Lewis & Clark

Common Questions & Answers about Lewis and Clark

Orville D. Menard, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Board of Directors, Douglas County Historical Society
Board of Directors, Prospect Hill Cemetery
© August 2003, DCHS
Listed below are common questions about the Lewis & Clark Expedition. They were prepared by Orville Menard, Ph.D., author of Rulo to Lynch with Lewis and Clark: A Guide and Narrative, a 90-page book published in 2003 for the benefit of the Douglas County Historical Society.
What were the ages of the Corps of Discovery members?

When they left Camp Wood for the Pacific Ocean, Clark was 33 years old and Lewis was 29. George Shannon was the youngest at 18, and John Shields probably the eldest at 35. Sacagawea’s exact birth date is unknown but she is thought to have been born in 1787 or 1788, making her 17 or 18 years old when she left Fort Mandan in April of 1805. York’s age is unknown but he was probably a few years younger than Clark.

What kind of boats did the Corps of Discovery use?

One keelboat, two pirogues, several dugouts made from trees, Indian canoes, rafts, and bullboats (watercraft of buffalo skins and willow reeds). The keelboat was fifty-five feet long, eight feet wide at the beam, drew three to five feet of water when loaded, carried twelve to fourteen tons of cargo, and a crew of up to twenty-seven. It was equipped with twenty-two oars according to Clark, and had a mast and sail (although seldom used). The men sometimes “poled” by placing the padded end of a long pole in their arm pits and the other end in the river bed, then walking from the front to the back of the keelboat—cleats were on the walkway for better traction. Cordelling involved towing the keelboat with a rope attached to its bow. Placed apart at short intervals the men, rope in hand, scrambled among obstacles on the shore, or struggled with unsure footing in the water. The keelboat was sent back to St. Louis from Fort Mandan with specimens and written records in the spring of 1805. What happened to it then is unknown.

The red pirogue [pee-row] (pirogues were flat-bottomed boats with shallow draft) was forty-two or so feet long, had a mast and sail, seven oars, listed eight engagés on the Detachment Order of May 26, 1804, and held about nine tons of cargo. The craft was beached and secured at the Marias River on June 10, 1805, but when the men returned a little over a year later they found that the boat was “decayed” and unusable.

Estimates of the white pirogue’s length vary from thirty-five to thirty-nine feet. It had a mast and sail, six oars, listed six soldiers on the May 26 Detachment Order, and carried some eight tons of cargo. It was put ashore at the Lower Portage at Great Falls on June 18, 1805, covered with brush, and retrieved a year later on the way back to St. Louis.

It has been said that the larger pirogue was painted red to make it easier to see and traveled in advance of the white craft. French-Canadian voyageurs manned the more visible red pirogue and less experienced soldiers in the trailing white one were thus able to watch and learn. In addition to being rowed, the pirogues and dugouts were also towed and poled.

During late June and early July 1805, the Corps endured a laborious portage of several days to cover the eighteen miles necessary to get around the Great Falls in Montana (Lower Portage Camp to White Bear Islands, Upper Portage Camp). Portages of shorter distances were necessary in the course of the journey.

An iron boat, designed and named by Lewis the Experiment, consisted of a disassembled iron frame to be put together and covered by bark or skins after portaging the Great Falls. When it was assembled near the Upper Portage it leaked badly because of inadequate waterproofing–much to Lewis’s disappointment. The next day, July 10, 1805, the boat was taken apart and placed in a cache. On the return journey when the Experiment’s parts were uncovered they were found to have rusted. What happened to them is unknown and their fate “is something of a Holy Grail of Lewis and Clark scholars and enthusiasts.” The iron boat was thirty-six feet long, a little over four feet wide and about two feet deep.

When not in the boats the men walked or rode horses. Lewis usually walked while Clark stayed on the keelboat.

What is the Corps of Discovery?

It is the name of the expedition led by Lewis and Clark to explore west of the Missouri River in search of a waterway to the Pacific Ocean.

Lewis’s initial reference to the “corps of volunteers for North West Discovery” was in a Detachment Order dated August 26, 1804, appointing Patrick Gass as a Sergeant. In a prospectus for publication of Gass’s journal it was shortened to Corps of Discovery.

How many died during the expedition?

One member of the Corps of Discovery, Sergeant Charles Floyd, died of natural causes, probably of appendicitis. One, maybe two, Native Americans died. During an attempted theft of the Lewis and Clark party’s rifles and horses by Piegan Indians in Montana on July 27, 1806, Reuben Field stabbed one to death and Lewis shot another, possibly fatally.

