Corps Of Discovery
For centuries, the Mandans of the upper Missouri River had been one of the most prosperous tribes on the Great Plains -- farmers, living in permanent villages and growing crops in such abundance that other tribes came great distances to trade with them.
Europeans came too -- Frenchman, Englishmen, Spaniards. Each time, they brought flags and claimed that the Mandans and their land had been added to their empires. But the Mandans believed they had merely added the French, English and Spanish to their list of customers.
Each country was searching for the Northwest Passage, a water route believed to connect the Missouri River with the Pacific and the riches of the Orient that lay beyond. Whichever nation found it first, and then controlled it, would control the destiny of the continent.
On October 24th, 1804, the Mandans looked down from the bluffs of the Missouri and saw the largest boat they had ever seen, 55 feet long, 22 oars at its sides, and a cannon mounted in the bow. As they hurried down to see it, strangers stepped onto the shore and their two leaders spoke to the Mandans. They were explorers not traders, they said, on their way from St. Louis to find the great ocean toward the setting sun.
Children. Your old fathers, the French and the Spaniards, have gone beyond the great lake toward the rising sun....
Children. The great chief of the seventeen great nations of America has become your only father . He has commanded us... to undertake this long journey... Children. Do these things which your great father advises and be happy... lest by one false step you should bring down upon your nation the displeasure of your great father...
Follow these counsels and you will have nothing to fear... and future ages will make you outnumber the trees in the forest.
The great father was Thomas Jefferson, president of the new United States, who had just purchased from France half a billion acres between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, doubling the size of his young republic with a single stroke of his pen.
object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, and such principal
stream of it, as, by its course and communications with the waters of
the Pacific Ocean may offer the most direct and practicable water communication
across this continent... Those who come after us will... fill up the canvas
Jefferson called his expedition the"Corps of Discovery." To lead it, the president had turned to his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, a young army officer from Virginia.
As co-commander, Lewis picked an old army friend and fellow Virginian, William Clark, a gregarious, seasoned frontiersman. With them were French-Canadian boatmen; three dozen army recruits from New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky; and Clark's personal servant, a slave named York.
The explorers spent their first winter among the Mandans, who sold them food, helped them hunt buffalo, and gave them advice on what to expect farther up the Missouri. To act as translators, Lewis and Clark hired a French trapper, Touissant Charbonneau, and his 16 year old wife, Sacagawea -- a Shoshone who had been captured by the Hidatsas as a small girl. In the spring, the Corps of Discovery started west again.
We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine.
In the months to come, they passed through some of the most magnificent country on earth. They spent weeks portaging around a huge waterfall. They encountered animals never before described for science: pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, grizzly bears. And they were astonished by the massive herds of buffalo that seemed to roam everywhere.
But they were falling badly behind schedule -- the distances were proving to be far greater than the explorers, Jefferson, or anyone else had ever imagined. In early August, Lewis led a small advance party along an Indian trail that wound west into the mountains. Coming upon an ice-cold spring, he wrote that it was "the most distant fountain of the mighty Missouri... one of those great objects on which my mind has been unalterably fixed for many years." Then, he climbed toward the sharp ridge behind it.
course the mission of the Lewis and Clark expedition was to find the Northwest
Passage. That was the most important thing. And Meriwether Lewis was climbing
to this ridge that he was sure was the continental divide, and as he walked
up this saddle in the mountains, he expected that when he got there he
might even see the ocean, but certainly he would see the western equivalent
of the the Great Plains and a river that would flow there. And as he got
to the top, he looked out and saw -- more mountains! Snow on 'em, eternal
snows! And the myth of the Northwest Passage died at that moment."
Lewis had, in fact, crossed the Continental Divide -- the spine of the Rocky Mountains beyond which the rivers flow west, and beyond the boundaries of the United States. But his party was still nearly 500 miles from the Pacific -- and summer was fast disappearing.
If we do not find the Shoshones or some other nation who have horses I fear the successful issue of our voyage will be very doubtful... not knowing how far these mountains continue, or where to direct our course to pass them.
