History of American Exploration from 1800 to 1805

About the history of American exploration from 1800 to 1805 including explorations of Lewis and Clark.


1804-1806 Jefferson received only $2,500 from Congress to finance the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was to end up costing $50,000. Its purposes were to look for a water route to the Pacific and to obtain scientific information. Before they left, scientists presented them with a variety of tasks, such as determining the pulse rates of the Louisiana Indians. After wintering on the banks of the Mississippi, they set off in two flat-bottomed boats with a contingent of 45 men (29 of them permanent) up the Missouri in the spring of 1804. The "Big Muddy" was treacherous with its snags and sawyers (sunken trees). They did not come to unknown territory for some time, however. In October they built a winter camp near present-day Bismarck, N.D., 1,600 mi. up the Missouri, where they hired Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife, Sacagawea, a Shoshone who had been captured by the Minnetarees when she was 12. Sacagawea, then 16, was a short, squat woman, who wanted to see the monster fish in the Great River. That February she gave birth to her first child, whom she carried on her back throughout the journey. Her presence persuaded tribes along the way of the expedition's peaceful intent; war parties seldom traveled with women and children. On one occasion, when a boat carrying valuable instruments and papers overturned, Sacagawea, thinking quickly, scooped up the articles floating in the water before they were lost, while the others in the party righted the canoe and bailed it out.

In April, 1805, they left Fort Mandan in dugouts, after sending back to St. Louis reports, maps, a painted buffalo robe, Indian herbs, and animal and plant specimens, including a live prairie dog. The way was spiked with dangers: grizzly bears, one 8 ft. tall, and bison, which ran through their camp. On May 26 Lewis sighted the Rockies, and a few days later, in the White Cliff area, he saw sandstone ramparts that looked like "elegant ranges of lofty freestone buildings." At the falls of the upper Missouri, where spray "rose like a column of smoke," Lewis spent four hours, watching in awe. It took them 30 days to negotiate the rapids. When the river split into three streams (which they named Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin), they chose, on Sacagawea's advice, to follow the Jefferson. After crossing the Continental Divide, they encountered Shoshones and took their chief, Cameahwait, to their camp. Sacagawea, called on to interpret, burst into tears at the sight of him, then ran to him and wrapped him in her blanket. He was her brother.

After a long, cold, hungry journey through mountain trails and the Bitterroot wilderness, they made their way to the Columbia River, and in dugout canoes they cruised down it to the Pacific. Clark wrote on Nov. 7, 1805, "Ocean in view! Oh! The joy!" By September, 1806, they were back in St. Louis.

1805-1806 As part of his conspiracy with Aaron Burr to take over part of Louisiana, Gen. James Wilkinson sent Zebulon Pike (1779-1813), a young army lieutenant, to search for sites for army posts and the source of the Mississippi. Whether Pike was a spy or unwitting dupe remains a mystery. In a 70-ft. keelboat with 21 soldiers, Pike traveled to present-day Little Falls, Minn., where he set up a winter camp. Then, with a few men, he set off first in a dugout and then by sled to find the Mississippi's source, which he incorrectly identified as Leech Lake. (The true source is Lake Itasca, Minn., discovered in 1832 by geologist and ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft [1793-1864]).

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