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Lewis and Clark
11.02.2018 581541029523

"As we passed on, it seemed those scenes of visionary enchantment would never have an end." - Merriwether Lewis

Here's the really crazy thing about the United States of America – even after hundreds of years of discovery, this continent was so big that most people still had no idea what was out there.  Since our last chapter, England settled nearly the entire Atlantic coast of North America, the colonies had a Revolution against England, became the independent United States, and we still had very little idea of what was West of the Mississippi River.  In 1804 it was time to find out.  To conquer the last American Frontier.

It starts in 1803, when the famous warmongering French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, was basically at war with every single other country in Europe at the same time.  Wars are expensive, so in order to raise some extra cash for his army he agreed to basically sell all of the French land in North America to the United States.  President Thomas Jefferson spent $15 million and basically bought a chunk of land that ended up becoming fifteen states.  Which is really not a bad deal.  But, as I've mentioned, the weird thing is that Jefferson didn't even know what the heck he had just bought.  He'd heard stories of woolly mammoths, active lava-spewing volcanoes, and a mountain of pure salt all hidden somewhere in the West, just waiting to be discovered (even though, much like the Seven Cities of Gold, none of that stuff was actually out there).  So, in order to survey this new land, he told his personal secretary, a guy named Merriweather Lewis, to put together a “Corps of Discovery” and see what the heck was going on out there.



Lewis was a smart guy, an explorer, and a naturally curious person who loved nature and loved making cool new discoveries.  He had been a Captain in the U.S. Army, but he was much more of a scientist and explorer than a front-line fighter, so he was going to need some help on his quest.  He called up his best friend forever, a super-hardcore dude named William Clark.  Clark was a white-knuckled brawny outdoorsman, the kind of guy who is like really awesome at Boy Scouts stuff, like tying knots and starting a fire by staring at it really hard.  William’s older brother, George Rogers Clark, was a big-time hero of the American Revolution, and William Clark was about as ferocious of a dude as you could possibly imagine.  Basically, if this was Star Trek, Clark was Captain Kirk, and Lewis was Mr. Spock.

The Corps of Discovery set off from St. Louis, Missouri, in May of 1804.  It was Lewis, Clark, and about 50 other people, and they were going to try to make the entire trip to the west coast by water if possible.  They set out in little canoe-style boats, with big William Clark leading the way, making maps, plotting courses, and figuring out how to navigate difficult waterways.  Merriweather Lewis would stop on the shore from time to time to collect plants, write down information about rock formations, and study the soil, taking down notes and cataloguing samples for science.  They made peaceful contact with the Missouri Indians in early August, traded gifts with them, and then sadly in late August, the Corps had it's first death – Sergeant Charles Floyd got sick (probably appendicitis) and passed away.



Even though the expedition would be gone from home for so long that everyone assumed the entire Corps of Discovery was dead, Sergeant Floyd would be the only casualty of the entire mission.  It’s truly amazing.

After winding through the forests and rivers of Missouri, the party soon reached the Great Plains – a huge, sprawling flat land that stretched out in golden fields as far as the eye could see in any direction.  Buffalo, antelope, and elk ran free, hawks and falcons soared overhead, and everything was pretty awesome… until the Corps came face-to-face with the legendarily-hardcore Lakota Sioux Indian tribe.

The Sioux were nomadic warriors, who prided themselves on their skill in battle, and they would eventually end up being among the most toughest tribes the U.S. would ever face (ever hear of “Custer’s Last Stand”?  That was these guys).  But the Corps of Discovery weren't warriors, and they definitely weren't interested in fighting a war band of Sioux braves.  When the Sioux chief demanded tribute to sail on his river, Lewis and Clark gave him a number of gifts.  When the Chief demanded they hand over one of the boats, things got a little tense – Clark unsheathed his sword, and Lewis turned the deck cannon towards the Sioux warriors, but luckily cooler heads prevailed, and the Sioux allowed the Americans to pass along on their journey.  But it was pretty scary there for a minute.



The Corps continued up to North Dakota, and with winter coming they settled down, chopped down some trees, and used the wood to build a little fort near a tribe called the Mandan.  The Mandan helped the Americans repair their equipment, and hunted buffalo with them, and two members of the Mandan even volunteered to help Lewis and Clark finish their journey – a French-Canadian frontiersman named Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife, a Shoshone Indian named Sacagawea.  They would serve as guides and translators for the rest of the trip.  Sacagawea would become so important to the adventure that nowadays her face can be seen on the American gold One Dollar coin.

