Lewis And Clark Expedition
Facts, information and articles about the Lewis And Clark Expedition, an event of Westward Expansion from the Wild West
Lewis And Clark Expedition Facts
(Meriwether) Lewis: August 18, 1774; (William) Clark: August 1, 1770
Merriweather Lewis: October 11, 1809; William Clark: September 1, 1838
Lewis: none; Clark: Julia Hancock (1808 – 1820), Harriet Kennerly Radford (1820 – 1831)
Years Of Service
Lewis: US Army (1794 – 1801), Governor of the Louisiana Territory (1807 – 1809);
Clark: US Militia (1789 – 1796), Governor of the Missouri Territory (1813 – 1820)
Lewis: Captain; Clark: Lieutenant
Co-commanders of the Corps of Discovery
Lewis: Persona Secretary to Pres. Jefferson;
Clark: Appointed Brigadier General of the Militia and Superintendent of Indian Affairs.
Lewis And Clark Articles
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Lewis And Clark Expedition summary: The United States purchased Louisiana from France in 1803. The huge part of the land west of the Mississippi River was completely unknown to Americans and needed to be examined first before it could be settled. President Jefferson decided to send an exploratory expedition west so he appointed his own private secretary, Meriwether Lewis as a Commander in charge of the expedition and finding appropriate guides for it. Lewis invited his former superior officer from the Army, William Clark, to be his Co-commander.
The Lewis And Clark Expedition Begins
Their mission was to explore the unknown territory, establish trade with the Natives and affirm the sovereignty of the United States in the region. One of their goals was to find a waterway from the US to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis and Clark commanded the Corps of Discovery which consisted of 33 people, including one Indian woman and one slave.
Sacagawea Serves As A Guide
The expedition lasted from May 1804 until September 1806. They failed to find a waterway from the Mississippi to the Pacific, but succeeded in documenting more than 100 new animals and 178 plants, as well as providing 140 maps of the region. The expedition was so marked in history that the story of the explorers was made into many films and many books have been written about them. Sacagawea was a Native American who guided their mission because she knew the native land far better than the European travelers. The travelers, Sacagawea and often her husband are depicted in many different ways in paintings, carvings, and in media. Learn more about Sacagawea.
Lewis And Clark Expedition Map
To see a map of the Lewis and Clark Expedition as well as paintings of Merriweather Lewis and William Clark, please see our Lewis And Clark Map page.
Articles Featuring Lewis And Clark Expedition From History Net Magazines
Corps of Discovery: Long March of Lewis and Clark
When peace negotiations were underway with England to bring the American Revolution to an end, vital American interests in the Mississippi River, the ‘Father of Waters,’ stood paramount in the minds of the American diplomats on the scene, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams. They knew that any foreign power that ruled the Mississippi faced the soft western underbelly of the United States and could, if war came, thrust a dagger deep into the vitals of the republic. Even in peacetime, foreign rule of the mighty stream would paralyze American expansion into the fertile lands to the west.
Thus, when the Treaty of Paris was signed in September 1783 ending the war, American rights to the Mississippi were boldly spelled out: The western boundary of the new nation would rest on ‘a line drawn along the middle of the said river until it shall intersect the northermost part of the thirty-first degree of north latitude.’ Moreover, rights to the navigation of the Mississippi would ‘remain forever free and open to the subjects of Great Britain and the citizens of the United States.’ Already, American pioneers were crossing the Father of Waters into Spanish-ruled Louisiana Territory, a gigantic expanse rolling north from New Orleans to the frontier of Canada.
When Spain began to object in 1790 to the American migration, Thomas Jefferson, then President George Washington’s secretary of state, emphasized to William Carmichael, the American diplomat in Madrid, the necessity of an early and even an immediate settlement of the matter. At the same time, Jefferson knew that Spanish agents were intriguing to detach the western territory from the eastern seaboard with tempting promises of free navigation of the Mississippi and use of the port of New Orleans at its mouth.
In 1795, Thomas Pinckney negotiated a treaty with Spain ensuring American use of the Mississippi and the ‘Queen City’ of its delta, New Orleans. Then, on October 1, 1800, Spain ceded the riches of the Louisiana Territory to France. Now President Jefferson and the United States confronted across the wide face of the Mississippi not the declining power of Spain, but the bristling might of the strongest realm in Europe under the brilliant warrior Napoleon.
Just when things seemed like they could only get worse, help came from a totally unexpected quarter–Napoleon himself. Needing money to feed his hungry war machine, Napoleon agreed to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States for $15 million.
After the pact was signed by American treaty negotiators James Monroe and Robert Livingston, Livingston spoke for Jefferson when he proclaimed, ‘Today the United States takes their place among the powers of the first rank’ in the world. Yet as Jefferson would find out, buying the Louisiana Territory was one thing–claiming and occupying it would be another matter, altogether.
With both the British in Canada and the Spanish in Texas and the Southwest already casting covetous eyes toward Louisiana and inciting Indians to resist American attempts to penetrate the region, there was only one way that Jefferson could assert national claims to the land: by force of arms. To do this, he turned to the U.S. Army.
In 1804, the entire Army numbered approximately 3,300 officers and men. There were only two regiments of infantry and hardly any cavalry, a crippling handicap in policing the wide plains of Louisiana. There was only one regiment of artillery and just 17 engineer officers and cadets. Nevertheless, it was to this tiny military establishment that Jefferson looked to stake America’s claim to the Louisiana Territory for two critical reasons: The force was composed entirely of volunteer professionals, and it included probably the largest trained body of engineers and surveyors in the nation.
Against this military background, in May 1804, Meriwether Lewis, now Jefferson’s private secretary and previously a captain in the 1st Infantry, and William Clark, now a second lieutenant in the artillery, set out with an army expedition to assert American claims to Louisiana and, if possible, to march to the Pacific Ocean, which Jefferson hoped would one day see the American flag. Jefferson’s instructions dealt mainly with the geography and the Indians Lewis and Clark would meet on the way–a primary objective was ‘to explore… the most direct and practicable water communication across the continent, for the purpose of commerce.’ But Jefferson also hoped to assert the United States’ ownership of Louisiana, by use of military force if necessary.
When Lewis and Clark marched out of St. Louis on their western advance, it was after a year’s intensive preparation. Only 14 enlisted men out of hundreds of anxious volunteers were finally selected for the grueling march ahead; another seven soldiers would accompany them at least part of the way. Clark also brought his personal slave, York, who would serve so well along the way that he would be given his freedom at journey’s end. The members of the expedition were the product of a rigorous selection process and also were armed with the most sophisticated weapon the United States had yet produced, the Model 1803 .54-caliber flintlock musket, just issued to the Army. In mid-March 1803, Lewis had personally chosen 15 of these firearms for the soldiers of the party while on a special visit to the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va.
Thus, as the journal of the trek recorded, ‘all the preparations being completed, we left our camp on Monday, May 14, 1804,’ and a total of 45 people (including interpreters) headed off into the unknown. With Lewis and Clark went Jefferson’s instructions concerning the military character of their journey: ‘Your numbers will be sufficient to secure you against the unauthorized opposition of individuals, or of small parties; but if a superior force, authorized or not authorized by a nation, should be arrayed against your further passage, and inflexibly determined to arrest it, you must decline its further pursuit and return.’
Jefferson had secured agreements from the ambassadors of England, France and Spain that their countries would not try to interfere with the expedition, but he was not taking any chances. To underscore Jefferson’s concern that other powers might try to interfere with the expedition’s progress, the president admonished that they should ‘avail yourselves… to communicate to us, at seasonable intervals, a copy of your journal, notes, and observations of every kind, putting into cipher whatever might do injury if betrayed.’
Thus the self-styled ‘Corps of Discovery’ began its epic voyage of exploration, sailing up the Missouri River in three boats–a keelboat and two flat-bottomed pirogues. The keelboat carried a small-bore cannon and two large blunderbusses, while the pirogues each had a single blunderbuss. Lewis himself did not join the Corps until May 21 at St. Charles, having been detained by business at St. Louis.
Throughout the voyage upriver, strict military discipline was observed. On the keelboat, the expedition’s main vessel, one sergeant kept watch in the bow, another in the center and a third in the stern. Whenever they would stop onshore for provisions, sentinels would reconnoiter 150 yards around each stopping place. At night, the boats were closely guarded. There was cause for such alertness: On June 1, they met Osage Indians, who boasted ‘between 1,200 and 1,300 warriors,’ but the Indians were peaceful.
At St. Charles the Corps had its first taste of the military discipline–harsh by modern standards–that would ensure its survival in the months ahead. Three enlisted men were punished because of excesses during their shore leave in the town, on the north side of the river. After a court-martial aboard the keelboat, Pathfinder, Privates William Werner and Hugh Hall were sentenced to ‘twenty-five lashes on their naked backs,’ while Private John Collins received 50 blows.
