Thursday, February 3, 2011

Lewis and Clark Defined the Nation's Destiny - searching for a Northwest Passage - Atlantic Ocean to Pacific Ocean

“Great joy… we are in view of the Ocian,… this great Pacific Ocian which we been so long anxious to see, and the… roaring or noise made by the waves breaking on the rocky shores… may be heard distinctly,” William Clark wrote in his journal, after more than 18 months of cross country travel.

Sunlight filters through the trees and into a quiet glade, highlighting the leafy ground. As you enter the log dwellings at Fort Clatsop, near the Oregon coast, you must duck low hung doorways to peer inside and comprehend what life must have been like for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Their expedition team wintered here in 1805-06, following their trail-blazing journey from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean, a round trip that became an 8,000-mile journey.

In the hope of finding a Northwest Passage, President Thomas Jefferson sought exploration of the vast country west of the Mississippi and chose his secretary Captain Meriwether Lewis for the task. Lewis invited his friend Lieutenant William Clark to share the leadership. Both came with a military background with Indian tribes.

President Jefferson felt the expedition’s mission was not only to chart the new territory of the United States after the Louisiana Purchase, but also would define the nation’s destiny. The expedition was the first official exploration of unknown territory undertaken by United States government. The requested funding endowed by Congress was $2,500, but the final cost would be nearer $40,000.

Maps of the era depicting the west were sketchy and in some cases totally false. The lack of detail in western mapping, suggested the enormous task faced by the expedition. Many maps showed the Rocky Mountains as narrow and undaunting. Crossing the Rocky Mountains was to be the hardest part of the explorers’ journey.

In December 1803, Clark began training the men who had volunteered to go on the expedition, turning them into an efficient team. The youngest man, George Shannon, was 17 years old, the oldest, John Shields, was 35. The average age of the men was 27.

During the winter of 1803-1804 the men build a fort, calling it “Camp River Dubois.” Located on the Wood River at the fork of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, north of St. Louis, Missouri, it was across the river in Illinois. By the spring 1804, using the $2,500.00 Congress apportioned, Lewis and Clark had accumulated more than ten tons of goods for the trip.

On May 14, 1804, William Clark and the Corps of Discovery set off from Camp River Dubois to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean and a week later Meriwether Lewis joined the group in St. Charles, Missouri. The party of 45 began their journey with a 55-foot-covered keelboat and two smaller boats.

The party was lucky to average 10-15 miles a day, as travel up the Missouri River was difficult in part due to the river’s strong current and many snags, such as floating trees capable of sinking a boat. In the spring of 1805, the keelboat would be returned to St. Louis and the Corps of Discovery continued on in canoes and on foot.

July 4, 1804 the Corps of Discovery neared what is now Atchinson, Kansas. Here they observed the first Fourth of July ever celebrated west of the Mississippi by sharing an extra ration of whiskey, firing the keelboat’s cannon and fittingly naming a stream “Independence Creek.”

As the party moved into the Great Plains, they began seeing animals unknown in the East: coyotes, pronghorn antelope and black tailed deer. They were also intrigued by the little prairie dogs that built vast underground villages. When the men encountered fierce grizzly bears, which attacked them, they discovered grizzly bears were truly the kings of the western plains. In all they would describe 122 animals that previously had not been chronicled.

During the winter of 1804-1805, Lewis and Clark recruited as an interpreter, a Frenchman by the name of Toussaint Charbonneau, who had lived with the Hidatsa (sometimes referred to as the Minnetari) Indians for many years. They not only got Charbonneau, but his 16-year-old Shoshoni Indian wife, Sacagawea, and their newborn baby boy, Jean Baptiste. Captured by a raiding party of Hidatsa warriors five years earlier, Sacagawea had been abducted from her homeland in the Rocky Mountains and taken to the Knife River village. Lewis and Clark knew that they would probably encounter her people in the Rocky Mountains and that the Indians there might be able to provide horses for their overland travel.

Once the corps of Discovery were in the country of Sacagawea’s people, the young Indian woman became invaluable when it was discovered the chief was her brother. The chief provided the party with guides and horses for the difficult crossing of the lofty Bitterroot Range.

Lewis celebrated his 31s birthday August 18, 1805, and wrote in his journal, “I had as yet done but little, very little indeed.” He vows “in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.”

October 16, 1805 the party reached the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River, where Clark estimated he saw 10,000 pounds of salmon drying in one Indian village. On the 18th, Clark observes Mount Hood in the distance. Seen and named in 1792 by a British sea captain, it is a fixed point on the expedition’s map.

