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How long did it take Lewis & Clark to reach the Pacific Ocean?

Having grown up in Oregon, I'm used to seeing signs for the Oregon Trail, Scenic Byways and the Lewis & Clark Trail. That being said, not much thought went into the travel history those signs actually represented. So here I am with a little history lesson regarding today's Daily Doodle about Lewis and Clark, who, on this day in history 1806, started their journey back home from Fort Clatsop (close to present day Astoria, Oregon) near the the Pacfic Ocean.

It all started with Thomas Jefferson's desire to find what visionaries had long believed, the ladder of rivers stretching across North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific which could provide easy passage across the United States.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition began in 1804, when President Thomas Jefferson tasked Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809), his former secretary, with exploring lands west of the Mississippi River that comprised the Louisiana Purchase. Lewis chose William Clark (1770-1838) as his co-leader for the mission. Even though Clark was once Lewis’ superior, Lewis was technically in charge of the trip. But for all intents and purposes, the two shared equal responsibility.

Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1803-04 at Camp Dubois on the east bank of the Mississippi River, upstream from St. Louis. Here the captains recruited more men, increasing the ranks of the "Corps of Volunteers for Northwest Discovery" to more than 40. As spring approached, the members of the Expedition gathered food and supplies and packed them into barrels, bags, and boxes. The boats were loaded and the party made ready to depart.

On May 14, 1804, the expedition was officially underway. The party numbered more than 45, their ages ranged from 17 to 35, with an average age of 27. On August 20, 1804, one of Lewis and Clark's favorites, Sgt. Charles Floyd (22years old), died from what is believed to have been a burst appendix. He was the only member of the Corps of Discovery to die during the expedition. A large monument marks his final resting place near Sioux City, Iowa.

Lewis, Clark, and other members of the Expedition kept journals, a practice that continued throughout the journey. Map-making was equally important, particularly in the previously unexplored regions. As the explorers encountered new rivers and streams, they were responsible for naming them. They named some for famous Americans, such as Jefferson and James Madison, and others for friends and members of the Expedition. The same was true for some of the new plants and animals they encountered. Many of these names are still in use today.

By October, the Corps of Discovery reached the Mandan and Hidatsa villages located in present-day North Dakota. They built Fort Mandan, which is where they spent the winter of 1804/05. While at Fort Mandan, Lewis and Clark recruited Toussaint Charbonneau as an interpreter. Charbonneau was French-Canadian and had lived with the Hidatsa for many years. His (approximately)16 year old wife, Sacagawea, was Lemhi Shoshone who had been captured years earlier and was living with the Hidatsa. In February 1805, she gave birth to their baby boy and named him Jean Baptiste, who Clark nicknamed “Pomp” or “Pompy.”

During the cold winter at Fort Mandan, the members of the Expedition prepared a shipment that was to be sent back to President Jefferson. The shipment included maps, written reports, items made by Native Americans, the skins and skeletons of previously unknown animals, soil samples, minerals, seeds, and cages containing a live prairie dog, a sharp-tailed grouse, and magpies. The large keelboat and about a dozen men were dispatched downriver on April 7. The shipment was received at the President's House in Washington four months later.

Proceeding into present-day Montana, the explorers were amazed by herds of buffalo numbering more than 10,000 and by the ferocity of grizzly bears. On June 13, more than two months after leaving Fort Mandan, the Expedition reached the Great Falls of the Missouri River, one of the greatest natural obstacles it would face. A 10-mile stretch of river that dropped more than 400 feet over five cascades.

In late July, the Expedition reached the Three Forks of the Missouri River then headed southwest, up the shallow, swift stream they named the Jefferson River. Sacagawea recognized Beaverhead Rock (north of present-day Dillon, Montana) and said the party was near the home of her people, the Shoshone. Desperate to find the Indians and their horses, Lewis decided to scout ahead with three men. On August 12, Lewis ascended the final ridge to the Continental Divide on the Lemhi Pass (on the present-day border between Montana and Idaho). From the summit he expected to see plains with a large river flowing to the Pacific Ocean. But when he reached the peak and looked west, he came to the realization that there was no water route to the Pacific Ocean, only more mountains.