The discipline exacted at such a high price to the three soldiers would, nevertheless, prove its worth. For unknown to Lewis and Clark, the Spanish had reneged on the promise of safe conduct given to Jefferson by the Spanish ambassador, the Marques de Yrujo. As early as March, Yrujo had warned of ‘the hasty and gigantic steps which our [American] neighbors are taking towards the South Sea,’ the Pacific Ocean. He urged Don Nemesio Salcedo, the commandant-general of the Internal Provinces of the Viceroyalty of New Spain [Mexico], to arrest ‘Captain Merry (Meriwether Lewis) and his followers’ and to seize all ‘papers and instruments that may be found on them.’ More than that, the grim Salcedo encouraged the fierce Comanches, now allied to Spain, to attack Lewis and Clark. Fortunately, the Indians never found them.
As dark clouds of intrigue were settling over the Corps of Discovery, the hardy troops continued their journey up the Missouri. Summer found them approaching the land of the Lakotas or Sioux, even then acknowledged to be the warrior kings of the Great Plains. Before the expedition had set out, Jefferson had written of the Lakotas, ‘On that nation we wish most particularly to make a friendly impression because of their immense power.’
Just as the encounter with the Lakotas was about to take place, another incident occurred that served to reinforce military discipline just as it would be needed the most. On August 4, a trooper named Moses Reed deserted reportedly ‘under pretense of recovering a knife which he had dropped a short distance behind!’ This was no time to allow control to grow slack. Therefore, according to the journal of Patrick Gass, ‘Four of our people were dispatched to the Oro nation of Indians [whom the men had just visited]’ to hunt for the deserter Reed.
Fortunately for Reed, he was apprehended without offering any resistance. Clark noted we ‘only sentenced him to run the gauntlet four times through the party,’ after which Reed was expelled from the Corps and put to work as a laborer on the pirogues.
At the end of a hot August, the meeting with Lakotas took place in modern-day Knox County, Neb. The Lakotas had been invited to the council by Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor and Pierre Dorion, a French Canadian interpreter who had lived for many years among them. On August 30, the chiefs and their warriors arrived at 12 o’clock, under a large oak tree, near which flew the flag of the United States.
After a speech by Lewis, the two commanders acknowledged the chiefs by giving the grand chief, Weucha, or Shake Hand, a flag, a medal, a certificate and a string of wampum. To emphasize the American military presence, they also bestowed on Weucha a richly laced uniform of the US. artillery corps, with a cocked hat and red feather, to replace the military emblems of officer rank that the British had previously given to such chieftains. The height of the ceremony came when the leaders smoked the long-stemmed peace pipe, or calumet. So impressed were Lewis and Clark that they christened the spot Calumet Bluffs.
The first meeting with the Lakotas had gone exceedingly well for the soldierexplorers. One reason, recalled Private Joseph Whitehouse, was the fact that Lewis gave a demonstration of their experimental air gun, which was fired by air stored under pressure in the gun’s butt.
Although the conference with the Lakotas had been a success, more meetings with Lakota clans–and other tribes as well–would lie ahead of them. One month later, the Corps of Discovery encountered a clan of Lakotas who had an unsavory reputation of menacing parties of traders. Interpreter Pierre Dorion had been one such trader, so the soldiers knew what to expect. On September 25, in the wilderness of what is now South Dakota, near the capital of Pierre, they met Tortohonga, the chief known as the Partisan.
After the usual opening pleasantries, the partisans follower suddenly turned on the whites on the banks of the Bad River. As the journal retold the incident, ‘They at last accompanied Captain Clark on shore in a pirogue with five men; but it seems they had formed a design to stop us; for no sooner had the party landed than three of the Indians seized the cable of the pirogue, and one of the [warriors] of the chief put his arms around the mast. The second chief, who affected intoxication, then said that we should not go on, that they had not received presents enough from us. Captain Clark told them that we would not be prevented from going on; that we were not squaws, but warriors; that we were sent by our great father, who could in a moment exterminate them.’
The chief replied that he, too, had warriors, and proceeded to threaten personal violence to Clark, who immediately drew his sword and made a signal to the boat to prepare for action. The troopers, who had donned their military uniforms to overawe the Indians, found themselves in the middle of danger. The Indians who surrounded Clark drew their arrows from their quivers and were bending their bows when the swivel gun in the boat was pointed toward them, and 12 determined men jumped into the pirogue to join Clark.
The gaping, loaded mouth of the swivel gun and the resolute action of the men suddenly cooled the Lakotas’ appetite for combat. Tortohonga hastily ordered the young men away from the pirogue. The crisis had passed.
After the showdown on the banks of the Bad River, peace was made with the duly impressed Lakotas, who regaled the men with a feast and a dance. The Corps then continued its epic journey. By the time they reached the site of future Bismarck, N.D., the men had traversed 1,610 miles with only one fatality, Charles Floyd, dead of natural causes back in Iowa. Now, however, the days of fall were getting shorter, and the first bite of winter was in the air. Accordingly, by November, the expedition made plans to spend the season among the Mandan Indians along the Missouri River.
For protection, in true military fashion, they constructed Fort Mandan. Each wall of the V-shaped defensive work was 56 feet long and about 7 feet tall, with the opening of the ‘V’ barred by a stout wall.
Through the frigid winter–at least 40 days between December and March the thermometer sank to a bone-rattling zero–Fort Mandan stood as an impressive symbol of American power for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, as well as the Lakotas. The Mandans were also awed by the black skin of York, Clark’s trusted slave. For the British-run North West Fur Company, the Americans’ presence signaled an end to its monopoly of the beaver trade and the debut of a new ruler. The only contact with the hostile Lakotas came on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1805, when four men were sent out to bring up meat that had been collected by hunters. More than 100 Lakotas rushed them, cut the traces of the sleds, and made off with two of the horses while an Indian with the soldiers gave them another. This horsestealing raid, more a test of Lakota courage than a provocation to the Corps, was the only challenge the mighty tribe made against Fort Mandan and its garrison.
When spring came and the ice on the Missouri melted, the Corps made preparations to continue its journey. The group left the fort on April 7. Here came an historic parting of the ways for the members of the expedition: Some would continue the voyage to the ocean, while others would return downstream to St. Louis with the information they had gathered thus far. Pennsylvania-born Gass noted this date in his diary, ‘Thirty-one men and a woman went upriver and thirteen returned down it in the boat.’ The woman, who had joined the troops at Fort Mandan, was Sacagawea, whose name from then on would be linked with Lewis and Clark.
Through country rich with wildlife, the party traveled onto the Yellowstone River, tributary to the all-powerful Missouri. Herds of buffalo, elk and antelope, which had not yet learned to fear the hand of man or his weapons, ‘were so gentle we pass near them without appearing to excite any alarm, and when we attract their attention they approach more nearly to see what we are.’
Another trial soon faced the wearying advance scouts of the American empire. They reached the Great Falls of the Missouri, where the men were forced to undergo the most grueling rite of passage in all of Western sojourning: a portage. The troops and laborers had to carry all their equipment, plus the boats, on their backs until the next navigable stretch of water was finally attained. By June 23, some of the men were limping from sore feet; others were scarcely able to stand for more than a few minutes from heat and fatigue.
River-borne again on July 15, the trekkers soon entered the extraordinary range of rocks called the Gates of the Rocky Mountains, whose foothills, the Sawtooth Range in Montana, Lewis had climbed on May 26. Sacagawea, who had been a Shoshone maiden of 10 when captured by a raiding party of Hidatsa in 1800, knew she was returning to the hunting grounds of her people, the Shoshones, ‘Lords of the Rocky Mountains.’
Pushing ahead with a forward party, Lewis crossed the Continental Divide by way of Lemhi Pass into Idaho. On Sunday, August 11, 1805, he caught sight of the first Shoshone warrior, ‘armed with a bow and a quiver of arrows, and mounted on an elegant horse without a saddle; a small string attached to the under jaw answered as a bridle.’
Meeting the Shoshone, the expedition found itself in a tense situation, much as with the Lakotas. The Shoshone chief, Cameahwait, told Lewis ‘that some foolish person had suggested that he was in league’ with a hostile tribe ‘and had come only to draw them into an [ambush]; but that he himself did not believe it.’
The tense impasse evaporated when, on August 17, Clark, in command of the rear detachment, came up with Sacagawea. The Shoshone, Gass wrote, ‘were transported with joy’ at seeing that Lewis had told the truth that all the Americans had come in peace, ‘and the chief, in the warmth of his satisfaction, renewed his embrace to Captain Lewis, who was quite as much delighted as the Indians themselves.’ Sacagawea embraced the chief, who was himself moved by the reunion, for Sacagawea was his long-lost sister.
