What is past is prologue. For all of us, an understanding of our yesterdays gives us a better appreciation, a sense, a feel, for who and what we might become. As soldiers, we have always been rooted to our past, the tradition, an understanding of our yesteryears, of our soldiers of an earlier time. This appreciation of history goes a long way toward helping us appreciate the present and plan for the future.
The Bicentennial of the famous expedition to the Northwest, the Lewis & Clark Expedition, is one of those opportunities to help us understand our roots.
Thomas Jefferson is elected president in 1800. Jefferson, our third president, lived life to the fullest. One of the Founding Fathers, he was most noted for writing the Declaration of Independence. He would serve as Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, Secretary of State, vice-president as well as president.
His personal world was just as interesting. He is captivated with everything. He is a noted farmer, a fine architect, has the largest personal library in America. And he had an abiding interest in the unknown lands, especially the great west.
When Jefferson becomes president, the western boundary of the United States was the Mississippi River. Two-thirds of our citizens lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic tidewater area. He considered the possibility of “out yonder”expeditions for a number of years. With the great Revolutionary war hero, Brigadier General George Rogers Clark, a friend for over 30 years, Jefferson carried on a lively dialogue related to mammals and mastodons and new plants. At the time he was asked to lead a western expedition, General Clark’s health had deteriorated and he had financial problems. Jefferson also proposed a trip West to Andrea Michaud, a botanist, who turned out to be a French spy. He also communicated with an adventurer, John Ledyard, who planned to take his dog, head east, and travel across the Atlantic Ocean, then goes east across Europe and Siberia and the Bering Strait to finally reach Western America. As president, Thomas Jefferson, the “great armchair explorer” would finally realize his dream.
In 1801, Army Captain Meriwether Lewis comes to work for the president as personal secretary. He will handle correspondence, copy documents, saddle the president's horse, and socialize with the many White House visitors.
Captain Lewis is tutored and mentored by this remarkable president. Jefferson, 31 years older. Has read much. We can imagine the number of times he would recommend a book, "Meriwether, read this. We'll talk about it tomorrow." We can well imagine how many times they spent late hours poring over maps of the known and unknown.
On January 18, 1803, President Jefferson seeks congressional authorization for an official expedition to the West. The request is for $2500.00 for one Army officer and ten enlisted men. By spring, Captain Lewis, the designated commander, is in Philadelphia for instruction in medicine, celestial navigation, zoology and botany. The captain buys a variety of supplies for the expedition.
In the spring, Captain Lewis, with the blessing of President Jefferson, writes his former army commander. William Clark, inviting him to share the command of the expedition. Captain Clark had left the military for health reasons, becomes a land surveyor and speculator. Clark accepts the invitation to share the command to the West.
In July 1803, the 15 million-dollar purchase of Louisiana by President Jefferson doubles the size of the United States adding 820,000 square miles for 3 cents an acre.
Captain Lewis leaves Washington with his final instructions. He travels to Pittsburgh to oversee the construction of a 55-foot long, shallow-bottom keelboat. The captain and a small crew travel on the Ohio River, meeting William Clark and some additional men he had recruited in the area. Captain Lewis also brings a large, Newfoundland dogs. William Clark brings York, a slave he has owned since childhood.
That fall and winter, the expedition establishes Camp Dubois on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. The site is 11 miles upstream from St. Louis. Additional men are recruited and trained. The 45 men are typical of America's diversity at the time. We were a nation of a little over 5 million, including 750,000 African American slaves, and about 600,000 Native Americans. The crew will eventually consist of a dozen French boatmen, three sergeants, a corporal and 21 privates from the army, nine Kentucky and Virginia mountain-men. The corps is truly a hodgepodge of American life.
The winter of l803-04 at Camp Dubois is busy. The men go through a rough orientation, then a basic training. They practice marksmanship and have endless drills. Orders and more orders. Chain-of-command. Discipline and teamwork and the Army values: loyalty and duty and respect, selfless service and honor, integrity and personal courage. The training seems endless.
It had to be tough love training. This trip would last for two plus years. The men would be isolated from the outside world, from family and friends and correspondence.
On March 10, 1803, the two commanders attend formal ceremonies in St. Louis, transferring Louisiana Territory from France to the United States. The trip is now both exploration and diplomacy. The expedition departs four days later.
The keelboat, heavily laden with ten tons of supply, and two smaller craft called pirogues proceed upriver, using sails when possible or long poles to cordel (note: to push themselves upriver). At times, the men push the craft. Sometimes, they wade along the banks, pulling the boats with heavy ropes. The trip was slow, often making only five miles in a day. A good day was ten miles. The men complain about the heat, bugs, sore backs, snakes and each other. The river is relentless.
