Looking Back at the Lewis & Clark Expedition

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            The Lewis & Clark expedition goes down to the history of the United States as the first overland exploration of the West and Pacific Northwest region of the United States. The voyage was led by Meriwether Lewis & William Clark, both Army officers. Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, the expedition began in May 1804 and ended in September 1806 and covered approximately 13,000 kilometers. It started from a camp outside St. Louis going to the Pacific Ocean and back (Ponda, “Lewis and Clark Expedition”).

The Background of the Expedition

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            President Thomas Jefferson had long set his sights on the American West. However, it was not until 1802 that preparation for the expedition was initiated. After reading Voyages from Montreal by Canadian voyager and fur trader Sir Alexander Mackenzie in 1802, he initiated moves designed to counter Mackenzie’s intentions to integrate the West and Pacific Northwest into the British Empire (Ponda, “Lewis and Clark Expedition”).

            Jefferson was inspired by the expedition of Captain James Cook and George Vancouver in the 18th century. This motivated him to set-up an expedition, which put together diplomatic, commercial, and scientific goals. Jefferson had the notion that whoever controls a waterway traversing the continent can take control of the fate of North America (Ponda, “Lewis and Clark Expedition”).

            To get his plan going, Jefferson designated Captain Meriwether Lewis to be the leader of the expedition. Lewis was known for his energy, dedication, and background that makes him capable of handling such assignment. When the preparations for the voyage became too demanding for Lewis, he called on William Clark of Ohio to serve as co-commander. Although of lower rank than Lewis, Clark was considered as a co-leader of the expedition (Ponda, “Lewis and Clark Expedition”).

            Prior to the expedition, Jefferson requested the expedition crew to learn sign language, diplomatic rituals, and subtle military power. Aside from this, he likewise wanted the crew to have knowledge of tribal hierarchy, proper decorum in ritual ceremonies, and determining dangerous tribes and sacred or offensive colors. Jefferson wanted the crew to learn of all these because he knew that they would be involved with American Indian tribes during their expedition (Faulkner, “How Lewis and Clark Worked”).

The Goals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition

            During his regime, Thomas Jefferson believed in the existence of the Northwest Passage. This was a sea route traversing the Artic Ocean and connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. Jefferson’s primary goal for the expedition is to promote trade and settlement (Faulkner, “How Lewis and Clark Worked”).

            On April 30, 1803, Jefferson signed a treaty with France, which ceded Louisiana to the United States. Paying 3 cents per acre for the 828,000 square mile parcel of land, the Louisiana Purchase is undoubtedly the most important legacy of the Jefferson presidency. Stretching south from the border of Canada to New Orleans and Gulf of Mexico, and westward to the Continental Divide in Colorado, and eastward to the Mississippi River, this act of Jefferson paved the way for the Lewis & Clark expedition (Faulkner, “How Lewis and Clark Worked”).

            Although his main objective for the voyage was to discover a water passage from one sea to another, Thomas Jefferson likewise wanted to advance science during the expedition. He instructed the voyagers to precisely gather, classify, record, and observe the landscapes as well as the wildlife and inhabitants. This is the reason for the abundance of information about the Lewis and Clark expedition (Faulkner, “How Lewis and Clark Worked”).

Timeline of the Lewis & Clark Expedition

            The Corps of Discovery, as the expedition was otherwise known, traveled along a route dictated by Jefferson’s idea of American geography. He believed that the easiest passage across the continent was to traverse the Mississippi River going to its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains. Once the expedition reached the mountains, Jefferson was certain that the crew would find another river that leads to the ocean. However, in reality, his assumptions of geography was incorrect (Ponda, “Lewis and Clark Expedition”).

            From May to October 1804, the voyage headed for Missouri. On their arrival in modern-day North Dakota, the Corps of Discovery constructed Fort Mandan and had their winter with the people of Mandan and Hidatsa. While some of the voyage was physically challenging, this part of the river was already familiar to merchants and traders of St. Louis. On August 20, 1804, Sergeant Charles Floyd died due to appendicitis. He was the only casualty of the expedition (Ponda, “Lewis and Clark Expedition”).