When the two American leaders sat down in council with Chief Cameahwait, they kindly but firmly made known to the Shoshone their dependence on the will of the government for their future comfort and defense. Cameahwait took this declaration of American sovereignty in good spirits and declared his willingness to help the expedition. With the happy conclusion of the pow-wow, Lewis and Clark set their sights on their ultimate goal–reaching the Pacific shores.
Throughout August and September, the explorers pressed on through some of the most unforgiving terrain on the continent. They backtracked into Montana by way of the north fork of the Salmon River, only to cross over back into Idaho by the Bitterroot Range. On September 16, even the stoical Gass moaned that this trip was through ‘the most terrible mountains I ever beheld.’ All Shoshones except Old Toby and his son left. The only bright spot in their backbreaking nightmare came on the 4th of September, when they met some Flathead Indians, who smoked the peace pipe with them at Ross’ Hole and provided some badly needed horses.
Throughout October, the Corps persevered through Idaho and into Washington, braving the wild Snake and Clearwater rivers, whose rapids ranked among the fiercest white water in North America. On October 8, Gass recorded: ‘In passing through a rapid, I had my canoe stove and she sunk. Fortunately the water was not more than waist deep, so our lives and baggage were saved, though the latter was wet.’ Two days later, the official journal declared of one cataract, This was worse than any of them, being a very hazardous ripple strewed with rocks.’ Yet the military discipline ingrained in them won the battle of the rivers without losing one life. On October 9, however, Old Toby and his son fled, fearful of confronting any more rapids.
On October 16, they reached the Columbia River, which would be their riverine path to the Pacific. On the 23rd, one of their Nez Perce guides told Lewis and Clark he had overheard that the Indians below intended to attack as they went down the river. The ominous news had little effect on the Corps of Discovery. ‘Being at all times ready for any attempt of that sort, we were not under greater apprehensions than usual… we therefore only reexamined our arms, and increased the ammunition.’ Any plan to assault the vigilant Lewis and Clark was promptly abandoned.
With the concern over hostile Indian attack passed, the Corps concentrated on the final leg of the journey to the Pacific. They ran through nine turbulent miles of the Dalles branch of the Columbia, which had proved a similar trial for the North West Fur Company’s master explorer David Thompson a generation before. Still another test of strength awaited them with coastal Indians on their way to the Western sea. While smoking the peace pipe with the Skilloot Nation, warriors’stole the pipe with which they were smoking, and the greatcoat of one of the men.’
Not wishing to be taken advantage of by the more numerous Indians, Lewis and Clark had the Indians searched at gunpoint. Although the missing calumet was not found, the Skilloots learned the white warriors were men to be reckoned with. Finally, three days later, the Corps reached the object of their dreams–the broad waters of the Pacific. The journal recorded, ‘We enjoyed the delightful prospect of the oceanthat ocean, the object of all our labors, the reward of all our anxieties,’ at the tidal mouth of the great Columbia.
After spending nearly a month exploring the coastal plain and the Indians who dwelt along the Pacific rim, the time came to plan once more for winter quarters, although the Northwestern climate freed them from the snows of the cold season experienced at Fort Mandan. Called Fort Clatsop, after the tribe with whom the Corps now lived, the outpost was designed to be a fitting reminder of American power, even on the shores of the Pacific. The fortification would be a square construction, measuring 50 feet to a side. Building the fort commenced on December 8. It was completed in time to celebrate Christmas, which was saluted at daylight by a discharge of firearms, followed by a song from the men.
The sighting of the Pacific and the claim to the coast that Fort Clatsop so strongly represented marked the climax of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Now it was time for the Corps to begin the long march home. On March 23, 1806, the journal noted, ‘The canoes were loaded, and at one o’clock in the afternoon we took final leave of Fort Clatsop.’
On the return journey, Indians who had been friendly on the way out had become sullen, almost hostile, perhaps due to action by agents of the British North West Fur Company.
Passing with rifles in hand through a gantlet of hostile tribes, the Corps reached the friendly people they had encountered on the way out the year before, the Walla Wallas and Nez Perce. (The Walla Wallas they would cherish as ‘the most hospitable, honest, and sincere people that we… met with’ on their journeying.) In early May, Lewis and Clark again met Twisted Hair, a Nez Perce chief who had been a guide on the western trek and who had guarded their horses during the winter.
On June 15, the Corps ascended again the arching peaks of the Bitterroots. Bidding adieu to the snow of the mountain passes, on June 29 the men bathed in Montana’s Lolo Hot Springs, so steaming that Lewis could with difficulty remain in it for only 19 minutes. Then, near present day Missoula, Mont., Lewis and Clark made the momentous decision to split their forces. Lewis would explore to the north, gauging the chances of fur trapping into Canada, while Clark would hew to the 1805 trail back East. On July 3, Lewis wrote, ‘I took leave of my worthy friend and companion Captain Clark:’ Lewis then added, in a fearful afterthought, ‘I could not avoid feeling much concern on this occasion although I hope this separation was only momentary.’
On July 26, reconnoitering north of the Missouri, Lewis’ detachment met for the first time the Piegan clan of the Blackfoot Indians, a tribe that seemed to be fighting a feud with all the tribes of the Plains. Lewis’ tribe would be no exception. For once-and almost fatally-Lewis let down his guard. On the morning of July 27, Lewis’ men were still in bed when Piegans strode into their camp. The practiced eyes of the Indian raiders noticed that both guns and horses were unattended. Without warning, the Piegans struck.
Joseph Fields ‘turned about to look for his gun and saw [a Piegan] just running off with it. He called to his brother [Reuben] who instantly jumped up and pursued… him, and Reuben Fields, as he seized his gun, stabbed the Indian to the heart!’ George Drouillard wrestled his firearm from the Blackfoot who had snatched it. Lewis himself quickly drew his big-mouthed .54-caliber flintlock pistol on the thief who had his musket and ordered him to drop it. The Piegans fled, with Lewis and his men capturing some of the Indians’ horses instead of the Blackfeet running off all the Americans’ mounts.
After the skirmish with the Blackfeet, Lewis, lest he be outnumbered by the warlike people, turned around to meet up again with Clark. Lewis made good time (covering as much as 83 miles in one day) paddling downstream on the Missouri, and on August 7 he reached the mouth of the Yellowstone. There the men found a note from Captain Clark, informing them of his intention of waiting for them a few miles below. Finally, after Lewis survived being shot by Pierre Cruzatte by accident while out hunting elk on the 11th, Lewis’ party rejoined Clark’s detachment on August 12, 1806.
After reuniting on the Missouri, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, together once more, set out on the final leg of the journey. On August 30 they became soldiers again when Clark, acting on behalf of the recuperating Lewis, berated the unruly Lakotas for breaking the peace with the Mandan tribe. After Clark returned from haranguing the Lakotas, all the men prepared their weapons in case of an attack–an attack that never materialized.
The land now became familiar, almost homelike, to the Corps. They had a happy meeting with the other Lakotas and passed again the sad site of the final resting place of Sergeant Floyd. Sailing by St. Charles, the Corps descended the Mississippi to St. Louis, where it arrived at noon on September 23, 1806, and received a hearty welcome from the whole town. The long march of Lewis and Clark was over.
The Corps of Discovery: After the Expedition
The 33 members of the Corps of Discovery picked up speed as they headed home. On their journey west, which began near St. Louis in May 1804, the explorers had rowed and pulled their boats upstream on the Missouri River, laboring to cover 10 miles a day. Now, late in the summer of 1806, the wayworn expedition members were heading downstream, sometimes making 75 miles a day. They had had their fill of grand adventure and longed to see their loved ones again.
In canoes and hollowed-out logs called pirogues, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery traversed the Missouri into present-day North Dakota, where the map had ended before their journey. Near today’s Stanton, they spotted a group of familiar earthen lodges — the villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians — and here they bade farewell to the young Shoshone woman, Sacagawea, destined to become the most famous member of the expedition after Lewis and Clark. Her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, and son, Jean Baptiste, both of whom achieved renown of their own, left the expedition with her.
Lewis and Clark and company reached St. Louis on September 23. In the 864 days since their departure, the explorers had traveled more than 8,000 miles, established friendships with several native nations, collected invaluable botanical and zoological specimens, produced surprisingly accurate maps, and compiled detailed records of the entire expedition. The mountain men, explorers, buffalo hunters, soldiers, pioneers, gamblers, gold seekers, cowboys, outlaws, missionaries, and homesteaders who went west during the next century all followed in the wake of Lewis and Clark.
The nation rejoiced when Lewis and Clark and their men — rumored to be dead or lost — safely returned to civilization. Congress awarded 1,600-acre land grants to Lewis and Clark and 320-acre grants to each enlisted man, as well as the back pay due to everyone. (Neither Sacagawea nor Clark’s slave York received any compensation, however, a failure that reflects the attitudes of the age.) President Thomas Jefferson, the force behind the expedition, further rewarded the captains by appointing Lewis governor of the Territory of Upper Louisiana and Clark superintendent of Indian affairs.
