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A Glance

at the

Lewis and Clark

Grace Flandrau


A Glance

at the

Lewis and Clark


Grace Flandrau

Compliments of the
Great Northern Rail\va\'


Captain Merhvelher Lewis


A Glance at the Lewis and Clark

By Grace Flaudraii

To Thomas Jefferson, more than to an\ one factor in our
national development, is due the creation of an empire, reaching
from coast to coast, out of a handful of states stretching along
the Atlantic seaboard, and here and there by territorial posses-
sions across the Alleghanies to the Mississippi. In theory he
was fanatically the opponent of a great national sovereignty,
abhorred those things which are the bulwarks of empire — armies,
navies, cities, and strong centralized power. His political
philosophy aspired to a rural world swarming with schools,
farms and agricultural democrats, who, meeting on a basis of
equality, should make the laws by which they governed them-

In practice he was our first imperialist.

When the revolution had scarcely been won, before he
became President, before the frontiersmen had fought and
hewn their way to the Mississippi, Jefferson's purpose reached
far beyond this river — across the Spanish-owned Louisiana, over
the fabled mountains and along the legendary rivers of the far
northwest, to the Pacific Coast.

His hope was not that all this vast expanse should become one
American state, but that it should not be European; that it
should be a group of small democracies, a kind of pan-America,
free forever from the European traditions of king, church, and
class. Here, in fact, was the real beginning of the Monroe

Jefferson was, moreover, as much scientist as social philos-
opher. He felt the keenest interest in acquiring knowledge of the
primitive inhabitants, animal and vegetable life, topographical
and geological features of this unknown world. And he was
politician as well.

As early as 17N3, while a member of the infant Congress of
the Confederation, he heard that the British government was
planning an expedition of discovery and exploration to the
northwest coast of America. He wrote at once to George Rogers

Clark of re\olutionary fame, urging that he undertake such a
journey and thus estabhsh a prior claim to these regions.

In 1785 while Minister to France, a rumor that the French
government entertained a similar project again alarmed his
watchfulness and he interested the explorer John Ledyard in
undertaking a journey through Russia and Siberia, across the
Pacific, to the northwest coast and thence eastward down the
Missouri Ri\'er to the United States. Later he is found engaging
the Philosophic Society of Boston in a project to send a French
botanist Andre Michaux on a tour through this territory.

None of these plans materialized, but Jefferson's preoccupation
with the future of the continent as a whole — a preoccupation in
which he stood at that time alone — was unceasing. When, in
1801, he became President it was possible for him to accomplish
the exploration of that countr\- which he had so long attempted
to bring about.

In the meantime the question of free use of the Mississippi
for American craft became a burning one. Five months after
Jefferson came into office, Livingstone was sent to France to
buy the island of New Orleans commanding the mouth of the
river, and the Floridas from Bonaparte who had recently caused
the recession of Louisiana by Spain to France. Monroe joined
Livingstone in Paris, in April 1803, and shortly afterwards
Napoleon tossed the whole of Louisiana instead of the small
strip they had been sent to buy, into the laps of the astonished
emissaries. That the possession of Louisiana was fortuitous and
not planned by Jefferson has nothing to do with his consistent
policy as regarded the future of the far west and northwest.

Before the purchase of Louisiana his plans for a considerable
expedition to traverse the entire region were well in hand; and
when Captains Lewis and Clark appeared in the streets of the
little Spanish-French village of St. Louis in December 1803 they
came less as scientific explorers than as the direct expression of
a philosophic and political ideal.

The Lewis and Clark expedition as nearly reached perfection
both in planning and execution as is possible for a merely human
effort. The project, as we have seen, had been developing and
ripening in Jefferson's mind many \ears, so that the volumin-
ous and exact instructions he drew up for the conduct of the
tour were amazingly thorough and competent; and the men


he chose to lead the party and those in turn chosen by the
leaders, were in the highest degree devoted, capable, and cou-

The Leaders

Captain Meriwether Lewis was a Virginian ot tlistinguished
colonial ancestry and was born in 1774 on a farm near Charlottes-
ville. He had several years of formal schooling but from farm
and nearby forest he obtained a still more valuable education.