A few days later, Lewis came upon a Shoshone village and tried to negotiate for horses needed to cross the daunting mountains. Clark and the rest of the Expedition arrived and Sacagawea was brought in to help translate. She was reunited with her brother, Cameahwait, the Shoshone chief. The explorers set up camp near the Indian village and named it Camp Fortunate. The Shoshones provided the Expedition with some horses, a guide named Old Toby who had traveled through the mountains before, and information about mountain trails and other Indian tribes the explorers might encounter. The entire Expedition proceeded through the Lemhi Pass and made camp along a creek. This camp was called Traveler's Rest.

Even though winter was fast approaching and snow was covering some of the peaks, Lewis and Clark decided to continue on through the Bitterroots, a range of the Rocky Mountains. Cameahwait had told them of a trail (Lolo Trail) used by the Nez Perce. Unfortunately, the Expedition failed to locate this trail and spent many more days in the treacherous mountains than necessary. Temperatures dropped below freezing and the trail was steep and rocky. The men were fatigued and food supplies were low, but the Expedition succeeded in making it across the mountains. Game was still scarce, so Lewis and Clark purchased roots, fish, and dogs from the Nez Perce.

On October 7, 1805, the Expedition put five new canoes into the Clearwater River and, for the first time since leaving St. Louis, paddled downstream. The party went down the Clearwater and Snake Rivers to the Columbia River, which the explorers knew flowed into the Pacific Ocean. By the end of October the Expedition had made its way around the falls of the Columbia and saw Mount Hood. In November the Pacific Ocean was sighted. They arrived November 15, 1805, one year, 6 months and 1 day after departing from St. Louis. Clark estimated in his journal that the party had traveled 4,162 miles from the mouth of the Missouri River. Surprisingly he was only off by 40 miles!

By Christmas, the men had nearly finished their winter quarters, which they called Fort Clatsop after the local Indian tribe. The explorers spent the cold, rainy, generally miserable winter (welcome to Oregon) updating their journals, trading with the Natives for food and other needed items, and preparing for the long return journey.

On March 23, 1806, Lewis and Clark presented Fort Clatsop to Chief Coboway (a Clatsop Indian) and the Expedition began its trek home. The party reached the Nez Perce lands in May but had to wait there until late June for the snows to melt on the Bitterroots. Once it crossed the mountains and reached Traveler's Rest, the Expedition split up. Lewis took part of the men north and Clark led a party down the Yellowstone River. On July 26, Lewis and his men become engaged in a fight with Blackfeet warriors, who were attempting to take Lewis' crew's horses and guns. Two of the warriors were killed, but no one was lost from the Expedition party. On August 12, the entire Expedition was reunited at the point where the Yellowstone flows into the Missouri River.

Traveling with the Missouri's current, the Expedition was able to cover up to 70 miles in a day. The explorers reached the Mandan villages on August 14, and there parted company with Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and young Jean Baptiste. The Expedition finished its journey when it reached St. Louis on September 23, 1806. President Jefferson had thought that the men would be gone for about a year, and consequently had feared for their safety. In fact, it took the Lewis and Clark Expedition two years, four months, and nine days to travel across the western part of the continent and back.

President Jefferson's instructions to Lewis were so extensive as to be almost impossible to fulfill, yet he viewed the Expedition as a tremendous success. The discoveries made by the explorers changed the vision of this young country. No water route to the Pacific was found, but accurate and detailed maps were drawn. Peaceful contact was made with Native American tribes and trade was discussed. The body of knowledge added to the scientific community proved to be truly invaluable and vast reaches of North America had been explored. Lewis and Clark's "voyage of discovery" turned out to be one of Thomas Jefferson's most enduring legacies.

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