10 Little-Known Facts About the Lewis and Clark Expedition

10 Little-Known Facts About the Lewis and Clark Expedition

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1. Lewis first met Clark after being court-martialed by the Army.

While serving as a frontier army officer in 1795, a young Meriwether Lewis was court-martialed for allegedly challenging a lieutenant to a duel during a drunken dispute. The 21-year-old was found not guilty of the charges, but his superiors decided to transfer him to a different rifle company to avoid any future incidents. His new commander turned out to be William Clark—the man who would later join him on his journey to the West.

2. Lewis had served as Thomas Jefferson’s secretary.

In 1801, Lewis left the army and accepted an invitation to serve as Thomas Jefferson’s presidential secretary. Lewis had known Jefferson since he was a boy—he’d grown up on a Virginia plantation only a few miles from Monticello—and the pair went on to forge a mentor-protégé relationship while working together in the White House. When Jefferson conceived of his grand expedition to the West in 1802, he immediately named the rugged, intellectually gifted Lewis as its commander. To help the young secretary prepare, Jefferson gave him a crash course in the natural sciences and sent him to Philadelphia to study medicine, botany and celestial navigation.

3. Thomas Jefferson believed the expedition might encounter wooly mammoths.

Before Lewis and Clark completed their expedition, Americans could only speculate on what lurked in the uncharted territories beyond the Rocky Mountains. Even Thomas Jefferson, who’d amassed a small library of books on the frontier, was convinced the explorers might have run-ins with mountains of salt, a race of Welsh-speaking Indians and even herds of wooly mammoths and giant ground sloths. The expedition failed to sight any of the long-extinct creatures, but Lewis did describe 178 previously unknown species of plants and 122 new animals including coyotes, mountain beavers and grizzly bears.

4. The Spanish sent soldiers to arrest the expedition.

Jefferson often described Lewis and Clark’s expedition as a scientific mission to study the lands acquired in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, but the explorers’ central goal was to find a water route to the Pacific, which would increase trade opportunities and help solidify an American claim on the far Northwest. That was distressing news for the Spanish, who feared the expedition might lead to the seizure of their gold-rich territories in the Southwest. On the suggestions of U.S. Army General James Wilkinson—a Spanish spy—the governor of New Mexico dispatched four different groups of Spanish soldiers and Comanche Indians to intercept the explorers and bring them back in chains. Luckily for Lewis and Clark, the hostile search parties failed to locate them in the vastness of the frontier.

5. Clark brought his slave on the journey.

Along with more than two-dozen enlisted men and officers, the Corps of Discovery also included Clark’s personal slave, York. The tall manservant was a hit with frontier tribes, many of whom had never seen a person with dark skin. The Arikara people of North Dakota even referred to York as “Big Medicine” and speculated that he had spiritual powers. Though not an official member of the Corps of Discovery, York made the entire journey from St. Louis to the Pacific and back, and became a valued member of the expedition for his skills as a hunter. When the explorers later voted on where to place their winter camp in 1805, he and the Shoshone interpreter Sacagawea were both allowed to participate. As historian Stephen E. Ambrose later noted, this simple show of hands may have marked the first time in American history a black man and a woman were given the vote.

6. Lewis and Clark’s arsenal included 200 pounds of gunpowder and an experimental air rifle.

The Corps of Discovery carried one of the largest arsenals ever taken west of the Mississippi. It included an assortment of pikes, tomahawks and knives as well as several rifles and muskets, 200 pounds of gunpowder and over 400 pounds of lead for bullets. Lewis also had a state-of-the-art pneumatic rifle he used to impress Indian tribes on the frontier. After pumping compressed air into the gun’s stock, he could fire some 20 shots—each of them almost completely silent. Despite being armed to the teeth, most of the explorers never had to use their weapons in combat. The lone exception came during the return journey, when Lewis and three of his soldiers engaged in a gun battle with Blackfeet Indians that left two natives dead.

