The Lewis and Clark Exploration: One of the Most Important Events in American History

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This is Steve Ember. And this is Shirley Griffith, with the VOA Special English program Explorations. Today we finish the story of Lewis and Clark and the land they explored in the American Northwest. We also tell about plans to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of their exploration.

We have told how Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led a group of men and one woman across the American Northwest. The group was known as the Corps of Discovery. They began their trip on May fourteenth, 1804, in Saint Louis, near the central part of the country. It was more than one year before they reached the Pacific coast near the Columbia River. They had traveled by river, horse and foot more than six thousand six hundred kilometers.

President Thomas Jefferson asked Lewis to lead an exploration of the northwestern part of the country. He wanted Lewis to learn as much about the land, people, animals and plants as he could. Jefferson asked that Lewis write about the progress of his group each day. Lewis and Clark kept very careful records. Often, Lewis would use more than one thousand words to tell about an animal or a bird. Both men drew maps and pictures of what they saw.

The Corps of Discovery reached the Pacific Ocean near the present city of Astoria, Oregon. The group suffered a lot during that winter. It was not very cold, but it was always wet. It rained almost every day during the winter months between 1805 and 1806. Lewis wrote that everything got wet and stayed wet. Many of the men became sick. The men had little to do except hunt for food. They also made new clothing from animal skins for the return home.

William Clark organized most of the hunting during the long winter months. At the same time, he worked on his second map. The map showed where the group had been since it left the area that now is the north central state of North Dakota. It showed their travels all the way from there to Fort Clatsop on the West Coast. Clark drew a correct picture of the American West for the first time.

Meriwether Lewis stayed inside Fort Clatsop and wrote, day after day, of the things they found. He wrote information about one hundred different animals they had seen. Of these, eleven birds, two fish, and eleven mammals had not been recorded before.

He also wrote about plants and trees. He had never seen many of these before. Neither had modern science known about them. He tried to make his reports scientific.

Modern scientists say his information is still good. They say he was extremely careful and provided valuable information for the time. Experts say Lewis wrote more like a scientist of today than one of his own century.

On March twenty-third, 1806, the explorers left Fort Clatsop and started back up the Columbia River. Progress was slow as the Corps of Discovery climbed higher toward the mountains. They traded with Indians for horses. In the month of May they stayed with a tribe called the Nez Perce.

The Nez Perce said it would not be possible for the explorers to cross the mountains then. The snow was still too deep. Lewis did not agree. The group went forward. They found the Nez Perce were right. The snow was several meters deep. They were forced to stop and return down the mountain.

The Nez Perce agreed to provide guides to take them through the mountains. The Corps of Discovery finally crossed the mountains in the last days of June.

Lewis divided the Corps of Discovery when they left the mountains. He wanted three different groups to go three different ways to learn more about the land. Lewis and his group soon found Indians. They were members of the Piegan tribe, part of the Blackfeet, a war-like group.

At first the Indians were friendly. Then, one tried to take a gun from one of the men. A fight began. Two Indians were killed. It was the only time during the trip that any fighting took place between native Americans and the Corps of Discovery. The fight forced Lewis's group to leave the area very quickly.

The three groups met again in August of 1806. Traveling on the rivers was easier that in the beginning of their trip. The explorers now were going in the same direction as the current. They were in a hurry to get home. They had been away for two years and five months.

Each minute they traveled brought them closer to their homes, their families and friends. On September third, they saw several men traveling on the river. They learned that President Jefferson had been re-elected and was still president of the United States.

A few days later, one member of the group asked Lewis and Clark if he could remain behind. He wanted to go with a group of fur traders that was returning to the area of the Yellowstone River. His name was John Colter. Colter returned up the river and into the wild land. Later Colter became the first American to see the Yellowstone Valley, which became the first national park, Yellowstone. He also became famous as one of the first mountain men in American history to open the way to the Rocky Mountains.

The Corps of Discovery reached Saint Louis on September twenty-third, 1806. They had very little food or supplies left, but they were back. Large celebrations were held in the small town. Lewis and Clark learned that most people believed they were dead. Lewis immediately wrote a long report to President Jefferson and placed it in the mail. A few days later President Jefferson knew they had arrived home safely and their trip had been a great success.

Experts today say the Lewis and Clark trip was one of the most important events in American history. They also agree that no two men could have done a better job or been more successful. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark added greatly to the knowledge of the American Northwest.

Clark's maps provided information about huge areas that had been unknown. Lewis discovered and told about one hundred seventy-eight new plants, most of them from the far West. He also found one hundred twenty-two different kinds of animals that had been recorded. There was also one great failure, however. Lewis and Clark were not able to find a way to reach the Pacific Ocean using rivers. There was no northwest passage that could be used by boats.

The Lewis and Clark expedition was also a political success. It helped the United States make a legal claim to a huge amount of land that had been bought by President Jefferson from France. The United States bought the land just as the Corps of Discovery began its trip. This land is now the middle part of the United States. It was called the Louisiana Territory. President Jefferson wanted the future United States to include this land, and all other land between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.

Now it is two hundred years since the Corps of Discovery made its historic trip. The United States has many plans to celebrate. Some celebrations will continue until the year 2006. Committees in the cities, towns and states that Lewis and Clark passed through are planning the anniversary celebrations.

The National Park Service is also preparing special events. New books have been published, newspaper stories written and television programs produced about Lewis and Clark. And the public is once again discovering the writings of the two men who led the Corps of Discovery. Critics say the word pictures that Lewis created are as clear today as when they were written.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were the first educated white Americans to travel across the land that would become the United States. They wrote about things the American public had never seen before. They saw Native Americans before the Indians were influenced by other cultures. Their success had a lasting influence.

They showed Americans it was possible to travel across the country and settle in the far West. Lewis and Clark's exploration was the beginning of the American campaign to settle that far away, wild land.

This program was written and produced by Paul Thompson. This is Shirley Griffith. And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week at this time for another Explorations program, in Special English, here on the Voice of America.