While traveling the Columbia River Gorge, the Corps of Discovery explored and camped on both sides of the expansive river. In what is now Clark County Washington, the explorer’s recorded in their journals five campsites and assessed the area, as the best location for settlement on the western side of the continental divide. In 1825, Hudson’s Bay built Fort Vancouver here to serve the Oregon Territory and protect British claim.

When Clark made his “Great joy… ” journal entry in November 1805, the party had mistaken an area 25 miles from the actual mouth of the Columbia River, which today borders the states of Oregon and Washington, for their long sought goal of the Pacific Ocean.

Clark will later estimate they had traveled 4,162 miles from the mouth of the Missouri to the Pacific. His estimate, based on dead reckoning, will turn out to be within 40 miles of the actual distance.

Bad weather pinned the party in the river’s gorge for two wet and hungry weeks before Lewis, said to be the party’s grand strategist, set out in a small dugout in hopes of finding a suitable winter campsite for the group.

Amid the coastal wetlands he located high ground surrounded by lush old growth forest, south of what is now Astoria and north of what is now the town of Seaside, an area at the northwestern corner of what is today the state of Oregon.

The final decision to make this their western most headquarters was made by a vote of the entire party on November 24, 1805, including the young Indian woman Sacagawea. The log fort they built was named in honor of the local Clatsop Indians. From December 7, 1805 to March 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery wintered at Fort Clatsop.

Judging the selection of this site, Clark wrote in his journal December 7, 1805, “This is certainly the most eligible Situation for our purposes of any in its neighborhood,”

Along one of Seaside’s quiet residential side streets, in view of the ocean, visitors can view the original site of the Corps of Discovery’s winter “Salt Works” or “Salt Camp.”

Lewis journal entry for January 1, 1806 read, “This morning I was awoke at an early hour by the discharge of a Volley of small arms, which were fired by our party… to usher in the new year… at present we were content with eating our boiled Elk and… Solacing our thirst with our only beverage pure water.”

The Corps of Discovery’s winter stay at Fort Clatsop was dull, dreary and wet, all but 12 days of their 106-day sojourn it rained, but it gave the party time to organize their return trip. “At this place we… wintered and remained… and have lived as well as we had a right to expect,” William Clark wrote in his journal before the Corps of Discovery broke fort and started up the Columbia River for the backtrack home.

As the party set out on their return, they camped in the delta area of the Columbia River Gorge, east of present day Metro Portland-Vancouver. A traveling party of Indians informed them game was scarce upstream, so the explorers spent additional time here bagging game for food and clothing.

While it took 18 months to reach the Pacific, the return trip was made in a third of the time, leaving Fort Clatsop on March 23, 1806; they arrived back in St. Louis on September 23 that year. Both Lewis and Clark returned as heroes following a journey that took two years, four months and sixteen days.

In the nation’s Capitol, President Jefferson praised the men’s efforts, stating, “It is but justice to say that Messrs. Lewis and Clark and their brave companions have by this arduous service deserved well of their country.”

Jefferson rewarded both men with appointments. Lewis to become governor of the new Louisiana Territory and Clark became brigadier general of the militia and principal Indian agent.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition failed to find a Northwest Passage, but they shaped the boundaries and the future of the United States. After Clark’s refined map was published in 1814, the first to accurately display the inner continent of the American West, settlers and traders began traveling over the route he and Lewis had blazed.

Their expedition also contributed useful background for the United States to assert claim to the Oregon country. During the Lewis and Clark bicentennial from 2003-2006, millions of tourists, mostly history buffs, visited communities along the 3,700-mile trail and took part in local celebrations. These celebrations were a shared 200 anniversary with Native Americans’ and white’s joining together.

Imagine standing where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and most of the Corps of Discovery actually stood and lived. The Lewis and Clark interpretive at Fort Clatsop, offers a full-scale replica fort on the original site.

After 1806, the forest and elements soon reclaimed the original fort, but in 1955, using Clark’s sketches a replica was built on the same site and is managed by the National Park Service. Dressed in buckskins, rangers reenact what life might have been like for the explorers.

Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area remains one of the most beautiful places along the Lewis and Clark Trail. On both sides of the gorge there are several interpretation museums, including the Maryhill (WA) Museum, the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center at The Dalles, Oregon and the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center at Stevenson, Washington.

There is something extra special about seeing places along the trail Lewis and Clark traveled t through the eyes of a child, making this a great place trip to take with your children or grandchildren. The story of Lewis and Clark offers one of courage in the face of overwhelming forces. Whether you choose to travel the entire route Lewis and Clark traveled or trek portions of the trail, there is always something interesting do and see along the trail the early explorers blazed.

Kathy Manney – Kathy Manney was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, but has spent her adult life living in Asia and throughout the United States. She enjoys …

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