7. Sacagawea reunited with her long lost brother during the journey.

One of the most legendary members of the Lewis and Clark expedition was Sacagawea, a teenaged Shoshone Indian who had been kidnapped from her tribe as an adolescent. Sacagawea, her husband and her newborn son first joined up with the explorers as they wintered at a Hidatsa-Mandan settlement in 1804, and she later served as an interpreter and occasional guide on their journey to the Pacific. During a run-in with a band of Shoshone in the summer of 1805, she famously discovered the tribe’s chief was none other than her long lost brother, whom she had not seen since her abduction five years earlier. The tearful reunion helped facilitate peaceful relations between the explorers and the Shoshone, allowing Lewis to procure much-needed horses for his trek over the Rockies.

8. Only one member of the expedition died during the trip.

The Lewis and Clark expedition suffered its first fatality in August 1804, when Sergeant Charles Floyd died near modern day Sioux City, Iowa. Lewis diagnosed him as having “bilious colic,” but historians now believe he suffered from a burst appendix. Over the next two years, the expedition endured everything from dysentery and snakebites to dislocated shoulders and even venereal disease, but amazingly, no one else perished before the explorers returned to St. Louis in September 1806. One of the worst injuries came during the trip home, when an enlisted man accidentally shot Lewis in the buttocks after mistaking him for an elk. Though not seriously wounded, the explorer was forced to spend a few miserable weeks lying on his belly in a canoe while the expedition floated down the Missouri River.

9. Lewis later died under mysterious circumstances.

Lewis battled depression and mood swings for most of his life, and his condition only worsened after he returned from the transcontinental expedition in 1806. The great explorer reportedly suffered from money troubles, drinking too much and struggling as the governor of Louisiana. He was twice prevented from committing suicide during an 1809 journey to Washington, but only a few days later, he was found dead in a cabin along the Natchez Trace with gunshot wounds to the head and chest. Some have since speculated he was murdered, but most historians believe he took his own life.

10. Clark adopted Sacagawea’s children.

During her time with the Corps of Discovery, Sacagawea was accompanied by her newborn son, Jean Baptiste, whom the explorers nicknamed “Pomp.” William Clark took a shine to the boy, and when Sacagawea left the expedition in August 1806, he offered to adopt him and “raise him as my own child.” Sacagawea initially turned down the offer, but she later allowed Clark to provide for her son’s education in St. Louis. Following Sacagawea’s death in 1812, Clark became the legal guardian of both Jean Baptiste and her other child, a daughter named Lisette. Little is known about what became of Lisette, but Jean-Baptiste later traveled to Europe before returning to the American frontier to work as a trapper and wilderness guide.

Lewis and Clark

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are two of the most celebrated heroes in American history for leading an extraordinary expedition. With some for tycrewmembers, known as the Corps of Discovery, they journeyed by boat, canoe, horseback, and foot for three years in uncharted territory from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific Northwest coast and back. President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826 served 1801–9 see entry in volume 1) sent them to explore and map the new American lands, find a route to the Pacific Ocean, establish an American presence in the Pacific Northwest, make friends with Native Americans, and see to what extent European influence already existed, if any.

"[At] a village of 7 houses . . . we found the Chief we had Seen at the long narrows . we entered his lodge and he gave us to eate Pounded fish, bread made of roots, Filbert nuts, & the berries . we gave to each woman of the lodge a brace of Ribon of which they were much pleased."

From William Clark's journal

Lewis and Clark shared leadership responsibilities on the expedition and worked so close in harmony that history almost considers them one. They combined their skills, frontier experience, and resourcefulness to accomplish their large and dangerous task. Lewis was the more intellectual man, while Clark possessed greater wilderness and leadership skills. They encountered some thirty Native American tribes, many of whom had never seen a white person. They produced a journal of historic importance that recorded natural and cultural conditions in the West at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Their trek represented the beginning of the great westward expansion of the United States that peaked in the mid-nineteenth century.

Little Known Facts - 3

The historic Lewis and Clark Expedition was Thomas Jefferson’s brainchild. For more that twenty years before he became president in 1801, he had entertained the idea of sending an American exploratory mission into the largely unknown, and foreign controlled, wilderness west of the nation’s Mississippi River boundary.

