The New Student's Reference Work/Lewis and Clark Expedition

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Lewis and Clark Expedition. The purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France by the United States in 1803 was anticipated by President Jefferson. As soon as the business was concluded, he recommended to Congress the advisability of exploring our new possessions to determine their character, extent and value; and he named his own private secretary, Meriwether Lewis, a young Virginian, and Captain William Clark of the regular army as competent to lead such a hazardous enterprise. The expedition to the headwaters of the Missouri and thence across the mountains to the Pacific was authorized and immediately organized. A company of 30 were selected — nine hardy young backwoodsmen from Kentucky, 14 soldiers from the army, two Canadian voyageurs, an Indian interpreter, a veteran hunter from the plains and a negro servant — in all, 30 men. In the summer of 1803 they proceeded to St. Louis and wintered at the mouth of the Missouri. In the spring of 1804 the party embarked in boats on the broad current of the “Big Muddy.” They spent some days with Daniel Boone, who was then living at the last outpost of civilization in the Femme Osage district on the Missouri. He advised the explorers to turn back, saying that no white party could make its way through the savage Sioux of Dakota. This was not cheering advice from the most daring and renowned Indian-fighter and hunter in the west, but the intrepid explorers refused to turn back. By October they reached a village of friendly Mandan Indians, near the site of Bismarck, N. D., and decided to camp there for the winter.

None of these plains Indians had ever seen the Great Falls of the Missouri or the western mountains, and they tried to induce the explorers to abandon the enterprise. Living in the village were a young French-Canadian fur-trader and his Indian wife. Daughter of a Shoshone chief, a mountain tribe, she had been captured in a raid by the Sioux five years before and sold to the French voyageur. Light of foot, merry of heart and with a singing voice, she had learned French chansons from her affectionate white husband, and was called Bird-Woman by the Mandans, who regarded her as a superior being. She had long before given up the idea of ever again seeing her old home in the Idaho mountains, when these white explorers revived the hope. Chaboneau, her husband, knew the plains, she the mountains. Together they undertook to guide the party to the Pacific. The leaders of the expedition demurred at taking a woman with a baby, but she argued with convincing eloquence. She could march, she could row, she could swim, she could load a canoe, catch fish, shoot game, set up a tent, cook, make a campfire and moccasins. She had noted the courses of the mountain streams and passes and the Sioux and Shoshone trails. She knew the habits of mountain animals, where to find food in the barren land, water in the desert. And she could carry her baby on her back — he should trouble no one.

It is well that she prevailed. In April, 1805, Bird-Woman stepped into one of the six canoes that pushed out into the Missouri. Within a week they reached the Yellowstone, and were climbing the long slope. Boats had to be towed, hunters foraged for game. Rocks and thorns wore out the moccasins as fast as the industrious Bird Woman could make them. Late in May they had their first glimpse of the snowcapped peaks of the Rockies — then that burst of glory above the plains — the Great Falls — a veil of spray 80 feet high descending between lofty cliffs of solid rock. It was Chaboneau who showed the explorers how to make wheels of cross-sections of the cottonwood, on which to carry the boats the 20 miles around the Falls. But from that on Bird-Woman was the guide. They had passed the gate of the Rockies and were in a labyrinth of streams and passes. At the three forks of the Missouri she took the South Fork — the Shoshone trail. Straight as an arrow she made her way back to her old home. After that long journey the sight of the tepees and grazing ponies in the Shoshone valley was a welcome sight. Leaving Bird Woman and Chaboneau to visit her brother, the chief, Shoshone guides led the explorers across the coast-range to the Pacific. The last stage of the journey was by boat on Columbia River. They reached its mouth and camped on the Pacific Ocean beach, Nov. 15, 1805. There they spent the winter. Chaboneau and Bird. Woman returned across the mountains with them to the Mandan village in the spring, and were paid $500 for their serivices, a sum sufficient to build them a good cabin and buy many horses and ponies. A statue of Bird Woman, with her pappoose on her back, was one of the attractive features of the Lewis and Clark Exposition at Portland, Oregon, in 1905.

The explorers reached the Mississippi again in September, 1806, very much to the astonishment of everyone, including Daniel Boone. By many they had been given up for dead. It was scarcely believed that, though they had gone through incredible toil and hardship, they had been in very little real danger and had not encountered the terrible Sioux. The reports of the expedition excited the liveliest interest — the vast, fertile plains, the lofty mountains and the beautiful valleys and mild climate of the Pacific Coast fired the imagination. The members of the exploring party were given honors and large grants of land. Mr. Lewis was appointed governor of the Territory of Missouri The arduous labors and mental strain of the expedition, however, had unbalanced his ardent, active mind and, in a fit of insanity, in October, 1809, he committed suicide at the age of 35. Captain Clark returned to the army. Settlement of the Missouri River country was steadily resisted by the Sioux until they were conquered in the 70's. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 was followed by the building of the Union Pacific railroad across the old Louisiana Territory. It was completed in 1869. The Northern Pacific of the 80's and the Great Northern, terminating at Puget Sound and opened in 1893, now cross the region explored by Lewis and Clark more than a hundred years ago. The natural wonders and beauties of the Yellowstone region, first discovered by them, are now preserved in the National Park.