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The commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is a wonderful opportunity for us, as Americans, to get a sense of and feel for a magical moment in American History. Our greatest land expedition, the Corps to the Northwest was a trip taken by military men heading off to the unknown West.

Let’s go back in time for a moment. Thomas Jefferson is elected president in 1800. We often call it the Revolution of 1800, the beginning of political parties.

Jefferson, our third president, lives life to the fullest. He is one of the Founding Fathers, most noted for writing our Declaration of Independence. He serves as Virginia’s governor, Ambassador to France, secretary of state, vice president and two presidential terms.

Thomas Jefferson’s personal interests are far ranging, from architecture to science to farming. He is particularly intrigued with the unknown Western spaces. When he becomes president, the western boundary of the United States is the Mississippi River. Two-thirds of America’s population of five million lives within 50 miles of the Atlantic tidewater area. Jefferson, himself, never travels more 50 miles west of Monticello. Virginia, Boston, Philadelphia and New York bound his world.

A newly minted Army captain, Meriwether Lewis is selected to work for the president. As the president’s personal secretary, Captain Lewis has a variety of duties: taking care of correspondence and mail, copying documents, meeting visiting ambassadors and bankers, risk-takers aspiring to build canals or faster ships or disgruntled southern farmers.

Captain Lewis is tutored and mentored by this remarkable president. We can well imagine the number of times the president encourages Lewis to read this book or study this map for a later discussion.

On January 18, 1803, in a secret communication to the Congress, President Jefferson seeks authorization for the first official western expedition. The president asks for $2,500 to make a trip with one army officer and ten enlisted men. By spring, Captain Lewis, the designated commander, is sent to Philadelphia for a crash course in medicine, celestial navigation, zoology and botany. He begins buying supplies for the expedition. With the blessing of President Jefferson, he writes a letter to a former Army buddy, William Clark, a man who had been his commander when Meriwether Lewis had first entered the military, inviting him to share the command of the expedition. Captain William Clark had left the military for health and family reasons. He is now a surveyor and land speculator. Clark writes back and accepts the joint command.

On July 4, 1803, the official news of the Louisiana Purchase is announced. For $15 million dollars, Jefferson doubles the size of the United States by executive order. He buys 820,000 square miles for three cents an acre. The very next day, Captain Lewis starts for Pittsburgh to oversee the construction of a shallow-bottomed keelboat, 55 feet long, eight feet wide, with 11 oars per side. In the early fall, Captain Lewis and a small military force begin their trip on the Ohio River. Low water slows the travel. New recruits are added. At the fall of the Ohio River, William Clark, his slave, York, and more recruits join the force.

Camp Dubois, on the east bank of the Mississippi River and 11 miles upstream from St. Louis, will be built and serve as winter quarters in the winter of 1803-04. A final party of 45 men are recruited and trained. These men are typical of America’s diverse population. They hail from every corner of the young nation. The team will include two brothers, Reuben and Joseph Field. George Drouilliard, Pierre Cruzatte and Francois Labiche are sons of white fathers and Indian mothers. The sergeants, John Ordway, Charles Floyd and Nathaniel Pryor are experienced soldiers. Patrick Gass, a carpenter, is an Irishman from Pennsylvania, Joseph Whitehouse a tailor from Virginia. John Shields is a master blacksmith. Other recruits are cooks, hunters and interpreters. The expedition also includes a dozen French boatmen, 21 Army privates, a corporal and nine Kentucky and Virginia mountain-men that could a hit a squirrel in the eye from 100 paces. You miss the shot and the family doesn’t eat tonight.

` These men are typical of generations of young folks entering the U.S. Army. They join for a variety of reasons: adventure, patriotism, a love of soldiering. The winter of 1803-1804 at Camp Dubois includes soldier orientation and learning Army ways: basic training, knock them down, then build them back up. Run. Practice marksmanship. Drill and command. Learning to take orders, following a chain-of-command. Learning discipline and teamwork and the army values. These values-loyalty and duty and respect, selfless service and honor, integrity, personal courage- become integral to each man’s character, vital for mission-success.