His earliest efforts to put in motion this visionary endeavor either came to naught or foundered before reaching the trans-Mississippi area. One such disappointment was the “Michaux Expedition” of 1793 which had been funded and launched by the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, of which Jefferson was an influential member.

The Society chose a reputable French botanist by the name of Andre Michaux, who was visiting the U.S. at the time, to head the expedition. However, Michaux became entangled in the international intrigues of the infamous “Citizen Genet Affair” and had to withdraw, thus ending a promising initiative.

Improbably, an 18-year old U. S. Army ensign by the name of Meriwether Lewis heard of the venture as it was being organized and volunteered to lead it! Passed over by the Society in favor of the more experienced French scientist, a decade later (by then a captain and President Jefferson’s personal secretary) Lewis was appointed by his mentor in 1803 to command what was eventually to become known as the “Lewis and Clark Expedition.”

Roy E. Appleman, Lewis and Clark’s Transcontinental Expedition, 1804-1806 (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1975), pp. 17-28.

Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 37 pp. 68-71.

Little Known Facts - 4

There is a durable popular notion that the Lewis and Clark Expedition was originally fielded for the purpose of exploring the Louisiana Purchase. Well . . . . . .
Yes and No. Actually, it was set in motion by President Thomas Jefferson months before the United States even knew France was willing to sell the vast western wilderness known as Louisiana and before the 15 million dollar deal was struck by America’s negotiators in Paris at the end of April 1803.

In a secret message to Congress on January 18, 1803, Jefferson sought congressional authorization of an expedition into the trans-Mississippi area “for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the U.S.” As originally conceived, the venture was to consist of 10 to 12 military volunteers and a commanding officer. The initial emphasis on confidentiality reflected concern for the fact the expedition would be operating in foreign-controlled territory (which was true at the time). Congress approved the president’s request and appropriated $2,500 to fund the secretive operation.

After Meriwether Lewis, the president’s personal secretary, was appointed commanding officer of the expedition, he spent the next five or so months making preparations to take his command into the field. He acquired weapons and related accoutrements and collected a small mountain of supplies and equipment, including a wide range of Indian gifts and trade goods to smooth his way westward. It was during that time, at the behest of President Jefferson, Lewis also received tutorials in botany, biology, medicine and celestial navigation from some of the nation’s leading natural scientists in Philadelphia.

On July 4, 1803, a day before Lewis pushed off from Washington, D.C. for Pittsburgh where he was to take possession of his flagship, a specially designed 55-foot keelboat, President Jefferson received official confirmation of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase treaty between France and the U.S. That stunning development changed the whole complexion of the expedition, effectively shifting it from a military reconnaissance into a foreign-controlled region to that of an exploration of Americanowned territory (at least to the Continental Divide). Only at that point was the Lewis and Clark Expedition committed to exploring key portions of the Louisiana Purchase and beyond.

Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), pp. 59-l01.

Little Known Facts - 6

As plans were being laid in 1803 for an American expedition across the continent and back, President Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis estimated the journey might take as long as eighteen months. Both men felt a sense of urgency to complete the preparations soon after Congress approved and funded the venture. They wanted to get the expedition into the field and as far up the Missouri River as possible before winter conditions would close the travel season and force the explorers into winter quarters.

With that timetable in mind, Lewis first went to the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in March of 1803 where he acquired 15 of the latest model .54 caliber rifles, matching accoutrements, powder, lead, knives, tomahawks and other camp equipment. While there he also worked closely with artificers designing, fabricating and testing two prototype sections of a collapsible, iron-framed boat he and his mentor had dreamed up.

Jefferson and Lewis figured a week at Harpers Ferry would be sufficient to accomplish the necessary tasks. But the week turned into two then three and, finally, four. As time sped by, the president became concerned about the delay in Lewis’s planned arrival in Philadelphia to meet with special tutors he had arranged to help the expedition’s young commander prepare for his mission. In a letter dated April 23, 1803, Jefferson complained that he “had not been able to hear any thing of you [directly] since March 7 ….” His letter and Lewis’s of April 20th from Lancaster, Pennsylvania explaining at length his accomplishments at Harpers Ferry probably crossed paths while en route to their respective destinations. Lewis likely would have felt keenly the notably gentle pressure exerted by his mentor to the effect that he should get on with the crucial preparations.