The water level varies from knee deep to chest high. The river is much wilder and wider than it is today, Banks often cave in, sandbars appear and disappear and eddies can happen anytime. Tree stumps and limbs and snags are a constant battle. This is a tough Army assignment with no fallback plan possible. The men struggle but don't give up, whatever the odds or however numbing the endless monotony.
This mission represents America. On July 4, 1804, near present-day Atchison, Kansas, the expedition marks the Fourth with a flag raising. The men are in full dress and stand tall. They fire the keelboat's cannon. Each man gets an extra ration of whiskey. This America is only 28 years old.
The landscape begins to change. The endless prairie country opens to the vast plains. There is much sign of Indian life, but no Indians. The men are ever at the ready. Recon missions. Guard duty at night. Cleaning weapons. K.P.
They enter a broad basin and hilly country, today's Loess Hills. Thousands of years before the expedition, terrific winds had blown the topsoil into new hills along the river. William Clark, the artillerist by military background, uses dead reckoning and a surveyor’s chain. He walks and maps the entire area and describes this first long rise, "the bald pated hills."
On August 3rd, the Corps meets a small delegation of Otoe and Missouria Indians. The commanders hand out peace metals to major chiefs. The commanders give out 15 star flags and small gifts. The corps puts on a full military parade, complete with close-order drill. The unit shows off their magnet and compasses, Lewis' telescope and air gun and their modern weapons system. The commanders give a formal speech, informing the Indians that they have a new Great Father, far to the East, and promises that there would be peace and prosperity if the Indians do not make war on whites or other tribes. The Indians responded with their own gifts, dancing and a feast and probably a lot of questions about this large group of travelers like no others ever seen on the river. The military unit has to be somewhat on edge. The first meeting is long, but goes well.
Near present-day Sioux City, Iowa, Sergeant Charles Floyd dies of a burst appendix. He will be the only member who dies on the trip. He is buried with all of the honors of war. The loss of one of the unit members had to be a most difficult moment. Three days later, the unit carpenter, Private Patrick Gass is selected as the new platoon sergeant.
A week later, the Expedition has a friendly council with the Yanktoni Sioux. More gifts and dancing and a warning about possible trouble further on.
They move into the wide-open Great Plains. Strange new animals are everywhere: coyotes, mule deer and pronghorn antelope, and a badger, which they would kill and stuff to send to President Jefferson.
On September 7th, near present-day Lynch, Nebraska, all of the men are needed to capture a strange new animal. They call it the “barking squirrel." . The commanders eat the first prairie dog. The second becomes a mascot.
Before the trip is completed, the Corps would describe 122 animals and 178 plants previously unrecorded in the Euro-American world.
As they move upriver, the day-to-day monotony, the same old thing, began to set in. Get up, hunt, and move the craft upriver, set up camp and guard the area. The men are truly tested. The Army values—selfless service, duty, and loyalty are drilled and grilled into the mindset of the men.
The Corps will meet their toughest test in the area of Pierre, the present day capitol of South Dakota. Here they meet the Lakota-Teton Sioux. These Indians are strong willed, often on the warpath, much feared as raiders and toll-collectors. The Indians demand one of the boats and many gifts. Tempers erupt. A fight very nearly ensues. For three anxious days, the expedition is at the ready. They are both well trained to deal with the crisis and probably a bit lucky to get out unscathed.
On October 24th, near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota, the Corps reaches the villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa. Over 4500 people, live in five villages. The population is greater than Washington City.
The captains visit their Indian neighbors. The sergeants oversee the construction of Fort. Mandan. A constant parade of Native Americans visits and trade. The captains meet Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trapper, living among the Hidatsa. After considerable discussion, the captains agree to hired him as an interpreter and cook for the next leg of the trip. His Lemhi-Shoshone Indian wife, Sacagawea, captured by the Minataree five years before is more important. Her peoples, the Lemhi-Shoshone live somewhere in the area of the headwaters of the Missouri and have many horses.
The military routine at the Mandan villages is very indicative of what they had to deal with over and over again. Numerous visits, guarding the fort, flag detail, cooking, hunting, police call. Every member has specific assignments: guard mount, cleaning weapons, making repairs and sewing new uniforms and moccasins. And developing and maintaining community relationships.