This trip will be tough. An expedition of at least two years. Totally isolated from family, news and correspondence, all personal relationships. Where are my friends? What’s going on at home? Will I get back okay?

On March 10, 1803, the two commanders, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, attend ceremonies in St. Louis, formally transferring Louisiana Territory from France to the United States. From this time on, the expedition will also have a diplomatic tone.

On May14th, the expedition leaves for the West ”under a gentle breeze,” Captain Clark writes in his journal. Captain Lewis is still in Louis making final purchases.

The keelboat is loaded down with ten tons of supplies. Two smaller pirogues carry smaller loads. The armada proceeds upriver. The men row, sometimes digging into the mud with long setting poles, sometimes pulling with leather ropes, sometimes pushing, at times using their sails with a prevailing wind. Five miles per day is typical. At times, the corps can make eight or ten miles against the steady 3 to 5 mile an hour current.

As they begin to move up the river, the water will only be at knee level, sometimes waist high, at times, chest high. The river is generally wilder and wider than it is today. The typical day includes riverbanks crashing into the water, shifting sandbars, dangerous eddies, tree stumps, floating logs, snags partially hidden in the water. The going is tough.

One of the most dramatic moments is very illustrative of this trip as a military operation. The scene: July 4, 1804 near present-day Atkinson, Kansas. The expedition members put on their dress uniforms and commemorate the day by raising their 15-star flag, conduct a pass-in-review. Each man gets an extra dram of whiskey. The corps sings and dances late into the night. America is 28 years old. The men are beginning to get a feel for the special nature of their mission.

Heading further upriver, the corps begins to see changes in scenery. At the Platte River, “a mile wide and an inch deep,”the drier plains take over the long grass prairie. Some earlier boat travelers, who had made the trip from St. Louis to the Mandan Villages, refer to the junction of the Missouri and Platte as a “crossing of the equator.”

They begin to enter a broad basin and hilly country. Today, we know them as the Loess Hills. Captain Clark, the artillerist by military background, maps and walks the area, calling them “the bald-pated hills” because of the skimpy plant growth.

On August 3 rd, the Corps has its first official meeting with representatives of the western tribes. Fifteen miles north of present-day Omaha, Nebraska, the expedition meets a small delegation of Otoe and Missouria Indians. Ceremonies start with an exchange of gifts. The commanders hand out peace metals. One side shows a likeness of President Jefferson. The obverse has an outline of two men shaking hands and the line, “Peace and Friendship.” The commanders give out 15-star flags and other gifts. A military parade and close-order drill is followed by a show of a compass and magnet, Captain Lewis’ air gun and his telescope. A formal speech informs the Indians that they have a new great father, far to the East, and promises of peace and prosperity if the tribes do not make war on whites or other Native Americans tribes. The Indians respond with their own gifts, dancing and a feast and a host of questions about this large group of travelers unlike any other others ever seen before on the river.

Near present-day Sioux City, Iowa, the youngest of the sergeants, Charles Floyd, dies, very likely of a burst appendix. The Journals State that this U.S. soldier, the first to die west of the Mississippi River, is accorded all honors of war. The captains name the hilltop burial site and a nearby river for Sergeant Floyd. The loss of one of their own had to be most difficult for the entire unit. Sergeant Floyd would be the only fatality.

Three days later, the names of three men are nominated as the new sergeant-selectee. The carpenter, Patrick Gass, has the most votes. The captains concur.

On August 30 th, the expedition holds a friendly council with the Yanktoni Sioux. Gifts and dancing and a warning about possible trouble upriver. And a new baby is brought forward to meet the commanders. According to the oral tradition of the Yanktoni, a flag is wrapped around the baby. He is declared special. The Corps honors the tradition.

They move onto the Great Plains and begin seeing animals unknown to them: coyotes, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and a badger, which they kill and stuff. The solider also find and capture, with much difficulty, their first prairie dog.

Before the trip is completed, Captain Lewis, especially, and the others, will describe 122 animals and 178 plants that had previously not been recorded for science, unknown to the Euro-American world.

