Thomas Jefferson became the third president in 1801. He had longed dreamed of expanding the nation westward as a means of providing land for farmers. In 1803, he commissioned his friend and protégé, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to explore western lands. Lewis gathered and trained men in Philadelphia and set out from Pittsburgh that summer. Upon reaching Louisville, Kentucky, Lewis was joined by his friend William Clark.
Later that year, Jefferson approved of the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France. Congress similarly approved the $15 million purchase on October 20, 1803. When Lewis and Clark reached the Mississippi River near modern-day St. Louis, they formed their group into the Corps of Discovery and were charged with exploring the Louisiana Territory. They left St. Louis on May 14, 1804 with 45 men.
Jefferson had several goals for the Corps of Discovery. First, they were tasked with making geographical discoveries and observations along the Missouri River. Jefferson hoped that they would discover the mythic Northwest Passage, but there was no Passage to find. They did chart their route, noting latitude and longitude, and created a map of the West. The Corps was also tasked with studying the Native American tribes along the way. Jefferson hoped that they would establish good relationships with the Indians while also informing the Indians of American sovereignty. Lewis and Clark studied the culture and language of the various tribes they met with a degree of objectivity rare in their time, even if they still saw the Native Americans through the racist lens of the day. In addition to studying the Natives, Lewis and Clark established trade connections with the tribe in hopes of expanding American commerce. Lastly, the Corps hoped to scientifically document the ecology of the West.
Lewis and Clark in Nebraska
Lewis and Clark reached the region of modern-day Nebraska in July of 1804. They found traces of Indian civilization in the southern part of the state but did not actually contact any Indian tribes until they reached the vicinity of Omaha. Clark and a private named Reuben (or Reubin) Field explored what is now the city of Omaha on July 27. Field and his brother Joseph were born in Virginia but lived in Kentucky and were some of the earliest recruits for the expedition. They were considered some of the best hunters and riflemen in the Corps.
On July 30, the explorers reached a bluff near modern-day Fort Calhoun that they decided would be a good place to hold a council. Representatives of nearby Indian tribes, namely the Otoe and Missouria, met with Lewis and Clark on August 3, where Lewis informed them of the United States’ claim to sovereignty over their lands and the necessity for Indians to obey American laws.
The next day, the party prepared to continue up the river, but one member of the Corps, Private Moses B. Reed, asked to return to the previous day’s camp to retrieve a knife. In fact, Reed was deserting the group. Since the expedition was a military venture, Lewis could not tolerate any dissension amongst the ranks. After Reed had not appeared for a few days, Lewis sent a party to find him with orders to bring him back “dead or alive.” Reed was not found for another two weeks. On August 18, he was put on trial and confessed to stealing a rifle, shot pouch, gunpowder, and ammunition as well as deserting his post. He was forced to run the gauntlet four times and then expelled from the party.
He stayed with the group as a laborer until they reached their winter encampment at Fort Mandan, in modern-day South Dakota, when he was sent back home. Nothing is known of Reed’s origins or what happened to him after he left the Corps of Discovery.
A French boatmen who called himself La Liberté also left the party during this time, but since he was not in the military, his departure was not a crime. He was one of several Frenchmen hired to haul the party’s keelboat up the Missouri River. On July 29, he had been sent upriver to invite Indian leaders to the upcoming council. He did not return to camp. He was eventually found at about the same time Reed was found, but resisted rejoining the party and was let go. He was never heard from again.
The party experienced tragedy upon reaching the area of modern-day Sioux City, Iowa. On August 20, Sergeant Charles Floyd died, probably as a result of a ruptured appendix, making him the only member of the Corps of Discovery to die on the trip. He was 22 years old and was well-regarded by the leaders of the party. Like the other sergeants, he served as a journalist as well as a soldier and kept a diary. He was buried on the Iowa side of the river at a service officiated by Lewis. Lewis remarked that Floyd had “at All times given us proofs of his… [sincerity] to ourselves and the good will to Serve his Countrey [sic].” After the funeral, the party moved upriver a ways and camped at a river, which they named Floyd River after the dead sergeant. Sioux City, Iowa was later founded at the mouth of the Floyd River.
On August 24, the party came upon the so-called “Ionia Volcano,” near present-day Newcastle, Nebraska. The volcano was a bluff described by Clark as “a blue Clay Bluff of 180 or 190 feet high. . . . Those Bluffs appear to have been laterly [sic] on fire, and at this time is too hot for a man to bear his hand in the earth at any debth [sic].” The top of the bluff emitted smoke, thus giving it the appearance of a volcano. Later, scientists discovered that it was not a volcano at all, but that the smoke was the result of a chemical reaction. The bluff was eroded into the Missouri River during the 1800s and early 1900s; very little remains today. The next day they found another interesting geographical feature, Spirit Mound. Legends surrounding the hill, which is located north of Vermillion, South Dakota, said that it was populated by miniature spirits that would kill anyone who approached. Lewis and Clark climbed up the hill anyway, which provided them with a great view of the surrounding prairie.
The youngest member of the expedition, Private George Shannon, age 19, went missing on August 26. Shannon and another man stayed at the camp to look for two lost horses while everyone else continued upriver. The next day, Shannon’s companion returned to camp, but Shannon was nowhere to be found. As it turned out, Shannon had accidentally gotten ahead of the rest of the party, but he thought he was behind and therefore kept pushing forward. He was not a great hunter and had limited ammunition, so his time alone was dangerous. After running out of ammunition, he subsisted on berries and one rabbit he killed by substituting a sharp stick for bullets in his rifle. He finally found the rest of the group on September 11, after 17 days alone. Despite this misadventure, Shannon was well-regarded by Lewis and Clark and went on to have a successful career in politics.
On September 7, the expedition reached a hill they called The Tower but which later became known as Old Baldy. By that time, the expedition was running behind schedule, as they had to reach Fort Mandan, North Dakota by winter. However, they were interested enough by the geographic and natural features of the area they decided to explore The Tower more thoroughly. There they found a village of prairie dogs. They had noticed prairie dogs (called by French explorers petit chien, or “little dogs”) before, but the colony at Old Baldy was the first time they scientifically observed them. Observing them was difficult since they burrowed so far underground, but Lewis and Clark managed to catch one by filling a hole with water and flushing one out.
A few days later, the party passed into the region of the Missouri River entirely within modern-day South Dakota, ending the Nebraska leg of their journey.
The Rest of the Expedition
The Corps of Discovery established Fort Mandan that winter. Sixteen of the 45 men returned down the river to report the findings thus far to the East. These men brought with them several live specimens of animals, including the prairie dog the group caught at Old Baldy. The remaining 29 men left Fort Mandan in spring of 1805 and reached the Pacific Ocean in winter of 1805. After a difficult winter in Fort Clatsop, in modern-day Oregon, the explorers returned to St. Louis on September 23, 1806. The return journey was faster since they knew the way and did not stop for as many scientific explorations. Thus there is little to say about Lewis and Clark’s return trip through Nebraska.
The expedition was the first government-funded exploration of the West. It made several scientific discoveries of plants, animals and geographic features. (Though of course the Native Americans knew of these already, they just lacked the scientific methods to study them.) The maps and scientific data collected by Lewis and Clark was immensely useful to future explorers of the region.
Locations for Tour
Jackson, Donald. “Lewis and Clark among the Oto.” Nebraska History. September 1960: 237-248.
Moulton, Gary E. “Lewis and Clark on the Middle Missouri.” Nebraska History. Fall 2000: 90-105.
Snoddy, Donald D., “Medical Aspects of the Lewis and Clark Expedition,” Nebraska History, 1970: 114-151