Was a doctor taken along as part of the unit?

No, army regulations provided for one “surgeon” for each forty-five soldiers, and Secretary of War Henry Dearborn had authorized only twelve enlisted men and two officers. Moreover, Jefferson had little faith in the doctors of the time (with good reason, many probably did more harm than good with their bleedings, emetics, and purgatives).

Consequently the Captains became the “medical officers” of the expedition.

Who were the engagés?

Lewis and Clark needed men who knew the Missouri River and Indian languages and hired several experienced French-Canadian voyageurs for their skills and knowledge. Their number varied during the journey, as men left or were added on the journey upstream to the Mandan villages. Five of them went with the permanent party to the Pacific Ocean, Toussaint Charbonneau and Georges Drouillard as civilians, and three who had enlisted in the army for the expedition: Pierre Cruzatte, François Labiche, and Jean Baptiste Lepage. Drouillard, who was half French-half Shawnee, became one of Lewis and Clark’s most valuable men due to his knowledge of sign language and hunting prowess.

What became of the personnel of the Corps after the Expedition?

Records of the era are scanty and little is known of what happened to them after their perilous journey. Of the soldiers, there was one probable suicide (Lewis), two went into politics (Clark and George Shannon), ten became settlers, and ten or so returned to the mountains where Indians killed four of them. The fate of the rest is unknown.

Information on the voyageurs is even more scarce. It is known that the Blackfeet killed Cruzatte, Drouillard, and Alexander Carson. Charbonneau went on to a long life as a trader and interpreter, marrying again three years before his death at age eighty.

Sacagawea is thought to have died in 1812 (about twenty-five years old) of the “putrid fever” at Fort Manuel, just below the North Dakota/South Dakota border. Another version has her dying at about one hundred years of age on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. There are more statues in the U.S. of Sacagawea than of any other woman.

Her son Jean Baptiste received an education in St. Louis thanks to Clark, and spent six years in Europe with Prince Paul of Wurttemberg. For most of his life he was a mountain man and guide, dying in 1866 in Oregon.

York, who had experienced a taste of life as a free man, asked for his freedom after the expedition, but Clark refused him until sometime after 1811. After a brief unsuccessful effort at being a waggoner, he died of the cholera in Tennessee on his way back to Clark in St. Louis, according to Clark. Another version has him returning to the west to live with the Crow Indians in North-Central Wyoming.

The fate of Lewis’s dog Seaman is unknown. Lewis last mentions him on July 15, 1806.

Lewis was appointed by Jefferson to be Governor of the Territory of Upper Louisiana. He died in 1809 on the Natchez Trace, about sixty miles southwest of today’s Nashville, Tennessee. There is controversy as to whether he died by his own hand or was murdered.

Jefferson appointed Clark a brigadier general of the militia, named him Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Territory of Louisiana, and in 1813 appointed him the territorial governor of Louisiana. From 1820 to his death in 1838 he devoted himself to Indian affairs.

On January 17, 2001, President Clinton promoted Clark to the rank of Captain in the Regular Army, and promoted Sacagawea and York to honorary sergeants in the Regular Army.

What was Fort Clatsop and where was it?

It was the 1805-1806 winter camp built by the Corps near today’s Astoria, Oregon. Named for a helpful nearby tribe, it was fifty feet square with a palisade for protecting the Corps and its two rows of quarters on either side of a parade ground.

Clark recorded they were there from December 7, 1805, to their departure date of March 23, 1806, following a wet and miserable winter.

What are the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition?

President Jefferson’s instructions contained references to keeping notes and a journal during the expedition. Gary Moulton’s magisterially edited thirteen volumes (the first one is an atlas) of the Lewis and Clark Journals display the results of the two captains, three sergeants, and a private fulfilling the President’s enjoinder. Therein is the written record of the Corps of Discovery’s trip to the Pacific Ocean and back, chronologically recording findings and events along the way. They present to us map sketches, astronomical observations, the weather, Indian tribes, streams and rivers, tables of distance, and describe plants and animals. Descriptions of their daily experiences are invaluable for enriching our knowledge of their transcontinental journey. Clark is the faithful and major contributor; for unknown reasons there are large gaps in Lewis’s entries (some four hundred days without words by him).

Who were the Mandans and Hidatsas?

