In 2018, America is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act as well as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The 1968 National Trails System Act created and protected trails that celebrate outdoor adventure, such as the Appalachian Trail and trails that allow us to walk through history, such as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.

To celebrate this anniversary, on the America’s National Parks Podcast we’re sharing with you a two-part episode following one of our National Historic Trails — The Journey of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery from 1804 to 1806 in their quest to explore the newly expanded United States, and search for a route to the Pacific Ocean.


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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.

Lewis and Clark Expedition – a National Park Service Website that was the primary source of the text for this episode.

Lewis and Clark – The Journey of the Corps of Discovery – Ken Burns Documentary

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail – National Park Service website – A site commemorating the National Trails System’s 50th Anniversary


The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.

This year, L.L.Bean is joining up with the National Park Foundation, the official nonprofit partner of the National Park Service, to help you find your happy place – in an amazing system of more than 400 national parks, including historic and cultural sites, monuments, preserves, lakeshores, and seashores that dot the American landscape, many of which you’ll find just a short trip from home. L.L.Bean is proud to be an official partner of the National Park Foundation. Discover your perfect day in a park at

In 2018, America is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act as well as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The 1968 National Trails System Act created and protected trails that celebrate outdoor adventure, such as the Appalachian Trail and trails that allow us to walk through history, such as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.

To celebrate this anniversary, on the America’s National Parks Podcast we’re sharing with you a two-part episode following one of our National Historic Trails — The Journey of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery from 1804 to 1806 in their quest to explore the newly expanded United States, and search for a route to the Pacific Ocean.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.


In December 1803, 33-year-old William Clark established a small military-style training camp on the Wood River at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, north of St. Louis, Missouri, and across the river in Illinois. Clark had retired from militia service 6 years prior, after leading a company of riflemen in the decisive victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, which put an end to the Northwest Indian War. He resigned his commission as a lieutenant due to his poor health, but now, a new opportunity had arisen.

A man who served under Clark, Meriwether Lewis had been appointed as a trusted aide to President Thomas Jefferson, whom he knew through Virginia society. Lewis resided in the presidential mansion, and when Jefferson purchased approximately 827,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River from France, he tapped Lewis to explore the territory, establish trade with Native Americans, and find a waterway from the US to the Pacific Ocean, claiming the Oregon territory for the United States before European nations did.
Meriwether Lewis asked his former commanding officer William Clark to share leadership of the expedition. They would be called the Corps of Discovery.

At the Wood River camp, it was Clark’s responsibility to train the many different men who had volunteered to go to the Pacific on the expedition and turn them into an efficient team. By and large, most of the members of the Corps of Discovery were strangers to one another. The youngest man, George Shannon, was 17 years old, the oldest, John Shields, was 35. The average age of all the men was 27. Clark had the men build a fort and cabins out of logs. He drilled them, teaching them how to march in formation, use their weapons as a team and shoot effectively at targets. Most of all, he tried to get them to respect military authority and learn how to follow orders. When they would later face danger on the frontier, there would be no time for questioning their commanding officers.

During the winter, Meriwether Lewis spent a lot of time in the little town of St. Louis. He was looking to bolster the supplies and equipment for the journey, because twice as many men had volunteered to go on the expedition as he had originally planned for. The journey would take them up the Missouri River, from St. Louis to as far as had been navigated by white men into the Dakotas, and then beyond, searching for the source of the great Missouri, and a connecting water route to the Pacific. Lewis talked with fur traders who had been up the River, and obtained maps made by earlier explorers. On March 9, 1804, he attended a special ceremony during which the Upper Louisiana Territory was transferred to the United States. Two months later, on May 14, the expedition was ready to begin.

Clark and the Corps of Discovery left the camp and were joined by Lewis in St. Charles, Missouri, a week later. The party numbered more than 45, mostly young, unmarried soldiers. The civilians who made the journey were primarily guides and interpreters. Among them was William Clark’s black slave York, who would prove essential to relations with the Indigenous tribes. An additional group of hired boatmen would travel with the party through the first winter.

Travel up the Missouri River in 1804 was grueling, due to heat, injuries and insects as well as the troublesome river itself, with its strong current and many snags. The expedition used Lewis’s 55-foot long keelboat and two smaller boats to carry their supplies and equipment. The boats used sails to catch wind when they could, but in going upriver against a strong current, oars and long poles had to be used to push. Sometimes the boats had to be pulled with ropes by men walking along the shoreline or waist-deep in the water. They averaged 10-15 miles per day.

