The Corps of Discovery had both political and financial objectives.The financial reason for exploring was to facilitate fur trade with the west coast of North America and to establish trade with Indians of the interior. The political motive was to establish an American presence in the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and in the Oregon region, which included present day Oregon and Washington. French Canadians and British traders had been active in the Louisiana Purchase area for many years reaping a harvest of pelts, mainly beaver. It was important to let all foreign traders know that this was now United States territory and the United States had exclusive rights to trade. These objectives were achieved plus several other outcomes as well.
Thomas Jefferson’s choice of Meriwether Lewis was especially fortunate, as was Lewis’s selection of William Clark. Both men had remarkable intelligence, and their intelligence was the main reason for the many successes and enduring legacy of the expedition. They excelled in many ways: they averted serious confrontation with natives along the way; they had only one death, Sergeant Floyd, who died, it’s believed, from a ruptured appendix, and they had few injuries; the company of men was well-selected and well-disciplined, except for a few minor infractions and two desertions very early in the game. Much of their success can be attributed to good men with excellent leaders. They encountered many difficulties unfamiliar to their experience in the eastern part of the country. They faced the ruggedness of the Rockies, the Bitterroots, and the Cascade Mountains, the bitter winter of North Dakota, the soggy, bone-chilling winter of the northwest coast, and the raging waters of the Columbia River. Even their most experienced boatmen had never seen anything like the rapids on the Columbia River.
The most admirable skill of both Lewis and Clark was their success in personal dealings with Indian tribes. They succeeded in their relations with the Sioux, Mandan, Arikara, Nez Percé where later men failed miserably. Both Lewis and Clark acted firmly without arrogance or threats. Always they were honest and fair and showed respect for individual dignity, different beliefs and customs. They demanded the same behavior from the men of the Corps. It is hard to overstate the importance of these good actions to the overall success of the expedition.
Because of William Clark’s more gregarious nature, he was especially effective with the Indians. Clark did most of the medical treatment of the tribes and became known as the Red Headed Chief. Because of his medications for the Indians, Clark was regarded as a miracle worker. When Indians visited Saint Louis after the expedition they always asked to see Clark. When a fur company sent men into the mountains where the expedition had gone they first obtained letters of greetings and messages from Clark. Unfortunately many men who followed were not of Clark’s caliber, and good feelings toward white men ended. The Lewis and Clark expedition is a bright spot in a dark and bitter history.
Several other significant outcomes of the expedition should be listed.
1. The long-held dream of a waterway to the Pacific was finally laid to rest. The search for such a waterway in the northern hemisphere began with Columbus (1492-93-98-1502), followed by Cabot (1497), Verrazzano (1524), and many others. This eventually led to overland expeditions in search of passage to the Pacific by Hearne (1770), Mackenzie (1792), and finally Lewis and Clark (1804-06). Settling the question of a water route was not the primary objective for the Lewis and Clark expedition, but it certainly ended all hope for such a route.
2. The United States’ claim to the Pacific west became a goal, and convinced Americans that the Oregon region should be theirs. Fur traders such as John Jacob Astor quickly moved in with his American Fur Company, established Fort Astoria, and helped resolve the contest with the British for the Pacific. Astor’s fur companies were established as a direct result of the Lewis and Clark reports.
3. The scientific collections and notes provided a wealth of benchmark information of lasting value on botany, geology, and ethnography. Lewis’s voluminous notes on Indian tribes formed the first survey of western tribes as they lived in 1804. This information has permanent importance for anthropologists and historians.
4. The vast unknown area of Louisiana and westward became a real place on previously blank maps and in people’s minds: Americans now could imagine the great new territory as part of the United States. They had information about the native inhabitants, the mountains, rivers, plants, animals and climates. In 1814 a two-volume book was published with the exhausting title: A history of the expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark to the sources of the Missouri thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean performed during the years 1804-5-6. Nicholas Biddle began the book and it was finished by Paul Allen. Lewis and Clark are usually listed as co-authors along with Allen. The History… is a narrative based on the records kept by Lewis and Clark, and is the first accurate and reliable information available to the general public about the west. It quickly became, and remains today, an important source for knowledge about the west and its inhabitants before American migration and settlement began. Lewis and Clark were the first, but there were many other western expeditions throughout the nineteenth century by men such as Fremont (1843-45), Steptoe (1854), Hayden (several expeditions from 1856 to 1871), King (1867), and Powell (1869). These expeditions each went to different parts of the west and provided volumes of information just as Lewis and Clark had done.
After the expedition Meriwether Lewis received a reward of 1,600 acres of land and appointment as governor of the Louisiana Territory. He settled in Saint Louis and initially planned to publish the Corps of Discovery journals, but other events intervened. In September 1809 Lewis started an overland journey to Washington to resolve a controversy concerning a reimbursement of expenditures. He carried the journals with him to give to a publisher. Along the way he died, apparently by suicide brought about by depression and alcoholism. He was thirty-five. Allen (1814) wrote an account of the tragic end.
He stopped at the house of a Mr. Grinder, who not being at home, his wife alarmed at the symptoms of derangement she discovered, gave him up the house and retired to rest herself in an out-house, the governor’s (Lewis) and Neely’s servants lodging in another. About three o’clock in the night he did the deed which plunged his friends into affliction, and deprived his country of one of her most valued citizens.
William Clark was appointed brigadier general of the Louisiana Territory and the U.S. agent for Indian affairs and later governor of the Missouri Territory with headquarters in Saint Louis. Initially he tried to introduce assimilation programs, but in the end became involved in removing Indians from their ancestral lands. While in office Clark transferred millions of acres of Indian land to the United States.
Clark’s slave, York, went on the expedition and served as Clark’s valet, worked as one of the Corps members, but without pay, and was given a voice in group decisions. Having experienced a degree of freedom during the expedition, York later asked Clark to free him based on his good service as hunter, scout and diplomat on the expedition. Clark at first refused, but eventually granted York his freedom—ten years later. Clark died in 1838 at age sixty-eight.
Allen, Paul; Meriwether Lewis; William Clark. A history of the expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark to the sources of the Missouri thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean performed during the years 1804-5-6. New York: Bradford and Inskeep. 1814.
DeVoto, Bernard. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1953.