National Security: Corps Of DiscoveryJul 26th, 2013 | By Jacob | Category: Editorials
A half century ago in my youth, I thrilled to read adventure stories; still do to some extent. One of the greatest adventures I encountered was the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition at the beginning of the 19th Century. With the possible exception of the Apollo moon exploration from 1969-72, Lewis and Clark rank as the greatest exploration in our nation’s history.
The Genesis of the expedition was our third president, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was such an amazing man. He would be high on my personal list of ‘great dinner guests from history.’ It was Jefferson who completed the Louisiana Purchase from France that basically doubled the land mass of the fledgling United States. And it was Jefferson who commissioned his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to plan and recruit the Corps of Discovery that would uncover the secrets of the new addition.
To an 18th Century mind like Jefferson’s, the future lay to the West. In 1750 when James Madison’s father built a great Virginia home for his young family, he faced the house west toward the future. This was the great unknown. While the old world looked to colonies in places like Africa and Asia, young America looked west toward the Pacific. This was the beginning of Manifest Destiny.
In 1803, America’s furthest reach westward was St. Louis on the great Mississippi River. Geographers knew there was a great western river named the Missouri that fed into the Mississippi. Sea captains had reported that on the west coast, there was a great river flowing westward called the Columbia. Could the rivers be joined creating a Northwest Passage that explorers had searched for over three centuries? Meriwether Lewis was tasked with this mission. He approached the job, in Jefferson’s words, with “undaunted courage.”
Lewis recruited a young army officer, William Clark, to be his second. Clark was a great frontiersman and knew the likely candidates who would man the expedition. While Clark interviewed prospective candidates, Lewis began to study the science from the young nation’s leading experts they would need on the frontier: medicine, astronomy, biology, mapping, zoology, surveying, etc.
Most of the journey would be by water. It is important to understand how important waterways were to 19th century travelers. Today, we have great interstate highways overland and jetways across the sky, but these didn’t exist two hundred years ago. People and commerce traveled principally by rivers. Cities were born as ports to the oceans, Great Lakes, and along rivers to service vessels and their cargo.
Lewis and Clark would use a specially designed keelboat and canoes to traverse the rivers. And for most of the trip outbound, they would be going upstream, against the current. Roughly thirty hardy young men would pole and row these boats west and north toward the unknown. To fuel their exertion, the men would each eat nine pounds of meat per day, nearly all of it killed by hunters who walked on the banks of the river looking for game.
In the first summer, one of their number, non-commissioned officer Charles Floyd took ill, most likely from appendicitis, and died. The Corps buried Sergeant Floyd near the current day Sioux Falls, Iowa. Incredibly, he was the only member of the expedition to die. Following his burial, the Corps held an election to select a private to replace the NCO. It was the first election west of the Mississippi in this new land.
The second winter (the first having been spent near St. Louis) of 1804-05 was spent with the friendly tribe of Mandan Indians in present day North Dakota. The captains sent a small number of their Corps back toward St. Louis and civilization, carrying journals and many of the more than 300 plant and animal specimens they had discovered and cataloged for the first time on the American continent. They also added two to their number, a French trapper Charbonneau and his teenage Shoshone bride, Sacagawea. Soon, she would deliver a son who would accompany the Corps as they blazed the trail westward. Charbonneau’s interpreting skills were of marginal use but Sacagawea’s addition would prove beneficial throughout the next year, particularly when they got to western Montana and her native people.
In this second year, the water became more narrow and shallow as they finally neared the source of the great Missouri. Ahead of them lay the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide. They spent more than a month looking for an easier passage before discovering from the Shoshone that they would need to climb and cross the rugged Bitterroot mountain range. As winter weather conditions approached, the starving expedition tackled the great obstacle. Only just before perishing, Captain Lewis stumbled upon the Nez Perce tribe that welcomed the expedition and saved them.
Now it was on to the great Columbia River and downstream to the Pacific. By Captain Clark’s dead reckoning calculations, the Corps had traversed 4162 miles in their journey westward. Later measurements indicate that his error rate was less than one percent. The Corps wintered for five months on the south back of the Columbia in present day Northern Oregon with the Clatsop tribe.
As spring approached, the Corps began to paddle up river to return to civilization and completion of their mission. The trip home took less than one-fifth the time of the outbound leg, for two reasons. First, they had a map which Clark had faithfully documented during the long trip. Second, they were going downstream with the current. Reaching St. Louis in September 1806, the mission was complete and the west was no longer unknown.
One of the Lewis and Clark stories I enjoy the best occurred that last summer in the Mandan Village. Two trappers, heading up stream asked the captains for a guide. One of the Corps’ privates, John Colter, volunteered for this duty, was discharged from service, and returned to the west. He would go onto find more adventure and discover Yellowstone.