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Corps of Discovery

August 20, 2014

This week marks the 240th birthday of Meriwether Lewis, who along with William Clark, went on an expedition to explore the area west of the Mississippi River.

President Thomas Jefferson charged Lewis and Clark to find out what lay in the West. “The expedition was meant to prepare the way for the extension of the American fur trade and to advance geographical knowledge.”

That was 210 years ago.

Lewis and Clark were both from Virginia — Lewis was born in Albemarle County and Clark in Caroline County. In 1793, Lewis graduated from Liberty Hall (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Va. Clark was like most young people of the age — he was tutored at home.

William Clark

William Clark (

meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis (student

While fighting in the Northwest Indian War, Clark began the lifelong habit of keeping a diary. (Read his diary of the Corps of Discovery, along with other records of the journey.) He also served as Lewis’ commanding officer in the Army. When Lewis was tapped by Thomas Jefferson to lead the Corps of Discovery, Lewis appointed Clark as his co-commander.

On May 14, 1804, Lewis and Clark and their company left Camp River Dubois, just north of St. Louis, at the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The company consisted of “27 young, unmarried soldiers, a French-Indian interpreter, and Clark’s Black slave York.” They averaged 15 miles a day as they traveled up the strong Missouri River. By October, they had reached present-day North Dakota and built the over-winter Fort Mandan. It was here that Toussaint Charbonneau was hired, and he brought his Shoshoni Indian wife, Sacagawea, and her baby son, Jean Baptiste.


NC Wyeth painting

After crossing Montana, the Corps was stuck at Great Falls for over a month. They crossed the Bitterroots and arrived “nearly starved” at the Clearwater River in Idaho. From there, the Corps floated down the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers, reaching the Pacific Ocean in November 1805.

“Lewis and Clark made significant additions to the zoological and botanical knowledge of the continent, providing the first scientific descriptions of many new species of animals, including the grizzly bear, prairie dog, pronghorn antelope, and mountain goat.” Lewis and Clark traveled over 8,000 miles in less than 2 1/2 years, for a cost to the taxpayer of $40,000.

National Park Service Interactive Lewis and Clark Map

After the expedition, Clark returned to Fincastle in Botetourt County and married Miss Julia Hancock of Santillane. He served as Missouri Territorial Governor. Lewis served as governor of the Louisiana Territory.



“Lewis and Clark” they are now known — almost inseparable in our history. Many things are named after them — banks, libraries, a university. But what the Corps of Discovery really gave us was an understanding of the enormity of the new Louisiana Purchase.

Some Von Canon Library resources about Lewis and Clark:

Jefferson’s West : a journey with Lewis and Clark by†James P. Ronda

F 592.7 .R655 2000

Undaunted courage : Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the opening of the American West by Stephen E. Ambrose

F 592.7 .A49 1996

Lewis and Clarksí Tempest: The ëperfect stormí of November 1805, Oregon, USA.

by: Knapp, Paul A.

Holocene. Jun2011

The Northern Great Plains as Viewed by the Lewis and Clark Expedition

by: Kirby, Don

Rangelands, 10/1/2010

Sett Out Verry Eairly Wensdy’: The Spelling and Grammar in the Lewis and Clark Journals

by: Davis, Lawrence M.

American Speech. 2000.

(Post by Melissa Davis.)

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  1. Jan-Erik Jones says:

    Thank you for posting this interesting article reminding us of such an important event in US and Virginia history.