Lewis and Clark Trail

compiled by Karen Bassett, Jim Renner, and Joyce White copyright 1998 ~ all rights reserved Oregon Trails Coordinating Council

In 1804, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery, under direction from President Thomas Jefferson, set forth on a lengthy expedition into the Western Lands of the continent to survey the resources, to serve as US ambassadors to the native tribes living there, and to locate a waterway that would equal the Mississippi River as a means of transporting goods and products from the interior of North America to worldwide markets.

The successful completion of the Lewis and Clark Expedition strengthened the United States’ possessory claim to the Pacific Northwest and the lands drained by the Columbia River and its tributaries. The journals kept by the explorers provided the initial knowledge of the American West, describing the geography, flora, and fauna of the region and the first recorded contacts with native peoples who lived here.

Historical context

As early as 1783, Thomas Jefferson mulled an expedition to explore the Missouri River and the lands west of the mighty river. His intentions were fed by a lifelong curiosity about the country and the people living in the “unknown” lands of North America. In 1804, one year after Napoleon deeded rights to the land bounded by the 49th parallel, the Rockies, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico to the Americans (in what was later to be called the Louisiana Purchase), President Jefferson sent the Corps of Discovery into Western Lands.

With a small band of engineers, botanists, linguists, soldiers, and guides (43 souls in all), Meriwether Lewis, 30, and William Clark, 34, set forth up the Missouri River on May 14, 1804, from their winter headquarters at Wood River, Illinois Territory, near St. Louis. After wintering in 1804-05 with Mandan tribes near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota, the Corps of Discovery (this time with 32 members, including Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman married to a French trapper) pushed further west along waterways and overland to the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers.

On October 18, 1805, the Expedition began its journey down the Columbia River. The navigational problems they experienced on the swift Snake River were minor compared to the four major barriers they faced on the Columbia: Celilo Falls, the Short Narrows of The Dalles, the Long Narrows of the lower Dalles, and the Cascades. Portages were often necessary, but eager to reach the Pacific Ocean, Lewis and Clark occasionally took chances and ran their canoes through dangerous areas. In addition to water hazards, the Expedition encountered problems with a number of tribal groups along the lower Columbia River. Some were friendly and cooperative, others were shrewd and crafty.

The Corps of Discovery’s problems were perhaps balanced by the increasing indications that the end of their long westward journey was near. On November 7, 1805, Clark joyously recorded that the Pacific Ocean was in view, unaware that the wide expanse of water they were seeing was only the estuary of the Columbia. Actual sight of the Pacific did not occur until November 15, 1805, from the Expedition’s Chinook Point campsite on the north side of the Columbia estuary.

The lack of game and shelter and inclement weather, made the Columbia’s north bank an unsatisfactory location for a winter camp. On November 25, 1805, the Expedition headed upriver and crossed to the south side the following day. A winter campsite was finally reached on December 7. The Corps set to work building a fortification and quarters, which they named Fort Clatsop after the Indians in the vicinity. Moving day was December 25, completion was December 30, 1805. Two of the most noted activities during their winter stay were the making of salt at a site near present-day Seaside and Clark’s trip to see a whale which had washed ashore near today’s Cannon Beach. The majority of time was spent hunting, curing meat, tanning leather, drawing maps, and reworking their journal entries.

After wintering at Fort Clatsop, a period in which their journals indicated only six days without rain, the Expedition began their homeward journey on March 23, 1806. Just below The Dalles, Lewis and Clark decided to travel by shore and avoid the water barriers they had traversed before. Procuring horses, they traveled along the north side of the Columbia, crossing above the confluence of the Walla Walla River to follow an overland shortcut to the Nez Perce villages.

Lewis & Clark returned to St. Louis on September 23, 1806, having traveled more than 3500 miles. Their journals revealed a vast inventory of the people and resources of the Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest, helping the United States lay claim to the land beyond the Missouri. The details of the western lands, those lands already understood and treasured by native peoples, were rich indeed. Lewis & Clark’s journals describe Tribal languages and customs; plants, animals, fossils, waterways, geology, topography, and the expedition’s adventures and events. In subsequent years, the knowledge gained from the expedition’s efforts provided many Americans with a fuller account of the potential and the opportunity possible in a large part of the West.