At eighteen he served with the militia in the so-called Whiskey
Rebellion and later was made first lieutenant and then captain
of the regular army. When Jefferson became president he made
Lewis whom he had known from boyhood his private secretary
and two years later appointed him to the leadership of the west-
ern e.xploration.

In writing of him there is no praise too high for Jefferson
to lavish upon his young subordinate. He especially commends
his honesty, courage, and firmness; his powers of exact observa-
tion; his knowledge of woodcraft; of Indians and their ways,
and of the animal and vegetable life of the forest.

It was Lewis' wish to ha\e a companion of equal rank associ-
ated with himself. Jefferson willingly acquiesced. Nothing
could be more important than that the choice of such a partner
should fall upon a man thoroughly qualified for the delicate and
arduous task.

Lewis unhesitatingly sent to a Kentucky farm for a young
officer, William C. Clark, then retired, under whom he had

Clark was ninth of a family of ten children — a younger brother
of General George Rogers Clark.

Although William Clark had retired a captain it was necessary
to obtain a new commission for this command. The rank of
Captain of "Indioneers" [Engineers] as Clark, in his astonishing
orthography spells it, was accordingly applied for. He was made
however only a second lieutenant of artillery, but Lewis was
scrupulous in according him strict equality of command.

The party consisted of twenty-nine members — the two officers,
nine young Kentuckians, fourteen soldiers of the regular army,
two French boatmen, an interpreter, and a negro servant of
Captain Clark named York. They reached St. Louis in December

of 1803 and spent the winter months in camp at the confluence
of Wood River with the Mississippi opposite the mouth of the
Missouri. The time was passed in drilling the men, instructing
them in the duties the varied nature of the enterprise would
entail upon them, and other preparations.

Xature of the Undertaking

Although the morale and spirits of the party were of the best,
even the humblest members were impressed with the seriousness
and importance of their enterprise and aware of the dangers
which would attend it.

A journey of thousands of miles lay before them through an
unknown and unmapped country. A few French and Spanish
traders had straggled up the Missouri as far as the Mandan
villages which parties of British fur traders, descending from the
north, occasionally visited; one French exploring expedition,
that of the La Verendrye sons, had made an unmarked journey
overland to the Black Hills or an easterly spur of the Rocky
Mountains. That was all. Beyond these villages the Lewis and
Clark party must lay its course with no guide except instinct
and common sense. They were to ascend the Missouri as far as
seemed wise — it was vaguely supposed to rise in central Cali-
fornia; find a practicable pass across mountains indefinitely
known to exist, and manage somehow to connect on the western
slope with a tributary of the Columbia — an unexplored river
whose mouth had been discovered by an American, Captain
Gray, in 1792. They were to make topographical surveys, take
astronomical and meteorological observations; examine and
report on the plants, animals, and minerals of the regions trav-
ersed; make an especial study of the waterways as avenues of
future transportation and of the contour of the land with a view
to future trading posts and fortifications. Particularly, they
were to confer with the various tribes of Indians, assure them of
the benevolent interest felt for them by their great father in
Washington and prepare the way for future negotiations; try
to persuade them to more peaceful relations among themselves;
ascertain their numbers, tribal afifiliations, agricultural and other
pursuits and condition in general. Indeed the number of duties
and obligations imposed upon these dauntless adventurers would
seem preposterous were it not for the fact that they were ac-
tually and to the smallest detail carried out!


The party was increased before its departure by sixteen new
members. These — a corporal, six soldiers and nine boatmen —
were to accompany the main bod\' (»nl\- as lar as the Mandan
villages, 1,000 miles above St. Louis.

Tbc Jounuy Begins

At last, on a Ma\- morning in iSOi. the square sail of the keel
boat was raised, the oars of the tw»> pirogues manned and the
party set out on their great adventure. They carried with them in
carefully packed bales the necessities of life and trade tood,
clothing, guns, ammunition, and articles for barter with the
Indians. Horses for the use of the himters were led along the
shore. On the 2.')th of May, a significant entry in one of the
journals states that on this day the "last establishment of whites
on the Missouri" was passed.

