Gotta Get Back in Time: Lewis & Clark

Welcome back to our irregularly timed (Which feels like it should be ironic but I don’t know) trips back to the past. Now I must warn you, our engine has been playing up a bit (Our trip to Ancient Greece resulted in a bit of salt water getting into it). We’ll make it to our destination in terms of year just not necessarily our location. Basically, there is a small chance we could land in the midst of a battle between France and Britain or interrupt a rebellion in Ireland. Fingers crossed we make it first time.

Okay, I think we made it. Thank goodness for- Hang on, is that gunfire? Oh dear. We’re not too far off but we had better get out of here before we become casualties of the battle of Vertières in Haiti. One moment (Whose bright idea was it to have a old-timey steering wheel. Oh wait, it was mine…)

I think we’re good now. The year is 1803. The USA have just sealed one helluva of a deal in the form of the Louisiana Purchase. The Federal Government now oversee 3 times as much land as before and are in need of a serious amount of information. Their newly acquired region was a land of mystery and intrigue which isn’t ideal for a ruling government.

The Solution? Why an expedition of course! Prior to sealing the deal with bonnie Bonaparte, Congress set aside $2500 (or $1.6 million today) for an expedition through this unchartered territory. Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis to lead the Corps of Discovery who in turn requested that William Clark, an Army Officer, co-leads. Clark, not one for turning down an adventure, accepted the offer.

Before setting off, the crew were given their very detailed agenda by Jefferson. Jefferson was a very curious man who enjoyed studying many things including plant life and the prospect of this “New World” was too tantalising to comprehend. The Corps were tasked with documenting the flora and fauna they discovered along the way, mapping the regions they traversed and establishing diplomatic relations with the Indian tribes they encountered on their trip. With these aims under his belt, Lewis and the first 11 men of the Corps set off from Pittsburgh on a journey that would take them over two years.

The rest of the Corps joined the initial group at Fort Dubois, Illinois where the expedition was delayed by a few months as a result of poor weather conditions. Not the most glamourous start to such a monumental journey but weather doesn’t always co-operate. The Corps were eventually able to set off proper in May 1804, paddling up the Missouri River, a waterway they hoped would take them straight across the country.

On the 24th October 1804, they stopped at Mandan, a village that 4,500 Indians called home. The Indians welcome them with open arms and the group establish their winter camp there, constructing Fort Mandan which would be their home for the next 6 months. Whilst in Fort Mandan, Lewis and Clark became acquainted to Sacagawea, a Native American women who would prove a key member of the corps.

In April 1805, they resumed their journey along the Missouri River. Nature can be a cruel mistress as the Corps would soon discover. In June the expedition reached the Great Falls which was a bitter-sweet site to behold. It informed the group that they were going the right way but it also meant that the hoped trade route was no longer a possibility. Getting around the falls meant a month of carrying not only their supplies but also their boats. Fun, said no one ever.

By August, the Corps had reached the Rocky Mountains. For anyone unaware, the Rocky Mountains were (And still are) an infamous cause of problems for travellers so, naturally, the Corps were a bit concerned about the crossing. However, a meeting with a Shoshone tribe proved to be a life saver. Whilst attempting to negotiate a trade deal for horses the chief was revealed to be the brother of Sacagawea. The tribe agreed to barter the Corps horses and provide guides to help with the crossing.

It’s safe to say the Corps of Discovery really struggled to cross the Rocky Mountains. They were reduced to eating tallow candles until they reached more negotiable land from which Sacagawea (An actual super woman) was able to locate and cook camas roots to help the group regain their strength.

The Corps did eventually manage to make it far as Snake River where a friendly tribe of Nez Perce Indians helped them build canoes to travel on. They travelled along the Snake river till they reached the Pacific ocean in December 1805. The Corps had become the first people to make the transcontinental trip. They established a winter camp at Fort Clatsop where they endured 4 months of which only 12 did not bring rain. Far from a heroes welcome.

On the 23rd of March 1806, the Corps began their return journey, happily leaving Fort Clatsop behind them. On the return journey, the Corps split up to cover more ground, Lewis leading a team up the Marias River and Clark going through Crow Tribe territory. Lewis experienced the only violent encounter the entire Corps had on their expedition. Some members of the Blackfeet tribe attempted to steal the group’s weapons. There was a short struggle which saw two tribe members killed. Lewis and his men travelled over 100 miles in a single day before they set up camp again. Clark’s crew also fell victim to Indians but they were less successful, half their horses disappearing one the night.

The Corps reunited in August but Lewis was mistaken for an elk by one of Clark’s hunters and suffered a thigh injury.  The Corps carried on travelling east and on the 23rd of September, the Corps returned to St Louis triumphant.

Clark went on to live a relatively normal life, settling down and starting a family. Lewis’ fate was more upsetting. Towards the end of the expedition, Lewis’ mental health deteriorated and he tried to take his own life unsuccessfully. Upon their return, things got far worse. Despite the overwhelming achievement he had played such a huge part in, he believed he had achieved nothing and had contributed very little to society. On the 11th of October 1809, Lewis died of self-inflicted gun wounds to the head and gut.

In light of Lewis’ tragic departure from the world, let us review the contributions of the expedition towards Westward Expansion and the American people. For starters, the land of mystery was no longer quite so mysterious (They unfortunately couldn’t prove that Woolly Mammoths resided in the west (An actual rumour, by the way)). People now felt more comfortable moving west, triggering a mass movement of people. They also helped establish peaceful relations with Indian tribes which, despite later being utterly ruined, meant that fears of trouble with the Indians dissipated. They just unlocked such a wealth of knowledge for the American people and helped pave the way for generations to come.

That concludes our trip back in time. If you have any thoughts, questions, feedback or suggestions please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments. Thank you.


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