There were some initial disciplinary problems. Men fell asleep on watch, and ignored rations, but Clark was a harsh disciplinarian. Several courtmarshalls were held, and lashings had the men respecting his authority. They eventually began to respect one another, and after facing some brutal challenges, began to work together as compatriots. One man especially liked by all was Charles Floyd, one of the three sergeants. Suddenly, on August 20, 1804, Sgt. Floyd got sick and died. It is now believed that he died of a burst appendix. Floyd was laid to rest on top of a large hill by the river, in modern-day Sioux City, Iowa, where today there is a large monument to mark the spot. Sgt. Floyd was the only person to die on the two and one-half year journey, even though great danger lay ahead.

By October the Corps of Discovery reached the villages of the Mandan Indian tribe, where they built Fort Mandan (near present-day Stanton, North Dakota), and spent the winter of 1804-1805. The Mandan people lived in earth lodges along the Missouri River. Their neighbors the Hidatsa lived along the Knife River close by. The villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa people were the center of a huge trade network in the West. Lewis and Clark were not the first European-Americans to visit this part of the country.

One of the goals of the expedition was to conduct diplomacy with and gather information about the various nations of American Indians they would encounter on their journey. During the course of the expedition, contact was made with at least 55 different native cultural groups. Other groups, such as the Crow, almost certainly saw the explorers without the explorers ever seeing them.

The history of the Great Plains Indians can be traced back at least 13,000 years and possibly even millenia. During the last stages of the Ice Age, small bands of people migrated in search of megafauna like mastodons and mammoths. As game became extinct, their cultural organization became more complex, shifting to bison hunting and living in earth-lodge dwellings. However, European contact brought significant change. Prior to this contact, tribes of the plains lived by agriculture or gathering. The introduction of horses by the Spanish in the late 16th century provided Indians with a more efficient method of hunting buffalo. Many groups–the Cheyenne, Sioux, Comanche and others–shifted to a nomadic culture. Others such as the Mandans, Hidatsas, Pawnee, Wichita and Omaha remained horticultural societies, establishing permanent settlements in the river valleys of the plains.

In order to negotiate intelligently with the Indigenous tribes and their leaders along the route, Lewis received a “crash course” in diplomacy and about the known Indian cultural groups from Dr. Benjamin Rush and others in Philadelphia. Lewis also knew that gift giving and trade were important parts of most known Indian cultures, and that he would have to have trade goods to acquire the expedition’s necessities along the route. Lewis brought along peace medals produced by the U.S. Government in silver for presentation to Indian chiefs. Peace medals were an integral part of the government’s relations with American Indians in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the time, these medals represented a covenant between nations, and were valued equally by tribal people who had had contact with European-Americans and by the governments of Britain, Spain, France and the United States, each of which issued them. Lewis and Clark took along three large medals with an image of President Jefferson on them, 13 middle-sized Jefferson medals, 16 small Jefferson medals, and 55 medals struck during the presidency of George Washington. All but one were given out during the expedition. The front of the Jefferson medals had a formal bust of President Jefferson in low relief, along with his name and the date he entered office. The reverse showed clasped hands and bore the motto “Peace and Friendship.” This design depicted Indian nations as coequals of the United States.

Although the men of the expedition did not know what to expect on their trek, they were prepared to meet the various Indian tribal groups and curious about what they would be like. Previously, almost nothing had been known of the Indians westward from the Mandan villages.
Whether Lewis and Clark knew it or not, they were the “spearpoints” of an invasion of American Indian homelands in the West. Whether or not their actions were deliberate, they touched off an invasion which displaced entire peoples and tribal groups with European descended settlers, backed by the U.S. Army and English land law.

During the winter with the Mandan Lewis and Clark recruited a Frenchman who had lived with the Hidatsa for many years. His name was Toussaint Charbonneau, and the captains wanted him to act as an interpreter. With Charbonneau would come his 16-year-old Shoshone Indian wife, Sacagawea. Sacagawea had been captured by a raiding party of Hidatsa warriors five years earlier, taken from her homeland in the Rocky Mountains to the Knife River village where she met her husband. Lewis and Clark knew that they would probably meet Sacagawea’s people, and that they might have to ask for horses if they could not find a nearby stream which led down to the Columbia River. So Sacagawea would be invaluable because she could speak to her people directly for the explorers.

There was, however, a complication. Sacagewea was pregnant. She went into labor that winter, and complications arose. Lewis wrote in the journal of the expedition:

“This was the first child which this woman had born, and as is common in such cases her labor was tedious and the pain violent; Mr. Jessome informed me that he had frequently administered a small portion of the rattle of the rattlesnake, which he assured me had never failed to produce the desired effect, that of hastening the birth of the child. Having the rattle of a snake by me I gave it to him and he administered two rings of it to the woman broken in small pieces with the fingers and added to a small quantity of water. Whether this medicine was truly the cause or not I shall not undertake to determine, but I was informed that she had not taken it more than ten minutes before she brought forth. Perhaps this remedy may be worthy of future experiments, but I must confess that I want faith as to its efficacy.”

