One thing to remember when you are studying history is that when we look at things that have happened, we view them from a perspective where we know not only the details, but also the end result. To the people that participated in the events, it’s a whole other story. If you really want to get the most out of history, put yourself in the shoes of the people who lived it and try to imagine what it must have been like without historic hindsight. A great example would be the Lewis and Clark Expedition: over 200 years later, we know how far they went, the route they took, and when they got back. Lewis and Clark didn’t know any of these things; only that they were headed west. They were on a journey of unknown distance, through unfriendly territory, with nothing other than what they could shoot and carry. And if they did manage to make it to the Pacific Ocean, they had to turn around and do it all over again.
With another war looming between France and Britain, Napoleon needed money to fund his army and sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States, which they had recently acquired from the Spanish. For just $15 million, President Thomas Jefferson had doubled the size of our country.
But Jefferson had his eyes set even further west; he wanted to find a route across the Louisiana Territory, through the Rocky Mountains – called the Stony Mountains in Jefferson’s era – and on to the Pacific Ocean. Knowing he will need a reliable team of disciplined professionals, he turns to the U.S. Army. Jefferson picks his personal secretary, Capt. Meriwether Lewis, to lead the expedition, and sends for experts to train Lewis in navigation, field medicine, zoology, and botany to give the 29-year-old Virginia native all the knowledge he will need to prevail in the wilderness.
For his co-leader, Lewis picks his former commanding officer from his days in the Legion of the United States (the predecessor to the U.S. Army) and fellow Virginian, the now-retired William Clark. The 33-year-old veteran of the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers was the youngest brother of famous Revolutionary War generals George Rogers Clark and Jonathan Clark. Lewis sought Clark’s reinstatement as captain, but the government would only gave him a commission as a second lieutenant. Lewis never let on to the men that he outranked Clark, and always referred to him as captain.
Lewis left Washington, D.C. on July 5, 1803 and headed to Pittsburgh, where he accepted delivery of a 55-foot keelboat that had been specially built for the expedition and would take them as far upstream as the Missouri River would allow. The boat had a cannon on a swivel mount, and was powered by oars, poles, a sail, or sometimes pulled by mules along the river bank. He brought with him a revolutionary hand-pumped air rifle which had enough power to kill a deer. In fact, it held enough pressurized air in the buttstock to fire 20-30 31-caliber rounds on a single charge. There was no issue with wet powder and it took very little time to reload.
After wintering at Camp Dubois, across the river from the relatively new settlement of St. Louis, Mo. Lewis, Clark, and their Corps of Discovery (about 40 soldiers and guides) headed west on May 14, 1804. While part of the way was known to European traders, much of the route had never been traveled before; they had to make their own maps as they went along. That’s hard to comprehend when we live in a world that in just a fraction of a second, our phone’s map can show us that Fort Clatsop, Ore. is about 2,200 miles from Lewis and Clark’s starting point, while giving us alternate routes based on real-time traffic conditions and road construction from most anywhere in the country.
Today, we also take our safety for granted as we travel the entire distance under the protection of various federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. Sgt. Patrick Gass, a Ranger and veteran of clashes with Native Americans on Pennsylvania’s western frontier before volunteering for the Corps of Discovery, wrote: “we were to pass through a country possessed by numerous, powerful and warlike nations of savages, of gigantic stature, fierce, treacherous and cruel; and particularly hostile to white men. And fame had united with tradition in opposing mountains to our course, which human enterprize [sic] and exertion would attempt in vain to pass.”
The Corps of Discovery knew that however long the trip was, the small group of men was going to go through hostile Native American territories where hostile warriors could easily wipe them out. Also, the Spanish military was in hot pursuit: Brig. Gen. James Wilkinson, the top officer in the U.S. Army and soon-to-be first governor of the Louisiana Territory was secretly working as a paid agent of the Spanish and tipped them off that the expedition would be passing through Spanish-claimed territory. On multiple occasions, Spain dispatched soldiers and mercenaries – sometimes numbering in the hundreds – to intercept the Corps of Discovery or to negotiate with Indians to capture Lewis and Clark for them. All five missions resulted in failure – they couldn’t catch up to the Americans.
Wilkinson was suspected of working with the Spanish but nothing was proven until 50 years after Lewis and Clark’s expedition. Interestingly enough, the man who previously occupied the office of Senior Officer of the U.S. Army was Maj. Gen. Alexander Hamilton, who took over for George Washington when he passed away in 1799. Today the position is known as the Chief of Staff, U.S. Army.
We also take for granted our proximity to medical treatment. We are never far from a hospital. If we are on a trip or camping, we could call for an ambulance or even a medevac helicopter if we were way out in the woods. The Corps of Discovery had no doctors; just their frontier wisdom and whatever supplies they took with them. It’s remarkable that with all the potential hazards posed by nature, such as drowning, disease, wild animal attacks, exposure, starvation, or getting lost, only one soldier died during the trip: Sgt. Charles Floyd of a ruptured appendix – something that could just as easily kill an unprepared traveler today.
So there was no communication with home, no way to tell how much longer they had to go, no idea how many mountains they would have to cross to get there, no means for resupply other than what animals they could shoot or catch – or what they could trade for if they met friendly natives that they could communicate with. Imagine basically eating the same thing every meal of every day for months on end. Those of us that served in the military definitely had our fill of MREs (meals, ready to eat for you civilians) but at least there was variety. You can only have so much jerked deer, roots, berries, and fish before meals become utterly depressing.
It’s all pretty intimidating when you empathize with the soldiers who actually volunteered for this assignment and all the more fascinating that they actually accomplished their mission.
This week during the expedition
So where was the Corps of Discovery on this week? In 1804, they were entering modern-day South Dakota. Sgt. Floyd had recently died and Sgt. Gass (quoted above) was elected to take his place – supposedly the first election held west of the Mississippi. They had just seen – and shot – their first buffalo. Incidentally, it takes an entire buffalo to feed the hungry corps for just one day. The men required an incredible amount of meat to survive, sometimes eating as much as nine pounds per person each day.
A year later, in 1805, the corps had passed the continental divide – walking and riding horses at this point. They were in modern-day Idaho, the birthplace of Sacajawea, and heading into Oregon Country, which was claimed by Britain, Russia, France, and Spain
This week in 1806, they were back in the Dakotas, heading downstream on the Missouri River. Lewis is spending the rest of the journey lying prone because one of the soldiers accidentally shot him in the buttocks during a hunt. The soon-to-be-famous explorers are just one month away from reaching St. Louis.