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The Expedition of Lewis and Clark

The purchase from France, in 1803, of the great territory between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, known as Louisiana, gave to the United States a vast domain almost unknown to the white man.

At that time, there were but two large towns in the whole area. New Orleans had, perhaps, eight or ten thousand wooden houses. The streets were dirty and ill-paved. The population numbered eight or ten thousand people. St. Louis was a fur-trading post, of not more than a thousand souls, many of whom were boatmen or traders among the Indian tribes of the West. There were a few scattered villages along the rivers, but the great body of the territory was filled with Indians, of whose nature the whites were entirely ignorant. So far as the country was concerned, very little was known about it.

President Jefferson resolved to find out more about this vast domain which had doubled the territory of the United States, and which had cost only fifteen million dollars to purchase. He looked about for the man to send on a mission of exploration. He selected his own secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, who invited Captain William Clark, the brother of George Rogers Clark, to join him.

Both were young men, who had seen service on the border; both were Virginians; and both entered into the enterprise heart and soul. They were directed to note carefully every detail of the country, and to find out all they could about the Indian tribes.

The journey was a long one—two thousand miles at least, and most of it had to be covered on rivers unknown to the explorers. With a party of forty-three brave men, they started from St. Louis, in May, 1804, on their toilsome way up the Missouri River.

It was a pleasant time of the year, and for days the party sailed or rowed their boats up the yellow stream, enjoying the beautiful country through which they were passing. Great trees, hanging their branches to the water's edge, meadows filled with flowers, thickets full of birds and game, were passed day after day.

At night, they would tie up to a bank where there was a spring, or clear stream of fresh water; then they would build a big camp fire of driftwood, cook their evening meal, station sentries on the lookout for Indians or wild beasts, and lie down to sleep.

Late in July, the Platte River was reached. Selecting a shady and comfortable camp, the explorers sent messages to the Indians to come to a friendly meeting. A great crowd arrived, and received presents of flags, tomahawks, knives, beads, looking-glasses, red handkerchiefs; and gaudy coats; they vowed eternal friendship to the white man. The Indians danced around with as much glee as a lot of children. Why should they be at war with those who brought them such beautiful gifts?

The party continued on its way. The summer was passing, and the autumn was coming on. Great herds of buffaloes came down to the river to drink; great flocks of white gulls passed them overhead, while the woods were full of plums, grapes, and berries. Game and fish were to be had in abundance. The travelers fared well, and were very happy, though the nights were getting cold, and the camp fires on the banks had to be kept going all the time.

In the autumn, they reached the country of the Mandan Indians, where they decided to spend the winter. Friendship was soon established by the gifts of beads and looking-glasses. The time was spent in hunting, fishing, and talking. One night, by the camp fire, an old Chief rose and said,

"Far to the setting sun, my brother will find a deep gorge cut through the mountains. Down this gorge pours the mighty river with a roar like the thunders. Over it stands always a deep mist. High up in a dead tree, an eagle has built his nest. My brother cannot go there by the big canoe. Stay here with us."

But Lewis replied, "The great father has sent me to see beyond the mountains, and to find the big water of the sea. In the spring, I must go, and those with me must go also. When the snow melts I shall be gone." So, when the flowers bloomed, Lewis and Clark made ready to move.

Leaving their Indian friends, the party pushed on. But now the real troubles began. The navigation of the river became more and more difficult. Sometimes they had to drag their canoes along by tow-lines, or carry them around the shoals and shallows. Their hunters kept them supplied with bear meat, venison, and other game.

They reached and passed the Yellowstone. In May, they came in sight of the Rocky Mountains. The river grew swifter and smaller, and traveling became more and more difficult. Lewis and Clark went scouting in every direction, climbing the bluffs to get a view of the country. Often they saw great herds of buffaloes feeding on the prairies.

At evening, they always halted, the events of the day were noted down in their diaries, the difficulties of the journey discussed, and plans for the next day decided upon. Fresh logs were piled upon the blazing fire, sentinels were posted, and the men stretched themselves upon the ground for sleep. By daybreak they were up and moving.

In June, Captain Lewis saw in the distance a thin, cloudlike mist, rising out of the plain. He did not doubt but that it was the Great Fall, of which the Mandan Indians had told him. In a few hours, the party stood upon the brink of the chasm, and saw the river pour its great flood through the gorge. Even the eagle's nest was there, just as the Indians had told him.

There were thirteen miles of cascades and rapids. The Missouri rushed headlong over precipices and through canons a thousand feet deep. It was a sublime sight, and these were the first white men to behold it.

The boats were abandoned, for the river was now too narrow and wild for navigation. No Indians could be found anywhere to guide them across the mountains, so the party took to a well-beaten trail, which at last gave out high up in the mountains.

Lewis left the party in camp, and set forth alone to find his way over the mountains. It was a terrible task, beset with danger on all sides, but at last he crossed the divide, and came upon a village of the Shoshone or Snake Indians, to whom he told his story. They were amazed that he could have crossed the mountains without a guide, and on foot.

Going back with these Indians to direct him, Lewis at last brought the whole party over, and the journey was resumed. It was now winter again. The snow fell and the water froze. There was little to eat, and the men grew discouraged. Their food consisted mainly of dried fish. When a horse gave out, it was killed and eaten. They learned to eat dog-meat, and to be glad to get it. This was the hardest part of their journey.

At last, ragged, half-starved, and footsore, the explorers came out on the other side of the mountains, more like fugitives than conquerors of a great wilderness. They had traveled four hundred miles on foot, through the tangled forests and over mountains. They looked more like Indians than white men, and were in such a weak condition that they would have been easy prey, if the savages had been unfriendly.

But their troubles were over. After resting with a friendly tribe, they built canoes and embarked upon the stream that led into the Columbia River. More and more villages appeared, more and more game was to be found, and the streams were full of fish. So they fared well.

Finally, they entered the Columbia River, and, late in the fall, their canoes floated into the mouth of that great river in view of the Pacific Ocean. They had reached their goal at last!

Here the winter was passed. In March, 1806, the explorers began their journey home, which, after many adventures, was safely reached. They had been gone two and a half years. Everybody had given them up for lost or dead. Hence, there was great surprise and joy at their return.