In 1803, Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find a water route to the Pacific and explore the uncharted West
Lewis was Jefferson’s private secretary, an army officer, and an enthusiastic amateur scientist. Clark was a friend of Lewis and also an army officer. On May 14, 1804, the two men set off from a camp near St. Louis, Missouri, accompanied by a group of about 40 men. Most of the explorers were soldiers, and one was Clark’s African-American slave, a man named York. They Packed into three boats along with their supplies, the men headed upstream on the Missouri River toward the regions that now have familiar names such as Kansas, North Dakota, and Idaho. In 1804, this area was called the Louisiana Territory.
One of Jefferson’s goals for the expedition was to establish friendly relationships with the Indian tribes living in the West. Lewis and Clark had mixed success with this effort. Some tribes welcomed the explorers’ gifts and offers of alliance, while others were either uninterested or hostile.
While building their camp, the explorers met Sacagawea, who would become an important member of the Corps of Discovery. She was a young woman of the Shoshone tribe, which lived just east of the Rocky Mountains. She had been kidnapped from her people as a small child and was now married to a French-Canadian trader named Toussaint Charbonneau. Knowing they would meet the Shoshone later in their travels, Lewis and Clark hired Sacagawea and Charbonneau as interpreters.
In April 1805, the Corps of Discovery broke camp and resumed its journey west. At the same time, they sent a boat back to Thomas Jefferson in Washington, D.C., loaded with 108 botanical specimens, 68 mineral specimens, and a map of the United States drawn by William Clark.
On September 23, the Corps of Discovery came ashore in St. Louis, nearly two and a half years after their departure. The entire city turned out to celebrate the return of the heroes who had been given up for dead. Unlike many earlier explorers, Lewis and Clark did not set off in search of gold or other monetary rewards. Instead, they were returning with a far richer treasure—knowledge about the people, places, plants, and animals in the lands far west of the Mississippi.