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People believed that Lewis and Clark would find woolly mammoths and maybe even unicorns on their expedition

History columnist Curt Eriksmoen continues the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Corps of Discovery.

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FARGO — The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806, which went through the present-day northwestern U.S., was filled with high expectations. Government officials knew very little about this region, and virtually nothing was known by the average citizen of this country.

Thomas Jefferson, the president who envisioned and later authorized the expedition, first expressed an interest “in having men cross the North American continent” in 1792 when he urged the American Philosophical Society to finance such an expedition. Jefferson’s plan did not materialize at that time, but his dream became much more of a reality in 1800 when he was elected president.

With the assistance of his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson put together a proposal to Congress, requesting funding for an expedition that would be led by Lewis. To Jefferson, the reasoning for the expedition had many elements, but to get Congress to be more willing to fund it, the official reason was “commerce and trade.”

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Great Britain had a virtual monopoly on the lucrative fur trade in the northwestern region of North America, and it was logical that the U.S. would want to tap into that. By sending out an expedition, we could not only get a good assessment of the potential abundance of animals to be harvested for their furs and pelts, but we could also establish good relations with the Native Americans in that area who would serve as our trading partners. Jefferson also wanted to learn about the valuable minerals that existed in that part of the continent.

The British had established transportation routes from the Atlantic to the Pacific in Canada, but the U.S. did not have such a route. We knew that the Rocky Mountains were a major barrier for east to west travel and we needed to locate suitable routes through that barrier.


Science was also another reason for the expedition. Jefferson believed that there were plant and animal species in the Pacific Northwest that had not been identified. He had studied fossil remains of the huge woolly mammoths and he hoped that this expedition would locate herds of those animals. According to historian D. Jerome Tweton, “others thought that unicorns and 7-feet-tall beavers lived in these unknown lands.”

On Jan. 18, 1803, President Jefferson sent his proposal to Congress requesting authorization and funding for Lewis to lead an expedition to and from the Pacific Northwest. On Feb. 22, Congress approved $2,500 for the expedition. While Lewis was busy organizing for the journey, word reached Jefferson that Napoleon, the emperor of France, “wished to sell France’s holdings in North America.”

On April 30, Secretary of State James Madison and Robert Livingston, the U.S. ambassador to France, negotiated the purchase of Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million. On Oct. 20, Congress ratified the treaty for the Louisiana Purchase and, on Dec. 20, France transferred the territory to the U.S.

Meriwether Lewis (left) and William Clark.
Contributed / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Lewis named his good friend, William Clark, as co-commander of the expedition and then concentrated his efforts on obtaining a keelboat and supplies and equipment for the trip. He left the responsibility of recruiting the 44 men needed for the expedition to Clark. The crew would be an assortment of “soldiers, hunters, carpenters, boatmen, and blacksmiths, all capable frontiersmen.” Collectively, the men on the expedition would be known as the “Corps of Discovery.”

One additional member making the journey was a 150-pound Newfoundland dog named Seaman that Lewis had purchased in 1803. Lewis chose that breed of dog “because they do well on boats, are good swimmers, and can assist in water rescues.”

Seaman proved to be a valuable addition to the expedition. He caught squirrels that provided food for the members of the expedition. He retrieved geese and deer, and “once killed and retrieved an antelope swimming across a river.” Seaman warned the men when bears entered their camp and once “drove off a buffalo while the men were sleeping.” He was also a great comfort to Lewis who appeared happiest when Seaman was at his side.

The expedition officially began in mid-May 1804 when the men started their way up the Missouri River at a point north of St. Louis. Much of the trip on the Missouri during the summer of 1804 was uneventful until they encountered a group of Teton Lakota Indians near present-day Pierre, S.D., on Sept. 25. The Tetons thought that they were merchants selling rifles to their enemies. “After three restless days, the Teton chief spoke of peace and the expedition’s journey was allowed to proceed.”

In late October, the Corps of Discovery reached the mouth of the Knife River, near the location of present-day Washburn, N.D. This was the home of five villages of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Indians. This was the site where Lewis and Clark decided to establish their winter quarters and they named it Fort Mandan. They built heavy fortifications at Fort Mandan and through hunting and trading with the Native Americans, they put up provisions for the winter.


On Nov. 11, they made the discovery that living at the five villages was a French-Canadian trader named Toussaint Charbonneau who was married to “two Squaws from the Rocky Mountain area.” One of those women was 17-year-old Sakakawea, who was Shoshone and several months pregnant. Lewis and Clark convinced Charbonneau and Sakakawea to join their expedition as guides and interpreters when they would continue their expedition in the early spring.

That winter, the members of the Corps experienced the coldest temperatures they had ever known. In January, the temperature dropped to 45 degrees below zero. “It was so cold that some of the expedition’s hard liquor became frozen solid in 15 minutes.” If not for the assistance of the Native Americans in the area, who were accustomed to surviving in severe temperatures, it is likely some of the members of the expedition may have perished.

On Feb. 11, 1805, Sakakawea gave birth to a baby boy named Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, nicknamed “Pompey” by Clark. With just a couple of months before weather conditions would be well enough to resume travel, they all hoped that the infant would be strong enough to accompany his mother on the long journey that remained ahead of them.

With the breakup of the ice on the Missouri River by April 7, the keelboat was sent back down the river to St. Louis and the Corps proceeded westward on two pirogues (long, narrow canoes) and six dugout canoes.

We will continue the story of Meriwether Lewis and the Corps of Discovery next week.

Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com or calling 701-793-8508.
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