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.
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 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.
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.
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.