When spring came, and the ice thawed off the river, Lewis and Clark continued along with their new allies, sailing forth into unexplored lands never before seen by American eyes.  The men saw Grizzly Bears for the first time – Lewis had heard stories that these were fearsome beasts, but he had chalked it all up to tall tales and myth… until he saw one in real life and almost got eaten to death by it!  Heading into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Lewis also wrote about other cool animals he'd never seen before, like horned owls, bighorn sheep, bobcats and porcupines.  His journals and many of his samples were almost destroyed when his canoe flipped over in April, dumping Lewis and his crew into the river, but luckily Sacagawea heroically jumped into the fast-moving rapids and saved the books (and even a few of the men!).



In May of 1805, the Corps got its first look at the Rocky Mountains – the tallest mountain range in the United States.  They passed the Great Falls of Montana – which are 12 waterfalls, and not one (much to the surprise of the Corps) – which were so steep that the men had to pick up their boats and carry them (and all their other gear) down the falls because they were so steep they'd have smashed the canoes.

The river finally ended at the base of the Rockies themselves.  Sacagawea knew a pass through the towering mountain range, but even with her help it took 11 long, grueling days of lugging gear through a mountain range, and many of the explorers became hungry and exhausted.  It was kind of like moving to a new house, or lugging all your stuff through the airport, except these guys were doing it outdoors, in the rain, surrounded by Grizzly bears and Native American warriors, and they were traveling to a place no American had ever been before so they didn’t even know what the next obstacle was even going to look like.  After a grueling trip with very little food, the Corps finally pushed through, crossed the Rockies, traded for food with the Nez Perce tribe on the other side.  Once the crew had regained their strength, they chopped down some trees, carved them into canoes, and set sail down the Columbia River towards the Pacific Ocean.



The last part of the trip was much easier – the current carried them swiftly towards the sea.  The Chinook Indians helped the Americans fish for salmon, and then, in November of 1805, the Corps finally saw their goal – the Pacific Ocean.  They'd been the first people to ever see America from Sea to Shining Sea.

Lewis and Clark built another fort, huddled up for the winter, and then turned around and set back to report to President Jefferson about everything they'd seen.  The way back was no easier than the journey there though – and this time, when they crossed the Rockies, they had to do it in waist-deep snow.  Then, on the other side, the Corps got into a fight with a raiding party of Blackfoot Indians – two Blackfeet were killed in the shootout, and Lewis and Clark ended up getting separated during the fight and escaped down separate paths.  While he was off on his own, Clark then got shot through the leg in a hunting accident, when one of his own men saw his buckskin pants and accidentally thought he was a deer!  Still, despite cold, hunger, battle, and friendly fire, the two groups met up, reunited, and continued on.  They said goodbye to Sacagawea when they reached her home, and the Corps headed back to the Great Plains.




Hey, remember how I said the Sioux were tough?  Well, they knew Lewis and Clark would have to come back, and this time the Sioux were waiting with 100 bow-slinging cavalry warriors.  It was even more hair-raising than the first encounter, but ultimately the Sioux let the Americans pass peacefully.  The Sioux hadn’t been there to kill the Americans, but they did want Lewis and Clark to know who was in charge of this region.  And it wasn’t the United States of America.

Lewis and Clark finally returned to St. Louis on September 23, 1806.  They'd been gone for two years, four months, and ten days, and when they got back they learned that Thomas Jefferson and pretty much everyone figured these guys had been killed in action and were never coming back.  So when word arrived that the Corps was back, and that they'd only lost one man on the entire trip, everyone was so super pumped up you can't believe it.  A thousand people lined the streets of the city to welcome the heroes home with cheering and a parade.



The Corps of Discovery had passed along 8,000 miles of undiscovered American wilderness by boat, foot, and horseback.  They’d crossed the Oregon Trail before there was even a trail, they discovered 300 new species of plants and animals and made contact with 50 previously-unknown Indian tribes.  The lands they explored would eventually become the states of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon, and these brave explorers were national heroes overnight.  Even better, they were both promoted to brand-new jobs – Merriweather Lewis would become the Governor of Louisiana Territory, making him basically in charge of all the land he'd just discovered, and William Clark was made a General in the militia, and his job would be keeping it all safe.  To this day, both men are remembered as being among the greatest explorers and adventurers in American history.


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Tags: 18th century | 19th century | Adventurer | Explorer | Scientist | Survivalist | United States

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