Lewis and Clark



When Thomas Jefferson became President of the United States, he was able to fulfill a dream of exporing the lands west of the Mississippi River that led to expanding our country from sea to shining sea. He clearly understood the importance of opening up the westward territories and claiming these lands for the future security and growth of the United States. At the beginning of the 1800s, those lands immediately to the west of the Mississippi were claimed by Spain but ceded to France by Spain in 1803. Fortunately for the United States, the lands then known as the Louisiana Territory were sold by Emporer Napolean of France to the United States in 1804 and this purchase immediately doubled the size of the United States. The Louisiana Territory extended all the way west to the Rocky Mountains and, hence, so did the United States. West of the Rocky Mountains was still being contested by both Britain and Spain. But President Jefferson could see the United States laying claim to that land little explored in those early days. A map of the times is shown below, illustrating how little was actually known about the west then. But is is also clear that some exploration had been mapped and knowledge about the western territories was not totally unknown.

Arrowsmith Map

From this came the great adventures of MeriwetherLewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery. Planning for this expedition actually began in 1801 when Thomas Jefferson engaged a fellow Virginian Meriwether Lewis as his personal secretary, but with the goal of putting together the expedition. William Clark was selected by Lewis to help lead the expedition which ultimated numbered some twenty-five solders along with a few additional individuals including the Indian guide Sacagawea and William Clark's slave York. An excellent source of information about the expedition from St. Louis, Missouri to the Pacific Ocean are The Journals of the Expedition that were edited by Nicholas Biddle in the years soon following the expedition. Another more recent book on the history of the time is Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose. A fine internet site for a more consise review and a neat map of the expedition's route is provided by the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation .

Now for an exercise associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806:

1. Carefully follow the expedition's path up the Missouri River to the headwaters on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. Continue over the Lemhi Pass in the Bitterroot Mountains bordering the states of Montana and Idaho, up to the Snake River and finally down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. Clearly fix this route in mind before continuing to the next step where you will measure the distance that they would have travelled.

2. Now go to the Google Maps Distance Calculator website and measure the distance the Corps of Discovery travelled between St.Louis and the Pacific Ocean.

3. Your measured distance: _______ miles

The actual distance as reported by Captain Clark was 4142 miles. Your distance is probably significantly less than this. Why do you think the two distances are so far apart. One important hint is to recognize that most of the travel was by river and rivers tend to meander considerably. This is especially true of the Missouri which flows across much of the sandy plains of America. The map below drawn by Captain Clark illustrates this very well. This drawing shows the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers in what is now North Dakota.

Yellowstone and Missouri