• Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Great joy in camp we are in View of the Ocian.”

Summary Overview

In 1804, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery Expedition, organized by President Thomas Jefferson after the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, set off to find a water route that would link the Columbia River to the Mississippi River system. Lewis and Clark’s expedition would open commercial routes between the developing northwestern United States and the East and, at the same time, help hasten westward expansion. Lewis documented the trip, providing details of the terrain of this vast region, yet unseen by European American eyes, as well as his encounters with American Indians and, ultimately, the Pacific Ocean.

Defining Moment

In 1803, President Jefferson succeeded in purchasing from France the vast region known as the Louisiana Territory. This area stretched across the American midsection, from what is now southeastern Louisiana to western Montana. Seeking to open the area to westward expansion, Jefferson ordered that an expedition to the territory’s westernmost regions be organized. The primary purpose of the mission, which would be dubbed the Corps of Discovery Expedition, was to find a link between the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest and the Missouri River (which flows from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River near what is now St. Louis).

The Corps of Discovery Expedition was no mere voyage of discovery and exploration. The link Jefferson sought would in effect link the Pacific Ocean with the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers as well as the other major waterways of the eastern half of the country. This expedition would make it much easier to establish commercial routes with the undeveloped Northwest. It would therefore also open the door for westward expansion.

Because success meant a potentially enormous return on the investment of resources, Jefferson wanted to make sure that the expedition’s leaders were highly capable and trustworthy. He turned to his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, who was both highly intelligent and experienced on the American frontier. Lewis looked to another skilled frontiersman, William Clark, to help him command the expedition. Along with more than three dozen men, the group trained and organized their supplies in Missouri, collecting weapons and gifts for American Indians they would inevitably meet along the way.

In 1804, the corps left their staging area in Illinois and met Lewis in St. Charles, Missouri, before embarking on a course up the Missouri River. They would follow the course of the Missouri, stopping occasionally in remote outposts and trapping camps before waiting out the winter months. In the spring of 1805, the expedition continued onward, coming to the Jefferson (a tributary of the Missouri). With the help of an Indian tribe, the group followed the Jefferson until it linked with the Columbia River. At the end of the year, the Expedition reached the mouth of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, their mission a success. Lewis and Clark would compile a journal of their trip for the return east. The journal included maps, accounts of their Indian encounters, and other important information about the new route to the Pacific Northwest.

Author Biography

Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis was born on August 18, 1774, at a plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia. His father, William, was a highly decorated officer in the American Revolution. His mother (who was also William Lewis’s cousin) was Lucy Meriwether, a well-known cook. Lewis’s family was among the first to settle in the southern Virginia region. William Lewis died of pneumonia when Meriwether was five, leaving Lucy to care for him as he grew up.

After helping manage his family’s estate, Lewis joined the Virginia state militia and participated in suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. He proved a successful officer while stationed in the frontier regions of Ohio and Tennessee, rising to the rank of captain by 1801. At that point, President Jefferson, a close friend of Lewis’s family, appointed Lewis his private secretary. Because of his experience on the frontier, Lewis was involved in the planning for the corps’s expedition to the Northwest. In 1808, after his return from the expedition, Lewis was appointed (by Jefferson again) governor of the Louisiana Territory. He held the post for under a year, however, dying in a shooting in 1809 while traveling back to Washington, DC. Most historians believe his death was a suicide, but whether it was suicide or murder remains a topic of some debate.

William Clark

William Clark was born on August 1, 1770, on a plantation in Caroline County, Virginia, to John Clark III and Ann Rogers. Unlike his older brothers’ classical educations in Virginia, William’s education was less elite, a product of his family’s move to the frontier of Kentucky. He enlisted in the army in 1789 and took part in the campaign to protect Kentucky and Ohio settlers from Indian attacks. He later served with Lewis, and the two became friends.

Clark retired from the military in 1796 due to an illness and returned home to attend to his family’s property. Shortly thereafter, he married Julia Hancock before departing with Lewis on the expedition to the Northwest. When he returned, he took a position as the principal Indian agent for the Louisiana Territory. In 1813, he became governor of the newly formed Missouri Territory. Losing his seat in 1820, he assumed the role of superintendent of Indian affairs in St. Louis. His wife died in 1820, as did several of his children. Clark remarried in 1821, but his second wife died in 1831. He held the post of superintendent until his death in 1838.

Document Analysis

The journals of Lewis and Clark, compiled over the course of the two years during which the corps traveled, provide great details of the sights and people encountered by the expedition. These images were important for officials back in Washington, DC, not only because they gave an illustration of a region that had never before been seen by white Americans, but also because they gave the American government a detailed course to follow during subsequent expeditions. To be sure, Americans had visited and established encampments in the Pacific Northwest, and they had established a number of towns, settlements, and forts along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers (the country’s two longest rivers, respectively). However, no link between the main river of the Northwest, the Columbia River, and the major eastern river system had yet been found. Should the expedition be successful, the United States would finally have the key to major westward expansion.

