us history All The Facts You'll Ever Want To Know About The Lewis & Clark Expedition  

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American history is full of wild tales of adventure, genuinely ludicrous achievements, and no small amount of super depressing things. Caught in this tawdry tangle of sometimes violent and horrific, sometimes glorious and heroic history are Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, whose 19th century US Army unit Corps of Discovery embarked on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which stands as a singular triumph of American spirit and will. 

The nearly three-year journey began in the mind of then-president Thomas Jefferson, who made the rather expensive purchase of an enormous amount of land from Napoleon (who needed money for his endless wars). Known as the Louisiana Purchase, the land amounted to 828,000 square miles adjacent to the United States. The cost per acre was only 14 cents, but when you're dealing with that kind of acreage, it added up ($11.25 million plus the cancelation of $3.75 million in debt). At the time, the United States was a young, relatively broke country. Jefferson stood by his decision, but plenty of citizens were in an uproar over the expense.

And so, Jefferson came up with an idea to send an expedition across the territory, and beyond. He wanted explorers to venture all the way to the Pacific Ocean. No one knew then just how far that might be. Jefferson himself vastly underestimated the distance.

Jefferson hired Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to organize and lead the expedition. Both men had extensive frontier wilderness experience. Lewis, a highly educated man, had once served as secretary to Jefferson. Preparations for the expedition lasted nearly a year. Jefferson secured funds from Congress to hire men and purchase provisions.

Officially called the Corp of Discovery, and technically functioning as a US Army unit, Lewis, Clark, and between 30 and 40 young frontiersmen (and one noteworthy woman) began their great adventure in May 1804. Neither they nor their country would ever be the same.

Upon their return in September of 1806, the men informed Jefferson the United States sat upon a continent much larger than anyone had guessed, and much of it was already US territory. Jefferson predicted it would take 1,000 years to settle such a vast amount of land. In this instance, Jefferson was wrong. Arizona, the final state in the continental US, was incorporated in 1910, 104 years after the conclusion of America's greatest expedition

They Ate Candles To Keep From Starving


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Though the expedition was well-provisioned from the start, supplies ran low by the time the group approached the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains. It was winter, so the expedition's usual method of supplementing supplies with hunting and fishing was impossible. The men grew desperate, and resorted to eating tallow candles. Between the harsh weather and hunger, the entire Corps of Discovery nearly perished.

What they didn't know at the time was they were being watched by a group of Nez Perce tribal scouts and warriors, most of whom were quite keen to finish off the suffering men and take any belongings that might be useful or valuable. According to Nez Perce oral tradition, Watkuweis, a woman in the tribe, insisted on helping the strangers. She had not long before been kidnapped by an enemy tribe, and white men rescued and returned her to her home. "Do them no hurt," she demanded

And so the Corps was saved by the word of a woman. But this was not the first time for that to happen.

Once The Expedition Left US Jurisdiction, It Became Fully Egalitarian


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Once the expedition moved out of official US territory, their laws were of their own choosing. Every member of the Corp had a vote, no matter the decision or activity.

York, the only married man, and only African-American in the Corp, was William Clark's slave. At least, back home he was. But beyond US jurisdiction, he was a free man and became a major and highly valued member of the Corp.

Sacajawea was a pregnant, teenage Shoshone woman. In the States, those three qualities would have gotten her nowhere. But out on the trail, she was the expert, saving lives and property on a number of occasions. Her knowledge and grace earned her full respect among the Corp. She, too, was a leader, held her own vote, and made her own decisions. None of these things would have been possible in the US.

Even the enlisted members of the Corp, all young, white men, had opportunities beyond comprehension as they moved and learned along the trail. They were all country boys, few from great means, but their journey broadened and enlightened their minds in ways they never would have achieved had they stayed back home.

As a unit, the Corp worked together in kindness and respect for one another, no matter one's origins, status, or ethnicity. The journey was not without flaws, but those facts alone make the expedition an exceptional standout in all of American history.

Despite A Treacherous Journey, Only One Member Was Lost


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Photo: Benjamin Trott/Metropolitan Museum of Art/Public Domain

When you consider the unimaginable risks and dangers undertaken by the Corp of Discovery, that it suffered only one casualty is remarkable. But such was the case.