            The second part of the expedition from April to December 1805 proved to be more demanding as the crew reached the portion of the United States that is not known to non-he natives. The Corps of Discovery’s crew increased to 33, with the addition of a couple– Sacagawea, a Native American woman, French-Canadian interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau, and their baby Jean Baptiste, who joined the expedition in Fort Mandan. Sacagawea became the expedition’s interpreter and peacemaker. She had a part in negotiating for horses and logistics (Ponda, “Lewis and Clark Expedition”).

            Upon reaching the Great Falls of the Missouri River, the expedition experienced difficulty in looking for a passage to the Continental Divide. To their surprise, there was no waterway that directly leads from modern-day Idaho to the ocean. They mad a detour to the Lolo Trail, which passes through Montana going to Idaho. There they got involved with Nez Perce, a Native American tribe, from whom they learned that the rivers ahead were passable (Ponda, “Lewis and Clark Expedition”).

The expedition then made their way to Snake River into Washington before arriving at the Columbia River. In November 1805, they established Fort Clatsop, which served as their residence during the winter season (Ponda, “Lewis and Clark Expedition”).

The journey back home to St. Louis were the most perilous part of the expedition. With some more discoveries on their agenda, the Corps of Discovery was divided into two groups. Clark led a reconnaissance group into the Yellowstone River. Lewis, on the other hand, led a small detachment towards central Montana with the notion that they might discover some fur in the region that is now Alberta, Canada. In August, they joined forces again and came back to St. Louis on September 23, 1806 (Ponda, “Lewis and Clark Expedition”).

After the expedition, President Thomas Jefferson made Meriwether Lewis governor of Louisiana. He had difficulty coping with the position and suffered from depression. According to most historians, Lewis committed suicide. William Clark, on the other hand, was designated as the government representative to the Native American tribes occupying the western portion of the Mississippi River, which he kept until 1838, the year of his death (Ponda, “Lewis and Clark Expedition”).

The Success and Failure of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

            The Lewis and Clark expedition had some successes and failures during its two-year voyage. Meriwether Lewis died in 1809, so it was William Clark and American diplomat and financier Nicholas Biddle who compiled the report. The latest scholarly edition of the journal entitled The Journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, edited by historian Gary Moulton, had 11 volumes and was published by the University of Nebraska Press from 1983 to 1997 (Ponda, “Lewis and Clark Expedition”).

            One of the major failures of the Lewis and Clark expedition was its inability to find the Northwest Passage or the Oregon Trail. While it succeeded in strengthening US claims in the West, American claims in succeeding diplomatic conflicts with Britain did not focus on the expedition as well as on the 1792 Columbia River exploration of Captain Robert Gray and the construction of Fort Astoria in 1811.  Despite its failure in finding such waterway, the expedition of the Corps of Discovery laid the foundation for future government-funded scientific exploration in the United States (Ponda, “Lewis and Clark Expedition”).

Likewise, the Lewis & Clark expedition was able to discover and catalogue 178 and 122 new species of plants and animals, respectively. Among the animals discovered by the exploration are the coyote, mule deer, grizzly bear, jack rabbit, among others (Kohler, “Dynamic Reading Strategies Begin with Inquiry Learning”).

            Furthermore, the expedition was able to collect vital information on the culture, population, economies, and customs of 122 native tribes. The path taken by the expedition established future states such as Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington (Kohler, “Dynamic Reading Strategies Begin with Inquiry Learning”).

Works Cited

Faulkner, Tim. “How Lewis and Clark Worked”. 19 February 2008. HowStuffWorks.com. 31 July 2008. <http://history.howstuffworks.com/american-history/lewis-and-clark.htm>

Kohler, Susan. “Dynamic Reading Strategies Begin with Inquiry Learning”. 1 December 2007. Florida Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development. 31 July 2008. <http://www.fascd.org>

Ponda, James. “Lewis and Clark Expedition”. Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. 31 July 2008. <http://encarta.msn.com>


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Looking Back at the Lewis & Clark Expedition. (2016, Dec 25). Retrieved from


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