Documenting the journey from Illinois to the Pacific and back initially fell to Lewis, the more educated of the expedition’s two leaders. However, Clark and others in the corps kept journals as well. When Lewis died, the task of compiling the various accounts fell to Clark, who kept detailed records but whose writing style was rougher than Lewis’s.

During the summer of 1804, Lewis, Clark, and the Corps of Discovery Expedition traveled north and west along the Missouri River, arriving at Fort Mandan (in what is now western North Dakota). There, they set up camp and prepared for a continued journey westward, which would occur in the spring of 1805 once the river waters had risen again. When the waters became favorable, they traveled along the Jefferson River, the westernmost tributary of the Missouri. With them were the Shoshone Indian woman Sacagawea, who was used as a guide and interpreter. Sacagawea, who was a slave and wife to the corps’s steersman, Toussaint Charbonneau, became invaluable to Lewis and Clark, helping the corps make the treacherous journey on foot and horseback from the end of the Jefferson over the Bitterroot Mountains (between what is now Montana and Idaho). Once they crossed the mountains, they found food and supplies with the help of the Nez Percé Indians. In October of 1805, they hollowed out new canoes and set off on the Clearwater River, a branch of the Snake and Columbia Rivers.

On November 7, 1805, Clark writes in his journal of an encounter with a group of Indians along the Columbia River. The group was traveling along the “stard” (starboard, or right side) of the river during a particularly foggy and rainy morning. While drifting beneath some high, rocky hills, they met two canoes containing Indians Clark identifies as “War-ci-â-cum”—most likely the small Wahkiakum tribe of the Chinook Indians. Lewis and Clark followed the Indians back to their village in a narrow channel off the river.

While at the village, Clark says that the Wahkiakum gave the members of the corps fish to eat and then sold them fish, three dogs, and two otter skins in exchange for new fishing hooks. The Indians also sold the men wapato root. Lewis and Clark had never encountered this root before, but during their travels, Lewis observed American Indians digging in the mud beneath these flowering plants. The root found beneath the riverside muck reminded Lewis of a small potato. When the wapato root was dried, pounded into meal, and formed into cakes, it presented a starchy side dish that became a staple food for the corps.

Clark continues his observations of the Wahkiakum village, which in a number of ways was distinctive in comparison to the lifestyles of other Indians with whom the expedition came into contact. In a typical home, the Wahkiakum had a fireplace in one corner. On the opposite side of the house, Clark observed, were baskets with dried fish, wapato, berries, and other food sources. Clark also takes note of the clothing preferences of his Wahkiakum hosts. In particular, Clark seems interested in the women’s garments. The women’s robes were shorter than those he had observed in other tribes. However, when it was cold, the Wahkiakum women used a curious, petticoat-like dressing to keep themselves warm. This garment was a piece of white cedar bark that had been softened and woven together with fur. This accessory could be attached to the robe and, Clark observes, it was sturdy and firm enough to act as both a petticoat and a girdle.

The Wahkiakum’s language, according to Clark’s account, was different from the other Indians with whom the corps traded. This dialect, according to experts, was known as Kathlamet, and was a style typical of the Chinook tribes that lived in the upper Columbia River watershed. The fact that Clark observed the distinctiveness of the Wahkiakum dialect suggests that it was considerably different from other Chinook dialects in both the upper and lower Columbia regions; the Wahkiakum could therefore be considered distinctive to the “middle Chinook” territory.

After their visit to the Wahkiakum village, the expedition set out through a series of “marshey islands” and back to the Columbia, aided by the piloting skills of one of their hosts. As they came upon a larger one of these islands (based on the maps drawn by Clark, some historians believe this island to be what is now referred to as Tenasillahe Island, located at a curve in the river), they were joined by more Wahkiakum Indians in canoes, with whom they traded. As the journey continued, Clark took account of the high, mountainous country. They encountered more Wahkiakum along the way, at one point trading for supplies (which included a new robe for Clark). They later paddled toward what is now known as Pillar Rock, a massive stone that, according to Clark, was close to fifty feet in height. They found a suitable campsite near the rock and away from the shoreline. The river, he observes, was becoming wider in this region.

Later in the same journal entry, Clark reports that they had just passed another Wahkiakum village while paddling through a thick morning fog. When the fog lifted, Lewis, Clark and the rest of the corps were greeted with a most welcome sight. “We are in view of the Ocian [Ocean],” he joyfully states, “which we had been So long anxious to See.” Although it is more likely that they had reached the mouth of the Columbia River at this point and not the Pacific Ocean itself, the ocean was indeed close. Clark adds that he and his companions were excited at the prospect of soon hearing the Pacific’s waves crashing on the rocks, a sound he had been anticipating throughout the journey.

