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Summary & Analysis

While the Lewis & Clark expedition is not usually thought of in terms of military history, the voyage of the Corps of Discovery was in fact one of the most successful military ventures in American history. At Jefferson's request, Congress authorized the expedition early in 1803—before the Louisiana Purchase—as an audacious incursion into foreign territory. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, commissioned officers in the United States Army, would lead a small corps—ultimately comprised of 35 enlisted men, five civilians, and one dog—on a transcontinental reconnaissance mission, literally charting the course for the future expansion of the American republic.

That Lewis and Clark's journey proved an epic success is largely due to the captains' heroic restraint in resisting the recourse to armed force; in all their potentially hostile encounters with various Indian nations along their travels, only once did members of the Corps of Discovery resort to violence, shooting two Blackfeet Indians who attempted to rob them in the night. Those two Blackfeet were the only two Native American victims of the two-year military expedition through Indian Country; meanwhile, the Corps of Discovery suffered only a single casualty—Sergeant Charles Floyd, who died of a burst appendix just weeks into the journey.

The story of the Corps of Discovery's epic journey has been preserved for posterity in the incredible journals written by Lewis and Clark during the course of the expedition. Anyone interested in Lewis & Clark ought to read at least some of the journals, which 200 years later still evoke the intense drama of the journey. Not even Captain Clark's imaginative spelling can obscure the elation of finally reaching the Pacific coast after twenty months of hard travel—"Ocian in view! O! the joy!"11 —nor the subsequent misery of winter camp there—"rained all the after part of last night, rain continues this morning... eleven days rain, and the most disagreeable time I have experienced."12

Anyone interested in the expedition in all its glorious detail should read the journals or one of the many fine narrative histories based upon them, such as Stephen Ambrose's bestselling Undaunted Courage. An extremely abridged version of the Lewis & Clark story follows here:

On 14 May 1804, the Corps of Discovery left their winter encampment at Fort Dubois, Illinois Territory, and began paddling up the Missouri River. On 20 August, they suffered their first and only casualty, when Sergeant Charles Floyd died of acute appendicitis. Shortly thereafter, the expedition entered the Great Plains, an environment teeming with unfamiliar wildlife, totally different from the familiar landscape of the eastern United States. (Lewis and Clark were fascinated by the prairie dog, which they named the "barking squirrel"; they captured one, caged it, and sent it back—alive—to Thomas Jefferson in the White House.)

Using their considerable supply of trade goods as gifts, Lewis & Clark developed a consistent diplomatic ritual to attempt to establish good relations with the Indian tribes they encountered. The captains would give the Indians tobacco and beads, then present the chiefs (or those who they thought were the chiefs) with specially-made Jefferson Peace Medals, while trying to explain that they came as representatives of the Great White Father in Washington, who now owned the land but who wanted to maintain peace and conduct trade with the Indians. How much of this was lost in translation remains unclear, but the Corps' first encounters with Indian groups—the Otoes, the Missouris, and the Yankton Sioux—went very well; Clark approvingly described the Yankton as "stout bold looking people."

Indian relations took a turn for the worse in September, when the Corps finally encountered the fearsome Teton Sioux, whom Clark later denounced as "the pirates of the Missouri."13 The Americans had long heard stories of the Tetons, whose proud and skilled warriors demanded tribute from all those—Indian or Anglo—who desired to pass through their territory in the Dakotas. The tense, four-day encounter between the Corps and the Tetons was a diplomatic debacle. Lewis and Clark had left their best interpreter behind with the Yanktons, and thus struggled mightily to communicate with the Tetons, who appeared unimpressed with the Americans' trade goods and even their weapons. On several occasions Teton warriors attempted to seize control of the explorers' boats; on other occasions the Americans rudely rebuffed the Indians' conciliatory offers of sex with young Sioux women.

At the highest point of tension, a standoff pitted Sioux warriors with arrows at the ready against Americans with shotguns cocked and aimed. If one Teton or one Corps member had let fly, the result would have been a mutual bloodbath and the end of the Lewis & Clark expedition. In the end, cooler heads prevailed, and the Americans were allowed to depart in peace. However, the mutual bad feeling between the Teton Sioux and American government would persist throughout much of the nineteenth century. Clark named the site of the Indian encounter, "bad humered island,"14 and months later he was still excoriating the Tetons in his diary as "the vilest miscreants of the savage race."

Happy to leave the Tetons behind, the Corps of Discovery spent the freezing winter of 1804-05 in camp near the friendly villages of the Mandan and Hidatsas, whose riverside settlement of some 4,500 people was more populous than Saint Louis or Washington, D.C, at that time. The explorers got on well with their welcoming Indian neighbors, but suffered from failing food supplies and temperatures that dropped as low as 45 degrees below zero.

In April 1805, the expedition got moving again, once more paddling west up the Missouri River, where they were amazed to encounter vast herds of 10,000 bison. In June they arrived at a fork in the river; all the men except Lewis and Clark believed the muddy north fork to be the main stream, while the two captains were convinced the clear-flowing south fork was the correct direction. When Lewis and Clark insisted upon the south fork, they were relieved to discover, as Lewis put it, that the men "were ready to follow us any where we thought proper to direct."15 Less than two weeks later, the Corps arrived at an obvious landmark—the Great Falls of the Missouri, in present-day Montana—that Indian informants had told them to expect. Their joy at confirming they were on the right track was soon dissipated in a grueling, month-long portage around the waterfalls.

In August, the expedition finally reached the headwaters of the Missouri and the Continental Divide. Expecting a short downstream journey to the Pacific, Lewis was dismayed to see nothing but towering, snow-capped Rocky Mountains stretching as far to the west as his eye could see.

Lewis realized that without horses the Corps would never survive the mountains. At this point the expedition was rescued by one of the most fortuitous coincidences of all time. The Corps of Discovery traveled with one Indian woman—Sacagawea, the wife of French-Canadian translator Toussaint Charbonneau. Sacagawea was a Shoshone, but had been kidnapped as a child and taken hundreds of miles to the east by rival Indians. As the expedition advanced farther and farther into the mountains near the present-day border of Montana and Idaho, Sacagawea began to recognize landmarks from her childhood. The Shoshone were known as great horsemen, and Lewis desperately hoped to obtain horses and guides from them. His first encounter with the Shoshone, however, went poorly, so he sent for Sacagawea to help translate. When she arrived at the Shoshone encampment, she discovered—to everyone's shock and joy—that the Shoshone chief, Cameahwait, was in fact her long-lost brother. Only through this almost unbelievable stroke of good fortune did the Corps receive the horses and guidance that allowed them to traverse the rugged Bitterroot Mountains without starving to death.

In late September, friendly Nez Perce Indians on the west slope of the mountains helped Lewis and Clark to build dugout canoes, which enabled them to begin a quick downstream journey from the Clearwater River into the main stream of the Columbia, the great river of the west that they had expected to find much closer to the headwaters of the Missouri. On 18 October they sighted Mount Hood, a towering snow-capped peak mapped by British sailors who ventured a short distance up the Columbia River in 1792. With Mount Hood in view, the explorers knew the ocean was near and that they would successfully reach their destination. Finally, in early November, Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific at the mouth of the Columbia. "Ocian in view!" wrote Clark, "O! the joy!"16

After a miserable winter spent in incessant rain at Fort Clatsop on the Oregon coast, the party set off to return the way they had come in late March, 1806. They received a heroes' welcome in St. Louis in September.

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