The next day he chanced upon a Shoshone village. The Shoshones had never seen a white man before and were suspicious of Lewis. Then occurred one of the most extraordinary coincidences in American history. When the main party arrived, Sacagawea, the French trapper's wife, suddenly recognized the chief of the Shoshones. He was her brother.
The great chief of this nation proved to be the brother of the woman with us. The squaw danced for the joyful sight and... those Indians sang all the way to their camp.
With Sacagawea as their interpreter, the captains explained their need for horses and guides, and the Shoshones agreed to provide them. Lewis and Clark had no time to rest. Frost already covered the ground each morning. The Shoshones told them of a steep hunting trail across the Bitterroots, but it was rocky, heavily timbered and with little game to shoot. Despite the risks, Lewis determined to try it. On foot and on horseback, they headed across what one of the men called "the most terrible mountains I ever beheld."
16th, 1805 -- Began to Snow about 3 hours before day and continued all
day. The snow in the morning 4 inches deep on the old snow, and by night
we found it from 6 to 8 inches deep... I have been wet and as cold in
every part as I ever was in my life... To describe the road of this day
would be a repetition of yesterday, except the snow which made it much
For eleven days, desperate with hunger, sometimes entirely lost, they tried to follow the old trail along the mountain ridges through swirling snow. They shot and ate a coyote, a raven, frantically splashed after crayfish in a stream, chewed even their candles, and finally stumbled down out of the mountains more dead than alive. There they were found by the Nez PercÚ.
Nez Perce's could've killed them easily. They could've wiped them out.
But once they knew the intent of Lewis and Clark, that there was going
to be no harm done to them, then of course they became very friendly and
they were willing to help."
The Nez PercÚ gave the starving strangers dried salmon and the roots of the camas plant to eat. They told them it was now possible to reach the sea by water. And they allowed Lewis and Clark to fell five trees from which to fashion canoes for their journey.
Lewis and Clark moved fast now, down the
Clearwater, then the
Snake, through currents,
one member of the expedition remembered, "swifter than any horse could
run," and finally onto the broad Columbia.
By late October, they were seeing signs that they were nearing the coast.
Some Indians wore blue jackets and round hats bartered from British and
American sailors who had been trading along the Pacific coast for decades.
The Indians inform us they speak the same language with ourselves and
give us proofs of their veracity by repeating many words of English, as
"musket," "powder," "shot," "knife," "damned rascal," "son of a bitch"
can imagine what it must have been like for Lewis and Clark. They'd been
gone for a year and a half. They weren't even in United States territory
any longer. They're coming down the Columbia, and suddenly, the water
turns salty, and they start feeling some tidal motion, and it was the
only time that William Clark ever got emotional in two and a half years
in the wilderness."
7th, Thursday, 1805 -- A cloudy foggy morning. Some rain. We set out early...
the fog so thick we could not see across the river... we proceeded down
the channel with an Indian dressed in a sailor's jacket as our pilot...had
not gone far when the fog cleared off... Ocean in view! O! the joy...
For nearly 300 years, Europeans from different nations had been entering the West from different directions, pursuing different myths. Yet each intruder had laid claim to the region, as if he were the first to discover it, as if the people already living there did not exist.
In 1603, conquistador had etched his name for Spain on El Morro rock in New Mexico. More than a century later, in 1743, a French nobleman had buried a lead tablet with his name on it on the northern Plains. In 1793, a Scottish explorer had painted his name on a rock to claim the Northwest coast for Great Britain. Now, it was the Americans' turn. At a point overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Clark took his knife and carved a message in the bark of a tree:
His country was not even 30 years old, but it already claimed half of the West. In 40 more years, Americans would have it all.
you could take a photograph at that time, you have one world. And it is
a world that is full of good things as far as the Indians are concerned.
Game is plentiful, their way of life is clearly established in terms of
that landscape. But just off the picture plane, you know, there are these
things that are about to descend upon that world. And for the Indian,
they are very bad. The culture is severely threatened. Because of people
from outside who are coming in. And their attitude is that even this world
is not big enough for both of us."
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