Clark promptly ordered former expedition member Nathaniel Pryor, now an army ensign, to return Mandan chief Sheheke (also called Big White) to his home in North Dakota. Sheheke had accepted Lewis and Clark’s invitation to accompany them to Washington in the fall of 1806. Lewis and Clark described Pryor, one of three sergeants on the roster, as ‘a man of character and ability.’ (Pryor, John Shields, and Jean Baptiste Lepage were the only members known to have married before the expedition. Pryor and his first wife, Margaret Patton, had six children.) As he was forming his company, Pryor naturally looked for men he already knew and trusted. He signed up expedition veterans George Shannon and George Gibson, both of whom had served in Pryor’s squad.
Only 18 years old when he joined the captains, Shannon was the youngest member of the party. His youth sometimes showed: he had a habit of forgetting objects on the trail, and he had twice become separated from the main group. But Shannon proved to be particularly cool under pressure one night when a wolf attacked a small group of scouts. The wolf bit through Pryor’s hand and had lunged at Richard Windsor when Shannon dropped the animal with a sure musket shot. Gibson had acted as an interpreter on the expedition, probably using sign language, and he was also a first-rate hunter.
Pryor, Shannon, and Gibson had traveled to the Pacific Coast and back and had traversed Lakota, Yankton Sioux, and Crow territory without a single violent episode with Indians, but their luck changed for the worse on September 9, 1807, when they encountered the Arikara, who were at war with the Mandan. In the exchange of fire that followed, Shannon took a ball that broke his leg, and Gibson and another man were also wounded. The trapping party accompanying Pryor fared much worse: three men had been killed and seven others badly wounded, one mortally.
Gibson’s wound, through the fleshy part of his leg, was not life threatening, but the ball that hit Shannon struck bone. He was near death by the time the group returned to St. Louis, and a doctor amputated the leg above the knee. Shannon’s frontier adventures were over, but he went on to become one of the more prominent veterans of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He assisted statesman and writer Nicholas Biddle in the publication of the Lewis and Clark journals, served in the Kentucky House of Representatives, and was named U.S. attorney for Missouri. ‘Peg Leg’ Shannon and his wife, Ruth Price, had seven children. He became friends with Texas colonist Stephen Austin and politician Henry Clay. In August of 1836, at the age of 51, Shannon fell ill while attending a trial. ‘He sustained his illness with a great degree of moral courage,’ reported the Palmyra (Missouri) Journal. ‘On the morning of Tuesday the 30th he sunk into the arms of death without the slightest emotion.’
George Gibson also recovered from his wound and married Maria Reagan. By January 1809, however, the man who had delighted Indians with his fiddle playing fell ill. Fearing imminent death, Gibson made out his will and left everything to his wife. He requested a Christian burial and expressed faith that he would rise in the Resurrection ‘by the all Mighty power of god.’ He died within months, probably before reaching his thirtieth birthday.
Five years after his encounter with the Arikara, Nathaniel Pryor made another narrow escape. When Winnebago Indians attacked his trading post near present Dubuque, Iowa, they killed two of Pryor’s men. Pryor escaped by crossing the frozen Mississippi River. He later served under General Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 and rose to the rank of captain. Pryor spent the latter part of his life trading with the Osage Indians in the Arkansas Territory, and he had three daughters by his second wife, an Osage woman. He established a reputation for integrity and served as an Indian agent in all but title, although the government offered him little in the way of position or compensation. In 1830, former Tennessee governor Sam Houston — then living among the Cherokee in Arkansas and soon to depart for Texas — drafted letters to President Jackson and others, pleading that Pryor be ‘no longer neglected by his country.’ Houston described Pryor as an ‘honorable and faithful servant’ of the United States who was ‘in poverty with spirit half broken by neglect.’ Pryor was 59 and had just received a long-hoped-for government post when he died in 1831.
Meriwether Lewis returned from the expedition as a conquering hero. At 32 he was an eligible bachelor, a prominent landowner, and governor of a huge territory. His prospects seemed limitless. No one could have guessed that three years later he would die a lonely death in the Tennessee wilderness.
Lewis had commanded the Corps with singular efficiency; his tenure as governor was a different story. After his appointment, he inexplicably lingered in the East for a year. When Lewis finally arrived in St. Louis, his long absence had made the Herculean task of governing the territory virtually impossible. Adding trouble to trouble, Lewis mismanaged his personal finances and fell into debt. Then he neglected to write the promised expedition history, and though he had resolved to marry, the famed explorer failed in courtship.
Lewis’s resentful secretary, Frederick Bates, began undermining him at every turn. But from Lewis’s perspective, the most vicious cuts had come from the administration of new president James Madison, which had rejected certain of his expense vouchers associated with the return of Sheheke to the Mandan. Deluged by these troubles as the summer of 1809 waned, Lewis determined to redeem himself by traveling to the nation’s capital to personally appeal the rejected vouchers and also to begin publishing the expedition’s history.
On September 4, 1809, Lewis and his servant John Pernia, a free black or mulatto, loaded up Lewis’s trunks and made their way through the muddy streets of St. Louis to book passage on a keelboat. But within days, Lewis was sick, possibly with malaria. He and Pernia stopped 200 miles to the south at New Madrid, where the governor made out his will and bequeathed his property to his mother, Lucy Marks.
When the two men reached Fort Pickering, near present Memphis, Tennessee, Lewis was again ‘indisposed.’ In one letter, fort commander Gilbert Russell attributed Lewis’s problems to drinking, although in another he indicated Lewis was simply ill. The keelboat crew had also told Russell that Lewis had twice tried to kill himself on the trip, but Russell said in six days Lewis was ‘perfectly restored in every respect & able to travel.’
Changing his plans, Lewis decided to continue overland. He and Pernia departed with Chickasaw agent James Neelly (sometimes spelled Neely) and Neelly’s servant. The four men rode along the Natchez Trace, an eight-foot-wide, 500-mile trail that ran through the dense woods of Indian territory. The Trace led them into present Alabama, where they paid a man to ferry them across the swift Tennessee River. Following the winding Trace over streams and through thick forests that blocked out the sun for hours at a time, the four riders entered Tennessee.
On October 10, the travelers awoke to find that two packhorses had gotten loose during the night. Neelly remained behind to search for the horses, and Lewis rode on, with the servants following some distance behind. That evening Lewis stopped at Grinder’s Stand, an inn that offered food and lodging to travelers of the Trace. According to Mrs. Grinder, wife of the absent owner, Lewis asked for spirits but drank little. When the servants arrived, the landlady prepared dinner for the three men, but Lewis acted strangely,’speaking to himself in a violent manner.’ He calmed down, then grew agitated again. Then he sat down outside and lit his pipe.
‘Madam,’ he said, staring out at the twilight, ‘this is a very pleasant evening.’
Mrs. Grinder prepared a bed for Lewis in one of the cabins, but he preferred to sleep on the floor with bearskins and a buffalo robe. The landlady and her children then went to their cabin and the two servants to a barn 200 yards away. Late into the night, Mrs. Grinder heard Lewis in the other cabin pacing and talking to himself. Then she heard a pistol shot and something falling heavily to the floor.
‘Oh, Lord!’ Lewis cried out.
The pistol fired a second time. Then Mrs. Grinder heard Lewis at her door. ‘Oh, Madam,’ he moaned, ‘give me some water and heal my wounds.’
As Lewis suffered and groped in the dark for a drink of water, Mrs. Grinder was afraid to do anything but wait. At dawn, she sent her children to get the servants. Pernia and his companion came running, ‘and on going in they found him lying on the bed. He uncovered his side, and showed them where the bullet had entered; a piece of his forehead was blown off, and had exposed the brains, without having bled much.’ Lewis begged the servants to take his rifle and ‘blow out his brains,’ promising he would give them all the money in his trunk. They watched helplessly as Lewis’s life ebbed. He said several times, ‘I am no coward, but I am so strong, so hard to die.’ He may have lost consciousness after an hour or so, and they listened to his labored breathing. After another hour, just as the sun was rising above the trees, the brilliant but moody Lewis breathed his last. Almost two centuries later, historians still debate whether Lewis killed himself or was murdered.
As Manuel Lisa’s trapping party made its way up the Missouri River in the summer of 1807, the men saw a solitary boatman paddling toward them near present Omaha, Nebraska. When the small canoe came closer, the expedition veterans with Lisa recognized John Colter, a first-rate hunter who had received William Clark’s permission to leave the expedition at Fort Mandan and return west with two trappers. Colter had wintered in the wild and was returning to St. Louis. Right on the spot, Lisa offered Colter a job. Although he had a land grant and back pay waiting for him in St. Louis, Colter accepted the offer and turned back, on his way to one of the most incredible adventures in the history of the West.
