Out of the Past
History Lessons 

 Corps of Discovery Opens the West

The 1804-06 Corps of Discovery led by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, now being celebrated in its bicentennial, blazed a trail across uncharted reaches of North America and opened the way for a stampede of exploration and settlement that culminated in the great overland migration known as the Oregon Trail.

Prior to the Lewis and Clark expedition, explorers from France, Britain and Spain had been probing the Western reaches of the continent for decades. Most believed in the existence of a "Northwest Passage" -- a navigable river leading from the middle of the continent to the Pacific Ocean -- and the Missouri River was the most likely candidate. By following the Missouri to its headwaters, many were convinced, the route would be discovered.

The first 700 miles of Lewis and Clark's journey, in fact, was made following a detailed map of the Upper Missouri River surveyed by a pair of late 18th century explorers named James Mackay and John Evans at a time when the territory still belonged to the government of Spain.  Like Lewis and Clark, Mackay and Evans were commissioned to explore the Missouri River system and find a route to the Pacific Coast. They were also instructed to map and gather information about the unexplored region and its peoples. But the Mackay and Evans Expedition, which began in 1795, was cut short when Spanish Upper Louisiana was acquired by France and then, three years later, by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.

President Thomas Jefferson, who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, had long been interested in the possibility of a Northwest Passage and was convinced that the newly acquired territory was going to be of great value to the young United States. It would provide "land enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation," he predicted, but first it must be explored and those explorations made known to the American people.

Lewis and Clark's expedition was more successful than Jefferson could have imagined. There was no Northwest Passage to be found, but they completed the first mapping of the Missouri River headwaters and made their way through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. They found native peoples that were hospitable and they recorded discoveries of new plants and animals and geologic features that made those who read their accounts want to have a look for themselves.

Most importantly, the news of the Lewis and Clark expedition opened the hearts and minds of the nation to the prospects of a new frontier much as Christopher Columbus' voyages had revealed the New World and the flights of the first astronauts pioneered the exploration of space. It wasn't long before more explorers followed, and behind them the first settlers.

Diary Kept by William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, c.1804-1806
Diary Kept by William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, c.1804-1806
The route followed by Lewis and Clark, known today as the "Lewis and Clark Trail," lies approximately 100 miles to the north of the Oregon Trail at Flagstaff Hill in eastern Oregon. It passes through narrow canyons and thickly forested mountains, crossing the Continental Divide at the Montana-Idaho border where winter comes early and stays late. A small party traveling by horseback could manage the course, but it would have been impossible for settlers hauling wagonloads of possessions. No pioneer wagon ever followed in their footsteps.

The Oregon Trail was first blazed by trappers and traders eager to make a profit in the new territory. The world's richest man of the early 19th century, John Jacob Astor, dispatched an expedition in 1812 led by Wilson Price Hunt to set up a fur-trading enterprise at the mouth of the Columbia River. Hunt tried a more southerly route from that taken by Lewis and Clark.

Hunt's party made it to the Pacific, but they had several casualties along the way and the enterprise was in deep trouble. Their only hope was to send a party back to St. Louis for help. A man named Robert Stuart led the mission, a difficult journey that took nearly a year. He kept to the south and west side of the Snake River and while crossing the Rocky Mountains in what is now Wyoming he found a 20-mile wide gap in the mountains -- South Pass -- which was the linchpin in the creation of the Oregon Trail. This was the "Northwest Passage" so many explorers had been looking for and the route a half-million emigrants would eventually follow.

While other explorers blazed the route, it was Col. John Charles Fremont who first pioneered the Oregon Trail. His expedition of 1842-43, which followed the course of the trail as we know it today, was popularized in upbeat and enthusiastic reports that were widely ready by Americans back east.  Fremont made the journey west seem easy, even enjoyable, and within a year a thousand people and more than a thousand head of stock traversed the Oregon Trail. Within two years the number of migrants had tripled, and over the next decade, more and more families made the trek.

Within a span of just 40 years, the landscapes of eastern Oregon and Idaho went from being an uncharted wilderness fraught with unnamed perils to a well-mapped and heavily traveled territory. Today, the routes of roads and railways and Interstate highways closely follow the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, Mackay and Evans, Hunt and Stuart, Col. Fremont and many others as they stitch together a nation whose fabric is large and manifold.

Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce
Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce
Strangers in the Land of the Nimiipuu

by Allen V. Pinkham and Steven R. Evans
University of Oklahoma Press, 2013

In Search of York: The Slave Who Went to the Pacific With Lewis and Clark by Robert B. Betts
University Press of Colorado, 2000

William Clark's body servant, York, is the subject of this intriguing biography which seeks answers to the myths about his life and role in the Corps of Discovery. From his youth on the Clark plantation in Kentucky to the difficult years that followed Lewis and Clark's expedition, York's life is examined from all known records. 

A recently discovered trove of Clark's correspondence to his brother reveals much about York's post-expedition life and is detailed in an epilogue to this revised edition of Betts' 1985 publication.

Exploring with Lewis and Clark The 1804 Journal of Charles Floyd
edited by James J. Holmberg
University of Oklahoma Press, 2005

The first facsimile edition of the journal of Sergeant Charles Floyd. Volume 80 in the American Exploration and Travel series. Foreword by Gary E. Moulton.

Traveling the Lewis and Clark Trail by Julie Fanselow

The third edition of this practical guidebook, updated for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, details where to find historic sites and natural areas relating to the 1804-06 Corps of Discovery.  


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