As they move upriver, the day-to-day monotony, the same old thing, begins to set in. Get up, police the area, move the boats upriver, hunt, set up camp, cook the day’s only hot meal, guard the area. A strong sense of duty and mission-accomplishment has to permeate the daily activities and the commander’s calls with the sergeants.

The predictability of daily life ends near Pierre, South Dakota’s Capital City. Here, at the Bad River, they meet the Lakota-Teton Sioux. The tribe is large, warlike, known for their raiding, well known as the toll collectors of the Missouri River. The Indians demand one of the boats and supplies as a toll for moving further upriver. Tempers erupt. A fight nearly erupts, but the situation is diffused with skillful diplomacy and a bit of luck by one of the chiefs and the two commanders. For three anxious days with the Lakota Sioux, the expedition is at the ready. Strict discipline, excellent small unit tactical training and teamwork save the Corps to the Northwest.

They continue upriver. On October 24 th, near present-day Bismarck, the Corps meets the Earth Lodge People, the five villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa. About 4,500 people live in the immediate area, a larger population than either St. Louis or Washington, D.C. The captains supervise the construction of Fort Mandan across the river from the main village. A constant parade of Native Americans stops by to visit and trade. The captains quiz everyone for information about the land furthers West. Here they meet Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trapper and his Indian wife. He and Sacagawea are hired as interpreters for the trip. Sacagawea, a Lemhi Shoshone, was taken by the Mandan five years before. Her Lemhi people had many horses and lived near the western mountains.

The military routine at the Mandan Villages was a constant round of visitations, sentry duty, hunting expeditions, flag details, cooking. Every man had specific duties, from guard mount to cleaning weapons, making repairs and sewing leather outfits and making moccasins. Developing and maintaining strong community ties with their Indian neighbors is vital.

On December 1st, Captain Clark notes a temperature of 45 degrees below zero, the coldest any of these men had ever seen in their lives. The winter was long, dark and cold.

The corps members had seen much during the course of that first travel year, meeting new peoples and marveling at the many animals and plants and new terrain. . Not all expedition members are our good soldiers One deserts, one is tried for mutiny, one man falls asleep on guard duty, and two men break into the small whiskey supply. All are court-martialed. Several are removed from the permanent expedition. Duty and respect, loyalty, are demanded of every member. The men must rely on each other and work and live together. Over time, they learn the importance of selfless service.

In January 1805, they witness the Mandans sacred buffalo-calling ceremony. Several days later, a bison herd appears. Captain Lewis amputates the frostbitten toes of a young Indian boy. He also assists with the birth of Sacagawea’s baby using a potion of rattlesnake rattle and water.

On April 7 th, the Corps splits. The two commanders dispatch the big keelboat and a dozen men downriver with maps and reports and Indian artifacts and scientific specimens and live magpies and a prairie dog. All items will get to President Jefferson. The same day the keelboat returns to St. Louis, the permanent party turns west, traveling in the two pirogues and six smaller dugouts canoes. The expedition now totals 33, including Sacagawea, her six-week-old baby and Charbonneau. Captain Lewis writes, “We are now about to penetrate a country at least 2,000 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.

Again, the Corps battles the fast flowing Missouri River current. The badlands are rugged and dry, the bison herds number into the thousands. The men are eating six, seven, eight pounds of bison meat per day. On April 29 th, they pass the mouth of the Yellowstone River. Captain Lewis and another hunter kill an enormous bear never before described by science. Eight shots are needed to kill the grizzly. The Corps will have 39 encounters with the grizzly. Men are chased into the river, forced to climb trees, run for their lives.

On the last day of May, the expedition enters the remarkable White Cliffs of the Missouri. The men compare the white sandstone formations to ruins of ancient cities and mighty fortresses. Captain Lewis writes of this magnificent area, “As we passed it, it seems as if those scenes of visionary enchantment would never end.”

On June 2nd, the Missouri breaks into two forks. After several days of scouting, the party comes together. The tough question is posed: Which fork is the true Missouri? All of the men vote for the more northerly stream. Only the two captains believe it was the south fork. The men acknowledge the captains’ decision to go south, a true expression of loyalty and faith in the leadership abilities of their two commanders.

