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Lewis & Clark: 200 years later

Sunday, August 10, 2003

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark accomplished two centuries ago what many people still dream of doing today: Discovering a wondrous frontier at their own pace and their employer's expense.

(Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette illustration Click for larger version.)

Series articles:

Part One:
200 years later, it's still one wondrous road trip

Part Two:
Beneath the haze, a town's wonders hint at the heady days to come

Part Three:
Aristocrats, educators soften the edges of a still-rowdy town

Part Four:
Who built the big boat?

Part Five:
Politics define and divide a small town's ruling class

Part Six:
Two counties growing, but frontier was dominant

Part Seven:
Adventurers from the Pittsburgh region join the expedition

Part Eight:
Lewis & Clark expedition got slow start from the banks of the Monongahela

In a military expedition commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, the two Army buddies and the 31 other permanent members of their team crawled along mosquito-clogged riverbanks and over daunting, snow-covered mountains.

They won stand-offs with grizzly bears and ate dogs and horses when their rations ran out. They met and established diplomatic relations with 30 to 40 Indian tribes, then leaned mightily on those ties to survive their trek.

The main quest was for a water route Jefferson hoped would link the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, spurring westward expansion and stealing Britain's lucrative fur trade in the bargain.

The watery Northwest Passage turned out to be a fable but that hardly crimped the explorers' scope of discovery or the collective will of the men whose might and moxie cranked the expedition's oars and sails.

During an 8,000-mile, 28-month journey that began in Pittsburgh, touched the Pacific and ended in St. Louis, Lewis made detailed observations of plants and animals. Clark mapped some of the 820,000 acres the United States acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Jefferson's masterful stroke of real estate dealing.

Along the expedition's route, from now through 2006, 16 states will commemorate the trip's 200th anniversary with enough academic conferences, museum exhibits, films and re-enactments to satiate even the hungriest history buffs.

Although Lewis first launched his keelboat in Pittsburgh on Aug. 31, 1803, the city is not hosting one of the 16 national "signature events."

But it will mark the anniversary with an exhibit at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.

This Post-Gazette series of articles through August will examine the Lewis and Clark expeditions, and the Pittsburgh they found when they arrived to launch their journey.

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