Postcards From The Edge (Of America): The Adventures of Lewis & Clark

Imagine taking a road trip with some friends, but this time, you’re not in a Winnebago during Spring Break or runnin’ a quickie to Tijuana and back. There are no cell phones, no GPS systems and no 24-hour convenience stores. Nope, this little jaunt is about 8,000 miles round-trip, and you’ll be lucky to travel 12 clicks on a good day. There’s no reliable map to guide your path. You’ll have to chow stewed dog meat to stave off starvation. Oh, and you’ll encounter hail the size of grapefruit, rattlesnakes galore and potentially hostile tribes who very well may want to kill you. The good news? You can’t get lost because you have no idea where you’re going.

We’re talking, of course, about the great journey of Lewis and Clark, the original cross-country Hikapalooza over 200 years ago when the first U.S. citizens reached the Pacific by land. Together, the members of the expedition braved that big mass of unknown territory known as “the geography of hope,” an uncharted land full of rumors, from Bigfoot to savage cannibals. Not to mention gold under the rainbow.

1778 Map of Western North America

A Three Hour Tour…

President Thomas Jefferson was the one who came up with this crazy idea, but he made it sound pretty simple: Explore a water route up the Missouri River and then along the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Coast. Yeah, right. While the idea of finding a path connecting the two shores was a good call, it was pretty much impossible because of those pesky Rocky Mountains (who knew?). So what was supposed to be a quick trip to the Pacific ended up lasting 28 months. 

To organize the expedition, Jefferson called on Meriwether Lewis, a 29-year-old fellow Virginian and his personal secretary. Lewis accepted the challenge and got his old Army buddy, William Clark, to ride shotgun. Of course, for Clark, partnering with Lewis meant demoting himself from Lewis’s previous superior officer to the equal-ranking position of captain. It was an important political move, and one that he wouldn’t forget (stay tuned).

While Clark recruited and trained the team, Lewis took a series of crash courses in kayaking, medicine and scientific observation (image of their compass courtesy of Smithsonian Legacies). The crew consisted of a black slave (Clark’s) named York, a dog (a Newfoundland named Seaman) and a support staff of four dozen (mostly soldiers and gung-ho frontiersmen).

For provisions, the group took along some party mix, mainly in the form of “ardent spirits” — a.k.a., 120 gallons of Kentucky Whiskey, about 30 gallons of brandy and a spot of rum (to ward off the chill, of course). The caravan also toted a traveling library, cooking kettles, canvas tenting, trade goods, axes, and personal possessions such as Lewis’ writing desk and his favorite blankie. They called their new troop the Corps of Volunteers for North Western Discovery. Although, had the crew known what they were in for, they might have called it, Do It Yourself; We’re Not Crazy.

I’ll Trade You a Piece of Gum for That Tomahawk

The trip began on May 14, 1804. At least for a little while, the journey was the kind of cake walk President Jefferson had predicted. Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska were in full summer swing, flowers were blooming, and gentle hills greeted the group at every turn.

But the Corps knew that as they ventured further west they would enter what were contractually Spanish and French territories. Of course, the land really belonged to the many bands of Native Americans living in the west who had called the area home for over 15,000 years. Lewis and Clark were a little nervous that the natives wouldn’t be too happy to see a bunch of pasty white strangers tramping on their land, but rather than be selfish or aggressive to the new explorers, the hundreds of Indian tribes inhabiting the region acted more like AAA, aiding the expedition time and time again with food and shelter. The first indigenous peoples the Corps came upon were part of a small group of Oto and Missouri Indians.

Knowing there might be some tension for crashing the party, Lewis and Clark had prepared gift baskets for the people they encountered, offering the natives specially minted bronze Presidential Peace Medals. Then they set up a virtual Swap Meet where they traded materials such as canteens, looking-glasses, fish hooks (popular), uniform coats (very popular) and guns (more popular). That was the usual routine: Dole out a few gifts (tobacco, beads, chewing gum) and march a little in formation, after which Lewis would calmly inform the tribes that they were now a part of the United States. Strangely, this didn’t anger the Native Americans, but only because, after multiple translations, they probably had no idea what old pale-face was saying.

Their hospitality plans certainly worked, and throughout the Corps’ journey, the men continued to receive crucial supplies, advice and guidance from the 50-some odd Native American tribes they encountered. At one critical juncture, the Nez Perce tribe gave them meals when they had little to eat themselves. Other tribes provided canoes, improved footwear and important information about the terrain ahead.

