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.
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.
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.
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."
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.