Life isn’t easy. Hunting is poor at times. Several of the men get into trouble. The cold is endless. On December 17th, William Clark records a temperature of 45 degrees below zero. It takes nearly a month to move into their fort. On Christmas Eve, the expedition moves in for the long, dark, endless winter.
These men had seen much during the course of that first travels year. They had met tribes along the way. They had had problems with some of the peoples that they had met. Most were very friendly. Some of the men did not live up to the high standards. Private John Newman is tried for mutiny. Private Willis Reed runs. John Willard is found guilty of falling asleep on guard duty. He, like the other men who break rules, is lashed. The guilty men run a gauntlet and every man applied a whip. A couple of the boys got "drunked up" and got into the small supply of whiskey. They pay the same price. But, over time, they learn to work together, to live together and especially, to depend upon one another. Respect and duty and selfless service begin to get ingrained in everyone.
On April 7th, the Corps would break up. The two commanders dispatch the keelboat and a dozen men, including those dismissed from the Corps and the Frenchmen, downriver, Maps,journals, reports and Indian artifacts and boxes of scientific specimens, animal skins and skeletons and mineral samples are all sent. Five live animals are sent. A prairie dog and one of the magpies will get all the way to Washington.
The permanent party heads west, traveling in the two pirogues and six smaller dugout canoes. The Expedition totaled 33 now, including Sacagawea and her six-week-old baby boy and Charbonneau.
Captain Lewis writes as they depart: "We are now about to penetrate a country at least 2000 miles in width and which the foot of civilized man has never trodden. I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life."
As they proceed west, into an area that none of them was aware of at all, they are amazed at the unbelievable wildlife, the herds of bison numbering into the thousands and the great variety of animals. Sergeant John Ordway writes about animals, "so plentiful and tame that some of the party clubbed them out of the way."
Meanwhile, the men are fighting hard, working against that current. They eat six, seven, eight pounds of bison meat a day. On April 29th, they pass the Yellowstone River. Captain Lewis and another hunter kill an enormous bear, a grizzly, never before described by science. At first, Lewis believed that the Indian accounts of the bear's ferocity had been exaggerated. That changes in a hurry. Day after day when they would run into the grizzlies, the men are chased across the plains, into the river, forced to climb trees. Meriwether Lewis writes, "Our curiosity in the party is pretty well-satisfied with respect to that animal."
On May 20th, the captains named a river, Sacagawea or Bird Woman River. As they mapped the new territory, the captains eventually would name hundreds of landmarks for every expedition member, family and friends and national leaders. On May 29th, Captain Clark comes across a river, considered particularly clear and pretty. He names the river for a young woman, Judith Hancock, who he hoped one day would marry him. She will.
On the last day of May, they would enter a remarkable region, the White Cliffs of the Missouri. They pass miles of sandstone formations, which the men would compare, to the ruins of the ancient cities and mighty fortresses.
On June 2 nd, they come to a fork in the Missouri River. After several days of scouting, all of the party is brought together. The tough question is posed: "Which fork is the true Missouri?”. All of the men vote for the more northerly stream as the true Missouri. Only the two commanders believed it was the south fork. The men salute and say to their leaders, "We are ready to follow you wherever you think proper to direct." The men are loyal, firmly believing faith in the leadership abilities of their two commanders.
On June 13th, Captain Lewis has gone on ahead. The two commanders have taken turns leading. One would scout ahead for a time; the other would stay with the main party. Thus, they would lead from the front and, lead by being with the troops. Captain Lewis hears a roar, then sees a mist. He would write, about "the grandest site I ever beheld." But, instead of one falls, there are five falls. They will portage their canoes 18-1/4 miles The work is torturous. Wooden wheels and handmade carts made out of cottonwood trees are built to carry some of the cargo. The men are tripping, falling and slipping over the broken, rough, terrain. Hailstorms, prickly pear, cactus. broiling heat add to the misery. The portage would take nearly a month.
On July 4, 1805, the party celebrates Independence Day, marking the end of the portage. The men dance late into the night and finish the last of their celebratory whiskey supply.
Leaving the high, rolling plains, they now enter Mountain Montana. Game is scarce. The country has sharp, towering peaks and mighty vistas. They travel though the narrow, confining Gates of the Mountain with cliffs a thousand feet high.
They move on to the Three Forks of the Missouri, naming the rivers for President Jefferson, "in honor," as Lewis writes, " of that illustrious personage, the author of our enterprise," for the lover of maps, Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury, and for Secretary of State James Madison.