Lewis had finally left the arsenal for Lancaster where he arrived on April 19th. There he was to receive special tutoring in the techniques of celestial navigation. When that training was completed, he went on to Philadelphia to receive additional instruction in biology, botany and medical practices from President Jefferson’s learned friends, all members of the American Philosophical Society. While in Philadelphia, Lewis also bought a long list of supplies, clothing, navigation instruments, equipment, medicines, Indian gifts and trade goods.

Lewis was back in Washington, D.C. by June 19, 1803, for his final instructions from the president. He was at least three weeks “behind schedule.” He had already spent $2,324 of the $2,500 congressional appropriation and he had yet to set foot on uncharted territory. In coming months unanticipated circumstances would further delay the expedition’s arrival on the Missouri River and costs would mount.

Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), pp. 84-92.

Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents, 1783-1854 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), vol. 1, various letters and documents, pp. 37-60.

#4 The Floyd River is named after a member of the expedition

The Lewis and Clark Expedition started on May 14, 1804 as the Corps of Discovery departed from Camp Dubois. It followed the Missouri River westward and soon, it passed La Charrette, the last Euro-American settlement on the river. Sergeant Charles Floyd, one of the members of the Corps of Discovery, suffered from acute appendicitis and died on August 20, 1804. He remained the only member to die during the entire expedition. Charles Floyd was buried at a hill by the river now named as Floyd’s Bluff after him. His burial site was marked with a cedar post on which was inscribed his name and day of death. The Floyd River, a tributary of the Missouri at which the expedition camped after his death, is named after Charles Floyd.

Sometimes They Ate Horses

On occasion, members of the expedition were given permission to kill and eat one of the horses that the men used to transport their gear. One such incident occurred as the party was trekking through the Lolo Mountains of Eastern Idaho. As the group became mired in the difficult climb through snow-covered mountains, every one became quite dispirited. Eventually, a horse was killed and cooked over an open fire. This addition of fresh meat greatly restored the mens strength and vigor.

In addition to the rest of their arsenal, Lewis and Clark brought along a single air rifle for protection. The Girandoni air rifle was state-of-the-art for its time, a repeating rifle capable of firing two dozen shots in seconds. The Girandoni was in general use in the Austrian army, and useful in a hunt, but Lewis and Clark mostly used it to impress or threaten the various Native American tribes they met on the journey.


Thomas Jefferson expected the explorers to find signs of woolly mammoths.

Woolly mammoth and an American mastodon.Source

Before the two men embarked on the journey, Americans had a number of theories about the life and inhabitants of the uncharted land beyond the mountains. There were hundreds of books already written on the subject full of all kinds of speculations and wild claims. Even President Jefferson, who had a whole library of books on the frontier, thought the expedition might encounter welsh speaking Indians, large mountains of salts, giant ground sloths, and even herds of woolly mammoths.

To the disappointment of many Lewis and Clark returned with no confirmations of such stories however Lewis had brought with him a long list of previously undiscovered plants and animals including grizzly bears, mountain beavers, and coyotes.

10 Little-Known Facts About the Lewis and Clark Expedition - HISTORY

Thomas Jefferson was interested in learning more about the country west of the Mississippi River. In 1803, he persuaded Congress to pay for an expedition to explore this land. In May 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, both army officers, set out on their expedition. Their journey took more than two years, but paved the way for western settlement.