For five months the small flotilla toiled against the rapid
current of the shifting, snag-filled river. There were many delays;
the boats were often in need of repairs; the hunters went out after
meat; observations were taken; Indian conferences held as
directed, when the savages were informed that America not
Spain now ruled along the Missouri and good advice as laid
down by Mr. Jefferson earnestly offered by the young leaders.
The Indians were not only to make peace at once among them-
selves or let the Great Father in Washington decide their dis-
putes, but they were to prepare themselves to fit into a new
order of things.

Good advice certainl\-, but wh\ the saxages should have been
expected to act upon the gratuitous admonitions constantly
thrust upon them in the early days, much less be grateful for
them, or belie\e the promises made them which so frequently
remained unfulfilled, I have never l)een able to see. Usually,
ot course they didn't.

With the Indians of the lower Missouri little difticulty was
expected or experienced but the temper of the powerful Sioux
was known to be uncertain. A French trader, Peter Dorion, who-
had married and lived among this people many years, was met
descending the river and induced to turn back and accompany
the expedition as interpreter. Several bands of Sioux were en-
countered and the meetings passed without serious difficulty.

The one casualty of the expedition occurred during this part
of the trip. Sergeant Floyd was taken ill on .August 1 0th and


died the following da>'. He was buried with the honors of war
a mile below the river which still bears his name and his gra\e
marked, Clark writes, by a "seeder" post. The Great Northern
Railway follows the \alle\- of this ri\er into the present Sioux
City. The citizens, including the railroads, with state and
federal aid, have erected a mbnument here to Sergeant Floyd on
a bluff overlooking the Missouri.

One of the only two instances of insubordination which oc-
curred during the whole journey also took place at this time. The
culprit was punished and dismissed but we find Lewis in his
report of the expedition generously expatiating on the otherwise
good conduct and character of the man and regretting that this
one misdeed could not have been overlooked.

On the 26th of October they reached the first village of the
Mandans — that mild, industrious and vanished people whose
domed, mud houses, like the work of great burrowing animals,
rose in low irregular clusters from the banks above the Missouri.

Indians lined the river and crowded the house-tops to witness
the arrival of this imposing flotilla, the most considerable group
of white men they had ever seen; or. charmed and terrified by
the black skin and kink\- hair of the negro York, followed at
a prudent distance this wholK' unexpected and doubtless super-
human apparition.

The Winter Camp

Several Frenchmen were found here and a Scotch fur trader
belonging to The Northwest Company. Minnetarees came
down in large numbers from their villages further up the river,
and later bands of Knisteneaux [Crees] and Assinniboines paid
a visit to the Mandans.

It had been decided to winter at this place; a number of huts
were accordingly built and called Fort Mandan.

It is now that the gentle figure of the Bird Woman, Sacajawea,
appears, whose quiet courage and devotion have touched with
a peculiar grace the subsequent adventures of the party.

She was a Shoshone and had. with another young woman,
been captured from her people by the Minnetarees. She was
sold to Chaboneau, one of the Frenchmen found at these vil-
lages, who later married her. Chaboneau was to accompany
the expedition as interpreter, taking his wife and baby with him.


The captains devoted the wiiiier to ethnological observations
and to the compilation of \oluminous reports. In the spring
other Canadian traders arri\ed. The Northwest Company
regarded with extreme disfavor the significant arrival of an
American expedition in these regions where they had enjoyed a
monopoly of the Indian trade. Hoping to impede the western
advance of the party they incited Chaboneau to make exorbitant
demands. These were of course refused, but before the party set
out the fellow repented his attitude and, together with his wife
and young child, was permitted to undertake the journey.

In March, 1805, canoes were built for the further ascent of
the river. Cottonwood was the only timber a\ailablc. It was
not fit for the purpose and was the source of much future diffi-
culty, the soft fibrous planks being constantly twisted and
crushed in the rough waters of the upper Missouri.