Lisa’s party built Fort Raymond at the mouth of the Bighorn River, near present Bighorn, Montana. Here the men spent the winter of 1807-08, but not Colter. As an acquaintance of Colter’s wrote, Lisa’shortly after dispatched Colter…to bring some of the Indian nations to trade. This man, with a pack of thirty pounds weight, his gun and some ammunition, went upwards of five hundred miles to the Crow nation; gave them information, and proceeded from them to several other tribes.’ The solitary Colter wandered into the northwest corner of present Wyoming, into a strange land of scalding water, bubbling mud pots, and erupting geysers. The region, actually east of present Yellowstone Park, remained largely unexplored for another 60 years.
The Crow later befriended Colter, and he fought with them when a battle broke out between 800 Crow and Flathead against 1,500 Blackfeet. Wounded in the leg, Colter ‘crawled to a small thicket and there loaded and fired while sitting on the ground.’ Although outnumbered, the Crow and Flathead prevailed, but the Blackfeet did not forget the white man who had fought against them.
Colter’s greatest adventure lay ahead of him. In the fall of 1808, he and fellow expedition veteran John Potts teamed up to trap in western Montana. They were working the Jefferson River near present Three Forks, when several hundred Blackfeet warriors appeared on the riverbank. The chiefs ordered Colter and Potts ashore; Colter complied and was immediately stripped and disarmed. Potts remained in his canoe in midstream.
An Indian fired a shot. ‘Colter, I am wounded,’ cried Potts. ‘If you can get away, do so. I will kill at least one of them.’ He then rose in the canoe and fired, killing a Blackfeet brave. The next instant, 32-year-old Potts was riddled with bullets. The Blackfeet then ‘dragged the body up onto the bank and with their hatchets and knives cut and hacked it all to pieces, and limb from limb,’ said Thomas James, who heard the story directly from Colter.
Colter was horrified and expected to be slowly tortured to death. But after the chiefs conferred, one of them motioned Colter toward the prairie. Colter started to walk, expecting to be shot for sport. But when he had gone 80 or 90 yards, he realized this was sport of a different kind — a race to the death. Perhaps his previous encounter with the Blackfeet had made him respected as well as hated. Colter set off running, pursued by warriors armed with spears. The Madison River was five miles away, and the barefoot Colter galloped over rocks and cactus, trying to reach it and escape. He was halfway to the Madison when blood began gushing from his nose. He ran on, soon realizing that one warrior, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, was far ahead of the others. Colter turned to face him, and the young brave tripped as he lunged at him with the spear. Colter grabbed the spear and broke off the head as the Indian fell. He killed the brave with one blow, grabbed the blanket, and bolted for the Madison. ‘A shout and yell arose from the pursuing army in his rear as from a legion of devils, and he saw the prairie behind him covered with Indians in full and rapid chase.’
As he reached the water, Colter disappeared in the thick willows and then dove under a beaver dam. He came up inside the dam and soon heard the Blackfeet searching for him, even tromping overhead. But they did not find him and at nightfall Colter made his escape. Eleven days later, the emaciated Colter staggered into Lisa’s Fort, 250 miles distant. He died in 1812 while serving in the army. Colter was 37 and left a wife, Sally, and a son and daughter.
Brothers Joseph and Reubin Field were two of the best hunters on the expedition. ‘It was their peculiar fate to have been engaged in all the most dangerous and difficult scenes of the voyage, in which they acquitted themselves with much honor,’ wrote Lewis. The most dangerous scene had been a violent encounter between Indians and four members of the expedition — Lewis, George Drouillard, and the Field brothers. The four men were exploring northwestern Montana on the homeward portion of the journey when they met a small band of teenage Piegan Blackfeet. Masking his apprehension, Lewis smoked a pipe with the young men, and Drouillard interpreted in sign language. The two groups even camped together. At dawn Lewis woke to a scuffle: the young Blackfeet had stolen three of the soldiers’ rifles. The Field brothers pursued the Indian who had taken Joseph’s musket and caught him 30 or 40 yards from camp. As Reubin and the brave struggled over the gun, Reubin’stabed the indian to the heart with his knife the fellow ran about 15 steps and fell dead.’ Moments later Lewis shot another brave with his pistol; the wounded man returned fire, barely missing Lewis, who ‘felt the wind of his bullet very distinctly.’
Lewis and the others rushed back to the camp and saddled their horses before a much larger band of Blackfeet could give chase. ‘No time was therefore to be lost,’ wrote Lewis, ‘and we pushed our horses as hard as they would bear.’ They rode until 3:00 in the afternoon, covering 60 miles. The next day they rode hard again, agreeing to’sell our lives as dear as we could’ if attacked. But they knew they were safe when they reached the Missouri River and rejoined several of their fellow explorers.
After the return to St. Louis, the Field brothers went back to their home in Jefferson County, Kentucky. Joseph died less than a year later at the age of 35. Other than Charles Floyd, who died of apparent appendicitis three months after the journey began, Joseph was the first expedition veteran to die. The exact cause of death is unknown, but in a list of expedition members Clark compiled sometime between 1825 and 1828, he said Joseph had been killed. Historian Jim Holmberg has speculated that he may have been killed on Pryor’s mission to return Sheheke. Joseph left no children. Reubin married Mary Myrtle and farmed in Kentucky for the next 15 years, though little is known of his life. He was about 52 when he died in 1823; he and Mary left no heirs.
Like Joseph Field, John Shields was a valuable member of the company who died not long after the expedition ended. Born in 1769, Shields was the oldest member in the original group of volunteers. He was an expert blacksmith and gunsmith and served his fellows well. ‘The party owes much to the injinuity of this man,’ Clark wrote at one point. Shields’ ingenuity was particularly evident when William Bratton became immobilized because of severe back pains. Suggesting a steam bath, Shields dug a 3-foot by 4-foot hole and then built a fire to heat the ground and exposed rocks. After scooping out the embers, the men helped Bratton into the hole, where he created steam by pouring water on the hot stones and earth. Shields instructed others to hold blanket-draped willows overhead to retain the heat. After a while, the men helped Bratton out, and he plunged into cold water. Then more steam, followed by another cold plunge, followed by 45 additional minutes of steam treatment. Shields also administered large amounts of mint tea. The next day Bratton was cured.
Shields had married Nancy White in the 1790s; the couple had one daughter. After the expedition, he trapped with his kinsman, 75-year-old Daniel Boone, in Missouri and later with Daniel’s brother Squire in Indiana. Shields died at the age of 40, in 1809. He is buried near Corydon, Indiana.
French-Canadian trapper Jean Baptiste Lepage was living among the Mandan when Lewis and Clark arrived in the fall of 1804. The captains hired Lepage to replace John Newman, who had been expelled from the party. Lepage knew the region well and was possibly the first white man to ascend the Little Missouri River, probably going as far as Montana or Wyoming. He told Clark he had spent 45 days descending the virtually unnavigable river.
After the expedition members returned to St. Louis, Lepage signed to trap with Manuel Lisa, and he may have been on a fur-trading venture in the West when Meriwether Lewis arrived in St. Louis in 1808. Lewis owed Lepage $116.33 for his services on the expedition, a debt still unpaid when Lewis died. Lepage apparently never received his salary, for he died a non-violent death within two months. He was 48 and he left a widow (no record of her name has been found), four sons, and one daughter.
Little is known of John B. Thompson, either before or after the expedition. He was one of three men assigned to cook but the only one relieved of that duty, indicating limited skill. He was injured when the group hit heavy rapids in the Snake River. Otherwise, Thompson seems to have performed his duties without drawing unusual praise or criticism. Clark later indicated that Thompson died a violent death but offered no details. In the summer of 1815, a St. Louis newspaper notified anyone owing or having demands of the estate of John B. Thompson, deceased, to present their accounts to Peggy Thompson. No children were mentioned. Thompson was probably around 40 when he died.
Slightly more is known about Thomas Proctor Howard. Born in Massachusetts, he joined the army in 1801. Early in the expedition, Clark made the curious comment that Howard ‘never Drinks water.’ Later, at Fort Mandan, Howard returned to the fort after dark and climbed over the wall rather than asking the guard to open the gate. An Indian followed Howard’s lead and climbed over the wall himself, much to Lewis’s dismay. He promptly ordered a court-martial for Howard, ‘an old soldier’ who should have known better. In the last court-martial of the expedition, the court found Howard guilty of ‘[s]etting a pernicious example to the Savages,’ but suspended the penalty of 50 lashes. Howard married Genevieve Roy after the expedition, and they had two sons. He served again in the army and was 37 when he died in 1816. Although Howard’s property was valued at only $293, Genevieve was entangled in legal proceedings over the estate for the next decade. Howard’s son Joseph went west with a trapping party under William Ashley in 1827.
