Weird History

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

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