The party now separated; those who were to return to St.
Louis embarked carrying with them despatches, reports, and
maps prepared by Lewis and Clark, and scientific specimens —
"A variety of articles for the President" writes one of the leaders,
including stuffed animals, skeletons, horns of mountain sheep,
elk and deer; peltries of various kinds; dried plants, Indian
curios; tobacco seed; an ear ot Mandan corn; a box of insects,
and a "burrowing squirrel, a prairie hen and four magpies,
all alive."

It is not stated that the latter were still ali\e when and if
they reached the White House. We can easily imagine with what
passionate interest its learned occupant examined these first
fruits of his longfelt scientific curiositx as to the remote and
virgin world of the upper Missouri.

The Indians among whom the party passed the winter did not
fail to respond to the scrupulous fairness and courtesy which it
was the definite policy of the expedition to extend to the savages
and gave their friendship and what help they could to the

Before the latter set out the\ received a visit from the great
chief of the Minnetarees, Le Borgne, an interesting old monster,
murderer, thief and drunkard, the wickedest Indian on the
Missouri. He came to find out for himself whether the black man
York of whom he heard were really black and not as he believed,
merely a painted white man. When his doubts were set at rest
he evinced the wonder and gratification generally felt by the
Indians at looking upon so fabulous a creature.


April 7, 1805, was the day set for departure. The green
Cottonwood canoes laden with baggage waited along the shore
of the muddy, turbulent river whose unknown course was to
lead the party westward.

In his journal for that day Captain Lewis expresses the
emotion he experienced at what seemed to him the real begin-
ning of his dangerous venture:

"This little fleet altho' not quite so rispectable as those of
Columbus or Capt. Cook, were still viewed by us with as much
pleasure as those deservedly famed adventurers ever beheld
theirs; and I dare say with quite as much anxiety for their safety
and preservation, we were now about to penetrate a country at
least 2,000 miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had
never trodden . . . and these little vessells contained every
article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves,
however, . . . entertaining as I do the most confident hope of
succeeding in a voyage which had formed a darling project of
mine for the last ten years, I could but esteem this moment
of departure as among the most happy of my life."

The Journey Resumed

After passing the Minnetaree (Hidatsa) villages some miles
above Fort Mandan the party saw no more Indians for many
months. The Assiniboines of whom they had heard bad reports
were hunting farther north on the Assiniboine River. The plains
were given over to buffalo, deer, wolves, and fleet bands of ante-
lope that passed like flying clouds before the hunters; ferocious
grizzlies infested the willow thickets; white bear were seen; wild
fowl of all kinds passed above them in long-throated flight;
creeks and backwaters swarmed with beaver.

On April 26 the party approached the mouth of the Yellow-
stone. The rivers flowed to their confluence between banks
shaded with cottonwood, elm and ash; willows, tall rose bushes
and wild berries grew thick on the lowlands and everywhere
game was seen pasturing on the rolling plains that stretched
away to the horizon.

Lewis pronounced this an excellent situation for a future
trading house and his recognition of the importance of the site
has proved to be prophetic of even more important development.
Not only did Fort Union, the central frontier outpost of the
Upper Missouri, stand here for forty years, but the confluence
of these great rivers which suggested the location of this trading
post to Lewis, later indicated the natural boundary point be-
tween Dakota and Montana: not far from here the military post


Marias River

Reprinted from Stevens
Northwest Explorations
and surveys 1853-oo

of Buford was built later, while a few miles farther east the city
of Williston has grown to importance and prosperity.

Westward from Williston, a traveller on the Great Northern
Railway follows approximately the route taken by Lewis and
Clark for 600 miles to Butte, one of the southern terminii of
the railroad in Montana. Whenever the Missouri Ri\er is
sighted along that course, there, o^■er a century ago, the small
flotilla might have been seen, the men struggling against the
rapid current, hunting along shore, cooking their elk and buffalo
meat over the camp-fire or bivouaced for the night among the
willow thickets. Four months of weary effort it took them, a
journey now accomplished in twenty hours!

A month after leaving the mouth of the Yellowstone the
shadowy outline of distant mountains appeared on the western
horizon. Captain Lewis again experienced a throb of exultation
at this further unfolding of his adventure and a sense too of the
terrible difficulties this cloud-like barrier would oppose to his on-
ward march. But he "held it a crime to anticipate evils."

