huts of cottonwood logs, surrounded by a stout palisade of the same timber, the establishment being named, "in honor of our friendly neighbors," Fort Mandan. In reaching this point, 1,600 miles above the mouth of the Missouri, they had occupied, including delays of every sort, 173 days, thus making an average progress of a trifle over nine miles a day.

During the five months spent at Fort Mandan the leaders were never free from care, for their position was one involving danger and the necessity for exercising both tact and firmness. At first the Mandans, while nominally friendly, quite naturally suspected the motives of these newcomers. With the French trappers and traders who either dwelt or frequently sojourned among them in behalf of the British fur companies, they were on intimate terms; and the Scotch, Irish, and English agents of these organizations were received upon their periodical visits with much consideration. The aims of these white men from the north were similar to their own—the preservation of the wilderness as a great hunting-ground, the only exploitation permissible being that which contributed to the market for pelts.

The chiefs were plainly told that the United States now owned the country, that loyalty to the Great Father at Washington was henceforth obligatory, and that they must no longer receive medals and flags from the British. At the same time, they were informed that the exploration had no other object than to acquaint the Great Father with his new children, and that upon its return arrangements would be made for sending traders into the country, with better goods and fairer treatment than had hitherto been obtained from the Canadian companies. Long before the close of the winter Lewis and Clark had gained a fair degree of popularity among these simple people, and the British agents were correspondingly discomfited….

A week out from Fort Mandan (April 14th) the expedition reached the mouth of what the leaders named Charbonneau Creek. This was the highest point on the Missouri, to which whites had thus far ascended, except that two Frenchmen, having lost their way, had proceeded a few miles farther up. All beyond was unknown to civilized men. On the twenty-sixth the mouth of the Yellowstone was reached. Here, Lewis in his journal recommends that a trading-post be established—eight hundred yards above the junction, on a high, well-timbered plain, overlooking a lake-like widening of the Missouri.

In these upper regions, where signs of coal were frequently seen, and in places alkali whitened the ground like snow, "game is very abundant and gentle"; two hunters could, Lewis thinks, "conveniently supply a regiment with provisions." Big-horns, monster elk, black and grizzly bears, antelopes, and great herds of buffaloes are daily met; they feast on beavers, Lewis thinking "the tale a most delicious morsel," and wondering greatly at the industry of these animals, which in some spots fell for their numerous dams many acres of timber as thick as a man’s body; wolves increase, and the nimble coyotes begin to interest them.

The huge and savage grizzly was, in some respects, the most formidable obstacle encountered by the intrepid explorers; compared with these bulky, ferocious beasts, Indians occasioned small alarm. By the time the party were a month out from the Mandans, Lewis could write: "I find that the curiosity of our party is pretty well satisfyed with rispect to this anamel. . . (he) has staggered the resolution (of) several of them." A few days later came a disagreeable experience with a grizzly, in which he and seven of his men, as yet unable to locate the vulnerable parts, found it impossible to kill the creature save after a persistent fusillade from their short-range rifles. "These bear," he says, "being so hard to die reather intimeadates us all; I must confess that I do not like the gentlemen and had reather fight two Indians than one bear." . . .

Once, at the dead of night, a large buffalo bull invaded their camp. Apparently attracted by the light, he swam the river, and climbing over their best pirogue—but fortunately not seriously injuring it—he charged the fires at full speed, passing within a few inches of the heads of the sleeping men, and made for Lewis and Clark’s tent. Lewis’s dog, his constant companion throughout the expedition, caused the burly beast to change his course, and he was off in a flash; all this, before the sentinel could arouse the camp, which was now in uproar, the men rushing out with guns in hand, inquiring for the cause of the disturbance….

The third of June they came to where the river "split in two," and were greatly puzzled to know which way to go. To take the wrong branch, that did not lead toward the Columbia, would lose them the whole of the season, and probably so dishearten the party that the expedition might have to be abandoned. The utmost circumspection was necessary in order to arrive at the right decision. Both streams were carefully investigated by advance parties, being measured as to width, depth, and character, and velocity of current. The men thought the north or right-hand fork the larger of the two, and therefore the main Missouri; but Lewis and Clark were satisfied that the other was the true channel, and by common consent this was chosen. On this, as on many other occasions, the joint judgment of the captains proved to be superior to that of their assistants….

