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EIU Teaching with Primary Sources

The Corp of Discovery
Revealing the American West

Lewis and Clark Header

Introduction | Primary Sources and Analysis Tools 
Library of Congress Resources | Primary Source Set

Choose a link below to access printable PDF versions of these materials including additional information, color images and citations.
The Corp of Discovery - Revealing the American West Resource Booklet | Primary Source Set


The explorations of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, which was referred to as the Corps of Discovery, provided a vital piece to the puzzle of westward discovery and expansion in North America. Textbooks present the basic facts about this journey, but they fail to include the lesser known details which make Lewis and Clark’s story so intriguing. This booklet provides a window into the past through a variety of primary sources regarding the explorations and discoveries of Lewis and Clark. The primary sources consist of historical documents, maps, letters, journals and photographs. These items are found within the digitized collections of the Library of Congress.

Thomas Jefferson played an important role in the journey of Lewis and Clark, and westward expansion. He planned the expedition, organized funding for it, and recruited Lewis and Clark as the lead explorers. Jefferson’s administration also initiated the Louisiana Purchase Treaty which more than doubled the size of the United States and made the westward movement possible. The Louisiana territory was purchased from France, for less than three cents per acre.

Twelve days after the signing of the treaty, Lewis and Clark began their exploration of the new American land. In a letter to William Dunbar, Jefferson stated:  “We shall deliberate with correctness the great arteries of this great country:  those who come after us will extend the ramifications as they become acquainted with them and fill up the canvas we begin.” Lewis and Clark’s journals and maps from their travels revealed an abundance of new information about the American West.

Go West Young Men!

The year was 1804 when President Thomas Jefferson asked his private secretary and military captain, Meriwether Lewis, to venture west. In a letter, Jefferson made his intensions for the expedition known to Lewis. The central mission of the expedition would be to find the water passage that stretched across the continent, for the purposes of commerce. It would be discovered that this waterway did not exist. However, the mission had other goals as well. These goals were to observe, collect, document and classify specimens for scientific enlightenment; document landscapes to begin to define the American West; and open diplomatic relations between the United States and the Native American nations of the West. Lewis accepted Jefferson’s request and then wrote a letter inviting a fellow military man, William Clark, to join him on the exploration. Clark responded with “My friend I do assure you no man live whith whome I would perfur to undertake such a Trip as your self.”  

However, before Lewis and Clark could embark on their journey preparations had to be made. Lewis constructed a list of estimated costs for supplies. He estimated the total costs for the journey to be $2,500. Jefferson supplied Lewis with a cipher which he was instructed by Jefferson to “communicate to us, at seasonable intervals, a copy of your journal, notes & observations, of every kind, putting into cipher whatever might do injury if betrayed.” The cipher was never used, but the sample message reveals much about Jefferson's expectations for the expedition. Jefferson also had Dr. Benjamin Rush give Lewis medical advice for the conditions to be anticipated for the trip, and various remedies.

Dr. Rush's Rules of Health

June 11, 1803
Dr. Rush to Captain Lewis for preserving his health
1- When you feel the least indisposition, do not attempt to overcome it by labour or marching. Rest in a horizontal position. Also fasting and diluting drinks for a day or two will generally prevent an attack of fever to those preventatives of diseas may be added a gentle [unreadable word] obtained by warm drinks or gently opening the bowels by means of one, two or more of the purging pills.
2- Unusual [cos…unreadable word] is often a sign of approaching disease. If you feel it take one or more of the purging pills.
3- Want of appetite is likewise a sign of approaching indisposition. It should be deviated by the same remedy.
4- In difficult and laborious [unreadable words] and marches, eating sparingly will enable you to bear them with less fatique and less danger to your health.
5- Flannel should be worn constantly next to the skin, especially in wet weather.
6- The less spirit you use the better after [unreadable words] or march fatigue or long exposed to the night air—it should be taken in an undiluted state. 3 tablespoons taken in this way will be more useful in preventing sickness than half a pint mixed with water.
7- Molasses or sugar and water a vew drops of the acid of vitriol [unreadable word] will make a pleasant and wholesome drink with your meals.
8- After having had your feet much chilled, it will be useful to wash them with a little spirit.
9- Washing the feet every morning in cold water will [unreadable word] very much to fortify them against the action of cold.
 10- After long marches or much fatigue form any cause you will be refreshed by lying down in a horizontal position for two hours than by resting a longer time in any other position of the body.
11- Shoes made without heels by affording equal action to all the muscles of the legs will enable you to march with less fatigue than shoes made in the ordinary way.

