Wild Adventures: the Heart-Pounding Legend of Lewis and Clark’s Mission to Map Out America’s Frontier

Wild Adventures: the Heart-Pounding Legend of Lewis and Clark’s Mission to Map Out America’s Frontier
“Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia” by Charles Marion Russell, 1905. Watercolor over graphite on paper. Amon Carter Museum of American Art. (Public Domain)

The vast prairie stretched in front of the Lewis and Clark expedition, teeming with life and promising new discoveries. In present-day Nebraska, they spotted and described little furry animals we now call prairie dogs. Lewis was amazed by their burrow networks and sheer numbers. One day, Lewis observed a jackrabbit bounding across the plains. “It … is extremely fleet and never borrows or takes shelter in the ground when pursued. They appear to run with more ease and to bound with greater agility than any animal I ever saw,” he wrote.

The sheer number of animals that lived on the plains further amazed Lewis and his men. “Vast herds of buffalo, deer, elk and antelopes were seen feeding in every direction as far as the eyes of the observer could reach,” Lewis reported. The plant and animal life of the plains provided amply for the expedition’s table, and some of the Native American tribes they met proved hospitable. However, the ensuing years would test the courage of Lewis, Clark, and their men.

Origins of the Expedition

President Thomas Jefferson selected Lewis to lead the expedition that would explore the land bought in the Louisiana Purchase and beyond, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. But their relationship began far before this important mission. Lewis was Jefferson’s neighbor, so when Jefferson was elected president, he chose Lewis to be his secretary. For two years, the men worked closely together in the nation’s capital. Then, Jefferson determined that someone needed to map and investigate the length of the continent for the country’s commercial, political, and scientific interests.

Jefferson was hard-pressed to find a man who possessed the necessary knowledge and abilities to fulfill all the objectives he had for the expedition, but he felt that Lewis possessed what was most important and could learn the rest. “It was impossible to find a character who to a complete science in botany, natural history, mineralogy and astronomy, joined the firmness of constitution and character, prudence, habits adapted to the woods, and a familiarity with the Indian manners and character, requisite for the undertaking. All the latter qualifications Captain Lewis has,” Jefferson wrote.

In addition to training with Jefferson, Lewis learned from leading scientists about medicine, zoology, botany, and navigation. By the time he left on his expedition, Lewis knew how to preserve plant and animal specimens and how to mark points of longitude and latitude using navigation instruments.

Portrait of Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale, 1807. Oil on board. (Everett Collection/ Shutterstock)
Portrait of Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale, 1807. Oil on board. (Everett Collection/ Shutterstock)

Though he served as Jefferson’s secretary in the years preceding the expedition, Lewis was still considered a captain in the U.S. Army. As an official government exploration, the expedition would be a military one, with Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery primarily being composed of enlisted men. Lewis knew Clark from his time in the Army and offered him co-command of the expedition. Although a mix-up in the official commission meant that Clark was only ever listed as a lieutenant, Lewis honored his original promise to his friend by always referring to him as “captain” and never telling the enlisted men of the mistake.

Jefferson needed men who could persevere through miserable, intimidating, and life-threatening circumstances to complete the varied goals of this expedition. As time would tell, he had chosen wisely.

Past the Edge of the Map

As the expedition traveled along the Missouri River across the plains, Lewis proved that Jefferson’s faith in his ability to contribute to science wasn’t unfounded. Though most of the specimens Lewis collected are now lost, his and Clark’s journals remain, and they contain meticulous descriptions of the plants and animals they encountered.

The expedition’s interactions with Native American tribes living along the Missouri varied in friendliness, but they avoided any serious conflicts. They eventually built a fort for winter camp in present-day North Dakota near the villages of the Mandan tribe. By this time, several trappers who had once lived among the Native Americans had joined the expedition, so they had some ability to communicate. The expedition had also gained its lone woman member, Sacagawea, who served as a guide and translator. The Mandans helped them survive the winter, and once the river thawed and canoes loaded, the expedition was again on its way.

“We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden,” Lewis wrote. “The good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessels contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves.”

Portrait of William Clark by Charles Willson Peale, 1807. Oil on board. (Everett Collection/ Shutterstock)
Portrait of William Clark by Charles Willson Peale, 1807. Oil on board. (Everett Collection/ Shutterstock)

Trek to the Pacific

In late May 1805, Lewis hiked up from the river and was rewarded for his efforts. “From this point, I beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time,” he wrote. “The points of the Rocky Mountains were covered with snow and the sun shone on it. … When I reflected on the difficulties which this snowy barrier would most probably throw in my way to the Pacific, … it in some measure counterbalanced the joy I had felt in the first moments in which I gazed on them.”

The mountains did prove daunting to navigate, and the men faced everything from exhaustion to bear attacks. At one point, the party had to scout ahead to determine their route. The rain made their trek at first difficult, then dangerous. Lewis slipped while hiking along the face of the bluff, nearly plunging to his death. He narrowly managed to save himself with his staff-like espontoon, only to hear one of his men.

“Captain, what shall I do?” Private Windsor called.

Lewis turned to see Windsor hanging on at the spot he had just narrowly escaped.

“I expected every instant to see him lose his strength and slip off,” Lewis wrote.

However, Lewis didn’t show Windsor his panic. He instructed the private to dig a hole for his right foot with his knife. This allowed Windsor to get to his knees and crawl away from danger, saved by the cool head of his captain.

A map details the historic trail of Lewis and Clark’s expedition. (Public Domain)
A map details the historic trail of Lewis and Clark’s expedition. (Public Domain)

The expedition continued up the Missouri River, at length reaching the point where they could no longer travel by water. They bought horses from one of the Native American tribes and hired a guide to take them across the Bitterroot Mountains.

The journey across the mountains proved to be one of the most difficult stretches of exploration yet. They endured rain, hail, and snow. Their guide lost his way and cost them precious days, while they struggled to find food for themselves and their horses. At certain points, horses slipped and fell down the mountainside. However, they had to persevere or die in the mountains. They pressed on, finally reaching the other side, a march of 160 miles in 11 days.

“That wretched portion of our journey, … where hunger and cold in their most rigorous forms assail the wearied traveler; not any of us have yet forgotten our sufferings in those mountains, … and I think it probable we never shall,” Lewis later wrote.

The expedition was able to travel by river on its last stretch to the Pacific. Finally, in November 1805, they neared their destination. “Ocean in view! O! the joy,” Clark wrote. Soon the expedition arrived triumphantly on the coast where they would build their lodge to weather the winter. The trip back would have its own share of hardships and close calls. However, in due time they would return with knowledge and stories most citizens could hardly believe.

In his annual report to Congress, Jefferson summarized the expedition as follows. “It is but justice to say the Messrs. Lewis and Clark, and their brave companions, have, by this arduous service, deserved well of their country.”

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.