On June 13th, Captain Lewis and a small party are on reconnaissance. The two commanders take turns throughout the trip, one travels ahead, and one stays with the main party. They lead from the front and lead by being with their troops. Captain Lewis hears a road, then sees a mist. He would write in his journal about “the grandest site I ever beheld.” But, instead of the expected one falls, they soon discover four more. The Corps will portage 18 ¼ miles one-way; to get the dugout canoes around the waterfalls. The work was backbreaking. Wooden wheels and axles on carts made of cottonwood trees, carrying vital cargo, tripping, falling, slipping over the broken, rough, difficult terrain is sheer torture. Hailstorms, prickly pear cactus, broiling heat, rattlesnakes all add to the misery. Instead of a planned half-day portage, the portage continues for nearly a month. The men had to be hard-core, focused, disciplined, totally loyal and selfless to succeed.

On their second 4 th of July, the party celebrates the end of the portage, finishes off the whiskey and sings and dances late into the night.

Leaving the high, rolling plains, the Corps enters the mountains. Game begins to get scarce. The country has sharp, towering peaks and mighty vistas. They travel through the narrow, confining Gates of the Mountains with cliffs a thousand feet high.

The expedition arrives at the headwaters of the Missouri River. The three forks are named the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson. Sacagawea recognizes the area where she was kidnapped five years earlier. The Corps heads southwest on the Jefferson. The river is swift, shallow and rocky. Heavy willows line the banks. The river meanders back and forth. They reach another confluence of rivers, this time taking the Beaverhead. The days are hot, nights are getting cooler. The men are tired and taxed to the limit. They have to be a tight, focused military unit and must dig deep to carry on.

Sacagawea recognizes a landmark familiar with her own people, the Beavershead Rock. Three days later, Captain Lewis sights a lone Indian, first seen since the Mandan Villages. At the last moment, the Indian whirls his horse and rides off to the West. A day later, Captain Lewis and his three soldiers reach a high mountain spring, one of the headwaters of the Missouri. They climb to the top of the ridgeline, two hundred meters higher. They are at the Lemhi Pass, on the border of Montana and Idaho. This is the western-most boundary of Louisiana. But, instead of seeing a summit and open plan to the West with a large river flowing to the Pacific, all they see are mountains and more mountains and more mountains.

On August 17, Captain Lewis and his scouts surprise four Indian women. They soon meet a band of Shoshone warriors. Captain Lewis convinces the Indians to cross the mountains to meet Captain Clark and the main party. Sacagawea comes forward to translate. The chief, Cameahwait, is the brother of the young Indian girl. The captains name the spot Camp Fortunate. They begin to barter for horses.

On August 21st, the expedition, an Indian guide, 29 horses and mule, set out overland west, then north over the Lost Trail and into the Bitterroot Valley. The going is amazingly rugged. The men are tired and bedraggled. Horses are crippled. Morale has to be suffering. Without military discipline and teamwork, they would not make it. Suddenly, they meet the Salish Indians. Using six languages to communicate, the Corps trades for better horses. They head North to Lolo Creek and a site they call Traveller’s Rest. They rest three days and head west once again, this time over the Bitterroot Mountains. Sergeant Galls describes the terrain the “most terrible mountains I ever beheld.” A wet September snowstorm hits. The men are slipping and sliding. Horses fall down rugged slopes. Three colts are killed to keep the Corps from starvation. The ordeal will last for 11 miserable days. On the brink of starvation, they stagger out of the Bitterroots near present-day Weippe, Idaho.

They meet the Nez Perce Tribe. On the advice of an old woman, Watkuweis, the Nez Perce befriends the strangers. The men are welcomed with salmon and camas root. They gorge themselves. Everyone gets sick. Soon, they brand their horses, make new canoes and push out into the Clearwater River. The trip will be much different now. The current favors the expedition. They push their canoes down the Clearwater, the Snake and finally reach the Columbia.

