Lewis Clark and the Corps of Discovery
215 years ago the most physically and mentally challenging expedition began with its first steps led by two men who would change our country’s history forever. It all started when the new president, Thomas Jefferson, gave Meriwether Lewis the tedious task of exploring west from the new lands purchased from France and on toward west coast. This task would be known as The Corps of Discovery, being the very first expedition to pass through the western portion of the United States of America and return as well. Lewis was in charge of all preparations for the expedition including picking his crew to assist him on the trek, of course including William Clark of which he would declare Co-leader and his right hand man. The journey wouldn’t start until May 14, 1804 where they were soon to encounter numerous amounts of troubles and legendary discoveries they could never have expected for the two years of which this expedition will last. Their legacy will forever be remembered for what these men and women did for the expansion of our country.
William Lewis and Lucy Meriwether had five kids through their marriage including Meriwether Lewis the second born child of the family. He was from a respectable old prosperous family. Born in Ivy Creek he lived a 2,000 acre family estate named Locust Hill not far from Monticello home of Thomas Jefferson who was actually a family friend. Jefferson would later state that depression ran through the Lewis family. Virginia Meriwether and his family moved to Georgia after his father passed from Pneumonia in 1779 while serving in the military. From his mother Lewis developed an intense hatred for the British, who looted and burned much of his home county during the war. Also from his mother he picked up an interest in herbs and medicines, many would come to his mother for medical help. This skill Lewis obtained would carry on to be used in his expedition. Lewis and his family left for Georgia where his mother’s new husband Thomas Marks owned some land. Growing up on this frontier he learned how to hunt and fish as well as interact with local Indians. He would later move back to Virginia to manage the Locust Hill plantation under his uncles supervision as well as receive education from private tutors.
At twenty years old Lewis joined the Virginia Militia and helped stop the rebellious farmers in the west who were responding to the federal liquor tax. This would be called the Whiskey Rebellion. Lewis and 13,000 other soldiers under the control of George Washington would march towards the area where the opposition would be stopped with no battles occurring. Through the Military he would soon become an officer and travel the country for the next 5 years on different assignments such as delivering messages and meeting and interacting with Indians of the region. He would serve in William Clark’s Rifle Company. This is where their relationship started, they had many common traits, they were both tall, strong, and respected Virginians who grew up on the american frontier. Lewis would be promoted to Captain in 1800 he developed a respectful reputation as well as a reputation for his new interest in drinking as many soldiers did at this time. In 1801 Thomas Jefferson would become the president of the United States and soon elected Meriwether Lewis as his aide and secretary. Lewis even delivered the President’s State of the Union Address. He would spend the next two years living in the presidential mansion in Philadelphia. President Jefferson would soon assign Lewis as Commander of The Corps of Discovery Expedition and therefore Lewis would invite his old commanding officer William Clark to be his Co-commander.
William Clark was born on August 1st, 1770 in Caroline County, Virginia. Out of john and Ann’s ten children William was the ninth. His family owned a Tobacco farm and 5 of his brothers would fight in the revolution. One of his brothers was George Rogers Clark an american general who led United States forces in the northwest territory during the revolutionary war, he was called “The Conqueror” of the old northwest. William Clark moved to Kentucky in 1785, amongst the first americans to settle in the Ohio Valley. Even more than Lewis, Clark was a frontiersman; hunting, fishing, and tracking Clark was the best at them all.
William Clark joined the militia in 1789 when he was 19 where he would fight in the northwest indian wars. He was made a captain in 1790, then moved to the regular army in 1791. He would help the U.S secure the Ohio Valley and get rid of threats associated with that region. He did not just lead men, he would learn how to build forts and draw maps as well as being successful when negotiating with Native Americans. He was a very smart and honest man. He meet Lewis in 1795 where they would form a friendship. Due to health reasons Clark would resign from the army in 1796 and return home to manage his parents land. He worked as a farmer until he received an invitation from Meriwether Lewis to assist him in leading an expedition across the continent.
One of the unappreciated events in American history was the Louisiana Purchase conceived by President Thomas Jefferson. The “Thomas Jefferson Foundation” describes this event, “The Louisiana Purchase (1803) was a land deal between the United States and France, in which the U.S. acquired approximately 827,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River for $15 million”. This quickly describes the event and shows the magnitude of importance. After almost doubling the landmass of the United states President Jefferson had the incentive to explore it. In 1802 with the help of Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson would draw up plans for an expedition into Louisiana and would receive a funding of 2,500 for the expedition in 1803 from Congress. The expedition would be called the “Corps of Discovery” and there was only one obvious choice Jefferson had for who would lead it. Meriwether Lewis was chosen for the job at age 29. Jefferson would have this to say about the man who he knew was ready for the job, “Captain Lewis is brave, prudent, habituated to the woods and familiar to the Indian manners and character. He is not regularly educated but, he possesses great mass of accurate observation on all the subjects of nature which present themselves here, he will therefore rightly select those only which shall be knew” (Jefferson 1803).
The goal of the expedition is to discover a path through the west and hopefully all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition would open up the fur trade for the american people, deliver the news of the louisiana purchase to the indians, regulate foreign traders and determine possible agricultural opportunities. The idea of Manifest Destiny was spread across the nation which states that by god we are to expand across the northern continent and spread democracy, capitalism and christian faith. Jefferson also believed this trek should be focused on documenting the animals, plants and the geology of the land they will face before them. Jefferson himself would teach Lewis Botany, which is the study is the study of plants. Lewis also would learn how to properly give plants and animals their latin name. Lewis would dive deep into studying subjects of which the knowledge would help him on his expedition, such as Astronomy, Cartography and medicine.
At this time the furthest west that was known was the Mandan Villages home of the Mandan Indians near which was up the Missouri River. After this point everything west was pretty much unknown to anyone. In preparation, maps were created of all land so far known. So, to prepare for this journey Lewis would need to accumulate his supplies. For interaction with Indians the travelers would have gifts such as jewelry, knives, combs, etc. that they would give. Lewis also purchased their provisions, mathematical instruments, medicinal supplies, clothing and weapons. This included ink powder, pencils, lead, axes, flint, steel, salt, mosquito netting, linen, tables, soap, alcohol, and nearly 200 pounds of dried soup. As for weapons the main item was the U.S. army, 54 caliber, 33 inch, barrelled rifle called a Flintlock Rifle. These were very trustworthy weapons for all possible necessary actions such as hunting or defence. Another item that Lewis and Jefferson decided to include was a custom made collapsable iron framed boat. The idea was that when they could no longer pass through rivers because of hazards, they would haul the boat out of the river and tie together the frame and carry it along only weighing 44 pounds. The final major item was a keelboat, which could travel through shallow waters, such as what they would need when taking the Ohio river. Once the summer of 1803 came around Lewis shipped his freshly purchased supplies west from where he was in Philadelphia.