In the spring of 1804, at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson, a party of explorers called the Corps of Discovery crossed the Mississippi River and started up the Missouri, heading west into the newly acquired Louisiana Territory.
The expedition, led by two remarkable and utterly different commanders the brilliant but troubled Meriwether Lewis and his trustworthy, gregarious friend William Clark was to be the United States' first exploration into unknown spaces. The unlikely crew came from every corner of the young nation: soldiers from New Hampshire and Pennsylvania and Kentucky, French Canadian boatmen, several sons of white fathers and Indian mothers, a slave named York, and eventually a Shoshone Indian woman, Sacagawea, who brought along her infant son.
Together they would cross the continent, searching for the fabled Northwest Passage that had been the great dream of explorers since the time of Columbus. Along the way they would face incredible hardship, disappointment, and danger; record in their journals hundreds of animals and plants previously unknown to science; encounter a dizzying diversity of Indian cultures; and, most of all, share in one of America's most enduring adventures. Their story may have passed into national mythology, but never before has their experience been rendered as vividly, in words and pictures, as in this marvelous homage by Dayton Duncan.
Plentiful excerpts from the journals kept by the two captains and four enlisted men convey the raw emotions, turbulent spirits, and constant surprises of the explorers, who each day confronted the unknown with fresh eyes. An elegant preface by Ken Burns, as well as contributions from Stephen E. Ambrose, William Least Heat-Moon, and Erica Funkhouser, enlarge upon important threads in Duncan's narrative, demonstrating the continued potency of events that took place almost two centuries ago. And a wealth of paintings, photographs, journal sketches, maps, and film images from the PBS documentary lends this historic, nation-redefining milestone a vibrancy and immediacy to which no American will be immune.
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|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Ken Burns, director and producer of Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, has been making award-winning documentary films for more than twenty years, including the landmark PBS series The Civil War and Baseball, The West, and Thomas Jefferson. The subject of his next biographical film will be Frank Lloyd Wright, and he is currently producing a series on the history of jazz.
Read an Excerpt
With the nearly four dozen men they had recruited on their way, Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1803-4 at Camp Dubois, a collection of huts they built on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, upstream from St. Louis. They bided their time drilling the men, gathering information from fur traders about the route ahead, and purchasing final supplies, including nearly two tons each of flour and salt pork, fifty pounds of coffee, and one hundred gallons of whiskey.
Because of the Louisiana Purchase, their duties were now diplomatic as well as exploratory. On March 10 the two captains attended formal ceremonies in St. Louis officially transferring upper Louisiana from France to the United States, and in April they delayed their departure to arrange for a delegation of Osage chiefs to travel to Washington and meet with President Jefferson.
Finally, on May 14, 1804, at four o'clock in the afternoon, the Corps of Discovery set off from Camp Dubois "under a jentle brease," Clark wrote and sailed across the Mississippi and four and a half miles up the Missouri. They stopped for several days at the town of St. Charles, whose citizens staged a ball in their honor, and stopped again at Femme Osage, not far from where the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone had built his final home. On May 25 they reached La Charette, a cluster of seven dwellings less than sixty miles up the Missouri but, as Sergeant Charles Floyd noted in his journal that night, "the last settlement of whites on this river."
May 28th, 1804. Rained hard all last night. Some thunder and lightening . . . found Several articles Wet, Some Tobacco Spoiled.
May 29th. Rained last night. . . . The Musquetors are verry bad. Made 4 miles.
May 30th. Rained all last night. Set out at 6 o'clock after a heavy Shower and proceeded on. . . . A heavy wind accompanied with rain & hail. We Made 14 miles to day. The river Continue[d] to rise, the count[r]y on each Side appear[ed] full of Water.
May 31st. Rained the greater part of last night. The wind . . . blew with great force untile 5 oClock p.m. which obliged us to lay by, -William Clark
Bad weather greeted them nearly every morning. Mosquitoes some as big as houseflies, according to Clark swarmed around their faces; they were "so numerous," Lewis said, "that we frequently get them in our throats as we breathe." (They covered their bodies with bear grease during the day, and at night were thankful for Lewis's foresight in purchasing mosquito netting.)