Two Indian nations with their villages near today’s Bismarck, North Dakota. The Mandans were an important part of the Indian trade system and had been engaged in trade with white men since early in the eighteenth century. The Corps reached the Mandan Villages on October 24, 1804, some 1600 miles and 164 days from Camp Wood. The Mandans and their neighbors to the north, the Hidatsas (also called Gros Ventres [Big Bellies] or Menetarra) numbered about 4,000 people in five villages, the largest Indian concentration on the Missouri River, larger than the population of. St. Louis.

Deciding to winter in the vicinity, the Corps in November built the triangular Fort Mandan. They were there until April 7, 1805, when the permanent party departed for the Pacific Ocean, and the rest set off in the keelboat for the return to St. Louis. During the winter they learned from the Indians, socialized with them, exchanged gifts, traded goods, and received food.

Toussaint Charbonneau was hired at Fort Mandan as an interpreter, and his wife Sacagawea was welcome because she spoke Shoshone, which would be vital for trading for horses with that tribe when they reached the continental divide. Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was born on February 11, 1805, in Fort Mandan, a little less than two months before he left there with his father and mother and the permanent party for the journey to the west.

How many tribes were encountered?

One source says forty-eight tribes, others say fifty or more. They provided the Corps food, shelter, knowledge, and friendship, except for the Teton Sioux in South Dakota and the Blackfeet in Montana.

How many personnel served with the Corps of Discovery?

From Camp Wood to the Mandan Villages, the exact figure is difficult to establish.

Leaving Camp Wood there were two captains, three sergeants, one corporal, twenty-four privates, plus York (Clark’s slave). In addition a number of engagés left with them. Most were French-Canadians hired for their knowledge of the Missouri River and Indian languages. Forty-two to forty-five or more men departed from Camp Wood, with changes along the way to the Mandan villages.

From the Mandan Villages to the ocean, the permanent party numbered thirty-three: the two officers, three sergeants, twenty-three privates, Charbonneau and Drouillard, York, Sacagawea and her son Jean-Baptiste.

What is Pompeys Pillar?

Named by Clark for Sacagawea’s son Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau (Clark called him “Pomp”) it is a one hundred twenty-seven foot high sandstone formation near Billings, Montana.

What were the qualifications for becoming a military member of the expedition?

Lewis described the qualifications as “good hunter, stout, healthy, unmarried men,” who were woodsmen with endurance. Three members of the Corps were, in fact, married.

What did the Corps of Discovery discover?

Jefferson’s primary instruction to Lewis was to “explore the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.” The President reiterated the point in a January 1804 letter to Lewis, stressing that “The object of your mission is simple, the direct water communication from sea to sea. . . .”

Some two and a half years later, having returned to St. Louis, Lewis writes what first appears to be a mission accomplished report, informing the anxious President that “we have discovered the most practicable rout which does exist across the continent by means of navigable branches of the Missouri and Columbia rivers.” Then the explorer goes on to describe that this most “practicable rout” is in fact totally impractical.

Jefferson recognized before the expedition that there was no continual waterway to the west as he directed in his instructions that points of portage between the Missouri and waters to the Pacific should be “fixed by observation.” In accord with geographic lore of the day, he expected portages to be short and achieved without great difficulty. Now he learns that it is necessary to go by boat 2,575 miles up a river with caving banks and other dangers to the foot of the Great Falls. There an eighteen-mile portage waits, then two hundred not particularly difficult miles, but followed by one hundred forty miles of “tremendious” mountains, sixty miles of which “are covered with eternal snow.” After a last leg of six hundred boat miles with additional portages and “three roaring cascades” the Pacific is finally reached. Lewis and Clark’s expedition brought to an end the time-honored search for a Northwest Passage.

The short-term effects of the mission were negligible. The Corps of Discovery’s long absence led to the assumption its members had perished during the journey. On their way back to St. Louis, they encountered several traders and trappers on their way up the Missouri River who knew nothing about the Corps of Discovery. As news of their return spread, Lewis and Clark were wined and dined, but they soon faded from public view. Lewis was supposed to provide a manuscript for publication of the journals, but died without doing so. When Nicolas Biddle’s narrative of the journals did appear eight years after Lewis and Clark’s return, its impact was slight. Their scientific data, their botanical and animal records, were not included.  Not until 1904 was a more complete edition of the journals published, including Lewis and Clark’s scientific data and some maps.

