When the United States acquired the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, it nearly doubled the size of the nation. But after the Louisiana Purchase, someone needed to explore all that extra land. President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Captain Meriwether Lewis, who had served as his personal secretary, to lead an expedition across the new land. Lewis chose Second Lieutenant William Clark to help him lead, and on May 14, 1804, they set out with a 41-man crew of explorers from Camp Dubois just outside St. Louis, Missouri, heading toward the Pacific Ocean.
The Northwest Passage
Many people believed in a navigable water passage that connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. When Jefferson sent the Lewis and Clark expedition west, it was in hopes that they could find some passage from the Missouri River to the Columbia River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean. Today, we know that there is no such passage. But finding one was a major goal of the expedition, and perhaps its greatest failure.
The team was tasked with several other goals, though. They were to explore and create a map for the newly acquired territory, which they did. They also were expected to get to Oregon so that the United States could officially lay claim to the area before Britain established a foothold. This, too, they managed. They also created a biological catalog of creatures and plants they found along the way, and they worked to establish peaceful trading relations with the Native American tribes across the country.
While Lewis and Clark explored the Missouri River, they also looked for someone who could translate for them on the trip. One of the French fur traders, Toussaint Charbonneau, was married to a Native American woman named Sacagawea. She agreed to go with the expedition to act as an interpreter. She was pregnant when she left, and she had her baby while the expedition headed west.
While Sacagawea translated for the expedition and helped them navigate, her greatest contribution might have been the protection that she and her baby provided. No tribe intent on war would ever send a woman and her child on the attack, so the various Native American tribes the expedition encountered saw her presence as a sign of peaceful intentions. If Sacagawea and her child had not been in the group, the Lewis and Clark expedition might have turned out very differently had any one of the many tribes they encountered not been so welcoming and helpful to them.
The Lewis and Clark Legacy
The expedition may not have found a navigable water path connecting the two oceans, but it did make it to Oregon and the Pacific, where the members camped for several months before making the return trip. You may have heard of the Oregon Trail. It was a rough wagon trail extending more than 2,000 miles from the east to the west, crossing plains, deserts, and mountains. Thousands of people took the four to six-month journey over the years to settle in the west, and many never made it to the end. But Lewis and Clark and their team did it first – they blazed the trail. The Lewis and Clark expedition was the beginning of American westward expansion.
When they made it back east in 1806, they brought back a claim on the west coast, a travel route to get there, peaceful relations with the people who lived along the way, and many pages of new information to be examined. When they returned to St. Louis, no one had heard from them in over a year and they had been given up as dead. Had they never left to begin with – or had they truly been lost on the way – the nation would likely look very different today.