The winter was harsh, sometimes reaching as low as negative 40 degrees. But the Mandan people taught the Corps of Discovery valuable skills, like how to make their moccasins, and improved dugout canoes. They hunted buffalo together. The Mandan traded supplies such as fur and food for repairs to their tools from a small iron forge Lewis and Clark brought along.

On April 7, 1805, Lewis and Clark sent the keelboat with the hired boatmen back to St. Louis with an extensive collection of zoological, botanical, and ethnological specimens that they had collected so far, including a live prairie dog, which they went to great lengths to capture, as a whole town of prairie dogs evaded them until they could flush one out of its home with water. The “barking squirrel” which they called it would live out the rest of its life at the White House. They also sent letters, reports, dispatches, and maps back to Jefferson. Troublemaking members of the expedition were sent back as well – what lied ahead was no place for malcontents.

As the keelboat headed south, the expedition, now numbering 33, resumed their journey westward in two smaller boats and dugout canoes. The Corps of Discovery now traveled into regions which had been explored and seen only by American Indians.

They pulled and sailed their boats up the Missouri River through what is now Montana. By early June they reached a place where two rivers met. Lewis and Clark knew they needed to find the correct fork of the river. If they didn’t, they might not get to the Pacific Ocean in time for the winter. The only clue they had was that the Indians had told them that the Missouri had a huge waterfall on it. They led small groups of soldiers up each river, Lewis going up the right fork and Clark up the left, both looking for the waterfall. Neither party found one, but the water on the left was clearer, and the water to the right was murky like the Missouri had been up to this point. Lewis and Clark knew the river would have to begin to clear up as they came closer to the source, and decided that the left fork was the right river, although the rest of the party disagreed. They attempted to convince their commanding officers, but when Lewis and Clark stood in their conviction, their men obeyed.

As the current increased, the expedition moved slowly up the new fork, as Sacagawea fell very sick. Lewis began to worry their decision to turn left was flawed, as they hadn’t reached any sign of a massive wat-;erfall. Impatient, he led a small party of men overland to see if he could find it. Otherwise, they would have to turn back. On June 13, he spotted a mist rising above the hills in front of him. After a few minutes of walking, he looked down into a deep ravine, and saw a beautiful, huge waterfall. His joy was crushed as he scouted ahead and found that there was not just one waterfall, but five, and that they stretched for many miles along the river — an area now known as Great Falls. The canoes could not be paddled upstream against such a current. They would have to be taken out of the water and carried around the obstruction.

Meanwhile Sacagawea’s health was getting worse by the minute. In a desperate effort, she was given water from a nearby sulfer spring, and miraculously returned to full health. Sacagawea was more than a teenage girl who may be able to talk to some indians upstream. She had become an essential member of the party, while her husband proved nearly worthless. When their canoe overturned in the rushing waters, spilling out nearly all of the expedition’s medical supplies and journals, Charbonneau panicked. Sacagawea remained calm and recovered every single item, with a baby on her back. Her recovery of the essential journals is the only reason we’re able to tell this story today.

At this point the two larger boats were left behind. They carried the canoes and supplies around the waterfalls, a task that they long before planned to take a half day. It would take a month. Their moccasins only lasted two days at a time on the rocky portage. They would collapse to exhaustion and fight battles of wits and wills to press on, until finally, every supply and canoe had made it around the great falls.

Lewis had a special collapsible, iron-framed boat from Harpers Ferry that they had been hauling along unassembled, and it was time to put it together. Unfortunately, to Lewis’s dismay, the boat didn’t float, so two more dugout canoes were fashioned.

They set out westward once more, paddling upstream. The mountains that they knew were coming loomed ahead in the distance. But these were not the mountains they had prepared for. They were much larger than any mountain they had seen back in the east. By August 17 they reached the Three Forks of the Missouri, which marked the navigable limits of that river. At this spot the Missouri is fed by three rivers, and they turned up one that they had named for President Jefferson. They finally reached its headwaters, where the once mighty Missouri could be easily straddled between their legs. On foot Lewis, crested the Rocky Mountains, where he thought he would see the headwaters of the Columbia river over the peak, which they would float their way downstream towards the pacific ocean. Instead, he saw more mountains, stretching off as far as the eye could see.

Next week on America’s National Parks, we’ll pick up there, as the Corps of Discovery faces its most difficult challenge yet, the vast mountain ranges of the West.

If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


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