But their biggest obstacle was the Missouri itselfbig, broad, choked with snags, and pushing relentlessly at more than five miles an hour in the opposite direction of their destination. The keelboat was fifty-five feet long and eight feet wide, capable of carrying ten tons of supplies. Maneuvering it against the insistent current was a constant challenge. Occasionally, when the wind was right, they could sail it up the river. More often, they had to use oars or setting poles, avoiding the main channel by moving slowly from eddy to eddy. Sometimes, the only way to proceed was cordelling the men wading along the muddy banks and pulling the heavy boat forward with a rope. (The two smaller boats, called pirogues, also required sails, oars, and brute strength to be maneuvered upstream.)
Drifting logs rammed the boats. Cordelling ropes broke. The mast caught in an overhanging tree and snapped off, causing a day's delay to make a new one. The keelboat got stuck on sandbars and once was nearly swamped by a collapsing riverbank. "The base of the riverbanks being composed of a fine light sand, is easily removed by the water," Lewis explained. "It quickly undermines them [and] the banks being unable to support themselves longer, tumble into the river with tremendious force, distroying every thing within their reach."
Fourteen miles was considered a good day's progress. After two long months, they were still in what is now Missouri.
The men suffered from snakebites, dislocated shoulders, sore joints, and occasional sunstroke. Others broke out in boils from a bad diet and spending so much time in damp clothing. Their drinking water came from the river: each cup, one man recorded, was half mud and ooze. Virtually all of them got dysentery.
Lewis, who had learned the rudiments of herbal healing from his mother, lanced the boils and applied a mixture of elm bark and cornmeal to the sores. He treated snakebites with a poultice of bark and gunpowder. Following Dr. Benjamin Rush's instructions, he bled his patients frequently. And he freely dispensed some of the six hundred pills the doctor had sold him: laxatives so powerful that the men called them "Rush's Thunderbolts."
July 4th. A Snake Bit Jo. Fields on the Side of the foot, which Sweled much; apply Barks to Coor [cure]. . . . Passed a Creek on the South Side about 15 yards wide Coming out of an extensive Prarie. As the Creek has no name and this Day is the 4th of July we name this Independance Creek.
July 11th and 12th. Set out errly this morning [and] proceeded on. . . . Came to about 12 oclock P.m. for the porpos of resting on[e] or two days. Ouer object in Delaying hear is to tak Some observations and rest the men who are much fategeued. Armes and amunition enspected [and] all in Good order. The men [are] all sick.
Sergeant Charles Floyd
Charles Floyd, one of the men in what was called the "permanent party," was twenty-two years old at the time, "a young man of much merit," Lewis noted. He was born in Kentucky and may have been a distant relative of Clark's.Beyond that, not much is known about him or the others: "stout, healthy, unmarried men," Lewis called them, "accustomed to the woods and capable of bearing bodily fatigue."
They came from every corner of the young nation. John Ordway was from Hebron, New Hampshire. Joseph Whitehouse was a Virginian. Patrick Gass came from Irish stock in Pennsylvania. One man had been born in Germany; several in Canada. Three were the sons of white fathers and Indian mothers. Reuben and Joseph Field were brothers. Clark brought along a black man named York, a slave he had owned since childhood.
There were nine French Canadian engagés and Lewis's big Newfoundland dog, Seaman. Some of the men had previously worked as gunsmiths, blacksmiths, carpenters, millers, and tailors. Many had been happily pawned off on the expedition by the frontier army, including one private, Clark said, who "never drinks water."
Orderly Book, May 17th. A Sergeant and four men of the Party . . . will convene at 11 oClock to day on the quarter Deck of the Boat, and form themselves into a Court martial to hear and determine the evidence . . . against William Werner & Hugh Hall . . . & John Collins. . . .
Orderly Book, June 29th . . . Ordered. A Court martial will set this day . . . for the trial of John Collins and Hugh Hall . . . charged with getting drunk on his post this morning. . . .
Orderly Book, Camp New Island, July 12th, 1804. A Court ma[r]tial consisting of the two commanding officers will convene this day at 1 OCk. P.M. for the trial of . . . such prisoners as are Guilty of Capatol Crimes, and under the rules and articles of War punishable by Death.
Alexander Willard . . . charged with lying down and sleeping on his post whilst a sentinel. . . . To this charge the prisoner pleads: Guilty of Lying Down; and not Guilty, of Going to Sleep.
. . . The court . . . are of oppinion that the Prisoner . . . is guilty [and] do Sentence him to receive One hundred lashes on his bear back, at four different times in equal proportion and order that the punishment Commence this evening at Sunset.