The summer season is half done. They need horses. The mountains surround them. Sacagawea comes through with a moral booster, recognizing the familiar country. Before the headwaters, she was not aware of any of the country It was as unknown to her as it was for the explorers. She points out the very place where the Hidatsa had captured her five years earlier. The Expedition takes the largest of the three rivers, the Jefferson. The river flows to the southwest The Jefferson is far more difficult than the Missouri. It is swift, shallow, rocky. Heavy willows line the banks. The river meanders. They meet another headwaters, this time taking the Beaverhead River. They are heading deeper and deeper into the southwest Montana. The days are hot, nights are getting cooler. The men are tired and taxed to the limit. They must dig deep to carry on.
Sacagawea recognizes the great landmark, the Beaverhead Rock. near the river's headwaters and home of her people, the Lemhi Shoshone. The explorers are desperate to find Indians and horses. Lewis and three men scout ahead.
On August 11th, the Lewis recon party comes across a single mounted Indian, the first sighting in five months. The Indian rides off. A day later, Lewis ascends the final ridge, reaching a small spring, one of the headwaters of the Missouri. He writes of "the most distant fountains of the waters of the mighty Missouri in search of which we have spent so many toilsome days and restless nights." The four men climb to the top of the ridgeline. They are at the Lemhi Pass, bordering Montana and Idaho. The end of Louisiana. But, instead of seeing a summit and open plain to the west with a large river flowing to the Pacific, all they see are mountains and more mountains and more mountains.
Ironically the shipment of items sent from Fort Mandan arrives in the east. A good soldier, Corporal Richard Warvington was tasked with delivery of the material. He gets the order and carries out the mission. President Jefferson will hang elk antlers in his foyer, plant Indian corn in his garden, send the live magpie and the prairie dog to a natural science museum in Philadelphia.
On August 17th, Captain Lewis’ party surprises four Indian women. Soon after, they meet a band of Shoshone warriors. Lewis tries to negotiate for horses. It is not easy. Clark and the rest of the expedition finally arrive. Sacagawea is brought in to help translate. She quickly recognizes her brother, the head chief. The captains name the spot Camp Fortunate and begin difficult negotiations to acquire horses.
On August 21st, with a Shoshone guide named Old Toby, 29 horses and a mule, the Expedition sets off overland, heading north over the Lost Trail and into the Bitterroot Valley. They meet the friendly Salish people. The men are tired and bedraggled. Morale had to be low. Without military discipline and teamwork, they might not make it. Using six languages to communicate, the Corps trade for replacement horses. They head north to Lolo Creek. They call the site Traveller's Rest. They stop for three days, then turn West once again, this time over the mountains. They slowly ascend the Bitterroots "the most terrible mountains I ever beheld," writes Sgt. Patrick Gass, heavily-wooded and steep. Their Salish guide loses the trail. They are forced to butcher colts to survive. They eat every part of the animals. Snow begins to fall. The mountains are endless. After eleven days, they complete the crossing. They stagger out of the Bitterroots near present-day Weippe, Idaho.
They meet the wary Nez Perce. On the advice of an elderly woman, Watkuweis, the tribe decides to befriend them. The men get sick after gorging down salmon and camas roots. A chief, Twisted Hair, shows them how to use fire to hollow out felled trees to make new canoes. The Nez Perce agree to keep their horses until spring. With five new canoes, the Expedition pushes out into the Clearwater River on October 7th. The current will be in their favor. They hurry down the Clearwater, then the Snake and finally reach the Columbia.
Villages are everywhere on both sides of the Columbia. On October 16th, Clark estimates 10,000 lbs. of salmon drying in one village. The men want meat to eat, They begin to barter and trade for dogs as food. Two days later, Clark sees Mount Hood in the distance. It's a fixed point on the Expedition's map, proof that they are at last approaching the ocean.
On November 7th, William Clark writes his most famous line. "Ocean in view. Oh the joy!" They are actually 20 miles from the sea, on the eastern end of Grey's Bay in the middle of tidewater. Pacific storms and roiling waters and high winds pin them down for nearly three weeks. Clark estimates that they have traveled over 4,162 miles from the mouth of the Missouri. His estimate, based on dead reckoning, will turn out to be within 40 miles of the actual distance.
Where to spend the winter? The captains have great faith in their small force. They ask for everyone's opinion. These two commanders are remarkable men and confide with the troops. They have great faith and confidence in their military unit. By now, the corps is truly a team, each individual caring about and looking out for the others. The majority vote that the winter quarters should be on the South side of the Columbia, near present-day Astoria. The co-commanders concur.