Indeed the immediate evils might well have occupied all his
attention. The sluggish brown Missouri had become a clear,
tumultous stream flowing between walls of rock. For many weary
days the men fought their way up the river, towing the canoes
over rapids, often immersed in water to their armpits, their


moccasins cut and their feet wounded b>" the sharp stones.
Incessant repairs had to be made on the flimsy craft; tow lines
broke and once the boat carrying their indispensable instru-
ments for taking observations was almost lost. Through it all
the courage and good nature of the men nexer flagged.

On June 2 they reached a place where the river forked and
they were uncertain as to which was the main channel . Nothing
is more characteristic of the two men and their conduct of the
whole expedition than the care with which they studied this im-
portant question, and the exactness of their deductions. The
clearness of the water, speed of the current, topography of the
country and reports previously obtained from Indians were duly
considered. Captain Lewis ascended the northern branch and
soon felt convinced that it was the tributary and not the Missouri
he was following. He named it Maria's river in honor of Miss
Maria Wood, although, he remarks in terms of true southern
gallantry, "the hue of the waters of this turbulent and troubled
stream but illy comport with the pure celestial virtues of that
lovely fair one."

Captain Clark meanwhile reconnoitered the south fork for
a short distance. When the leaders returned to their camp at
the junction of the two rivers, both were agreed that the south
branch was the Missouri, although the men of the party were
unanimously convinced that Maria's river was the main stream.

The conclusion reached by Captains Lewis and Clark was,
like most of their careful decisions, correct. Had they however
been mistaken and ascended Maria's river they might have
obtained a far more favorable crossing of the mountains by what
is now known as Marias Pass and an easier way from there to
the Columbia than by the route taken. But they chose to proceed
by the Missouri, a way illumined at least by the vague light of
rumor, while away from that stream all was profound darkness.

From this time the leaders often separated, one to explore in
advance, one to follow with the baggage. On July 13, 1805,
Captain Lewis reached the Great Falls of the Missouri and his
pen is inspired to lyric flights by the truly magnificent spectacle.
On the 25th, the three forks of the river were reached and named
JefTerson, Madison and Gallatin. After a careful reconnaissance
it was decided to follow the most westerly — the JefTerson.

It now became a matter of the greatest necessity to find
Indians who might guide them to the best passage through the


mountains. Game was already scarce and would, the\ knew, be-
come still more so in the country they were about to {penetrate.
Along the west loomed the ominous mass of the great mountains,
their broad slopes cloaked with pine, or bare and torn b\ ancient
cataclysm into deep fissures of gashed, grey rock; their lofty
peaks, streaked with snow, towered above the clouds.

Sacajawea had already recognized the spot where the conflict
between her people and the Minnetarees had taken place and
where she had been made captive. They could not, she assured
them, fail soon to encounter some bantl of Shoshones.

Across the Rockies

On August 12. the headwaters of the stream were reached
which he joyfully beliexed to be the source of the Missouri.
Following an Indian road they soon came upon westward-flowing
water — the source of the Lemhi River. They had surmounted
the Continental Divide and before them flowed a tributary of
the fabled Columbia! But the triumph of this great moment
was hea\il\- overshadowed with anxiety. With scanty provisions
and no guides their condition would be all but desperate.

At last Lewis came upon a band of Shoshones and persuaded
them to return with him to meet the main body still advancing
up the Missouri under Captain Clark. The meeting of the two
parties was marked b\- a most romantic incident. At sight of
the Indians the interpreter's wife, Sacajawea who, burdened as
she was with a young child, had shared helpfully and without
complaint the painful marches, privations, and difficulties of the
long journey, manifested extravagant joy. Laughing, weeping,
sucking her fingers to indicate that these people were her own
relatives, she rushed to embrace them and was recei\ed with
equal delight. In the person of the chief she later discovered her
own brother. Sacajawea's services as interpreter were invaluable
and this incident was also of great importance in strengthening
the friendly relations established with the Shoshones. Her

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Online LibraryGrace FlandrauA glance at the Lewis and Clark expedition → online text (page 1 of 3)