Lewis and Clark Expedition

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Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia , by Charles M. Russell (1905)

The Lewis and Clark Expedition ( May 14, 1804 to September 23, 1806 ) was the United States' first overland expedition to the Pacific coast and back. The Louisiana land purchase in 1803 sparked interest in expanding the United States to the west coast . A few weeks after purchasing the land, US President Thomas Jefferson , a proponent of westward expansion, had the US Congress set aside $ 2,500 to " send out intelligent officers with ten to twelve men to explore [the land] as far as the western ocean" . The most important goal of the expedition, besides the search for a navigable waterway to the Pacific, was the establishment of a powerful nation between the Atlantic and the Pacific. In addition, the participants should study Indians , animals and plants and the geology of the region.


Lewis (around 1807) and Clark (1810)

Jefferson chose his former private secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis , to lead the expedition (known as the Corps of Discovery ); Lewis chose William Clark as his partner. Although Clark officially held the rank of lieutenant , Lewis always called him captain. The two equal leaders came from respected planter families in the US state of Virginia . The "practitioner" Clark and the "melancholy thinker" Lewis complemented and understood each other well.

Lewis prepared the expedition in 1803 and was trained in Philadelphia by the best scientists in the country. He had an 18 meter long keelboat and two pirogues built in Pittsburgh . The team and equipment were put together the following winter and the team was prepared for the expedition at Camp Wood ( Camp Dubois , today near Wood River, Illinois) . The base camp was located at the mouth of the Missouri into the Mississippi , near St. Louis .

Those interested in the expedition were thoroughly tested. Preference was given to unmarried, healthy, persistent and sturdy men who were good hunters. In addition to the soldiers, civilians were also hired as interpreters and assistants. Clark had the slave York by his side.


A group of 33 men began their historic journey on the three boats under the leadership of William Clark on May 14, 1804 from Camp Dubois . She soon met with Meriwether Lewis, arriving from St. Louis, in Saint Charles, one of the last populated places near the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi.

On the Missouri

The route from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back
Map by Lewis and Clark, 1814

More than 40 men followed the Missouri River westward through what is now Kansas City and Omaha . Lewis often walked during the day and studied the plants and animals while Clark commanded the crew on the boats and made maps . Since their meeting last year, the two diaries had kept track of the important events of the expedition. From now on, scientific descriptions, reports of discoveries and maps were added.

On August 20, 1804, the group suffered their only loss when Sergeant Charles Floyd died, likely of appendicitis .

In early September, the travelers reached the Great Plains in what is now South Dakota . Until then they discovered plants and animals unknown to the white Americans and met Indian tribes unknown to them . The vast landscape seemed to them like entering paradise with seemingly inexhaustible sources of food in the form of bison , deer and beavers . At the end of September there was a tense encounter with Sioux Indians. Bloodshed was avoided at the last moment, but the goal of building friendly relations with the Indians and preparing trade connections was missed by the Sioux.

Map of the Missouri made by John Evans 1795–1796

The expedition members wintered in 1804/1805 in Fort Mandan , which they founded , near the villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa , near the present-day city of Bismarck in North Dakota . The villages were already regularly visited by French-Canadian fur traders from the north. Lewis and Clark brought Toussaint Charbonneau , a French fur trader, and his wife, Northern Shoshone Indian Sacajawea , to the team as translators and guides. In addition, Lewis and Clark could rely on maps from John Evans , who had explored the area 1795–1796.

On April 7, 1805, the expedition continued their journey. Some of the expedition members made their way home to bring important documents and plant and animal samples to President Jefferson.

The main group of 33 people continued upstream in several canoes to the great waterfalls of the Missouri (now the Great Falls ). The boats and heavy equipment had to be transported over an arduous land route. It took the group a month to cover this distance of around 40 kilometers.

From the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific

In the summer of 1805, the expedition reached the mountains of the Rocky Mountains , which turned out to be much higher and wider than expected. At the confluence of the three source rivers of the Missouri, at today's Three Forks in Montana , the search for an easy way to cross the mountains began. From the mouth of the Missouri to the continental divide in the Rocky Mountains at Lolo Pass , the expedition had now covered over 6,500 km along the river.

Lewis and Clark bartered horses from the Shoshone Indians that were urgently needed to cross the mountains. Food was becoming scarce. The supplies were running low and George Drouillard's hunters often spent days searching for food. With the last of its strength, the expedition dragged itself over the snow-covered Rocky Mountains.

