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The Lewis and Clark expedition: 1804-1806

In the first few years of the 19th century there is much talk in Washington of the possibility of water transport across the entire continent. The northeastern states could perhaps be linked to the Great Lakes (the Erie Canal is begun in 1817 after long preparations), and the river systems of the Ohio and the Mississippi are already the commercial backbone of the regions now being opened to American settlement.

The Missouri flows into the Mississippi from uncharted regions to the west. What if its waters offered a gateway through to the Pacific? The advantages would be enormous. Early in 1803 congress votes funds for an expedition to discover 'water communication across this continent'.

Later in 1803 the completion of the Louisiana Purchase gives the proposed expedition a new topicality. The explorers will be investigating territory which now belongs to the United States, at any rate as far west as the Rockies.

Jefferson has already selected the leader of the expedition - Merriwether Lewis, an army captain who has been the President's secretary since 1801 and who has been preparing himself for the task by taking courses in botany, zoology and the skills of finding one's location by the stars. Lewis proposes that he share the command with an army lieutenant, William Clark.

Jefferson gives the two men detailed instructions as to their duties. They are to keep journals recording information about the Indian tribes they encounter, plant and animal life, mineral and commercial opportunities, climate, temperature and description of the terrain.

Lewis and Clark recruit a party of about forty men, many of them soldiers, whom they assemble in St Louis for a winter of training. On 14 May 1804 they set off up the Missouri in three boats, heavily laden with provisions and with twenty-one bales of presents for the Indians. Progress up the river is more difficult than expected. By November they reach the site of present-day Bismarck, where they make their winter camp among friendly Mandan Indians.

In April 1805 they continue up the Missouri in smaller boats, adding to their party a French-Canadian interpreter who has an Indian wife, Sacagawea. She plays her part valiantly in all the adventures and becomes something of the heroine of the expedition.

In what is now southwest Montana they abandon their boats, procure horses and a local Indian guide, and make their way through a pass in the Rockies to the Clearwater river on the other side of the continental divide. Here they make canoes which carry them down the Clearwater, into the Snake river and along the Columbia river to the Pacific. They spend their third winter in a temporary fort near the site of present-day Astoria.

On the journey east in 1806 the two leaders separate, Lewis exploring the Marias river and Clark the Yellowstone. They meet up again below the junction of the Yellowstone and the Missouri, and are back by September in St Louis - where the returning explorers are given a rousing welcome.

Theough anticipated in the crossing of the western part of the continent by Mackenzie (in 1792-3), Lewis and Clark are the first explorers to bring back a wealth of scientific and cartographic information about the region. Their achievement lays the basis for America's coming expansion through the west. Lewis later becomes governor of the Louisiana territory, and Clark of the Missouri territory.

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