A Journey of Discoveries

Lewis and Clark began their expedition at St. Louis and headed up the Missouri River, crossed over the Rocky Mountains and continued on to the Pacific Ocean at Fort Clatsop. The Corps of Discovery consisted of about 40 members. The Corps started their journey in May of 1804 and returned in September of 1806. Along the way they discovered many animals, plants and landscapes not indigenous to eastern America. Lewis and Clark both served not only as explorers, but as scientists and cartographers as well. Thanks to their careful documentation over the course of their expedition the face of America was beginning to take form. Lewis and Clark navigated their way through the unfamiliar land with the use of compasses, sextants, maps, and the stars to guide their way. With the use of these tools and their own observations, Lewis and Clark created many maps illustrating the land in which they were traveling. Perhaps their most valuable guide was a Native American woman of the Shoshone nation by the name of Sacagawea. Sacagawea became a vital member of the Corps of Discovery when her husband Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trapper and trader joined the expedition in 1805 when it passed through what is now North Dakota. She was only a teenager, six months pregnant, and yet courageously served as an interpreter as well as a guide for the Corps. An entry found in the journals of Lewis and Clark from Sunday, October 13, 1805 highlights yet another benefit to having Sacagawea accompany them on their journey:  “The presence of Sacagawea with the expedition convinces all Indian People of the peaceful intentions of their party. Having a woman with the expedition is a sure sign the expedition is not a war party.”

While the contributions of Sacagawea made their travels much easier, they still faced many challenges and dangers. There were threats from the harsh environment and uncultivated landscape in which they traveled, animal attacks, and Native Americans who were threatened by the Corps’ presence. 