After the arduous crossing of the Rocky Mountains, they followed the Clearwater River through what is now Idaho, where the explorers met the tribe of the Nez Percé Indians. Then they followed the Snake River in today's Washington and the Columbia River with its many rapids in the area of ​​the Cascade Mountains , which today forms the border between Washington and Oregon for its last 480 kilometers. On November 7, 1805, they reached the Pacific . Clark wrote in his diary: “Ocian [ sic ] in view. O! The Joy. "(" Ocean in sight. Oh, what joy! ")

But they still had a second hard winter to endure. The group decided to vote on which Indian tribe they would winter with. The fact that York, the slave, and Sacajawea, the Indian woman, were allowed to vote on an equal footing was remarkable for the time and is now often portrayed as a “truly American moment”. The members of the expedition built another fort ( Fort Clatsop ) at the mouth of the Columbia River , south of the present-day town of Astoria , and spent the winter there near the Clatsop Indians.

Return journey

The explorers began their journey home on March 23, 1806. In canoes they drove up the Columbia. Chinook Indians tried several times to steal equipment on the difficult passages. The Rocky Mountains could be crossed due to the snow conditions until the end of June. Therefore, the expedition stayed with the friendly people of the Nez Percé for several weeks . Some Indians could be recruited as guides over the mountains.

While crossing the Rocky Mountains, Lewis and Clark parted ways to explore easier trails across the mountains. While Clark was looking for a southern path along Yellowstone , Lewis took a direct route to the Missouri.

With only three men, Lewis then ventured to explore the Marias River in the direction of what is now Glacier National Park in Montana , despite having been warned of the warlike Blackfoot Indians who roamed the area. After meeting a small group of Blackfoots, a fight broke out on July 27th when the Indians tried to steal rifles and horses; at least one Indian was killed in the process. Shortly afterwards, while on a hunt , Lewis was probably accidentally shot by crew member Pierre Cruzatte and was unable to walk for the following weeks.

On August 12, 1806, all the men met again on the Missouri and continued the remainder of the journey home together. Shortly thereafter, John Colter asked for a release from the Corps to join trappers who were sailing up the Yellowstone River. He is said to have been the first white man to discover what is now Yellowstone National Park .

On the Missouri, the returning expedition met the first private trappers and traders who advanced into the previously uninhabited area west of the Mississippi. On September 23, 1806, Lewis and Clark's group returned to their familiar civilization in St. Louis.

Importance of the expedition

The Keelboat of Lewis and Clark on a US coin

Lewis and Clark's successful expedition encouraged various private and government expeditions to the west, which gradually made the area accessible. Influenced by the Lewis and Clark expedition, the New York fur trader John Jacob Astor founded the Pacific Fur Company just a few years later and, with the support of President Jefferson, equipped a new overland expedition to the Pacific Northwest . The men of the Pacific Fur Company founded the first American settlement on the Pacific: Astoria . With these expeditions, the US acquired extensive knowledge of the geography of the West in the form of maps of large rivers and mountain ranges. During the journey of Lewis and Clark alone, several hundred previously unknown animal and plant species were discovered and named; samples of many plants were brought for scientific analysis.

The expedition focused the attention of the USA and the media on the west and strengthened the claim to the areas in the west of the American continent, the division of which was only finally clarified in the Oregon Compromise in 1846 . The reports of Lewis and Clark encouraged fur traders to develop the area, so from 1810 the first trading posts were established in what is now Washington. The subjugation of other Indian peoples began with it.

Lewis and Clark's diaries form the first literature on western North America.

Several places like Lewiston and Clark Fork , but also counties , rivers and roads are named after the two discoverers today; for example, in the northern states of the west there are networks of trails for hikers called Lewis and Clark Trails . Numerous educational institutions today also bear the names of the two explorers, for example a college in Portland, Oregon . The United States Navy named a submarine after the expedition, the USS Lewis and Clark , and a class of transport ships, the Lewis and Clark class with its lead ship USNS Lewis and Clark . The plant genera Lewisia and Clarkia are also named after the discoverers.


Of all the people involved, 33 are permanent participants in the expedition, which set out from Fort Mandan to the Pacific Ocean in 1805 . In addition to Lewis and Clark, 3 sergeants and 23 soldiers and 5 civilians belonged to this group. Sacajawea had her son, born in 1805, with her and Lewis had a Newfoundland dog named Seaman.

Other participants were only part of the expedition in the first phase. French rangers helped bring the equipment to Fort Mandan. Soldiers led by Corporal Warfington brought the keelboat and initial reports back to St. Louis. Sergeant Floyd died in 1804 and soldiers Newman and Reed were excluded from the expedition for mutiny and desertion, respectively .