The 25th of December, 1805. An entire continent between them and home, the expedition celebrates Christmas in the new quarters. The captains hand out the Expedition's last tobacco and handkerchiefs as presents.
Lewis writes on January 1 , 1806, "The Expedition is homesick. The rain goes on and on and on." Of the 112 days on the Pacific Coast, only 12 were without rain, and only six days of those days had some sunshine.
On March 23 rd, the Expedition sets out for home. By late June, they arrive back at the Nez Perce. They gather their horses, but must wait for the snows to melt in the Bitterroots. Once again, the Nez Perce provide the explorers with food. Lewis calls this tribe, the "most hospitable, honest, sincere people we have met in our village."
They re-cross the Bitterroots. The Expedition splits into smaller groups, in order to explore more of the Louisiana Territory. Clark takes a group down the Yellowstone and Lewis across the shortcut to the Great Falls, exploring the northernmost reaches of the Marias River., This split command means the two commanders tailor their force to meet vital objectives. What about the Yellowstone Country? Could the Marias River be the River to the West? What about all the unexplored areas in between? At one point, the Corps will be split up into five separate groups.
How can they pull it off? The men have trained hard. They are Army Special Forces, Delta Force, Seals—all wrapped into one.
On July 26, Lewis and three men meet up with eight Blackfeet warriors. They talk and camp together. The next morning, they catch the Blackfeet trying to steal horses and guns. In the ensuing fight, two Indians are killed in a firefight. Captain Lewis makes a beeline to the Missouri River; They gallop 120 miles in 24 hours. Meeting the canoeing element of the team. Three days later, Private Cruzatte, a good fiddle player and bad-eyed hunter shoots Lewis in the backside. Lewis will moan and groan for days, luckily surviving with no permanent damage.
William Clark will have a much easier time in the Yellowstone Country. Still, their horses will be taken by Indians, likely the Crow, who count coup on these travelers. Clark will describe the sandstone rock, Pompey's Tower, in honor of the young son of Sacagawea, "Little Pomp." Clark writes his name and the date, the only hard, physical evidence that exists of the trip to this day.
All elements of the expedition reunite near the mouth of the Yellowstone River On August 14th, they arrive at the Mandan villages, One member, John Colter is given permission to leave the expedition to return to the Yellowstone to trap beaver with the first mountain men heading upriver.
The corps scoots downriver with the Missouri River current, covering 50, 60, 70 miles a day, often not stopping to hunt, in order to get back sooner.
They exchange harsh words with Black Buffalo and the Lakota and move on. They stop at the gravesite of Charles Floyd, their only casualty.
On September 20th, they see a cow on shore and raise a cheer! On the 23rd, the final day of the Corps, they reach St. Louis.
The captains are national heroes as they travel to Washington, D.C. in the Fall. Balls and galas are held in the towns they pass through. At the Capitol, one senator tells Lewis, "it's as if he had just returned from the moon".
The men get double pay, 320 acres of land as a reward and the captains get 1600 acres. Lewis is named Governor of Louisiana and Clark is made the Indian Agent for the West and Brigadier General of the Territory's militia.
In three short years, on, October 11, 1809, Captain Lewis will die on the Natchez Trace on a trip from St. Louis to Washington. He takes his own life. The expedition was his life highlight. In 1812, at Fort Manuel, South Dakota, Sacagawea dies of smallpox. Captain Clark, in St. Louis, will see to the education of Jean Baptiste Clark’s slave, York, dies sometime around 1832, probably of cholera. He had been in the freighting business in Tennessee and Kentucky. William Clark will die in 1838. He did marry Judith Hancock, for whom he named a river in Montana. She died young. He marries again and will father six children. St. Louis was always called the "Redhead Chief's" town by the Western tribes.. Clark was successful in business, served as commissioner of Indian Affairs, is a Brigadier General in the militia and Governor of Missouri Territory. Most of the men go off to the unknown, some leave the military, some stay in the army, several go to the American West as mountain most notably John Colter, discoverer of Yellowstone. Several will leave a real mark. The youngest member of the Expedition, George Shannon, only 17 when the expedition starts, loses a leg in an Indian fight. He will study the law. Later become a federal judge and a senator.
The Expedition, the value, the worth and the importance, stands out in our history. It is one of our monumental historical sagas. This is the first great expedition into the unknown for us. It is taking chances and making a difference.
And this is first, foremost and always a military expedition. No other type group could have completed the trip. The leadership and teamwork could only be pulled off by a strong, coherent military organization. The Corps to the Northwest, the Lewis and Clark Expedition-"one for all and all for one, truly an army of one."