The pioneers who headed west did not follow in their footsteps. Lewis and Clark’s hazardous and laborious route was not suited for families in covered wagons heading for California and Oregon in the last half of the nineteenth century. Therefore, they took the famed Oregon Trail, following the flatlands of the Platte River and crossed not the Bitteroot Mountains of The Rockies, but the manageable South Pass in Wyoming. The movement west and the American frontier were history by the time the Corps of Discovery was discovered. Not until the 1960s did the Lewis and Clark Expedition become a subject of widespread interest, largely because of Steven Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage and the recognition of multiculturism in the American experience. Now the contributions of York, the Black slave, the Native-Americans, and the French Canadians to the success of the mission have been acknowledged. In the early nineteenth-century, Sacagawea had emerged as an important member of the Expedition, thanks to the Progressive era and women’s activism stressing her role.

“If Lewis and Clark had died on the trail,” says Notre Dame Historian Thomas Slaughter, “it wouldn’t have mattered a bit.”

Was the mission a failure for not having found the waterway to the Pacific? No, because proving that it did not exist was a momentous contribution to geographic knowledge.

Although not appreciated for many years, many other achievements followed in the wake of the Corps of Discovery. Henceforth, the United States had a primary claim to the territory from the Continental divide to the Pacific Ocean, although contested for years. The journal’s pages recorded for the first time the manifold and detailed results of the natural and social science missions Jefferson assigned. They reveal a geographic wonderland of mountains, rivers, and wildlife, populated with diverse peoples engaged in large-scale trade patterns, and possessed of civilizations. The Northwest was rich in human, animal, and plant life.

They dispelled many myths about the western territories, There were no mammoths, no Welsh Indians, no active volcanoes. Blank spaces on maps previously marked “unknown” were now known and charted.

In 2004, the United States inaugurated its Bicentennial Commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It acknowledges that the men and woman of the Corps of Discovery bequeathed to Americans their epic story. They confronted together months of treacherous waters, threatening animals, geographic obstacles, hunger, temptations, elation and disappointments while facing the uncertainties of the unknown. Their voyage into the wilderness revealed qualities that came to embody the American Spirit: courage, persistence, endurance, teamwork, admirable leaders, and the value of imagination and exploration. The Lewis and Clark Expedition heralds what people working together can accomplish, even against great odds.

But a high price has been paid. Native-Americans, whose assistance made success possible, have been ill paid for their contributions. Their numbers have been decimated, their land taken, their beliefs impugned, their dignity assaulted. The natural resources of the territory have been despoiled and like its peoples, its once bountiful animal and plant life endangered—the fate of the buffalo tells us much about our “stewardship.” The Bicentennial Commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition highlights that reconciliation among peoples and achieving harmony between nature and humanity are long overdue.

There are many paintings depicting scenes and events of the Expedition. Were there artists along with the Corps of Discovery?

There are drawings, mostly of plants and animals, in the Journals, but there were no professional artists traveling with the Corps. Carl Bodmer, George Catlin, Charles Russell, and many others were all working years after the events and journey they portray. Because photography was not yet invented, what we have are “historical fiction” recreations based on the artists’ knowledge and imagination.

What were the men paid?

Congress provided a pay scale for the expedition ranging from $5 a month for privates, $7 for corporals, $8 for sergeants, to $30 for Lieutenant Clark and $40 for Captain Lewis. Double pay for all was authorized, plus land allotments of 320 acres to each enlisted man and 1600 for the officers. The majority of the privates received about $333.32. Lewis received $2,766.22 for the period April 1, 1803 to March 2, 1807, including $893.64 for subsistence; Clark received $2,113.74 for the period August 1, 1803 to February 28, 1807, including $823.74 subsistence for himself and for York.

Drouillard was paid $833.33 and Charbonneau $500.33 1/3 cents in wages and the price of a horse and a lodge purchased for him.

York the slave and Sacagawea the female received nothing.

How much did the expedition cost?

The original congressional appropriation was $2,500. To promote commerce was the basis of Jefferson’s request to Congress. He gave Lewis a “blank check” letter of credit to buy necessary goods and supplies. Lewis used it and the total cost is said to have been $38,722.25.

How many miles did the Corps of Discovery travel?

Many sources say over eight thousand miles.

How long were they gone?

Two years, four months, nine days. The Corps of Discovery left Camp Wood on May 14, 1804, and returned to St. Louis on September 23, 1806. Upon the Corps’s return its equipment was auctioned off for approximately $430.00.

What forms of entertainment were available?