Only three months into the journey, young Sergeant Charles Floyd became ill with nausea and severe abdominal pains. Lewis and Clark were particularly fond of the young man, as he was the first to apply for the job, was rigorously fit, and better educated than most of his fellow Corpsmen. The two leaders even agreed to grant Floyd the rank of sergeant before the journey began. So everyone was surprised someone of so many fine qualities and great health would be the first to falter.

The members of the Corp knew they were heading into harm's way when they joined up, but they figured their lives were mostly at risk from wild animal attack or skirmishes with angry tribal people.

Alas, there was no help for Sergeant Floyd. His suffering only worsened. William Clark sat up all night long watching over and trying to help the young man. Lewis recorded in this journal that, on August 15, after seeming to recover a bit, Floyd was “seized with a complaint somewhat like a violent chorlick [colic]… [and] he was sick all night.” On the afternoon of August 19, Floyd passed away, according to Lewis, "with composure."

Ironically, even if Floyd had somehow been magically transported to the finest doctors in Philadelphia, none of them could have saved him. He likely died from a burst appendix, and in the early 19th century, that was a death sentence, no matter one's location.

Members of the expedition buried Floyd on a high bluff overlooking the Missouri River, placing a red cedar marker at his grave site that stated his name, title, and life dates. The men were so moved by their unexpected loss they recorded Floyd River and Floyd Bluff on a new map drawn by Lewis.

Over the next more than two years the Corps of Discovery lost no other members to death.

Corp Men Had Plenty Of Sex With Native Women, Who Really Liked The One Africa-American Member Of The Expedition


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A number of native women on the trail were interested in spending time with the exotic Americans strolling about their territory. Sexual activity, which, while welcomed by most of the Corpmen, was a bit shocking. Local traditions were very different from those of the sexually repressed European-American society in which the men grew up.

Some tribes believed sexual relations between their women and the strangers was a way to unite diverse people into one tribe. Pre-marital sex was no big deal. Lewis's and Clark's journals include passages about Mandan and other tribal leaders bringing several women to the Corp's captains and their men, offering them as gifts for the night.

Some leaders and women believed the mysterious strangers, who were so different from themselves, held special powers. This was especially true with regard to York, whose darker skin, according to the tribal people, indicated great physical and mental powers. It was believed a woman could retain these powers through intercourse, and pass them to her husband during sex. 

On at least one occasion, a member of the expedition had sex with a married woman without consent or knowledge of her husband. When the husband found out, he stabbed the crap out of the guy, and Clark made the man give the husband trinkets to work the situation out. 

There are stories of children born to these women as a result of their contact with men of the Corp. It seems likely to be the case; after all, the Corp spent the entire, snowy winter bunked down with Mandan people. Unfortunately, most of the men picked up venereal diseases from their new paramours.

Tribal Teenagers Stole Meriwether Lewis's Dog


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Meriwether Lewis purchased a Newfoundland puppy while preparing for the journey. For more than a century, scholars were confused about the dog's name, which appears only once in Lewis's journal (typically, he referred to it as "my dog"), but this one iteration was written near the bottom of the page, and got smudged. At some point historians decided the dog's name was Scannon, but were clueless to the meaning.

Actually, Lewis's beloved pet was named Seaman, which is appropriate for a member of a breed known for a love of swimming and often trained to rescue those in distress. On many occasions, Seaman saved Corp members from drowning. Once, though, Lewis saved Seaman. Lewis reported in his journal that a beaver attacked Seaman, severing an artery in his leg. He wrote in his journal, “It was with great difficulty that I could stop the blood; I fear it will yet prove fatal to him.” The dog recovered.

Seaman was very popular with the Corp. He was petted and spoiled with treats. He was also very protective, barking and warning those he suspected might harm the Corp. When the men at long last encountered their first grizzly bear, Seaman had to be held back from attacking the enormous creature. He once chased a bull buffalo away from a tent where Corp members were sleeping. He was close to Sacajawea and her baby, John Baptiste, and allowed the little boy to crawl on and around him. 

