Challenges of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Louis and Clark expedition

Three Challenges of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked upon their expedition when America was still an unknown territory — before trains, planes, hotels, or the assurance a traveler would have a reliable source of food or water. Native American attacks were a constant threat, as American dominance over the territories remained in question. Their expedition, west of the Mississippi River was an unknown quantity. “The mental maps of expedition members could not prepare them for what lay ahead; nonetheless, they met and overcame numerous challenges in the diverse habitats they encountered” (“Challenges of the Lewis and Clark Expedition,” National Geographic Society, 2001). Fears and myths abounded about the area — some said it was filled with woolly mammoths, Peruvian llamas, and blue-eyed, Welsh-speaking Indians (“Circa 1803,”, 2007). Because the climate and topography of the area was an open question, it was difficult to know what to carry, what to wear, and what mental and physical challenges to expect.

The natural climate and geography of the area was the first obstacle. Some of the things the explorer could not have even prepared for had they known more about the area. An early winter storm while the Lewis and Clark corps made their way across the Bitterroot Mountains was entirely unanticipated and a test of their endurance in the bitter cold. The animals, including bears and buffalo they encountered also frightened the men (“Challenges of the Lewis and Clark Expedition,” National Geographic Society, 2001)

Some elements of the native populace were unsurprisingly hostile, although that was expected. “An encounter between the expedition and the Teton Sioux grew tense, and both sides prepared to do battle; delicate negotiations brought the crisis to an end” (“Challenges of the Lewis and Clark Expedition,” National Geographic Society, 2001). Every tribe was different and had different attitudes to white Americans. Lewis and Clark and their men came into contact with nearly fifty Native American tribes. Some tribes had never seen a white or black man before Lewis and Clark, although others spoke English and even wore hats and coats they had obtained by trading with European sea captains (“The Native Americans,”, 2007).

To introduce themselves to tribal leaders, Lewis and Clark used a combination of intimidation and signs of friendship, and tried to speak in terms (if not the language) the Indians could understand. Lewis and Clark said to every tribe that President Thomas Jefferson was the new great father of the land and gave the Indians a peace medal “with Jefferson on one side and two hands clasping on the other” as well as some supplies (“The Native Americans,”, 2007). Then the Corps members would perform a kind of parade, marching in uniform and ritualistically firing their guns into the air (“The Native Americans,”, 2007).

The positive contact between Europeans and Native Americans is perhaps best exemplified in the persona of Sacajawea and her husband the French-Canadian trapper and fur trader, Charbonneau. Lewis and Clark admitted that it were not for Sacajawea the expedition would have met with disaster many times. Once, one of the boats capsized in a sudden squall. Sacajawea, despite the fact she was carrying a papoose on her back was able to retrieve all of the records, books and surveying instruments before they sank to the bottom of the river (“Sacajawea,” Notable Women Ancestors, 2007).

The difficulties and momentary friendships experienced between the members of the expedition and Native Americans have been well-documented. However, less publicized is the final, third challenge faced by Lewis and Clark — leading their own men. The members of their officer corps came from a diversity of regions, and their numbers were quite pluralistic in terms of religious, ethnic, educational, and social backgrounds. Many of the men were frustrated with the expedition and deserted to establish squatters’ rights on the frontier and escape the strict military discipline enforced by Lewis and Clark. “Desertion was a serious problem and was severely punished, because the loss of just a few men in the small garrisons would damage fighting capability in the event of an Indian attack” (“Circa 1803,”, 2007).

Works Cited

Challenges of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.” National Geographic Society, 2001

Dec 2007.

Circa 1803.” Lewis and Clark. 2007. 3 Dec 2007.

The Native Americans.” Lewis and Clark. 2007. 3 Dec 2007.

Sacajawea.” Notable Women Ancestors. 3 Dec 2007.

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