Campsite entertainment included singing, dancing, making music with a tambourine and a “Sounden horn” (a bugle), and listening to Pierre Cruzatte and George Gibson play the fiddle. The men probably spent time telling one another stories and may have played jewish harps and clicked items together in what was known as “sticks, “bones,” or “spoons.”

What did the party eat during the journey?

Three sources of food: what they brought with them, what they obtained by hunting and fishing, and provisions supplied by Indians.

In addition to other durable foods, Lewis had purchased 193 pounds of portable soup. It had a leatherlike consistency and the men would eat it only when nothing else was available. Mostly they lived off the land: meat, fish, edible plants, nuts, and fruit. It is estimated the men ate about nine pounds of meat a day (when it was available). When game was scarce they ate dog (Lewis liked it, Clark didn’t) and horses. If it walked, flew, or swam, they killed and ate it.

What sort of gifts for the Indians were taken along?

Gifts accounted for $696 of Lewis’s $2500 dollar authorization for expenditures, more than any other category. Lewis used his letter of credit to supplement that amount, buying $3,879.72 worth of additional gifts in St. Louis. He purchased beads (but not enough blue ones, the Indians favorite), ribbons, rings, magnifying glasses, tobacco, kettles, knives, sewing needles, vermilion, looking glasses, scissors, thimbles, tomahawks, and combs to mention a few items. They also took Peace Medals to present to chiefs, with Jefferson’s bust on one side, and two clasped hands and a tomahawk on the other. They were of three sizes: two, three, and four inches in diameter, the more important the chief the larger the medal bestowed. Some 235 of the medals were handed out, causing problems when it was difficult to determine the ranking of chiefs. The “gifts” were also used as trade goods with the Indians.

Was any liquor taken along?

Yes. Lewis’s requirements list of provisions included thirty gallons of “strong rectified spirits.” The army ration of the time was a gill (pronounced jill) a day, i.e. four ounces. They ran out on July 4, 1805. Also part of the medical chest was thirty gallons of “strong spirit wine” to be diluted and spooned into patients as medicine. He purchased one hundred twenty gallons of whiskey in St. Louis in preparation for the journey.

Beer made from moldy camas roots was made by John Collins and “presented us” on October 21, 1805. There is no other mention of beer.

What medicines were taken along in their "medicine chest"?

Lewis purchased fifty-five dollars worth of medicines, including Epsom salts, emetics, opium, peruvian bark (contained quinine), lancets for bleeding, a syringe for enemas, and 4 penal syringes to treat venereal disease. They took along 1300 doses of Dr. Benjamin Rush’s powerful laxative called “thunderclappers” or “thunderbolts.” It was frequently administered, “never failing to have the desired effect.”

When did the Corps reach the Pacific Ocean?

Clark recorded on November 7, 1805: “Great Joy in camp we are in view of the Ocian this great Pacific Octean. . .” Actually they were looking at the Columbia River estuary; the ocean was still about twenty direct-line miles away. Journal keeper Joseph Whitehouse on the sixteenth announced: “We are now in plain view of the Pacific Ocean.”

Is there any physical evidence of their passage?

Yes. Clark carved his initials and the date, July 25, 1806, still visible, on Pompeys Pillar.

How many plants and animals were discovered?

Lewis and Clark “discovered” 178 plants and 122 species of animals never previously recorded.

What weapons did the Corps have?

It is often asserted that Lewis acquired at Harpers Ferry at least fifteen new model 1803 rifles, fifty-four caliber guns especially designed for the army, called short barreled (thirty-three inches long but shorter than the longer civilian “Pennsylvania” rifles). A contrary view maintains that the rifles he acquired were in fact Model 1792 rifles, ten inches longer than the 1803 rifles. The original locks on these weapons had been replaced with locks bearing the date of 1803. Some of the men carried their own “Kentucky” or “Pennsylvania” sixty-nine caliber long rifles. In addition, both pirouges had a blunderbuss swivel gun, weapons with approximately twenty-four-inch barrels and two-inch flared muzzles. Described as scatterguns they were capable of firing about anything put into them.

A small cannon (called the “large swivel”) was mounted on the bow of the keelboat, firing buckshot or a single ball. The iron ball weighed about one pound, fired from a bore of about two inches. The cannon was presented as a gift to a Hidatsa chief on the return trip to St. Louis.

Lewis had an air rifle that he used to impress observers when he fired his virtually silent weapon. He also carried a six foot one inch wooded shaft with an iron blade and tip called an espontoon that he used as a walking stick, weapon, and rifle support.

The men’s armament included large knives and tomahawks.

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