In January 2004 I wrote the first of what I promised would be a series of columns commemorating the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's exploration of the Missouri River. Since then, I've gotten many letters asking when the next installment would come. I've intentionally waited 18 months to dramatize the duration of this incredible adventure. Today, in an extremely abbreviated form, I'll recount the first half of the journey, 200 years after the fact.
First, recall the purpose of the expedition. In the wake of the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country for less than 4 cents per acre, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned his personal secretary Captain Meriwether Lewis to explore the Missouri to find a northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean.
Lewis recruited a trusted friend and skilled map maker, Captain William Clark, to join him, and together they made a formidable and ultimately successful team.
How it began
Though the journey began officially May 22, 1804, when they entered the Missouri River, Lewis left Washington, D.C., for Pittsburgh on July 5, 1803. He arrived in Pittsburgh on July 15 and began preparing for the trip. On August 31, he began his descent of the Ohio River.
On Sept. 7, he stopped in Wheeling, W.Va., "a pretty considerable village of 50 houses." On Sept. 13, the sky along the Ohio River was obscured by a massive flock of migrating passenger pigeons. And on Oct. 15, near Louisville, Ky., Lewis and Clark met.
They reached the mouth of the Mississippi River on Nov. 13, and a week later headed north toward St. Louis. They established a winter camp at the mouth of the Wood River opposite the mouth of the Missouri.
Breaking winter camp
After months of foul weather and time spent gathering supplies and crew, the Corps of Discovery began their ascent up the Missouri on May 22, 1804.
On July 21, after 68 days, they reached the Platte River, 640 miles upstream. On Aug. 2, they encountered the first Indians they would meet along the way. Most, they learned later, had been out on the prairie hunting buffalo.
On Aug. 8, the Missouri was covered in a blanket of white three miles long and 70 yards wide -- a flock of molting white pelicans. A big part of Lewis' responsibility was collecting and cataloging the plants and animals along the Missouri. His journals record the first glimpse of a coyote by an American on Aug. 12. He called it a "prairie wolf." On Aug. 23, they tasted buffalo meat for the first time.
Lewis spent much of the trip on foot along the river so he could describe the new territory. He spotted prairie dogs on Sept. 7, and a week later he added "goat" (it was a pronghorn) and white-tailed jackrabbit to his growing list of species.
They spent the month of October forging northward through South Dakota. On the 20th, they had the first of many terrifying encounters with grizzly bears.
On Oct. 24 they met the Mandan Indians of central North Dakota, and shortly thereafter began building Fort Mandan, their winter camp. The next day proved to be the luckiest of the entire journey. They hired French Canadian trader Toussaint Charbonneau as an interpreter. But his pregnant teenage Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, was part of the deal. It probably seemed risky to take a pregnant teenager on such an perilous journey, but Sacagawea proved invaluable as a guide, interpreter and food gatherer. Without her, Lewis and Clark may have never crossed the Rockies.
On Feb. 11, with Lewis by her side, Sacagawea gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Finally, on April 7, 1805, the expedition broke winter camp and continued up river toward the Rocky Mountains.
Next month, I'll revisit the journey and describe some of the surprises and challenges the summer and fall of 1805 held for Lewis and Clark. In the meantime, to learn more on your own, consult "The Journals of Lewis and Clark," abridged by Anthony Brandt (2002); "Undaunted Courage" by Stephen Ambrose (1996); and "Lewis and Clark -- The Journey of the Corps of Discovery," directed by Ken Burns (1997, 4 hours, DVD).
XSend questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, R.D. 5, Cameron, W.Va., 26033 or via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.