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This Week in History
May 17-23, 2015

May 21, 1804
The Lewis & Clark Expedition Begins

By Pamela Lowry

William Clark, by Charles Wilson Peale.
Meriwether Lewis, by Charles Wilson Peale.

On May 20, at St. Charles, Missouri, the Corps of Discovery, led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark, began what would be a more than two-year journey to explore the newly acquired Louisiana territory, all the way to the Pacific Coast. Their official instructions stated:

The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, & such principle stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce.

On May 26 the group left La Charrette, the westernmost American outpost on the Missouri River. The expedition's small flotilla of three boats headed northwest on a journey of exploration and scientific discovery. Before the expedition embarked, Captain Lewis issued orders to his detachment which require each sergeant to maintain a daily journal, and urged the privates to do likewise. It was hoped that these accounts would be combined to present a full picture of the geography, Indian inhabitants, plants and wildlife, and potential resources of the region.

The embarkation point of La Charrette was a small settlement founded by the veteran explorer Daniel Boone. Scarcely ten years before, Boone had brought a group of settlers from Kentucky while the area was still under Spanish administration, in order to maintain an American presence on the vital Missouri waterway.

To the Pacific

The small band of explorers under the leadership of Lewis and Clark embarked on the longest journey of exploration ever commissioned by the Federal government. When they reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean, they planned to raise the American flag over the western limits of the new Louisiana Territory.

Two months previous, on March 10th, the French tricolor was lowered over the small fort at St. Louis, and Meriwether Lewis acted as the President's personal envoy at the ceremony which confirmed that the Missouri River now flows in United States territory. An earlier ceremony at New Orleans had officially passed the entire Louisiana Territory to United States jurisdiction. In order to map this vast new potential for American settlement, and to counter the incursions of British traders from the Hudson Bay Company in Canada, the Corps of Discovery planned to sail to the headwaters of the Missouri River. From there, they would portage over the Rocky Mountains and endeavor to discover another river which would take them to the Pacific Coast.

Scientific Training

Preparations for the journey were extensive. Captain Lewis, who was secretary to President Thomas Jefferson, had been studying with American scientists over the previous two years. In addition to training in the use of scientific instruments, Lewis had learned the art of surveying, celestial observation, and the determination of latitude and longitude. Lewis also took with him the newly-invented air rifle, which might be needed to supply game for the expedition if their supply of powder ran out.

Captain Lewis had also designed a collapsible canoe, which consisted of a folding iron frame over which hides or bark could be stretched. The ease of carrying the boat was expected to make the long portages easier. The canoe, as well as most of the firearms for the expedition, were produced at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Once the expedition left the last settlement on the Missouri River, it was expected to be several years before Americans received any further word of this brave band of explorers.