On November 8, 1805, Clark’s journal states that the group started late, having encountered rain that morning and needing a change of clothes before embarking. According to Clark’s log, they traveled toward an area known as “Cape Disappointment” (so called because British sea captain and fur trader John Meares, while seeking the mouth of the Columbia in 1788, missed the river and concluded that it did not exist). The river continued to widen considerably. As it expanded, it also became choppy, with large swells making travel difficult for the canoes. They stayed relatively close to the right (“stard”) side of the river. They encountered several canoes of Indians from whom they purchased salmon. They also came across two Indian villages along with a number of bays and inlets of varying size.

The corps soon came upon an old Indian village, where they set up camp, killed some fowl, and proceeded to dine with a group of Indians. After their meal, the tide had returned, working to the advantage of the expedition. Lewis, Clark, and the group set out again (the Indians went their separate ways).

Unfortunately, Clark says, the group’s time on the water was short-lived, as the waves had become too difficult to navigate. The expedition therefore returned to the shore, where they offloaded their supplies and carried their canoes along the river’s edge. Rain had been soaking them for the previous few days, and on this day, Clark says, the rain continued. These conditions made life difficult for the group. The situation was already challenging for the expedition’s members, as the high water along the river’s edge had made it extremely difficult to find a suitable campground (they were surrounded by steep cliffs and rocks, and they could not turn around to return to more favorable resting areas). The fact that the high tidewater contained a great deal of salt meant that, despite the high volume of water, none of it could be used. The group was thus tired, dirty, thirsty, cold, and wet. Nevertheless, this unpleasant set of circumstances notwithstanding, the men needed to portage and carry their supplies onward. Clark suggests that the men were in a foul mood.

To adapt, the expedition would camp during the brief periods between the tide’s ebb and flow, putting their baggage on logs to keep them from becoming soaked on the ground. When the group returned to the river, it was just as unpleasant an experience as it had been on land. The rough seas tossed the light canoes violently, making several of the men (who were seasoned enough to never get seasick) extremely nauseated.

The difficult conditions led Clark to wonder about other white visitors to this region. There were trappers and other white people in the area, trading with the Indians with whom Lewis and Clark came into contact. However, the expedition found no trading encampments or outposts. Clark asked himself if the corps would eventually come across such trading stations closer to the mouth of the river, or if these white traders simply visited the region during specific times. Clark supposed the latter scenario, and was right to do so—no trading station would be established in this region until 1811, when the Astorian fur traders arrived.

On November 9, 1805, Clark writes, the weather and tides were becoming more of a danger than before. A storm had intensified the strength and size of the river’s waves, and the high tides only exacerbated conditions. Clark reports that the expedition needed to unload the canoes (one of which sank and three more of which were swamped during the previous night’s high tide). Lewis and Clark’s party and supplies were not much safer on land, either—the high winds, coming from the southwest, were causing the immense trees by the river side to bend deeply. With the high tide eroding the soil beneath the roots, Clark worries that these trees would topple, destroy the camp, and kill his men. Clark says that the party was forced to move their encampment away from the river’s edge, transporting all of their supplies further inland. The men were soaked and tired, making the task of moving everything even more difficult.

Nevertheless, Clark says, the men remained in good spirits and anxious to reach their goal of the Pacific Ocean. Despite the fact that they were cold and wet, the men willingly moved on. They made the best of their situation as well—although they were running out of potable water, they were able to collect and drink the rainwater. They even made use of the plentiful salt water, using it as a laxative (“pergitive”) to encourage good health. Furthermore, there was wildlife in abundance (including, Clark says, elk), ensuring that the expedition would not go hungry so close to the ocean.

On November 11, Lewis and Clark’s expedition remained cold and wet amid harsh rain, wind, and tidal conditions. Even the hillsides and mountains above became treacherous, as the rain loosened rocks and soil—in addition to falling trees, the men were now concerned with being caught in a landslide or avalanche. They did, however, encounter another group of Indians, with whom they exchanged fishing hooks and a few trinkets for fish (what Clark called “red charr,” commonly known as sockeye salmon). Although he is not particularly fond of their mode of dress (elk skin robes and old sailor’s jackets, for example), he is taken aback by their prowess in a canoe. They “are the best canoe navigators I ever saw,” he exclaims, noting how these Indians were able to manage the dangerous waters in small boats. These Indians were likely Kathlamets, who shared the river with the Wahkiakums.