On September 23, 1808, the honorable John Lucas tapped his gavel to begin a murder trial. George Shannon sat in the jury box with 11 other men. As the accused was brought in, he must have acknowledged Shannon, for he was a man Shannon knew well — George Drouillard, Lewis’s right-hand man on the journey, a hunter, scout, and interpreter par excellence. The year after the expedition, during a fur-trading excursion where military rules of conduct were strictly enforced, a man named Antoine Bissonnette took the equipment issued him and deserted. Manuel Lisa ordered Drouillard and two others ‘to go and bring him dead or alive.’ Drouillard returned half an hour later with the wounded Bissonnette. Lisa sent Bissonnette to St. Charles for medical help, but he died on the way.
Though Drouillard’s actions are shocking by today’s standards, Shannon and his fellow jurors considered them justifiable. They retired for 15 minutes before returning a verdict of not guilty. Drouillard had been exonerated, but Bissonnette’s death haunted him for the rest of his life. ‘This has not been done through malice, hatred or any evil intent,’ a remorseful Drouillard wrote to his sister. ‘Thoughtlessness on my part and lack of reflection…is the only cause of it, and moreover encouraged and urged by my partner, Manuel Lisa, who we ought to consider in this affair as guilty as myself for without him the thing would never have taken place. The recollection of this unhappy affair throws me very often in the most profound reflections.’
Court records show that Drouillard was frequently involved in legal battles related to the fur trade. He must have headed up the Missouri with a sense of relief when he joined another trading party in the spring of 1809. A few months later, at Fort Mandan, Drouillard met Colter, who had still not returned to civilization. In the spring of the next year, Drouillard and Colter guided fur trader Pierre Menard and 80 trappers to Three Forks, where Menard hoped to establish a permanent post for the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company.
One week after the men began building a fort, a band of Blackfeet ambushed 18 trappers, slaying and mutilating two of them and stealing horses, traps, and furs. Three other men were missing, but Colter was among those who made it back to camp. ‘He came into the fort and said he had promised his Maker to leave the country,’ wrote a witness. ‘And ‘now’ said he, throwing down his hat on the ground, ‘if God will only forgive me this time and let me off I will leave the country day after tomorrow, and be damned if I ever come into it again’.’ True to his word, Colter, who had spent six consecutive years in the wild, departed two days later and never returned — but he had to escape another Blackfeet attack on the way.
Unmoved by Colter’s resolve, Drouillard continued trapping. ‘I am too much of an Indian to be caught by Indians,’ boasted Drouillard, who had been born to a French father and a Pawnee mother. A month after Colter’s departure, Drouillard had grown bold enough to trap on his own, returning with beaver pelts two days in a row. ‘This is the way to catch beaver,’ he said. On the third morning he ignored warnings and left alone again. Later that day, a group of armed men rode upstream and found a scene of carnage. One of them recalled that Drouillard ‘and his horse lay dead, the former mangled in a horrible manner; his head was cut off, his entrails torn out, and his body hacked to pieces. We saw from the marks on the ground that he must have fought in a circle on horseback and probably killed some of his enemies, being a brave man and well armed with a rifle, pistol, knife, and tomahawk.’ Drouillard was 36, unmarried, and childless.
Like Drouillard, Pierre Cruzatte was half French and half Indian. Hired as a boatman and an interpreter for the expedition, Cruzatte became better known for his fiddling. ‘In the evening Cruzatte gave us some music on the violin,’ reads a typical entry by Lewis, ‘and the men passed the evening in dancing singing &c and were extreemly cheerfull.’
Cruzatte achieved fame — or infamy — by accidentally shooting Lewis. The two men were hunting elk toward the end of the expedition when the one-eyed Cruzatte took aim and fired at a brown patch in the willows. ‘Damn you!’ yelled Lewis an instant later, ‘you have shot me.’ The ball had hit him in the backside, probably knocking him down; ‘the stroke was very severe,’ Lewis wrote. Though he was in a good deal of pain and possibly in shock, Lewis kept his wits. After calling for Cruzatte several times and hearing no reply, he feared that Indians had shot his companion. Mustering his strength, he scrambled for the river and ‘called the men to their arms to which they flew in an instant.’ A scouting party found no Indians but returned with the befuddled Cruzatte, who claimed to know nothing of Lewis’s wound. Luckily, the ball hit no bones, passing through Lewis’s left buttock an inch below his hip joint — otherwise, he may well have been doomed. Still, Lewis endured considerable pain and once fainted when Clark changed the dressing.
Cruzatte virtually disappeared after the expedition. Some speculate that he and John Thompson were part of John McClallen’s fur expedition of 1807. The same year, he received a summons from a St. Louis court for bad debts. Otherwise, the record is silent, and it is unknown whether he married or had children. According to Clark, Cruzatte was killed by the mid-1820s, possibly dying around age 40.
Two expedition veterans who definitely headed west with the fur trade were Peter Weiser and François Labiche. Weiser was with the 1807 Manuel Lisa party (along with Colter, Drouillard, and Potts) that built Fort Raymond at the mouth of the Bighorn River. About the same time Colter discovered Yellowstone Park, Weiser was on a scouting trip, possibly ascending the Madison River to southern Montana and crossing the Continental Divide into Idaho, where he found fertile beaver territory on the Snake River. Two years later, trapper Andrew Henry relied on Weiser’s information to follow the same route into Idaho, where his crew found a picturesque lake just south of the Divide — now called Henry’s Lake. On a tributary of the Snake River — now called Henry’s Fork — they built the first American fur trading post west of the Rocky Mountains. When heavy snows came that winter, they ate their horses to survive.
It is also possible that Weiser followed the Snake River all the way to western Idaho. When Clark later drew up a map of this area — an area he and Lewis had not explored — he named a tributary of the Snake Weiser’s River, indicating Weiser may have explored the area and reported back to Clark. When settlers established a town at the confluence of the Snake and Weiser Rivers, they named it Weiser. The last known record of Peter Weiser is his one month of army service during the War of 1812 — he was paid $7.81 per day and named St. Louis as his place of residence. Fifteen years later, Clark listed Weiser as ‘killed’ but gave no details. He was probably between 30 and 40 when he died.
François Labiche was reportedly half-French and half-Omaha. He was an expert boatman and hunter, as well as an interpreter. When the expedition met the Flathead Indians in western Montana in September of 1805, Labiche played a key role in the complicated translation chain that must have brought smiles to at least some members of the party. The captains spoke ‘to Labieche in English — he translated it to Chaboneau in French — he to his wife [Sacagawea] in Minnetaree — she in Shoshone to the [Flathead] boy — the boy in Tushepaw [Flathead] to that nation.’ After the journey, Lewis recommended a bonus for Labiche because of his ‘very essential services as a French and English interpreter.’
Not surprisingly, Labiche found work in the fur trade. As late as 1827 he was hiring out his services as a ‘boatman, voyageur, and winterer’ to the American Fur Company. His home base was St. Louis, where he owned property and was listed in the 1821 city directory as a boatman. He married Genevieve Flore, and they had seven children. He may have died in the mid-1830s, when he was about 60.
The earthquake struck the farming hamlet of New Madrid, Missouri, at 2:30 a.m. on December 16, 1811. Within seconds, houses and barns collapsed, spontaneous geysers erupted, and the ground rippled in waves from the tremendous quake (later estimated at between 8.0 and 8.8 on the Richter scale). Among the stunned residents were two veterans of the expedition — John Ordway and William Bratton.
During the expedition Ordway had served as a sergeant and performed his duties well. He was, for example, the only diarist to record an entry for every single day of the journey. During the return trip, he commanded a contingent of 10 men from Three Forks to Great Falls, Montana (Lewis and Clark were both on separate scouting missions of their own). Similar duties continued after the expedition, when Ordway assisted Lewis in accompanying a delegation of Osage and Mandan Indians (including Sheheke) to Washington, D.C.
By the fall of 1807, Ordway had married and obtained 1,000 acres of good farmland near New Madrid. He wrote to his brother that he was breeding horses and cattle and had ‘two plantations under good cultivation peach and apple orchards, good buildings &c &c.’ When Ordway turned 36 in 1811, his future looked bright, but everything changed when the earthquakes hit (five major quakes in a six-week period). Ordway’s sister-in-law wrote that it was a ‘dreadful Sight to see the ground burst and threw out water as high as the trees and it threw down part of our houses.’ The flooding Mississippi, quicksand, and sand boils wreaked havoc on the farmland, and Ordway, like many others, apparently lost everything. By 1818 he had died, leaving a widow, Elizabeth, and a son and a daughter.
Bratton, by contrast, was on a keelboat at the time of the earthquake and was not seriously affected.
By August of 1812 the man whom Shields had cured of back problems had joined the Kentucky militia to serve in the War of 1812. Although taken prisoner at Frenchtown, he survived the war without injury. Bratton married Mary Maxwell in 1819, and they had eight sons and two daughters. In 1824, Bratton was elected the first justice of the peace in Waynetown, Indiana. He died in 1841 at the age of 63.
