History of American Discovery: Remembering the Expedition of Lewis and Clark

Source: Library of CongressOn April 30, 1803, James Monroe secured an agreement from the French government, then led by Napoleon, to allow purchase of a large section of what we now know as the United States of America. The Louisiana Purchase famously doubled the size of the young country for the cost of approximately $14 million.

The purchase brought a huge territory into the United States that was completely unexplored and unknown to the Americans of the time. Imagine the excitement of the possible discoveries offered by the expansive new land. Who knew what forms of wildlife, natural resources and unmet human cultures had now become a part of the country?

Thomas Jefferson and the Congress of the time decided an expedition was in order to gain a better understanding of the country’s new territory. Merriwether Lewis and William Clark were chosen as the leaders of the campaign and set off on their mission on this day in 1804.

The party included 43 members total, including the famous Native American guide Sacagawea who has since been commemorated on U.S. dollar coins.  The voyage yielded many notable discoveries, including many new Native American tribes with varying customs and unfamiliar forms of vegetation and terrain.

Petrified trees, volcanic mountains, stunning waterfalls, mountain sheep and white bears were amongst many of the wonders they reported back upon their return. At many points in the expedition when food was low and game was scarce, the party was dependent on the help of the local Native American tribes they encountered, including the Shoshone, Sioux, Ricaras, Mandans, and Snake tribes. While there were some scuffles with more hostile  Native American tribes, more often they were regarded with curiosity and hospitality.

By November 15, 1805, the expedition had managed to traverse the width of the new territory in order to reach the Pacific Ocean. The trip back was a bit more precarious than the one going, but in spite of all difficulties, after an absence of 2 years and 4 months, the party made its return on September 26, 1806 with ample stories and discoveries to share with an excited government and populace.

From that day on, Lewis and Clark have entertained the status of heroes in the minds of Americans. The courageous act of venturing into unknown territories to gain new knowledge, a honor reserved today for those sent into space, has assured them a place in the annals of history.

The following resources were used to research this post:

1. James D. Drake  ”Lewis and Clark Expedition”   The Oxford Companion to American Military History. John Whiteclay Chambers II, ed., Oxford University Press 1999. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. (found via Reference Universe)
2. Richard A. Bartlett  ”Lewis and Clark Expedition”  The Oxford Companion to United States History. Paul S. Boyer, ed. Oxford University Press 2001. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. (found via Reference Universe)
3. “Louisiana Purchase”  World Encyclopedia. Philip’s, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. (found via Reference Universe)
4. Grim, Ronald. “Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of AmericaLibrary of Congress, 27 July 2010. Web. (found via Public Documents Masterfile)
5. Lewis, Meriwether, William Clark, and Gary E. Moulton. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Lincoln, Nebraska. University of Nebraska, 1983. (found via Public Documents Masterfile)
6. Lossing, Benson J. The American Historical Record. Johnson E. Potter & Company. 1874. (found via 19th Century Masterfile)

∓∓. Johnson E. Potter

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