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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.

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