Creating Kinship

Much of the following information can be found at the Library of Congress’s Rivers, Edens, Empires exhibition. Forming a positive relationship with the Native Americans of this land was an important objective of the Corps of Discovery. Giving gifts was an essential part of diplomacy. Jefferson sent various peace offerings with Lewis and Clark to share with Native Americans they would encounter along their journey. Some of these peace offerings consisted of weapons, flags, corn mills, kettles, pipe tomahawks, and peace medals. The pipe tomahawks were created by Europeans as trade objects but often exchanged as diplomatic gifts. They serve as powerful symbols of the choice Europeans and Indians faced whenever they met: one end was the pipe of peace, the other was an ax of war. Lewis's expedition packing list notes that fifty of these pipe tomahawks were to be taken on the expedition. Lewis and Clark brought at least eighty-nine peace medals in five different sizes in order to designate five "ranks" of chief within Native American tribes. In the eyes of Americans, Indians who accepted such medals were also acknowledging American sovereignty as "children" of a new "great father." To Lewis and Clark, some gifts advertised the technological superiority and others encouraged the Indians to adopt an agrarian lifestyle. Jefferson advised Lewis to give out corn mills to introduce the Indians to mechanized agriculture as part of his plan to "civilize and instruct" them. Clark believed the corn mills were very well received, but by the next year the Mandan had demolished theirs to use the metal for weapons. Native American tribes also gave gifts to the Corps, in hopes of forging a peaceful relationship. Some of the items that Lewis and Clark received were beads, pipes, food, and weapons. In the following journal excerpt, Lewis described the Corps’ first council with Native Americans and the presentation of gifts on August 3, 1804. “The next morning the Indians, with their six chiefs, were all assembled under an awning, formed with the mainsail, in presence of all our party, paraded for the occasion. A speech was then made, announcing to them the change in the government, our promises of protection, and advice as to their future conduct. All the six chiefs replied to our speech, each in his turn, according to rank: they expressed their joy at the change in the government; their hopes that we would recommend them to their great father (the president), that they might obtain trade and necessaries; they wanted arms as well for hunting as for defense, and asked our mediation between them and the Mahas, with whom they are now at war. We promised to do so, and wished some of them to accompany us to that nation, which they declined, for fear of being killed by them. We then proceeded to distribute our presents. The grand chief of the nation not being of the party, we sent him a flag, a medal, and some ornaments for clothing. To the six chiefs who were present, we gave a medal of the second grade to one Ottoe chief, and one Missouri chief; a medal of the third grade to two inferior chiefs of each nation: the customary mode of recognizing a chief, being to place a medal round his neck, which is considered among his tribe as a proof of his consideration abroad. Each of these medals was accompanied by a present of paint, garters, and cloth ornaments of dress; and to this we added a cannister of powder,a bottle of whiskey, and a few presents to the whole, which appeared to make them perfectly satisfied. The airgun too was fired, and astonished them greatly. The absent grand chief was an Ottoe, named Weahrushhah, which, in English, degenerates into Little Thief. The two principal chieftains present were, Shongotongo, or Big Horse; and Wethea, or Hospitality; also Shosguscan, or White Horse, an Ottoe; the first an Ottoe, the second a Missouri. The incidents just related, induced us to give to this place the name of the Council-bluff; the situation of it is exceedingly favourable for a fort and trading factory, as the soil is well calculated for bricks, and there is an abundance of wood in the neighbourhood, and the air being pure and healthy. It is also central to the chief resorts of the Indians: one day's journey to the Ottoes; one and a half to the great Pawnees; two days from the Mahas; two and a quarter from the Pawnees Loups village; convenient to the hunting grounds of the Sioux; and twenty-five days journey to Santa Fee. The ceremonies of the council being concluded, we set sail in the afternoon, and encamped at the distance of five miles, on the south side, where we found the musquitoes very troublesome.”

In some cases, ceremonies, speeches, and gift-giving did not work in creating kinship; therefore, both the Corps and the Native Americans gave performances that displayed their military power. The American soldiers paraded, fired their weapons, and demonstrated innovative weaponry. The Indians used war clubs, like this Sioux club, in celebratory scalp dances. Library of Congress American Memory and Exhibits Accessed 10.03.08

Ocean in View!

When the Corps had finally reached the Pacific Ocean great joy was felt by all. On November 7, 1805, Clark wrote:  "Ocian in View! O! the Joy" and Lewis wrote:  “Opposite to these islands the hills on the left retire, and the river widens into a kind of bay crowded with low islands, subject to be overflowed occasionally by the tide. We had not gone far from this village when the fog cleared off, and we enjoyed the delightful prospect of the ocean; that ocean, the object of all our labours, the reward of all our anxieties. This cheering view exhilirated the spirits of all the party, who were still more delighted on hearing the distant roar of the breakers” As heart-lifting as the sight of the Pacific ocean was, the Corps was still faced with the challenge of finding a location for their winter camp grounds. At the camp of the Nez Perce Native Americans, they waited until the passageway through the Rocky Mountains was clear. On September 23, 1806, the Corps returned to the starting point of their journey:  “Descended to the Mississippi, and round to St. Louis, where we arrived at twelve o’clock, and having fired a salute went on shore and received the heartiest and most hospitable welcome for the whole village.” The journey of Lewis and Clark was one like no other. They were venturing into a land that had never been explored by Americans of the east. There were many misconceptions and myths about what the west held. The discoveries made by Lewis and Clark helped eliminate many of these, and lead to future westward expansion and future discoveries.
Library of Congress American Memory Accessed 10.03.08

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