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Lewis & Clark: 200 years later, it's still one wondrous road trip

First of a series

Sunday, July 13, 2003

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

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.)

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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.

Jefferson's desire to explore the west had burned for three decades before Lewis and Clark took a single step, but the pair succeeded where three previous expeditions had sputtered or failed.

Their military backgrounds, friendship and separate curiosities seemed to make the difference.

By the time he set sail for the Pacific at age 29, Lewis had already seen much of the western frontier, traveled by keelboat and, in desperation, eaten rotten bear meat. He'd also served in a special Army company of sharpshooters led by Clark, whom he befriended. A skilled backwoodsman, rifleman and negotiator, the 33-year-old Clark was even-keeled and managerial, a good balance to the moody, mercurial Lewis.

Today, their finest collaboration is being celebrated across the country in what might be thought of as a Lewis and Clark lollapalooza.

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."

William Clark (Independence National Historic Park)

But it will mark the anniversary with an exhibit at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center that opens Tuesday and features a replica of the keelboat.

Lewis arrived in Pittsburgh on July 15, 1803, and departed six weeks later. During that time, he sweated and swore while he waited for a surly, drunken boat builder to finish the keelboat that would perform so admirably on so many rivers.

Once under way on that hot August day, Lewis stopped three miles south of the Point at Brunot's Island, where he demonstrated his air gun to the amazement of onlookers.

After a man took the gun from Lewis, it discharged accidentally, knocked off a woman's hat and she fell like a bowling pin. Luckily, she was neither dead nor seriously injured and Lewis and his 11-member crew returned immediately to their keelboat.

The history center's exhibit also features artifacts that belonged to the Brunot family, including a buffalo skull and a Charles Wilson Peale portrait of Betsy Brunot, who may have been the woman who lost her hat to the air gun.

Learning the basics

Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home in Charlottesville was 11 miles from Locust Hill, the large plantation Lewis inherited as a boy after his father died. Jefferson knew Lewis was an expert horseman, loved to roam the woods and had a deep knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants.

Lewis' family had a distinguished coat of arms: "All Earth is to a Brave Man His Country," it read. In retrospect, the phrase seems prophetic.

Meriwether Lewis (Independence National Historic Park)

By the time President Jefferson invited Lewis to become his personal secretary in 1801, the young adventurer had added a decade of diverse service in the U.S. Army to his resume.

Lewis began an intensive apprenticeship in Washington, living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in the damp, dreary East Room, where Abigail Adams once hung her wash. He met the elite, absorbed military politics, read in Jefferson's vast library and examined maps with Albert Gallatin, secretary of the treasury and an avid map collector.

In January 1803, Congress authorized the expedition and Jefferson chose Lewis to lead it. In the first half of that year, Lewis studied in Philadelphia where the nation's top scientists taught him zoology, geography, celestial navigation, botany, ornithology, history and philosophy.

Then, he began purchasing supplies and invited Clark, his friend and former military superior, to help him lead the expedition.

One day after newspapers reported the Louisiana Purchase on July 4, 1803, Lewis set out for Pittsburgh, arriving on July 15.

The best news Lewis received while in Pittsburgh was that Clark had accepted his invitation. As soon as the keelboat was finished on the morning of Aug. 31, Lewis and 11 men loaded it and pushed it into the dangerously low Monongahela River.

The two captains had their pick of tough military men eager for adventure. Patrick Gass, an Irish carpenter from Western Pennsylvania, was chosen at Fort Kaskaskia in Indiana. John Colter joined the expedition in Pittsburgh; George Shannon, the youngest member of the group, also is believed to have joined in Pittsburgh.

"They had to be comfortable being alone and being some place that was strange to them that had a lot of danger," said David Halaas, museum division director at the Heinz History Center.

"That's the reason that Lewis and Clark had so much confidence in these guys. They were saucy. They didn't back down from anybody."

When he reached Clarksville, Ind., Lewis met up with Clark, who had selected nine men from Kentucky. Clark was accompanied by his black slave, York, the only African-American on the trip.

Sacagawea (Michael Haynes)

As historians have increasingly stressed the story's multicultural threads, York's importance has grown along with that of Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman whose interpretive skills helped the explorers obtain the horses they needed to cross the Rocky Mountains.

"The presence of Sacagawea, first, and York, second, is what saved the expedition," said Thomas Slaughter, a University of Notre Dame historian.

When Indians saw Sacagawea with her infant son and York, that forced them to re-evaluate their initial impressions of the group, Slaughter said, adding that most Indians had never seen an African-American.

They had to say, "OK, so it's not a war party. What is it? And who is that black guy? That piques curiosity and taps into the spiritual side of the Indians. York is quite spectacular. His physical presence is amazing and quite magical," Slaughter said.

A daily endurance test

On Nov. 20, 1803, Lewis and Clark set out at the mouth of the Ohio River in Illinois for St. Louis. As the boat inched its way up the Mississippi, they realized the expedition would need more than 25 men to move the keelboat and the two large canoes loaded with supplies. Eventually, about three dozen people made up the party.

The group wintered at Camp Wood, near St. Louis, and finally began its first sustained westward push on May 21, 1804. Exploration in the 19th century quickly presented itself in all its primitive splendor.

Besides the daily struggle for food and firewood, the men paddled a 12-ton keelboat upstream against the current. Sometimes, the boat was pulled with ropes or pushed with poles.