Captain Meriwether Lewis * 1774; † 1809
Second Lieutenant William Clark * 1770; † 1838
Sergeant Patrick Gass * 1771; † 1870 promoted after Floyd's death, cousin of Pryor
Sergeant John Ordway * approx. 1775; † approx. 1817
Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor * 1772; † 1831 Cousin of Floyd
Soldier William E. Bratton * 1778; † 1841
Soldier John Collins *?; † 1823 also active as a hunter
Soldier John Colter * approx. 1775; † 1813 also active as a hunter, later discovered the area of ​​today's Yellowstone National Park
Soldier Pierre Cruzatte Data unknown played the fiddle (violin), also works as an interpreter (language of Omaha and sign language)
Soldier Joseph Field * approx. 1772; † 1807 also active as a hunter, brother of Reubin Field
Soldier Reubin Field * approx. 1771; † 1823? also active as a hunter, brother of Joseph Field
Soldier Robert Frazer *?; † 1837 was originally supposed to return with Warfington in 1805, but was then taken over as a replacement for Newman / Reed in the expedition group
Soldier George Gibson *?; † 1809
Soldier Silas Goodrich Data unknown
Soldier Hugh Hall * approx. 1772; †?
Soldier Thomas Proctor Howard * 1779; †?
Soldier François Labiche Data unknown also works as an interpreter (French)
Soldier Jean Baptiste Lepage Data unknown lived with the Hidatsa and Mandan Indians, only hired as a replacement for Newman / Reed in 1805, also worked as an interpreter
Soldier Hugh McNeal Data unknown
Soldier John Potts * 1776; † 1808? only German members of the expedition (from Dillenburg ), from the Blackfoot Indians killed
Soldier George Shannon * 1785; † 1836 related to Governor Shannon of Kentucky
Soldier John Shields * 1769; † 1809 also works as a blacksmith
Soldier John B. Thompson Data unknown
Soldier Peter M. Weiser * 1781; † 1810?
Soldier William Werner Data unknown
Soldier Joseph Whitehouse * approx. 1775; †?
Soldier Alexander Hamilton Willard * 1778; † 1865
Soldier Richard Windsor Data unknown
Toussaint Charbonneau * 1767; † 1843 French fur trader, interpreter (Mandan language and French)
Sacajawea * approx. 1788; † 1812 Charbonneau's wife, Shoshone Indian, interpreter (Shoshone language)
Jean Baptiste Charbonneau * 1805; † 1866 Son of Toussaint Charbonneaus and Sacagawea, born in Fort Mandan
George Drouillard * 1773; † 1810 outstanding forester and hunter, interpreter (sign language and French)
York * approx. 1770; †? Clark's slave
Other participants
Sergeant Charles Floyd * 1782; † 1804 died during the expedition on August 20, 1804
Corporal Richard Warfington * 1777; †? brought the first reports back to American civilization in 1805
Soldier John Boley Data unknown
Soldier John Dame * 1784; †?
Soldier John Newman * approx. 1785; † 1838 was excluded from the expedition in 1805 due to mutiny
Soldier Moses B. Reed Data unknown was excluded from the expedition in 1805 for desertion
Soldier John Robertson * approx. 1780; †?
Soldier Ebenezer Tuttle * 1773; †?
Soldier Isaac White * approx. 1774; †?
Paptiste Dechamps Data unknown Boatswain
Pierre Dorion * approx. 1740; † approx. 1810 lived with the Sioux Indians, married to a Sioux, worked as an interpreter; brought Indian chiefs to Saint Louis


  • The Lewis and Clark Bridge , built in 2016 over the Ohio River near Louisville between Kentucky and Indiana, was named after the guides.


  • Stephen E. Ambrose : Undaunted Courage. Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. Simon & Schuster, New York NY 1997, ISBN 0-684-82697-6 .
  • Thomas Schmidt: National Geographic Guide to the Lewis & Clark Trail. National Geographic Society et al. a., Washington DC et al. a. 2002, ISBN 0-7922-6471-1 .
  • Gary E. Moulton (Ed.): The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. 13 volumes. University of Nebraska Press et al. a., Lincoln NE et al. a. 2002, ISBN 0-8032-2948-8 .
  • Gary E. Moulton (Ed.): The Lewis and Clark Journals. An American Epic of Discovery. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln NE et al. a. 2003, ISBN 0-8032-2950-X .
  • Meriwether Lewis, William Clark: Diary of the first expedition to the sources of the Missouri, then over the Rocky Mountains to the mouth of the Columbia in the Pacific and back, completed in the years 1804-1806. Selected and translated by Friedhelm Rathjen . Zweiausendeins Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2003, ISBN 3-86150-619-X .
  • Reinhold Krüger: The Lewis and Clark Expedition. The pioneering company for the development and settlement of the "Wild West". In: Magazine for American Studies. Vol. 28, Issue 2, 2004, ISSN  0170-2513 , pp. 5-8, Issue 3, pp. 5-10.
  • Richard Stinshoff (Ed.): "By boat across the Rocky Mountains - among wolves, buffalos, bears and Indians". The journey of Lewis and Clark (= series of publications of the State Museum for Nature and Humans Oldenburg. Vol. 40). Isensee, Oldenburg 2005, ISBN 3-89995-261-8 (catalog for the exhibition in the Landesmuseum Natur und Mensch, Oldenburg).

Web links

Commons : Lewis and Clark Expedition  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files