One tribe even provided them with “extended stay” shelter from the snow. The Corps spent the entire winter of 1804-05 in what is now North Dakota with the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, who lived in an earth-lodge community that housed over 4,500 people (more than St. Louis or Washington D.C. had at the time). It’s here that Lewis and Clark met the now-famous Sacagawea. Her husband, a French-Canadian fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau, had been hired as an interpreter and guide for the explorers, and it was agreed that he and his wife would accompany the Corps on their journey. But Sacagawea proved a better translator than her hubby, as well as a better tour guide. More importantly, Sacagawea put a pretty face on the group. Her presence allowed them to be seen by strange tribes not as a war company, but as a research party. Her infant son and his incessant screaming were less helpful, but there are pros and cons to everything.

(Image credit: Flickr user

Are We There Yet? Are We There Yet? Are We There Yet?

When the Corps left “Fort Mandan” (North Dakota) in April of 1805, they began the big push west. Leaving two riff-raff soldiers behind at winter camp, they headed out with 32 men, Sacagawea and her son. It was at this point that they faced their biggest physical obstacle: the Rocky Mountains. Without horses, there was no way the group would be able to carry their gear across, a problem soon solved when the Corps encountered a band of Shoshone Indians.

In one of those “you’ve gotta be kidding me” coincidences, Sacagawea’s brother turned out to be the chief of the tribe, so they got a pretty sweet barter deal on a bunch of stallions. It still took the Corps two solid months to cross the Rockies. On the up side, they got great views of the Gates of the Mountains, Three Forks and the Bitterroot Range (so called because when they saw those suckers and realized the ocean was nowhere in sight, ‘twas a bitter pill).

Even after they made it over the Rockies, they kept running into problems: broken boats, grueling climbs, swarms of mosquitoes, even grizzlies. They trudged through snow in the Bitterroot Range, battled the Missouri River’s fierce currents for its entire 2,400-mile length and dealt with nasty rains that literally rotted the clothes off their backs. When the crew reached present-day Oregon, they knew they were getting close. Although it was new to them, the area was a huge marketplace for Natives all over the west, bustling with hundreds of traders and merchants. Soon thereafter, on November 18, 1805, the crew finally strolled up onto the sands of the Pacific. Though it took the Corps a year and a half to reach what was known as Cape Disappointment, their attitude was quite the opposite.

“Ocian [sic] in view! O! the joy,” exclaimed the spelling-impaired Clark in his journal. History was made. Like teenagers at Lover’s Lane, they carved their initials and the date on a tree to commemorate the journey from sea to shining sea.  

Home Sweet Home

The voyage was successful, but it wasn’t all Slurpees and Motel 6s. As happens on many road trips, not everyone got along. Clark became fed up with Lewis, whose authoritative ways and constant slights didn’t exactly facilitate a “we’re in this together” attitude. In fact, Lewis was hit with the moniker “Frown” for his general demeanor and management style. Sentries caught sleeping on night watch received 100 lashes, and members of the Corps who wanted to go AWOL and join Native American tribes along the way had to run for their lives, lest Lewis shoot them dead.

On March 23, 1806, the Corps left newly-built Fort Clatsop, and headed home. The two leaders took separate routes homeward (not because they couldn’t get along, but to map more turf), and found more people heading west just as they returned. Commerce flourished up the Missouri, and in the Rockies, the fur trade was in full swing. The frontier floodgates had officially opened. In the last week of September 1806, two years and four months after departing, the Corps of Discovery arrived back in St. Louis. Congress gave each member of the expedition double-pay and a chunk of land. Lewis became governor of the Louisiana Territory and Clark took over command of the Louisiana military.

(Image source: Wikipedia)

All seemed right with the world. Clark basked in his newfound fame, married a nice gal and (leaving future road trips to others) settled in St. Louis as a socialite. But Lewis met a more surprising fate. Only three years after his return, during a trip to Washington, D.C., he killed himself in an apparent bout of depression. Lewis and Clark were two very different men, but they nevertheless managed to lead the Corps of Discovery to resounding success. They saw the amazing variance of the country: the great salmon runs of the Columbia River, the giant Evergreens and the sheer vastness of the land. And, most importantly, the duo made it back to tell the tale. They also set the trend for doing exactly what thousands still do today to get to know our great land: Hit the road, Jack. Tread lightly.


The article above, written by Michael Stusser, is reprinted with permission from the September-October 2003 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue! Be sure to visit mental_floss' website and blog for more fun stuff!


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An incredible accomplishment. At the first portage I probably would have turned around. People were a lot tougher then.

Also, Alexander Mackenzie crossed Canada over 10 years before Lewis and Clark. His story is equally amazing.
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Note how, as is typical in "official" American history, the role of the black guy is totally disregarded. He was Clark's property pretty much from birth, he came on the expedition as a fully recognized and voting member of the team, he saved lives and did as much as Sacagawea as far as smoothing the way with local tribes they met along the way, and then when they get home everyone in the party is a hero except York. he gets to go back to being a slave,is refused his freedom despite his invaluable contributions, and gets beaten when he doesn't seem overjoyed at his lot in life. Gotta love history.
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