After scouting a camp site, they hunted for food, cooked supper and recorded their daily findings. Lewis often stayed up late doing celestial navigation to chart the expedition's course.

Near Pierre, S.D., Lewis and Clark confronted the Teton Sioux in late September 1804. When tribal leaders appeared dissatisfied with the gift of some medals and a hat, Lewis and Clark served them whiskey aboard the keelboat. One chief insisted he would not allow the party to pass unless the Indians received more presents.

After Clark drew his sword and Lewis ordered all men to cock their weapons and load the mounted cannon, the warriors backed down.

York (Michael Haynes)

By October 1804, the expedition arrived at five villages occupied by 4,000 Indians, including Mandans and Hidatsas. There, they built Fort Mandan and settled in for a bitterly cold five-month stretch.

During that time, they met and contracted the services of Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian trader in his mid-40s. Charbonneau had two Shoshone wives, one of whom was Sacagawea. Both women were captured, while teen-agers, by a Hidatsa raiding party around 1800. Charbonneau won the women in a bet with Indian warriors who held them captive.

Most historians agree the expedition hired Charbonneau because Sacagawea could talk to the Shoshones and trade with them for horses.

Dashed hopes

After leaving Fort Mandan in spring 1805, the expedition moved up the Missouri River where they found the river's Great Falls and spent six arduous weeks portaging around them. They wore out their moccasins while stepping on a carpet of prickly pears and carried canoes and supplies through sun, hailstones and strong winds.

After all of that hardship, the expedition reached Lemhi Pass in Montana in late summer. If the portage had left them bone weary, what Lewis saw at the Continental Divide deflated his spirit and dashed his hopes of finding a water route.

The fearsome view of the Rocky Mountains' Bitterroot Range told Lewis there was no all-water route across the continent and that crossing these mountains would make the portage seem like a summer stroll. The Bitterroots, which form most of the border between Montana and Idaho, range from 2,000 to nearly 11,000 feet high.

Also in Montana, near a site now called Camp Fortunate, Sacagawea recognized Shoshone Indian Chief Cameahwait as her brother. She ran to embrace him and wept.

The emotional family reunion was extremely fortuitous. With Sacagawea serving as translator, the expedition bought 29 horses from the Shoshones and set off on a treacherous crossing over the Bitterroots.

Finally, they arrived at a Nez Perce village on Weippe Prairie, Idaho. After branding their horses, they left the animals in the care of Twisted Hair, a Nez Perce, and headed down the Columbia River toward the Pacific Ocean.

After a miserable, wet night and a morning shrouded in fog, the skies cleared on the afternoon of Nov. 7, 1805. The men shouted because they believed they could see the Pacific ahead. Clark wrote in his journal, "Ocian in view! O! the joy."

More research:

To search the journals of Lewis and Clark, try the Web site of:

To read more about the explorers and the artists who painted the explorers, visit these Web sites:


Not far from that point, members of the expedition spent their last tough winter together at quarters they built in Astoria, Ore. During those cold months at Fort Clatsop, Clark completed his map of the Louisiana Territory while Lewis documented the more than 100 animals he had observed.

By March 1806, they were eager to begin their return. They recrossed the Bitterroots, covering 156 miles in six days. The initial crossing had taken 11 days.

By Sept. 23, 1806, the expedition was back in St. Louis.

Scholarly skirmishes

Among historians looms a Continental Divide of characterizations about what the expedition means to Americans today.

In the "undaunted courage" camp of the late author Stephen Ambrose, Lewis and Clark exemplify the ultimate male bonding ritual that occurs during a romanticized road, rapids and rugged mountains trip.

To Ambrose, the two men and their Corps of Discovery are a case study in persistence, problem solving and superior military leadership.

The crew cleared so many obstacles that they became a tightly knit family who knew one another's strengths and foibles.

From the more skeptical view of Notre Dame's Thomas Slaughter, the expedition feeds our nation's need for myths. The explorers have become "LewisandClark," an American brand of machismo wrapped in patriotic cliches and sold to tourists to satiate cultural and commercial needs in the post 9/11 era.

"If we are insecure about our moral center as a nation -- and we should be -- we'd want to go to celebrations of ourselves to reassure ourselves that we are a moral people," said Slaughter, author of "Exploring Lewis and Clark: Reflections on Men and Wilderness."

Slaughter's reading of the journals reveals a Lewis and Clark who rationalized stealing from tribal peoples even as they took great offense when the Indians took their horses; slaughtered animals they never ate and claimed to be first when they knew better.

Both of those viewpoints are extreme, said the Heinz History Center's Halaas, who likes the more moderate take espoused by James Ronda, author of "Lewis and Clark Among the Indians."

In that book, "The captains are no longer lone heroes but are guided by tribes all the way across" the continent, Halaas said.

The explorers' arrival was a double-edged sword.

"There was good for the Indians because they were establishing trade relations that would greatly expand what they already had. But in doing that, they were opening themselves to the encroachment of whites and all that that brought," Halaas said.

"Nobody that I know of disputes the fact that this was one of the great white explorations in history -- 32 men and a woman going through unknown territory and getting back alive. That's fabulous -- 8,000 miles and there was danger every step of the way," Halaas said.

But the explorers' arrogance also is unmistakable, he added.

"There is a lot between the gung ho and the more critical," Halaas said.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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