Villages dot both sides of the Columbia River. They stop at each one, visiting, making speeches and negotiating for dogs. They soon tire of eating salmon as a steady diet. They begin to buy dogs for food. On October 18th, Captain Clark, in the lead, spots Mount Hood. It is a fixed point on their map, proof that they are approaching the ocean. British Sea Captain John Cook had marked the volcanic mountain in 1792.

On November 7th, William Clark writes his most famous line. “Ocean in view. Oh, the joy!” But the tidewater is 20 very difficult miles from the ocean. Pacific storms and roiling waters and high winds pin them down for nearly three weeks. Captain Clark determines 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 and ask for everyone’s opinion. Every Corps member has a vote. They chose a freshwater site on the Oregon side of the Columbia. The commanders are remarkable men, asking for input from everyone. They have great faith and confidence in their military unit. These people care and look out for each other.

Fort Clatsop, named for a local tribe, is completed on December 24th. The captains hand out handkerchiefs and the last of the tobacco as Christmas presents.

Captain Lewis writes in his journal on New Year’s Day: “The expedition is homesick. The rain goes on and on and on.” In fact, the Corps stays on the Pacific Coast for 112 days. . There would be only 12 days with no rain and only six with some sunshine.

On March 23rd, the expedition sets out on their return journey. By late June, they go back to the Nez Perce, retrieve their horses and head over the mountains. They are forced back for a week due to deep snow. The New Perce, ever generous, are described as the "most hospitable, honest, sincere people we have met."

They recross the Bitterroot Mountains. At Traveller’s Rest the expedition splits into smaller groups to explore more of the vast Louisiana Territory. Captain Clark takes a group to the Yellowstone River. Captain Lewis takes a shortcut north to the Great Falls to explore the northernmost reach of the Marias River, possibly the long-sought River to the West. This split command means the two commanders tailor their force to meet vital objectives of exploration.

At one point, the Corps will be separated for 70 days over 250 miles north-south, 400 miles east west. How are they able to accomplish the assigned tasks? These men are highly trained, motivated, capable. They are the early equivalent of Special Forces and Delta force, Special Operations. They are outstanding troops.

On July 26th and 27th, Captain Lewis and three men meet eight young Blackfeet warriors. They visit and camp together. Early the next morning, several Blackfeet try to steal horses and guns. In the ensuing firefight, two Indians are killed. Captain Lewis and his men grab their gear and horses and ride hard for 120 miles to the river, meeting a canoe element of the team. Three days later, Captain Lewis is accidentally shot in the backside. He will moan and groan for days, lucky to survive with no permanent damage.

Exploring the Yellowstone Country will be another drama. Fifty horses will be stolen. A huge bison herd blocks the Yellowstone River for a time. The Captain Clark team will need to make new dugouts lashed together. He will also scratch his name and the date into a sandstone bluff, the only physical evidence along the route that still exists.

On August 12th, the expedition is finally reunited, downstream from the mouth of the Yellowstone in western North Dakota. Two days later, they arrive at the Mandan Villages. After a quick visit, the corps continues downriver with the Missouri River current, covering 50, 60, 70 miles per day.

Again, they exchange harsh words with the Lakota Sioux tribe and visit the Sergeant Charles Floyd gravesite. On September 20th, they spot their first domestic cow. Three days later, they arrive at St. Louis after two years, four months and 12 days.

The captains and men are national heroes. Balls and galas are held in St. Louis and a number of eastern communities. At the Capitol in Washington, one senator tells Captain Lewis, “it is like you have just returned from the moon.”

The value, the worth and the importance of the Lewis and Clark Expedition stands out in our history. The Corps to the Northwest is our first great expedition into the unknown west. The trip represents the best of us—taking chances, making a difference, heading “out yonder.”

And, first and foremost and always, this is a military expedition. The leadership, teamwork, discipline, diligence of this amazing trip could only be pulled off by a strong, coherent military organization. The Corps to the Northwest, the Lewis and Clark Expedition represents a great military truism: “one for all and all for one, truly an army of one.”


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