On the fourth of August, Lewis came to where the Jefferson forks into three streams. At first puzzled to know which to take, he decided to follow the middle one, and left the usual note to Clark on a pole at the junction. But when Clark arrived with his boats there was no pole, for being green, the beavers had carried it off; whereupon he ascended the northwest fork, not being able to judge so well as Lewis, who had the advantage of hill-top views. But the difficulties of passage up this rapid stream were so great, that after a day’s rough travel Clark returned to the forks, there finding Lewis awaiting him. Naming the northwest fork Wisdom, and the southwest Philanthropy—virtues which they ascribed to President Jefferson—they regarded the middle stream as the Jefferson, and continued its ascent. Lewis kept on his way afoot, while Clark—suffering from "the rageing fury of a tumer on my anckle musle"—followed with the craft.

The river now passed for much of the way under perpendicular cliffs of rocks, infested by rattlesnakes. The mountains were not high, yet covered with snow, showing that the altitude was great, although the ascent had been scarcely perceptible. "I do not believe," writes Lewis, "that the world can furnish an (other) example of a river running to the extent which the Missouri and Jefferson rivers do through such mountainous country, and at the same time so navigable as they are." . . .

The following day (August 12th), Lewis reached the source of the Missouri—a spring of ice-cold water issuing from the base of a low mountain or hill." Two miles below this, "McNeal had exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet, and thanked his God that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri." A little later in the day, the captain crossed the divide and reached "a handsome, bold, running creek of cold, clear water, where I first tasted the water of the great Columbia river"; this was the Lemhi, an upper tributary of the Columbia….

They thereupon struck off to the northward, seeking "the great river which lay in the plains beyond the mountains." The route taken was over the heavily timbered Bitterroot Mountains, which are slashed by deep gorges, down which rush torrential streams. This formidable region, "a perfect maze of bewildering ridges," was then and still is traversed by the Lolo or Northern Nez Perce trail, followed from time immemorial by Indians traveling between the upper waters of the Missouri and those of the Columbia.

Having left the region of game, the party were soon pressed for provisions, and were obliged to kill several of their horses for food. Blinding snowstorms in mid-September greatly impeded progress; the sides of the mountains were steep and rocky, with insecure foothold, especially during the frequent showers of sleet; the nights were cold, raw, and often wet; great areas strewn with fallen timber sometimes appeared almost impassable barriers; and not infrequently the rude path was dangerously near the edges of steep precipices, from which men or horses were in constant fear of being dashed to pieces. Thus they toiled on, through the dense and gloomy forests of pine, sometimes scaling steep ridges, at others descending rocky slopes at the peril of their lives, or threading the thick timber of marshy bottoms. Some of their horses fell through exhaustion, to be at once used as food; and the men themselves were so disheartened that Clark found it necessary to forge ahead with a party of hunters to find level country and game, by way of "reviving ther sperits." . . .

After safely braving the formidable Short Narrows of the Columbia—"swelling, boiling & whorling in every direction"—they passed camps of savages who were more familiar with white men, many of them being clad in civilized clothing obtained from the coast traders; if possible, these were even more tricky than their fellows above, and like them, dwelt in mortal fear of the Snakes and Shoshoni whom Lewis and Clark had met upon the sources of the river.

On the first of November they reached Pacific tidewater, and soon were amid rich bottom-lands and abundant elk, deer, and other game, among which were sea-otters; and dense fogs frequently veiled the pleasing landscape. On the fourth, the natives at one village came in state to see them, tricked out in scarlet and blue blankets, sailor jackets, overalls, shirts and hats, in addition to their usual costume—assuming, disagreeable, thievish fellows, freely laying their hands on small things about the camp, but treated by the diplomatic explorers "with every attention and friendship." Three days later (the 7th), breakers could be heard during a storm, and Clark exultingly writes: "Great joy in camp—we are in view of the Ocian." The river was here from five to seven miles wide, with bold, rocky shores, and "The Seas roled and tossed the Canoes in such a manner this evening that Several of our party were sea sick."

Finally, after being weather-bound for six days, in a dismal niche scarcely largely to contain us, our baggage half a mile from us," and canoes weighted down with stones to prevent their dashing against the rocks, the wind lulled, they proceeded (November 15th) around a blustery point, and there found a "butifull Sand beech thro which runs a Small river from the hills."

The continent had at last been spanned by American explorers.


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Lewis and Clark Expedition

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Chicago: Reuben Gold Thwaites, "The Lewis and Clark Expedition," Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820 in America, Vol.5, Pp.38-49 Original Sources, accessed August 11, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4USHURL9I2FK6K2.

MLA: Thwaites, Reuben Gold. "The Lewis and Clark Expedition." Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820, in America, Vol.5, Pp.38-49, Original Sources. 11 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4USHURL9I2FK6K2.

Harvard: Thwaites, RG, 'The Lewis and Clark Expedition' in Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820. cited in , America, Vol.5, Pp.38-49. Original Sources, retrieved 11 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4USHURL9I2FK6K2.