This Day in History: Lewis and Clark Head West

Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications

On May 14, 1804, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the members of the Corps of Discovery set out to explore the lands west of the Mississippi River newly acquired by the fledgling United States from France, a journey that would last over two years. Thomas Jefferson, who had negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, hoped to use the expedition to explore and map these territories and to ideally find a practical water route all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Thankfully, there are a number of easily accessible resources that allow research into the story and the findings of the Corps of Discovery. Perhaps first and foremost, you can read the voluminous journals of the expedition through the University of Memphis Library’s website from the comfort of your own home. Secondly, there are a number of government resources online that allow patrons to learn more about this significant chapter in our nation’s growth and history.

One of the lasting legacies of the Lewis and Clark expedition comes in the field of science. The Corps of Discovery encountered countless species of flora and fauna unique to the Western lands they traversed, some of which were no longer found east of the Mississippi River due to human encroachment. Some of the animals encountered included grizzly bears, bison herds, and numerous species of snakes, encounters which were written about at length in the expedition’s journals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has produced a fun website that allows us to explore the plant and animal species studied by Lewis, Clark, and their men. After returning from the expedition, Clark, a talented cartographer, produced a new map in 1810 of what would become the American West that shed a new light on the lands of the Louisiana Purchase. Even though the expedition failed to find a water route directly to the Pacific Ocean, something Thomas Jefferson desired greatly, the map still serves as an invaluable historic resource, as shown here in this resource courtesy of the United States Geological Survey.

A wonderful aspect of modern life is that people interested in both history and the natural world can retrace the path taken by the Corps of Discovery without taking the extreme risks of traveling into an unforgiving wilderness in the early 19th century. Thanks in large part to the National Park Service, a number of sites stretching all across the United States can be visited that help us better understand the journey of Lewis and Clark and the lands that they experienced on their trek to the Pacific and back home. The website for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail allows one to virtually explore, state by state, some of the significant landmarks of the expedition and to plan a future trip to see them in person. Another place of note in the tale of Lewis and Clark is actually right here in Tennessee, on the stretch of the Natchez Trace near Nashville. A monument there marks the burial site of Meriwether Lewis; Lewis, who was prone to bouts of depression, died of gunshot wounds, possibly self-inflicted. Historians have long debated the nature of his death, but nonetheless, it was a strange and mysterious ending to an intriguing life.

Here are some more links to further your personal explorations in this topic:

Written by Meghan Campbell, Government Publications

Sacagawea was a young Shoshone woman most famously known for her contributions to Lewis and Clark’s expedition West. She was all at once a translator, guide, and symbol of peace for the Corps of Discovery as they traveled through unknown lands. As someone intimately familiar with the land that Lewis and Clark were seeking passage through, Sacagawea helped them forage for food and speak with other Native American tribes they encountered along the way. A time or two, she also helped save precious documents that would have been otherwise lost to history.

Sacagawea was not only a valuable team member to the Corps of Discovery, she contributed to the overall success of their journey West and their return home. She also did so while pregnant, and consequently gave birth and cared for her infant son alongside her husband Toussaint Charbonneau, who served as a translator for the group. Not only this, but it is believed that Sacagawea was only around 16 or 17 when she and her husband joined the expedition.

Because of all that she contributed to Lewis and Clark’s journey, Sacagawea is highly regarded in history as a vital member of their team. She has been immortalized in various statues around the country, and there is even a one dollar coin bearing her and her baby’s faces.

In addition to Sacagawea, there is another, lesser known crew member who joined and survived Lewis and Clark’s journey to the Pacific. His name was believed to be Seaman, and he was Meriwether Lewis’ Newfoundland dog. He was known to be a constant companion, alarm system, and even a hunter from time to time. Seaman survived the entire journey with the Corps of Discovery, and even though not much is known about his fate, it is known that Lewis cared for him. It has been noted that even though the group purchased many dogs to eat throughout their travels, Seaman was never considered a meal prospect. He too has been forever remembered by having his image cast in statues around the country.

Some interesting government and library-wide resources regarding Sacagawea and Seaman both as well as general history of the Corps of Discovery can be found here:

Happy browsing!

 

 

 

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