One thing Seaman did not care for was the massive clouds of mosquitoes that plagued the Corp on certain parts of their expedition. He would always seek a pond, creek, or river from which to escape the infernal bites from the pests. 

A number of the tribal people the Corp encountered on their western trek were impressed with the enormous, shaggy-coated dog. One man from a tribe along the Columbia River unsuccessfully offered Lewis three beaver pelts for Seaman. On another occasion, some local tribal youth stole the dog during cover of darkness. Lewis was incensed when he discovered Seaman missing, tracked down the guilty parties and threatened to burn their village to the ground if they did not return his dog immediately.

Not much is known about Seaman after the expedition. However, in a book published in 1814, a well-known educator claims to have visited a museum with a large dog's collar bearing the inscription: "The greatest traveller of my species. My name is SEAMAN, the dog of captain Meriwether Lewis, whom I accompanied to the Pacifick ocean through the interior of the continent of North America."

Apparently Seaman never learned to spell. 

Clark's Slave York Was A Free Man On The Expedition, But Expected To Return To Slavery Thereafter


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York was the only married man and the only African-American member of the Corp of Discovery. He was also a slave. He and Clark had grown up together, but he was Clark's property. In fact, York didn't want to go on the expedition, preferring to stay behind with his wife and children. None of the other members of the Corp could have even applied for the position as a married man. But, because York was slave, his feelings didn't matter.

As he journeyed along the trail, York became one of the most valuable members of the Corp, respected for his knowledge, diplomacy, and other skills. Once the Corp traveled outside US jurisdiction, York was a free man. In this position, he, along with all other members of the expedition, was allowed to vote on decisions made by the group. He also proved himself a capable and reliable leader. 

York was such a favorite among the native people the Corp encountered he was usually brought forward at the first meeting with a tribe, standing with Lewis and Clark. Most natives viewed York's stature and dark skin as symbols of great power. The ladies of the tribe were enamored with him. 

As long as York was out on the expedition, he was able to live as a free man. When the Corp returned from its journey, every man except York was given significant acres of land as well as monetary compensation. York received nothing, and was expected to happily return to life as a slave.

The journey changed York. Clark didn't appreciate this. He complained of York getting "uppity," and recounted punishments including beating and jailing. York didn't care what Clark did to him, he continued to insist his freedom was the least Clark could do for him after all they had been through. 

Historians are not sure as to York's fate. According to some, Clark sent him to Kentucky so he could be nearer his wife, who had a different owner. There are accounts of Clark granting York's freedom, and York owning a business, and stories in which he was freed but later regretted it (which sounds like some nonsense made up by a pro-slave lobby). Another account places York in Wyoming, as a prominent member of the Crow tribe.

Founding Father Benjamin Rush Gave Them Medicine Balls With Mercury For Regular System Cleanses


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Dr. Benjamin Rush was a Founding Father and renowned physician. Lewis visited him before the journey, and Rush instructed him on how to set a broken limb, pull a tooth, and keep a patient comfortable, though he didn't have much to offer in the way of cures and medicine. It was hard to predict what the Corp might encounter, harder still to treat it far from home. Still, Rush offered a basic, often effective, cure-all. It came in the form of small, herbal medicine balls. Lewis took along hundreds of them to help cure whatever was ailing members of the Corp of Discovery.

Essentially, Rush's balls were powerful laxatives with small doses of mercury. Purges were a favorite cure of physicians in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Rush figured a good cleaning out of anyone who fell sick on the trail was the best cure. The Corp used up every single ball during the expedition, and referred to them as "Rush's Thunderbolts."

People Back East Thought They Were Dead


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The Corp expedition lasted longer than two years. Back east, nothing had been heard from the group, other than the August 1806 arrival in Washington, DC of a wagon filled with some findings of the first leg of the expedition. A good many people feared the worst. Articles appeared in newspapers suggesting Lewis, Clark, and the rest were dead. Such stories fueled fantasies of death by Indians, bears, drowning, and strange tortures and rituals practiced against the Corp by native people.