On November 12, 1805, the weather took an even greater turn for the worse. As the expedition party rested at a campsite within sight of Mount Hood, a new storm came in from the southwest. The men awoke at 3 a.m. to thunder and lightning, along with hail and heavy rain. The storm, according to Clark, lasted three hours and was followed by a short reprieve. As the men recovered from this violent storm, yet another black cloud moved in from the southwest. The rain that came with it lasted for six more hours, and the driving winds continued to churn the river water. The men moved their camp further inland, leaving their canoes along the shore, weighted down by large rocks to prevent them from being carried into the water. The men’s situation, in the words of Clark, was “distressing”—they were cold and wet and their bedding was rotten beyond repair. There was no way to replace any of the expedition’s supplies at this point.

Still, Clark says, the men were healthy in spite of the lack of rest and warmth. Their canoes (which were crafted by Indians they had met along their travels), which had been used in challenging waters, remained relatively undamaged. More Indians arrived to trade, and Clark again seems impressed by their ability to navigate the rough waters of the Columbia. After bidding farewell to these Indians, the corps moved onward toward their goal of the Pacific.

Essential Themes

The Corps of Discovery Expedition, led by Lewis and Clark, was a pivotal voyage in early American history. To be sure, white people had visited the northwestern regions of the newly established United States, but their stays in the region were short, focusing on the acquisition of fur and other resources rather than on settlement. On the eastern half of the country, white people were moving into the frontier, along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. However, no one had yet found what was assumed to be a link that could help hasten American expansion into the West. The acquisition of the Louisiana Territory made it possible for this link to be established. For this reason, Jefferson was able to shepherd the Louisiana Purchase through Congress and quickly assemble the Corps of Discovery. Jefferson then turned to his most trusted man (who in turn hired his most trusted man) to lead the expedition up the Missouri toward the Columbia.

When Lewis and Clark’s party left its staging area near St. Louis, their demeanor was positive, particularly in light of the prospect of eventually reaching their goal of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. Upon leaving the outposts and encampments of the Upper Midwest, the expedition moved into uncharted territory. They were fortunate, however, to have in their group American Indians who knew not only the land they would soon enter but also how to survive in that land.

Indians would play a vital role in the expedition’s survival along both the Missouri and the Columbia Rivers. Crossing the northern Rockies (the Bitterroots) was accomplished with the guidance of the Indians in their group as well as the local tribes. Clark’s journal of November 1805 provides countless more examples of the party’s interactions with Indians, who assisted the expedition with supplies (particularly durable canoes), guidance, and hospitality. The Indians also inspired the white travelers to continue their quest. As Lewis and Clark’s party struggled against the powerful tides, currents, and waves of the Columbia River, they were amazed by the local Indians’ ability to navigate these often treacherous waters.

Lewis and Clark’s journals were not just simple accounts of the expedition’s transcontinental adventures. The two drew detailed maps, described countless landmarks and dangerous areas, and documented the characteristics of the American Indian tribes in this region. In this light, the journals served as a comprehensive and invaluable guide for westward-bound Americans. The millions of words written by the two leaders (and the party’s other members) also serve as a testament to the bravery and fortitude of the men (and women) who, despite being battered and worn by several days of harsh Northwest weather, continued to push ahead with high morale and zeal for their difficult mission.

  • “Deadly Crossing: The Bitterroots.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, n.d. Web. 9 Feb. 2013.
  • Fifer, Barbara. “Wapato and Cous Roots.” Discovering Lewis and Clark. Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, Aug. 2006. Web. 9 Feb. 2013.
  • The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. U of Nebraska–Lincoln, n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2013.
  • “Lewis and Clark Expedition Time Line.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, n.d. Web. 9 Feb. 2013.
  • “Meriwether Lewis.” The West Film Project. PBS.org, 2001. Web. 8 Feb. 2013.
  • Perry, Douglas. “Teaching with Documents: The Lewis and Clark Expedition.” National Archives. US National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 9 Feb. 2013.
  • “William Clark.” The West Film Project. PBS.org, 2001. Web. 8 Feb. 2013.
  • “William Clark.” University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2013.
Additional Readings
  • Ambrose, Stephen. Undaunted Courage. New York: Simon, 1997. Print.
  • Jones, Landon Y. The Essential Lewis and Clark. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. Print.
  • Josephy, Alvin M, Jr. Lewis and Clark through Indian Eyes. Hopkinton, MA: Vintage, 2007. Print.
  • Kirby, Don. “The Great Northern Plains as Viewed by the Lewis and Clark Expedition.” Rangelands 32.5 (2010): 2–4. Print.
  • Knapp, Paul. “Lewis and Clark’s Tempest: The ‘Perfect Storm’ of November 1805, Oregon, USA.” Holocene 21.4 (2011): 693–97. Print.

Categories: History