Just over a year after the New Madrid earthquake, on December 20, 1812, at a frontier trading post on the Missouri River in present Corson County, South Dakota, trapper John Luttig recorded a historic journal entry: ‘this Evening the Wife of Charbonneau a Snake Squaw, died of a putrid fever she was a good and the best Women in the fort, aged abt 25 years she left a fine infant girl.’ Luttig was a clerk for Manuel Lisa with an eye for detail, even listing the cause of death — ‘putrid fever’ — which probably meant typhoid fever. But Luttig also ignited a long controversy by not naming the wife (Charbonneau had more than one), leaving some to doubt that he was describing Sacagawea. The best evidence indicates, however, that the teenage Shoshone companion of Lewis and Clark indeed perished as a young woman in 1812.
Born south of present Salmon, Idaho, Sacagawea was only 16 when she joined Lewis and Clark. Four years earlier, she and a friend had been kidnapped by a Hidatsa raiding party near present Three Forks, Montana, and carried into North Dakota. (The friend escaped, and in one of the most memorable moments of the expedition, she and Sacagawea were unexpectedly reunited.) The Hidatsa sold her to a French-Canadian trader and interpreter by the name of Toussaint Charbonneau. After discovering that Charbonneau spoke Hidatsa and that his young wife Sacagawea spoke both Hidatsa and Shoshone, Lewis and Clark hired Charbonneau as an interpreter — with the understanding that Sacagawea would accompany him.
Sacagawea was pregnant when Lewis and Clark arrived at the Mandan villages, and she gave birth to a baby boy named Jean Baptiste on February 11, 1805. One of the more amazing aspects of an expedition brimming with astounding events is that Sacagawea safely took her baby to the Pacific Coast and back — surviving buffalo stampedes, grizzly attacks, treacherous rapids, bitter cold, and near starvation. Another expedition episode further epitomized Sacagawea’s mettle. On the journey west, she and Charbonneau and others were riding in a sail-equipped pirogue when a sudden squall capsized the vessel. The incident jeopardized the mission because the pirogue contained the expedition’s papers, instruments, books, and medicine. Charbonneau cried to heaven for mercy, but Sacagawea had the presence of mind to save most of the articles that had been washed overboard, all the while preserving her baby. Cruzatte managed to right the pirogue, and the men rowed to shore. Lewis wrote that Sacagawea had ‘equal fortitude and resolution, with any person onboard at the time of the accedent.’ When writer Henry Brackenridge met Charbonneau and Sacagawea in 1811, he described her as a ‘good creature, of a mild and gentle disposition, greatly attached to the whites, whose manners and dress she tries to imitate, but she had become sickly, and longed to revisit her native country.’ In a book published in 1933, Grace Hebard theorized that Sacagawea lived a long life and did return to her Shoshone people in Wyoming, where she died at 100 years of age in 1884. But this theory runs contrary to evidence from William Clark, certainly in a position to know what became of Sacagawea. In the list of expedition members he compiled between 1825 and 1828, Clark noted: ‘Se car ja we au Dead.’ Probably 24 at her death, Sacagawea left one son and one daughter.
Early in the expedition, Privates Joseph Whitehouse, John Collins, and Robert Frazer all experienced discipline problems that foreshadowed trouble afterward. Whitehouse fought with ‘F’ (Frazer, Floyd, or one of the Field brothers); Collins stole a hog from a local farmer; and Frazer did ‘bad,’ committing an unspecified offense. Still, all three remained with Lewis and Clark and all three contributed — Whitehouse as the camp tailor, Collins as a hunter, and Frazer as a frequent member of dangerous missions. Whitehouse and Frazer also kept journals of the journey, although Frazer’s was lost.
After the expedition, Whitehouse and Frazer reverted to old habits, frequently running afoul of the law. During 1807 and ’08, Whitehouse was summoned or arrested several times for bad debts. He re-enlisted in the army and served in the War of 1812 but deserted on February 1, 1817, at about age 42. Then he disappeared from public view. He married and had one son.
Frazer’s offenses tended to be violent. A court document from 1808 states that he assaulted Sheriff Jeremiah Conner ‘with fists, feet, and sticks, did beat, and illy treat, to the great damage of the said Jeremiah, to the evil example of all others.’ A year later Frazer was accused of attacking an Indian on the streets of St. Louis and striking him several times, without any provocation. But the most serious charge came in 1812: ‘Robert Frazier is charged with murder,’ read the St. Charles, Missouri court record. The details of the charge, as well as Frazer’s acquittal, are still unknown.
Although he appeared to be headed for a lifetime of trouble, Frazer changed his ways. In 1814 he ran a notice in a newspaper that he had found a black and white spotted cow; two years later he advertised for a journeyman cabinetmaker to assist him in his work. By 1821 he was running a watch-repair business. He married a woman named Tabitha, and they had two sons. He died in 1837 at about age 62. Among his belongings were 12 books and a box of newspapers.
Collins’s post-expedition trouble took a different form — a deadly battle. In the spring of 1823, Collins signed on with William Ashley’s trading party of 90 men and headed up the Missouri. Several of the trappers later became famous mountain men, including William Sublette, James Clyman, Edward Rose, and Hugh Glass. Jedediah Smith joined them upriver. On May 30 they reached the Arikara villages — where George Shannon had been wounded in a battle 16 years earlier. Knowing that rival fur traders had recently killed two braves from the Arikara, Ashley approached the village with extreme caution. He anchored his keelboats in midstream and posted 40 well-armed men on the shore with about the same number of horses.
Despite warnings from Rose, Ashley planned to stay and trade. Then, on the night of June 1, Rose and several other men went into the village without Ashley’s permission. A scuffle ensued, and just before dawn Rose rushed to Ashley’s boat with the news that a trapper had been killed. Before the men on the shore could ready themselves, the Arikara, armed with accurate British muskets, attacked. ‘So severe was the fire,’ wrote a trapper, ‘that in a few minutes all the horses were either killed or wounded, and many of the men.’ In the chaotic 15 minutes that followed, several boatmen froze with panic; others who grabbed oars were shot down. ‘Finding all lost, those on the beach attempted to swim to the boats; some who could not, fell into the hands of the Indians; many who attempted to swim, were, by the violence of the current, driven below the boats and drowned. We lost in all fourteen killed and twelve wounded.’ Among the dead lay John Collins, who had traversed the continent 20 years earlier without firing a single shot at Indians. He was close to 50 and may have had a son also named John Collins.
The best historical information on Privates Silas Goodrich, Hugh McNeal, William Werner, Richard Windsor, and Hugh Hall comes from the expedition itself. Goodrich was the expert fisherman. In a typical entry, Clark wrote that Goodrich ‘caught two verry fat Cat fish.’ McNeal performed his duties well, whether it was carrying a flag, cooking up flour and berries, or skinning a deer. Werner was a good enough cook to keep the job permanently. Windsor almost fell off a 90-foot precipice (only Lewis’s calm advice saved him). Hall was nearly five feet, nine inches tall, with fair hair, sandy complexion, and gray eyes — and he could not swim.
After the expedition, all five men slipped into obscurity. It is unknown whether any of them married or had children. In addition, no exact death date is known for any of the five. In fact, the only birth date known is Hall’s — 1772. Goodrich, McNeal, and Windsor (who had earlier trapped with Manuel Lisa) all re-enlisted in the army. Werner served as an Indian agent for William Clark. In his 1825-28 list, Clark said that Goodrich and McNeal were dead, so both probably died by the age of 50. Clark further noted that Werner was in Virginia and Windsor in Illinois, although no original record has yet been found of them in those locations. Clark listed Hall’s name without giving any information.
Ironically, much more is known about a man Clark did not even include in his list: his slave York, the first African American to cross the continent. It is telling that Clark included everyone but York, including Sacagawea and her baby. Throughout the expedition, York carried a gun and performed duties similar to the privates. When the party reached the Pacific coast, Lewis and Clark held a vote to determine where they would winter. York voted with the others, including Sacagawea, making him the first black man to participate in an election west of the Mississippi.
Sadly, but predictably, any status York enjoyed on the trek promptly ended when he returned to civilization. He was once again a slave, and while Clark was ahead of his time in his humane treatment of Native Americans, he was very much an eighteenth-century man in respect to slaveholding. This is painfully apparent in letters Clark wrote to his brother, saying that he does ‘not expect much from him [York] as long as he has wife in Kenty.’ Again, Clark notes that York is ‘insolent and Sulky, I gave him a Severe trouncing the other Day,’ tragically ironic for a man who once reprimanded Charbonneau for striking Sacagawea.