  • Lewis and Clark departed from St. Louis, rowing up the Missouri River. They spent a winter in a Mandan Indian trading village. They rode horses over the Rocky Mountains through Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon to the Pacific Ocean – a roundtrip journey of over 8,000 miles.
  • Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to map the region. He hoped that they would find a river running from the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean, which people could travel on. He also asked them to study and collect natural resources, including rocks, plants, and animals. He wanted them to befriend the native tribes and learn about their languages and customs.
  • Lewis and Clark took six months to prepare for their journey, gathering supplies and recruiting the 31 men who would accompany them. It was hard to know exactly what to take since no one had ever explored the area before.
  • At the time, Europeans had only explored as far as the Missouri River. A few had also ventured along the Columbia River into what is now central Oregon. Thomas Jefferson thought Lewis and Clark might find wooly mammoths and active volcanoes. Instead, they found 300 plant and animal species unknown to science at the time 50 Indian tribes and the massive, rugged Rocky Mountains.
  • After arriving at the Pacific Ocean, Lewis and Clark built Fort Clatsop and spent the winter in present-day Oregon. They split up on their return to the East so that they could explore more land. Lewis and his men were attacked by Blackfoot Indians trying to steal from them. Two Indians were killed. Lewis was later shot in the leg by one of his own men.
  • The group were given a hero’s welcome when they returned to Washington D.C. Lewis was given 1,600 acres of land, a generous salary, and the role of governor of the Louisiana Territory.

Questions and Answers

Question: Did any women join the expedition?

Answer: Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian was the only woman to go on the expedition. She played a vital role in finding food, navigating rough terrain, and negotiating with the native tribes.

Visit Scholastic to play an interactive game and pretend you’re on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

10 Little-Known Facts About the Lewis and Clark Expedition - HISTORY

Please note: The audio information from the video is included in the text below.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
by Unknown
  • Occupation: Explorers
  • Born: August 18, 1774 in Ivy, Virginia (Lewis)
    August 1, 1770 in Ladysmith, Virginia (Clark)
  • Died: October 11, 1809 in Hohenwald, Tennessee (Lewis)
    September 1, 1838 in St. Louis, Missouri (Clark)
  • Best known for: Explored the Louisiana Territory and Western North America

Lewis and Clark were asked by President Thomas Jefferson to explore and map the wild west of North America. They traveled across the country to the Pacific Ocean and back again.

Who were Lewis and Clark?

Captain Meriwether Lewis (1774 - 1809) was President Thomas Jefferson's private secretary. He was in charge of the expedition to explore the newly purchased Louisiana Territory. He asked his friend William Clark to help.

Lieutenant William Clark (1770 - 1838) served in the United States Army. In preparing for the expedition Clark was responsible for hiring and training the men, while Lewis gathered the equipment and supplies they would need.

Detail of "Lewis & Clark at Three Forks"
by Edgar Samuel Paxson

Setting off to explore

Lewis and Clark, together with their team of over 40 men, began their expedition at the city of St. Louis on May 14, 1804. They packed lots of equipment for their trip including rifles, food, and warm clothing. They even brought lots of glass beads and trinkets so they could trade with Indians along the way.

They started out traveling up the Missouri River. They had one large boat called a barge and two smaller boats called pirogues. They were traveling against the current, so they had to use long poles to push the boats or even ropes to pull the boats from the banks.

Sacagawea and the Native Americans

Lewis and Clark met many Native American tribes along the way. Although there were some tense moments, they made friends and traded with many different tribes. They even spent the first winter with the Mandan nation. There they met a fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau and his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea.

Sacagawea joined the expedition as an interpreter. She helped the expedition in many ways as they traveled, including showing them edible plants and helping to keep peace and trade with different tribes.

Without help from the Native American tribes as well as Sacagawea, the expedition would have surely failed.

The Great Falls and the Rockies

As the expedition continued up the Missouri River into what is today the state of Montana, they ran into the Great Falls. It took the men nearly a month to carry their boats for miles around the Great Falls.

Next, Lewis and Clark came to the Rocky Mountains. These mountains were much more difficult to traverse than they first expected. When they finally made it across the Rockies, they met the Nez Perce people, who helped them with food and shelter.

It was in November in 1805, around a year and a half after leaving St. Louis, that they finally reached the Pacific Ocean. They stayed that winter near the ocean and started home again in March of 1806. It only took them around six months for the return journey.

Watch the video: 10 Cool Facts About The Lewis u0026 Clark Expedition (August 2022).