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Opening the American West: Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery


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This is Steve Ember. And this is Shirley Griffith, with the VOA Special English program, Explorations. Today we continue our story of Lewis and Clark. Their exploration in the early 1800s led to the opening of the American West.

Last week we told how President Thomas Jefferson suggested the trip to his private secretary Meriwether Lewis. The president said Lewis and a group of men should travel northwest up the Missouri River as far as possible and then continue west to the Pacific Ocean. The explorers were to report about the land, people, animals and plants they found.

Lewis asked his friend William Clark to join the group. Clark accepted and the two men agreed to act as equal leaders of the group they named the Corps of Discovery. Their trip began on May fourteenth, 1804.

It was one hundred sixty-four days into the trip. Lewis and Clark had traveled about 2,420 kilometers when they were stopped by the cold winter weather. They named their winter home Fort Mandan. Mandan was the name of an Indian tribe that lived nearby.

At Fort Mandan, Lewis and Clark met French Canadian hunter Toussaint Charbonneau. He was living with the Indians. He asked to join the Corps of Discovery. He also asked if his Indian wife could come too. Her name was Sacagawea. She was pregnant. Lewis and Clark agreed to let them join their group for two reasons. The first was that Charbonneau spoke several Indian languages. The second concerned Sacagawea. She came from the Shoshoni tribe that lived near the Rocky Mountains in the far West.

She had been captured as a young girl by another Indian tribe. Lewis and Clark knew that no Indian war group ever traveled with women. They knew that Sacagawea's presence with them would show Indians that the Corps of Discovery did not want to fight. Sacagawea gave birth to her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, on February

eleventh, 1805. The baby, too, would make the long trip to the Pacific Ocean. He was the youngest member of the Corps of Discovery.

In early April, the Corps of Discovery prepared to travel west. The smaller group of soldiers that had aided them during their trip to Fort Mandan prepared to return south to Saint Louis. The soldiers took the larger of the three boats the group had used to follow the Missouri River. They also took Lewis and Clark's first maps, animals, plants and reports to President Jefferson. These reports provided much detail about the land and what was on it. For example, Lewis used more than one thousand words to tell about one bird.

Today, visitors to President Jefferson's home in the southeastern state of Virginia can see many things collected by Lewis and Clark. Animal heads and weapons made by the Mandan Indian tribe

are among them.

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The Corps of Discovery again moved up the Missouri River as soon as the warm weather of spring began to return. Lewis wrote of seeing thousands of animals: American bison, deer, huge elk and very fast antelope. Lewis saw thousands of animals all feeding together.

Lewis and Clark soon decided to leave behind important information, plants and things collected from Indians. They were having problems carrying everything they were gathering. They also decided to leave extra food behind. They did this by digging a deep hole and burying everything to protect it from animals. They would do this again and again on their way west. They would collect everything on their return trip.

The explorers soon reached an area where a series of waterfalls blocked passage on the river. This area is near the modern city of Great Falls, Montana. Here, the Corps of Discovery pulled the boats from the water and took them over land to the river. They carried the boats almost thirty kilometers. To make the trip easier, they made wooden wheels for their boats. Later they buried the wheels with more food and things they had collected.

On July twenty-fifth, 1805, Meriwether Lewis and two other men saw a small river that was flowing to the west. All rivers before had flowed east or southeast. Lewis correctly guessed he had reached the line that divides the North American continent. Rain falling to the west of the imaginary line becomes rivers that flow to the Pacific Ocean.

Rain that falls to the east of the line forms rivers that flow to the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. Meriwether Lewis became the first American to cross this continental line. At that point, Lewis could tell from the huge mountains he saw ahead that they would find no waterway across the continent. A lot of the trip would have to be over land.

Meriwether Lewis met two Shoshoni Indian women in this same area. About sixty men from the tribe quickly arrived riding horses. They were dressed and painted for war. It was something that few white men ever saw -- a Shoshoni war party prepared to fight. Lewis made peace signs. There was no trouble.

Two days later, Clark arrived with the main group. The Corps of Discovery met with the Indians. At the meeting, Sacagawea began to cry as she looked at the Shoshoni chief, Cameahwait. Cameahwait was her brother. She had not seen him since she was kidnapped many years before.

Lewis and Clark could communicate with the Shoshoni Indians.

But it was not easy. Sacagawea would listen to the Shoshoni. She would then speak to her husband, Charbonneau, in the Hidatsa language. He would speak in French to a soldier in the group, Francis Labiche, who then spoke in English to Lewis. It took a long time, but it worked.

The Corps of Discovery decided to leave the boats and continue west on horses. Sacagawea helped Lewis and Clark trade for horses. She also helped them find an Indian guide to lead them. His name was Toby. It was already the month of September when they reached the high mountains. It was also extremely cold. The explorers began to suffer from a severe lack of food. They were forced to kill and eat several of their horses.

In October they found the huge Columbia River. High winds and rain slowed the group's progress. On November seventh, they reached the Pacific Ocean. Clark recorded that five hundred fifty-four days had passed since they left their camp at Wood River near Saint Louis. They had traveled six thousand six hundred forty-eight kilometers.

For several days the Corps of Discovery camped in an area that is now the extreme southern part of the state of Washington. But the hunting was poor. Indians told them the hunting would be better across the Columbia River. Lewis and Clark decided to hold a vote and let the Corps of Discovery decide. The Corps of Discovery voted to move south across the river into what is now the state of Oregon.

William Clark's black slave York and the Indian guide Sacagawea

were included in the vote. History experts say this was the first free, democratic election west of the Rocky Mountains. And they say it was the first time in American history that a black slave and a woman voted in a free election.

The explorers quickly built a camp of wooden buildings on the Columbia River. They would stay there during the winter months between 1805 and 1806. They named the buildings Fort Clatsop. "Clatsop" was the name of a nearby group of friendly Indians. The area of Fort Clatsop is very near the present city of Astoria, Oregon. Visitors to that area today can walk through a copy of Fort Clatsop that was built in 1955.

The group stayed at Fort Clatsop for four months. It rained all but twelve days. During the long winter months, the explorers hunted and preserved food. They used animal skins to make new clothes and shoes. They also studied the Indians, fish, animals and lands near the area of the fort. Clark made extremely good maps of the area. Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the other members of the Corps of Discovery were prepared for their return trip to Saint Louis. That

will be our story next time.

You have been listening to the Special English program, Explorations. This is Steve Ember. And this is Shirley Griffith. Our program today was written and  produced by Paul Thompson. Join us again next week on the Voice of America as we finish our story of Lewis and Clark and the land they explored.


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