According to Washington Irving, who visited Clark in 1832, York was eventually granted his freedom and launched a freight business that soon failed. ‘He determined to go back to his old master — set off for St. Louis, but was taken with the cholera in Tennessee & died.’ Some believe, however, that York went west and gained respect among the Crow Indians. But there is no hard evidence for such a claim, and York may have been confused with mountain men Edward Rose or Jim Beckwourth (both of mixed blood).
In his excellent book In Search of York, Robert Betts offers an apt summary of York’s history: ‘[He] grew to be an unusually large and powerful man;…was viewed with awe as ‘big medicine’ by Indians who had never seen a black man; proved to be instrumental in keeping the Shoshonis from departing with the horses needed…to cross the Rockies; …had a falling out with Clark prior to 1811 and was hired to a man in Louisville who treated him shabbily; in all probability lost his wife when her master moved to Natchez; was eventually freed and given a wagon and six horses…; and died somewhere far from the relatives and friends he had been close to most of his life.’
Two months after the expedition ended, in November of 1806, Lewis and Clark were traveling east with Sheheke and other Indians. William Clark stopped for a few weeks in Virginia, however, to visit the girl he hoped to someday marry. In the tradition of the day, 36-year-old Clark was courting 15-year-old Judith ‘Julia’ Hancock. Clark had met her before the expedition and had named a river after her (Judith’s River) in Montana. William and Julia were married in 1808, a year after President Jefferson appointed him superintendent of Indian affairs for the Missouri Territory.
The Clark home became a social center of St. Louis, especially after Julia’s piano was shipped from the East. During the next 10 years — as William served an extremely active public life, including a term as governor — the couple had four sons and one daughter, naming the first child Meriwether Lewis Clark. Julia was diagnosed with cancer in 1816, and William took her back to her family in Virginia in 1819. He was tending to his duties in St. Louis in the summer of 1820 when he received word that 28-year-old Julia had died. The next year William married Harriet Kennerly Radford (she died 10 years later). The couple had two sons, one of whom lived until 1900.
William Clark was 69 when he died at the home of his son Meriwether on September 1, 1838. ‘People lined the streets for blocks to watch the cortege led by a military band,’ wrote Clark’s nephew. ‘Following the carriages were many men on horseback; and, as we came within a half-mile or so of the burying ground, minute guns were fired from a cannon. So this great and good man, whose whole life had been given in selfless service to his country, was laid to rest.’
One year after Clark’s death, Indian agent Joshua Pilcher wrote, ‘On the 21st inst. Toussaint Charbonneau…arrived here from the Mandan villages, a distance of 1600 miles, and came into the office, tottering under the infirmities of 80 winters…. This man has been a faithful servant of the Government — though in a humble capacity.’ So old Charbonneau survived Clark by at least one year.
By the time Lewis and Clark arrived at the Mandan villages in 1804, Charbonneau had been trading and living among the Indians for several years. He continued such work after the expedition and during the next three decades appears repeatedly in the record of the West:
‘Charbonneau & Jessaume Keep us in Constant uproar with their Histories and wish to make fear among the Engagees, these two rascals ought to be hung for their perfidy, they…stir up the Indians and pretend to be friends to the white People at the same time but we find them to be our Enemies.’ — John Luttig, Fort Manual, 1812
‘We partook of a fine supper Prepared by Old Charboneau, consisting of Meat pies, bread, fricassied pheasants Boiled tongues, roast beef — and Coffee.’ — F. A. Chardon, Fort Clark (North Dakota), 1834
‘One of the Young Sioux deliberately fired at a Gros Ventre boy…Old Charbono, made a narrow escape two balls having passed through his hat.’ — David Mitchell, Fort Clark, 1836
A legal document executed in 1843 named J.B. Charbonneau to receive $320 ‘from the estate of his deceased Father.’ The exact date of Charbonneau’s death, as well as the extent of contact between father and son, is unknown. But Jean Baptiste also became a mountain man, living a life both similar to and radically different from his father’s. A week after bidding goodbye to Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and Jean Baptiste at the Mandan villages in 1806, William Clark had written to Charbonneau: ‘As to your little son (my boy Pomp) you well know my fondness for him and my anxiety to take and raise him as my own child.’ Seven years later, after Sacagawea’s death (and when Toussaint Charbonneau was presumed to have perished in an Indian attack), Clark became legal guardian for Jean Baptiste and his sister Lizette. Nothing is known of Lizette’s subsequent history. After living with Clark for about 10 years, 18-year-old Jean Baptiste met 25-year-old Prince Paul of Württemberg, Germany. The prince received Clark’s permission to take the young man to Europe. When Jean Baptiste returned to the United States six years later, he had received a classical education and was fluent in German, French, and Spanish. He promptly headed west to trap, soon adding several Indian languages to his repertoire. Jean Baptiste spent the next 15 years as a scout and trapper — with the Robidoux Fur Brigade in 1830, with Joe Meek in 1831,and Jim Bridger in 1832. He met explorers Nathaniel Wyeth in the mid-1830s and John C. Frémont several years after that. Like his father, Jean Baptiste knew how to cook: ‘One of the people was sent to gather mint,’ wrote Frémont, ‘with the aid of which [Jean Baptiste] concocted very good julep; and some boiled buffalo tongue, and coffee with the luxury of sugar, were soon set before us.’ A month later, another traveler wrote of Jean Baptiste, ‘There was a quaint humor and shrewdness in his conversation, so garbed with intelligence and perspicuity, that he at once insinuated himself into the good graces of listeners, and commanded their admiration and respect.’
Jean Baptiste helped guide Colonel Philip St. George Cooke and his Mormon Battalion across New Mexico and Arizona in 1846. He spent his later years near the Sacramento area and was there when gold was discovered. In 1861 Jean Baptiste was clerking at the Orleans Hotel in Auburn. He is not known to have married or had children. Five year later a California newspaper announced ‘the death of J. B. Charbonneau, who left this country some weeks ago, with two companions, for Montana Territory…Mr. C. was taken sick with mountain fever…and died after a short illness.’ Jean Baptiste died in southeast Oregon, near the Idaho border. He was 61.
The War of 1812 was a perilous time for Alexander Willard and Patrick Gass. When hostilities erupted between American forces and the Shawnee tribe led by Tecumseh, General William Clark assigned Willard to bring military dispatches from St. Louis to Prairie du Chien, a key frontier outpost in present Wisconsin. Clark wrote that a band of Winnebago Indians ‘fired on my Express [Willard]…who was on his return from Prairie de Chien…an American Family of women & children was killed on the bank of the Mississippii, a fiew minits before the Express passed the house.’ Meanwhile, Gass was one of 300 men serving under Colonel James Miller who charged a British battery near Pittsburgh. The Americans prevailed after hand-to-hand combat. Curiously, both Willard and Gass lost an eye. Details of Willard’s injury are unknown; Gass’s injury occurred while he was helping build a fort.
A blacksmith who assisted John Shields during the expedition, Private Willard married Eleanor McDonald six months after the Corps’ return to St. Louis and settled in Missouri. The couple had seven boys and five girls. Willard, who early in the expedition had been sentenced to 100 lashes for falling asleep while on guard duty, kept in contact with Lewis and Clark and was advanced $61 for a government blacksmith assignment in 1808. A year later, Clark listed Willard as a blacksmith for the Shawnees and Delawares. Willard and his family moved to Wisconsin in the 1820s and lived there until 1852, when they traveled west by covered wagon to California. When Willard died in March of 1865, he was 86, living longer than any expedition member except two: Jean Baptiste Charbonneau and Patrick Gass. Sergeant Gass, the first to publish a journal of the expedition, farmed, ran a ferry, hunted stray horses, and worked in a brewery after the war. Then, in 1831, when he was 60, he took a 20-year-old wife, Maria Hamilton, and settled in West Virginia. They had three sons and four daughters. When Maria died of measles in 1849, Gass raised his young family alone. Several years later, Gass went to live with his daughter Annie near Wellsville, on the banks of the Ohio River. He ardently supported the Union during the Civil War.
Annie reported ‘how, up until the very end, he was accustomed to walking the four miles to the town…for the mail,’ carrying a hickory cane he had made himself. As he walked near the river, the sole survivor of the expedition must have thought of the time Meriwether Lewis took the new keelboat down that same river 66 years earlier; when a grizzly bear chased several men into the Missouri and stopped only after it had taken eight balls; how Lewis’s dog diverted a buffalo as it charged straight toward a group of sleeping men. As Gass walked with hickory cane in hand, he must have remembered the excitement of leaving St. Louis — and the thrill of returning two and a half years later. On April 2, 1870, almost a year after a golden spike had completed the transcontinental railroad linking Lewis and Clark’s west with the rest of the country, Patrick Gass died, two months short of his 99th birthday. The expedition had truly ended.
This article was written by Larry E. Morris and originally appeared in the January/February 2003 issue of American History. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!